Bible Commentaries

The Biblical Illustrator

Zephaniah 1

Verses 1-6

Zephaniah 1:1-6

The word of the Lord which came unto Zephaniah.

The Word

I. THE DISTINGUISHING CAPACITY OF MAN, AND THE WONDERFUL CONDESCENSION OF GOD.

1. The distinguishing capacity of man. To receive the word of Jehovah. To receive a word from another is to appreciate its meaning. The word of the Lord comes to every man at times,--comes in visions of the night, comes in the intuitions of conscience, comes in the impressions that nature makes on the heart.

2. The wonderful condescension of God. Even to speak to man. “The Lord hath respect unto the humble.”

II. The moral corruption of man and the exclusive prerogative of God.

1. The moral corruption of man. There are three great moral evils indicated in these verses.

2. The exclusive prerogative of God. What is that? To destroy. “I will utterly consume all things from off the land, saith the Lord. I will consume man and beast; I will consume the fowls of the heaven, and the fishes of the sea, and the stumbling blocks with the wicked; and I will cut off man from off the land, saith the Lord.”

Verse 2-3

Zephaniah 1:2-3

I will utterly consume all things from off the land.

The menace of Zephaniah

It would not be easy to find words more fully charged and surcharged with terror than these. Nor do they grow less sombre and dreadful as we consider either the men against whom they are launched, or the occasion that gave them form. In the time of Zephaniah the Jews were incredibly corrupt. The occasion of Zephaniah’s writing was the invasion of Asia by the Scyths. As he looked out from the walls of Jerusalem and saw the goodly land stripped and devoured before them, and recalled the havoc they had carried through neigh-bouring kingdoms, he found the very symbol of judgment which would best express his thought. Jehovah would sweep everything from the face of the whole earth, even as the Scythians, with fire and sword in their train, were sweeping away the fruits and the wealth of the East. The conception which the passage suggests is that, angered beyond endurance by the sins of men, Jehovah is about to storm through the earth like a mighty Scythian chieftain destroying empire after empire, sweeping the whole world bare and empty. But these words, when rightly understood, are found to breathe a most catholic charity, a most tender humanity, and a mercy wholly divine.

I. A most catholic charity. His view extended over the whole civilised world, over the whole world the prophet knew. We commonly conceive of the Hebrew prophets as the most narrow and exclusive of men, as devoted solely to the affairs and interests of the Hebrew race. And in so conceiving of them we do them a grave wrong. They were patriots, indeed, and patriots of the sincerest and noblest strain. Instead of being the most exclusive, they were really the most catholic of men. There is no one of them who does not look beyond the limits of his own country and desire the welfare of the world. And men ought to rejoice that the judgments of man are abroad in the whole earth, especially when they can see that Divine judgments veil purposes of mercy. This is the true catholicity, which desires not only the good of all men, but the highest good of all.

II. A most noble and tender humanity. They exalt man, and yet they take thought for beasts. They are at once human and humane. It is now too much the fashion to regard man as the mere creature of the vast natural and cosmic forces amid which he stands and moves. It is assumed that physical laws govern his whole being. The Hebrew prophets breathed another, and surely a higher spirit.” “To them it seemed that man was the lord of natural forces and laws, though himself “under authority.” This high conception of man, as standing with only God above him, and the whole world beneath his feet, though it was the conception of a pre-scientific age, accords with the profoundest intuitions, and satisfies the deepest cravings of our hearts.

III. A mercy wholly Divine. Though the words of the text sound so stem and judicial, all the Hebrew prophets are rooted and grounded in the conviction that the meaning of judgment is mercy, that all the sorrows and calamities of human life are designed to reach an end of compassion and love. That it was the mercy of judgment which Zephaniah had in mind when he rejoiced that “their offences” were to be swept away with the sinners of his time, that men were to suffer in order that man might be saved, is evident so soon as we permit him to interpret himself. In passages of an exquisite tenderness and beauty he expands his opening words. See Zephaniah 2:11; Zephaniah 3:9. It was because the Hebrew prophets were so strong in this conviction of the beneficent uses of “judgments” that they could dwell on them, and even exult in them, as they undoubtedly do. Let us learn of Zephaniah the mercy of the Divine judgments. They simply sheathe and convey the saving health of the Divine compassion and love. With Zephaniah let us welcome and rely on the conviction that, when God sweeps the face of the earth, it is that He may renew the heart of the world, and gladden us with larger disclosures of His grace. (Samuel Cox, D. D.)

I will consume man and beast; I will consume the fowls of the heaven, and the fishes of the sea.

Animals sharing the punishments of man

Why did God turn His wrath against fishes and other, animals? This seems to have been a hasty and unreasonable infliction. But let this rule be first borne in mind, that it is preposterous in us to estimate God’s dealings according to our judgment, as froward and proud men do in our day; for they are disposed to judge of God’s works with such presumption that whatever they do not approve they think it right wholly to condemn. But it behoves us to judge modestly and soberly, and to confess that God’s judgments are a deep abyss; and when a reason for them does not appear we ought reverently and with due humility to look for the day of their full revelation. This is one thing. Then it is meet at the same time to remember that as animals were created for man’s use, they must under, go a lot in common with him; for God made subservient to man both the birds of heaven and the fishes of the sea, and all other animals. It is, then, no matter of wonder that the condemnation of him who enjoys sovereignty over the whole earth should reach to animals. The reason is sufficiently plain. Why, the prophet speaks here of the beasts of the earth, the fishes of the sea, and the birds of heaven; for we find that men grow torpid, or rather stupid in their own indifference, except as they are forcibly roused. It was therefore necessary for the prophet, when he saw the people so hardened in their wickedness, and that he had to do with men past recovery, to set clearly before them these judgments of God. (John Calvin.)

Verse 4-5

Zephaniah 1:4-5

And that swear by the Lord, and that swear by Malcham

The demonstrativeness of true religion

In this text it is a sort of mixed religion that the Lord declares He will not tolerate.
Impress t he necessity of decision in religion. What is the lowest amount of faith in Jesus Christ which will avail to save a man’s soul?

1. What definition the Scripture gives us of true Christianity. Mark the distinction between coming to Christ and following Christ. Coming to Christ costs a man nothing; but following Christ and remaining with Christ involve the taking up the cross and the exercise of stern self-denial. True Christianity demands an entire surrender of the heart to God, a thorough abandonment of wilful sin, an unceasing vigilance against the wiles of the devil.

2. If a man has cordially embraced, with a living faith, the truth as it is in Jesus, will he--can he--be undemonstrative? By demonstrativeness is not meant talkativeness, nor can it be explained by formalism. When forms are allowed to usurp the place of the heart, they demonstrate too much. Nor is it being charitable, or regularly attending worship. By demonstrativeness is meant a quiet earnestness, which will show itself as much by what it does not as by what it does. A man cannot, in a proper sense, be undemonstrative if he has embraced, with a living faith, the “truth as it is in Jesus.”

3. To what is the undemonstrativeness of the mere professor of religion traceable? Is it not that he makes God the offering of half his heart, while he gives the other half to the world?

4. Are we to call the undemonstrative true Christians, and the demonstrative advanced Christians? Let God answer. See the text. He who readeth the heart will not be mocked and trifled with. God will cut off the undecided. In the last great assize those who in their lives have halted between two opinions shall find no mercy. (W. I. Chapman, M. A.)

Double-hearted people

A little while ago I was with some friends, going through Her Majesty’s State apartments in Windsor Castle. At the end of the great banquet-hall we were shown, in a gallery above our heads, a fine organ. Now this organ, I found, was just like one of the double-hearted people; for the old man who was taking us round explained carefully that it performed double duty, having two finger-boards. At the sides from which we saw it it was played on the occasion of a royal banquet, to the delight and pleasure of those who feasted below. But on the side which we could not see it had another finger-board, and performed a wholly different service, for it was in the royal chapel, and pealed forth strains of sacred music to help the worship of those who gathered there. Well, I despised that organ for its double-dealing, though, of course, you know the organ could not help itself. It was only what it had been made, but it seemed to me like “a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.” God keep us from having two finger-beards. Do you understand what I mean. Do you see that we, who are blood-bought and made nigh to God, have the blessed privilege of being brought as worshippers into the holiest? That there we may be as beautiful instruments, in full tune for the Master’s hand, that, when He strikes the chords, there may rise rich swelling notes of worship and praise to His ear and heart. Having, then, a finger-board in the holiest, in the place of worship, let us be very jealous that there be none to which the revellers of this world can have access, that no note of sympathy may be ever struck from our hearts by the world, that has rejected Christ, the David whom we own as Lord. (A. J. Gordon, D. D.)

There ought to be continuity in our religious life

There should be continuity in our religious life. Some people are pious by fits and starts. They are with God in the sanctuary, but not in the shop; they drink the cup of the Lord on Sunday, and the cup of the devil on Monday. At the mouths of certain large rivers are formed what geologists call lagoons. A lagoon is a small lake separated from the sea by a bar of sand, and is filled with fresh and salt water by turns. Often a lagoon communicates exclusively with the river for months, and during this period its water is fresh. Then a breach is made in the bar of sand and there is an eruption of salt water, which for a season holds undisputed sway. In these lagoons we may find an illustration of not a few people connected with all our churches. For a time they are seemingly in communication with God and spiritual things, and these are the forces that shape and mould and colour their life. But suddenly that communication seems to break off, to be interrupted; the world rushes in through some breach of their own making, and for a season, at least, the things that are seen and temporal gain complete mastery over them. The change in their life and conduct is no less marked than the change in the waters of the lagoon. This type of Christian, this religious Reuben, will never attain to spiritual strength and ripeness, the stature of the perfect man Christ Jesus. The true follower of the Son of Man finds his illustration not in the lagoon, but in the glory of the Shechinah which shone continuously and with unabated splendour in the temple. (W. B. Sproule.)

Verses 7-18

Zephaniah 1:7-18

The day of the Lord is at hand.

The day of war, the day of horrors

The war day is represented here--

I. As a day of enormous sacrifice.

1. Sacrifice of life. Among several classes.

2. Sacrifice of property.

II. As a day of Divine retribution. All the horrors of war are here represented as judgments from the Almighty. In using war as a punishment for sin it may be observed--

1. That all who perish in war righteously deserve their fate.

2. That warriors, in executing the Divine justice, demonstrate the enormity of the evil requiring punishment.

3. War, as an officer of Divine justice, reveals the amazing freedom allowed to the sinner in this world, and God’s controlling power over hostile forces. (Homilist.)

Verse 8

Zephaniah 1:8

I will punish . . . all such as are clothed with strange apparel

The sinfulness of strange apparel

I.
The criminals. Consider the principals, and the accessaries.

II. The crime. Either wearing exotic and foreign apparel, or such as they had newly invented among themselves.

III. The punishment. This is indefinitely expressed. How, in what way, degree, or measure, He will punish, He reserves to Himself. (Vincent Alsop, A. M.)

Verse 12

Zephaniah 1:12

At that time.

At that time

The day of the Lord is any season in which He reveals Himself in a special manner. Of the dealings of God with His visible Church on that day the text presents a striking description.

I. The party here spoken of--jerusalem.

1. In the day of the Lord the visible Church is not exempted from His special notice and appropriate dealings.

2. The grounds of God’s procedure towards His Church may be the following. To whom much is given, of them shall much be required. With the visible Church the interests of the world are entrusted. With the visible Church, in a sense, the honour and glory of God’s name are entrusted. God, having loved His Church, is jealous of His Church’s love.

3. These views not only satisfy as to God’s procedure, but furnish strong inducements to faithfulness to the Church.

4. When God shall come, it will be to His Church specially

II. The peculiar aspect of the Day of the Lord towards Jerusalem. That is, the particular character of His dealings towards His Church--He shall “search with candles.”

1. This expression proves the existence of suspicion.

2. It shows that the Church has hidden her sin.

3. It teaches that the search is close and narrow and prying. Illustration--The woman seeking her lost piece of silver, candle in hand.

4. It teaches that God Himself will search His Church. Not to satisfy Himself, but to indicate His complete knowledge, and to lead the Church to seek knowledge.

5. God searches by various means or agencies.

1. Ministers of the Gospel.

2. Individuals or churches.

3. Events of providence.

4. All these by the candle of His Word. Are you prepared to be searched by God?

III. the result of this search in Jerusalem is the discovery of the men that are “settled on their lees.”

1. The class described (Jeremiah 48:11).

2. The cause of this feature of their character. Quiescence of one and another class of feeling.

3. This is infidelity of heart.

4. There is not necessarily a quiescence of worldly feelings.

IV. The Divine treatment of this class. Their punishment may be judicial blindness. In eternity it will be God’s wrath. (James Stewart.)

I will search Jerusalem with candles.

Searching with candles

The Lord threatens, in the taking of the city, to take order with all atheists and epicures, who, abounding in wealth, lay secure and at ease (like wine on its dregs when it is not removed), in their heart denying God’s providence, or that He took any care of things beneath, to reward good or punish evil; and therefore neither loved nor believed His promises, that they might walk in His way, nor feared His justice, so as to abandon sin. Concerning these the Lord threatens, that as a man searcheth what is hid or lost with a candle, so He would narrowly search out their sins, and themselves so as to punish them for their sins, so as none should escape; and their goods to give them for a spoil; whereby their houses should become desolate, and they should be disappointed of all their expectations from their enjoyments, according to His sentence pronounced of old in His law (Deuteronomy 28:30; Deuteronomy 28:39). Doctrine--

1. Ease and prosperity slayeth the fool, and breeds such distempers of security, and settling on the earth, as justly provokes God to smite.

2. Prosperity and want of exercise, by vicissitudes of dispensations, is a great feeder of atheism, and an enemy to the observation and making use of Divine providence; and this again doth embolden and harden men yet more in their secure and wicked courses.

3. Secure atheists and contemners of God and His providence may expect that God will refute them in a language which they will understand, and make them know His providence at their own expense.

4. When the Lord strips a sinful person or people of any mercies which they enjoyed they will find upon narrow search that their enjoyment thereof hath been a snare to them, to lead them into sin; and they should read this in the stroke.

5. The holy justice of God is to be adored in disappointing men of any happiness or contentment they expected in these things for which they hazard their souls, and so rendering them twice losers who will not serve Him. (George Hutcheson.)

Soul searching

It seems to be commonly thought that the one fear and the one foe in these days is infidelity. Two things only have to be remembered by those who preach against infidelity to ordinary congregations,--the one is, that they do not, in furnishing answers, suggest the doubt with them; the other is, that they he careful to deal fairly and charitably with opponents in a place where, of course, there can be no reply.

I. Indifference is practical infidelity. Without disparaging the prevalence in these days of an intellectual and specu lative infidelity, we must feel that there are other dangers and other impediments to the life of souls which may make less demand upon the logic or the rhetoric of preachers, but which are at least as serious in their nature, and even more likely to be found in an assembly of worshippers. There is indifference. Indifference and infidelity have a closer affinity than is implied in their natures. For one person who is made sceptical by thinking or reading, twenty and a hundred persons are made sceptics by indifference. They “care for none of these things,” and therefore they can amuse themselves by playing with those edge-tools of sarcasm over things sacred which they would rather die than do, if they knew what may be the consequences to others now, and some day to themselves. The figure of the text is taken from the experience of vintners and wine merchants who have suffered some of the necessary processes of their business to be too long delayed, with the effect of making the wine what the margin represents the Hebrew original to call curded or thickened. The general idea seems to be that of the Psalm, “Because they have no changings, therefore they fear not.” It may be the sad, remorseful feeling of some one whom I address, that there is gradually sinking down upon him something of the dull, drowsy, stupid indifference towards the three paramount realities--God, the soul, and eternity, which, if it should become permanent, if it should become inveterate, will be in the most terrible of senses the very sleep of death.

II. Causes of spiritual decline. This state has many histories. It is a dangerous thing, dangerous even for the soul, to live always on one spot, in one society, a life of routine, whether that routine be of pleasure or of business. The life of what is called society not only lays a heavy weight on the soul, of weariness, of depression, of simple worldliness; it has a dissipating, it has an enfeebling action upon the vigorous energy, upon the sturdy independence, upon the pure affection of mind and heart. There is a wonderful inequality in this matter of human experience. One life has its even tenor from year to year, another life is lacerated by a succession of sorrows. There is nothing of fatalism in saying that the never being emptied by providential discipline from vessel to vessel, the never going into captivity under a chastisement not joyous but grievous, is a less advantageous treatment, morally and spiritually, than the opposite. How graphic the description of the man who is “settled on his lees”; the man who has lost all freshness and liveliness of feeling, in the monotony of comfort and luxury, of health and habit, of regular alternation and unbroken routine! They say in their heart, “The Lord will not do good, neither will He do evil.” This is the Nemesis of long forgetfulness. God, the living, acting God, disappears at last from the scene of being Then let us try earnestly to bring God back into our lives; let us try to do or forbear each day some one thing quite definitely and quite expressly because of God; because He wills, and it will please Him; or because He wills not, and therefore we will forbear. It is wonderful how this kind of self-treatment will spread and grow, till at last the blessed habit has become ours of setting God always before us, and doing all things as in His sight. (Dean Vaughan.)

Divine judgments

To the Hebrew prophets the world was without meaning if it was not moral. Righteousness--the desire for it, the endeavour after it, was at the heart of things. We may thank Matthew Arnold for the phrase “The power that makes for righteousness” as a definition of God. The Hebrew prophet was a moral philosopher, a statesman, a preacher of righteousness, a declarer of God’s will as expressed in the laws and tendencies of human history. He was a scientist as well as a seer, discerning the face of the sky and the signs of the times, and predicting the rise and fall of states. It was the fate of Zephaniah to fall on evil times.

I. The subject of Divine judgments.

1. They embrace the whole earth. God’s moral law is co-extensive with the whole world. God’s commandments are one and the same all the world over.

2. It is just as true that, though universal, God’s judgments are sometimes particular and special. “I will search Jerusalem.”. God begins at home. When God comes to make inquisition for sin He begins at the sanctuary.

3. The prophet leads us into yet inner circles--“I will punish the men that are settled on their lees.” The metaphor is drawn from the manufacture. By the expression two classes are intended--

The man who settles down upon the sediment that is in him takes his tone and standard from the worse and not from the better part of his nature.

3. The innermost circle of all is occupied by those who say “in their heart, the Lord will not do good, neither will He do evil,”--the practical atheists of the Church who swear by the Lord, but relegate Him to a distant corner of His domain.

II. The method of god’s judgments. “Search with candles.” No half-measures, no compromise with evil will satisfy Jehovah.

III. The purpose of God’s judgments is not simply penal, but purifying and remedial. Our God is just to forgive, loving to punish. Let the Lord work His gracious fatherly will in your life. (J. D. Thompson.)

Punish the men that are settled on their lees.--

Religious indifferentism

We have it here--

I. Divinely portrayed. It is marked by two elements.

1. Carnality. “The men that are settled on their lees.” The image is taken from the crust that is formed on the bottom of wines that have been long left undisturbed. It is marked by--

2. Atheism. “They say in their heart, The Lord will not do good, neither will He do evil.” This atheism is--

II. Divinely detected. “I will search Jerusalem with candles,” or lamps. The language, of course, is highly figurative. Omniscience does not require lamps to light Him, or to employ any effort to discover. He sees all things. “There is not a word on my tongue but lo, O Lord, Thou knowest it altogether.” The language means, God’s complete knowledge of this religious indifferentism wherever it exists. He sees it.--

1. He sees it though it may not reveal itself in any palpable forms to men. Though it may conform to all the rules of social morality and popular religion, He sees it.

2. He sees it though it may be robed in the forms of religious devotion. It may attend churches, join in liturgies, sing psalms,--yet He sees it.

III. Divinely punished. I Will “punish the men that are settled on their lees.” “Though they hide themselves in the top of Carmel, I will search and take them out” (Amos 9:3). The religiously indifferent must be punished sooner or later. How? By burning moral convictions. Convictions--

1. As to the absurdity of their conduct. They will one day have the miserable god of their own hearts and the God of the universe brought into contact within them.

2. As to the wickedness of their conduct.

3. As to the ruinousness of their conduct. “Because I called and ye refused, I stretched out My hand and ye would not; therefore I will laugh when your fear cometh, and mock at your day of calamity.” (Homilist.)

Stagnant upon their lees

This starts questions for ourselves. Here is evidently the same public temper which at all periods provokes alike the despair of the reformer and the indignation of the prophet, the criminal apathy of the well-to-do classes sunk in ease and religious indifference. We have to-day the same mass of obscure nameless persons, who oppose their almost unconquerable inertia to every movement of reform, and are the drag upon all vital and progressive religion. The great causes of God and humanity are not defeated by the hot assaults of the devil, but by the slow, crushing, glacier-like mass of thousands and thousands of indifferent nobodies. God’s causes are never destroyed by being blown up, but by being sat upon. It is not the violent and anarchical whom we have to fear in the war for human progress, but the slow, the staid, and the respectable. And the danger of these does not lie in their stupidity. Notwithstanding all their religious profession, it lies in their real scepticism. Respectability may be the precipitate of unbelief. Nay, it is that, however religious its mask, wherever it is mere comfort, decorousness, and conventionality; where, though it would abhor articulately confessing that God does nothing, it virtually means so--“says so” (as Zephaniah puts it) “in its heart,” by refusing to share manifest opportunities of serving Him, and covers its sloth and its fear by sneering that God is not with the great crusades for freedom and purity to which it is summoned. In these ways respectability is the precipitate which unbelief naturally forms in the selfish ease and stillness of so much of our middle-class life. And that is what makes mere respectability so dangerous. Like the unshaken, unstrained wine to which the prophet compares its obscure and muddy comfort, it tends to decay. To some extent our respectable classes are just the dregs and lees of our national life; like all dregs, they are subject to corruption. A great sermon could be preached on the putrescence of respectability,--how the ignoble comfort of our respectable classes and their indifference to holy causes lead to sensuality, and poison the very institutions of the home and family, on which they]pride themselves. A large amount of the licentiousness of the present day is not that of outlaw and disordered lives, but is bred from the settled ease and indifference of many of our middle-class families. It is perhaps the chief part of the sin of the obscure units, which form these great masses of indifference, that they think they escape notice and cover their individual responsibility. At all times many have sought obscurity, not because they are humble, but because they are slothful, cowardly, or indifferent. Obviously it is this temper which is met by the words, “I will search out Jerusalem with lights.” (Geo. Adam Smith, D. D.)

The danger of uninterrupted prosperity

God is omniscient. Why, then, should He represent Himself as searching Jerusalem with candles, as though there were the remotest possibility of any acts escaping His detection? These representations are simply intended to work powerfully on our minds. For whom is it that the Almighty institutes this close and piercing search? Not the perpetrators of any very secret and hidden sin; but men who are “settled on their lees,” whom prosperity has lulled into a kind of practical atheism, so that they deny the providence of God or His interference in human affairs. God would not employ this strong figure if there may not be a great deal of this sensual indifference, this haughty indolence, even in those in whom prosperity may not seem to us to have acted injuriously.

I. The natural tendencies of a state in which there is no adverse change. Take the case of a man on whom, from his youth up, everything has seemed to smile. When there is not unbroken prosperity there is often a sudden tide of success. This may apply to both public and private life. To these the description “settled on their lees” may apply. Prosperity is really far harder to bear than adversity. It is a great touchstone, and marvellously exposes the weakness of man’s virtues. There is a direct tendency in prosperity to the fostering and strengthening the corruptions of our nature. The more a man obtains, the more will he desire. The bent of our dispositions being towards the earth, if nothing ever happen to turn them from earth there is little ground for expecting that they will centre themselves on heaven. Prosperity has a tendency to keep men at a distance from God. A religious man may be prosperous, and prosperity not prove the grave of his religion; but the prosperous man who is yet a stranger to religion is amongst the moot unpromising of subjects for moral attack.

II. What advantages follow upon uncertainties and reverses of fortune.

1. Change admonishes us of the transitory nature of terrestrial good. Every change, but yet more a succession of changes, speaks, saying, “Arise ye, and depart hence, for this is not your rest.” It is a gracious appointment of Providence for most of us that we are not permitted to “settle on our lees.” The great practical, personal truth is, the necessity, the paramount necessity, of moral renewal. To disciples the Lord presented the necessity of being converted. Regeneration is no argument against the need for conversion. (Henry Melvill, B. D.)

That say in their heart, The Lord will not do good, neither will He do evil.--

The unheeding God

There was widespread apathy and unresponsiveness, a temper which seemed to make the judgments preached by Zephaniah inevitable. Even those who had a theoretical faith in the supremacy of Jehovah looked upon Him as of little practical account in history. This apathetic temper miserably disqualified both for worship and reform. Zephaniah, like others of his goodly fellowship, demanded not only formal allegiance to the authority of Jehovah, but a thousand loyalties of the secret and the solitary thought.

I. The prophet reminds us of the habit of life out of which this distorted view of the Divine character often grows--gross indolence. This condition of character is described by an Eastern metaphor that has become one of the commonplaces of religious speech, “settled upon their lees.” The figure brings before us one of the progresses of the Jewish vintage. The fermented wine was poured back upon the thick sediment of the grapes from which it had been pressed, and in this way the wine gathered to itself greater strength. But the process needed care and watch fulness, for if left upon the lees for an undue length of time the wine became highly intoxicating, and incurably harsh in flavour. It needed to be separated, by careful and repeated strainings, from the husk and sediment with which it had been mixed for a time. The man whose soul has sunk into moral and religious stupor is just like that. In his daily life and consciousness the coarse and the fine, the earthly and the spiritual, the brutish and the God-like, lie mixed together in contiguous layers. There are the base deposits of animalism within the man, and not far off there are likewise elements of purity., reverence, and righteousness. In those who are godly and zealous for the things of God an effectual separation between these opposing qualities has been brought about. The soul is no longer touched, inflamed, stupefied by the grossness of the blood. On the other hand, one who is careless of God and the things of God derives the dominating tone of his thought and life from the things that address the senses. A man, of course, is compounded of flesh and blood, and there are legitimate needs that must be satisfied. He is providentially placed in social relations, and he may rightly feel pleasure in the warmth and sunshine of those relation ships, But the type of man described in this Jewish metaphor finds in mean and sensuous things the satisfactions that fix the qualities of his personality. No separating crisis has come to save the man from his dregs and his animalisms. These words imply that men of the inert and careless type are accustomed to make the pleasant monotony of their outward lives an occasion for encouraging themselves in apathetic tempers and traditions. Intellectual and moral life stagnates in the race that is cut off by some high dividing wall from surrounding nations. We have the highest possible securities for our temporal happiness and well-being. Our national habit tends to become more and more luxurious, self-contented, imperturbable. We build ourselves up in our sleek and well-insured respectability. Nations themselves play the rich fool, saying, “Soul, take thine ease.” All such things tend to beget the temper of a lethargic materialism within us, and to favour our unconfessed belief that God is just as apathetic as ourselves. That, of course, applies to the individual as well as to the nation. For some in our midst life is comparatively even, although as a rule Providence sooner or later provides us with many sharp antidotes to the coma which steals upon us. Few changes may have come since the first position in business was attained. It is only at rare intervals that death creeps into our homes. Life is genial and soul-satisfying, and we should like to keep things as they are for generations to come. We discountenance new movements, because they might disturb the regime that has worked so smoothly in the past. Men settle down into a refined sensuousness that is fatal to stern conviction, keen consciousness of spiritual facts, and consuming zeal for righteousness. No wonder that the children of elegant and not entirely godless somnambulists should grow up apathetic and come to believe in an apathetic God, if indeed they hold to any figment of a God at all. And this description applies too often to the man who was once religious after the best pattern. In the earlier stages of his history many things combined to keep him active, prayerful, strenuous. His life was one of struggle, sacrifice, hardness, disappointment. But smoother and more prosperous days came to him, and he met the temptation that deteri orated the best fibres in his character. He is nominally religious still, but a model Laodicean. The danger of this condition is great, and perhaps no surer sign of it is to be found than in the change it makes in a man’s view of God. A self-contented Laodicean is always under the temptation to believe that God must be more or less like himself, since he has ceased to feel any necessity to become like God.

II. The prophet ventures to put into articulate speech vague laodicean creed of the heart. “The Lord will not do good, neither will He do evil.” Men sometimes hold contradictory and antagonistic creeds at one and the same period of their history, and the creed fenced in with whispered reserves is often the more significant and decisive of the two. There is a sceptic and a believer, a pagan and a theist in most of us, and a depraved will sometimes imposes itself on a sound and healthy creed. All that is a part of the dualism of human nature Those supine and well-to-do citizens of Jerusalem denounced by the prophet may have had reserves of orthodoxy and of pious patriotism behind their time-serving expediency and supineness. God does not interfere even for the nation supposed to be under His special protection. He lets Hezekiah and Manasseh, Amen and Josiah, do as they like, and neither frowns nor smiles upon the national fortunes. The pains and pleasures of human life have no fine correspondence to character. Good and evil befall men without any special relation to the kind of lives they live. It is not easy to see any sign of God’s judicial dealings with the children of men. We need not stay to discuss the question whether it is the habit of life or a dishonouring idea of God against which the prophet threatens sharp and discerning penalty. The two things are inseparable. A careless life always fosters an irreverent creed, and an irreverent creed is formulated as excuse or sanction for a careless and self-indulgent life, and makes the carnal sleep doubly sound. It is something in the character which is to be punished, but a vice which shows itself in twofold form, disabling from all reforming enterprise on the one hand, and turning the creed into a blasphemy on the other. The wickedness of a supine and self-indulgent temper culminates when it engenders a base conception of the Most High. Sometimes a man may make God in the image of an ideal that is far loftier than anything to be found in his own character, but in the case of the man who is “settled upon his lees” such ideals are extinct. We cannot be tepid in our moral sensibilities without making God tepid also. The strenuous man will believe in a strenuous God, and will turn atheist if asked to do homage to an Olympian dilletante who lounges on a couch of ivory with cupbearers at his side. It is perhaps a more insulting thing to make God a Laodicean like ourselves than to think of Him as a fiction of the imagination. A denial of His existence may be better than wholesale misrepresentation. If God seems slow to act, it is because He is waiting for our repentance. Natural law is so widespread and inexorable that there is no room for moral interpositions. We can understand a being who never concerns himself with human affairs because of the limitations of his intelligence, but to concede intelligence and deny the will or the capacity for moral interest in human affairs looks like an insult of supreme shamefulness. We refuse to the Being behind and above and within the universe that which is greatest and most honourable in ourselves. We accept the broad dogma of a God, for the universe would be too much of a tangle without that, and then make His sway theoretical, secretly questioning whether He cares to exercise retributive power over the realms subject to His sway. That compromise is necessary to our mental comfort. It is often said that in comparison with the universe, man is such an insignificant atom that, even assuming the existence of a God, it would not be worth God’s while either to reward or punish him. Is it too much to say that the least thing in the world of animate is greater than the sum of all things in the world of inanimate life? The ant, after all, is more wonderful than the sun with its unfathomable marvel of brightness. Mere magnitude cannot become a true standard of value for the estimate of that which is moral and intellectual. Most of us have come to learn that there is an arithmetic which deals with quality as well as quantity, and it is perhaps the more important of the two. There is a power and possibility of feeling in God to which no conceivable term can be put. He does care even for ants, and has shown that by bestowing upon them a wonderful talent for caring for themselves and their kind. He does think about me, and it is rank blasphemy to say He cares about every side of my nature but its moral side. History teems with the rewards and punishments He never fails to administer for our encouragement and warning. If His kingship is living, competent, righteous, it is impossible He should forget His duties to those whom He governs. If we accept the message of modern science, evolution itself in its higher ethical stages is a sufficient refutation of this Laodicean travesty of God. We are told that the so-called sense of right and wrong has been slowly awakened within men, and that it has its primitive roots in an elementary susceptibility to pleasure and pain. That theory implies that through the untold cycles of the past, retributive activities have been playing upon the sense of pleasure and pain, till at last, when the animal emerged into the human, this complex and marvellous faculty appeared. For ages upon ages some unseen power has been patiently reading into the consciousness of mankind the blessings and curses of the law, and enforcing the message with lavish bounty on the one hand and strokes of the rod on the other, till at last mind-stuff quivered into the Divine thing we call conscience. That looks as though God had intervened in the past times without number, and as though His righteousness were always unresting in asserting itself. The analogies of our imperfectly ordered social life often give some kind of colour to these false and insulting estimates of God and His ways. It is said that the passing age has been one of exaggerated individualism. Men have been so much occupied in asserting the sacredness of the individual and his separate fights that they have forgotten the responsibilities of each member of the community to the organic whole. They repudiate the duties of citizenship. “They will not do good, neither will they do evil.” For those in authority over us to pursue a policy of masterly inaction in times of national peril and demoralisation would be a capital crime, and can it be accounted less shameful in Him whom we assume to be King of kings and Lord of lords? A man may sometimes excuse him self from taking part in public affairs, because he trusts the aggregate good sense and virtue of his fellow-citizens, and assumes things will not go very far wrong. But God cannot abstain from intervening in human history on the ground that the course of affairs will move on in the same way, whether He come upon the scene or not. We loathe the wretch for whose arrest the Poor Guardians offer a reward because he has deserted his family, and that kind of man as well as the man brought to book by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children is punished. God would be just as guilty and shameless if He were to show no concern for our moral discipline and upbringing, and abstain from all interposition in our lives; and His greatness would aggravate and not excuse the misdemeanour. If we believe in a God we must believe in His moral earnestness. Is it not possible that this tendency to attenuate God’s moral earnestness may underlie the half beliefs and the limp, amiable theology of the hour? If it be true that the God in whom we have come to believe would satisfy the Laodicean ideal, the call to repentance loses its urgency, and sin neither needs specific forgiveness upon a basis of righteousness nor will the sinner have to dread an awaiting punishment, keen, overwhelming, irremediable. We can disburden ourselves of the rigid and uncomfortable doctrines of the past. He will not trouble Himself about our peccadilloes. Those thoughts concerning God to which we lean in our silent meditations, and which influence us in the critical and tempted moments of life, will be subject-matter of Divine judgment. We cannot separate this whispered creed of the heart from selfish and neglectful courses of conduct, for it is that by which we excuse ourselves. The fluid creed within us crystallises into a superstructure of character. The creed of the heart, more over, must be judged because we belong to invisible more essentially than to visible spheres. The man who says, “I believe in a Laodicean God,” is not only inert and selfish himself, but is bent on making his own characteristic vice dominant on the throne of the supreme sovereignty.

III. We are reminded of the far-reaching and inevitable judgment that will one day over take those who are lethargic in character. “I will search Jerusalem with candles, and punish the men who are settled on their lees.” These lethargic souls had said God was slack to fulfil His promise, and careless as to the chastise ment of every hind of transgression. God will answer the libel by inexorable punishment. Their evil creed had been cherished in secret, but God will bring wrath upon them for their half-formulated aspersions upon His holy zeal, and will find them out in the dim places to which they have fled. This half-articulate murmur which makes God magnificently inert may have a power of mischief in it sufficient to wreck a universe. These minute blasphemies and scepticisms God will search out with an illuminating severity nothing can escape. This sin was more or less veiled, for at one time Jerusalem had been religious to the verge of fanaticism. And in one party in the state there was still enough of zeal to make it expedient for unbelief to be wary and reticent. With the spread of religion and the growth of a strong public opinion there is always a danger lest men should be driven into secret irreligion and unbelief. Pagan contaminations are sometimes latent where there is a devout and zealous exterior. (T. G. Selby.)

Practical atheism in denying the agency of Divine Providence exposed

Practical atheism brought the judgments of God upon the Jews.

These were “fully executed in the Babylonish Captivity. By being “settled on their lees” we may understand their riches; for wine grows rich by being kept on the lees. So, by a long scene of peace and prosperity, the inhabitants of Jerusalem were arriving at very great riches. Or it may signify a state of security; like wine settled on the lees, they have been undisturbed. I will punish” should be “I will visit.” The charge here brought against the Jews amounts to this--that their temper and practice were such as would not at all agree to the practical belief of a Providence. They thought and acted as if it were their real and professed belief that the Lord would do neither good nor evil, nor meddle with human affairs. This atheistical affectation of independency, and secret or practical renunciation of Divine Providence, is the fatal thing that generally overturned the empires, and impoverished, enslaved, and ruined the nations of the earth.

I. The doctrine of a Divine providence. Maybe you already speculatively believe this doctrine, but the grand defect lies in the efficacy of this belief on your hearts and lives. We may argue from the perfections of God, and His relations to us. We may argue from our confessed obligations to religion and the worship of God. The testimony of Scripture is plain. New and unexpected witnesses may be found in the heathen,--such as Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, Plato, Horace, Cicero, and various poets and philosophers.

II. Things in temper and conduct which argue a secret and practical disbelief of the doctrine of providence.

1. Would there be so little prayer among us, if we were generally affected with this truth?

2. Is not the general indulgence of vice, and neglect of religion, a plain evidence of the general disbelief of a Divine providence over the country?

3. Is not the general impenitence, notwithstanding the many public calamities under which our country has groaned, a melancholy evidence of this practical atheism?

4. Is not the general ingratitude a plain evidence of the general disbelief of a providential government over the world?

5. How little serious and humble acknowledgment of the providence of God in our disappointments and mortifications is to be found among us.

III. The wickedness of this atheistical temper and conduct. To deny the agency of providence is the most daring rebellion against the King of heaven; it is to abjure His government in His own territories, in His own world which He has made. What unnatural ingratitude! What intolerable pride and arrogance! What impiety and insolence! This atheistical spirit is the source of all vice and irreligion. (S. Davies, A. M.)

Moral scepticism

Beyond a doubt there is a great deal of moral scepticism in our own time and in regard to our own lives. And there is excuse enough, explanation enough, of this sort of moral scepticism when we look round at national and political life. We think of the Armenians, of a nation massacred. It passes by, it is half-forgotten, and God is silent. Where is the God of Judgment? Surely He does not care! “The Lord will not do good, neither will He do evil.” And from a number of other sources we may feel inclined to draw that same lesson. Of course, those who look deeper will tell us the reasoning is shallow. Look, they will say, at the very empire of the Sultan. It is, by the confession of all men, on its way to ruin. It cannot stand, simply because it is corrupt and vicious and cruel. The mill of God grinds slowly, but it grinds at last, sure and small. Yes, it is certainly true, if you look at any section of human life in the political field you may draw the conclusion that there is no judgment and no moral God governing the nation. It is not so if you take a long enough view of history down its long region. Where there is a luxury and an undue love of pleasure there you sap the roots of steadfast industry, and where industry fails the nation fails. Where commercial dishonesty goes beyond a certain point, there the reputation and therefore the position of the nation suffers, Certainly there is always in national vice a tendency, an inevitable tendency, towards national decay. It is sin that is first the reproach and then the disaster of any nation. There is a tendency towards judgment, a tendency very imperfect at present in its manifestation, but even in the great national regions the tendency is there. You cannot, unless you are shallow-hearted, say that the Lord doth not good, neither doth He do evil. But let us leave the wide sphere of national life and think of this moral scepticism as it touches individual lives only. Here, too, the excuse for it is apparent enough. It is only sometimes that honesty appears to be the best policy. There are men whom we would not trust, because we believe they are hard-hearted. And yet they come to no abrupt or signal ruin; they seem to flourish as well as anybody else. There are moral collapses, disgraceful, disgusting to our moral sense, and yet a little while, and without any appearance of repentance, simply by lapse of time, the subjects of them seem to creep back into respectability or even credit. There are struggles, persevering as it seems, against vice and sin which never seem to become effectual or to succeed. The Lord in the region of our own lives, as we watch human life in experience, the Lord surely doth not in fact do good, neither doth He do evil. But, once again, the scepticism is shallow. You cannot take this as a complete account of human life. There is that in all human consciousness and in all-human experience which rebels against the conclusion. Call no man’s life happy till you have seen the whole; watch the life to the end. Even cautious sin is found to ruin persons and families. And sin--is it not true?--is very seldom always cautious. So it is that we look around, and in all classes, in our own experience, we see the victims, the manifest victims, of lust and gambling and drunkenness. But these, you say, are the disreputable vices; nobody ever doubted that these open and disreputable and reckless vices brought ruin. Ay, but short of these, in respectable lives! Why are so many marriages failures, moral failures T Inquire, and you will find, because those marriages were rooted in worldliness and selfishness; there was no moral and spiritual discipline behind them. After a little time the temporary attraction wears off, and there is nothing left there but the conflict of two rival selfishnesses and the discrepant traits of divergent characters to make the bond. And what is that? It is but the mark of the Divine judgment upon selfishness. Or, look at this and that and the other individual Wilfulness is one of the commonest of human qualities--wilfulness which comes from being spoilt when one is young, or from having the opportunity to do just as one -pleases in somewhat later life, but the sort of wilfulness that will not bend itself to the Divine requirements, sooner or later brings more or less of ruin or misery. God’s judgment is in this and that and the other life which comes under our experience: God’s judgment is upon wilfulness. These are facts. But, we say, there is no complete picture of Divine judgment. No, that is the fact, no complete picture here, certainly. This world, certainly, is no sphere in which a Divine judgment works itself out full and satisfactorily. We walk by faith, certainly not by sight,--if we believe in the reality of Divine judgment--certainly by faith. But what there is is this, surely a tendency, an indication of Divine judgment which checks anybody who thinks at all. If he takes the sceptical conclusion--“The Lord does not do good, neither does He do evil,” there is something rooted alike in men’s moral consciences and in their experiences which assures them, in spite of its imperfect manifestation here and now, that those who are on the side of righteousness are in harmony with the system of things, and those who are neglectful are walking upon a volcano. He will render to every man according to his works, by no arbitrary judgment from which there can be any possible exemption, but by an inevitable moral law which works as securely as the physical laws of growth and decay, of life and destruction. There is no chance of escape, not for a single sin. “There is the difference between moral scepticism and moral belief. “The Lord will not do good, neither will He do evil,” therefore “I will not be righteous over-much, nor will I be over-much wicked.” It does not really at the bottom so very much matter; there is no such very searching sieve through which my life has to be passed. That is the scepticism, that is the shallowness, that is the lie. On the other hand, there is the tendency, now the tendency pointing to its perfect realisation afterward. The Lord judges every man according to his works. He is the God of knowledge; He sifts thoroughly. There is no escape for a single sin. That is the point. Therefore awake to righteousness and sin not. Other prophets may have other topics in store for us. Let Zephaniah take this and that moral scepticism which tolerates sin because the Divine judgment, after all, does not seem to act, because it believes your hopes, it believes that the Lord does not do good, neither does He do evil. That moral scepticism is shallowness and a lie at the bottom. God is a living God; God is a God of judgment; God trieth the heart. The Lord will do good, and the Lord will do evil. Everything depends on what you are trying after, what you are tolerating, and what you are not tolerating; whether you are simply smoothing over the surface of your life, and leaving its real moral contents at the bottom, unsifted, unexamined, unresisted. (Bishop Gore.)

Verse 14

Zephaniah 1:14

The great day of the Lord is near, and hasteth greatly, even the voice of the day of the Lord.

The comings of the Lord

The times of King Josiah, about 606 years before Christ, were times of much religious awakening, like our own. The Book of the Lord had been found and studied, the idols had been destroyed, the bones of false prophets and idolatrous priests publicly burnt. But under the outside, external improvement there remained an inner and obstinate corruption which resisted cure, and threatened ere long to break out in renewed acts of idolatry and profligacy. Against this the prophet Zephaniah was sent to raise a warning voice--to protest that the Mighty Lord was in the midst of His people, watching not only their public acts, but their private ways and thoughts. In the seemingly purged Holy City there were men who, in their heart of hearts, were practical atheists, men really careless about serving God, living secure in ease and plenty, not having God in all their thoughts, persuading themselves that the Great Ruler would take no notice of good or evil, and that a watchful, rewarding, and punishing providence was but an empty dream. The prophet denounces and warns all such. But alas! the prophet’s voice was disregarded. So Judah went into captivity, and the coming of the Lord was with awful vengeance. Bitter woe descended on the insensate people who wickedly despised their day of grace and warning. These things are written for our admonition. May we all profit by the Church’s faithful warnings! There is a tendency in manor of us to sink the future in the present, and to lull ourselves with the delusive notion that it will be all right at last; that God is love, and love will cover all our sins. Nevertheless it is our duty to proclaim in word and deed our faith in the Lord’s coming, in its nearness and its greatness. He who once came in the flesh will come again as our Judge. Yet men’s lives are often a practical denial of this elementary foundation doctrine of Christianity. Some men say, No doubt there is a judgment, but it is going on continually from day to day now. The Judge is now at every man’s door; He comes quickly indeed, for every action brings at once its immediate reward or immediate punishment. No doubt, in the main, this is true, but, brethren, the voice of conscience and the voice of God in His Word agree in telling us that the present judgments are but heralds of the future final one. When they are judgments now of pain and punishment, they are merciful judgments to turn sinners to repentance. But the future judgment will have still higher aim and purpose. To vindicate the ways of God to men, to finally put a stop to sin, and bring in everlasting righteousness. We Who really believe in the second coming of our Lord in glory to judgment, as we believe in His first coming as Man to live on earth in great humility for our sakes, should “be diligent that we be found of Him in peace, without spot and blameless.” (Canon Emery, B. D.)

Verse 17

Zephaniah 1:17

They shall walk like blind men.

The sinner a blind traveller

The sinner is on a journey, step by step he is moving on to a destination. But how does he walk? The text tells us as a blind man. How does the blind man walk?

I. Unnaturally. Though a few men may be born blind, vision is one of the chief attributes of humanity. Without the human eye all the beauties of nature would go for nothing. Blindness is unnatural. So is sin. The life of sin is a life of unnaturalness.

II. Privationally. What does the blind lose? The great world of beauty and sublimity, the great firmament of burning worlds, and all the exquisite and exhilarating sensations of vision are excluded from him. What does the sinner lose? Peace of conscience--harmony of feeling--fellowship with the Infinite--power over death--a blessed hope of heaven, etc.

III. Servilely. The blind man must slavishly depend on others to guide him on his way. We have seen him feeling his way with a stick, led by a little child, and sometimes dependent even on a dog. The sinner, however he may boast of his independence, is a slave to the world. He is the servant of sin, a tyrant. He has no true independence.

IV. Perilously. The blind man always feels himself in danger when alone. The sinner’s walk is perilous indeed. His danger is great--ever accumulating, and ever approaching. Such then is the walk of the sinner. But moral blindness is worse far than corporeal.

1. The one is a calamity, the other is a crime.

2. The one is to be pitied, the other is to be condemned.

3. The one can be turned to a good account, the other cannot. (Homilist.)
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Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Zephaniah 1". The Biblical Illustrator. https://beta.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tbi/zephaniah-1.html. 1905-1909. New York.