In Zephaniah 3:3-4 today we see who is to blame for these conditions bringing the judgment of God upon the people – the religious and political leaders in Jerusalem. And we sigh a sigh of relief because we believe that if anything is the leaders’ fault, then we, the people, are off the hook. Well, just wait…
“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.”
Look at this picture of the political leadership in the land of Judah. Princes and judges are described as lions and wolves. They are not leading the people, but using the people to further their own personal agendas. As lions hunt, one lion will roar and when all that is edible in the field runs away, they end up running right into the jaws and the claws of the waiting pride at the other end of the plain.
The term for judges, calling them evening wolves, this references a wolf that has been hungry and on the hunt for some time. He is desperate. And when he does catch his prey, he gobbles it up and doesn’t leave a scrap. If you watch nature shows, or watch even pets at times, when they have enough to eat, they will eat and then leave some hidden away for later or for morning. But if they are particularly hungry, or suspicious that the meal will be stolen by competing predators, they will gorge themselves and eat it all even at the risk of making themselves sick.
And this is how God describes the political leaders in Jerusalem. In Amos He gives even more detail to show us why He has described them this way. Amos 2:6-7 tells us, “Thus says the Lord: “For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not turn away its punishment, Because they sell the righteous for silver, And the poor for a pair of sandals.
7 Those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and turn aside the way of the afflicted. A man and his father go in to the same girl, To defile My holy name.”
Life was being valued as equal to a pair of shoes. A low view of God always, always results in a low view of human life, of those created in the image of God.
The scandal of the sandal here is that one of these ruling elites would decide that they needed something, some material want had to be met. They would then falsely accuse a poor person who could not mount a legal defense and even if they could, the judges had been bribed, the poor victim would be found guilty of some theft or some crime, and in those days if you owed a debt, especially a criminal debt, you had to pay it off or work it off. Well if you were poor – which was who they targeted with these schemes – you could not pay it off, so you were sold into slavery to pay the amount owed. The poor became a commodity to provide for the wants of the rich.
Imagine a system that is so corrupt that the princes and the judges are so defiled and defiant that they will let you go and find a poor person, falsely accuse them, uphold the charge with no proof, and by this injustice provide cheap labor, actually, free labor. The wealthy bribed the judges, abused the poor, and this had become normal – it was a way of life.
This is why Amos and Zephaniah tell us that the leaders are like roaring lions and ravenous wolves. When a people begin to refuse to listen to the Word of God all sorts of corruption and injustice will follow.
Zephaniah goes on to say there in verse 4 that “Her prophets are insolent, treacherous people; Her priests have polluted the sanctuary, They have done violence to the law.” Insolent and treacherous. This describes the priests and many of the prophets (false prophets).
The word insolent means reckless. Their religious counsel and teaching destroys lives. They are also treacherous, that is to say they are deceitful, they don’t speak the truth and if you follow what they say you will ruin your life!
He goes on saying that the priests have polluted the sanctuary. They have made the places of worship unholy. They have done violence to the Law of God by their violations of it. Amos describes this for us this way, “A man and his father go in to the same girl, To defile My holy name. 8 They lie down by every altar on clothes taken in pledge, And drink the wine of the condemned in the house of their god.” This was the experience of false religion and the worship of idols were the priests encouraged prostitution as an act of worship to these false gods.
The mention of drinking the wine of the condemned refers to the wine that was given as a bride to the judges and because all of this corrupt system was working together in the political and religious leadership, these corrupt leaders would drink the wine in celebrations of their debauchery and corruption, even celebrating these things in the Temple of God.
They were seriously making an effort here to thank God for their ill-gotten gains – they were saying that their wealth and the fruits of their corrupt labor was a blessing from His hand. It is almost like an actor winning an Oscar for a filthy film and then standing up and thanking God for his talent and ability. All the while missing that God has turned them over to their sin and that is not a good thing!
Remember, this had become a way of life. This was normal for them in their society at this point. For 100 years from Amos to Zephaniah there had been no reform, no revival, no repentance. Instead this was ingrained as a way of life and accepted as a way to worship God.
What these leaders were doing really can be summarized this way – they were taking the Lord’s name in vain. This is what it means to claim to follow Christ but live in a way that is opposite of what He teaches and expects of His followers. The danger of course is that when we make this claim and can’t back it up with our actions then we are misrepresenting God. We are bearing false witness. We are lying about Him and His character and holiness. If we defame and defile His name, He promises judgment. He says He is a jealous God. That is NOT a blessed assurance.