Have you ever preached one thing and acted inconsistent with that preaching? Have you ever felt ashamed of your actions, but did nothing to change them? If so, Zephaniah has advice for you. He exposes hypocrisy.
Background to Zephaniah
Unlike our limited knowledge of most of the other prophets, we are well informed about who Zephaniah is and when he lived. Since he was the great-great grandson of Hezekiah, a godly king of Judah, Zephaniah had royal blood. He lived during the reign of Josiah, another godly king who “did right in the sight of the Lord.” Josiah was trying hard to revive a God-consciousness in the land of Judah (II Kings 22). However, as Zephaniah describes, the people outwardly obeyed the king by following God and abiding by His law, but inwardly they nurtured their love for idols and the sensual rituals that surrounded their worship. This is hypocrisy of the highest order.
The rulers of Judah were corrupt, abusing their positions of power by advancing their own commercial interests. The city of Jerusalem, the capital of Judah and the seat of God’s temple, was also the capital of wicked actions, both personal and religious. Hypocrisy is a serious error, both in Zephaniah’s day and ours.
Outline of Zephaniah
First of all, we need to understand the book in light of its historical setting. We must also carefully consider this book in relation to our own lives so that God’s message through Zephaniah influences our Christianity today. But further, the message of Zephaniah has a future predictive interpretation in describing events that will yet occur.
There are three sections to this little book, two that promise judgment for the sin of hypocrisy (in Judah and in other nations) and one that promises future blessing.
God Promises to Punish Hypocrisy in Judah (ch 1:1-2:3)
The book begins with a sweeping promise of devastating judgment from God. “I will utterly consume all things from off the land” (ch 1:2). He names Judah and its capital of Jerusalem as the objects of His sword. God is very specific. He lists the items slated for destruction, including men, women, children, animals, birds in the air, fish in the sea, and particularly the idols that were being worshiped.
God identifies three types of idolaters scheduled for destruction: those who have completely forsaken Him and are worshipping only idols, those who hypocritically worship both God and idols, and those who openly ignore all worship (vv 4-6).
But idolaters are not the only hypocrites that Zephaniah names. He goes on to excoriate Judah’s royalty (v 8), violent oppressors (v 9), grasping materialists (vv 10-11), and even those that were indulgent and indifferent (v 12).
Like Joel, Zephaniah refers to the coming judgment as the “Day of the Lord” (ch 1:7, 14). Zephaniah predicted “Day of the Lord” judgment for his own lifetime. The prediction came true when Judah was destroyed and its people taken into captivity by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. However, we now understand that the “Day of the Lord” has another implication. It also is a prediction of yet future punishment of the earth by God during the Great Tribulation of Revelation 6-19. Zephaniah uses ten vivid words (vv 15-16) to describe the terror of the two coming “Days.”
God Promises to Punish Hypocrisy in Other Nations (ch 2:4-3:7)
Zephaniah’s prophecy was not confined just to the people of God in Judah. He also announces coming punishment for sin for the nations that surrounded Judah. He begins with Philistia, present-day Gaza (vv 4-7); he moves on to Moab and Ammon, present-day Jordan (vv 8-11), Egypt (v 12), and finally he discusses Assyria and its capital Nineveh, in present-day Iraq (vv 13-15). In a startling condemnation of the nations and Judah, Zephaniah issues a summation that rings down through the centuries with relevance even today. “She obeyed not the voice; she received not correction; she trusted not in the LORD; she drew not near to her God” (ch 3:1). While this has clear implications for the unsaved, we should not ignore the implications for us as Christians.
God Promises to Restore His People (ch 3:8-20)
After all the gloom of the preceding chapters, Zephaniah is able to close his book with a message of hopeful promise for God’s people. There is a prediction of God’s restoration of Israel into their promised land and His related punishment of ungodly foreign nations.
Zephaniah repeatedly refers to a “remnant” of Judah who followed the Lord wholeheartedly (see ch 2:7; ch 2:9; and ch 3:13). In Zephaniah’s day, there was a small group who were faithful to God, who acted as a salt preservative to prevent the total decay of the nation. Zephaniah also reveals to us the “remnant’s” goals. They are to:
- Wait patiently for God’s promises to be carried out (ch 3:8)
- Sing praise to the Lord’s goodness (ch 3:14 and following)
- Enjoy the presence of the Lord in their midst (ch 3:17), and
- Live in the restored kingdom after Israel is brought back to their land (ch 3:20).
Even today, we are part of the “remnant” among the billions in our world and, in yet future days, there will be a “remnant” of believing Jews who will follow the Lord.
Implications for Christians Today
As we have noted in the passages above, Zephaniah’s message is just as relevant to us as it was to Judah. It is possible for us to lead lives indifferent to God, reflecting the values of our culture’s world-view instead of reflecting the values of Christ. If that is the case, we must recognize that we are being hypocritical. Hypocrisy is a serious sin, decried not only by Joel and Zephaniah, but also by the Lord Himself while He lived here on earth.
We need to be very vigilant in challenging the measure of our devotion to a Christian walk. If we display only a “form” of godliness while living the “substance” of complacency with our environment, “Hypocrite” is the label God will apply to us, just as surely as Zephaniah labeled Judah. Superficial, lukewarm Christianity betrays a divided heart. We can be sure that God will discipline those who misuse His name. Rather, we should commit and submit to Him completely, with all our hearts, and with all our souls, and with all our minds (Matt 22:37). A life lived in that spirit will be clearly and unambiguously Christ-like, resulting in blessing for all!