A study of Zephaniah 1
The wrath of God by John Piper:
I thank the Lord again for my opportunity to serve Him today, and I pray my words are full of His truth today. Often my lessons have some humor, some lightheartedness because I truly believe that being a child of God should be a joyous occasion and bible study should be a happy place. Today’s lesson is from the minor prophet Zephaniah, and I do not know how to present this in a lighthearted way. In many ways, lessons on encouragement and love and kindness are easier to teach than fire and brimstone.
One of the things I like about Second’s bible studies is that, if you stick around long enough, we will study every book in the bible every 7 years, including little three-chapter books like Zephaniah, tucked in between Habakkuk and Haggai. It may be a little book, but the first chapter alone has a powerful message. It’s not comfortable, it’s not warm, it’s not fuzzy and feel-good … but it’s the Bible and it’s a Revelation from God and of God.
Tim mentioned a few weeks ago if I believed God was still a God of wrath, and I answered in the affirmative. Little did I know that that very lesson would be given to me to study and to teach.
I was so concerned about the tone of today’s lesson that I ran it by one of the Second Baptist pastors this week. He made a few tweaks, suggested some small changes, and he is now hiding under his bed waiting for the thunder and lightning to begin. One of his insights, though, was that if I felt that a study of God’s wrath was difficult, imagine what it was like for Zephaniah, bringing these words to the Jewish people?
Not much is known about Zephaniah. He lived about 640 BC, he prophesied in the days of King Josiah, and was a contemporary of Jeremiah. The purpose of his prophecy was to speak out against religious and moral corruption and idolatry in Jerusalem. His prophecy was fulfilled a few decades later when Jerusalem collapsed under a wave of immigrants.
Let’s turn to Zephaniah 1:1-6 and see the prophecy of the Day of Judgment of the entire earth.
The word of the Lord that came to Zephaniah son of Cushi, the son of Gedaliah, the son of Amariah, the son of Hezekiah, during the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah:
“I will sweep away everything
from the face of the earth,”
declares the Lord.
“I will sweep away both man and beast;
I will sweep away the birds in the sky
and the fish in the sea—
and the idols that cause the wicked to stumble.”
“When I destroy all mankind
on the face of the earth,”
declares the Lord,
“I will stretch out my hand against Judah
and against all who live in Jerusalem.
I will destroy every remnant of Baal worship in this place,
the very names of the idolatrous priests—
those who bow down on the roofs
to worship the starry host,
those who bow down and swear by the Lord
and who also swear by Molek,
those who turn back from following the Lord
and neither seek the Lord nor inquire of him.”
Have we been led to believe that our God is only capable of love? That Yahweh is not capable of anger? That Jehovah God incapable of wrath and justice? Do we simply discard scripture that deals with His anger and wrath? Is our God limited and powerless against evil?
If we do not know that God hates pride, arrogance, and evil, then we do not know Yahweh. Proverbs 8:13,
To fear the Lord is to hate evil;
I hate pride and arrogance,
evil behavior and perverse speech.
If we do not believe that God Almighty will right every wrong, then we do not know Yahweh. 2 Thessalonians 1:5-9,
All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.
God’s wrath in the Old Testament gives us examples of His tolerance for disobedience and sin. In the Old Testament, we can see God’s balance between love and justice and mercy. When Egypt held the Jews in captivity and in the fullness of time God when reached out to save his people, the Egyptians received God’s wrath. Psalm 78:43-48,
the day he displayed his signs in Egypt,
his wonders in the region of Zoan.
He turned their river into blood;
they could not drink from their streams.
He sent swarms of flies that devoured them,
and frogs that devastated them.
He gave their crops to the grasshopper,
their produce to the locust.
He destroyed their vines with hail
and their sycamore-figs with sleet.
He gave over their cattle to the hail,
their livestock to bolts of lightning.
Against Pharaoh who had hardened his heart against God, God turned their river into blood, sent swarms of biting flies and frogs, sent locusts to devour their crops, destroyed their vineyards with hail and sleet, destroyed their livestock with lightning.
The Old Testament is replete with examples of eradication of sin that sometimes involved destruction. The plagues of Egypt, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the flood of Noah, the destruction of Jerusalem.
It says in Psalm 78:49,
He unleashed against them his hot anger,
his wrath, indignation and hostility—
a band of destroying angels.
He prepared a path for his anger;
he did not spare them from death
but gave them over to the plague.
Satan is most certainly behind all evil in this world, but Satan uses mankind to carry out his evil ways. God’s fury, God’s burning anger, calamity, and result of his anger is against mankind who serves Satan. God has been unjustly accused by Satan and mocked by unfaithful mankind. We have been offensive and insulting. This pride and arrogance on the part of man leads to calamity, a mighty correction of the perversion of justice we have done.
I want you to note carefully here that these plagues are not brought about by Satan, but by God. God is a warrior and will destroy evil. These end times plagues and judgments, the very wrath of God serve a purpose to cleanse His creation of all evil.
As Christians, we need to be able to reconcile the God of Love with the God of Wrath. Churches that teach only prosperity or love are teaching a watered down version of Truth that neglects to tell people the source of evil, the effects of evil, and the ultimate judgment of evil.
Our God is Love. Our God is Wrath. How do you explain this dichotomy? Or sometimes, the question is phrased this way: How can a loving God send people to hell?
We’ll come back to that question, but first, let’s take a look at ourselves. We are made in God’s image, and we know we are capable of love. But if someone lies to us, applies a false label to us, accuses us unjustly, do we not get angry? If we are capable of both love and anger, then it should not be hard to believe that our God who created us can be both loving and full of righteous anger.
We have a God of love, a God of beauty. But we also have a God of justice. A God who will judge the wicked, righting all wrongs. God hates sin. Intellectually, we know this, and we approve of this. God should punish the wicked. But we’re only ok with this philosophy as long as God is punishing others. “God, while I was changing lanes, that man cut me off. Smite him, Lord, either in this life or the next.” But our own sin? “God, I only stole because I needed it. Forgive me, Lord.”
What does the future hold for sinners? When we ask ourselves about all the evil in the world, what will God do? We have to go to the back of the bible, the book of Revelation, to see. (Just as an aside, after our study of the minor prophets, we will be studying Revelation this summer, ironically while it is hot as blazes out there.) Revelation describes end times philosophy, it begins with a greeting to the seven churches who served the Lamb of God, then gives praises to the king, and every creature in heaven and earth saying, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain.” In Revelation 6, The Lamb of God begins to open the seals of judgment against the earth, and the 4th seal, well let’s read Revelation 6:7-11,
When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.
Then, the martyrs who have died for God beg God for justice (Revelation 6:9-11,
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been.
Who can stand from the wrath of God? Revelation 6:15-17,
Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?”
Here the wrath of God has not yet begun, but just opening the seals of judgment was terrifying enough that people hid in caves and begged for the mountains to fall on them.
In Revelation 8-9, the Seven Trumpets then announce the approach of God’s final judgment, and Revelation 9:20, mankind still refuses to give up idol worship. By Revelation 14, the Seven Angels bring Seven Plagues, and Revelation 17 the Seven Bowls full of the wrath of God are poured out upon the earth, punishment to wicked men for their evil ways. And even while the bowls of wrath are poured out over man, man curses God and refuses to repent.
God will destroy this evil in His creation, just as He said He would do. Evil will be destroyed, and Satan will be bound and cast into the Lake of Fire to burn forever. And those men that choose not to worship God, who choose to do evil in His sight, whose carnal desires are living away from the one true God, will receive the justice they deserve. God will not be mocked. Back to our minor prophet Zephaniah 1: 14-18,
The great day of the Lord is near—
near and coming quickly.
The cry on the day of the Lord is bitter;
the Mighty Warrior shouts his battle cry.
That day will be a day of wrath—
a day of distress and anguish,
a day of trouble and ruin,
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and blackness—
a day of trumpet and battle cry
against the fortified cities
and against the corner towers.
“I will bring such distress on all people
that they will grope about like those who are blind,
because they have sinned against the Lord.
Their blood will be poured out like dust
and their entrails like dung.
Neither their silver nor their gold
will be able to save them
on the day of the Lord’s wrath.”
In the fire of his jealousy
the whole earth will be consumed,
for he will make a sudden end
of all who live on the earth.
III. Where are we?
We are mankind. We are all sinners, born of original sin. Born to make a choice in this world, who we will serve and honor. We are all born from the father of lies. We are born into sin. We want to sin. We are slaves to sin.
And when I say “we,” I mean everyone is born into sin. Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” And the consequences are dire. Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death.” The world is under God’s judgment, and we have been warned. God’s wrath is upon all men. We are all dead. Ephesians 2:1-3,
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.
In Jeremiah 5:7-9, God’s people have asked for mercy, but God tells them adamantly that their sins will be their destruction.
“Why should I forgive you?
Your children have forsaken me
and sworn by gods that are not gods.
I supplied all their needs,
yet they committed adultery
and thronged to the houses of prostitutes.
They are well-fed, lusty stallions,
each neighing for another man’s wife.
Should I not punish them for this?”
declares the Lord.
“Should I not avenge myself
on such a nation as this?”
As a people, as a nation, we are so far from God’s purpose, but we have become hardened and used to evils. We like our evils. What we once tolerated, we now celebrate. We are in the midst of the end times, where evil is called good and good is evil. Mankind has proven itself to be of Satan, and mankind celebrates it. We should fear God, holy and righteous, who not only has the power to judge what is good and what is evil, but he has the right. All sin will be destroyed in judgment and in the lake of fire. The sinner inside each of us will be judged and found wanting. Hebrews 10:30-31 says,
For we know [God] who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Our God is a consuming fire, and we are without excuse.
IV. Who then can be saved?
Is there no hope? If we are born in sin, and celebrate our sin, and die by our sin, is there no hope?
Not by our own strength. Even the apostle Paul famously said he continues to do what he does not want to do. The apostle Paul was a sinner, deserving of judgment and God’s wrath. You and I are sinners and deserving of God’s wrath. We can say that since we are churchy people, we are good and holy, but that is untrue. 1 John 1:8 says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”
Jesus’ disciples worried, too. In Matthew 19, the rich man asked Jesus for the secret to eternal life, and Jesus said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. Wealth, both then and now, are often seen as blessings, rewards for a life well-lived. It was thought by others the man was wealthy because God had found favor with him, but Jesus said, no, he too is condemned. And the disciples cried out, “who then can be saved?”
Who indeed? Who is righteous among us if we are all sinners? How do you reconcile the God of beauty, of creation, of truth and righteousness with the God of revenge and wrath and destruction?
We have all sinned. Little white lies, or even the truth can be sinful if we’re being hurtful. Gossip, adultery, pride, lies, murder, stealing. What are some of the things God hates? Romans 1:18-32,
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
We are bound for destruction, the penalty for sin is death. We have no place next to the pure holy Jehovah God with even the tiniest sin. And His wrath will be complete, and we are right to fear God’s wrath. Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
We need help. If the punishment for sin is death, then we need somebody else to *be* sin and die for us. We need a savior. Somebody fully man who understands life’s trials and temptations, yet remained fully innocent. He would have to be innocent; the guilty cannot take the punishment for another person when he himself is guilty. And not just a man who can take the place of one person, but someone who can take away the sins of the world. We need Jesus. Oh Lord, how we need Jesus.
There is cause for celebration in the midst of our message today. Jesus has paid the price for our sin. He took the punishment we deserve. We are saved from the destruction and the wrath of God we deserve. Hallelujah.
Our holy God of Wrath and justice is also a God of mercy and hope and ultimate love. Our God has always given His people hope. John 3:16-18,
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
That’s ultimate love and sacrifice. I stand deserving of the wrath of God for the sins I’ve committed. I deserve punishment. But God so loved me that he sacrificed His only son to take the wrath I deserve. And God so loved you, that he gave up His son to take the wrath for you. Not because we’re such fabulous people, but he did this for us while we were still sinners and deserving of wrath. Why? Because we have a beautiful living awesome God of love and mercy and forgiveness. I don’t know why God loves me, but I am so grateful that He does. He’s forgiven my sins, clothed me in the blood of Jesus, lets me walk boldly to His throne with my prayers, and has made me His adopted son. I am a child of the one true king. Not because of anything I did, but because of what He did. I am no longer condemned. Jesus saves, Amen.
So let’s go back to our earlier question, “how can a loving God condemn people to hell?” It’s not the right question. The question completely misses the character of God. God’s wrath will come to those who deserve it, and God’s mercy and grace will come to His people who do not deserve it. A better question might be, “Why are any of us saved?” God has provided a savior for us, freely available to all who choose it. He has reached out His mighty hand and asks us to take it so we may live. It is available to everyone. It was the purpose of Jesus, to save us. We often refer to Jesus as our Savior, but do we truly grasp what He saved us from, the Wrath of God? 1 John 3:8 says,
The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.
We may be saved from our sin through the sacrifice of Jesus, but God still hates sin, even this sin in us. But as children of God, it is not God we war with. We battle Satan and His plans, we put on our full armor of God and brandish the sword of truth. God still hates the sin we think, the sin we speak, and the sin we do. But on that Day of Judgment, we escape the punishment because our savior has already paid for our sins. God’s full wrath was on Jesus that day and God poured out His wrath painfully on Jesus who became sin for us so that we might live.
God’s judgment on the world is still yet to come. Why has God not yet pronounced judgment? That day is coming quickly. 2 Peter 3:8-10 says,
But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.
So that no one may perish, He stays his wrath. God has so far exhibited two thousand years of patience with us, but one day God’s justice will demand satisfaction. Time is running out. God loved you will you were yet a sinner; who do you love? God forgave you while you were still a sinner; who will you forgive? Spread the Good News that Jesus loves them, too. They just have to accept the free gift, to allow God’s son to bear the burden for their sin. Evangelize. Save those who you love. And who do you love? Family, friends, and the good book says we are to love our enemies. God gave his son for the world, so that no one may perish.
But one day his patience will end. Time is running out. The coming of Man will be sudden, God will call the righteous home and promises that all the indignities that we have suffered, the abuse we endured for His sake, He will avenge, He will make right. His wrath will be poured out. It is not for us to fight that battle; revenge and wrath belongs to the Lord.
It is time for all of God’s selected to accept the gift of life that God has freely offered. Tell others that time is running out. John 3:36,
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.
It is a fearful thing to know that God’s wrath awaits. Philippians 3:18-20,
For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Even in the wrath described in Zephaniah 1:7 we find hope –
Be silent before the Sovereign Lord,
for the day of the Lord is near.
The Lord has prepared a sacrifice;
he has consecrated those he has invited.
When will this Day of Judgment come? Scripture tells us that no one knows the day or the hour. That’s why the time to accept our Savior is urgent.
Are you ready?
Time is running out, the wrath of God approaches. Choose life. Choose Jesus.
To God be the glory.