Zephaniah, chapter 3. The prophet moves from judgment now to hope. So you look to the reading of God’s word, if you please join me in prayer. Father, indeed, you are the source of all life, and by your word, you give light to our souls. We ask that you would open the eyes of our heart that we would know your wisdom, that we would live by your understanding. Teach us to stay from your word of truth, fill our hearts with thanksgiving and gratitude for our great redeemer, who is indeed purified for you a people through his redeeming good work. We pray and ask all these things in his mighty name, Amen. Beginning in verse 8,
Zephaniah 3:8-13 “Therefore, wait for me, declares the Lord, for the day when I rise up to cease to pray, for my decisions to gather nations to assemble kingdoms to pour out upon them my indignation, all my burning anger, for in the fire, my jealousy, all the earth shall be consumed. For at that time, I will change the speech of the people to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord.From beyond the rivers of Kush, my worshippers, the daughters of my dispersed, one shall bring my offering. On that day, you shall not be put to shame because of the deeds by which you 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. But I will leave in your midst to people, humble and lowly, they shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord. Those who are left in Israel, they shall do no injustice and speak no lies. Nor shall it be found in the mouth a deceitful tongue, for they shall graze and lie down, and none shall make them afraid.”
The word of the Lord. In the Bible, there are 16 books of the writings of the prophets, four major and 12 minor. And major and minor just refers to the overall length of the books, not their content. And often the prophets are a flyover zone for people in their Bible reading. A great deal of Hebrew poetry with its fantastic images, chapter after chapter of judgment on nations that are long gone, it can seem so strange and so far removed from where we are today.
Harbingers of doom and destruction, but also of salvation and hope. They call God’s people to justice and righteousness, sometimes in very plain speech and other times to rich and deep literary masterpieces. The prophets are a part of God’s tapestry of redemption, the unfolding drama of salvation that began all the way back in Genesis in the beginning. The city of God, the city of man, side by side throughout human history. And the prophets, they come onto the scene into this story as the city of God is seemingly dissolving into the city of man. God’s people look no different than everybody else. The prophets come to them like an irregular heartbeat to a people who think they’re healthy. Now, you never think about your actual heart until it starts to do something that makes you notice it. Chest pains, arrhythmia, racing pulse, then all you can think about is your heart. That’s that way with any health issue that we have. When something goes wrong, suddenly we’re very aware that it exists. The prophets come to show that something is wrong. People can go through their lives not thinking about God or why He has made them or how their lives are to be to connect to Him until something goes wrong.
For some, this leads to accusations. If you were a loving God, how would you ever allow fill in the blank. They want God to be something they can wrap their minds around, willing to condemn Him for actions that they cannot fathom. They want a big God that fits into a very small brain. But you notice that for all those who won’t believe in God because of the evil in the world doesn’t get rid of the evil in the world. They didn’t go away with their agnosticism, still there. Only what’s left is no way to actually call evil evil. We see the conundrum that has happened recently to several university presidents, unwilling to call it an atrocity an atrocity. There’s been a moral ambivalence. Because once you remove the standard, once you remove God, it’s just common human behavior. Some people like it, some people don’t, and there’s no way to say that they shouldn’t do it. That’s what you’re left with. For others, though, it can be, God, get me out of this tough spot and I will do anything for you, only to be forgotten once things simmer down and life goes back to normal.
Promises that were made had just slipped into the past. But most have a profound sense that things are not the way they’re supposed to be. This inner sense that says, I’m not the way that I should be. There is such a better version to me that should exist than currently does. And we see the Lord must purify a people for himself so that we can walk in new patterns of life to be what he’s made us for. And this is what the prophets do. They call us back to this. In our text this morning, we see that Zephaniah is bringing God’s people a word of judgment and a word of hope. It’s a call to holiness. And he looks forward and he sees that God makes a new people. But looking back then at verse 8, Therefore, wait, declares the Lord, for the day when I rise up and to seize to pray for my decision to gather the nation to assemble kingdoms, to pour out upon them my indignation, all my burning anger, for in the fire of my jealousy, all the earth shall be consumed. And we saw that last week, a clear message of global and final judgment.
But we also saw how the prophets often combine what is immediate with what is yet to come that’s farther away. What was immediate, when he wrote this was that the Babylonian Empire was going to come and they were going to bring to an end many of these nations as well as Israel herself. But what is still a long way off is that and final day of judgment. But notice then in verse 9, something completely unexpected happens. So this boom of judgment, of condemnation, of cataclysmic endings. And then in verse 9, For at that time, I would change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord and serve with one accord. Think, well, where did that come from? Even the verb to change that starts out there, one Old Testament scholar reminds us that it’s characteristic of judgment. With overtones of wrath, with more and more anger is expected, suddenly the hope is shining, the light has dawned. And this message of judgment now shifts into one of hope. Literally, it says, when it speaks of the word there, the speech, it is the lip.
I will change the lip of the people. Calvin points out that God cannot rightly be invoked by us in hell, he draws us to himself, for we have impure and profane lips. In the beginning then of our prayer is for this hidden cleansing of the Holy Spirit that the prophet is speaking about. Immediately, we should also think then, and where have we seen this before? With the words, the echoing of Isaiah. When Isaiah is in this vision of the throne room before the very presence of God, he says, Woe is me, for I am lost. I am a man of unclean lips. I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips, for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Host. And then immediately what follows, after this great declaration of his own woe, a seraphim, an angel flew to him, said, having in his hands a burning coal that had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said, Behold, this has touched your lips. Your guilt is taken away. Your sin is a tone for. This is foreshadowing. Of what will take place. A pure speech.
A pure lip. One writer has said, As the lips of Isaiah, the sinful member of a sinful people have been purified by a fiery coal from the altar, which typifies the cross of Calvary. So the Lord will change the lips of Gentile nations by the preaching of this cross. All will put their shoulder to His service and joyful gratitude for their salvation. And all that is unexpected. God is going to have to do what we could not. And further in this, we also hear echoes of Genesis 11, the tower of Babel. There are people, they were moved by their own sinful hearts to be one nation not under God, but under their own autonomous pride. And there in the beginning of Genesis 11 says, for at that time, the whole earth had one lip and the same words. We translate that as language, but it’s saying this one lip. They had a Godless unity. And there they said, Come, let us build for ourselves with a tower that reaches the heavens so that we may make a name for ourselves. Otherwise, we’ll be scattered over the face of the whole earth. To make a name for their own pride, their own glory, united in such a cause with one lip.
We go on in Genesis and says the Lord said if, as one people speaking the same language, the same lip, they began to do this, then nothing they plan will be impossible for them. Come, let’s go down and confuse their language and they will not understand one another. And so the Lord scattered them from over the face of the earth and they stopped building the city. That is why it is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there, the Lord scattered them over the face of all the earth. And notice that is an act of mercy. When humanity comes together for a single, solitary purpose apart from God, it is only for evil. And God scatters them. But it is also not an accident that on the day of Pentecost, they gathered at Jerusalem from all over the Roman Empire that the gift of tongues was given. The apostles able to speak in the mother tongues of all the nations. God was making from the nations, bringing them into from every tribe, every tongue, one people under the banner of his son, Jesus. And so tongues was this visible sign of what God was doing.
And here in verse 9, it continues. It says, To call upon the name of the Lord, means they invoked his name and beliefs, submission and supplication. There was a change that takes place. To call upon the name of the Lord because the Lord is changing their hearts, he’s purifying them. In verse 10, From beyond the rivers of Cush, my worshippers, the daughters of my dispersed, one shall bring my offering. The rivers of Cush is the headwaters of the Nile. And from the vantage point of being in Israel, it’s far away. From very far places, people will come to worship the Lord. Then he goes on, he says, On that day, you shall not be put to shame because of the deeds by which you rebelled against me. For I will remove from your midst your proudly exultant ones, you shall no longer be haughty in my holy mountain. God has to remove human pride. He has to vindicate his own glory. And he will not only defend his people in Judah, he will also gather the nations from afar so that his name will be everywhere celebrated. That’s the great good to which we have been made.
Not that we would exalt ourselves, but that we would together exalt the Lord. And it is he then who makes both Jews and Gentiles into one new nation, the Lord who must humble their pride, who must change their hearts by his Spirit. Because left to ourselves, we are morally weak, helpless, impure. God must move on our behalf. And when he does, we see that he makes new patterns. We’re marked in a different way, verse 12, But I will leave in your midst the people, humble and lowly, they shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord. Those who are left in Jerusalem, and they shall do no injustice, they will speak no lies, nor shall be found their mouth a deceitful tongue. For they shall graze and lie down, and none shall make them afraid. See, the Lord establishes new patterns for a new people who bear his name. A people that transcends all geographical boundaries, all ethnicities, gender, social status, cultures. What marks us as the people of God is a new inner humility, a willingness to get low. Oh, how hard that is to do. Again, from Calvin, Pride is innate and so fixed in the heart that it cannot be removed except the Lord rooted out by force.
And a part of this rooting out that God is doing is bringing people to a greater humility. He’s calling people into a right worship. The prophets were always sure that one worships how you worship determined your character. Worship determined character. And they were constantly calling people back to a true worship of the Lord. The pure worship that the God of Israel wants for his people so their lives would be conformed to his. In the Prophet Jeremiah, we read, thus says the Lord, what wrong did your father’s finding me that they went far from me and went after worthlessness and became worthless, speaking of their idolatry. Because wrong worship, it changes us. As Jeremiah says, if we pursue worthless things in worship, we become worthless. That’s why God is so hard on idolatry. We can do that apart from God. That empty pursuit of vain things of our own heart, and we become like that. We become debased over time. But it can also happen all in the name of the Lord. And this is what was striking with Israel. They would said, We’re not doing anything wrong. Why are these prophets come and messing with us?
We’re just worshiping God. What do you mean we’re doing this incorrectly? What do you mean our worship is wrong? So immersed were they in the sins of their culture, they couldn’t see it. How easy that is to do? An idol of our generation is the pursuit and the mixture of consumerism in our worship. It’s made us all into religious consumers. We’re the customers and God’s the product to a better life. Churches then become stores from which we purchase this experience. Houses then of entertainment. And all that puts us at the center and not God. But God is not a product for purchase. He’s not some talisman that helps keep our lives running smoothly. He’s the Almighty whose image we have been made, and he is passionate and jealous for that image. Because it’s the best thing for us. That’s the good news, is the Lord is purifying him for himself, a people. And that work of purifying is going on throughout our lives. That he’s working His righteousness in us through the person and work of Jesus. In 1 John 3, there, John said, beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared, meaning there’s yet an end to which we will be fully consummated.
It’s not yet here. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. That’s an ongoing progressive work that will be one day resolved in fullness, but not until then. But we don’t give up on it. We’re moving for it, towards it, because the spirit in us is calling us to that purity, to that holiness. Well, Tustman scholar, Elizabeth Acteimier, she reminds us, she says that ethics, according to the Bible, are the fruit of a living relationship with the Lord, have neither a base nor motivational power unless a relationship is present. Ethics and relationship have to come together. No one can meet the Lord and live without being changed into his new creation. The nature of that change that Zephaniah describes is significant, it’s the banishment of lying, deceit and fraud from the community. In short, faithful and trustworthy fulfillment of one’s covenant with one’s fellow human beings. That will only take place in a living relationship with our Creator. There are people who like one-half of the Ten Commandments, don’t kill, don’t cheat, don’t steal.
Those are all good things for society, but they don’t like the first half. I am the Lord, your God. You shall have no other gods beside me. But you can’t separate those. If you separate those, you just fall into a bland moralism that shifts over time and space with new ideologies, new belief systems that change. This is no longer evil. This good thing is now evil. That’s what we’re left with. Complete inability not only to change, but to see what needs changed. It has to be a living relationship with Almighty God. That relationship then flows into all of our human relationships where we do stop lying and being deceitful to one another in community. What the remnant was to look like in godliness is exactly what is to characterize the coming of the Messiah. The prophets are speaking of the one who was yet to come. We now know that we are to bear the marks of Jesus, the patterns of Jesus. We are to be those willing to submit ourselves to God. We spent several weeks back in Matthew in the beatitudes. And here in Zephaniah, there are clear and strong echoes of them.
What he’s talking about the lowly, the gentle, the humble. We hear in Matthew, the poor and spirit, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the peacemakers. That’s what he’s referring to. The prophets are pointing us that way. Micah 6, very familiar, he has shown you, O mortal, what is good? What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with your God. Isaiah 66, These are the ones I look for with favor, those who are humble and contrived in spirit who tremble at my word. Relationship and ethics brought together. The meaning and the message of the gospel is offensive to a disbelieving heart because it calls that out. But the citizenship of this new people, this new nation, it requires you to be born again, not of flesh, but of the Spirit and water, baptism, regeneration. But oh, the difference that makes. Paul writing to Titus. He said, For the grace of God has appeared. He’s speaking of the coming of Jesus, bringing salvation to all people, training us to renounce ungodliness, worldly passion to live self-controlled, upright, godly lives in this present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself to from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people of his own possession who are zealous for good works.
Titus 2. That is what Jesus has done. The grace of God has appeared. And in the prophets, the long portions of judgment that, yes, they can seem overwhelming, chapter upon chapter, but they give way to the message of salvation, of hope. Without the former, the good news doesn’t make much sense. The Lord must remove the cause of our wrongdoing. We cannot shake free of the vice grip of our own sin. And if you’ve tried for any moment, the recurring sins, the recurring patterns of godlessness that shackling us, how to break free of that. God is the one who has to break us free. We resonate with the apostle Paul in Romans 7. He says, For I have a desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I don’t want to do is what I keep doing. Wretchard man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death? Who can’t relate to that? The good you want to do, you don’t do. And the evil you want to forsake keeps coming up. And Paul’s answer, thanks be to God through Jesus Christ, our Lord.
The Lord does this by His son taking the doom and the gloom upon himself in our place. The prophets are preparing us for Jesus. The destruction that is there is yet to come. It falls on Him. Because we are completely unable to free ourselves. And the Lord of glory is the one who frees us. That is the good news, that is the hope. As we sit here between the advents. And one of the worst things that we can do with Christmas is we can make it an sentimental experience in the midst of difficult times around us. Where Christmas then just becomes a wind break that we can get out of the cold for a little while to think some warm thoughts. And it only holds until a new icy blast dries it away. And we’re stuck back out in the cold with 11 long months to wait. That’s not why we’re here. Don’t sentimentalize your faith. We’re here between the advance. We’re here preparing ourselves of people, zealous for good works because Jesus has come, he has set us free. That is the hope that is needed. And inability for people to be able to see in their heart, they know, This is evil, this is wicked, but I don’t have any way to call it so if I’m left just to me.
And it’s just us on this little ball of Earth spinning through time and space. Who’s to say? God says. God says very clearly that he has destroyed Babel. Humans attempt to come together in unity apart from the living God because it always ends in ruin, destruction. Not God trying to take the fun out of life, it’s God trying to insert real joy that can only be found in Jesus. A people forgiven that have been purified, that have been brought together free from the shackles of our sin and slavery. To be what God has intended the people of God to be. That’s the good news of Christmas. That’s why Easter stands at the center of our faith. He’s not just a babe in a mainstream. He is the one who was crucified for our sins, and he was raised on the third day. The tomb is empty. And we have been called to go forth then harmingers of good news and hope. Pursuing with great passion of purity and a holiness that comes from his spirit, dwelling in us. Eshoeing deceit and deception and lying, speaking truthfully to one another, living and loving in holiness, so that the Lord of glory, His name would be revered and celebrated.
Let us celebrate the good name of our Lord together this Christmas season, pray with me. Almighty God, please grant that we’d be able to come with a pure heart to Your presence. Lord, even though our lips are polluted, purify us by Your Spirit so that we may not only pray to you with our mouth, but also prove that we do so with sincerity, without pretense or duplicity, that we earnestly seek to spend our whole life in glorifying Your name until that day when we are gathered into Your kingdom. We pray that we may truly and really be united to You, that we be partakers of that glory which you have purchased through the blood of Your only begotten son in whose name we pray. Amen. Please stand together. Come light our hearts.
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