Take your Bibles this week and let’s open to Zephaniah chapter 3. Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah. If you get to Haggai you’ve gone too far. If you get to Matthew you’ve missed it by about 650 years.
Remember now that the prophet’s theme in this book is The Day of the Lord and what the coming of the Messiah will look like for His people and for those not His people. As God warns the nations about judgment and the wrath that is coming, after addressing the nations that surrounded Judah now the message is focused at Judah and specifically the capital city of Jerusalem.
Our message from Zephaniah 3:1-7 this week is titled, “Rebellious and Wayward” and here in our text is what God has to say to the inhabitants of Jerusalem:
Woe to her who is rebellious and polluted, To the oppressing city! 2 She has not obeyed His voice, She has not received correction; She has not trusted in the Lord, She has not drawn near to her God. 3 Her princes in her midst are roaring lions; Her judges are evening wolves That leave not a bone till morning. 4 Her prophets are insolent, treacherous people; Her priests have polluted the sanctuary, They have done violence to the law. 5 The Lord is righteous in her midst, He will do no unrighteousness. Every morning He brings His justice to light; He never fails, But the unjust knows no shame. 6 “I have cut off nations, Their fortresses are devastated; I have made their streets desolate, With none passing by. Their cities are destroyed; There is no one, no inhabitant. 7 I said, ‘Surely you will fear Me, You will receive instruction’— So that her dwelling would not be cut off, Despite everything for which I punished her. But they rose early and corrupted all their deeds.
At the beginning of the prophecy, Zephaniah was speaking directly to the enemies of Judah, to those who opposed the people of God. At that point I am sure that the people in Jerusalem would have cheered for the prophet and agreed with the words spoken against their enemies. They were glad to hear the threats of justice and judgment against the ungodly.
God told His people in the midst of the judgments against the nations that they, His people, needed to gather together and seek after Him. Their focus was not on the Lord however. Their focus was on those who they thought needed to be punished for their sins against them. It is a typical sentiment, isn’t it? To see in others the things that need to be corrected, disciplined, exposed, changed, rebuked. How often is it when we hear a powerful message preached that we know exactly who should have been there to hear it? We know who that message was for. But when the light then shines on us, watch out!
And here we see the light indeed turned to shine on Jerusalem. It begins with the word, “Woe.” The people are cursed. They are coming apart at the seams. They are falling apart. And they don’t even realize the danger that they are in as they are facing the judgment of God themselves for their sinfulness and complacency related to the worship and to the things of God.
The prophet proclaims “Woe to her who is rebellious.” In verse 2 he explains, “She has not obeyed His voice.” They are disobedient, deliberately avoiding obedience to the Word of the Lord. They know better, but they have allowed their sin, their desires, their wants, theirs lusts, their feeling to set their course contrary to the Word of God.
He also says Jerusalem is a polluted people. And again, verse 2 explains, “She has not received correction.” She has sinned and will not be turned back to the truth, to the right way. “She has not trusted in the Lord, She has not drawn near to her God.” She is not faithful. She is not believing. She is disobedient and wayward and stubborn and persistent in her sins. She has not drawn near to God, she wanders, and this is not a wander of curiosity, or distraction – it is a purposeful walk away from the truth and standards of God and His Word.
The people are refusing to hear God’s Word as it is read by the priests, proclaimed by the prophets. They will not listen. They just don’t want to hear what God has to say to them. It is rebellion. A refusal to hear, to listen, to obey. This is not accidental. This is not a sin of omission. This is deliberate. The people have hardened their hearts and do not want anything to do with the Lord or His Word – other than where they can use it to their own desired benefit.
God says to them they are oppressive – “to the oppressing city” – the word translated oppressing here means “to be violent.” They are violent and allow violence. They love violence. Violence against their enemies. Violence against each other. And even worse, violence against God’s Word!
Amos proclaimed 100 years earlier, in Amos 2:4, “Thus says the Lord: “For three transgressions of Judah, and for four, I will not turn away its punishment, Because they have despised the law of the Lord, And have not kept His commandments. Their lies lead them astray, Lies which their fathers followed.”
To say there for three transgression and for four – three means it is full, and to add another measure, to add the fourth, is to make it overflow. So Amos is not saying for three or four sins, but for sins that are overflowing, that are in excess. There is no lack to their sin, to their pursuit of rebellion and evil. And this is not a few sins of a few people, the leaders, or the priests. This is a way of life that is ingrained in the culture as a result of their refusal to hear the Word of God.
In Amos God says that He is not going to turn away their punishment. It is coming. It is sure. Judgment is not being warned here, it is being promised because of the depths of the sin in the land.
They have despised the Law of God, literally, the Torah. And the phrase to despise means that they have treated the Word of God as if it were a piece of trash. Interesting then that when Josiah ordered the Temple to be cleansed that they found the scrolls of the Law, the Word of God. As they were cleaning and repairing they came across this discarded book – the Word of God. It had been cast aside as refuse, as trash. It had sat on the shelf collecting dust as idols were set up and worshipped in the Temple of the Lord.
As a result of despising the Law, they have not kept His commandments. There should be an obvious correlation here – doubt the Word, deny the Word, despise the Word, disobey the Word.
Amos further says that they have been led astray by lies, and the word for lies is “fakes.” This is a reference to the false gods, to the fake gods, the idols that they have been worshipping and working and sacrificing to try and please and appease. Look at this indictment against the people, these are the lies, the fake gods that you and your fathers followed.
Fathers, what fake gods, what idols do we allow to be set up in our homes? What do we elevate to compete with God and His Word and His Worship? What things do we teach our children, directly or by example, that can be thought of to be more important than obedience to the Word of God?
Often when we cannot gather with the people of God for worship we call those things preventing us a “providential hindrance.” Things like sickness or cedar fever! Things over which we really have no control and they prevent us from obeying the command of the Lord to gather with His people for worship. On the other hand, opposite of providential hindrances, we see preferential pursuits – things we would rather do, or things we allow to take precedence over obedience to the Lord’s commands because of what we want to do at that particular point in time. Remember that at the heart of the sins of the people here is an abuse of the worship of God. Let us never underestimate the importance of worshipping God as He desires! If we worship Him in any other way we are worshipping ourselves, as we want, not as He wants. And if we are neglecting worship it must be due to providential hindrances and not preferential pursuits.
Here in Jerusalem, the fathers had pursued idols, fake gods, and their children were now going to reap the consequence of what they had been sowing in their families’ lives for these generations. For over 100 years now Zephaniah is able to bring the same charges that Amos proclaimed – this rebellious, polluted people were doing violence to the Word of God, and the day of judgment was fast approaching.
To tell the people that they are polluted here means that they are defiled. He says they have not received correction. The people sinned so God sent prophets to preach to them, to rebuke them, to correct them – to correct means to put back in its proper place, to repair – and they refused to listen and persisted in their sin. Proverbs 5:21-23 says, “For the ways of man are before the eyes of the Lord, And He ponders all his paths. 22 His own iniquities entrap the wicked man, And he is caught in the cords of his sin. 23 He shall die for lack of instruction, And in the greatness of his folly he shall go astray.”
It is not that instruction is lacking or unavailable, it is that instruction is ignored and disobeyed. If we don’t listen and learn, especially from those who have lived longer and know better, then we will suffer the consequences of ignoring wise counsel.
And to say that they are an “oppressing city”, to see the violence that has been done to the Word of the Lord, we see the fruit of that manifested as social injustice, oppressing people, and specifically we see the people refusing to trust and draw near to the Lord. They are far from Him and will not trust Him, and so they also mistreat others around them.
We cannot say that we love God and hate our brother – if we love God we will love our brothers – this is what John tells us in 1 John, right? And here we see it – they will not trust God or draw near to Him so of course then their relationships and interactions with others are ruled by violence and discord.
Instead of drawing near to God and trusting Him, they would come directly into His temple and set up false gods, idols, and trust them instead! In Deuteronomy 4:7 we read, “For what great nation is there that has God so near to it, as the Lord our God is to us, for whatever reason we may call upon Him?” They had God right there with them in their midst. The Temple, the sacrifices, it was all right there – and it was rejected and refused.
What we know also from the prophecy of Amos was that the oppression and the social injustice took the form of the rich falsely accusing someone that they knew was too poor to legal refute the charges, and they would use the corrupt legal system to kidnap them and force them into slavery to pay off supposed debts that were owed. This corruption was overflowing through the land – through its leaders, it courts, its wealthy leading citizens. And everyone was living to serve self.