“I will completely sweep away everything from the face of the earth — this is the Lord’s declaration.”
— Zephaniah 1:2 (CSB – Read the chapter)
So often, when people think about the prophets, they imagine a bunch of bearded, angry men who sit around condemning everyone and warning all who will listen that God is going to destroy everything in judgment. And as we have been on this journey through the prophets over the last few months, we have mostly discovered this image isn’t at all true. There has certainly been the promise of judgment, but there has been a whole lot more than that. As we come to Zephaniah, though, all that seems to fly out the window. Let’s talk about it.
I reread Zephaniah for the first time in a long time the other day. Finishing it, I was depressed. It was tough to even get through it and it’s not a long collection of prophecy. Yes, it ends with a promise of restoration and redemption as many of the prophets do, but the road leading up to that is one bruising blow after another.
Over the course of the book, God condemns just about everybody. Perhaps the only exception is King Josiah himself who was the ruler when Zephaniah did his writing. He was a good and righteous king. He was the last righteous king before Judah’s fall finally came. He did many things right and is generally considered to be the best king Judah had after David in terms of his faithfulness. His righteousness and faithfulness are what likely bought Judah a few years of respite from the judgment they had coming because God promised him he would not live to see it.
Given the faithfulness of Josiah, though, and the dark nature of this prophecy, it reveals to us something important that in many ways is the opposite message we get from much of the rest of the Old Testament narrative. Throughout much of the Old Testament we are reminded that bad leaders can drag good people down. We see that people generally aren’t going to be any better than the leaders they are following.
From the standpoint of leadership this is itself a sobering lesson. It means we’ve got to be doubly sure we are on the right track. If we get off, the people following us are likely to get off themselves, and then God is going to be coming to us for an explanation as to why things are the way they are. Yikes!
But, Josiah was a good king and God sent Zephaniah to the people anyway. He condemned them in strong terms. Then he condemned the nations around them. Then, in that same context, he came back around to condemn Judah again as if they were one of their pagan neighbors. It’s almost like He’s saying, “I don’t even know who you are anymore.” All of this and the righteous and faithful Josiah is still on his throne.
Here’s the lesson: Sometimes a people can be far enough gone that even a good leader cannot pull them back from the brink. There’s another lesson here too: A cultural change that doesn’t penetrate to the hearts of the people experiencing it won’t stick. All of Josiah’s reforms didn’t get down to the level of the peoples’ hearts and so they quietly continued in their pagan practices while putting on a show of faithfulness.
Sometimes a pastor will go into a struggling, dying church and make several changes that result in a turnaround. Life seems to return and things are moving again. The real test, though, comes when that pastor leaves. Do the changes stick or do the people go back to how they were before? For Josiah and the people of Judah, Zephaniah was warning that the changes weren’t going to stick…in fact, they weren’t sticking.
Here’s where this comes down for us where we live on the other side of the cross: Our relationship with Jesus is our responsibility. No one else can have it or grow in it for us. If we don’t put into it what it needs, it isn’t going to be where it should. Too many folks rely on the faithfulness of others to do the work for them. This won’t work. Eventually the truth is going to be laid bare. A situation will come that will separate us from the source from which we’ve been drawing and we’ll be forced to stand on our own two feet. Sound familiar at all? What will be the result of this? A revealing of truth.
So then, what’s the truth when it comes to your own relationship with Jesus? Are you standing on your own two feet or relying on the work of others? If the answer isn’t what you want it to be, it’s time to get to work changing that.