“The Lord will be terrifying to them when he starves all the gods of the earth. Then all the distant coasts and islands of the nations will bow in worship to him, each in its own place.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever joined a club before? You probably have. There are clubs for pretty much every interest you could imagine. Some are open to everyone. Some are more exclusive. Some don’t have very stringent requirements for membership while others are much more personally invasive. If you join one of these clubs, you are expected to adhere to the membership standards whatever they happen to be. What if someone came and tried to penalize you for failing to uphold the rules of a club you never joined? Odds are, you wouldn’t like that very much. With that in mind, let’s talk about this section of Zephaniah.
Most of the various prophetic books of the Old Testament include a section that later interpreters have entitled, “Judgment against the nations.” In these sections God announced judgment on Israel’s various neighbors. These would have been words of comfort to Israel because these people often tormented them in various ways. It was good to know their God was going to avenge them.
These judgments would have been somewhat unique among the nations at the time. Most of the gods then were regional. They each had their territory. As long as you were within their territory, their rules applied. When you left that territory, though, you were subject to the rules of another god, not the first one. For one people to insist their god had anything to say about the behavior of the people of another god just wouldn’t have been accepted. A nation might expand their god’s territory by military conquest, but beyond that, their god couldn’t say anything to the people of another god. They were in that club and therefore were subject to those rules.
But then came Israel’s God and His claim to be sovereign over all the earth. He wasn’t a regional God. His territory was everywhere. Israel may have been His special people, but He was concerned about the sin of every people.
As I was reading this, a challenge occurred to me. In the New Testament, there are several references to the fact that non-Christians are not to be held to the standards of Christ by Christians. Our judgment is not for them. We are not to insist that they behave like we do. We should neither be surprised nor offended when they behave like non-Christians.
The sense that someone could develop from this is that God isn’t concerned about the behavior and choices of folks who do not claim to follow Him. He’s like the regional gods of the ancient world.
Except He isn’t.
Well, how do we connect the various judgments against the nations with this call for Christians to not judge those who are outside the faith? Simple: we’re not God. We don’t hold those outside the faith to the standards of the faith because they haven’t signed up for the faith. We don’t hold them to the rules of a club they haven’t joined.
God, though, is sovereign over the whole earth. He created all of it and is concerned about every part of it. Judging it and who does what in it is His prerogative. And He will ultimately do that one day. He will hold everyone responsible for whether or not they’ve lived within His guidelines. In the meantime, though, He is gracious and patient. He is gentle and kind. He woos, not forces. What’s more, you’ve been the beneficiary of this. Shouldn’t we extend that to others?
Judgment will come one day to all the earth. Everyone wrong will be righted. Every offense answered. Let us be in kind the interim so more folks will want to be on His side when the time comes.