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The Candle of the Lord
"The word of the Lord which came unto Zephaniah" ( Zep 1:1 ).
Observe that the prophets never professed to tell what word of the Lord came to anybody else. That is the vital point; that is the point which we have all forgotten. Read the introductions which the men themselves wrote: where do they find their texts? In the mouth of the Lord. When does any prophet arise to say, "I am going to preach to you to-day from the words of some other prophet?" Because we have forgotten this, our preaching has become archaic, jejune, and fruitless. Why do not men tell us what the Lord has said to them? Why have we so little personal testimony, so little real heart-talk? Hath the Lord ceased to be gracious to his people? Has he concluded his parable? Does he never whisper to any of us? Is the function of the Holy Ghost exhausted? Where is the personal pronoun? The devil has persuaded us to disuse it, and thus become modest; and whilst we are modest he is vigilant and destructive. What can it matter to you what the Lord said to some man countless thousands of years ago, if you do not adopt it, incarnate it, stake eternal destiny upon it, and thus make it your own? If a prophet here and there had said, "I will tell you what the Lord said to me," the case would have been different; but it is not so. Look at Isaiah: "The vision of Isaiah... which he saw." How strong, how clear, how emphatic, how likely to be interesting to the highest point! Here is an eye-witness: this is the kind of witness we like to have: what I saw, what I heard, what I felt, how I handled: now we are coming into close quarters with eternal mysteries. These men are not about to becloud our minds with speculations, and abstractions, and finely-spun theories; they make oath and say then comes their affidavit. Have we any affidavit to make about God? Are we living upon a hearsay testimony? Is ours a providence by proxy? Did the Lord work wonders in the olden time, and hath he sunk now into forgetfulness of his people and his kingdom? Let sense answer. What does Jeremiah say? Jeremiah desires to comment upon the book of the prophet Isaiah? Not he. How, then, does he introduce himself? Like all the others, in a whirlwind, with the suddenness which begets attention: "The words of Jeremiah... to whom the word of the Lord came." So we have two personal witnesses in Isaiah and Jeremiah. Did anybody else receive a communication from heaven, from God? Hear Ezekiel: "I saw visions of God." Perhaps only these major prophets had these high chances, only they were majestic enough to see the morning for themselves, and other men must live upon the testimony of dead witnesses. Read, "The word of the Lord that came unto Hosea"; again, "The word of the Lord that came to Joel"; again, "The words of Amos"; again, "The vision of Obadiah"; once more, "The word of the Lord came unto Jonah"; again, "The word of the Lord that came to Micah"; and again, "In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, came the word of the Lord unto Zechariah." What does the last of the prophets say? "The burden" of the word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi." We want personal testimony, personal religion. What is your life? What is mine? We are not called to recite old history, but to live our own life in the face of day. If a man's religion be something that he has learned, it is something that he may forget; memory is not immortal: but if it be part of himself, if it be wrought into him by God the Holy Ghost, then long as life, or breath, or being lasts he can say, "I saw... I heard... I know." And when men would battle with him in angry and pointless words, and plague him with metaphysical reasoning which he cannot understand, he can say, with a child's simplicity, "One thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see."
Take care how you crush individuality out of the Church. It may be a very beautiful thing to smooth down all the hills and raise up all the valleys, and make this globe we call the earth into a shining surface; God did not make it so. Where does God approve monotony pure equality as between one distance and another, one colour and another, one set of circumstances and another? He works by contrast. He has made inequality an element in the education and development of the world. The Lord hath his mountains in the Church, and his valleys; those that are of note among the apostles, and names that are not known beyond the fireside, of which they are the strength and joy. Were a man to stand up now and tell us what the Lord had done for him we should listen to him with great doubtfulness. We have lost the genius of personality, we have lost that tremendous weapon of individual testimony; it may be rough, and it may have been put to rude uses, but it is a weapon or instrument which God has often approved. It is wonderful to notice where the point of consistency begins in all these individual testimonies. The witness is marked by strong personality, and yet read through from the beginning of Isaiah to the close of Malachi, and though you are struck by personality, and almost aggressive personality, by a voice that becomes now and then something approaching to clamorousness, there is a marvellous consistency in the whole prophecy. The prophets, many of whom never saw one another, never contradict each other's testimony upon moral questions; the spiritual vision is the same, the moral testimony is undivided; every man speaks according to his own mental capacity and mental peculiarity, and yet every man speaks the word of the Lord. Not in the method of the utterance, but in the substance of the declaration do we find the unity of the Church.
The prophets are the same in connecting sin and judgment:
"I will utterly consume all things from off the land, saith the Lord. I will consume man and beast" ( Zep 1:2-3 ).
Why? Always because of sin; always because there has been wrong done. The Lord never shows his omnipotence ostentatiously, as who should say, Behold, a thousand thunderbolts are mine, yea, twice ten thousand thunderbolts await my word: behold the artillery of heaven, thunder and lightning and tempest. There is no such display of resources, no such vapouring of strength. It is when sin is done, and repeatedly done, yea, done until it rises to heaven's very gates, that the Lord comes forth in judgment and in indignation, and overwhelms the adversary. We do not preach this consuming God now. There are persons who have left the church because the minister has declared the certainty of punishment. We now like the confectionery Gospel; specially do we like to be assured that, be lost who may, nothing can hinder our getting to heaven: as for the outsiders, they are vulgar, blatant atheists, and perdition is too good for them. We do not say this in words, but as we eat mouthful after mouthful of divine sweetness: we say it in significant and suggestive action. Still the great doctrine of judgment must be proclaimed by somebody; now and again there must arise a Zephaniah who hurls his thunder upon the age, and sees God enthroned in the majesty of judgment. Poor howling maniac! we will mock him and sneer at him, and pour upon him our elegant contumely; but he will await the awards of time; he speaks from the platform of eternity. Zephaniah is sure that nothing can ever change the law that bad seed means bad harvest. We shall have to empty the church before we can fill it. It is of no use to condemn the sins of the fourth century, to expose the heresies of early centuries, and forget the crimes that disgrace the day in which we live. Why dig up old Arius, drag him out of his grave, and pelt him with orthodox stones, and thus get a reputation for being extremely orthodox? I will not do it. If any preacher chooses to fool away his time in talking about Arius, let him do so. I will speak about the men around about me, the crimes that darken the day, the winter of injustice that makes it almost impossible to live. If the Church will make itself a terror to evildoers, it will become what Jesus Christ meant it to be, the living force of the day, the true tribunal where every man will get his deserts, whether he be good or whether he be evil.
The prophets were also at one in denouncing ceremonial hypocrisy. The people performed a good many things with their hands which they did not do with their hearts; and the Lord disbelieves them. The prophet says:
"The Lord hath prepared a sacrifice, he hath bid his guests" ( Zep 1:7 ).
He turned out the nations they should not take his banquet and he called the heathen. This is what the Church will not do. This is the divine providence. When the Church did not conduct itself properly, the Lord swept it out, and called in the pagan, the Gentiles. We are the guests that succeeded those that were bidden, but who either did not obey or who corrupted the feast. If the people who are in the Church now are not the right people, get rid of them; go out into the highways and the hedges, and compel them to come in. Above all things, let us get rid of respectability. The prophets, and Christ at their head, always condemned the religious hypocrites of their day.
Nor would the prophets be content when men substituted even one ceremony for another in a spirit of heathenish curiosity. When he saw the king's children clothed with strange apparel, the prophet protested. What was the apparel of Israel? A band of dark blue upon the fringes, at the four corners of their garments that was all; but it marked the Israelite; it was a blue ribbon, but it indicated election, responsibility, and destiny. What did Israel say in the time of luxury? We will be as the heathen, as the families of the countries; we will drop all these little signs and badges of Israelitish vocation, and we will send for the foreign fashions. That is what men always do in luxurious times. Oh, the fool's talk we hear about the fashions from Paris! Be sure that the country is going down when women are foolish enough to say, "I got this in Paris." Precisely the old heresy. And yet where is the woman strong enough, broad enough in mind, to say, "No, this is good homespun;" "This belongs to the mother country;" or, "I spun this myself"? I like to see the dear old grannies in the country spinning away at their wheels, and they perhaps never heard that there is such a place as Paris. These are the people that make a country strong and healthy. When we forget home industries and home necessities we are in danger of slipping off the badge of liberty, and forgetting the masonic password of progress. Beware of luxury; beware of unsanctified prosperity. It ruined Israel; it will ruin any nation. How will God search his people?
"I will search Jerusalem with candles" ( Zep 1:12 ).
Observe the minuteness; take note of the detail. It shall not be a general inspection of surface, but "I will search Jerusalem with candles": every hole and corner shall be looked into motive, thought, purpose, far-away outlines of possible policies; they shall be discovered in their plasmic beginning, their first inceptions and suggestions. The Lord does not look generally over the world, and say, "It is very good" he goes into detail. The analysis of the Lord is terrible, unsparing; but if it be terrible in the process it may be comforting in the result, for, blessed be God, there are some men who have the best of themselves hidden far away under much superincumbent infirmity and sort of conduct that they themselves are unable to approve. There are men whose hearts can only be discovered by the candle of the Lord, and the Lord himself will say to some, "You are last, but you shall be first. There is in you a seed you yourselves hardly knew of; you have been looking at your external infirmities and difficulties, and struggles and temptations, and you have forgotten that right away down below all these there was a seed pod that shall grow up into fruitfulness and beauty in your Father's heaven. God's criticism is terrible because it is gentle gentle because it is terrible; it may even be a terror to evildoers, or an infinite comfort to those who want to do well.
How terrible is the searching of this candle! It finds out some who say in their heart, "The Lord will not do good, neither will he do evil." That is the atheism we have to be on our guard against; unavowed atheism; men who say one thing with their mouths and another with their hearts. In this case the men are professing to believe in God, and yet they are saying in their hearts in silence, "The Lord will not do good, neither will he do evil." The outward atheist can do the Church no harm; the man who is an avowed unbeliever, a vulgar assailant of faith, reverence, and religious purity, can do no harm; but the man who is inside the Church, who has a lip orthodoxy and a heart heterodoxy, he is the Iscariot who would sell his Lord. If you are not orthodox in your hearts, say so; if you do not believe these sublime verities of revelation, declare your unbelief, and go outside and assail the Church from an external position; do not remain in the Church and cause dry-rot in the sanctuary. If you have any doubts or difficulties about the holiness and the moral beauty and spiritual necessity of Christianity, out with them, speak them boldly; then they may be answered, and you may be comforted; but do not be professing to serve God with your hand while he is not in your heart. Better a blundering speculating faith and an intense moral sincerity, than a beautiful speculating creed, and a heart that has lost its integrity.
So the old prophets are still amongst us in their spirit, in their appeal, in their claim for righteousness, and in their proclamation of judgment for wrongdoing. The worst of us may repent. Christ Jesus, God the Son, died for me, for you, for the whole world, in every age, the just, for the unjust that he might bring us to God. I do not understand it, but I feel it; I could not fully explain it, but I need all the Cross. If there is a sinner out of the final punishment who needs all Calvary, I am the man. There be those who say, "How could Paul call himself the chief of sinners?" No man can call himself anything else who knows his heart, and feels what he might have been and perhaps what he would be if he could. I proclaim the everlasting Gospel salvation by sacrifice; life by death; peace by the atonement wrought on Calvary. Oh, mystery of righteousness; mystery of love!
"Therefore their goods shall become a booty, and their houses a desolation: they shall also build houses, but not inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, but not drink the wine thereof" ( Zep 1:13 ).
The Lord will correct this atheism. We often think of speculation ending in nothing; often, indeed, speculation which begins in vapour ends in vapour: but in this case the people have departed from God in conduct as well as in theory, and therefore nothing short of physical punishment and material deprivation will meet the disastrous case. It is not to be supposed that God will punish men simply because they have changed intellectual opinions for what may seem to them to be honest reasons; it is when doctrinal departure injuriously affects the conduct that God lifts his rod and smites by way of recompense.
If we continue our perusal of Zephaniah we shall find that even in so furious a prophet there are strains of music worthy of Gospel days:
"Seek ye the Lord, all ye meek of the earth, which have wrought his judgment; seek righteousness, seek meekness; it may be ye shall be hid in the day of the Lord's anger" ( Zep 2:3 ).
It is curious to observe how tentatively the prophet puts the possibility of good resulting from late repentance. How could Zephaniah suddenly subdue his tremendous fury and speak peacefully the words of divine pardon? It could not be easy for him to descend from the whirlwind, and take up his position as a preacher of goodness. Singular it is, as we have often had occasion to notice, how the prophets first boil in fury and indignation against all evil, and then how they settle down into tranquil assurances that if man will repent God will forgive. Everything in the Old Testament would seem to have an evangelical trend. However the prophet may begin, he is sure to end in evangelical music. It was right that indignation should be the first tone, because the people had wandered from God, not a little here and there, but iniquitously, with a full and determined purpose. But whilst the prophet looks upon man's sin, he also turns his eyes to God's grace; and, as in the New Testament so in the Old, where sin abounds grace doth much more abound. When Zephaniah opened his mission in such tones of tremendous threatening, we little imagined that he would be the speaker of promises to those whose hearts were softened in repentance.
In the third chapter we have words that are still truly and joyously evangelical. A curious trust is to be given to the people of God:
"I will also leave in the midst of thee an afflicted and poor people, and they shall trust in the name of the Lord" ( Zep 3:12 ).
However various the interpretations that may be put upon this sentence, it would seem to fall into harmony with the words of the Lord Jesus when he said, "The poor ye have always with you." Poverty is not an external question relating to merely transitory circumstances; there is a mysterious providence about this placing of poverty in the midst of the nations; we cannot comprehend it; yet if we look at the educational and the chastening influences of poverty we may begin to surmise why the poor are left to us as a continual trust. As the sick-chamber is the church of the house, so the poor people in any community ought to draw out the tenderest solicitudes and sympathies of those who are prosperous in this world's goods. Let us look out for opportunities of doing service to mankind, and we shall never fail to have field enough for the exercise of our fullest charity. A wondrous change is predicted by the prophet in these words:
"The remnant of Israel shall not do iniquity, nor speak lies; neither shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouth: for they shall feed and lie down, and none shall make them afraid" ( Zep 3:13 ).
We little expected this when Zephaniah opened his judgment. We expected the fire to devour every root, and that nothing would be left behind but white ashes; and lo! such has been the effect of the threatened judgment of God, that truth takes the place of lies, vice is displaced by virtue, and the mouth that was befouled with deceit is now found to be the instrument of purity and music. Do not despair of the worst. The worst should not despair of themselves Whilst we live we may pray; whilst we pray we may hope; whilst we hope we may at any moment see the delivering light, the very smile and welcome of God.
In the remaining paragraph Zephaniah takes up his harp, and smites it with a willing hand; yea, he lifts up his voice also, and commands the daughter of Zion to join him in holy song:
"Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem" ( Zep 3:14 ).
Here fury ceases, and tranquil music fills the air, like a breeze from the better land. Nor is the exhortation expressive of a mere sentiment; it rather follows the assurance of a profound and glorious fact "The Lord hath taken away thy judgments, he hath cast out thine enemy." For this reason Zion was to sing, Israel was to shout, and the daughter of Jerusalem was to rejoice with all her heart. A kind of heaven is promised to Jerusalem "Thou shalt not see evil any more." Tell the mariner that no more shall the sea be lashed into a storm; tell the wayfaring man that no more shall the lion rise up suddenly in his path; tell the toiler that no more shall blight devastate his harvest; and he will have some idea of the joy that must have filled the heart of Jerusalem when the Lord predicted that evil should not be seen any more within the lines of her beauty, within the security of her defences. What great feasts the Lord provides his people! How rapturous is the music of reconciliation!
"The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing" ( Zep 3:17 ).
This is more than the usual Hebrew reduplication of words; it means that the divine heart and the human heart are one; it means that the Gospel has prevailed over sin, and that earth is being lifted up day by day to the very gate of heaven. Remember the tenderness and the loving kindness of God.
"I will undo all that afflict thee: and I will save her that halteth, and gather her that was driven out; and I will get them praise and fame in every land where they have been put to shame" ( Zep 3:19 ).
To these miracles the omnipotence of God addresses itself; not to the healing of broken limbs or infirm members of the body, not to the restoration of sight and hearing and speech only, but to the obliteration of iniquity, to the forgiveness of rebellion, to the restoration of lost souls, will God address the almightiness of his love. The Lord did not build the universe that he might destroy it; wherever there are marks of destruction they are footprints of an enemy; the purpose of the Lord is to obliterate such footprints, to rebuild all shattered strength, to restore all marred beauty; and when the Lord has set himself to work out a purpose, who can withstand the pressure and the progress of his omnipotence? Let all evangelical thinkers and workers, yea, all evangelical men know that they are moving in the line of the divine intent. Let them nourish themselves with the fatness of the divine promises, and be assured that, come what may, the word of the Lord will ultimately prevail.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Zephaniah 3". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24