Connections 06.12.2016: Them and Us

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Zephaniah 3:1-8

The church of my growing up years sometimes sang out of a paperback Gospel music songbook. One of our favorite numbers was “Jesus Is Coming Soon.” We’d sing, with great gusto,

Jesus is coming soon, morning or night or noon,
many will meet their doom, trumpets will sound!

Even as a young fellow, I sensed some tension between the upbeat tune of the song and the phrase “Many will meet their doom.” I didn’t at that point know about blues music or about Hebrew laments, but if I had, I’d have thought that the line should be treated as a lament and should be sung in the style of the blues. That’s what I think now.

Judgment is real and necessary, but it’s nothing to be happy about. God’s not happy about it. We shouldn’t be happy about it.

Zephaniah said that the judgment of Jerusalem was coming. A few centuries later, Jesus said the same thing. Such judgment was necessary. It was proper. But it wasn’t cause for happiness. So when Jesus approached Jerusalem, he wept.

As my late mentor Dr. Howard Giddens used to say, “If you ever find yourself enjoying preaching about hell, it’s time to find something else to do.”

I suppose we smiled as we sang “Many will meet their doom” because we were singing, we assumed, about them, and not about us. Surely not about us! But Zephaniah was talking to the people of Judah. He was talking to “God’s chosen people.” And he was telling them that they were at serious risk of facing God’s judgment because of their failure to take advantage of the great privilege of knowing the grace and love of the Lord.

The church of my growing up years also held a monthly Gospel sing. One of the groups that sometimes participated performed a song called “Termites in the Temple.” (I’m not making this up. It’s on YouTube, although by a different group.) It was about troublemakers in the church. Folks would laugh and clap. It seemed to me that the biggest troublemakers in our church laughed and clapped the loudest.

It occurred to me later that folks who felt qualified to judge people’s level of troublemaking might be termites, too.

Sometimes, rather than focusing on what God thinks about them, we need to take seriously the words of that great Okefenokee philosopher Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Discussion

1. On the one hand, we are saved by grace through faith, and not by works. On the other hand, surely being saved should change the ways we think, talk, and act. How does Zephaniah help us think about God’s grace and our lives?
2. Zephaniah lays particular blame at the feet of Jerusalem’s political and religious leaders (vv. 3-4). What do we need from our Christian leaders?
3. Does the church need to talk more about God’s judgment? How can we talk about it in ways that are not manipulative?
4. Zephaniah said that Jerusalem had “not trusted in the LORD,” “not drawn near to its God,” and had “accepted no correction” (v. 2). What can keep those of us who have the best opportunity to trust in, draw near to, and be corrected by God from doing so?
5. What does it mean for God to be passionate (v. 8)? How can we reclaim an awareness of the passion of God? How does the passion of Christ (his suffering and death) help us understand God’s passion?

Reference Shelf

Zephaniah 3:2 accuses the whole city of having not done four things: not listening to a voice (from God), not accepting correction and changing its behavior, not trusting YHWH, and not approaching God. This combination implies that YHWH’s decision to destroy Jerusalem is not arbitrary. Rather, these charges imply numerous attempts by YHWH to change the city.

The words for leaders used in Zephaniah 3:3-4 (rulers, judges, prophets, and priests) are largely the words used for leaders in Hosea, Amos, Micah, and Zephaniah. The terms further solidify the impression that much of the accusatory language in these four writings, in particular, deliberately demonstrates that the problems of the people involve the northern and southern kingdoms and have consistently appeared from the time of Hezekiah to Josiah. The fact that prophetic warnings were delivered to Judah for over a century suggests that, theologically speaking, the compilers of these four writings blame the people for YHWH’s punishment. By reiterating the repeated confrontations of these leaders, these four writings document that the people and the leadership had been warned. The judgment against Jerusalem was no surprise, or at least should not have been if Judah had paid attention to its prophets.

James D. Nogalski, The Book of the Twelve: Micah–Malachi, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2011), 736-37.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra and father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin). A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. You can visit and communicate with him at MichaelRuffin.com. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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