Zephaniah is associated with the butterfly, iconic for the transformation of God’s people.
After the sweeping and terrifying vision of the people’s corruption and the Lord’s judgment, Zephaniah urged his listeners to look above, to seek the Lord and God’s righteousness.
A Look Above
Gather together, gather,Zephaniah 2:1-3 (NRSV)
O shameless nation,
before you are driven away
like the drifting chaff,
before there comes upon you
the fierce anger of the Lord,
before there comes upon you
the day of the Lord’s wrath.
Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land,
who do his commands;
seek righteousness, seek humility;
perhaps you may be hidden
on the day of the Lord’s wrath.
- Seek the Lord
- Seek righteousness
- Seek humility
From Whence Came Destruction
There was a time when man and woman walked closely with God, and sought the Lord every day, when humankind’s relationship to the earth was health-giving, humankind’s relationship to each other was united in warm affection, and humankind’s relationship with God was one of communion. Humankind was blissfully self-aware in recognizing the goodness of God’s creation in themselves and the world around them, and recognized God’s love and blessing in having given them to each other, in having designed them perfectly for the earth, and the earth for them.
The story of humankind’s falling away from that intimacy is found in Genesis 3, which also describes the nature of the temptations that led to the fall:
- Doubting God’s goodness, and good intentions for them, doubting God’s righteousness and love for them, doubting God’s justice and generosity.
- Questioning the truthfulness of God’s word, questioning God’s instructions.
- Desiring to be “as God” thinking they could rule their universe in God’s place.
The woman was deceived by a liar who had crept into their lives, but the man agreed with the liar’s deceit, and a subtle shift occurred within the man’s heart. His alliances moved from God and the woman to the liar and the liar’s insinuating suggestions. That shift plunged all of humankind into a disastrous rupture between people and God, people and each other, and people and the whole earth, the whole of creation.
God identifies this shift as sin, throughout the scriptures.
Sin is an offense against God, and acts as a barrier between people and God, disrupting our relationship with the Lord. The first woman (having been deceived) and man (deliberately) chose this barrier because they thought they were choosing freedom, a chance to govern themselves and the world around them with superior knowledge and wisdom. If they could know what they thought God knew then they could be as God.
But, even as they entered into what they thought was going to be their glorious new life, they discovered awful truths. Before God called out to them they had already suffered a flood of painful sensations—shame, a feeling of exposure, guilt. Unbeknownst to them, the moment they operated on the lies fed to them,
- Their spirits died immediately, which they proved by running from the Lord and hiding from the Lord when God came to them in the garden paradise they called home.
- Their souls died, as was made evident by their own lying, by covering themselves from each other, by their feelings of shame and nakedness. In particular, the man revealed how deep the wound of lies and brokenness went when he turned on the woman he had before cherished, and dared even to impugn God with blame for his own condition.
- Their bodies had begun to die, as God would later explain to them: “Dust you are, and to dust you will return.”
Reading their story from a dispassionate distance, we might be tempted to wonder why the Lord could not have simply started over, created a new man and a new woman, but God did not. The only explanation offered comes much later in the scriptures, a declaration of God’s nature and God’s love.
“The Lord, the Lord,Revelation of God to Moses, Exodus 34-6-7 (NRSV)
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
yet by no means clearing the guilty . . .”
Because [God] loved your ancestors, [God] chose their descendants after them . . . the Lord set [God’s] heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today.Revelation of God to the people, Deuteronomy 4:37, 10:15 (NRSV)
God dearly loved the man and the woman. So, God took away the fig leaves the man and the woman had made to cover over their outward nakedness and their inward shame. God replaced the leaves with animal skins. Symbolically God allowed the death of two innocent creatures to cover the sin of the man and of the woman.
The ancient reader would have known this was the beginning of the Levitical system of sacrifices for sin, and that sacrifices could only temporarily provide this covering. Humankind had been plunged into the despair of death, no person no matter how fine their character, how spiritually refined they were, how sacred their occupation, how high their anointing, could cheat the grave.
To this day (with only two exceptions noted in scripture), every person dies, providing proof to the unseen truth that spiritual death is also certain. An eternal covering—indeed, better than a covering, eternal rescue and transformation, restoration and reconciliation—could only come through the work of the Messiah. Messiah’s sacrifice would provide
1) A new spirit, which loves God.
2) A new soul which begins to live for God.
3) And eventually a new body patterned on the resurrection body of Messiah.
In Zephaniah’s day, there was only the hope of a future Messiah, and tantalizing prophecies describing who Messiah would be, when he came. So, the prophet cried out,
“Seek God!” Stop sacrificing to the idols, they represent a deadly lie. Instead, repair the altar of God, and sacrifice to the Lord.
Seek God’s righteousness. The entire system has become corrupted by unrighteousness and injustice. The entire nation is rotting from the core, its fumes of putrefaction rising up to heaven, sickening creation. You smell what you think is the heady aroma of wisdom and power and knowledge from the incense burners before your false gods. But God, the one true and living God, smells the pestilence of wickedness.
Seek humility, Zephaniah cried, and do not fall into the trap of deadly self-pride that led to the destruction of humankind.
perhaps you may be hiddenZephaniah 2:3 (NRSV)
on the day of the Lord’s wrath.
Perhaps There Will be Mercy
Just as God spared that first man and woman, so perhaps would God now spare their ruined nation. Perhaps the vision of God’s judgment, the horrifying end of the world that had gripped Zephaniah in his first oracle, would be somewhat softened by this nearly-too-late turn to repentance.
And today, in our own lives, God will sometimes spare you and me from the hurts of living in a broken body, on a broken world. God will sometimes spare us the full measure of hurt from our own sin, or of the sins committed against us.
But the real refuge God offers is spiritual. Once God has enfolded you and me, has filled us up with life and Spirit and presence of God, no one can take us away from the Lord or take the Lord away from us.
It is not a promise that we will live a trouble-free life.
It is a promise that in Jesus you and I will overcome every trouble.
It is a promise that we will not go through the valleys alone.
It is a promise that no matter what happens to this body, nothing can separate us from God.