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The Prophet Zephaniah and "The Great Day of the Lord"

For Sunday November 16, 2008

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
           Judges 4:1–7, 14–25 or Zephaniah 1:7, 12–18
           Psalm 123 or Psalm 90:1–8, (9–11), 12
           1 Thessalonians 5:1–11
           Matthew 25:14–30

Last Judgment, circa 1230,Stone Cathedral, Rheims.
Last Judgment, circa 1230,Stone Cathedral, Rheims.

           In describing the scientific enterprise, Professor Dick Bube of Stanford once remarked that there's a big difference between description and explanation. Description is comparatively easy, whereas explanation can be extremely difficult and sometimes impossible. Reading the prophet Zephaniah reminds me of Bube's wisdom.

           Of the twelve minor prophets, Zephaniah's central theme is probably the easiest to describe. In five brief pages he refers to “the day of the Lord” at least nineteen times. Exactly what Zephaniah means by "the day of the Lord" is more difficult to explain. His prophecy begins with some wild poetry about a coming day of divine judgment:

           “I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord,

           “I will sweep away both men and animals; I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea.

           "The wicked will have only heaps of rubble when I cut off man from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord (1:1–3).

           This is “the great day of the Lord's wrath” (1:14) and it is a day of bitterness, anguish, ruin and gloom. Zephaniah's initial scope is not just Judah or her surrounding enemies but rather the entire world. His vision is universal. Parts of his prophecy about “the day of the Lord” are directed to “the whole world” and “all who live in the earth” (1:18 and 3:8), the nations and kingdoms (plural) “on every shore” (2:11).

           But Zephaniah has particularly harsh words for Judah. In two long passages he directly addresses God's elect people (1:4–2:3 and 3:1–20). There was religious infidelity in the worship of Baal and Molech. In the economic sphere there was wanton luxury predicated upon oppression and exploitation; these people wore “foreign clothes” — only the nicest imports from the most expensive stores (1:8). The market district, merchants and those who “trade with silver” — Jerusalem's Wall Street — will be “wiped out” (1:11). In the social and cultural realm, violence and oppression ruled the day (1:9, 3:1). Judah's officials, prophets and priests were singled out as predators (3:3–4). This is a people who “knows no shame” (3:5).

The Doom, or Last Judgement, and the Weighing of Souls, West Somerton, England, medieval church.
The Doom, or Last Judgement,
and the Weighing of Souls,
West Somerton, England,
medieval church.

           Zephaniah then turns his attention to five surrounding nations. God will also judge Philistia, Moab, Ammon, Cush and Assyria. Notice the concentric circles: God's elect people Judah, five surrounding nations, and even the entire world or the whole earth.

           Whatever we might think about God's judgment, it is equitable in at least two senses. The judgment that Zephaniah describes is the same for all. Neither God's elect nor the pagan enemy nations are treated differently. There are no “favorites,” so to speak. In writing to the believers at Rome, Paul made this very point. To the Jews who (rightly) saw themselves as an elect people of divine privilege — and Christians should listen carefully here in our spiritual condescension toward unbelievers — Paul reminds them that God's judgment is righteous: “There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good; first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism” (Romans 2:5–11). In Zephaniah, Judah, the five enemy nations, and the entire world get the same treatment.

           God's judgment is equitable in a second sense. People often caricature divine judgment as some ambivalent and arbitrary outburst, like the unpredictable anger of a parent who lashes out at his children. But that's hardly the case here. God's judgment is entirely predictable, without any surprises. It's a purifying response to all the many things that dehumanize us — social violence, political oppression, religious fakery, economic exploitation, and the like.

           Think about it; do we really want a Charles Taylor or an Idi Amin to go unpunished? Do I really want God to leave me to my own worst impulses of envy, greed, anger, and so forth, or do I want Him to judge, rescue and purify me from them? Would I really prefer that these impurities not be cleansed and taken away from me, that I not be held accountable? The most terrifying texts in the Bible are those where God gives us up to our own sin, poor choices, foolishness ignorance, and the like (cf. Romans 1:24, 26, 28). Divine judgment is equitable and even merciful in that, like a loving parent, it demonstrates that God has not given up on me, that He is not done with me.

           When is "the great day of the Lord?" Two times Zephaniah writes that it is “near” and “coming quickly” (1:7, 14). A natural way to read this is that he foresaw the coming invasion of Babylon, roughly a mere fifty years in his future. His readers already knew what had happened to the northern kingdom of Israel only a hundred years earlier when in 722 BC Assyria destroyed them. But given Zephaniah's universal scope, it's possible that he also envisioned not only a near future but a far future. At this point we should be content with his description and admit our ignorance about the detailed explanation.

           The "day of the Lord” and divine judgment has less to do about chronology and clock time (from the Greek chronos), and everything to do with sensing the “time” of God's special visitation (what the Greeks called kairos). Thus Jesus encouraged us to understand the “signs of the time” — not in the sense of what day of the week it is or what month or year, but in the sense of understanding what God is doing right now (Matthew 16:3). Similarly, and tragically, Jesus lamented that Jerusalem “did not recognize the time (kairos) of God's coming to you” (Luke 19:44). So, discerning God's judgment has less to do with solving a chronological puzzle about the far future, and everything to do about sensing the speaking and acting of God here and now.

The Last Judgment by Michaelangelo, 1536-41 (45' x 43').
The Last Judgment by Michaelangelo,
1536-41 (45' x 43') (click for larger view).

           In Zephaniah, God's judgment intends to be redemptive and not merely retributive or punitive. It's not an end in itself but a means to a better end. There is a scattering, but there is also a “gathering” (3:20). There is the announcement of impending doom, but Zephaniah also includes an invitation and appeal. He beseeches us to seek the Lord “before” (3 times) the dreadful day of the Lord comes. Divine judgment is not inevitable, it is not some immutable law of fate. Should we mend our ways, our history will change.

           Zephaniah envisions a day when God “takes away your punishment,” a time when “you will not be put to shame for all the wrongs you have done to me” (3:11, 15). It's a day when Yahweh is “mighty to save,” a time when He “takes great delight” in us, a time when he will “quiet us with His love and rejoice over us with singing” (3:16–17).

           Echoing his prophetic compatriots, Zephaniah finally says that the day of the Lord is a day when “the nations on every shore will worship him, everyone in his own land” (2:11; Isaiah 2:2, Micah 4:1–2, and Zechariah 8:22–23). Yahweh's judgment, then, is a “severe mercy” or a “tough love,” for it anticipates the time when His mercy triumphs over wrath (Habakkuk 3:2) and His grace overshadows our sin (Romans 5:20)

Image credits: (1) Web Gallery of Art; (2); and (3)

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