We seem to regard Christian beliefs and values as one option among many these days. Indeed, we may live with the sole value of doing what pleases us personally - if we can get away with it! Deep inside, we know it doesn't work, it can't work - as we are quick to note if our politicians try to act that way!
We have been deeply shocked by the two top hopefuls for US Presidency. We aren't involved. We have no particular preference - yet something about both process and attitudes has disturbed us. And we wonder, even though the matter has now been resolved by the courts - will the nation which has represented a measure of stability in a changing world become "unstable"?
Christmas is almost upon us and Ehud Barak has resigned as Prime Minister of Israel. It seems his popularity rating is down and the Knesset is unhappy about his handling of the peace process. The whole situation is extremely complex and we wonder - how can the land in which the Prince of Peace was born become a place of peace?
Zephaniah describes himself as the great-grandson of Hezekiah, king of Judah (Zeph. 1.1). He was distantly related to King Josiah, in whose reign he gave his prophecies. This was part of the time when Jeremiah was prophesying (Jer. 1.2).
Josiah became king when he was eight years old and ruled for thirty-one years (2 Kings 22.1). He is mainly thought of as the good king during whose reign the book of the Law was discovered (v. 8), leading to a religious revival in 622 BC.
But they were hard times. Josiah's grandfather, Manasseh, and his father, Amon, had introduced wicked practices into Judah. Manasseh had built altars to Baal and worshipped sun, moon and stars at altars erected in the Temple courts (21.4-5). He had an image of the goddess Asherah placed in the Temple (v. 7). Child sacrifice and astrology prospered during his reign (21.6; 23.10-11). Amon - probably named after an Egyptian god - continued his father's policies until his assassination (vv. 19-26).
At the age of sixteen (632 BC) Josiah began to seek after the God of his forefather David. Six years later he started the reform movement in which much of the idolatry was purged from Judah and Jerusalem. Unfortunately, the reform movement didn't reach deep into the life of the nation. Worship of the Lord was re-established, but idolatry wasn't completely removed.
It isn't clear when we should date Zephaniah's prophecy. Some believe it must have been before the reforms. Others see evidence that it was after the discovery of the Law and that the reform process had begun (as in Zeph. 1.4).
It is clear from Jeremiah as well as Zephaniah that many had rejected the reforms, refusing repentance and change.
Things were bad.
Things were so bad, in fact, that judgment was inevitable.
We sometimes have the idea that the prophets must have been warped personalities ("baptised in vinegar" is how one person put it) who took a fiendish delight in preaching judgment.
I am always glad that Jeremiah has given us an inside picture of what it was like to preach the judgment of God - "Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach all day long. But if I say, 'I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,' his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot" (Jer. 20.8-9). He didn't like it one bit! He was very uncomfortable about the task and message the Lord had given him. He had to be true to his call. The people had turned away from the Lord and could reap the consequences of their sin. The message just couldn't be made more palatable.
The Lord's judgment would come on Judah because of pagan and idolatrous worship and the lifestyle that accompanied it - and because of the complacency of those who thought the Lord would do nothing about it. Those who humbly obey the Lord are told, "Seek the LORD, all you humble of the land, you who do what he commands. Seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you will be sheltered on the day of the Lord's anger" (Zeph. 2.3) - they will be protected in the coming judgment.
Neighbouring nations - Philistia, Moab, Ammon, Cush and Assyria - will also face the Lord's judgment (2.4-15). But this should have served as a warning to Jerusalem - the city of peace which has become "the city of oppressors" (3.1) - "Her officials are roaring lions, her rulers are evening wolves, who leave nothing for the morning. Her prophets are arrogant; they are treacherous men. Her priests profane the sanctuary and do violence to the law" (vv. 3-4). Not even Jerusalem is willing to hear and heed the Lord's correction (note vv. 6-7). Judgment cannot be avoided any longer.
Things were bad and judgment was inevitable.
But judgment isn't God's final word! Some people don't understand that! We are told that God is Judge, but he isn't "judgment". In the New Testament we read about "the wrath of God", but nowhere is it said that God is "wrath". On the other hand, we are told, not only that God loves and is loving, but that "God is love" (1 Jn 4.8,16). In other words, love is God's nature. That isn't, of course, the "nice" emotion we call by that name. God's love can never be content with sin, perversion, injustice He doesn't pretend and close his eyes about these things. His love works a way of redemption, of salvation That's why he loved the world so much that he gave his only Son Jesus for us. His great desire is to bring people to respond to his love, to repent of sin, to believe his act of salvation, to receive the Saviour
But it is possible not to take up the offer - not to repent, not to believe. If we refuse God's love, we will face his judgment - there is no other option. The plea of God's love is "that whoever believes in [his Son] shall not perish but have eternal life" (Jn 3.16).
That's why, when things are bad and judgment is inevitable, it is possible for those who humbly believe and trust in God to "be glad and rejoice with all your heart" (Zeph. 3.14).
Humanly speaking, for those who cared about the state of their nation, things looked grim - with every reason to be afraid of what might happen next. But the Lord's word comes with assurance - "The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. 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" (vv. 15b,16b,17). Did you hear that repeated message? - The Lord is with you! Don't be afraid!
And in our changing world, we wonder what will happen next - the directions our society, nation and world are taking. Some sort of Armageddon looks more and more possible in the future - not just scare-mongering any more.
Into this world Jesus came - and comes - the Immanuel ("God with us"). He came "to save his people from their sins" (Mt. 1.21). He called on all his hearers to "repent and believe the good news" (Mk 1.15). Again and again, he told his followers, "Don't be afraid!" (as in Lk 5.10; 8.50; 12.4,7,32).
That's not pretending that things are better than they seem. It is a confidence we have because the Lord - the God of love who has made us the way of salvation - is with us!
So - let us be glad and rejoice!