“I said, ‘Surely you will fear me; you will accept correction. Then your dwelling would not be cut off according to all that I have appointed against you.’ But all the more they were eager to make all their deeds corrupt.”
Read: Zephaniah 3
Have you ever wondered why God sent Israel and Judah so many prophets with such similar messages? Judgment followed by hope—times twelve. By the time you get to the book of Zephaniah you might start thinking, “I’ve read this before.” If we were to boil down the majority of the major and minor prophets’ messages to a singular charge, it would be, “Repent and turn back to the Lord!” Perhaps this is part of the reason why so many Christians fail at their Bible reading plans when they get to the minor prophets. Another reason might be that we are disconnected from ancient Israel. Many of the prophecies deal with specific sins in Israel and their historical enemies. “Why should I care about what God was going to do, and did, to Babylon/Assyria/Philistia/etc. thousands of years ago?”
The answer to both these questions—why the repeated message and why should I care—is twofold. First, these events teach us that God’s judgments are sure and just. The fact that these events actually happened teaches that God’s judgments are sure. God warned Judah that if they continued in their idolatry and pride their kingdom would be destroyed by Babylon and that they would be taken into exile by Babylon. That happened. God’s judgments are sure.
They also teach us that they are just, because by the time we get to that final prophet before the exile of Judah, it is beyond any doubt that Judah is abundantly guilty. Why did God send them so many prophets with much of the same message? In part to show to creation, including the people of Judah themselves, that the judgment they receive is completely just.
Secondly, both the messages of judgment and hope bombard us with the grace of God toward his people. We can readily see how God sending multiple messengers of repentance to the people is an act of tremendous grace and patience. But exactly how does telling Judah about the judgment that will come upon them and their enemies reveal God’s grace?
The answer to that is quoted in the introductory text above. In Zephaniah 3:5-6, God declares,
The LORD within her is righteous; he does no injustice; every morning he shows forth his justice; each dawn he does not fail; but the unjust knows no shame. “I have cut off nations; their battlements are in ruins; I have laid waste their streets so that no one walks in them; their cities have been made desolate, without a man, without an inhabitant.”
Contrasted to Judah and Jerusalem, which are a full of violence, blasphemy, and injustice, Yahweh is righteous. Every morning is a testament to his justice.
He also tells his people that cutting off the nations is an expression of his justice. In justice God punishes the wicked enemies of his people. Why does he do this? Yes, to satisfy his justice. But he tells us there is another reason in verse 7:
I said, “Surely you will fear me; you will accept correction. Then your dwelling would not be cut off according to all that I have appointed against you.” But all the more they were eager to make all their deeds corrupt.
He punished those wicked nations and told Judah about it beforehand, but not so they could gloat that their enemies were finally getting what was coming to them. Likewise, God didn’t tell Judah about their own coming judgment time after time after time so that Judah would wallow in despair and say, “We’re doomed!” or argue over whether or not God was just to do such a thing to them. The purpose was to confront them with their own sinfulness and to make them realize that their only hope was the mercy and grace of Yahweh their King (v. 15)!
That application is exactly the same for God’s people today as it was then. We aren’t to read the minor prophets and of Israel’s abject moral failures and gloat, “Man, what a bunch of boneheads. I can’t believe they didn’t get it.” Nor are we to shy away from these books of the Bible because, “They’re so negative and filled with all that judgment.” That’s the point! We’re to read these prophecies and be overcome with a righteous fear of the Lord and overwhelmed by his abundant grace and patience toward sinners. We’re to read them and realize that we, too, need to repent and turn to the Lord. These texts point us to Christ whose message is, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (see Mark 1:15). The minor prophets point us to Christ, who died in our place satisfying the wrath of God against us (Rom 3:21-26). They point us to Christ, the true King of Israel who is coming soon to judge the world and save his people (Rev 19).
If you have not yet trusted in Christ as your Lord and Savior, that coming day of the Lord is a day of terror because on it you will be judged. But Zephaniah reminds us,
before the decree takes effect—before the day passes away like chaff—before there comes upon you the burning anger of the LORD, before there comes upon you the day of the anger of the LORD. Seek the LORD, all you humble of the land, who do his just commands; seek righteousness; seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the anger of the LORD.Zeph 2:2-3
There is hope. Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient for you and right now, if you call on his name in repentance and fear and humility, he will save you. And for those saved by Christ, there is no more condemnation left for them (Rom 8:1). For those who have already called on the name of the Lord and have been saved by his wondrous grace, the application is to never let that grace grow cold in your heart. Read Zephaniah and be renewed in your holy fear of God and astounded by his grace towards sinners.
Discuss and Pray Together: Talk about how the revelation of God’s judgment is meant to both cause us to fear him and yet also to run to him for security and salvation. How are those things balanced in the Scriptures? Finish by praying to God that he would give you all a greater fear and deeper trust in him.