Zephaniah threatens that God will annihilate all living things due to human wickedness.
His words evoke the ancient Flood in the days of Noah: "I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the LORD. I will sweep away humans and animals; I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea" (1:2-3). Prophetic passages of doom such as this one have spurred not a few Christians to adopt an implicitly Marcionite stance toward the Old Testament. Our studied avoidance of difficult texts is unfortunate, but in truth, it is not easy to read prophecies of destruction and recognize the God of grace whom we know in Jesus Christ. Yet this grim passage promises spiritual treasure to those who probe its deeper significance as rhetoric of persuasion.
The prophet exhorts his audience to "be silent before the LORD" (1:7). This is a silence of sheer terror, for God has "prepared a sacrifice" that ironically turns out to be the invited guests themselves. Other prophets foretell God's eschatological feasting on enemies (see Isaiah 34:5-7 against Edom and Ezekiel 39:17-20 against the "princes of the earth"). But here, Zephaniah roars that God's own people cannot escape punishment.
The prophet names kinds of sinners who will be punished by God. It might seem at first that some who are not guilty of those specific infractions could escape. Not all are royal officials who seek alliances with other nations (political pragmatism is condemned by several prophets as a failure to trust in God; see Isaiah 30:1-5 and Hosea 7:11-13). Not all "leap over the threshold," this usually interpreted on the basis of 1 Samuel 5:5 to mean engaging in syncretistic or superstitious rituals. Not all are guilty of "violence and fraud" (1:9). So Zephaniah's audience may be breathing a sigh of relief after his catalogue of sins. But they are brought up short at 1:18: "in the fire of His passion the whole earth shall be consumed." Everyone is doomed!
Now the prophet's command that we "be silent before the LORD" takes on a new urgency. For the faithful, there can be no room for the complacency that Zephaniah deplores (1:12). Zephaniah intends to shock us--not just egregious sinners, but all of us--out of our spiritual smugness.
His message that silver and gold cannot save (1:18) may be unwelcome to those who enjoy significant wealth and influence. Money is power, so it would seem, in the unjust political and social systems of this world. But the sacred is more powerful still. All who fetishize money need to hear this prophetic word: not only the rich, but also those who think that winning the lottery or running just one more business scam will change their lives.
We worship a passionate God who insists on faithfulness and moral integrity, and our God is capable of obliterating the earth. This truth is grounded not only in the Old Testament but also in the new revelation we have in Jesus Christ. Mark assures us that God can inflict worldwide desolation (Mark 13:14-20). The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews thunders that "it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Hebrews 10:31), for "our God is a consuming fire" (12:29). Believers should not be manipulated spiritually by fear. But we do need to hear about the zeal and power of God, if we are to resist the ennui and cynicism of our increasingly secular world.
Zephaniah suggests that by God's mercy, we might still live. We hear this sung at the end of Zephaniah (3:14-20) but also whispered early on in 1:12. God will "search Jerusalem with lamps" to find and punish "those who say in their hearts, 'The LORD will not do good, nor will He do harm.'" God is incarnationally engaged in our lives and our communities. This is good news, however muted, for God's searching suggests that some may yet be found faithful. We rejoice to realize that there is still time to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
If we can move beyond our initial anxiety at Zephaniah's rhetoric of judgment, this passage offers marvelous opportunities for pedagogical, liturgical, and pastoral engagement. Here are three ways you might use Zephaniah 1 to preach good news, from the pulpit and in your ongoing "exegesis" of the life of your congregation.
First, your homiletical teaching and adult education can explore theologies that emphasize the ineffable power of God. Zephaniah insists that we cannot domesticate the holy, whether by dismissing God as irrelevant (1:12) or by subordinating God to our own imagined autonomy (1:18). Preach key ideas from apophatic theology, paired with some evening sessions on The Cloud of Unknowing and St. John of the Cross. Explore the mystery of God in the Hebrew Scriptures. Construct a sermon series as a lively dialogue with contemporary agnosticism and atheism.
Second, find creative liturgical ways for your congregation to acknowledge their spiritual challenges. All our living is laid bare before the God who has formed each one of us and knows us intimately (Psalms 139:1-6). Invite your parishioners to imagine the radiance of the Holy One's lamp approaching their hiding places. What will God find when God encounters them? Have parishioners name their struggles on slips of paper and add them to the collection plate as a sign of their commitment to stay engaged with God. Offer prayers that take skepticism, anxiety, and alienation seriously as spiritual issues. Many in your congregation will be gratified to hear these issues addressed.
Third, reflect pastorally on the need for believers to perform a searching moral and spiritual inventory. We cannot improve ourselves without God's grace, but this does not absolve us from the responsibility to face our sins. Spiritual honesty is essential for transformation. Recovering alcoholics and addicts in your congregation will appreciate this, for an unflinching moral inventory is central to twelve-step programs that seek to break through the pathology of denial. Preach about the healing power of the confession of sin in Christian tradition. If the sacrament of reconciliation is important in your tradition, promote it and attend pastorally to those who seek concrete reconciliation in their relationships.
Zephaniah's witness is a potent challenge to believers today. But it is also a gift, for those who have ears to hear. When we approach God humbly, taking refuge not in our own strength but in the name of the LORD (3:12), then no one shall make us afraid.