Committed to Righteousness
Zephaniah 3:1–13; 2 Chronicles 34:1–3
After participating in this lesson, each student will be able to:
1. List at least three sins that characterized the moral conditions of Josiah’s Jerusalem.
Explain why God has a right to be angry at unholy
3. Praise God that he tempers his wrath with grace through Jesus Christ.
How to Say It
Daily Bible Readings
Monday, July 2—Prayer for Help (Psalm 27:7–14)
Tuesday, July 3—The Day of the Lord (Isaiah 2:12–22)
Wednesday, July 4—God’s Eternal Counsel (Psalm 33:1–11)
Thursday, July 5—Young Josiah’s Reforms (2 Chronicles 34:1–7)
Friday, July 6—Woe to Wrongdoers (Zephaniah 3:1–7)
Saturday, July 7—Deliverance Will Come (Zephaniah 3:8–13)
Sunday, July 8—The Call to Rejoice (Zephaniah 3:14–20)
I have decided to assemble the nations, to gather the kingdoms and to pour out my wrath on them—all my fierce anger. The whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger.
Why Teach this Lesson?
Things have a tendency to deteriorate. Our cars, houses, and clothes wear out. We also recognize this tendency with regard to our own bodies. We are also subject to spiritual deterioration as we live in a fallen world. God paid a large price (the death of his son) to renew and restore His people, but vigilance in prayer and Bible study on our part helps keep us from slipping away.
This lesson allows us to consider some ways in which we may be going through spiritual degeneration. As we study, let us rejoice in the fact that God is still in the business of restoring his people.
A. Moral Choices in an Immoral Society
A recent claim of some genetic researchers is that the DNA of men is programmed for infidelity. In other words, the males of the human species are not created in the image of God but are more like bread mold, which exists to spread its spores everywhere.
If this were true, then the Bible’s teaching about confining sexual activity to marriage would seem to be fighting a losing battle against the irresistible forces of nature. While this may be welcome news to some in our society, it contradicts the picture of morality found in the Bible.
Is there such a thing as biblical morality? The answers given to this question range from yes, to not really, to who cares? Increasingly, there are large segments of the population that want to get away from moral versus immoral distinctions. They prefer to see things from an amoral perspective—a perspective that does not recognize any absolute standards of right and wrong. Under amorality, what may seem wrong to one person becomes enjoyable and right to another. This worldview is becoming more common, even within the church.
Yet the Christian who believes that the teachings of the Bible are from God will never be comfortable with attempts to paint morality a neutral gray. If we come from the perspective of biblical morality, then amoral = immoral, a violation of God’s standards. We seek to live as God’s people in a society that does not recognize God. We are moral people in an immoral world.
In the ancient world there were plenty of people who rejected God’s standards, even within God’s chosen people of Israel. God continually raised up prophets to proclaim his demands for justice and righteousness. The prophets’ call for reform was accompanied by a dire warning: God would not allow wickedness to go unpunished forever. There would be a day when the righteous would be rewarded and the evil would be purged. Zephaniah was the ideal prophet for this message.
B. Lesson Background
King Josiah was the last righteous king to rule in Jerusalem before its destruction. He reigned from about 640 to 609 b.c. The Bible teaches that “neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the Lord as he did—with all his heart” (2 Kings 23:25). Josiah came to the throne under very difficult circumstances. Manasseh, his grandfather, was king for 55 years and can be judged to be the most evil king in the history of Judah (see 2 Kings 21:9, 16; 24:3). Josiah’s father, King Amon, continued in the evil ways of Manasseh. Amon reigned only two years before being killed in a palace coup (2 Kings 21:23). This brought Josiah to become king at age 8 (2 Kings 22:1).
Despite his heritage of evil and his tender age, Josiah eventually was responsible for many reforms in Judah. While Josiah was king, Hilkiah the high priest found the book of the law while making repairs in the temple. Josiah and his advisors used this book as the basis for reforms that purged Judah of its pagan practices and reinstituted the worship of God (see 2 Kings 23:24).
These reforms “didn’t take,” however. They only delayed the downward spiral of Judah. Josiah was killed in battle about 608 b.c. (2 Kings 23:29). His successors were not of his moral stature, and God allowed the Babylonians to dominate Judah. The cream of the crop of Hebrew young men (like Daniel) was carried into captivity. Eventually the city of Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 b.c.
Zephaniah was one of the three great prophets of the last days of Jerusalem before its destruction. The other two, Habakkuk and Jeremiah, will be studied in the following lessons. Zephaniah preached the coming doom of Judah because of its deep sin. Although Zephaniah prophesied at the time of Josiah’s godly reforms, he saw the coming demise of Judah after those reforms were rejected. But Zephaniah also gave a picture of God’s future restoration.
Zephaniah was a spokesman for the concept of the day of the Lord, a future point in time when God would move powerfully to punish wickedness and redeem the righteous. The day of the Lord found fulfillment in the history of Judah with its exile and return but also looks forward to a future day of God’s final judgment of all humanity.
I. God Sees Moral Filth (Zephaniah 3:1–5)
Nations do not rise above the moral level set by their leaders. Under Manasseh, wickedness flourished. Unrighteousness was not confined to religious practices. It extended to business practices and to the integrity of public leaders. This was the moral situation that confronted the reformer king, namely Josiah. It is a situation into which God’s prophet Zephaniah speaks.
A. Polluted, Disobedient City (vv. 1, 2)
1. Woe to the city of oppressors,
rebellious and defiled!
A woe is the opposite of a blessing. As such, a woe is equivalent to a curse. Moses had promised that God would give blessings if the people were obedient and curses if they were disobedient (Deuteronomy 11:26–28). So the verse before us is not a blessing. Jerusalem is not the “holy city.” Indeed, it is characterized by moral filth and by oppressing mistreatment of its citizens by the rulers.
What Do You Think?
How can we speak so that both believers and nonbelievers can appreciate the contrast between the holiness of God and the awfulness of sin? Should we use different language to the two groups in this regard? Explain.
2. She obeys no one,
she accepts no correction.
She does not trust in the Lord,
she does not draw near to her God.
Zephaniah outlines four primary charges against Jerusalem: general disobedience, defiance in the face of correction, lack of trust in the Lord, and willful abandonment of relationship with God. All of these accusations hit home with the society fostered by King Manasseh; for half of a century, he had led Jerusalem away from the Lord.
The era of Manasseh had endured so long that the vast majority of citizens knew nothing else. How faith survived in persons like Jeremiah, Hilkiah, Josiah, and Zephaniah is a testimony to the providential power of God.
B. Selfish, Greedy Rulers (v. 3)
3. Her officials are roaring lions,
her rulers are evening wolves,
who leave nothing for the morning.
Zephaniah uses vivid metaphor to give a stark condemnation of the leaders of Judah. The government officials are like roaring lions, a picture of the wild beast hunting for prey that may be eaten. The rulers, those who should be stewards of the law, are like wolves after the kill. They don’t even leave the bones of their victims uneaten.
God expects the leaders of the people to protect the innocent and preserve justice (see Isaiah 1:17). In God’s plan people are not given authority in a government structure so that they may enrich themselves and increase their power. Yet the leaders of Zephaniah’s Jerusalem are like wild, ferocious beasts. They terrify the citizens and are relentless in satisfying their own desires for wealth. The citizenry is not their field of duty but their hunting ground.
C. Haughty, Profane Priests & Prophets (v. 4)
4. Her prophets are arrogant;
they are treacherous men.
Her priests profane the sanctuary
and do violence to the law.
After indicting the government leaders, Zephaniah turns his attention to the religious leaders, the prophets and priests. A prophet in the Old Testament is not just a person who gives accurate predictions of the future. Prophets are primarily tasked with demanding repentance from the people of God and calling out for justice and righteousness in the nation. Zephaniah is unconcerned as to whether or not the prophets of his day know the future. He condemns them for their reckless arrogance. These prophets have turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the widespread sin of the city. They are in cahoots with those who profit from sins, and this has stilled their tongues from speaking right words.
The priests are responsible for the purity of Judah’s religious practices, particularly in the Jerusalem temple. Yet they had stood silently (or even cooperated) when Manasseh had defiled the temple by building altars to pagan gods within its courts (2 Kings 21:4, 5). Zephaniah sees this as more than mere neglect. By allowing God’s house to be spiritually polluted, the priests do violence to the law.
These priests had torn God’s covenant book out of the heart of Israel and hidden it from the people. This is seen by the fact that during the reign of Josiah the high priest “found” the book of the law in the temple (2 Kings 22:3–23:3). This would be like someone “finding” a copy of the Constitution of the U.S. (or any other country) after 50 years of neglect. Zephaniah implies that the “losing” of the law was not an accident. It was planned deliberately. The only surprising detail is that it had not been destroyed altogether, to disappear without a trace.
What Do You Think?
How can leaders in the church stumble into following the bad example of the religious leaders described in our text? How do we guard against this?
D. Righteous, Unfailing Judge (v. 5)
5. The Lord within her is righteous;
he does no wrong.
Morning by morning he dispenses his justice,
and every new day he does not fail,
yet the unrighteous know no shame.
What Do You Think?
If the average Christian lived life with the action of God in verse 5 in mind, what difference would it make?
In contrast to the wicked leaders, Zephaniah lifts up the perfect judge: the Lord God himself. The prophet points out important characteristics of God’s judgments. They are untainted by sin, for God does no wrong. God never avoids making judgments. He does not decline to rule on the hard cases. Instead, he renders judgment in an unfailing, consistent manner.
These worthy characteristics of God the judge are compared with corrupt human judges in a simple statement: they know no shame. Shame is a powerful influence for social control. A shamed person has acted inappropriately and brought dishonor to himself or herself. Avoidance of public disgrace is a strong motivator. If, however, a person has become immune to feelings of shame, then outrageous behavior carries no social stigma. A judge with no shame has little reason to act with integrity and justice. Instead, favorable judgments are sold to the highest bidder. The immorality of judicial corruption becomes amoral and a matter of opportunity. God will not stand for this. Injustice is always injustice, no matter who the defendant is. Dishonesty from the bench of the judge is particularly grievous to the Lord.
What Do You Think?
How can the church teach young people (or indeed anyone) that shame, guilt, and remorse are appropriate reactions to sin?
II. God Punishes Corruption (Zephaniah 3:6, 7)
The focus now shifts to the future activity of God. At the time of Zephaniah, it may seem as if Josiah’s reforms had put the nation back on track. Yet the prophet Jeremiah, Zephaniah’s contemporary, revealed that the sins of Manasseh were so deep and pervasive that God had already made the decision to cleanse Judah through the exile to Babylon (see Jeremiah 15:4). The downfall of Jerusalem is coming. It is just a matter of time.
A. Coming Destruction (v. 6)
6. “I have cut off nations;
their strongholds are demolished.
I have left their streets deserted,
with no one passing through.
Their cities are destroyed;
no one will be left—no one at all.
Visual for Lesson 6
Point to this visual as you ask, “How has God been merciful to you this morning?”
God first reminds the people that he has acted in the past to wipe out evil nations, including the northern kingdom of Israel. Such lands were depopulated, and their grand buildings became rubble. Today, the Near East is full of ruins of dead civilizations. Once thriving cities lie under layers of dirt and waste.
Occasionally an invading army will follow a scorched earth policy, inflicting utter devastation. This is a policy that ancient Rome eventually followed in dealing with its major rival Carthage. These two rivals clashed in three conflicts known as the Punic Wars. The first war (264–241 b.c.) began as a squabble over Sicily, where both Rome and Carthage had colonies. The second war (218–202 b.c.) began in Spain, where both powers again had interests.
Despite the brilliant tactics of Hannibal, Carthage’s general, the Romans ultimately prevailed in that second war. Yet Carthage eventually proved to be an economic and military threat to Rome yet again. The Roman statesman Cato ended every speech in the Senate by declaring, “Carthage must be destroyed.”
In the third war (149–146 b.c.), Rome attacked the city of Carthage directly. The army went from house to house, systematically slaughtering the citizens. The city was demolished, and salt was sown into the ground to render it infertile. Carthage became a desolate site.
The Punic Wars had not yet been fought when Zephaniah wrote. Yet that prophet was well aware of what God’s plans of scorched earth would mean for various nations, particularly Judah. It is a sobering policy, indeed! Have you read Revelation 8:7 recently? —J. B. N.
B. Persistent Corruption (v. 7)
7. “I said to the city,
‘Surely you will fear me
and accept correction!’
Then her dwelling would not be cut off,
nor all my punishments come upon her.
But they were still eager
to act corruptly in all they did.
God’s frustration with his people is supremely evident here. No matter how dire the warnings or how persistent his prophets, Judah has continued to ignore God’s pleadings. What must God do to get our attention? We are reminded of Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants (Mark 12:1–9). In this story, the owner is unable to get the rent payment from those who have leased his vineyard. Servants who are sent to collect are abused, even killed. In an act of utter exasperation, the owner sends his son, saying, “They will respect my son.”
Yet they kill the son too, leading the vineyard owner to come and destroy them. This pattern is found elsewhere in the Bible and still has application today. Sometimes God uses extraordinary circumstances to wake us from our sinful daze. But there are those for whom no amount of prodding from the Lord will turn them back from their deserved destruction.
III. God Restores His People (Zephaniah 3:8, 9)
Zephaniah pictures God as the ultimate force behind the rise and fall of nations. Greek, Roman, British, Russian—history is littered with empires that have collapsed and disappeared, including the kingdom of Judah.
A. Waiting on God’s Wrath (v. 8)
8. “Therefore wait for me,” declares the Lord,
“for the day I will stand up to testify.
I have decided to assemble the nations,
to gather the kingdoms
and to pour out my wrath on them—
all my fierce anger.
The whole world will be consumed
by the fire of my jealous anger.
The picture of God’s gathering the nations shows Zephaniah’s understanding of God’s mighty power. The Lord God is not just the God of Israel. He is the one God and the master of every human government.
God’s motivation for national destruction is pictured here as red-hot jealousy. This is not the petty jealousy of a girlfriend who observes her boyfriend looking at another girl for a little too long. This is the righteous jealousy of the wrath of God. He is unwilling to share devotion with any man-made gods and false religions (Exodus 34:14). Why should he? There is no other God!
What Do You Think?
What descriptive models can we create to communicate an accurate picture of the awesome force of God’s anger? Or should we just say what the Bible says and not be too “creative” in this regard?
B. Serving God in Unity (v. 9)
9. “Then will I purify the lips of the peoples,
that all of them may call on the name of the Lord
and serve him shoulder to shoulder.”
From this litany of wrath and destruction emerges a bright ray of hope. Zephaniah looks forward to a restoration of the unity of humanity under God. He sees three specific elements.
First, to purify the lips is an image of atoning for sin (compare Isaiah 6:5–7) or purity of worship (Psalms 16:4; Hosea 2:17). Second, there will be a united effort to call on the name of the Lord. This is a way of referring to worship from the earliest days of humanity (Genesis 4:26). Unity of worship eliminates anyone calling upon a false god (see 1 Kings 18:24); this ties in to the purity of worship idea.
Third, humanity will serve God shoulder to shoulder. The idea of serve includes worship; numerous passages place the two concepts alongside one another as almost inseparable ideas (Daniel 3:28; Luke 4:8; etc.). True believers will serve and worship God in unity.
What Do You Think?
The fulfillment of the prophecy in verse 9 has been explained in various ways. What safeguards can we put in place to keep the focus on winning the lost rather than fighting over interpretations of prophecies?
Unity in Service
Thomas Campbell (1763–1854) had a burning desire for the union of all Christians under the simple authority of the New Testament. Born in northern Ireland, as a young man he joined a denomination that reflected many of the sectarian divisions then rife in the British Isles. Thomas Campbell became an Old Light, Anti-Burgher, Seceder Presbyterian, Protestant kind of a Christian. He immigrated to America in 1807, hoping to find an atmosphere that would foster unity.
Campbell was rebuffed by his denomination. So in 1809 he and some friends formed the Christian Association of Washington. Campbell wrote its constitution and bylaws, “Declaration and Address.” In this document he laid out some general principles that would guide their activities. His first proposition was that “the church of Christ on earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one.” All divisions, he contended, came either from neglecting part of God’s Word or adding human teaching on top of Scripture. He believed that if everyone accepted the teachings of Scripture and followed the precedents of the New Testament church—no more and no less—then the church could have unity.
Today Campbell’s spiritual descendants still try to follow his twin commitments to Christian unity and scriptural authority. The dream of Campbell is similar to the vision of Zephaniah. That prophet foresaw a time when the people would speak a pure language, turn to the Lord, and serve him in unity. It is an ideal that is yet to be realized. —J. B. N.
The phrase the day of the Lord occurs several times in Zephaniah (see also Isaiah 2:12; Joel 2:31 [quoted in Acts 2:20]; etc.). Old Testament prophets foresaw this as a future day when God would intervene in history to punish evil and reward righteousness. This came about in an unexpected, preliminary way when Israel and Judah both suffered destruction at the hand of foreign invaders.
In the New Testament the day of the Lord is synonymous with Christ’s second coming (1 Thessalonians 5:2). This too will be a pouring out of the wrath of God (see Revelation 6:17). The day of the Lord can be either terrifying or comforting, depending on one’s relationship to God.
Thought to Remember
God is always righteous, whether in punishment or deliverance.
God of all nations, we pray for the day when our speech will become pure, and we will worship you with one voice. We pray this in the name of Jesus, our soon and coming king, amen.
Underwood, Jonathan ; Nickelson, Ronald L. ; Underwood, Jonathan: New International Version Standard Lesson Commentary : 2006-2007. Cincinnati : Standard Publishing