Back into the pages of the prophet we go.
This they shall have for their pride,
Because they have reproached and made arrogant threats
Against the people of the LORD of hosts.
The LORD will be awesome to them,
For He will reduce to nothing all the gods of the earth;
People shall worship Him,
Each one from his place,
Indeed all the shores of the nations.
– Zephaniah 2:10-11 (NKJV)
These verses fall smack in the middle of God’s pronouncement of judgment upon the Gentile (non-Jewish) nations for their cruelty toward His people. Coming directly on the heels of terse words against Moab and Ammon, the theme of destruction continues.
Moab had been harassing Israel for centuries, exactly like cousins who will not get along. (Remember, the Moabites were the descendants of Lot’s incestuous union with his daughter, and Lot was Abraham’s nephew). Just prior to the Conquest of the Promised Land,
Now Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. And Moab was exceedingly afraid of the people because they were many, and Moab was sick with dread because of the children of Israel. So Moab said to the elders of Midian, “Now this company will lick up everything around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field.” And Balak the son of Zippor was king of the Moabites at that time. Then he sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor at Pethor, which is near the River in the land of the sons of his people, to call him, saying: “Look, a people has come from Egypt. See, they cover the face of the earth, and are settling next to me! Therefore please come at once, curse this people for me, for they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.”
– Numbers 22:2-6 (NKJV)
Balak was determined to get the upper hand. No way, no how were the Israelites going to get the best of him. In order to do so, he calls on the services of Balaam, lived in Pethor, identified as modern day Deir Alla, in Jorgan. He is who mentioned in Numbers 31:8 “in conjunction with the five kings of Midian, apparently as a person of the same rank.” (1) His social standing appears to have been based less on politics than spirituality, for it is believed that Balaam
“was from a long line of celebrated diviners, and…he and his family had made their living for several generations cursing or blessing people. It was their family trade. They passed it down, giving their sons names that went along with it, names like “Burning” and “Devourer.” Their family reputation had traveled throughout the entire region. If anyone wanted someone cursed, they would send for a baru from Balaam’s family, since they were the best in the world at cursing people. These baru—regardless of the requester’s religion or political stripe—would, for a price, perform their auguries, say their incantations, make their sacrifices to some particular god, and then curse the other party in the name of that god.” (2)
Instead of confronting Israel directly, Balak hoped to manipulate divine forces, because
…[t]he Moabites did not have much of an army to field against Israel, which is why they did not try to block its way by force of arms. Until recently, they had themselves been subject to the Amorites and had suddenly been freed by Israel’s conquering of Sihon and Og of Bashan. However, they were not at all grateful and decided that they would have to stop Israel themselves.” (2)
A Tale of Two Donkeys
Pause here and go read Numbers 22:22-35. I’ll wait.
Isn’t that fabulous?
The donkey kept Balaam from doing what he wasn’t supposed to do. King Balak hired him to curse the Israelites, but all Balaam could do was bless them. Over and over again he prophecies that God’s people will be strong and prosperous. Balak is frustrated to no end over this turn in events, but Balaam basically says, “I told you so.” He had warned the king that his mouth had been constrained by God.
Despite this, Balak won in the end, for unfortunately the beloved people of God proceeded to make donkeys out of themselves:
Now Israel remained in Acacia Grove, and the people began to commit harlotry with the women of Moab. They invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel was joined to Baal of Peor, and the anger of the LORD was aroused against Israel.
– Numbers 25:1-3 (NKJV)
On the threshold of success, they make monumentally stupid decisions.
Israel’s men managed to find time to indulge their sexual passion with the local women of Moab. On the verge of Israel’s entering the land and thus realizing the fulfillment of God’s promises to the fathers, there was excitement and stimulation in the air. But it was excitement engendered by Moabite maidens and not by the mighty workings of God. And the sin was not merely of a sexual nature (v. 1). It also included apostasy (vv. 2-3). (4)
What prompted these women?
Interestingly, Numbers 31:16 informs the reader that the impetus behind the scheme of the Moabite seductresses was none other than Balaam of chs. 22-24. Balaam was prepared to share his services either for a fee (chs. 22-24) or gratuitously (ch. 25). He was the kind of person who refused to quit. His malice having been stymied in one instance, he soon stumbled upon another opportunity to express it. Where the potency of spell failed, possibly the potency of seduction would succeed. (5)
Balaam found a way. Despite being confronted by God Himself, the man found a way to express his spite and cause problems in Israel.
No Better Over There
Ammon, the other cousin of Israel, was also a thorn in her side.
In Deuteronomy 2:9, God forbids Moses from leading an attack against the nation. This kindness was completely overlooked, for
…[i]n the days of Jephthah [the judge] they oppressed the Israelites east of the Jordan, claiming that the latter had deprived them of their territory when they came from Egypt, whereas it was the possessions of the Amorites they took (Judges 11:1-28). They were defeated, but their hostility did not cease, and their conduct toward the Israelites was particularly shameful, as in the days of Saul (1 Samuel 11) and of David (2 Samuel 10). This may account for the cruel treatment meted out to them in the war that followed (2 Samuel 12:26-31). (6)
These were the people who threatened to blind all the people of Jabesh-Gilead – just to prove a point (1 Samuel 11). These were the people who humiliated King David’s ambassadors, shaving off half their beards and cutting up their clothes so their buttocks were exposed – for no reason (2 Samuel 10). These were the people devoted to Molech (also rendered Moloch) – a god who demanded human sacrifice.
According to the description in the Jalkut (Rashi…on Jeremiah 7:31), its image was a hollow brazen figure, with the head of an ox, and outstretched human arms. It was heated red-hot by fire from within, and the little ones placed in its arms to be slowly burned, while to prevent their parents from hearing their dying cries the sacrificing-priests beat drums. (7)
I wonder, in this age of tolerance, how people would react if the worship of Molech was revived. “It’s just their way.” “Whatever is true for them is true for them.” “No religion is ‘more right’ than another.”
The sort of disgusting worship that requires child sacrifice casts our love for relativism in a different light, doesn’t it?
Together we Ride
And the LORD sent against him raiding bands of Chaldeans, bands of Syrians, bands of Moabites, and bands of the people of Ammon; He sent them against Judah to destroy it, according to the word of the LORD which He had spoken by His servants the prophets.
– 2 Kings 24:2 (NKJV)
Zephaniah tells his audience repeatedly that Jerusalem will be destroyed because of the people’s sins. We know that they chose not to respond in repentance, for this is exactly what happened.
We should understand this verse to mean that God allowed the Ammonites and Moabites to get away with helping in the destruction of Jerusalem, for it would make little sense for God to send someone to commit a sin and then punish them for that sin. (There you go; my non-Reformed flag waves proudly). Centuries of hostility overflowed into one boiling, vicious act. An act of vengeance for vengeance’s sake. Ammon and Moab opposed Israel and delighted in her fall because they wanted to. That’s it.
Awesome to Them
These two arrogant nations would wind up like Sodom and Gomorrah, wiped off the face of the earth (Genesis 19; note the connection here with Lot). No more would they insult either the nation of Israel or the God of Israel. (See Amos 1:13-2:3 for further evidence of the wickedness and inhumanity of these two nations). (8)
He would reduce them to nothing. Not because He is mean. Not because He takes delight in punishing people. There comes a point when time runs out. Chance after chance was both extended and rebuffed. The people of Moab and Ammon refused to turn to the Lord in repentance and desire for restoration (I speak in generalities, for no doubt that there were individuals among those nations who sought the truth). As He had promised to preserve and protect the children of Abraham (and we can extend that promise to both the physical and the spiritual offspring), He was moved to act.
And there is the mystery, the tension. How is it that God is preserving and protecting when struggle, suffering and even death come to those He claims as His own?
The deeper I go into Zephaniah, the more I realize that God is entirely other. As Isaiah wrote,
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” says the LORD.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways,
And My thoughts than your thoughts.”
– 55:8-9 (NKJV)
Sometimes we suffer as the direct result of our own actions, as the people of Zephaniah’s day would experience and as we have experienced (even when we don’t want to admit it). Other times the suffering comes without logical explanation. I’m not sure that the best course of action when baffling storms arise is to sit and attempt to decipher their origin. There are days, seasons, when we must simply lower our heads and let the winds blow, confident in His presence, sure that He sees the whole picture when we cannot.
- If you’ve never read the story of Balaam, take some time now and do so. You’ll find it in Numbers 22-24. What do you think of this episode in Israel’s history? How does it strike you that God would use a donkey to get through to someone? Can God use any means He wants to speak to people?
- There are two primary ways God reveals Himself to us: general revelation (creation) and special revelation (the Bible). What are some things in creation that have pointed you to God? What are some Scripture passages that are especially meaningful to you?
- Read Judges 10-11 for a taste of Israel/Ammon relations. Fair warning – as with the rest of the book of Judges, it’s a tough read. More than a bit of blood and gore, but it provides helpful background for the judgments in Zephaniah.
- Is God awesome to you, or do you have a sort of “me and my buddy Jesus” attitude? Why? What needs to change?
- Read Zephaniah 2. What stands out to you now?
(8) Warren Weirsbe. Be Concerned: Minor Prophets. (David C. Cook: Colorado Springs, 1996), 151.
For all entries in The LORD Your God in Your Midst series, go here.