The Nations Will Be Judged because of Their PrideZephaniah 2:4–3:8
Main Idea: In light of God’s judgment, God’s people must seek the Lord in humility or face destruction.
- The Enemies of God’s People Will Be Judged because of Their Pride (2:4-15).
- The land of the Gentiles will become the feed for the animals of God’s people (2:6).
- The land of the Gentiles will be given to God’s people (2:7).
- The Gentiles’ taunting of God’s people has incurred His wrath (2:8).
- All the people who have opposed God and His people will bow before Him (2:11).
- God will use His own people to destroy the Gentiles (2:9).
- The Gentile gods will be proven powerless in the face of Yahweh (2:11).
- The pride of the Gentiles will be their undoing (2:10).
- The Gentile taunting of God’s people is an affront to God Himself (2:10).
- Self-confidence betrays a false security that will lead to shame and destruction (2:15).
- God’s People Will Be Judged because of Their Disobedience (3:1-8).
- God’s chosen people are defiled because of their rebellion (3:1).
- God’s discipline has not compelled His people to obey (3:2).
- The disobedience of God’s people is due to their lack of trust (3:2).
- The political leaders are ruthless and are devouring the people (3:3).
- The priests dishonor God and dishonor His word (3:4).
- God is faithful when His people are not (3:5).
- God’s discipline is fruitless (3:6-7).
- H. God’s justice is coming because of their obstinate disobedience (3:8).
The Enemies of God’s People Will Be Judged because of Their Pride (Zephaniah 2:4-15)
Faced with God’s call to repent, and recognizing the depth of the pending judgment, the prophet Zephaniah now turns his attention to an even more expansive and comprehensive description of the coming judgment. Zephaniah divides this passage up into two sections: God’s judgment against the enemies of God’s people, and God’s judgment against His own people.
One of the greatest natural disasters in recent years has been the massive destruction of the city of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. I vividly remember the images on TV of the people living in a devastated Superdome, in the destroyed homes in formerly burgeoning neighborhoods, and in the tent cities set up under overpasses. The destruction was widespread and seemingly never ending. The prophet Zephaniah provides a similar description here as he declares what is coming for the enemies of God’s people because of their treatment of the people of Judah. Destruction and devastation appear to be on the horizon for them.
The Land of the Gentiles Will Become the Feed for the Animals of God’s People (2:6)
Zephaniah begins with a description of coastal cities, inhabited by Judah’s enemies, and describes their destruction in detail. The official declaration by Zephaniah is that “the word of the Lord is against” them. This statement is something of an official pronouncement of pending judgment. They had incurred the wrath of God and would be judged. The specific judgment is that their land would become pastureland for the people of God. Verses 7 and following explain the future possession of God’s people. This would have been most offensive to the enemies of God’s people. Perceiving themselves to be superior physically, not to mention wealthier, they would have found it absurd that the nation of Judah would overtake them. This is, however, what God decreed because of their insolence and arrogance. In fact, verse 7 gives a foretaste of what was coming for the people of Judah. Yes, they had turned their backs on God, and yes, they were defiantly disobedient, but God was offering them redemption, and it appears, in verse 7, that God believed they would return to Him. He tells us that He would, in fact, return to them. While Judah may not have been significant enough to defeat their enemies on their own, and while they may have currently been in a state of disobedience, God intended for them to return and once again experience His blessings.
The Land of the Gentiles Will Be Given to God’s People (2:7)
At the end of verse 7 we see one of the dominant, overarching themes in all of Scripture: restoration. From Genesis to Revelation we see the theme of restoration describing God’s work among humanity. Whether it be the restoration of creation or the restoration of God’s people, all of it can be traced to God’s resurrection of His Son. The resurrection of Jesus marks the pinnacle of God’s restoration of all of creation. The rest of Scripture, pointing backward through history and forward into the future, tells the story of God at work among humanity, restoring everything back to the way it was when He created everything and declared, “It is very good.” verse 7 tells us that God will be doing just such a work here among His people, and part of that restoration will be the settling of the enemies of Judah under the authority of Judah. Out of the ashes will rise this restored people, dedicated to God and enjoying life as He intended it. The resurrecting work of God is intended to help humanity flourish.
The Gentiles’ Taunting of God’s People Has Incurred His Wrath (2:8)
Zephaniah now begins to describe the guilt of the enemies of Judah. At the top of the list is their collective taunting of God’s people. This is not your run-of-the-mill taunting that children might experience on the playground. It is most likely evidence of the enemies of God’s people taunting them about their God. Their taunting is most likely a blow at the character of God and therefore is much, much worse than simple name-calling. The mocking of the people of Judah may have been much like the psalmist described: “My adversaries taunt me, as if crushing my bones, while all day long they say to me, ‘Where is your God?’” (Ps 42:10). Jesus Himself experienced a similar taunting while He was on the cross: “In the same way even the criminals who were crucified with Him kept taunting Him” (Matt 27:44). This taunting had to be defeated. While God gives much grace, at the end of the day those who disparage and attempt to challenge God’s character will fail. Not only have they taunted God’s people, but they have also “threatened their territory.” They not only have disregarded God, but they have attempted to usurp God’s authority by encroaching on the territory that God has given to His people. They are guilty of tremendous disobedience and are subject to God’s judgment.
All the People Who Have Opposed God and His People Will Bow Before Him (2:11)
Ultimately, inherent in this issue is the fundamental question of the gospel: what will you do with God? In the end, everyone will ultimately respond with the same declaration, “Jesus is Lord,” as Scripture reminds us. However, Scripture also affirms that most of those who will ever live will make their declaration through forced submission. Only those who voluntarily declare that Jesus is Lord, in this life, will enjoy the benefits afforded to the children of God. Those who reject Him will not escape the declaration that Jesus is Lord; instead they will find it to be a sobering and terrifying moment as they declare it to be so, but they do so too late, having missed their opportunity to submit before God. Scripture teaches that their just recompense, then, will be eternal judgment. Verse 11 reflects that truth. The attitudes and behavior of the enemies of Judah betrayed a belief that God does not exist or, if He does exist, He is either impotent or absent. They were sorely mistaken.
God Will Use His Own People to Destroy the Gentiles (2:9)
Zephaniah continues his declaration of impending judgment by affirming the total destruction of God’s enemies. Verse 9 points out that these enemies would eventually be reminiscent of Sodom and Gomorrah. They would be a “perpetual wasteland,” according to the prophet. Their property and land would become the possession of the people of God.
The Gentile Gods Will Be Proven Powerless in the Face of Yahweh (2:11)
Not only will they be crushed, like Sodom and Gomorrah, but Verse 11 reminds us that God will become terrifying to them. This God whom they have treated as a false god or an impotent god will be known for who He is: the God of the universe. He will do so by exerting His authority and sovereignty over every other so-called god. Each god who is an object of worship will join with its worshippers and bow at the feet of the one true God. All of this points to a progression that plays out not just in the book of Zephaniah but over and over again throughout human history. Man bows to his pride. Man assumes a position of self-sufficiency. God reveals man for who he is: small, insignificant, and in need of a savior.
The Pride of the Gentiles Will Be Their Undoing (2:10)
Verse 10 points out that they were behaving as enemies of God because they had surrendered to their pride. Their taunting is rooted in their belief that they are the supreme object in the world. Not only are they filled with pride, but their pride has blinded them to truth. This is why Augustine and Bonhoeffer, among others, have claimed pride as the chief of every other sin. G. K. Chesterton once said,
If I had only one sermon to preach, it would be a sermon against Pride. The more I see of existence, and especially of modern practical and experimental existence, the more I am convinced of the reality of the old religious thesis; that all evil began with some attempt at superiority; some moment when, as we might say, the very skies were cracked across like a mirror, because there was a sneer in Heaven. (Common Man, 246)
From Satan’s fall out of heaven to our contemporary sins, pride is pervasive and fundamental to every sin we engage in. I am fairly convinced that this is partly why Jesus expanded our understanding of sin in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said,
You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. And whoever says to his brother, “Fool!” will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But whoever says, “You moron!” will be subject to hellfire. (Matt 5:21-22)
And again we hear Jesus say,
You have heard that it was said, Do not commit adultery. But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matt 5:27-28)
Jesus is helping us understand sin and our own hearts by reframing our understanding of sin in these verses. Rather than external behavior, sin first is fostered in the heart and then finds its way out into our behaviors. The Pharisees, in particular, would have rebelled at this understanding of sin, knowing themselves to be close to perfect at external adherence to the law. Jesus understands that this was not sufficient. We are made unrighteous by what occurs in our hearts, which works its way out into our actions. It is hard to overstate the significance of pride in relationship to the rest of our spiritual condition. Fundamentally, what makes pride so damaging is its inherent blasphemy. It claims that God is not God and that we are. It denies what is the central reality of the universe and creates the justification for every other sin that proceeds from it.
The Gentile Taunting of God’s People Is an Affront to God Himself (2:10)
It is because sin is so pervasive and so dangerous that God so vigorously confronts and condemns pride, not just in this passage, but across the whole of Scripture. Consider just a few of these passages.
Everyone with a proud heart is detestable to the Lord; be assured, he will not go unpunished. (Prov 16:5)
Pride comes before destruction, and an arrogant spirit before a fall. (Prov 16:18)
Your presumptuous heart has deceived you, you who live in clefts of the rock in your home on the heights, who say to yourself, “Who can bring me down to the ground?” Though you seem to soar like an eagle and make your nest among the stars, even from there I will bring you down. (Obad 3-4)
So, whoever thinks he stands must be careful not to fall. (1 Cor 10:12)
He is conceited, understanding nothing, but has a sick interest in disputes and arguments over words. From these come envy, quarreling, slander, evil suspicions. (1 Tim 6:4)
But He gives greater grace. Therefore He says: God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. (Jas 4:6)
These are just a few of the copious thoughts that Scripture offers condemning pride and warning us of its dangers. Nevertheless, we dip into the well of pride over and over again. God’s aggressive posture against the sin of pride helps us to understand just how dangerous this is. However, this passage does not just stop with their pride. It continues by showing us the next step after our lives have been given over to our pride: the belief that we are enough on our own. In other words, we believe ourselves to be self-sufficient.
Self-Confidence Betrays a False Security That Will Lead to Shame and Destruction (2:15)
When one is steeped in pride, the natural next step is to extrapolate from that our self-sufficiency. This is precisely why God condemns the enemies of Judah. In verse 15 we read, “This is the self-assured city that lives in security, that thinks to herself: I exist and there is no one else.” These enemies of God were completely self-confident, to the degree that they no longer acknowledged that anyone else mattered. Of course, this is the natural conclusion when we assume a position of self-confidence. In fact, it is not rare to hear someone today echo that opinion. “It only affects me,” or “It’s my body,” and, among the more famous thoughts, “You worry about yourself, and I will worry about myself.” This self-centered, self-confident perspective on life has become somewhat synonymous with our culture. As we have become increasingly self-focused, this ethos has grown louder and louder. Ultimately, self-sufficiency is self-worship. It is a grievous form of idolatry that exalts ourselves to the level of highest order in the universe. Instead of the world revolving around the sun, it revolves around us. Of course, the natural progression of this thought process will ultimately lead to grief and the eventual destruction of our culture. God loves humanity and has a plan to help humanity flourish. At the foundation of His plan is a call to faith in Him, resting on a denial of self. Out of this worship of Him, and through our denial of self, we find a populace able to serve one another and help one another to flourish. When the domino of faith in God is pushed over, the cascading effect is the advance of pride, the increased confidence in self, and the lack of flourishing for those around us. This is precisely what Paul was attempting to address when he wrote to the church at Philippi.
Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write to you again about this is no trouble for me and is a protection for you. Watch out for “dogs,” watch out for evil workers, watch out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, the ones who serve by the Spirit of God, boast in Christ Jesus, and do not put confidence in the flesh—although I once also had confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he has grounds for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised the eighth day; of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; regarding the law, a Pharisee; regarding zeal, persecuting the church; regarding the righteousness that is in the law, blameless. But everything that was a gain to me, I have considered to be a loss because of Christ. (Phil 3:1-7)
Of course, in contemporary society we can learn from the sin of the enemies of God that Zephaniah was addressing. Because of Christ we can turn away from self-confidence and pride and reject the false hope that is contained within. We can take the risk of rejecting self because Christ’s life, death, burial, and resurrection have secured for us an alternative future, a far more hopeful future. This was Paul’s point when he shared with the church at Galatia:
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Gal 2:19-20)
Those who have trusted in Christ have traded their lives for His. As a result they no longer have to depend on their own pride, and they can reject the temptation to be self-reliant.
Finally, at the end of verse 15, we read that the judgment of God, in response to the pride and self-sufficiency of Judah’s enemies, will bring them to nothing, making them a laughingstock among those who pass by them. As we said earlier, this follows this pattern of pride, self-sufficiency, and then God’s work to bring humility and compel us to see our dependence. This work, at the end of verse 15, is intended to bring justice and judgment to those who would rebel against God, but it also serves to humble them and allow them to see their need for God. In that sense it is both a work of justice and a work of grace. We see this pattern revealed throughout the rest of Scripture as well. The story of the Rich Young Ruler, from Mark, comes to mind.
Then, looking at him, Jesus loved him and said to him, “You lack one thing: Go, sell all you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.” But he was stunned at this demand, and he went away grieving, because he had many possessions. (Mark 10:21-22)
Jesus confronts the man with his self-reliance and lack of dependence on God by calling him to deny the one thing that he trusts—his wealth. You will note that Jesus does this because “Jesus loved him.” Jesus’ affection for the man compelled Him to confront him and invite him to turn to Christ. Unfortunately, in this man’s case it did not convince him to deny himself and trust in Jesus. In Zephaniah 2 we have no indication that the enemies of God did anything other than oppose God, but that does not negate the good work of God in bringing justice, which also reveals our need and pushes us to trust in Him.
God’s People Will Be Judged because of Their Disobedience (Zephaniah 3:1-8)
We have now come full circle. As in chapter 1, Zephaniah again turns his prophecy toward the people of Judah. In similar tone and focused on similar targets, Zephaniah levels devastating judgment from God, to His own people, after clearly bringing justice to those who were His enemies. As Zephaniah leveled the charges against Judah’s enemies, I can only imagine that Judah stood by and listened with pleasure, only to find that pleasure withering under the return of God’s scrutiny.
God’s Chosen People Are Defiled because of Their Rebellion (3:1)
Zephaniah opens this chapter with a prophetic condemnation of the people of Judah because of their rebellion and defilement. These two issues are related to one another. Judah was a rebellious people. They knew God’s word and had been warned against their disobedience. In spite of that, they continue to revel in their pride and self-confidence, functionally rejecting God and serving themselves instead. This was not unique to this generation of God’s chosen people. No, this is a refrain that we hear repeatedly throughout Scripture. “He rescued them many times, but they continued to rebel deliberately and were beaten down by their sin” (Ps 106:43). The psalmist was essentially writing the biography of the people of Israel in that one verse. It applies to more than just the Israelites, however. The truth is that this constant rebellion, met with constant grace, is our story too. Like the people of Judah, we constantly turn away from God, are consistent in our disobedience, and are critically in need of grace. The apostle Paul resonated with this same sentiment: “For I do not understand what I am doing, because I do not practice what I want to do, but I do what I hate” (Rom 7:5). As a result of the fall, all of humanity is damaged and in need of rescue. Apart from the grace of God, we are relentlessly bent toward sin. After coming into contact with God’s grace, we are transformed into adopted children of God, but we still retain our sin nature and find ourselves drawn, at times, back into sin. Thankfully, the grace of God makes it possible to be free from sin, but until Jesus returns to make things right, we will probably never be free from the temptation to sin. The people of Judah were susceptible to that same temptation, only they had succumbed to it and were now buried in it. Not only were they rebellious, but God describes their current condition, because of their rebellion, as one of being “defiled.” In fact, the word rebellious in verse 1 could also be translated “filthy,” which would only reinforce their desperate condition as God comes now to mete out justice.
To be rebellious, of course, leads to being defiled. Defilement refers to a loss of status. The people of God had made themselves unfit, unclean, and unholy as a result of their disobedience. God expects holiness, and they were unholy. Of course, this is not a statement that they had previously been holy and this act changed that. No, it is reinforcing that they are an unholy people who, through these actions, had declared themselves to be unholy. Their unholiness, of course, makes them unfit for the kingdom of God, thus justifying God’s wrath that was directed toward them. They were desperately in need of salvation. It sounds a lot like our story, does it not? Hopelessly disobedient, running in our own direction, and living unholy lives, we find ourselves condemned before God. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). Instead of receiving our just rewards, however, the defilement is turned into righteousness as God trades our unrighteousness for the righteousness of Jesus. “He [God] made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor 5:21). This change of status, from righteousness to unrighteousness, is readily reversed when we submit, in obedience, to God and follow Him in faith. Our stubborn rebellion is overcome by even more stubborn grace. This is the story of the gospel.
This unfit people have not yet received that kind of grace. They are still in the process of hearing God’s judgment. God is winding down His judgment in this book, but the conclusion is among the hardest hitting of all of His condemnations. They are rebellious and they are unholy. As such, they must face God’s judgment, unless they repent.
God’s Discipline Has Not Compelled His People to Obey (3:2)
Sadly, even though God has extended His discipline, it has not been effective to bring them back into obedience. This is the message that continues in verse 2. In this verse God offers a cascading indictment detailing the specifics of their rebellion. They have been disobedient, they have ignored God’s discipline, they have failed to trust God, and they have not drawn near to God. In general, this sounds like the typical pattern for the one who is walking away from God.
The Disobedience of God’s People Is Due to Their Lack of Trust (3:2)
However, what makes this judgment more troubling is not simply that they were rebellious, but that when they were confronted with the Lord’s discipline, they remained hard-hearted toward Him. In a very real sense they had denied the foundational core of the gospel, which is to trust in God. The Scripture is abundantly clear, from front to back, that faith in God begins with trusting Him. This truth is elementary. For as long as I can remember, my wife has repeated Psalm 56:3 to our two daughters over and over and over again, so much so that they have it memorized and recall it regularly when they are anxious: “When I am afraid, I will trust in You.” It is such a simple little truth, and the rest of the truth of Scripture is grounded in this simple little truth. The people of Judah, however, had failed to acknowledge God, let alone trust Him, and as a result they would face His judgment.
Finally, as a result of not trusting God, they did not walk toward Him. Instead they pursued their own desires, leaving Him behind. We see Paul address a similar issue in the New Testament:
For though they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God or show gratitude. Instead, their thinking became nonsense, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man, birds, four-footed animals, and reptiles. Therefore God delivered them over in the cravings of their hearts to sexual impurity, so that their bodies were degraded among themselves. (Rom 1:21-24)
This rejection of God and His will would lead to His judgment of them.
The Political Leaders Are Ruthless and Are Devouring the People (3:3)
Not only would they thoroughly reject Him, but they have become so completely rebellious that their leadership is devoid of spiritual life in any sense. Zephaniah would go on to describe them as “roaring lions” and “wolves in the night,” claiming that they stripped the city bare, leaving nothing behind. In other words, the people were simply following the example of their leadership. The leaders were living for themselves to the degree that they were gladly fleecing their own people, people who had been entrusted to them as a stewardship, and they were now using the people for their own gain. Instead of serving, they were devouring their own people, and their people were then replicating their behavior.
The Priests Dishonor God and Dishonor His Word (3:4)
Not only were the political leaders dishonoring God and leading the people to do so, in what was a much greater tragedy, the religious leaders were doing the same. They are described as “reckless” and “treacherous,” not to mention that they “profane the sanctuary” and “they do violence to instruction.” Much like the priests in the book of Malachi, these priests had abandoned their calling for their own pursuit of pleasure. Malachi is replete with examples, but one instance stands out:
“A son honors his father, and a servant his master. But if I am a father, where is My honor? And if I am a master, where is your fear of Me? says Yahweh of Hosts to you priests, who despise My name.”
Yet you ask: “How have we despised Your name?”
“By presenting defiled food on My altar.”
You ask: “How have we defiled You?”
When you say: “The Lord’s table is contemptible.” (Mal 1:6-7)
In a similar manner to the priests in Zephaniah’s day, the priests were condemned by Malachi because they had despised God’s name. In other words, in an era when one’s name and character were inseparably linked, they had disparaged the character of God. Not only was their behavior a mark on their own character, but as representatives of God among the people, their behavior had practically claimed that God did not exist. They would have agreed with Friedrich Nietzsche: “God is dead” (Zarathustra, 122). While these priests were making a show of serving God, their behavior belied any belief in God. This tragedy may not look quite the same in contemporary culture, but no doubt pastoral malpractice continues to this day. The church may not be led by priests, as it was when Zephaniah wrote, but her leaders are just as susceptible today to burnout, doubt, and even self-serving behavior that teeters on the edge of the ethical—occasionally even falling off the edge.
God Is Faithful When His People Are Not (3:5)
After extending judgment to everyone, God reaffirms that even in the midst of this mass rebellion, He remains the same. He is still righteous, He is still holy, His justice is faithful, and still they rejected Him. This consistency proves to be yet another condemnation, contrasting His fidelity with their infidelity. The irony is thick.
God’s Discipline Is Fruitless (3:6-7)
Zephaniah concludes this section by describing the discipline God provided, which the people of Judah rejected. He has delivered blow after blow of judgment in an effort to rouse them from their spiritual slumber, but they refuse to respond in obedience. Of particular interest is the dialogue found in verse 7: “I thought: You will certainly fear Me and accept correction” and the verse continues, “However, they became more corrupt in all their actions.” These are a radically depraved people. God, in His love and grace, extends discipline to call them back to Him, and yet they reject Him and chase after their own desires.
God’s Justice Is Coming because of Their Obstinate Disobedience (3:8)
He follows this up with thundering words that were intended to strike fear in the hearers’ hearts. “Wait for Me,” He says in verse 8. He is coming; and they will answer for what they have done.
Thankfully, this is not the end of the book. After chapters of devastating critique and withering rebuke, grace now leaps onto the stage, and it could not be more refreshing.
Reflect and Discuss
- Zephaniah is a difficult book to read. It can be extraordinarily depressing as we read of God’s judgment. However, His restoration brings hope. How have you seen God work restoratively in your life?
- The enemies of God taunted God. In what ways are you tempted to taunt God with your life and with your words?
- Scripture teaches that every person will someday declare that “Jesus is Lord.” Have you believed in Jesus yet? Have you declared that “He is Lord,” even in your own life?
- Chesterton once said, “If I had only one sermon to preach, it would be a sermon against pride.” In what ways have you seen your pride make its presence known?
- Do you understand that sin is, first and foremost, a heart issue? Do you treat your sin as if it is a behavior to correct, or a heart issue to repent of?
- Do you often struggle with the same sin over and over again? Do you realize that you are not a slave to that sin? Have you confessed and repented of that sin?
- Have you contemplated that Jesus was covered in your sin so that you could be made righteous? Have you thanked God for that recently?
- How do you struggle to trust God? Can you confess that right now?
- In what ways have you seen leaders steer people away from God? Have you been guilty of that? Do you need to confess that?
- Most of us who know God have someone who looks up to us as a spiritual example. Some have more than others. Are you stewarding the responsibility to point people to Jesus with your life and your words?