Ever since Genesis 3 we've had the sense that the world out there and our hearts in here are headed somewhere bad. And it's not going to end well.
We've all got our doomsday stories.
And in the popular imagination there's nothing like a post-apocalyptic vision of a deserted city for grabbing our attention. How many times has New York been destroyed on film?
Well Zephaniah is facing the destruction of Jerusalem and its imminent demise is making him think of the end of the world. Because if the people of God and the city of God and the house of God are about to be judged - then nothing and no-one is safe. The judgement of Jerusalem in the 6th century BC is a picture of the judgement of the whole world.
And so as Zephaniah thinks of global judgement, he paints his own picture of a deserted city. In verse 13 he turns his attention to perhaps the world's greatest city of the day - Nineveh. And he says this:
Look at v13
13 He will stretch out his hand against the north and destroy Assyria, leaving Nineveh utterly desolate and dry as the desert. 14 Flocks and herds will lie down there, creatures of every kind. The desert owl and the screech owl will roost on her columns. Their calls will echo through the windows, rubble will be in the doorways, the beams of cedar will be exposed. 15 This is the carefree city that lived in safety. She said to herself, "I am, and there is none besides me." What a ruin she has become, a lair for wild beasts! All who pass by her scoff and shake their fists.
It sounds just like one of those films. But the bible insists that there IS a right fear of the end of the world. Judgement is coming. And all our human securities WILL be overturned.
Things can’t go on like this forever. Life as we know it is moving towards judgement day. And even just on an individual level, our own bodies are decaying and falling apart, the physical world is groaning beneath us. And one day it will come crashing down.
Which means if you don’t like Zephaniah 2 and all the bible’s teaching on judgement – well I completely understand that. It’s not meant to be pleasant reading. It’s a bit like the fire alarm going off. No-one likes the fire alarm going off. Our smoke detector is very sensitive and it’ll go off the second I’ve burnt the toast. That’s annoying and I usually then take the battery out of the alarm until I’m done cooking. But I’d be stupid to take the battery out for good. I’d be stupid to throw away the fire alarm. And I’d be stupid to complain that the alarm was too loud and shrill for my liking. It’s meant to be loud and shrill, it’s meant to be inconvenient, it’s meant to disturb people so that it saves lives.
And it’s the same with Scripture’s warnings. But so often we’re like the person who takes out the battery and chucks it away. We skip over the judgement stuff because it’s a bit loud and shrill. Well it’s meant to be. But as disturbing and inconvenient as the fire alarm is – it’s nothing compared to the fire itself. And compared to these warnings in the bible, they are nothing compared to the judgement they warn us of. These warnings need to shock us out of our complacency and make us face reality.
There is a judgement, there is a reckoning, there is a last day, I will face Christ my Maker. And you can’t escape judgement by throwing the bible away and more than you can escape a fire by chucking away the fire alarm.
But even if you do throw the bible away, the world will sell you its own doomsday stories. Even without the bible you’ll still be told of catastrophic global warming and killer pandemics and the sun dying, the earth choking, the seas rising, the universe freezing. And just on an individual level, you’ll still get a call from the doctor to say “The results of the tests have come back, I think you’d better come into my surgery...” Your body will still go into the ground and rot along with everyone you love. You can’t escape judgement by throwing the bible away. And no-one should call the bible primitive for talking about Armageddon. We’ve all got our judgement day stories.
But here’s where the bible is radically different. Turn to chapter 3 verse 8:
8 Therefore wait for me," declares the LORD, "for the day I will stand up to testify. I have decided to assemble the nations, to gather the kingdoms and to pour out my wrath on them--all my fierce anger. The whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger.
There’s three particular ways that God’s judgement will be different to the judgement stories that the world tells.
God’s judgement will be purposeful, personal and penultimate.
First, it will be purposeful. This is not about things naturally falling apart or the sun running out of fuel or the universe expanding into a big freeze or forces of entropy or dying of “natural causes”. History as we know it will be wrapped up because the LORD has decided to wrap it up. The world will not end because of global warming. Or nuclear holocaust. Or a pandemic or an asteroid. History will be brought to a conclusion because of the DECISION of the LORD God. We are in a story, Authored by the LORD of History and He has an ending in which HE stands up to testify. Like Poirot at the end of the murder mystery – putting all the pieces in to place. Only this would be like Agatha Christie herself appearing in the story to testify. And in this testimony everyone is guilty except the Author!
But here is the final judgement as a purposeful wrapping up of history.
Second it will be personal. Do you see such personal words being used “my wrath”, “my fierce anger”, “my jealous anger.” Judgement is not about impersonal forces having their way. Judgement Day will reveal the personal, settled hostility and wrath of the LORD Almighty. It will be His JEALOUS anger that is unleashed.
Jealous anger. Jealous anger is not always a bad thing. Jealous anger is a quite appropriate response when what you love is being stolen and destroyed.
There’s a famous Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch where Dudley goes to a psychiatrist played by Peter Cook. And Peter Cook is the most liberal minded, accepting, inclusive, positive, affirming psychiatrist you could imagine. He’s basically how many people think of God.
Well Dudley comes to this psychiatrist and says “Doc, I’ve fallen in love.” “Wonderful, that’s a perfectly healthy natural and lovely thing.” “Yes but I feel very guilty about it.” “Oh you shouldn’t, love is a wonderful, lovely, natural thing.” “Well she is a wonderful girl is Stephanie.” “Oh how strange, my wife is called Stephanie.” “Yes, it’s Stephanie.” Yes, it’s Stephanie”. “No, Doc, it’s Stephanie.” “I see, so you’ve fallen in love with my wife Stephanie. Well that’s a perfectly natural and understandable reaction. It’s a wonderful and lovely and healthy thing.” “And we want to get married.” “Well there’s no reason why you shouldn’t get married. She’s wonderful and lovely and you’re wonderful and lovely, you’re both lovely people.” And the sketch gets ever more ridiculous as this psychiatrist just accepts and embraces a rival for his wife’s affections.
There’s something very wrong with a husband who is not jealous. True marital love involves a right jealousy.
And God loves with a burning, faithful, marital, rightly possessive, rightly jealous love.
First of all the Father loves His Son in the power of His Almighty Spirit. It is a marriage like love, a burning, faithful, rightly possessive, rightly jealous love.
And He loves His people – those who are married to His Son – the bride of Christ, the people of God. He loves us with a burning, faithful, rightly possessive, rightly jealous love.
To be on the inside of this jealous love is a wonderful thing. It is to be rightly possessed and secure and guarded and desired. It’s the sunshine of His love. To be on the wrong end of His jealousy is a terrible thing. It’s the consuming fire of His judgement.
The personal jealousy of the LORD is a double-edged sword. On one hand it is wonderful to be loved by this personal LORD on the other hand it is a dreadful thing if you opposed to the personal love of God. If you are an enemy of Christ who the Father loves, or an enemy of His people – look out. Because an incredibly PERSONAL judgement is on its way.
So you see judgement does not disprove a loving God. Many today object to God’s judgement saying it would mean that God wasn’t very loving and neither are His people – if they believe in judgement. Well we’ll deal with the question of how God’s judgement makes us a loving people in a minute. But notice here that God’s judgement does not disprove His love. His love requires His judgement.
So it’s purposeful – not haphazard, it’s personal – it’s not mechanistic. And it’s penultimate. It’s not the ULTIMATE word on God’s creation – not at all. In the stories the world tells – New York is laid waste and the only vague hope is a small band of survivors who now have to battle through a century of nuclear winter or something. As far as the world is concerned judgement is ultimate. But for the Christian, judgement is penultimate. It is the LORD’s will to bring His people THROUGH judgement and out into a glorious salvation that is greater than anything we’ve ever experienced.
Just look at how Zephaniah continues in chapter 3 and v9. You might imagine that Zephaniah would put down his pen after verse 8 and just wait for the inevitable. But judgement is penultimate – look what happens after:
9 "Then will I purify the lips of the peoples, that all of them may call on the name of the LORD and serve him shoulder to shoulder.
The judging fire is seen now as a purifying fire. Now it’s not so much seen as the furnace of His wrath, now it’s the refining fire through which He brings His people – and they come out better than ever!
12 But I will leave within you the meek and humble, who trust in the name of the LORD.
Those who trust in the Name of the LORD are kept safe. You know the song taken from Proverbs – the Name of the LORD is a strong tower, the righteous run into it and they are saved. It’s the idea of being hidden in the Name of the LORD – hidden in Christ you could say. You might remember from last week that the name Zephaniah means “The LORD hides.” And we learnt last week that Christ is a refuge for His people. The LORD hides us in His Son and we are kept safe. He is the shelter who bears the onslaught of the divine judgement, and we are hidden in Christ. He took the judgement of the Day of the LORD when He died on the cross. Judgement Day fell early on Jesus. And for those who are hidden in Him, we are the meek and the humble who trust in the name of the LORD. Saved from judgement and brought through those judging flames so that for us it is only a refining fire. We come through the other side with Jesus and into a hope that is beyond imagination. Look from v14
14 Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem! 15 The LORD has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm. 16 On that day they will say to Jerusalem, "Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. 17 The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing."
Judgement is meant to be penultimate in the bible. We are meant to flee to Jesus, find refuge in Him so that for us when Christ returns is not Doomsday. For us, it’s the happy last day when Christ will bring the whole universe through the refining fires into a renewed heavens and earth – the home of righteousness.
So that’s the difference in the bible – for us judgement is purposeful – not haphazard. It’s personal – it’s not mechanistic. And it’s penultimate. It’s not ultimate.
But these verses tell us some more about God’s judgement. Because Zephaniah here is doing what so many of the Old Testament prophets do. He is giving oracles against the nations.
In the main the prophets aim their words of judgement at the people of God. So the Jerusalem prophets (of which Zephaniah is one) take aim at the people of Jerusalem. But the rest of the world doesn’t get off the hook. It’s not as though the people of God are sinful and the rest of the world can just go its own way and the LORD doesn’t care. He does care. He cares about every nation, every people group. He is grieved by every sin.
And so Zephaniah does a whistle-stop tour around the surrounding nations in these verses.
He starts in v4 with the West: Philistia. That’s where Gaza and Ashdod and Ekron is and the Cherethites live. And after speaking of them in v8 he turns around to the east to address the Moabites and the Ammonites. Then in v12 he swings down to the south and says that the Cushites are in for judgement. Before in v13 he takes aim at the northern giant, the Assyrians. And in particular their grand capital city Nineveh.
So he’s not mentioning all the nations but he’s just swinging around the points of the compass saying “Judgement, Judgement, Judgement, Judgement.”
It would be a bit like saying “Woe to Brighton, your time has come. Woe to Hastings, judgement will fall. Woe to Hailsham, the Lord is against you.” And then - south is hard, I guess you say “Woe to France, the end is nigh.”
But this is a way of indicating that the whole world is going to come under judgement. And if I could pick out particular sins that they are guilty of it seems to be the sins of persecuting God’s people and pride. (I don’t usually do Ps – that’s not usually how I roll. It’s just there happen to be a lot of Ps, what can I say?!)
First let’s look at persecution. From chapter 2, v8:
8 "I have heard the insults of Moab and the taunts of the Ammonites, who insulted my people and made threats against their land.
Then in v10 it talks about them “insulting and mocking the people of the LORD Almighty.”
The LORD Almighty loves His people with a jealous love and woe betide the person or government that harms His beloved people.
Think today of the state of Orissa in India:
There’s a very hostile state government there and incredible acts of violence carried out by mobs on Christians. In the last 2 years 50,000 Christians have been displaced, more than 4,000 homes destroyed and 120 Christians have been murdered. Over 300 villages and at least 250 churches were destroyed. More than 4,000 people are still living in refugee camps and thousands more have not returned to their villages because they fear for their lives or fear the threat of forced conversion to Hinduism.
And the LORD sees and He knows and there is a day of judgement for all who insult and threaten and hurt and kill His people.
Or think of northern Nigeria. These are mass graves dug to bury the hundreds of Christians who were killed when a March 7th was declared against Christians. Over 500 were murdered, mainly women and children.
I visited northern Nigeria a few years ago. I taught the book of Romans to some pastors in the state of Kaduna. Well two weeks ago in Kaduna several Muslims attacked a certain village and killed five Christians, including a primary school teacher and mother of six children. They also burned down five Christian homes.
Now how do you live through that and not turn bitter or seek endless cycles of revenge? Tribal warfare can rage on for generations, we know that. But the pastors I spoke with were determined not to take vengeance. They’re living under Sharia law, in all likelihood they’re not going to see justice done for these crimes. Not in this life. How can they do what Jesus taught us to do – Turn the other cheek?
Well God’s judgement of the nations is at the heart of it. Here are some verses I was teaching to them from Romans, but actually they were the ones who taught me what it means:
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. 20 On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:17-21
How do you not take revenge? You leave room for God’s wrath. How can you turn the other cheek in this life? Believe in judgement in the next. And my Nigerian friends are resolved not to take vengeance because they believe in God’s judgement.
So when people say that God’s judgement means God is not very nice and His people are not very nice – actually we see that the reverse is true. Because God judges we know He loves. And because GOD judges, we don’t have to.
You might think believing in God’s judgement might make you more judgemental. Actually it makes you far less judgemental because you trust judgement to God and are free to turn the other cheek. God’s judgement doesn’t mean we’re less loving, it means we are more loving. Because even if our unbelieving friends are ridiculing us and hurting us – we know it’s not us that we should pity. It’s them.
Corrie Ten Boom witnessing beating with Sister. “O how awful” “Yes, may God forgive her.” Corrie’s sister pitied the guard, because she knew of judgement. God’s judgement makes us merciful people because we can leave justice in His hands – we will never do a good job of making justice. We leave justice in His loving and wise care, and we are released to show mercy.
When you hear the ridiculous taunts of a strident atheist, do you feel anger, or pity? God hears the insults, pity them, turn the other cheek, show them grace. That will really heap burning coals on their head, but it might just turn them. Second half of verse 11 “The nations on every shore will worship him, every one in its own land.” The goal is mercy
15 This is the carefree city that lived in safety. She said to herself, "I am, and there is none besides me."
Self-referencing. I’m centre stage – everyone else is a bit player. Isn’t that you and me? Yes – it’s our very heartbeat. I AM and there is none besides me. That’s the drumbeat by which we make our decisions, conduct our relationships and live our lives. We climb onto the throne and pronounce ourselves the great I AM. But when we meet the TRUE I AM – Jesus Christ, He will want His throne back.
And the point of these prophecies is to say – get off the throne now, before He removes you. Are you on the throne of your lives. YOU are the reference point, even though you live in a world made by Jesus, made for Jesus, judged by Jesus. Are you at the centre? Step aside, and make way for Jesus. Step aside before you are swept aside. That’s the teaching of Zephaniah.
But before we get too comfortable pointing the finger at the unrighteous people to the north, south, east and west of us, Zephaniah does what all the prophets do when they make their oracles against the nations. They say – “Woe to you, woe to you, woe to you, but most of all WOE TO US.” The punchline of all these judgements is that the judgement will fall most severely on God’s own people.
It’s the old saying – for every finger you point at someone else, three fingers are pointing back at you. And so Zephaniah
3:1 Woe to the city of oppressors, rebellious and defiled! 2 She obeys no-one, she accepts no correction. She does not trust in the LORD, she does not draw near to her God. 3 Her officials are roaring lions, her rulers are evening wolves, who leave nothing for the morning. 4 Her prophets are arrogant; they are treacherous men. Her priests profane the sanctuary and do violence to the law. 5 The LORD within her is righteous; he does no wrong. Morning by morning he dispenses his justice, and every new day he does not fail, yet the unrighteous know no shame. 6 "I have cut off nations; their strongholds are demolished. I have left their streets deserted, with no-one passing through. Their cities are destroyed; no-one will be left--no-one at all. 7 I said to the city,`Surely you will fear me and accept correction!' Then her dwelling would not be cut off, nor all my punishments come upon her. But they were still eager to act corruptly in all they did.
What is the problem of the people of God. Well it’s a double sided coin: On one side they don’t trust the LORD and draw near and the other side of that coin is – they are proud and arrogant and will not be corrected.
That’s the perennial problem for the people of God. Pride. And it is the opposite of Faith. To have faith is to humble yourself before the LORD and say “I cannot face judgement, I must be hidden in Christ and take refuge in Him. I have no power, I have no goodness I want to be found in Jesus alone.” It’s the opposite of pride.
Zephaniah really is a sustained prophesy against PRIDE.
Are you proud? I struggle with it. We all do in a thousand ways. Isn’t it ridiculous? Given who we are, who our LORD Jesus is, given that the whole world is headed for judgement and my only hope is to be found in Christ. It’s ridiculous to be proud. And the antidote is to trust Him (v2) and draw near to Him.