Any student of composition knows and fears the passive voice. A sentence written in the passive voice is always a temptation and a sure sign of red marks on the graded and corrected essay. But more recently I am seeing another critique of the passive voice: it lets the actor off the hook. Headlines like, “Woman Sexually Assaulted,” “Minorities Denied Housing,” “Refugees Detained at Border,” “Hundreds of Civilians Killed”—these all beg the question: who is doing this? Someone was responsible for these actions. The use of the passive voice almost implicitly blames the victims. How we talk about things matters. The way we tell our stories matters.
This is where the Old Testament prophets come in.
The prophets saw what was happening in Israel along with everyone else. But they told the story of those events differently than everyone else. Today’s Zephaniah passage is an example of the importance of telling the story the right way—God’s way.
First, some background. Zephaniah was active during the reign of King Josiah. Josiah made positive reforms in Judah but his efforts were too little, too late. The residents of Judah would soon be carried off to Babylon. Zephaniah saw all that was happening and warned the residents of Israel’s Southern Kingdom of their coming defeat. The opening of Zephaniah is a warning of the coming “Day of the Lord.”
Zephaniah’s way of speaking about what will take place in Judah was one of the most frequent and important messages of the prophets: God is the primary actor. Judah would not be defeated because of the inevitable defeat of a weaker nation by a more powerful nation. No, Judah would only be defeated because God allowed it to happen. This way of writing history almost sounds self-centered. The identity of the surrounding nations is somewhat tangential to the story. The heart of this story is Israel’s failure to live righteously and God’s intolerance of injustice. What history may see as simply the defeat of one nation by another, Zephaniah saw as the divinely enacted consequences of God’s people’s failure to practice righteousness in their lives and relationships. The day that was coming was not “The Day of the Victory of Babylon,” but rather, “The Day of the Lord.”
Another uniquely prophetic way of speaking was Zephaniah’s willingness to condemn his fellow countrymen. Whether my kids are telling the story of something that happened earlier in the day or the history books are telling the story of something that happened in our nation’s history two hundred years ago, we all have the same tendency: we make ourselves the hero. We tend to overlook the parts of the story that don’t flatter us. Other prophets did this during Bible times too, but they didn’t make the cut. We’re not reading their words still today. We are reading the words of the prophets like Zephaniah who reflected God’s commitment to righteousness, whether in Israel or the surrounding nations. Nobody gets a free pass. Zephaniah’s first words of warning were for his own people.
Note well that this applies to the church today. If we invoke the name of Jesus in our gatherings and call ourselves Christians on our bumper stickers but do not embody the justice and righteousness of God, we best watch out. Zephaniah warned Israel, Jesus warned the Pharisees, and the church should pay attention today. This will not stand in the eyes of God. No one gets a free pass.
In 1:12, Zephaniah called out a particular group of people. They did two things wrong. They were complacent and they assumed the same was true of God. This assumption of God stands in very stark contrast with the end of chapter one where Zephaniah warns that in the fire of God’s jealousy the whole earth would be consumed. There is a difference between God’s patience and God’s complacency, and Israel would do well to stand up and take notice of that.
This is another challenging message to the church today and one oft-repeated by the New Testament writers, including in this week’s texts. 1 Thessalonians 5 cautions us to not fall asleep. Matthew 25 reminds us that though the master may be gone for a long time, a day of reckoning is coming. We must be careful to heed the words of Zephaniah and not assume that God’s slow action is a sign of God’s complacency, and we must order our lives accordingly, working diligently in anticipation of God’s action. We must be careful that we are never lulled into inaction, thus becoming like “wine left on its dregs” (v. 12).
Zephaniah 1:13 is reminiscent of God’s recurring promise to Israel that Israel would live in houses they did not build and eat from vineyards they did not plant (see, for example, the verse directly preceding last week’s Joshua text, Joshua 24:13). Now, Zephaniah is warning the opposite. They will build houses and plant vineyards, but they will not be around to enjoy the fruits of their labors. What a disheartening reversal!
Verses 16 and 18 suggest two characteristics of Zephaniah’s audience. Zephaniah warned that this day of the Lord would be “against the fortified cities” and that “neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them.” Zephaniah’s audience may be both powerful and wealthy, and they may have hoped that the insulation of wealth and power would be enough to protect them from whatever dread may be coming upon them. But Zephaniah warned that on that day, their wealth and power would not be enough to save them.
This is also a warning to the church today, especially for American Christians. We are people of great wealth and power, but those have never been and never will be the source of our salvation. In fact, in the verses prior to this lectionary selection, Zephaniah warned against those who swore by the Lord but also swore by Molek. We can’t look to God for our salvation but make other deals on the side. We must choose. Either we trust in God to save us, or we trust in wealth and power. No one can serve two masters.
It is unfortunate that the lectionary passage ends with verse 18 because this fiery end of the world was not the whole story. Zephaniah’s strong words are a reflection of God’s strong anger. God was furious about Israel’s complacency! God was furious about Israel’s disregard for justice! Zephaniah was shouting in all caps: GOD IS ANGRY AND THE EARTH WILL BE CONSUMED.
But I always ask two questions when reading texts like this passage: For whom is this bad news? And, for whom is this good news?
These are important questions to consider as we approach this text and as we think about how it speaks to our world today. The end of this passage seems to suggest that this is bad news for the whole world, but in the opening verse of this section, there is a hint of something happening. Zephaniah declares that the Lord has consecrated those he has invited. In chapter 3, Zephaniah offered the hope of a “remnant,” “the meek and humble.” For all those who were outside the circle of wealth and power, for all those who were desperate for a salvation that could not come from their own power, for all those who refused to succumb to the cultural pressure to call on other gods for salvation, this is very, very good news. One of the most beautiful verses in the Bible offers hope to this remnant. Zephaniah 3:17 says that God will “rejoice over you with singing.” Too often when we stumble over the “Old Testament God of wrath,” it is because we have not considered who may be desperately praying for the “day of the Lord,” who may be desperately praying that God intervene and cut down the power of those who are using their position to deny justice to the oppressed. For some of us, we eagerly pray for this day of divine reckoning. For others, we may be unsure of whether this day will be good news—are we the oppressed, or are we those who are depending on our wealth and power for salvation? If we are asking that question, we get to choose. We get to choose with which side we will align ourselves. We have the opportunity to end our complacency and begin to expend the wealth and power that we have on behalf of the poor and oppressed, so that this day of reckoning becomes a day that we also eagerly await.
How we tell our story matters. God is always the primary actor, and nobody gets a free pass. Our wealth and power will not save us, but our willingness to leap into action on behalf of those to whom justice is denied will make the promise of this coming day of reckoning an incredible message of good news.
May we receive the words of Zephaniah with joy and may we hear God rejoicing over us with singing.