There is probably no sentence we hate to hear more out of the lips of others than the words, “I told you so.” “I tried to tell you.” “I tried to tell but you would not listen.” But imagine if God had to say those words to us. He does. But before we get to that, we need to consider what we are looking at in the book of Zephaniah. The first chapter of Zephaniah was God declaring the problem of complacency among his people. They are satisfied in their wealth and possessions, thinking God is not active in the world. They still worship the Lord but they do not follow him or seek him. But now we are at a moment when the prophet is going to plead with the people. After he makes his pleading with the people, the Lord will make his personal pleading to the people. What we are going to see in our Lord is a picture of a father who is pleading with his children to listen to what he has to say. Now what we are going to see may seem a little backward. But there is a purpose in the presentation to his complacent people. God is going to give the people three reasons that they need to repent. So follow along as we look at God calling to his people in Zephaniah 2.
Repent While You Can (2:1-3)
The first message to repent while you can. Gather yourselves together before it is too late. Turn to the Lord before the decree of judgment takes effect, before the burning anger of the Lord comes upon you. The first reason to repent is that the decree of judgment has been made. Judgment is definitely coming. So you need to get ready with repentance before it is too late. Every year we get practice in this kind of idea as we live in south Florida. The declaration of a hurricane is made. We are put into the cone of error. The decree is made but it is days before the hurricane comes. This is what the prophet is saying to the people. The decree of judgment has been made. Even though it has not happened yet, it is certainly coming. So gather yourselves for repentance so that perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the Lord’s anger (2:3). You see that the point is that judgment has been decreed. So the wise thing to do is repent to that you can perhaps avoid God’s wrath.
The call, therefore, is to turn their lives around before it is too late. Seek the Lord. Seek righteousness. Seek humility. But I want us to slow down and think about what verse 3 says. Who is supposed to seek the Lord? God is telling those who are doing his commands to seek the Lord. What did we note was the problem in chapter 1? The people are doing the commands of the Lord but they are not seeking the Lord (1:6). They do not follow the Lord. They do not inquire of the Lord. But they are worshiping the Lord. Here the people are pictured as doing the commands of the Lord but still needing to seek the Lord, seek righteousness, and seek humility.
We need to hear this message. You can do the commands of God and still experience God’s wrath. You can keep the laws and still experience God’s judgment. A terrible thing has been long implied and sometimes expressly taught: if you just keep the commands of God then you will avoid judgment. You just need to go to the right church that has the right leadership structure that has the right worship and teaches the right things on salvation and you will be saved. Now the right church that practices the right things and follows what God says about worship and salvation is important and not optional. But what I want us to see is that you can do that and still be lost. You can be baptized, participate in worship, and keep the moral laws of God and still experience God’s wrath. There is a greater question that needs to be asked. Do you seek the Lord? Do you desire him? Do you seek first his kingdom and his righteousness? Do you love the Lord as your God with all your heart? These are the first questions that must be asked otherwise you turn God into a checklist religion. We look at ourselves and see that we do certain things and think that we have appeased God. But this is what the people are doing in the days of Josiah. Josiah is making reforms in the land but the people are not seeking the Lord. They are just doing moral things and maintaining worship. Because of this, the wrath of God was still coming.
Repent Because You Are Not Different From the Sinful World (2:4-3:5)
The second reason the people need to repent is because they have shown themselves to be just like the nations who are separated from God. Notice the first word of Zephaniah 2:4 is “For.” The people need to repent because judgment is coming against the other nations. The enemies of God begin to be listed throughout the rest of chapter 2. The Philistines will be judged (2:4-7). Moab and Ammon will be judged (2:8-11). Cush will be judged (2:12). Assyria will be judged (2:13-15). Saying that even Assyria will be judged is quite amazing because Assyria is the world power at this time. Assyria had just wiped out Israel to the north. Assyria was even the instrument of some of the judgments described against the other nations in this chapter.
But I want you to notice the condemnation that is given. Look at Zephaniah 2:15. “This is the exultant city that lived securely, that said in her heart, ‘I am, and there is no one else.’” Notice the attitude of arrogance. No one can bring them down. No one is like them. They are unique and nothing will happen to them. They will exist forever. Essentially, we are great and do not need God. In fact, their wording is like God. In Isaiah 45:5 the Lord said about himself that he is the only God and there is no one beside him. Assyria and its capital Ninevah are saying there is nothing like them. No one is their equal and they cannot be brought down. But the rest of Zephaniah 2:15 says that they will become a desolation. Why is this important? This is important because Judah is the same. Look at the first five verses of chapter 3.
Judah does not listen to any voice and does not accept correction. They do not trust in the Lord. They do not draw near to God (3:2). Their leaders are violent (3:3) and the teachers destroy the law of God (3:4). In verse 5 the prophet declares that the people are nothing like God whom they are to be following and imitating. The point is that the people have the same arrogance. They do not listen. They do not change. They do not trust in God. They do not draw near to God. Judah is just like the world. They are not devoted to God nor separated from God. So they need to repent for not being distinct.
I hope we can see something very important that Zephaniah is declaring during Judah’s time of wickedness. Zephaniah 3:1 says that the city is rebellious and defiled. It is an oppressing city. So what the problem and what is the solution? The problem is that the people stop listening to God. That is why the city is a mess. Nothing is going right because they do not trust God nor draw near to God. Therefore, the solution is turning back to God. Friends, the only way our culture is ever going to have true social reform, true righteousness, true justice, and true healing is only by listening to the voice of God and accepting correction. Until we trust in God and draw near to God things are only going to get worse, not better, no matter what we do.
God Thought You Would Listen (3:6-7)
Now we come to the third picture of why the people should repent. God himself now speaks in these verses and we are going to look at verses 6-7 of chapter 3. God said that he has judged other nations and cities. So when I came to you about your need for correction, I thought you would listen. God thought that these people of all people would listen and turn. If God says that doom is coming and there is going to be judgment for sins, surely it would be the people of God who would listen and change. But they did not. Why won’t they listen? Why won’t they change? Why will they not trust in the Lord? Why will they not draw near to him? Look at the end of verse 7. “But all the more they were eager to make all their deeds corrupt.”
Think about the wording that God declares. When God warned the people, they were even more eager to make all of their actions corrupt. Here is the picture of God coming to help and warning his people about the judgment to come. But the people reject the message because they want to sin. They want to continue in doing what they want to do. This is the problem for humanity that was noted regarding the world’s response to Jesus. Listen to what the Gospel of John says.
This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. (John 3:19–20 NIV)
What is the problem? We want to do what we want. The problem is that we want to sin. That is the sum total of the problem. We do not want to listen to what God is telling us. We want to think that we are above it all. We want to think that we are sovereign over our lives rather than God. What is so sad is that God is declaring that disaster can be averted if they will only listen!
So here we are living in a similar circumstance where God has declared that there will be a final judgment but we can avoid God’s wrath. We are to be preparing for God’s return and we must not make the same mistake as the people of Judah. God is calling to us and telling us that he thought we would listen to him. He has told us what we need to do. The instructions in Zephaniah 2:3 are the same instructions God always gives. Repentance is necessary if we are going to enjoy God’s blessings and avoid God’s wrath. First, repentance requires humility. We need humility so that we will listen to what God is telling us. Jesus said in Matthew 5:3 that those who were poor in spirit are blessed for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them. We cannot turn to God if we think we are right. We cannot turn to God if we will not listen and will not accept correction.
Second, repentance requires seeking righteousness. Jesus said this in Matthew 6:33. “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you” (CSB). We need to stop doing what we want and seek what God wants. This is the essence of repentance. This is what God said that Judah was unwilling to do even though the external moral reforms were being made in the nation.
But I hope the words of the Lord would remain in our hearts. “I said, ‘Surely you will fear me; you will accept correction’” (3:7). Can you imagine after our death coming to the brink of eternity and God saying to you, “I thought you would accept my correction and fear me”? Or, to bring us back to the beginning of our lesson, “I tried to tell you but you would not listen.” The scriptures contain God’s words trying to tell us. Will we listen? Will we repent? Will we seek the Lord beyond doing his commands? Will we see humility? Will we seek righteousness? The Lord is righteous. The Lord does no wrong. The Lord does not fail (3:5). We are to be in relationship with him, transforming our hearts and lives because God is with us. Judah failed. Will we listen?