I love the lull between Christmas and New Year’s Day, and well, the whole ‘school vacation’ time that extends into January, easing us back into life as usual. It’s one of my favorite times of year. No students or teachers on vacation this year at our house but our sense of a schedule has ceased just the same. Nothing must be done. Leftovers make for easy meals. Christmas music—instrumental guitar and harp, peaceful stuff– carries us into January. There’s time to relax, to putter, to read…to stay up late watching and debriefing from movies… and to sleep in and have leisurely conversation over late breakfasts… Wonderful time of year.
Sort of a jolt to steal away for my quiet time one morning and flipping open randomly at Zephaniah to read:
“I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” declares the LORD. “I will sweep away man and beast; I will sweep away the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea, and the rubble with the wicked. I will cut off mankind from the face of the earth,” declares the LORD.
Kind of a harsh contrast to peace on earth good will to men…No warm fuzzy feeling here. But always there’s context…
This is a description of the Day of the Lord, that yet future judgment on the earth and its inhabitants, where man meets Maker and finds no excuse for not having made peace with God earlier. The real Apocalypse, that popular culture only speculates about, is truly coming. And it will be worse than we could imagine—a time of God’s wrath poured out on all who have rejected His jealous love and have spurned the Son given for their redemption.
Don’t worry (or stop reading), I’m not going to drag us through all the graphic details. They are many and bleak, but something else caught my attention as I was looking for the WHY of this judgment to be spelled out…Before the pagan nations are addressed, God’s own people are called out—‘those who have turned back from following the Lord, who do not seek the LORD or inquire of Him’.(1:5,5)
And why would they do that? Why turn away from the True God to bow to the powerless gods of the surrounding nations? Apparently God’s own people had become complacent at heart—they had lost faith in their God as One actively involved in their lives. Zephaniah describes them this way: “those who say in their hearts, ‘The LORD will not do good, nor will he do ill.’”(1:12) A God who doesn’t care, who doesn’t move, who makes no difference, neither rewarding good or punishing evil. This was how they perceived God in their hearts.
Have you been there? Have you ever wondered why God doesn’t act when horrific crimes are committed, when His name is brazenly blasphemed, when evil seems to prevail in whatever context. I have.
And who hasn’t begged God to intervene and alleviate pain or mitigate misery (or do some good thing that surely He would wish to do!) without seeing any results? It can seem sometimes as though God is unmindful of His world and even His own.
But not so! Zephaniah’s strong message reminds us we have a God who takes action, who fulfills His Word, who will mete out judgment, and reward. Yes, the mercy that is often overlooked when reading these sorts of harsh passages, is that God sent his prophet to warn His people so they could be spared. He had no obligation to warn them ahead of time, no obligation but His own nature. God is love.
What appears to be God’s slowness in responding to evil is actually His mercy. He is patient, not wishing to destroy His enemies but to give them opportunity to find peace on His terms and to become His friends. What we may interpret as evidence of a God who doesn’t care, is in actuality the very evidence that God cares deeply–‘not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.’ (II Pet.3:9)
Scoffers will scoff, denying all evidence of a God who brings life into existence from nothing, who sends catastrophic judgment on the world, and who withholds his wrath in order that they might be spared! But God is not phased. Love is patient.
And in the meantime, with the spectre of apocalyptic judgment hanging over our world, what is our position as believers? How do we guard our hearts from falling into a dull complacency toward God that makes us prone to look elsewhere for hope?
First it’s important to recognize who we are as believers. We are not appointed to suffer God’s wrath.(I Th.5:9) We stand in God’s good graces, by faith in His Good Son. This is pure gift. As children of light we need not be caught unawares. Alert and armed, but unalarmed, we are to stand with faith and love as our breastplate. (I Th.5:8) Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand… Rom.5:1,2
Ours is a position of confident hope. We live in the hope of salvation. It is not yet complete—our adoption as sons, the redemption of these bodies, is yet to be. This hope is our helmet (I Th.5:8). Think on it—Christ died for us so that we might live with Him, whether we live till His return or die waiting. (I Th.5:10)
Our hope in salvation’s future tense protects our minds from fixating on the here and the now and being drawn away to fear for our wellbeing.
This fear will drive us to other gods for our rescue. Consider good King Asa’s poor finish (See: II Chron.16). After a reign characterized by great reforms, his heart turned from wholly following God because he feared his enemies and doubted God’s ability to rescue him. Instead of relying on God he turned to the aid of a foreign king. It was his downfall. And here in the story is that awesome verse. Picture it:
“For the eyes of the LORD move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His.” (II Chron.16:9). THIS is the picture of our God that we must cling to when we cannot see His hand at work. THIS is our God.
Meanwhile the things we suffer work for us a glory that far outweighs their pain. They work in us endurance and in turn, character, which produces hope– a hope that is as sure as God’s love for us! (Rom.5:3-5) If he is for us who can be against us? Though we will not ever have to face His wrath, the wrath of man is quite another story. Tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, danger or sword may be our lot yet. But we are assured conquerors because we are loved by God.(Rom.8)
And that is precisely what Zephaniah is working toward in his startling prophecy of impending judgment. (Don’t stop reading with chapters one and two!) The one whose judgment has been taken away in Christ, the child of God, need not fear their enemies.
“Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion! Rejoice and exult with all your heart…The LORD has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies.
The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: “Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” Zeph. 3:14-17 ESV
While this is ultimately a specific promise relating to Israel in times yet future, there is here too a reminder of the God who is with us, and mighty to save. He rejoices over His own and will do us good all our days. It is his nature. Jeremiah concurs:
Yet their Redeemer is strong; the LORD Almighty is his name. He will vigorously defend their cause so that he may bring rest to their land, but unrest to those who live in Babylon. Jer. 50:34 NIV
So, I guess what I’m wanting to say (and to remind myself of) as we all stand on the brink of another year, is that God is still on the throne– delighting to hear our prayers, steadily bringing His Kingdom purposes into effect, undeterred by evil. And we can trust Him to lead the way. Indeed, we MUST trust Him. What other hope have we?
Don’t give up on expecting Him to intervene in the lives of those you care about, the situations that seem hopeless and beyond remedy. He is honored when His people seek Him, when our hearts count on Him to be the Hero, when we scan the skies in eagerness to welcome His appearing…
And I’m eager to share with you an original Rap song by one of my favorite people in the whole wide world (my son). He composed it years ago when he was just embarking on manhood. I came across it this week and have had many a ‘listen’, my heart encouraged to rejoice in this great grace of God in which we stand! I hope it will do the same for you.
Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Rom. 5:2 ESV
Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. And count the patience of our Lord as salvation… II Peter 3:14-15 ESV
You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.
II Peter 3:17-18 ESV
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word. II Thess. 2:16-17 ESV