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CHAPTER V

SO AS BY FIRE

ZEPHANIAH iii

The third chapter of the Book of Zephaniah consists[168] of two sections, of which only the first, vv. 1–13, is a genuine work of the prophet; while the second, vv. 14–20, is a later epilogue such as we found added to the genuine prophecies of Amos. It is written in the large hope and brilliant temper of the Second Isaiah, saying no word of Judah’s sin or judgment, but predicting her triumphant deliverance out of all her afflictions.

In a second address to his City (vv. 1–13) Zephaniah strikes the same notes as he did in his first. He spares the king, but denounces the ruling and teaching classes. Jerusalem’s princes are lions, her judges wolves, her prophets braggarts, her priests pervert the law, her wicked have no shame. He repeats the proclamation of a universal doom. But the time is perhaps later. Judah has disregarded the many threats. She will not accept the Lord’s discipline; and while in chap. i.—ii. 3 Zephaniah had said that the meek and righteous might escape the doom, he now emphatically affirms that all proud and impenitent men shall be removed from Jerusalem, and a humble 68people be left to her, righteous and secure. There is the same moral earnestness as before, the same absence of all other elements of prophecy than the ethical. Before we ask the reason and emphasise the beauty of this austere gospel, let us see the exact words of the address. There are the usual marks of poetic diction in it—elliptic phrases, the frequent absence of the definite article, archaic forms and an order of the syntax different from that which obtains in prose. But the measure is difficult to determine, and must be printed as prose. The echo of the elegiac rhythm in the opening is more apparent than real: it is not sustained beyond the first verse. Verses 9 and 10 are relegated to a footnote, as very probably an intrusion, and disturbance of the argument.

Woe, rebel and unclean, city of oppression![169] She listens to no voice, she accepts no discipline, in Jehovah she trusts not, nor has drawn near to her God.

Her princes in her midst are roaring lions; her judges evening wolves,[170] they ...[171] not till morning; her 69prophets are braggarts and traitors; her priests have profaned what is holy and done violence to the Law.[172] Jehovah is righteous in the midst of her, He does no wrong. Morning by morning He brings His judgment to light: He does not let Himself fail[173]—but the wicked man knows no shame. I have cut off nations, their turrets are ruined; I have laid waste their broad streets, till no one passes upon them; destroyed are their cities, without a man, without a dweller.[174] I said, Surely she will fear Me, she will accept punishment,[175] and all that I have visited upon her[176] shall never vanish from her eyes.[177] But only the more zealously have they corrupted all their doings.[178]

Wherefore wait ye for Me—oracle of Jehovah—wait for the day of My rising to testify, for ’tis My fixed purpose[179] to sweep nations together, to collect kingdoms, to pour upon them ...[180] all the heat of My wrath— 70yea, with the fire of My jealousy shall the whole earth be consumed.[181]

In that day thou shalt not be ashamed[182] of all thy deeds, by which thou hast rebelled against Me: for then will I turn out of the midst of thee all who exult with that arrogance of thine,[183] and thou wilt not again vaunt thyself upon the Mount of My Holiness. But I will leave in thy midst a people humble and poor, and they shall trust in the name of Jehovah. The Remnant of Israel shall do no evil, and shall not speak falsehood, and no fraud shall be found in their mouth, but they shall pasture and they shall couch, with none to make them afraid.

Such is the simple and austere gospel of Zephaniah. 71It is not to be overlooked amid the lavish and gorgeous promises which other prophets have poured around it, and by ourselves, too, it is needed in our often unscrupulous enjoyment of the riches of grace that are in Christ Jesus. A thorough purgation, the removal of the wicked, the sparing of the honest and the meek; insistence only upon the rudiments of morality and religion; faith in its simplest form of trust in a righteous God, and character in its basal elements of meekness and truth,—these and these alone survive the judgment. Why does Zephaniah never talk of the Love of God, of the Divine Patience, of the Grace that has spared and will spare wicked hearts if only it can touch them to penitence? Why has he no call to repent, no appeal to the wicked to turn from the evil of their ways? We have already seen part of the answer. Zephaniah stands too near to judgment and the last things. Character is fixed, the time for pleading is past; there remains only the separation of bad men from good. It is the same standpoint (at least ethically) as that of Christ’s visions of the Judgment. Perhaps also an austere gospel was required by the fashionable temper of the day. The generation was loud and arrogant; it gilded the future to excess, and knew no shame.[184] The true prophet was forced to reticence; he must make his age feel the desperate earnestness of life, and that salvation is by fire. For the gorgeous future of its unsanctified hopes he must give it this severe, almost mean, picture of a poor and humble folk, hardly saved but at last at peace.

The permanent value of such a message is proved by the thirst which we feel even to-day for the clear, 72 cold water of its simple promises. Where a glaring optimism prevails, and the future is preached with a loud assurance, where many find their only religious enthusiasm in the resurrection of mediæval ritual or the singing of stirring and gorgeous hymns of second-hand imagery, how needful to be recalled to the earnestness and severity of life, to the simplicity of the conditions of salvation, and to their ethical, not emotional, character! Where sensationalism has so invaded religion, how good to hear the sober insistence upon God’s daily commonplaces—morning by morning He bringeth forth His judgment to light—and to know that the acceptance of discipline is what prevails with Him. Where national reform is vaunted and the progress of education, how well to go back to a prophet who ignored all the great reforms of his day that he might impress his people with the indispensableness of humility and faith. Where Churches have such large ambitions for themselves, how necessary to hear that the future is destined for a poor folk, the meek and the honest. Where men boast that their religion—Bible, Creed or Church—has undertaken to save them, vaunting themselves on the Mount of My Holiness, how needful to hear salvation placed upon character and a very simple trust in God.

But, on the other hand, is any one in despair at the darkness and cruelty of this life, let him hear how Zephaniah proclaims that, though all else be fraud, the Lord is righteous in the midst of us, He doth not let Himself fail, that the resigned heart and the humble, the just and the pure heart, is imperishable, and in the end there is at least peace.

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