Do you feel nervous? Does life make you anxious? Do you try to calm yourself by saying, "I can handle this?" Our lesson this week is about people who got into a whole bunch of trouble. The trouble began because they depended upon their own power and authority. They relied on their gates, walls, wealth, and intellect to keep them safe. They sacrificed others to protect themselves. God has a better way for us. Let's plunge into our study of Zephaniah and find out more!
The Day of the Lord (Zephaniah)
Commentary for the June 1, 2013 Sabbath School Lesson
“Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord! Why do you long for the day of the Lord? That day will be darkness, not light.” Amos 5:18, NIV
In November of 1996, Spokane County in Washington State was hit by an ice storm that seemed almost apocryphal to the residents. Following on heavy snow accumulations, freezing rain added several inches of ice to everything exposed to the weather. Trees weighed down by the heavy ice snapped their trunks, and all over the county, the falling trees created dangerous driving conditions and made the terrain look like a war zone. Roads were blocked and power lines had broken from their own weight of ice as well as from falling trees and limbs. It was the resulting loss of electric power rather than the ice that created an apocalyptic scenario.
Society has become so dependent upon electricity that without it, we can find ourselves pushed back to an earlier era with a much more difficult struggle for survival. Once the power went out, the stores closed their doors to prevent looting as there were few if any non-electric lights immediately available and because of our dependence upon electric lights, stores were not designed to have windows throughout their buildings to provide light. Instead, they often only had windows on one side to minimize heating and air conditioning costs.
Coincidental with the store closures, other problems became apparent. Without electricity, the food could not be kept refrigerated or frozen and huge amounts of food were lost to spoilage. Although the grocers would have liked to have sold the food before it spoiled, they were faced with a second problem. All of the cash registers were computerized and without electricity, items could not be weighed, prices could not be scanned and the cash registers could not even open and close. Very few stores still owned manual cash registers. Even if one did, cash was also hard to come by as banks and financial institutions used electricity to verify account balances for the availability of funds. They could dispense nothing.
As the days went by with people sitting in the dark and cold waiting for the power to come back on, desperation began to set in. Some became so despondent that they began using guns to shoot at power company crews who drove by without stopping. The power companies had made it a priority to get the power back on first in those locations that affected the most people. Those who were on smaller, isolated power grids had a hard time seeing those priorities when their families were shivering and hungry in the cold and darkness.
At the time of this ice storm, I was living in a mobile home with my disabled wife and my son. Fortunately we had a gas powered camp stove for cooking and a propane heater for warmth. The heater was unable to warm the house completely because we had to keep windows open for ventilation to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning, but it was better than not having heat at all. The two-burner camp stove was able to warm food, but it was difficult to heat enough water for bathing and cleaning dishes. Besides, one the propane ran out, the stores were closed. We could not easily buy more. We needed to ration what we had.
Perhaps the most difficult thing to deal with during this time was the uncertainty. No one knew when the power would be restored. Sometimes power would be restored briefly in one area only to go off again because of an overload in some other part of the system. Once, we rejoiced to have power restored only to have it go off again minutes later as the trucks of the power line crews were leaving. They did not return that day.
When power was finally, permanently restored, we had a new appreciation for the tenuous nature of our existence and the thin veneer of civility we all live with. I even understood better the words of Jesus about winter, end-time scenarios.[i] Recently, we have received several reminders, such as Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey, and the devastating tornado that leveled schools and homes in Moore, Oklahoma. Too, lest we think this is just an American experience, we should remember earthquakes, typhoons and other disasters that have repeatedly swept the planet. The tidal wave that recently hit Japan not only created its own destructive path but also unleashed a nuclear disaster to add to the holocaust as radiation escaped several flood-damaged nuclear reactors. These events have had us all reeling and asking for reasons.
Some see the actions of a vengeful God in these disasters, repaying mankind for evils that range from allowing abortion to allowing gays to serve in the military. Others feel perhaps like those of Zephaniah’s day that these are just natural disasters and God is not involved at all.[ii] Maybe these “black-and-white” alternatives to the character of God are not the only understandings one can bring to these occurrences. Is it possible that even the prophet’s understanding may be tainted by this polarized thinking?
In American movies sometimes the dialogue between characters plays on this type of thinking. One character will warn another about something. Then the second character will ask “Is that a threat?” The first then replies, “No, it is a promise!” But is God like a movie character? Does He really prefer obliteration to salvation? Is our desire to attribute everything, both good and bad, to God so great that we can see no other possibility? Is there a chance that God’s warnings are just that—warnings? Could He be simply telling us about the natural consequences of our actions?
Suppose I have a friend who has a new car, and he tells me that he is going to use it to drive around “Dead Man’s Curve” at 120 miles per hour. I would naturally warn him that if he tries that, he could die. How much sense would it make for him to say, “You just want to restrict my freedom, but your threats won’t work. I’m going to do it anyway!” You and I both know what the outcome will likely be if he ignores the warning.
Maybe if we allow ourselves to consider God’s warnings in this light, we can discover a better picture of God’s compassionate character. For instance, we are biblically warned against accumulating wealth and ignoring the needs of the poor among us.[iii] History is replete with examples of empires that ignored this and sowed the seeds of their own destruction. The wealth of the few was at the expense of the many, and while they did all they could to oppress the poor and keep them from ever receiving any of it back, they became a beacon drawing those in other nations to do all they could to obtain some or all of that wealth for themselves.[iv] Over and over again, the wealth that nations accumulated was taken by others, only to see the cycle repeated in their case as well.[v]
We can attribute these things all we want to a vengeful God and then refuse to acknowledge Him on the basis of the character we have given Him, but we cheat no one but ourselves if we do. We become like the person who is on a diet to lose weight and ignores the requirements of the diet. We know that we will not lose weight, but is it the diet’s fault? How often do we hear people say, “That diet didn’t work for me,” when we know the problem was not the diet but unwillingness to follow it?
We can attempt all sorts of rationalizations for our behavior. We can excuse our neglect of the poor and needy on the basis of their relative unworthiness to receive our aid. By implication we are saying that what we have is somehow based on our own superior worthiness. If we are Christians, we should know this is not true. God does not dispense His blessings based on worthiness.[vi] He blesses based on His compassion, mercy and love. Those who have been blessed accordingly should also bless others in turn without regard to worthiness.[vii]
If we fail to understand the compassionate character of God and we determine to continue as we have, we will see the same results past civilizations have seen. “Bread and circuses”[viii] was not an adequate response to the poor in ancient Rome. It still isn’t, today. It represents the wealthy giving the poor what they want in order to avoid the greater cost of what they need, such as shelter, adequate clothing, proper nutrition, health care, and meaningful employment. Insuring these necessities for all insures the security of a nation. The consequences of prophetic warnings can thereby be avoided[ix] and the character of God can be revealed in His people[x] through their compassion toward one another. To leave this undone is to ensure the fulfillment of Zephaniah’s dark, end-time prophecy.
[i] Matthew 24:20
[ii] Zephaniah 1:12
[iii] Cf. Isaiah 58, Job 24, James 1:27
[iv] 2 Kings 20:12-19
[v] Daniel 5
[vi] Matthew 5:45
[vii] Ibid., 18-23-35
[viii] panem et circenses, Juvenal, “Satire X”
[ix] Jonah 3:10-4:2,11
[x] Matthew 5:42-48
"The Day of the Lord" June 1, 2013
Zephaniah 1:14-18, Joel 2:1-11, Zephaniah 2:1-3, Isaiah 11:4, Zephaniah 3:1-5, Isaiah 62:5, Nahum 1-3
"I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth, declares the Lord", the words of a prophet of the Lord that begin our Bible study this week.1
This past Sunday, U.S. President Obama flew to Moore, Okla. to personally see the destruction left by an E-5 tornado. He met with the first responders and residents impacted by the storm that took lives, destroyed homes, businesses, two elementary schools, and a hospital.
Recently the media has been focusing on the heroes being lauded for their actions. Moore resident, Cindy Sasnett is one of them.
Cindy has a day care in her home. As the warning sirens went off she heard the TV announcer say the tornado was headed her way and warned that anyone in the path of the storm without a storm shelter could not survive. Procrastination and lack of funds were reasons she cited for not having a safe shelter in their home. She prayed "What do I do Lord?"
Fortunately for Cindy, all but one parent of the children in her day care headed the warning and rushed to pick up their children. Cindy felt a strong sense from God that she should gather her own son and the one child whose parent had not arrived and try to outrun the storm in her car.
She buckled the two children into their car seats and connected her cell phone to her husband who was at work 10 miles away. He was able to give her verbal directions telling her which way to turn as he watched the storm head directly for their home.
When she returned to the house, every room where she considered seeking shelter was totally destroyed. The father who had been stuck in traffic unable to reach his son thanked her for saving his only son.2
The residents of Moore, Okla. were not worshiping idols as were the people of Judah in our Bible study. Nor will we ever know why tornadoes touch down killing innocent people while sparing others. The devil will intrude upon any city and any people he can. He is good at his job! He does everything he can to have us ask "Where was God? Why didn't God intervene? "
The Book of Zephaniah reminds us that on the Great Day of the Lord judgment does not mean annihilation of all people rather a purging to wipe out all wickedness. Those willing to repent will be hidden and given salvation in the day of the Lord's anger."3 Zephaniah's final words speak of God's mercy: "The Lord your God is with you, He is mighty to save."4
The world is soon to be judged. By rejecting God's warnings we are no better off than those in Judah or Jerusalem. In the Great Day of the Lord, He is our only safe shelter. We must not procrastinate.
1. Zephaniah 1:2.
3. Zephaniah 2: 3b
4. Zephaniah 3:17
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