Wishful thinking? (Zephaniah 1)

No one likes the image of an angry God.  For some, the mere suggestion is downright tasteless.  In his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins famously cites such Old-Testament imagery as a reason for his atheism:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion)

The more we read some of the prophets, the more we might start to wonder if people like Dawkins might just have a point.  How can we believe in a God like this—let alone love a God like this?

But, like many other things, the answer is in the question itself.  We’re turning our attention now to Zephaniah:

“The word of the LORD that came to Zephaniah the son of Cushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah, in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah.”  (Zephanian 1:1)

His name literally means “Yahweh hides” or maybe “Hidden in Yahweh.”  If Judah was ministering “in the days of Josiah,” it would mean that he was ministering in roughly the years of 640-609 B.C.  Some have suggested that Zephaniah may have even been a part of the royal family in some way—though this view has limited support.

His message was simple: judgment precedes blessing.  The first part of his book deals specifically with God’s judgment on the world in general and on His people in particular.

JUDGMENT OF THE WORLD

2 “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” declares the LORD.  3 “I will sweep away man and beast; I will sweep away the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea, and the rubble with the wicked. I will cut off mankind from the face of the earth,” declares the LORD.

Again, we might be troubled by such harsh language.  Why would God be so angry, so swiftly vengeful?  Rebecca Pipert, author of Hope Has Its Reasons helps us make a little more sense of this:

“Think how we feel when we see someone we love ravaged by unwise actions or relationships.  Do we respond with benign tolerance as we might toward strangers?  Far from it….Anger isn’t the opposite of love.  Hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference….God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer…which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with his whole being.” (Rebcca Pippert, Hope Has Its Reasons)

Let’s say it another way: God isn’t against sin as much as He’s for shalom—that is, for peace, prosperity, integrity, wholeness.  Anything—anyone—that violates that experiences the consequences.  In this case, God’s judgment is made quite clear.  And it’s not just judgment on the world, but also on God’s own people.

JUDGMENT OF JUDAH

God’s people have a unique privilege and responsibility.  They have received the fullest experience of God—which means they are all the more accountable to Him.  This is why Paul tells the Romans that the Jews are both at an advantage for their heritage, yet at the same time even more shockingly guilty before the judge (Romans 3:1-2, 9).  Here, in Zephaniah, we see that judgment is enacted against God’s own people:

  • Cause of judgment

4 “I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and I will cut off from this place the remnant of Baal and the name of the idolatrous priests along with the priests,  5 those who bow down on the roofs to the host of the heavens, those who bow down and swear to the LORD and yet swear by Milcom,  6 those who have turned back from following the LORD, who do not seek the LORD or inquire of him.” 

  • Course of judgment

7 Be silent before the Lord GOD! For the day of the LORD is near; the LORD has prepared a sacrifice and consecrated his guests.  8 And on the day of the LORD’s sacrifice– “I will punish the officials and the king’s sons and all who array themselves in foreign attire.  9 On that day I will punish everyone who leaps over the threshold, and those who fill their master’s house with violence and fraud.  10 “On that day,” declares the LORD, “a cry will be heard from the Fish Gate, a wail from the Second Quarter, a loud crash from the hills.  11 Wail, O inhabitants of the Mortar! For all the traders are no more; all who weigh out silver are cut off.  12 At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the men who are complacent, those who say in their hearts, ‘The LORD will not do good, nor will he do ill.’  13 Their goods shall be plundered, and their houses laid waste. Though they build houses, they shall not inhabit them; though they plant vineyards, they shall not drink wine from them.” 

  • The Reality of judgment

14 The great day of the LORD is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the LORD is bitter; the mighty man cries aloud there.  15 A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness,  16 a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements.  17 I will bring distress on mankind, so that they shall walk like the blind, because they have sinned against the LORD; their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung.  18 Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them on the day of the wrath of the LORD. In the fire of his jealousy, all the earth shall be consumed; for a full and sudden end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.

WISHFUL THINKING?

Historically it’s been argued that man created a God to suit his own needs.  Sigmund Freud, one of the great fathers of modern psychology, argued that God’s judgment was a way of self-justification.  If I believe I am punished for my sins, I am strangely relieved.  Think of the last scene of the movie The Godfather.  The “Godfather” is in church, receiving communion.  But the camera cuts away to scenes of his henchmen, murdering people elsewhere in town.  To paraphrase Shakespeare, religious language can indeed “sugar over the devil himself.”  Religion can justify a wide range of sinful behavior.

The problem is that this eventually breaks down.  It ceases to make sense.  If God were a social invention, then why would we create a God so unattractively violent?  This is the case made by Mary Eberstadt in her satirical work, The Loser Letters:

“[D]on’t You see the problem here? The very character of the Judeo-Christian god that has given You such a romp with the adjectives actually turns out to be a pretty big problem for the Atheist side.  The point everybody’s missing is that this particular god is hard to live with – so hard that the Atheist idea of his having been made up just for the supposed ‘consolation’ of it all is just too LOL.  Even at his best, he’s not the sort of supernatural one can easily cuddle up to.  As Graham Greene’s fallen whiskey priest puts it in The Power and the Glory, making the point that even this god’s ‘love’ is pretty scary stuff, ‘It set fire to a bush in the desert, didn’t it, and smashed open graves and set the dead walking in the dark.  Oh, a man like me would run a mile to get away if he felt that love around,’ and a female Human like me too.” (Mary Eberstadt, The Loser Letters, p. 32-33)

Do you see what she’s saying?  No one would invent a God like this, a God who is so powerful, so glorious, and so terrifyingly real.  The result is a heart heavy and sick with grief, knowing that we, too, are just as guilty before God’s throne.  We can only count on and trust in the sacrifice of Christ to make our trembling hands worthy of resting at God’s feet.

 

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