Bible Study and Commentary in Zephaniah 1:1-2:3
Zephaniah actually deals with the “Day of the Lord”, much more directly than any of the other Old Testament prophets. Much like the prophet Amos, Zephaniah points out that the people of Judah shouldn’t be looking forward to the “Day of the Lord”, even though their enemies would be punished, for they too would be judged for their sins.
That said, the purpose of the PROPHECY wasn’t to drive the people to hopelessness and despair for what was coming, but rather to shock them out of the complacency they had developed in their worship of God. As Matthew Henry once stated, Zephaniah intended “not to frighten them out of their wits, but to frighten them out of their sin.”
With many other prophecies I’ve come across in the reading of the Old Testament, I’ve found both a near term and far term fulfillment of Zephaniah’s prophecy. It’s like peeling an onion, one layer at a time.
The near-term fulfillment came in Zephaniah’s generation as Babylon invaded Judah and Jerusalem and took the people captive. But there are certain aspects of Zephaniah’s prophecy that has yet to be fulfilled with the return of Jesus. [See “are we THERE YET?” blog-study, 8/27/19]
In this chapter reading, much of what is learned about the “Day of the Lord” is confirmed:
- It’s universal – the entire world is going to experience the effects of God’s wrath being poured out.
- It’s certain – although we don’t know when the final culmination of the “Day of the Lord” will begin, it will happen. [READ 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12]
- It’s horrific – perhaps more than any other Old Testament prophet, Zephaniah describes the nature of the final culmination with words like wrath, distress, anguish, ruin, darkness, and doom.
I don’t want to focus my studies on those specific details. I want to investigate and dig deeper into God’s Word to see if we can discover some of the underlying reasons for God’s JUDGMENT, particularly in the discipline of His own children. There’s little doubt in my mind that the key verse for the entire book of Zephaniah is…
Zephaniah 1:12 – “And at that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps and punish the men who [like old wine] are thickening and settling on their lees, who say in their hearts, The Lord will not do good, nor will He do evil.” [Amplified Bible]
The language in this verse certainly would have caused Zephaniah’s listeners to think of the Passover, where every family would take a candle (“lamps”) and search every nook and cranny in their house to find and remove any leaven that might be tucked away.
In much the same way, God said that He would search every single inch of Jerusalem in order to punish the sin that was there. And there was one SIN in particular that God focused on here – the SIN OF COMPLACENCY – or “stagnancy.”
Usually, there’s a grouping of sins into Two Groups:
- SINS OF COMMISSION, where we do something that we’re not supposed to do.
- SINS OF OMISSION, where we fail to do something that we should do.
But what really provokes God is the kind of COMPLACENCY that accepts sin as a lifestyle because we don’t think that God really cares about our sin, or that He won’t do anything about it.
It’s clear from the entire passage here, that the scriptural context provided isn’t speaking to the outsiders, but rather to those that claimed to be His children. It reminds me of Jesus’ letter to the church of Laodicea in Revelation 3, where He warned them against being lukewarm.
Okay, so we are complacent at times in the Church. How do we guard against complacency in our own relationship with God?
Complacency in our spiritual lives can come from a number of different factors. So in this bible-study, I want to use this passage to evaluate our own spiritual lives to determine whether we are in danger of slipping into complacency, or even if we’ve already arrived.
After reading and re-reading this passage of Scripture, I decided to group into THREE major components attributed to the number of underlying problems.
- FAILURE TO SEEK GOD
In verse 6, Zephaniah addresses “those who have turned back from following the Lord who do not seek the Lord or inquire of Him.”
While David was out in the wilderness of Judah, he wrote Psalm 63, which he described the way that we need to seek our God in every way, and every day:
Are you a SEEKER? Are you thirsting for God in the same way you would thirst for water if you found yourself stranded in Death Valley in the middle of the summer?
Unfortunately what happens for most of us is that we start out on our spiritual journey thirsting for God. We can’t get enough of our Bible reading, study, we long to come into His presence in prayer, and we take advantage of every opportunity that we can find to learn more about Him, getting to know Him as we should.
But gradually over time our fervor, our enthusiasm wanes and we wake up one day and realize that we are no longer seeking after God like we once did, and we don’t know why!
I truly believe that the same progression is exactly why so many marriages in this country end up in divorce. According to a 2008 study by the Barna Research Group, those identified as Christian are just as likely as non-Christians to be divorced. And according to Shaunti Feldhahn in her book The Good News About Marriage says, the overall divorce rate has never reached the 50 percent level. According to her study, the overall divorce rate is around 33%. That’s lower than the purported 50%, but still, nothing to jump up and down about.
When I first started dating my future wife to be, some 55 years ago, I would do everything that I could to get to know her, and then to do what I could to please her as I got to know her better. But for many couples, once the honeymoon is over, they gradually move away from that process until one day they wake up and realize that they don’t really know their spouse all that well and lost the desire to do what it takes to please the other person.
But just as it’s never too late to re-start that process in a marriage, it’s never too late to return to our roots and seek God like we once did.
- Separating the “secular” and the “sacred”
As we look at the spiritual life of Judah as described by Zephaniah, it becomes clear that one of the root problems was that the people had separated the “secular” from the “sacred”.
This isn’t the first time that Israel had engaged in this practice, as the prophet Amos had to address that same issue with Israel over 100 years earlier. Zephaniah points to the problem in detail, verses 10 and 11 (NIV):
 “On that day,” declares the LORD, “a cry will go up from the Fish Gate, wailing from the New Quarter, and a loud crash from the hills.
 Wail, you who live in the market district (or the Mortar); all your merchants will be wiped out, all who trade with silver will be ruined.
In this section, Zephaniah is primarily addressing the practices of the businessmen in Jerusalem. The Fish Gate was primarily on the north wall of Jerusalem and gots its name either because the fishermen brought their catch through the gate or because the fish market was nearby.
I don’t believe there was “fish tossing,” at the marketplace in Jerusalem, but you get the idea.
The Second Quarter was likely the area northwest of the Temple area, home to many wealthy businessmen. And the Mortar was a business district in Jerusalem. All of that would be consistent with Zephaniah’s condemnation of the traders and those who weigh out silver.
The scenario was exactly the same as described in Amos 3. These business people would go to church on Saturday and then the rest of the week, engage in immoral business practices in order to make a bigger profit. And the only way that was possible is, they had to separate the “secular” and the “sacred” aspect of their lives.
Unfortunately, as I see it, not much has changed in the last 2,600 years.
We still tend to compartmentalize our lives. We put Bible reading, prayer and church activities, all in one basket we identify as “spiritual.” Then we dump everything else into another basket we label “secular” – things like our family, our job, our neighborhood, our communities, politics, and our finances. But the problem with that approach, it’s not Biblical. The apostle Paul certainly had to address that same mindset while writing to the Colossian church:
Whatever we do in the name Of Jesus, Paul didn’t make any exceptions.
He didn’t write, “In everything but your finances” or “in everything but your marriage.” The fact is that the true measure of our WORSHIP is far less dependent on what we do on Sunday morning than it is on how we live our lives for the rest of the week.
So here’s an idea for us all to practice, God helping us along the way – Romans 12:1 (The Message Bible)
The OFFERING that God wants from me is to take every aspect of my life and make Him the center of all I do! That’s the kind of WORSHIP that pleases my heavenly Father.
- Seeking to “cover all my bases”
This may be the biggest problem of all!
The people haven’t forgotten about their “worshipping” God – they’ve just added a whole lot of other things to it. It’s as if they decided to “cover all their bases.”
So they bow down to idols, following the example set by the priests, who are also engaging in that idolatry. They go up on their roofs and worship the stars. They swear an oath to God, but just in case…swear that same oath to another god. The entry into the superstitious practices of the pagans around them, like leaping over the threshold in order to avoid disturbing the gods.
Of course today, we would never do anything like that, would we?
Edward Gibbon in his book, The Decline, and Fall of the Roman Empire described the attitude towards “religion” in the last days of the Roman Empire.
- The people regarded ALL religions as equally true.
- The philosophers regarded ALL religions as equally false.
- The politicians regarded ALL religions as equally useful.
But unfortunately, the problem isn’t limited to our culture in general. It’s crept into the Church itself.
I’ve known those who claim to be Christians who would never think of starting their day without reading their horoscope, maybe even right after they read their Bible. And even if we don’t have idols carved out of stone, how many Christians make gods out of their jobs, their possessions, their social status, or even something good, like their families?
But God has given us a very clear command about trying to worship other gods at the same time we claim to worship Him:
Sometimes, we have slipped into or maybe even fallen completely, in a place of complacency in our spiritual life. The good news is, we don’t have to fall prey to complacency.
In fact, even for the people of Judah in Zephaniah’s day, it still wasn’t too late to take steps that were necessary to recover from the complacency to guard against falling back there again.
At the beginning of chapter 2, Zephaniah provides his listeners, and us, the antidote to COMPLACENCY:
In this passage, we find God’s commands that are intended to keep us from becoming spiritually complacent.
This is the predominant command here for it’s repeated three times.
This is exactly the opposite of what started the people on their downward slide to COMPLACENCY in the first place when they quit SEEKING God.
There are THREE specific things we are commanded to SEEK:
- The Lord
Rather than dealing with each of the three separately, and after meditating on the three, it occurred to me that these 3 Things are actually connected.
Although the people of Zephaniah’s day certainly couldn’t see the whole picture, on this side of the Cross, or recognizes that he’s describing here a process – the only process – by which we can become righteous in God’s eyes.
2 Corinthians 5:21 (NIV)
God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.
The “Connection Junction” –
“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” C.S. Lewis
We have to first HUMBLE ourselves and admit our sinfulness to God. Then as we SEEK out Jesus as the means to deal with our sin, we are made RIGHTEOUS before God as a result of His finished work on the CROSS, not based on our own merit or good works.
But that can’t be a one-time decision!
We have to choose each day to continue to HUMBLY recognize our shortcomings, our sinfulness, and confess it in the name of Jesus so that we might be able to continue to SEEK our God.
In verse 3, those who may be hidden by God are described as those “you who do what he commands”. Although it’s impossible to earn God’s favor by obeying His commands, the Bible is clear that whether or not we OBEY His commands demonstrates whether we truly love Him.
And for those who guard against COMPLACENCY by adhering to these commands, God has a promise – one that’s related to Zephaniah’s name, which means “YHWH hides”.
So for those who SEEK & OBEY, God holds out hope that He will hide them away at the culmination of the “Day of the Lord” when His anger is poured out.
I encourage you to look at the rest of the Book of Zephaniah on your own, because Zephaniah, like many of the other prophets, ends his book with a word of hope. He describes how God is going to restore Israel and make them prosper in their land once again.
So let’s make sure that we don’t become complacent in our worshipping of God. Every day let’s humble ourselves before God, and seek His face. Let us obey His commands!
Bible Translations: New International Version (NIV); Interlinear Bible; New English Translation (NET); The Message Bible;
Photos/Images: Google Image Search
Commentary: Verse-by-Verse Bible Commentary – Zephaniah 1:12; StudyLight.Org