We don’t clean house to punish dust
Zephaniah 3: I’ll leave a core of people among you.
The prophet first turns his attention to other nations surrounding Judah. They’re not the chosen people, but they’ve refused the light they’ve been given. Because of that, the Day of Judgment that is such a driving force in Zephaniah’s preaching is coming to them too. When I read of Judgment in the Old Testament I sometimes come away thinking of God as punishing those who reject him. However, this passage takes me in a different direction. Zephaniah says that when God’s finished, he’ll leave a core of people who “will not do wrong.” If a person cleans house, wiping everything clean, they aren’t punishing the dust. Instead, they’re just cleaning things up like they ought to be. Through his prophets, the Lord cautions, warns, and pleads with people to repent and align themselves with his purpose for their lives. In the end, the Judgment that falls on those who refuse this patient call of the Lord is the result of their own refusal to connect to their Creator. I know that there’s a place to think about an angry God but I’m reminded today that a God who loves righteousness is bound by his own nature to take action when his creatures reject his righteousness. When the Lord’s finished, things will be drastically different and one of those changes will be that we’ll see core of previously unnoticed people still standing. “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Take Away: A God who loves righteous must, ultimately, deal decisively with sin.
We need to make up our minds
Zephaniah 2: You’re a nation without a clue about what it wants.
The prophet describes a coming day of God’s Judgment. The Lord’s about to demand an accounting from them and it’s clear that they aren’t ready for such a confrontation. Zephaniah tells people that they need to get their act together. They need to stop letting other nations be their primary influence and they need to start living as people who are going to face God. They’ve lost their bearings and are now at the mercy of whatever fad happens to come along. For a little known, mostly ignored, minor book of the Bible, Zephaniah has pretty much nailed my society. My nation has lost its bearings. It doesn’t want all those “Christian hang ups” but it can’t decide what values are worth pursuing. Instead, we’ve become a shallow people, more concerned about being politically correct than we are with being morally righteous. Zephaniah’s warning of Judgment Day needs to be heard here and now. Otherwise, our story is likely to end like that of clueless Judah.
Take Away: Zephaniah’s warning needs to be heard here and now.
A heaping helping of judgment with a little hope on the side
Zephaniah 1: This is the Day of God’s Judgment.
The book of Zephaniah is all about Judgment day. Zephaniah is focused especially on Judah but he broadens his view to include the surrounding nations and he lays a foundation for the doctrine of a future Day of Judgment of the human race. As the prophet looks around he sees a nation that’s not only committed to sin but feels secure in that sin. He, along with other prophets of God, challenges that security. He knows that people can’t ignore God and get away with it. Any comfort they have now will, in God’s time, be washed away when they’re called to give an account of themselves to the Almighty. He warns them that God says, “I care about sin with fiery passion.” Zephaniah’s message carries with it a sense of God’s anger but it also offers some hope to those who “shape up.” There’s hope in this little book, but it comes with a main course of respectful awe of just Who it is we’re dealing with and what’s sure to come to those who ignore its warning.
Take Away: Those who ignore the Lord will, sooner or later, have to give an accounting of themselves to the one they have ignored.
The least known book of the Bible
Zephaniah 1: I’m going to make a clean sweep of the earth.
Someone has said that this book of Zephaniah is best known for being the least known book of the Bible. I have to confess that it’s pretty much that way for me. I’ve read through the book a few times, usually as part of a read-the-Bible-in-a-year effort. Its three chapters make it less than one day’s reading in such a program. The introduction of the book is somewhat unique because we’re given four generations of Zephaniah’s family tree, concluding with Hezekiah, likely the well-known king of Judah. If that’s so, it helps us see that, unlike Amos and other prophets who speak for the common man, Zephaniah’s royal blood gives him a different perspective and audience. He ministers during the reign of Josiah, possibly, then having influence along with Jeremiah on the young king. Zephaniah is especially focused in on the Day of Judgment that’s coming upon, not only Judah, but upon the whole earth. Why such a day is coming, what will happen when it does, and how to prepare for it is subject matter for his message. Since Zephaniah speaks of not only a contemporary time of judgment but a more distant one as well I can consider his message as not only a historical one, but one that needs to be heard today.
Take Away: Even the most minor of prophets has a major message for us.
Why Nahum preaches to the wrong congregation
Nahum 3: You’re past the point of no return.
One hundred years earlier the reluctant prophet Jonah had been ordered to go and preach destruction in Nineveh. The result was repentance and God changing his mind about destroying them. Nahum isn’t instructed to go to Nineveh but he’s given a similar message of destruction. His sermons appear to be directed to Nineveh but his audience is Judah. One reason for these anti-Nineveh sermons being preached in Judah is that the people of God are more concerned about what Assyria and its capitol Nineveh is doing than they are with trusting the Lord. They need to be reminded that, even though they see Assyria as a mountain of power that God sees it as just another anthill. The second reason for this seeming “preaching to the wrong crowd” is what’s said in this verse. In Jonah’s day the Lord hoped to spare Nineveh. They were great sinners even then, but, according to the Lord, they were more ignorant than rebellious. Because of that, the Lord was more than willing to change his mind and spare them if they would but turn to him in repentance. Here in Nahum’s day that has changed. He preaches about a nation that has pushed God too far and, for them, judgment has come. Nahum preaches sermons against Nineveh for the sake of Judah. He doesn’t preach them in Nineveh because it’s too late for them to repent. I guess the lesson for today is that as long as God speaks to our hearts, even if what he says is guilt producing condemnation, there’s still hope for us. It’s when we no longer hear from him that it’s too late. Isaiah put it this way: “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near.” (Isaiah 55:6 )
Take Away: As long as God speaks to our hearts there’s still hope.
The perfect man for the job
Jonah 3: In forty days Nineveh will be smashed!
Jonah’s message focuses on judgment. After all, he’s preaching to the enemies of Israel. I imagine old Jonah preached some “hell, fire, and brimstone” sermons that would rival that of American preacher Jonathan Edwards’ famous “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” sermon. Jonah, in fact, preaches this sermon of condemnation and destruction in a spirit of victory and joy. Jonah tells them God’s going to get them and his attitude is that he can hardly wait for that to happen. I think it’s that attitude rather than what he says that creates a “scared straight” result to his ministry. Here’s one of their sworn enemies boldly working his way through their city joyfully proclaiming that God’s about to destroy them all. Jonah does such a good job of preaching his sermon that it has an undesired (for him) result: people listen! I can’t help but find it interesting that Jonah’s the perfect man for this job, not because he shares God’s compassion on this wicked city, but because he doesn’t.
Take Away: The Lord has a way of picking the perfect (if unlikely) people for doing his work.
Before it’s too late
Amos 4: Prepare to meet your God!
I’ve heard a few sermons based on these words of Amos. In fact, I’ve even seen them lettered on homemade billboards erected along a few country highways, declaring (in King James language) “Prepare to meet thy God!” Frankly, I’m not all that impressed with the sermons or the signs and I believe that John 3:16 has more life changing potential than do these words from the prophet Amos. Still, here they are, so I have to concede that there’s a time and place for this message. So what is the time and place? According to Amos, God is tired of being ignored by his people. In an effort to get their attention the Lord has sent pestilence and disease, earthquakes and fires. Each time, when it seems that this is the “big one” that will end it all, they, like a stick snatched from the fire, are brought back from the brink of disaster. Now, though, the clock has run out. God, Himself, is appearing and the God they’re meeting is angry with them. In the context of this message, “prepare to meet your God” is a statement of judgment and not hope. These words aren’t intended to be a final warning. Instead, they’re a sentence of condemnation. When Amos says this, he isn’t saying, “It’s time to start getting ready.” Rather he’s saying, “It’s too late, the Judge is here!” Having said all that, obviously, I need to prepare now for my coming encounter with the Judge of the World. I don’t want to arrive at that day and hear the words of judgment: “Prepare to meet your God.”
Take Away: Now is the time to prepare for the certain coming encounter with the Judge of the World.
The lion’s roar
Amos 3: The lion has roared – who isn’t frightened?
Amos is a shepherd and his message is filled with illusions to his livelihood. He talks about birds and cattle and snakes, of shepherds and their unending battle to protect their flock against the predators. Some things, he says, are as plain as the nose on your face and it doesn’t take a genius to recognize them. If one hears a lion growling in pleasure, for instance, you know that it’s killed its prey. This stuff, he explains, is just how it is. Then Amos makes his application. When people rebel against God the Lord will act to remedy the situation. It doesn’t take a degree in theology to know that God won’t put up with sin forever. As a prophet of God, Amos is responsible for speaking God’s message. His sermons aren’t made up fiction or the rants of someone who’s stuck in the past. When you hear a lion roaring nearby the sane reaction is to be frightened. When God’s prophet says God is tired of his people living in rebellion it’s time to straighten up. If the roar of a lion gets our attention, how much more should words of warning from the spokesmen of God.
Take Away: It doesn’t take a degree in theology to understand that when people rebel against God the Lord will act to remedy the situation.
The only real security
Joel 3: God is a safe hiding place.
When the prophet describes God as a “safe hiding place” he isn’t talking about hiding from the natural disaster that’s struck the land. He’s moved forward in his sermon and is thinking about how the world as we know it will come to an end. He pictures a great final battle when God’s Judgment will fall over the earth. Joel says the forces of evil will come to do battle against the forces of God and that the Almighty will respond in full force, shaking the earth and sky in one unforgettable blow that will spell the end of all opposition to his Kingdom. Lest his own people fear that day, the Lord promises to, himself, be a “safe hiding place” for all who trust in him. We’re told that the end result of all this will be that “God has moved into Zion for good.” The fact is that natural disasters will come and go as the pages of history are turned. Most of the time, I’m merely a concerned spectator, watching from the sidelines. Some of the time, I can involve myself in some relief effort. Once in a while, maybe only once in a lifetime, I will find myself unhappily at the epicenter of it all. This passage reminds me that an event much greater than any of that is out there on the horizon of history. On that day everything’s going to come crashing down as Good and evil clash in a Creation-shaking battle. There’ll be no storm shelter secure enough and no place remote enough to protect me from it all. My only hope of safety is in God. As I live my life in him, I not only find strength for the unwelcome ordinary trials and tribulations of life, but shelter against this, the biggest storm of all.
Take Away: My only hope of safety is in the Lord.