Richard R. Crocker
Zephaniah: The Problem with the Prophets
Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
July 14, 2013
Today, in the third of our series on the minor prophets, we consider Zephaniah. Zephaniah brings us face to face with certain problems that most of us have with these prophets – problems that we have acknowledged in the earlier two sermons but not really addressed. The first problem is that we often do not like what they have to say. The second problem is that their messages, delivered in the name of God, often seem to some of us to contradict the God we know and worship in Jesus Christ. And the third problem is that they require us to read the Bible with a degree of sophistication that goes against the way that many of us were taught to read the Bible. Today we will try to deal with these problems head on.
But first a little background. The book of Zephaniah is very short – only three chapters. If you haven’t read it, you can do so in about ten minutes. Unlike Amos and Hosea, Zephaniah prophesied in the southern kingdom, the kingdom of Judah sometime around 630 BC, during the reign of the good king Josiah, after the northern Kingdom had fallen to the Assyrians, and Judah had been reduced to a vassal state, paying tribute to Assyria. In the opening verses of the book, Zephaniah traces his ancestry back to Hezekiah, which was the name of a previous king of Judah – so, in fact, Zephaniah may be a royal descendant – but this is uncertain.
What is certain about Zephaniah is his message. In three short chapters, he proclaims doom, gloom, and resume. Aside from the strained rhymes, this three word summary is actually pretty accurate – not only for Zephaniah’s prophecies, but for many of the prophetic messages we have heard before.
Doom. The first chapter of Zephaniah’s message is overwhelming doom. Beginning with verse two, he says (speaking for God): “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the Lord. I will sweep away humans and animals; I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea.” His message is one of utter destruction. Why? Because of idolatry and false worship: the people of Judah have worshipped Baal; they worshipped Milcom (the god of the Ammonites) and worshipped the astrological gods of the Assyrians. The king’s sons have “dress(ed) themselves in foreign attire, and some of them have “leap(ed) over the threshold.”
But in addition to these idolatrous acts, the people have practiced violence and fraud and have been indifferent to the God of Israel. And for this, utter destruction is promised.
Now this seems pretty extreme to us, doesn’t it? Utter destruction for leaping over the threshold? Maybe for fraud, maybe for worshipping Baal with ritual prostitution, but for dressing in foreign attire and leaping over the threshold?
Now we need to confront the problems of this passage directly. Granted, we know that these words were spoken (and written) 2600 years ago. But they are part of our holy book. They are words spoken on behalf of the God we worship, claimed as being the words of God. Do they mean anything at all to those of us who hear them today – or are they only of quaint historical interest?
Do we believe that our God threatens any nation – or humanity itself – with utter destruction because of false worship? Will God actually destroy a whole people because some of them have leaped over the threshold? What does leaping over the threshold mean, anyway?
Here we confront a very basic problem. This God does not seem very likable. More important, this God does not seem to be the God with whom Abraham argued. You remember how God threatened to destroy the city of Sodom, but Abraham argued with him – you remember how: Abraham asked God; would you destroy a whole city if there were as few as a hundred righteous people in it? And God says no. And Abraham argues with him further, reducing the number each time, and finally asks: would you destroy the city if there were only ten righteous people in it, and God said, No – I will not destroy it even for ten righteous people. Is this the same God who says he will destroy all humanity? What happened to the story of Noah and the rainbow – the promise that God would never again destroy the earth?
And then, of course, we face the fact that this God does not seem the same as the God we know in Jesus Christ – the one in whom God offers salvation to the whole world.
So how are we to understand these words of Zephaniah? Is he just being dramatic? Is he exaggerating? Or is he speaking an important truth that we need to hear, even though the language makes us cringe with discomfort? How do we discover the God of love, whom we know in Jesus Christ, in the words of Zephaniah?
Let us grant the words of the prophets are frequently dramatic- designed to get and hold our attention. But can they be therefore dismissed as irrelevant? Can they be reduced to words that are more pleasant, less drastic, and perhaps more forgiving? Only by the most strenuous effort. We must start out by facing the fact that these words are very hard to hear and understand; they were hard to hear and understand then, and they are hard to hear and understand now.
But, as Christians, we believe that those words both hide and reveal the same God we know in Jesus, the one in whom we put our trust. Jesus also is reported to have spoken some harsh words – words that are also prophetic and hard to hear – words like “I have come not to bring peace, but a sword;” and “Depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;” (Matthew 25:41) and “if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off;” (Matthew 5:30) and “if you eye offends you, pluck it out” (Matthew 5:29). The problem is not that we cannot envision a God who loves us; most of us can, since we have heard the gospel – and the story of the rainbow - preached to us since childhood. But we have a much harder time (those of us in the liberal tradition, anyway) picturing and understanding a God who judges us.
In the Presbyterian tradition, worship services begin, after a hymn of praise, with a prayer of confession, in which the congregation acknowledges its collective and individual sin and asks for forgiveness. One of my colleagues (the same one I mentioned last week, whose church is a union church of several denominations), after trying to introduce the prayer of confession into the morning worship service, reported a conversation with a parishioner – a conversation that is probably more common than not, in which the parishioner objected to this confessional prayer, saying: “Why should I say a prayer like this? I don’t have anything to apologize to God for.” My feeling, when I heard this was, “This church definitely needs to be more Presbyterian.” Such words remind me of Zephaniah’s, when he said: “At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs, those who say in their hearts, “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.” (Zephaniah 1:12)
So often, we say that we believe in God, but we don’t expect God to do anything.
That belief, of course, can be a reaction to those who believe that God does everything, whether it involves helping us with a parking place or helping us pass a test for which we have not prepared, or inflicting illnesses on us or destroying cities with tornadoes and hurricanes. Once perhaps people believed that everything that happened was an act of God; some of us may still believe that, but now, many of us see no room at all for acts of God – only the acts of chance produced at random in a vast and impersonal universe. Unlike Zephaniah, we do not want to see anything as God’s blessing or God’s punishment.
Certainly we do not believe, do we, that God caused Hurricane Katrina to destroy New Orleans, or Hurricane Irene to wreak havoc in Vermont, or super storm Sandy to destroy whole sections of New York city and New Jersey? Do we, or do we not? Certainly some Christians believe that such events are punishments for wickedness; most of us, however, have a hard time believing that. Well, then, if God didn’t cause it, who did? No one, we say; it just happened.
What the prophets are trying to say is that the way people live has consequences. Beneath our too easy embrace of tolerance sometimes lies the assumption that nothing really matters. The prophets remind us that things matter very much. Where we put our heart, our allegiance, our hope matters very much. And from that we can say: the kind of God we worship matters very much. Not the God we say we worship, but the God we really worship.
And prophets remind us that we may say we worship the God of Israel but our behavior proves otherwise. Whether our words are compromised by partaking in rituals that we know are disgraceful, or whether our professions of faith in God are compromised by our worship of things we can make and buy, prophets call us to account and remind us that our worship has consequences. Not every disaster, of course, is directly attributable to our actions – but some are. We are properly horrified to think that God would destroy a city, but let us remember: who has destroyed cities in our lifetimes? Certainly, there have been tsunamis for which we have no explanation at all, but we do have an explanation for the monstrous destruction of Hiroshima – and Sarajevo and Baghdad? We do have an explanation for the destruction of the World Trade Center and for the bombing of Baghdad. Who did that? People. What we do matters; what we believe to be true matters, where we put our hearts matters.
I said earlier that Zephaniah, like many of the prophets we are reading, proclaims doom, then gloom, then resume. The doom is painted as absolute, but it frequently softens to simply being a period of gloom, when what had been depended upon for wealth or safety no longer provides wealth or comfort or safety. When security falls away, be it our finances or our health or our family stability, we experience gloom. But gloom is rarely the final word, certainly not in Zephaniah. In the third and last chapter, Zephaniah’s words become more comforting. After chastisement and failure there is hope and comfort – not because people become fundamentally better, but because they have learned humility. Here is what he says:
Therefore, wait for me, says the Lord,
for the day when I arise as a witness.
For my decision is to gather nations, to assemble kingdoms,
to pour out upon them my indignation,
all the heat of my anger,
for the fire of my passion
all the earth shall be consumed. (Zephaniah3:8)
But then, the tone changes:
At that time I will change the speech of the people
to a pure speech,
that all of them may call on the name of the Lord
and serve him with one accord.
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.
For I will leave in the midst of you
a people humble and lowly.
They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord – the remnant of Israel;
they shall do no wrong and utter no lies,
nor shall a deceitful tongue
be found in their mouths.
They will pasture and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid. (Zephaniah 3:9-13)
Doom, gloom, resume. What dooms us is our unaccountable pride. The gloom that follows is painful. This is a continual theme in all of scripture. What results is a new humility. It is a mistake to read the Bible unhistorically. Indeed, it is dangerous to do so; it is dangerous to infer from prophets like Zephaniah any precise predictions about specific events of our time. But, as extreme as the prophetic language may be, it is still valuable for us. We too have been through destruction. Our pride has been, and will continue to be, our downfall, resulting in suffering and destruction for many. From all of this, we – by which I mean all of us – may learn a proper sense of humility. We are not God. Our knowledge will always be incomplete, and sometimes simply wrong. In such a world, humility is appropriate, even though it is not popular. It is dangerous and arrogant to proclaim that any disaster is God’s doing, But it is also ignorant not to see God’s presence with us even in those situations and circumstances that overwhelm us. Doom, gloom, resume – having learned not to trust our own goodness, but the goodness of God. We don’t always like this message, but there it is. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.