It only took us fourteen weeks to get here.
Gather yourselves together, yes, gather together,
O undesirable nation,
Before the decree is issued,
Or the day passes like chaff,
Before the LORD’s fierce anger comes upon you,
Before the day of the LORD’s anger comes upon you!
Seek the LORD, all you meek of the earth,
Who have upheld His justice.
Seek righteousness, seek humility.
It may be that you will be hidden
In the day of the LORD’s anger.
– 2:1-3 (NKJV)
The NKJV renders the Hebrew kâsaph and lôh as “undesirable” here, but a better translation would be “without shame” or “shameless.” Strong’s defines kâsaph as “to pine after; also to fear: have desire, be greedy, long, sore” (1) while lôh is “not (the simple or abstract negation); by implication no” (2). In this context, the people of Judah are without shame before God. They do not long for Him. They do not pine for His presence. They parade their sin in front of Him. Their love has gone completely cold.
It is thus fascinating that God calls them to gather themselves together and repent. He has no delusions. He knows who they are. He sees through the thickest walls and the heaviest doors. He watches what they do when they think all is hidden. He knows they don’t care.
This is how God works.
Christ arrives right on time to make this happen. He didn’t, and doesn’t, wait for us to get ready. He presented himself for this sacrificial death when we were far too weak and rebellious to do anything to get ourselves ready. And even if we hadn’t been so weak, we wouldn’t have known what to do anyway. We can understand someone dying for a person worth dying for, and we can understand how someone good and noble could inspire us to selfless sacrifice. But God put his love on the line for us by offering his Son in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to him.
– Romans 5:6-8 (MSG)
Isn’t that incredible? He calls out to people who are about to suffer the consequences of their bad choices. He doesn’t ask us to clean up our lives. He doesn’t command that we get all the ducks in order before coming to Him. Instead He says, “Come, right now, when you’re shameless. When you don’t have sense enough to care about Me. When you think I’m out to ruin all your fun and that I want to be mean to you. Come. Let Me show you otherwise.”
God punishes, but He gets no pleasure from it. He would rather that Zephaniah’s people bow down in the middle of the muck and mire and ask for forgiveness. He would rather show them how to start over.
The ancient Jewish understanding of relationship with God focused less on the individual and more on the community. An individual’s faith and standing before God were important, but rarely considered apart from the group as a whole. Each member of the nation was connected to the others.
Where individuals are singled out it seems to be for the good of the community. For example, the Genesis narrative develops the theme of God’s blessing, which though resting on certain individuals, renders them agents for some greater work of God. Joseph’s rise to fame in Egypt preserves the lives of his entire family ( Gen 45:4-7 ). Through Noah’s faithfulness God brings salvation to his family as well as animal life (Gen. 7-9). And the blessing of the promise of nationhood and land for Abraham was not only for his descendants but for all families on the earth ( Gen 12:1-3 ). After 430 years in Egypt, an entire people is delivered through Moses (Exod. 1-12). Through Esther’s rise to power the Jewish people are spared annihilation ( Esther 7 ). (3)
When one strayed, he affected the whole nation. When one loved the Lord, she affected the whole nation. This is why, even though verse three makes it clear that there is a righteous remnant in the land (we’ll get to that in a minute), God calls the entire group to appear before Him and repent. God does not hold one person responsible for another’s sin, but He does teach His people then and now to love and admonish the wayward and even, as in Daniel 9, participate in repenting for those sins.
In our modern Western context, we have trouble grasping the corporate nature of relationship with God. As far as we are concerned, it’s every woman for herself. Passages like Matthew 5-7 (the Sermon on the Mount), 1 Corinthians 12-13, Romans 12-14, Ephesians 3-5, Colossians 1 and the whole of 1 John point in the opposite direction. I am not responsible for your sin and you’re not responsible for mine, but we are on this journey together. When I hurt, you hurt. When you do well, I do well. We each have a role, a function, and can’t do without each other.
Zephaniah especially called upon the godly remnant…to pray and seek God’s face, perhaps referring to the promise in 2 Chronicles 7:14. But even if the majority of the nation followed false gods and turned away from the Lord, God would still protect His own precious remnant when the day of judgment comes (Mal. 3:16-18). (4)
In general, the prophets are careful to point out that there were people who were still obedient to the Lord. Remnant is a fancy way of saying “leftovers or remainders” (5). There were people who remained true to Him. Nevertheless, they would suffer because of the actions of their kinsman. Daniel, Hananiah, Azariah and Mishael were all deported to Babylon (Daniel 1). It is likely that they were castrated, made into eunuchs (6). Given that the first chapter of the book that bears his name shows Daniel and his comrades refusing to violate kosher law, it’s my opinion that they were probably among those who loved God. They didn’t deserve to be carted away, have the chance of family life ripped from them and be forced to serve a foreign king.
Yet Daniel and others like him had an important job in the middle of the suffering.
They were a ‘company of the concerned’ who became the nucleus of the restored nation when they returned to the land. In every period in history, it is the godly remnant that keeps the light burning when it seems as if the darkness is about to cover the earth. (7)
It would be easy for us to say, “That’s not fair. These people, this remnant, loved God. Why did they have to go through that? Why were they going to have to see their homes destroyed and family members killed?” I tread lightly, because I don’t believe that anyone really has a good answer to that kind of question, but I think it comes down to the ripple effect. God doesn’t force anyone to live rightly and actions have consequences (a point Zephaniah hammers on time and time again). Rarely do those consequences go without touching others.
Think of it this way: Suppose the country you live in decides that it’s illegal to be a Christian. (This is reality in many parts of the world). God isn’t punishing you. You haven’t done anything to displease Him. Yet suddenly you find yourself imprisoned or even killed. The wrong choices others make impact your life, even though you’re doing your best to follow God.
The Hebrew word here is qash, meaning “stubble, chaff” (8). (Deep, right?) Chaff is “the seed coverings and other debris separated from the seed in threshing grain” (9)
Okay, so here’s where it gets good.
The harvesting process involves separating the grain from the chaff. Chaff is useless. It’s an #aintnobodygottimeforthat sort of thing. In ancient times, the grain would be separated from the stalks, usually with a hinged stick-like instrument called a flail, and laid out on a threshing floor. It was then thrown into the air like this:
The wind would carry away the useless chaff while the heavier grain settled back to the floor.
God is telling His people, “Your time is short. Don’t waste a moment.”
- How have you been shameless? How do you recognize the attitude if it crops up in your life now? What do you do about it?
- Read 1 John. (It won’t take that long). Note the use of corporate words (“us,” “we,” “you”). Do you have a sense of belonging to a larger community of faith, or are you stuck in “just Jesus and me” mode?
- Read Daniel 9:1-19. What do you think of Daniel repenting for his entire nation? What do you think of him identifying with people he’d never met and sins he’d never committed? Is that something you could do?
- Read Zephaniah 2. What stands out to you? What do you want to know more about from this chapter?
(4) Warren Weirsbe. Be Concerned: Minor Prophets. (David C. Cook: Colorado Springs, 1996), 149.
(7) Weirsbe, 150.
For all entries in The LORD Your God in Your Midst series, go here.