Some of God’s words are not pleasant to read. Zephaniah opens with a deluge of His fiery wrath against man and beast alike. In what can seem a heartless tirade, I remind myself to pause and think – why is He so angry? Who is this God?
Chapter One. God is angry because the spiritual leaders have idolatrous hearts, leading the people astray. He is angry because they are confusing the Creator with the created. The people’s loyalties are divided, turning worship into a pack of hypocritical lies and filling the temple with violence and deceit. They have neither sought Yahweh, nor inquired of him. And then, an interesting judgment – they are stagnant in spirit. In their hearts they say, “The LORD will not do good or evil.” He no longer has any bearing on their reality. And so God will judge his people.
Chapter Two. God’s anger is also directed at Judah’s enemies. For all their idolatry, Judah is still his people, and he rises to their defense. He is angry at the arrogance of the nations. They do not know God has allowed them to taunt and terrorize Judah. They sit securely in their cities, exultant in what is to a be short lived victory. In their hearts they say, “I am, and there is no one besides me.” And so God will prove himself terrifying, starving their gods until they recognize just who they are dealing with.
And yet a glimmer of hope shines through the lines of fury, hope for both Judah and the nations. To Judah he promises a remnant, safety in the caves of the coast, a restored fortune. To the nations he holds out a promise for the humble – seek the LORD, seek righteousness, seek humility, and God will provide a hiding place from his anger.
Chapter Three. God’s heart is revealed in His broken, urgent oracle. What does he desire? Heed my voice, accept my instruction, trust in me, draw near to me. Princes, judges, prophets, priests – all propagate idolatry and injustice. But the LORD will bring His justice to light in the morning, exposing shame. Just wait. God will rise up as Judge. He will assemble nations and kingdoms and pass out a cup of burning indignation. All the earth will be devoured by the fire of his zeal.
All the earth? Devoured by fire? What kind of God is this?
But his zeal is the full power of his jealous love. This devouring is not the end.
“For then I will give to the people purified lips,
That all of them may call on the name of the LORD,
To serve Him shoulder to shoulder.”
Both shame and pride will disappear in the flame. In their place, a humble and purified remnant, not left to grovel, but to rejoice without fear. Yahweh your King is in your midst; Yahweh your God is in your midst. His anger turns to a song of joy, sung over his people. The song can be heard not only in Judah and Israel, but in the ears of all those who seek him. In the safety of home, his joyful shouts mellow into a lullaby of quieting love. This is your God.
And so at the end of the book, I am left to wonder - what it is that I say in my heart about God? The words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart cannot please him without his purification. Even the ability to call on his name is a gift, wrought of fiery love. I will trust and draw near to the God of Zephaniah.