Does God Keep His Promises? (A study of the prophet Zephaniah)

At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, a young American soldier was growing in acclaim for his military prowess.  He helped the American forces capture the British garrison at Fort Ticonderoga in 1775.  He later was instrumental in forcing the surrender of the British army at Saratoga in 1777. Although he was growing as an American hero, he never felt that he received the recognition for his efforts.  So this budding American hero started secret negotiations with the British to help them take WestPoint in exchange for money and a high post in the British army.  He broke his promise to his fellow soldiers and betrayed his friends to win favor with the enemy. This once American war hero, Benedict Arnold, has now become a synonym with the word, “traitor.” Broken promises can change heroes into traitors. 

            Has someone ever broken a promise they made to you? Did you feel betrayed? Was it harder to trust them again?  It is no surprise that we live in a world of broken promises. From politicians not fulfilling their campaign promises to athletes using performance enhancing drugs, we are daily bombarded with seeing a string of broken promises.  And as we see broken promises, we are inevitably tempted to ask, “Can anyone be trusted?” And if we doubt whether we can trust any human person we can see, we may also be tempted to doubt God who we can’t see. Does God keep His promises? Can God be trusted?

            This is the question we hope to answer through the prophecy of Zephaniah.  Zephaniah prophesied during the reign of Josiah who reigned from 640 – 609 B.C.  Josiah was the young, righteous king who helped to restore true worship in Judah which had fallen out of practice since his great-grandfather Hezekiah.  Zephaniah also came from the line of Hezekiah which we read in verse 1,         
The word of the LORD that came to Zephaniah the son of Cushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah, in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah.

Zephaniah is going to say some very difficult things to the nation of Judah so the prophecy starts by showing his national pedigree. Although his pedigree helps to legitimize his message, ultimately it is the Word of the Lord spoken through Zephaniah.  And God makes bold promises in this book. First,

God Promises Punishment on the Day of the Lord

            The nation of Judah had fallen into idolatrous religious practices.  They had abandoned the first of the Ten Commandments, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3).  And because of this rejection of God, God makes a promise of punishment.   Zephaniah 1:2-9,

I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” declares the LORD. “I will sweep away man and beast; I will sweep away the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea, and the rubble with the wicked. I will cut off mankind from the face of the earth,” declares the LORD. “I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and I will cut off from this place the remnant of Baal and the name of the idolatrous priests along with the priests, those who bow down on the roofs to the host of the heavens, those who bow down and swear to the LORD and yet swear by Milcom, those who have turned back from following the LORD, who do not seek the LORD or inquire of him. Be silent before the Lord GOD! For the day of the LORD is near; the LORD has prepared a sacrifice and consecrated his guests. And on the day of the LORD's sacrifice— “I will punish the officials and the king's sons and all who array themselves in foreign attire. On that day I will punish everyone who leaps over the threshold, and those who fill their master's house with violence and fraud.”

The Lord promises to punish those who bow to another God. He will do this on the Day of the Lord.  It cannot be avoided.  God will keep his promise for the Day of the Lord is near (1:7).

            Did God keep his promise to punish Judah? He fulfilled his promise of punishment against Judah by allowing His people to be carried into exile. God is patient, but He will punish His people. We do not like to think about punishment.  It is not a conversation that usually brings happiness and joy to the heart. Our culture has adopted a philosophy that wants to remove all notions of punishment based on our own individual choices. We live in an age where is it becoming criminal to speak about God’s punishment on our various forms of idolatry.

            This past week the city of Houston has requested sermons of local pastors that have spoken against the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. This ordinance attempts to create public accommodations for gender identity and sexuality.  City attorneys requested subpoenas of, “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession.” The city of Houston believes that is wrong for any pastor to proclaim God’s promised punishment against idolatry.  God would say that these lawyers are claiming to be wise, but they actually have become fools for, they are exchanging,

The truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (Romans 1:25)

The officials of the city of Houston do not believe that God keeps His promises to judge idolatry.  Do not be deceived, God will always keep his word.

            Beloved, we must fight for the truth of the gospel.  We must not be complacent thinking that God is not active. We can’t think that He will not judge us for our complacency for He did in Zephaniah’s day,

On that day I will punish everyone who leaps over the threshold, and those who fill their master's house with violence and fraud. “On that day,” declares the LORD, “a cry will be heard from the Fish Gate, a wail from the Second Quarter, a loud crash from the hills. Wail, O inhabitants of the Mortar! For all the traders are no more; all who weigh out silver are cut off. At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the men who are complacent, those who say in their hearts, ‘The LORD will not do good, nor will he do ill.’ Their goods shall be plundered, and their houses laid waste. Though they build houses, they shall not inhabit them; though they plant vineyards, they shall not drink wine from them.” (Zephaniah 1:9-13)

Many mainline Christian denominations have become complacent and have joined with the spirit of the age.  They have become complacent thinking that God will not do good or will not do ill.  God is not passive.  He is active.

            Zephaniah should sober and humble us as we come face to face with His mighty and ferocious promise.  Our God is jealous for His name and His glory. He will have no rivals.  Let us tremble as we hear the Lord describing that Day,

The great day of the LORD is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the LORD is bitter; the mighty man cries aloud there. A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements. I will bring distress on mankind, so that they shall walk like the blind, because they have sinned against the LORD; their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung. Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them on the day of the wrath of the LORD. In the fire of his jealousy, all the earth shall be consumed; for a full and sudden end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth. (Zephaniah 1:14-18)

That coming Day should cause us to tremble and repent. 

            Chapter 1 deals mainly with how God is going to handle His own people, while Zephaniah extends this promised judgment to all the nations that stand against the Lord in chapter 2 and in chapter 3. As you read them you see again and again the totality of destruction that will come on the Day of the Lord, but also you see promises of protection for those who repent.

God Promises Protection on the Day of the Lord

Zephaniah 2:1-3,
Gather together, yes, gather, O shameless nation, before the decree takes effect —before the day passes away like chaff— before there comes upon you the burning anger of the LORD, before there comes upon you the day of the anger of the LORD. Seek the LORD, all you humble of the land, who do his just commands; seek righteousness; seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the anger of the LORD. (Zephaniah 2:1-3)

Do you see how gracious and merciful God is?  The Day of the Lord is coming and God is promising protection to those who rebelled against them.  Those who seek righteousness and humility may perhaps be hidden on the day of the anger of the Lord. 

            Imagine standing in the plains of African with a herd of wild elephants heading right towards
you. There is not enough time to move to the left or to the right. You are trapped waiting the coming trampling of these 10,000 pound behemoths. There is nothing else to do, but to fall on your knees and pray. When you fall to your knees, a huge rock falls from the sky right in front of you diverting all the elephants keeping you hidden and protected from destruction.  This is what the Lord is offering to the nations that rebelled against Him.  The Lord said to Moses,

But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” And the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. (Exodus 33:20-22)

The only hope for protection on the Day of the Lord is given by Lord through Jesus Christ and through the humble recognition of His Lordship.  Jesus said of Peter’s confession that He was the Christ that on that rock He would build His church.

            The cleft of the rock that will hide us from God’s coming judgment is the confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Savior of the World. We all have sinned and broken the first commandment of having no other gods. We all are idolaters.  And God has promised punishment for such sin and He always keeps His promise so He sent His own Son to be punished in our place.  Jesus Christ has become the cleft of the rock that keeps us hidden from the anger of the Lord. For those who believe in Christ, “have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” We are hidden with Christ as Christ has taken God’s punishment.

            This is the message we must share with the people of Houston and the entire world. God has promised judgment. He will keep His promise to judge the world on the Day of the Lord. And yet, He offers protection on that Day through Christ!!  We must never be silenced in sharing both the promised punishment for sin and the promised protection from sin offered in Christ.

God Promises Praise on the Day of the Lord

            The Day of the Lord will be great in regards to the destruction of the rebellious, but it will also be great in regards to delight of the redeemed. Zephaniah 3:9-13,

“For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the LORD and serve him with one accord. From beyond the rivers of Cush my worshipers, the daughter of my dispersed ones, shall bring my offering. “On that day you shall not be put to shame because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against me; for then I will remove from your midst your proudly exultant ones, and you shall no longer be haughty in my holy mountain. But I will leave in your midst a people humble and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name of the LORD, those who are left in Israel; they shall do no injustice and speak no lies, nor shall there be found in their mouth a deceitful tongue. For they shall graze and lie down, and none shall make them afraid.” (Zephaniah 3:9-13)

God is going to bring praise to His name from people from every tribe, people, and language.  He alludes to the great harvest and the throne room of heaven by saying, “beyond the rivers of Cush, my worshipers shall bring my offering.” 

            In this section Zephaniah focuses on the changed speech of the people as a sign of a changed heart. We know from Jesus that our speech reveals what is in our heart so here we see a people whose hearts have been changed by the grace of God. It is a foreshadow of Peter’s words that the church is a,
Chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10)

Our speech and our praise is a sign that we have become God’s people.  It is a sign that we have received mercy.  God has not given us what our sins deserved, but has given us mercy.

Zephaniah begins with woe and judgment, but ends with praise and joy.  Zephaniah 3:14-20,
Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: “Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival, so that you will no longer suffer reproach. Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you in, at the time when I gather you together; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,” says the LORD. (Zephaniah 3:14-20)

Do you ever feel that you are not loved by God? Ever feel that God has to put up with you, but He is not really happy about it?  I hope that those of you who ever doubt God’s love for you would remember these verses.

            Right before Ellen and I started dating we took a cross country road trip together to make a video for my mother’s 50th Birthday.  The night before Ellen was packing in her room and singing as loud as she could to some of her favorite songs. Her roommates were amazed at how happy and excited she was to spend the next few days with me.  Ellen’s joyful singing for the opportunity to spend four days with her future husband is just a glimpse of the joyful singing God does over us for the opportunity to spend eternity with us.  God sings over us because we are in Christ.  God is no longer angry towards us, but looks at us and sings, “These my children with whom I am well pleased.” God has shown His pleasure with Christ and by extension because we are united with Christ, He is pleased with us, so we must know, “The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”

            It is hard for some to believe that God will keep His promise of punishment while it is hard for others to believe that God will keep his promise of praise over His people.  Whatever side you find yourself on you must always remember that God always keeps His promises. He promises to punish sin. He promises to protect those hidden in Christ. And He promises to exult over you with loud singing.” Trust His promises, they will be kept. 

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