“I will utterly sweep away everything
from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord.
“I will sweep away man and beast;
I will sweep away the birds of the heavens
and the fish of the sea,
and the rubble with the wicked.
I will cut off mankind from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord.
Standing alone, Zephaniah’s opening line snaps us to attention, evoking as visceral a response as any passage in Scripture. The threat is clear, frightening, and for most Christians, embarrassing. Do we really serve such a vindictive God? Surely, this should have been run through his PR people, right? Yet, alongside his contemporaries, Zephaniah comes across as rather average because so many prophets promised destruction in the last days of Judah.
Few of us have chosen Zephaniah 1:2-3 as our life verse. There are no Zephaniah 1:2-3 mugs or posters for sale on Ebay. In fact, we largely avoid this whole middle section of Scripture because we don’t know how to involve it in our Christian worldview. We don’t know how to handle a wrathful God, and if we read it at all, our reflex is to theologize away any danger or fear.
“That’s just the Old Testament God,” we say. “Jesus has changed all that.”
Or, in case that fails us, “That certainly doesn’t apply to me. I have been covered by the blood of the Lamb.”
If you trust and confess Jesus as your Lord, you do indeed live under the grace of Christ. He took God’s wrath for you. Yet, we should not be so quick to theologize all meaning out of these books. There is a time and a place for theology, for both pastors and laypeople (one of the reasons I came to seminary is to better understand the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament), but we should not rush to process doctrine with our minds before we repent and worship with our hearts.
Rather, when we read of the wrath and the righteousness of God, Jesus’ warning from Matthew 7:21-23 should shake us:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
If we know that we know Christ, we don’t necessarily need to question whether we are saved, but we should question whether we are pleasing God. In fact, we should go beyond intellectually considering and respond to the righteousness of God with the appropriate emotions, attitudes, and behaviors. True belief is more than intellectual consent. Consider the way that Bilbo responds in this video clip when he finally believes that Gandalf is more than just “some conjurer of cheap tricks.” In the moment that the thrill of Gandalf’s power shivers through him, he instinctively hurries to embrace his old friend. So should we, desperately, run into the arms of Christ when we realize the fierce holiness of the one who has called us “friends.”
We should respond with humility rather than dismissiveness. We must repent before we theologize. Consider what Lloyd Jones says in his chapter on “blessed are those who mourn”: “The man who truly mourns because of his sinful state and condition is a man who is going to repent; he is, indeed, actually repenting already. And the man who truly repents as the result of the work of the Holy Spirit upon him, is a man who is certain to be led to the Lord Jesus Christ. Having seen his utter sinfulness and hopelessness, he looks for a Saviour, and he finds Him in Christ.
This is, in fact, what God calls for in the end of Zephaniah. He assures His people in 3:11-12,
“On that day you shall not be put to shame
because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against me;
for then I will remove from your midst
your proudly exultant ones,
and you shall no longer be haughty
in my holy mountain.
But I will leave in your midst
a people humble and lowly.
They shall seek refuge in the name of the LORD.”