The LORD Your God in Your Midst: I Will Save (3:18-20)

The LORD, the Mighty One

Gentle Reader,

“I will gather those who sorrow over the appointed assembly,
Who are among you,
To whom its reproach is a burden.
Behold, at that time
I will deal with all who afflict you;
I will save the lame,
And gather those who were driven out;
I will appoint them for praise and fame
In every land where they were put to shame.
At that time I will bring you back,
Even at the time I gather you;
For I will give you fame and praise
Among all the peoples of the earth,
When I return your captives before your eyes,”
Says the LORD.

– Zephaniah 3:18-20 (NKJV)

The God of Hope

I can think of no better way to dig into these last verses than to quote Warren Wiersbe:

God’s promise is that His scattered people will be gathered, His lame people will be rescued, and His sinful people will be forgiven and no longer bear the shame of their wicked deeds. “I will bring you home” (vs. 20) is God’s gracious promise, and He will keep it. Where once the Jewish nation brought shame and disgrace to God’s name and were poor witnesses to the Gentiles, now Israel will bring honor and praise to the Lord their God and reveal to the Gentile nations to glory of His name. Israel will receive honor from the Gentiles and give the glory to the Lord. …

…there is a present-day practical lesson here for any of God’s people who have strayed from His will and experienced His chastening. When you come to Him with a broken heart, confessing your sins, He will receive you the way a loving mother receives a disobedient child. He will love you and even sing to you! He will bring peace to your heart and “quiet you with His love.” Yes, we suffer for our disobedience; and sometimes we carry the scars of that disobedience for the rest of our lives. But the Lord will forgive us (1 John 1:9), forget our sins, and restore us to loving fellowship.

Dr. William Culbertson, late president of Moody Bible Institute, sometimes ended his public prayers with, “And Lord, help us bear the consequence of forgiven sin and to end well.” There are consequences to forgiven sin; for though God in His grace cleanses us, God is His government says, “You will reap what you have sown.” After King David confessed his son, the prophet Nathan assured him that the Lord had put away his sin, but the rest of his days David suffered the tragic consequences of what he had done (2 Samuel 12:1-15).

But when God establishes His kingdom on earth, He will restore His people, renew the land, and give His people a new beginning that will cause them to forget their past disobedience and focus on praising the Lord and glorifying His name.

Jehovah is “the God of hope.” (1)

Darkness Passes

Zephaniah knew that his people weren’t going to escape the judgment that they had brought upon themselves. He understood that the would have to crawl through the valley before they would reach the heights his book ends on. Yet he also relished in the fact that the judgment would not last forever. His people were not a lost cause.

The final verses of the book (vv. 18-20) are spoken by Yahweh himself as he promises to reverse the fortunes of his people who must go through the destruction measured out to the nations in the Day of Yahweh. For them judgment becomes remedial, not final.(2)

Sometimes it seems that sin and darkness will win. The assumption is that grace is the lesser force. Forgiveness and the presence of God are surely far beyond the reach of mere mortals. Try as we might, there comes a point when we recognize that the mess is of our own making and we deserve to live in it. It is tempting, so tempting, to hang our heads and give up. We have offended God.

Whether this recognition comes for the first time or the thousandth, how breathtaking it is when God bends low and pulls us toward Him. He uses the mess. He uses the consequences. He takes the very chains that bind us and turns them into cords of love (Hosea 11:4). As we comprehend the full horror of our sins, He allows us to catch a glimpse of stunning, merciful light.

There is a decision to be made in that moment. He never forces it. We can go back to the darkness and the weight. Or we can learn, as Judah did. We can cry out for forgiveness. We, to whom God owes nothing, can be saved. By His will. By His hand.

All Him 

Strong emphasis lies in the repeated “I will.” All that they will gain—relief from burdens, salvation from oppression, return from exile, honor and praise—will be due to the direct action of Yahweh. Salvation belongs to him alone. (3)

Calvinists like to accuse anyone who isn’t Calvinist (i.e., me) of holding to a man-centered salvation. Nothing could be further from the truth. We can quibble over the ordo salutis all day long, but the glaring fact is that all the work necessary for life and salvation was initiated, carried out and completed by God. Anyone who reads the Bible honestly must come to this conclusion.

The Jewish people won’t live in peace and harmony because they are more deserving than others. God did not choose them because they were special. They became special because they were chosen, just as with Gentile believers. He will lift their burdens (and ours) because He wants to. He will deal with their enemies (and ours) because He wants to. He declares them (and us) His children because we have done the only thing that is left to do – accept His free gift of grace.

Whether you fall on the side of predestination and the irresistible nature of grace or see salvation as genuinely offered to all and believe free will is real doesn’t matter. A lot of people think it does. A lot of people think a Christian lives or dies on being able to recite the Doctrines of Grace or the Remonstrance from memory. This is not the case. Salvation is the work of God. You can think it flows via this avenue or that. It doesn’t matter. In fact, we’re probably all a little bit right and a little bit wrong and will be surprised when we see the whole picture.

What matters is that you stake your life on His. That you cast yourself entirely on the mercy of God. That you confess, out loud, that Jesus is Lord and believe with purity (Romans 10:9). That you live this thing out as He enables you to do so (Ephesians 2:10, James 2:14-26).

Per gratiam. Per fidem. Quae in operibus.

By grace. Through faith. Expressed in works.

Amen.

Reflection

  1. Read the whole book of Zephaniah. What stands out to you? What words and phrases have a deeper meaning for you now?
  2. Sum up what you have learned in a few simple sentences.
  3. Obviously we did not explore every nook and cranny of this fabulous book. That is the nature of Scripture; it is bottomless. What concepts or people do you want to learn more about now?
  4. The goal of Bible study is threefold: to know God, to love God and to obey God. After this study, do you know Him better? Love Him more deeply? Want to obey Him?
  5. How can you take the lessons of Zephaniah and apply them to your daily life?

Signature

Sources

(1) Warren Weirsbe. Be Concerned: Minor Prophets. (David C. Cook: Colorado Springs, 1996), 161, 162.

(2) Asbury Bible Commentary (under the “study this” tab)

(3) Ibid.

For all entries in The LORD Your God in Your Midst series, go here.

The LORD Your God in Your Midst: A Place for Beasts to Lie Down (2:14-15)

The LORD, the Mighty One

Gentle Reader,

The herds shall lie down in her midst,
Every beast of the nation.
Both the pelican and the bittern
Shall lodge on the capitals of her pillars;
Their voice shall sing in the windows;
Desolation shall be at the threshold;
For He will lay bare the cedar work.
This is the rejoicing city
That dwelt securely,
That said in her heart,
“I am it, and there is none besides me.”
How has she become a desolation,
A place for beasts to lie down!
Everyone who passes by her
Shall hiss and shake his fist.

– Zephaniah 2:14-15 (NKJV)

With these words, Zephaniah wraps up the pronouncement of judgment upon the nations that stood against His chosen people. The great city of the Assyrians, Nineveh, will be reduced to nothing. Animals, beasts, will take over.

Mouths Filled with Boasting

We touched on Assyria and it’s relation to Judah a couple of weeks ago. These folks were the muscle of the region, until the Babylonian Empire arrived on the scene. Their style was one of total conquest, complete domination. They were not, however, any worse than any of the other ancient empires that rose and fell like the changing of the tide. Despite a famous reputation for ruthlessness, historians note of the Assyrian’s equally-famous preference for deportations,

The deportees, their labour and their abilities were extremely valuable to the Assyrian state, and their relocation was carefully planned and organised. We must not imagine treks of destitute fugitives who were easy prey for famine and disease: the deportees were meant to travel as comfortably and safely as possible in order to reach their destination in good physical shape. Whenever deportations are depicted in Assyrian imperial art, men, women and children are shown travelling in groups, often riding on vehicles or animals and never in bonds. There is no reason to doubt these depictions as Assyrian narrative art does not otherwise shy away from the graphic display of extreme violence. (1)

This does not mean that men like Sargon II or Sennacherib were cuddle-bears. They weren’t. Keeping deportees safe as they traveled into exile, into working for a foreign power, makes good economic sense. Though the evidence indicates that they weren’t outright abused, the people Assyria conquered were still forced into a life they did not choose. They were still under complete control of a king who wielded absolute power.

2 Chronicles 32:1-23 and Isaiah 36-37 record Sennacherib’s dealings with King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah. He sends his military commander, the Rabshakeh, to threaten and intimidate the citizens of Jerusalem:

“Hear the words of the great king, the king of Assyria! Thus says the king: ‘Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you; nor let Hezekiah make you trust in the LORD, saying, “The LORD will surely deliver us; this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.”’ Do not listen to Hezekiah; for thus says the king of Assyria: ‘Make peace with me by a present and come out to me; and every one of you eat from his own vine and every one from his own fig tree, and every one of you drink the waters of his own cistern; until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards. Beware lest Hezekiah persuade you, saying, “The LORD will deliver us.” Has any one of the gods of the nations delivered its land from the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Indeed, have they delivered Samaria from my hand? Who among all the gods of these lands have delivered their countries from my hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem from my hand?’”

– Isaiah 36:13b-20 (NKJV)

Sennacherib was confident that there wan’t anybody, past, present or future, that would take him on and win.

How wrong he was!

Nineveh

Sennacherib’s sons assassinated him in his own palace (681 B.C.) This triggered the beginning of the end, a decline punctuated only by the last great Assyrian ruler, Ashurbanpial, who loved the arts so much that he commission a sculpture showing he and his wife at a picnic, with some heads and hands dangling in the tree limbs. You know. Pretty ornaments. (2)

Again, the Assyrians were really no worse than other ancient empires, but they were certainly no better. As with all great nations, the borders expanded beyond what could be reasonably governed. Ashurbanipal’s successors simply could not hold things together.

A century and a half before, God had sent the prophet Jonah to Assyria’s capital city of Nineveh to warn them of God’s judgment, and the people had repented, but successive generations went back to the old pagan ways, and Nineveh was destroyed in 612. B.C. Within the next few years, the once great Assyrian Empire simply vanished from the face of the earth, and Zephaniah saw it coming.

Because Nineveh thought it was an impregnable city, her citizens were careless and carefree when Zephaniah made his prediction, but God brought both the people and their city down into the dust of defeat. (3)

This is exactly what happened.

In 612 BCE Nineveh was sacked and burned by a coalition of Babylonians, Persians, Medes, and Scythians, among others. (4)

What We Want

It is important to notice that the people of this nation were given a chance to hear the message of truth. (If you haven’t read the book of Jonah, do. It’s interesting and funny and terribly convicting). God doesn’t judge them because of their ignorance. He judges them because they know better and choose to turn away from Him.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.

– Romans 1:18-23 (NKJV)

The Assyrians had the testimony of creation. They had the sense that each of us has in our hearts that there is something more, something greater. They had a visit from a prophet (never mind that he was a cranky prophet). They lived in close proximity to the people of God; they did not collectively always do what they were supposed to do, but there were always some in the population who spoke and lived the truth.

The Assyrians were judged based on what they knew and how they lived.

Odd, isn’t it? This is what we so often claim that we desire. We flippantly say that we want God to judge us by how we live. Because we are, after all, “good people.”

This is the exact opposite of what we want.

What we truly want, what we desperately need, is for God to see us through the lens of Christ. We don’t want to be judged by our own lives. They will forever fall so very far short of the mark. We want to be judged by the life of Christ. We want His work, His earnings, applied to our accounts.

A Picture of the End

Prophecy has layers. There was an immediate fulfillment. There is a future fulfillment.

The fall of Nineveh, and of every empire before or since, points to what is to come.

Pause now and read Revelation 6.

I cannot and will not tell you when the end of things will come. If I tried, that would make me a useless and probably false teacher. The exact box on the calendar that will signal the beginning of the final days isn’t one I’m aware of. Only God knows. The point isn’t to try and figure that out.

The point, instead, is to remember that God is the Judge.

Is God gracious? Yes. Merciful? Yes. Compassionate, kind, good, faithful and loving? Yes. He also sits on the throne. He has the whole case spread out before Him. He has no need for a jury, for He alone decides.

“…the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”

– Revelation 6:17 (NKJV)

Who can stand?

Those who choose, right now, to bow.

Reflection

  1. What is your view of God? Is He “Buddy Jesus,” someone who’s there to support you in whatever you want to do? Is He harsh and unknowable? Read John 17 and Revelation 19:11-21. Do these chapters change your view of God?
  2. It is difficult for our minds to comprehend that God will both forgive totally and judge totally. It is hard for us to accept that we come to Him on His terms, not our own. Read Hebrews 4:13-16. How do you respond to this passage?
  3. Read Zephaniah 2. What do you take away from the message of judgment on the Gentile nations surrounding Judah?
  4. We are 2/3 of the way through this book. What have you learned so far? What do you want to know more about

Signature

Sources

(1) Deporation

(3) Ibid.

(3) Warren Weirsbe. Be Concerned: Minor Prophets. (David C. Cook: Colorado Springs, 1996), 151-152.

(4) Nineveh

For all entries in The LORD Your God in Your Midst series, go here.

They Can’t All Be Correct

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

My home group has been journeying through the book of Acts for almost three months. Tonight we’ll be discussing Paul’s final recorded journey to Jerusalem and his subsequent arrest. Soon the narrative will draw to a close. I never fail to feel sad when I reach the end of a study. Even though Paul died many centuries ago, I’ll miss him.

Paul gets a hard time. People like to take what he wrote and what he was recorded as saying completely out of context. They spin his words for their own agendas. It frustrates me to no end to see the Bible abused this way. It is so, so important to take the time, to put in the effort, to consider and understand the context of a passage within the chapter, the book or letter or poem as a whole, the overarching salvation narrative and the historical timeline. This is the only way, guided by the Holy Spirit, to rightly handle the text.

Consider one of my favorite scenes from Acts:

Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols. Therefore he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentile worshipers, and in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there. Then certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him. And some said, “What does this babbler want to say?”

Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods,” because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection.

And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new doctrine is of which you speak? For you are bringing some strange things to our ears. Therefore we want to know what these things mean.” For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing.

Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription:

TO THE UNKNOWN GOD

Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising. Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.”

– Acts 17:16-31 (NKJV)

Yes, Paul had a temper. He was an intense guy. He was a very flawed human being, something he declared over and over again. He made mistakes. He knew exactly what sort of person he was and exactly from what God had saved him.

Yet there is nothing offensive in his sermon. He is respectful, learned and passionate. He speaks to his audience in terms they will readily understand. He seeks out whatever common ground he can find and builds on it. I imagine him as the sort of guy that would be willing to sit down with anyone who wanted to talk about faith and God, probably over a good kosher burger.

But he never says that their way is right.

He never says that the road they are on will lead them to salvation.

We would do well to emulate Paul in this way. He never compromised the message. He was not wishy-washy. He did not go into pagan temples and participate in idolatrous rights in order to “connect” with people. He did not preach some mushy, gushy, “all you need is love,” fake, flimsy gospel. He spoke and wrote the truth. It got him run out of towns, separated from friends, whipped, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked and eventually (according to tradition) beheaded.

I have no doubt that he stands today among that great and unseen cloud of witnesses and shouts, “It was worth it! The Lord is worth it!”

They can’t all be correct. We do the unbelieving world great disservice when we refuse to reveal the Unknown God to them. When we spout the political correctness of relativism. When we refuse to face reality. When we fall prey to inconsistencies of logic and cognitive dissonance.

There is One way, One truth and One life. Period.

Let us be moved. Not to disdain, superiority or prejudice. Not to unkindness or brutality. Let us be moved, as Paul was moved, to take the Light of Christ boldly into the dark. Let us allow the Lord to break our hearts for the lost, for those who grope about wildly for what He freely and openly offers. Let us be strong and committed. Let us declare truth.

For that is real love.

My journey to faith. (15)