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Seek ye the Lord, all ye meek of the earth.
Sin and repentance, the bane and antidote
An exhortation to the men of Judah to repent ere the Chaldean invaders approach and wreak destruction on their land.
I. Sin exposes man to ruin. It was sin, in the form of idolatry and gross immorality, that exposed the Jewish people to the terrible doom that was now hanging over them.
1. The suffering that follows sin is sometimes very terrible. Sin brings to a people famines, pestilences, wars, hells.
2. The suffering expresses God’s antagonism to sin. “The fierce anger of the Lord,” or, as Henderson has it, the “burning anger of Jehovah.” The connection between sin and misery is a beneficent arrangement. It is well that misery should pursue wrong.
II. That repentance delivers man from ruin.
1. The preparation for repentance. “Gather yourselves together.” It is well for sinners in the prospect of their doom to meet and confer concerning their relations to Almighty God.
2. The nature of repentance. “Seek ye the Lord, all ye meek of the earth”; or, as Henderson renders it, “Seek ye Jehovah, all ye humble of the earth.” There are two seekings here.
(1) The seeking of God. He is “not far from every one of us.” But we are all away from Him in sympathy. The other seeking is--
(2) The seeking of goodness. “Seek righteousness, seek goodness.”
3. The urgency of repentance. “Before the decree bring forth, before the day pass as the chaff, before the fierce anger of the Lord come upon you, before the day of the Lord’s anger come upon you.” (Homilist.)
Seek righteousness, seek meekness.
True way of seeking God
The prophet defines what the true and rightful way of seeking God is, and that is, when righteousness is sought, when humility is sought. By righteousness he understands the same thing as by judgment; as though he had said, “Advance in a righteous and holy course of life, for God will not forget your obedience, provided your hearts grow not faint, and ye persevere to the end.” We hence see that God complains, not only when we obtrude external pomps and devices, I know not what, as though He might like a child be amused by us; but also when we do not sincerely devote our life to His service. And he adds humility to righteousness; for it is difficult even for the very best of men not to murmur against God when He severely chastises them. We indeed find how much their own delicacy embitters the minds of men when God appears somewhat severe with them. Hence the prophet, in order to check all clamours, exhorts the faithful here to cultivate humility, so that they might bear patiently the rigour by which God would try them, and might suffer themselves to be ruled by His hand (1 Peter 5:6). The prophet requires humility, in order that they might with composed minds wait for the deliverance which God had promised. They were not in the interval to murmur, nor to give vent to their own perverse feelings, however severely God might treat them. We may hence gather a profitable instruction. The prophet does not address here men who were depraved, and had wholly neglected what was just and right, but he directs his discourse to the best, the most upright, the most holy: and yet he shows that they had no other remedy, but humbly and patiently to bear the chastisement of God. It then follows that no perfection can be found among men, such as can meet the judgment of God. (John Calvin.)
It may be ye shall be hid in the day of the Lord’s anger.--
Prayer and providence
Zephaniah could not promise the people exemption from the trials that should come upon them from the Chaldeans. But neither was it possible for him, or any other, to say how much, in the way of mitigation of those threatened evils, might be effected by prayer, by effort, by an humble seeking unto the Lord their God. “It may be”--a theology from which these words should be excluded, would, if it met with universal acceptance, go far towards turning the world upside down. It would paralyse all the powers of our religious nature. It would take from under us all grounds for trusting in a moral providence. Let certainty, in relation to the Divine Being, be as fixed a thing as you will, I must have some room left for a peradventure--must be permitted to believe that there are possibilities in the future of indeterminate issue. This indeterminateness may be looked at in two different ways.
I. As it bears upon the principles of a Divine administration. Is the use of such language as “ it may be,” compatible with that fixed order of procedure by which, it is commonly assumed, the Almighty governs the world?
1. These words suppose, if they do not directly affirm, the doctrine of a moral providence; as opposed to the doctrine of fatalism; or of irresistible necessity. There is a constant, continuous, moral superintendence over the affairs of men, for moral purposes. God never permits secondary agencies to go out of His own hands. This view is not more a disclosure of revelation, than it is an essential element of our first conceptions of an Infinite Being. On the Christian showing of what God is, we cannot admit His existence without admitting His providence also. Of course nothing more is contended for, than the fact of a special providence overruling the affairs of men. Of the methods of our preservation, or deliverance, in trying circumstances, we often know nothing.
2. Take the words “it may be,” as against that unchanging fixity of natural laws, which it is the fashion of a modern philosophy to make the grand autocratic power in the universe of God. The form of the objection is, that since cause and effect, in the natural world, are joined together by a nexus of undeviating certainty, all prayer for the modification of events, occurring in the order of physical law, is “absurd.” But this not only limits the agency of the Divine Being in the natural world, but strikes at the root of all our conceptions of God as a moral governor. God and nature, upon this theory, make up the universe, and the only relation which God has to nature is to keep the wondrous machine going. A high and impersonal abstraction governs all things. Free moral agents, in this apparatus of eternal sequences, there are none, either in relation to God or man. What is the foundation fallacy of this reasoning? But prayer asks for no violation of any inevitable law of sequence. It is merely an appeal to Infinite Wisdom to devise some method for our relief. This is the fault we charge upon the so-called scientific objection. It assumes that all the events in this world’s history, however intimately affecting man’s happiness, depend for their accomplishment on physical laws only, rather than, as they do, upon those laws liable to be modified in their operation by the intervention or volition of moral agents. Just here, where a fixed thing is intercalated with an unfixed thing, room is left for the putting forth of human effort, and the offering up of faithful prayer. The assumption is entirely gratuitous that, in praying against any form of apprehended danger, I expect the laws of the material world to be suspended, or altered, or put out of course, in any miraculous way. My prayer only goes upon the supposition that there are multitudinous agencies in God, which may be employed to turn a threatened evil aside, or to modify its operation before it reaches me.
II. Consider the subject in relation to human agency. Or what man may and ought to do towards the same object.
1. Seek the Lord by earnest prayer.
2. Take care not to stipulate for any particular form of relief. (D. Moore, M. A.)
The saint’s hiding-place
Notice the matter of the exhortation to the godly, which is, “To seek the Lord, to seek righteousness, to seek meekness.” The subjects or persons upon whom this exhortation falls. “The meek of the earth.” And the motive pressing thereto. “It may be ye shall be hid in the day of the Lord’s anger.” Ye shall surely be hidden from the wrath to come, and it may be from the wrath present.
I. God hath His days of anger. Take anger properly for a passion, and then there is none in God. Take anger for the effects and fruits thereof, and so it is not with God as mercy is. Yet He hath His days of anger. The more excellent a person, the sooner he is moved to anger. Now there is most excellency in God, and therefore sin being a contempt of Him, He cannot but be moved to anger. Anger is the dagger that love wears to save itself, and to hurt all that wrongs the thing loved: there is infinite love in God, and therefore there must needs be anger too. God has three houses that He puts men into: an house of instruction, an house of correction, an house of destruction. It is not in itself unlawful to be angry, only your anger must be unto reformation, as God’s is. If there be wrath m God, how infinitely are our souls bound unto Jesus Christ, by whom we are delivered from the wrath to come, reconciled to God, and made friends to Him. And being friends, His very wrath and anger are our friends also.
II. In days of angst, God is very willing to hide, save, and defend His people. God knows how to deliver from danger by danger, from death by death, from misery by misery. Much of the saints’ preservation is put into the hand of angels. Those that hide the saints are sure to be hidden by God. Those that keep the word of God’s patience, have a promise to be hidden by God. Those are sure to be hidden by God in evil times, that fear not the fears of men. And those that remain green and flourishing in their religion, notwithstanding all the ,scorching heats of opposition that do fall on them. And the “meek of the earth shall be hidden by God.
III. Though God is willing to hide His own people in evil times, yet He doth sometimes leave them at great uncertainties. They have more than a “may be” for their eternal salvation. But as for our temporal and outward salvation, God doth sometimes leave His people to a “may be.” God loves to have His people trust to the goodness of His nature.
IV. When His people have only a ‘‘may be,” it is their duty to seek unto God. There is no such way to establish our thoughts as to commit our ways unto God. The text points unto three things--
1. Seek the Lord Himself, not His goods, but His goodness.
2. Seek righteousness.
3. Seek truth.
V. If any man can do any good in the day of God’s anger, it is the meek of the earth. Therefore the text calls on them specially to seek the Lord. The meek have the promise of the earth. The meek do most honour Christ, the way of Christ, and the Gospel. A meek person leaves his cause with God and his revenge to Him. The meek person is most fit for the service of God. Hereby, even your meekness, ye walk as becometh the Gospel, ye inherit the earth, are made like unto Jesus Christ, have a great power and credit in heaven for yourselves and others, and shall be hidden in the evil day. (W. Bridge, M. A.)
(with chap. 3.Zephaniah 3:11-12; Zephaniah 3:11-12):--The prophet spoke, and in fact it happened that judgment fell; the nations passed, Israel was chastised; it went into captivity. And there did come back that meek, that poor, that afflicted people, despised even of the Samaritans--those feeble Jews. They came back trusting in Jehovah; they laid the foundations of that piteous and miserable new temple. Its very foundations cause contempt; those who remember the old temple could but weep. But this new temple was to be clothed with a glory which the old temple had never known. It was the religion of humanity that Was to come out from that regenerated and purged people--that little band of the meek of the earth. Brethren, we speak of poetical justice, and we mean by that generally when we want to see the lines of ideal actions clear and unblurred. We have to look to our great works of fiction, to some great drama, or poem, or novel, and there, if they are great of their kind, we see the ideal lines of Divine judgment, and of human progress, standing out clear and vivid in that which the imagination of the artist conceives. And the artist must conceive it for us, and teach us through these ideal lines, because, in the most of our ordinary experience, the lines of Divine action, of human experience, are blurred and confused in the mixture and confusion of this common earthly scene. But it is not always so. There are days of the Lord. The days of the Lord are the moments in history when the ideal issues appear, and the Divine hand is plain. Such a moment was the judgment and the restoration of Israel. There have been other such moments in history, like the decay of Spain, like the French Revolution, like the collapse of Napoleon. There are moments in history when God bares His arms and speaks plainly. It might be so again one day upon what is proud and exalting in this English nation of ours. Anyway, God does it. Beyond our sight He will do it, or m our sight from time to time He does it. That is the Divine method. Always, it is through this discipline, whereby God must single out for progress those who will consent to be chastened into meekness. But for to-day let us leave again the scene of political and social history, and trace this method of God again in the individual soul. There again, the method of Divine discipline, the method whereby we, individual after individual, are prepared for effective fruitfulness, is this same method of chastening. One after another, in our pride and our haughtiness, we have to be chastened into that quality which--it is the very paradox of Divine justice--is the one really strong and effective quality in the progress of the human soul, and it is meekness. Disciplined into effective meekness--that is the verdict which might be written upon the history of every single human soul which fulfils in any real measure the purpose of God. Englishmen are proud; we know it. In a certain way we are proud of being proud. Look round about in the world. What are the spectacles, the strange and overpowering spectacles, which we behold of the insolence of human pride? From time to time the record of some millionaire in America or South Africa or England is laid bare to us--some one who confessedly, and before the eyes of men, bids defiance to all the laws of mercy, and simply sets himself to scrape together gold, almost professedly making gold his god, and trampling under foot the laws of mercy and of justice and of consideration. And there are smaller men who never rise into note, or come before the public either in their rise or their catastrophe, who are in their humbler sphere doing the same thing. Or, look at him, that rich young man, that Superbus, who feels that the land is made for him. Look at him as he goes out into life with his preposterous claim for amusement, for luxury, for self-satisfaction, with the recklessness of his selfish lusts, as he does despite to every law that ought to bind men in mercy and consideration and purity, because he must gratify his passion at all costs in that claim for amusement, in that almost riotous estimation of himself; so that, as one looks at him in his arrogance, one wonders why God stands it, and why a very little thunderbolt is not sent about its business to despatch him there in the impotence of his vanity. God does not strike them with thunderbolts; God has other methods. He is the Father of each one. In slow and patient silence God waits; God provides for them His judgment. It waits upon them; it will come at last in this world, so that we can see it; or beyond this world, where it is dark to our vision, God will judge them. But the question is this--When the judgment falls, how will it strike? Surely they will know that God is God, they will know at the last it is the fool that saith in his heart, “There is no God.” Yes, they will know that they were fools. But the question is, in what disposition of mind? Will it be to them mere punish-meat, mere retribution, or will it be to them purging, healing, disciplining chastisement? That is the question. No question so far as the intention of God is concerned; in God’s intention these judgments are for chastisement, for discipline, for recovery. But there is a soul that has worked itself into a stubbornness which will not bend, and perforce can only be broken. That is the question. Pharaoh is in the old story raised up in the scene of human history, to stand as the type of the soul that must be broken because it will not bend. But, on the other hand, our Bible, Old and New Testament, is full of the gracious pictures of those whom the chastisement of God has slowly, and at last, disciplined into that effective meekness which is the one charm, the beauty of the children of God. Moses, brought up in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and in the splendid opportunities of that court--we read of him how, in the pride of strong manhood, he went out to be the deliverer of his people. He met with nothing but rebuffs. “Who made thee a leader and deliverer?” and he fled alarmed and baffled, and, in the back side of the desert, through the long discipline of silence, away from all political interests, Moses learned the lesson of meekness, and he goes back, that old call of God not withdrawn, now effective because meek. Moses was very meek. “O Lord, I am not eloquent, neither now nor since. Thou hast spoken unto Thy servant.” Pass to the New Testament. Think of those words to Peter, “When thou wast young, thou girdest thyself; when thou shalt be old, others shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.” It is the record of experience of every one. Limitations crowd in upon us. There are multitudes of things which in our hateful arrogance we thought we would do. We find we cannot do them. Limitations close in upon us--hindrances, disappointments, sufferings, pain. How are we to bear it all? Are we to become all the more querulous, resentful, irritating, or is each stroke of the Divine discipline to be the learning to us all a lesson, so that all the more, stroke after stroke, the soul learning its limitations, is forced into the line of Divine correspondence, and made meek is made effective? So it was with the proud and the impulsive Peter, so that that late writing of his, that epistle of his, is full, as hardly any other book of the New Testament is full, of the rich power of the spirit of meekness. Or Saul the Pharisee, yielding at last with one blow to the Divine claim, and becoming, for all that Jewish pride of his, once and for ever the slave of the meek Jesus. These are the meek of the earth; because they are meek, therefore, in the kingdom of God, the effective--the men who do fruitful things, the men whose work lasts because they are the followers of Him who was meek and lowly in heart. Jesus had no pride to be overcome. What are you expecting of this human life of yours? It matters so much what we expect. Pleasure, success? Ah, yes! There is in this human heart of ours an inextinguishable thirst for happiness. And it is there, God-given. Do not listen to those altruistic philosophers of our modern time who would tell us that to have care for ourselves is simple and radical selfishness. Nay, the Bible throughout is true to what I call the ineradicable instinct of the human heart. God made us, and because He made us we are made for happiness, we are made to realise ourselves. But the question is, How? Look for happiness, make it your aim, hunt for pleasure, and you are baffled. It is by the law of indirectness that we are to realise happiness. He that sayeth his life, seeketh his own life, he shall lose it; he that loseth it, he shall save it. That is the law. Here in this world we are set to gain character. So we are to expect discipline. It is one of the simple laws of human life, character develops by discipline, develops through pain. “Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth.” Therefore this is the point, a point of supreme importance when you come to think about your life. Am I, I as I am to-day, I being the sort of man I am, am I yielding myself so that God by disciplining me can make me meek and, in meekness, effective? That very thing which I have always said is the one thing I could not stand, when it comes, as it probably does come, if I set myself too much to rebel against it--when it comes, how do I take it? Have I that measure of spiritual insight and thoughtfulness which enables me to say, “This is just that moulding, graving tool which is so necessary to rub off that sharp angle, to blot out that dark stain, to do this or that or the other necessary work in my character? “ Do I regard it as the trenchant treatment of the surgeon who is to again make me sound? Humiliation is the way to humility. Learn the lesson which the humiliation contains for us, to become the wiser man, the more docile while not the less resolute. That is the discipline of God--point by point, step by step, biting after biting of the tool, smiting after smiting of the hammer. So it is, moulding after moulding of the Divine hand, we are to be brought into shape. Now, I say it, there is not a day of our life in which it does not make a real vital difference whether we have had this expectation in our will, our intelligence, our heart, so that when the blow, little or great, comes, the disappointment, be it never so trivial, it may teach us the lesson. The little humiliation may come on its way and speed on as a messenger which has fulfilled its obligation and done its duty. For it has taught us something, and we go to bed something wiser men and women than we got up in the morning. There is hardly a department of life in which there are not great and vital changes which are needed. Yes, but are we fit to do them? That is the question. Perhaps we have willingness, but have we what is a part of meekness--patience? Do we arrive with our enthusiasm, our ideal enthusiasm, and then shrink altogether from the task of drudgery? Because you know there are only two qualities by which anything finally effective can be done--enthusiasm and drudgery, and they are no good apart. Or, is it vanity? Yes, I offered myself to work on that particular committee, I offered myself to do that good job which surely was for the bettering of mankind. But then I thought that I was to be secretary, or I was to be put into the chair, and somebody else who surely had no better claim than I was put there. Or, is it the refusal of pain? There it is, the pain, the ugliness, the dirt, and squalor, and to do anything effective I must be in contact with the pain and the dirt and the ugliness and the squalor. I must not be hiding myself from my own flesh. But I shrink from it, I think I cannot bear it, and the task is undone, and the Kingdom of God makes not the progress it might make because I am not with the meek and the patient, with the sorrowful and the suffering. Or, is it prayerlessness? I have my schemes, my plans, but I do not keep myself in correspondence with God. It is my own pride that guides me, my own ideas, my own schemes. The question is, whether in the larger or less sphere we will mould, mould to the Divine hand, or whether we will be that obstinate stuff, that moral character that will not mould, and which becomes the vessel of wrath, the vessel which the Divine Potter, after patient trying, finds unmalleable, and at the last must cast aside as of a stuff that will not make under the Divine hand. That is it, the Divine Potter would mould you. And is there anything to the spiritual imagination so beautiful, anything so lovely to think about, as the discipline of the soul, conscious of the hand of God upon it, and, for all its occasional wilfulness and sins and faults, ever coming back to be moulded according to the plan and will of the Divine Potter, according to the love of our Father, Who chastens us into effective meekness that at the last we may share in the glory of His kingdom as things that have realised their end in that fruitfulness which belongs to the meek? That is the consciousness which every Christian soul is sooner or later meant to have. (Bishop Gore.)
For Gaza shall be forsaken.
The sinner’s baleful influence, and God’s disposal of all
I. The calamities falling upon one sinner often involve others. The ruin of the Hebrew nation would be most calamitous to the Philistine cities, and indeed to the neighbouring States. It is so--
1. With nations.
2. With individuals.
(1) The social connection between man and man. No man can live unto himself. Each man is a link in the great chain of human life; and he cannot move without influencing others. Each man is a limb in the great human body; and if one suffers, all suffer.
(2) The duty of man to look well after his own conduct. A sinner has no right to say he will do what he likes, and that no one has a right to interfere with him.
II. That the lot of man is at the disposal of almighty god. “And the sea coast shall be dwellings and cottages for shepherds, and folds for flocks. And the coast shall be for the remnant of the house of Judah; they shall feed thereupon: in the houses of Ashkelon shall they lie down in the evening: for the Lord their God shall visit them, and turn away their captivity.” Here the Almighty is represented as arranging the future home and circumstances of the remnant of the house of Judah. Though we are free, and are conscious of our freedom, we are at the disposal of One above us. He has appointed--
1. Our place in the world. He has set bounds to our habitation “that we cannot pass.”
2. Our period in the world. “My times are in Thy hand.” We are often tempted to imagine that chance rules us. But amidst all this feeling of contingency and over all there is the ruling plan of the Beneficent God. (Homilist.)
I have heard the reproach of Moab.
The persecution of the good
I. That good men are often subject to annoyances from the ungodly world. “I have heard the reproach [abuse] of Moab, and the revilings of the children of Ammon, whereby they have reproached My people [abused My nation], and magnified themselves against their border.” These people, the Moabites and the Ammonites, were constantly annoying and abusing the chosen people. In the time of Moses, Balak, the king of the Moabites, sought to destroy the Israelites by means of Balaam’s curses (Numbers 22:1-41.). And in the time of the Judges, both peoples endeavoured to oppress Israel (Judges 3:12; Judges 10:7). The charge here probably refers to the hostile attitude assumed by both tribes at all times towards the people of God. Both Isaiah and Jeremiah charged them with annoying them (Isaiah 16:6; Jeremiah 48:29). The hostile conduct of Moab and Ammon towards Israel is only a specimen and an illustration of the antagonism of wicked men towards the truly pious. They “reproach” them, they charge them with superstition, fanaticism, cant, hypocrisy, etc. The best men, the men of whom the world is not worthy, are always persecuted.
II. That these annoyances escape not the notice of God. “I have heard the reproach.”
1. God’s attention to the minute concerns of human life.
2. God’s special interest in His people (Jeremiah 23:23).
III. That God will not fail to chastise the authors of such annoyances. “Therefore as I live, saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, surely Moab shall be as Sodom, and the children of Ammon as Gomorrah, even the breeding of nettles, and saltpits, and a perpetual desolation.” Mark--
1. The doom of those reproachers. They shall be as Sodom and Gomorrah.
2. The cause of their doom. “This they shall have for their pride.” (Homilist.)
And men shall worship Him.
Good things in the future
I. The destruction of idolatry. You may burn up all heathen temples and leave idolatry as rampant as ever.
II. The advancement of true worship. “And men shall worship Him, every one from his place, even all the isles of the heathen.” Observe--
1. The object of true worship. “Men shall worship Him,”--that is, Jehovah. Him, not it--not the universe, but the Infinite Personality that created it.
2. The scene of true worship. “Every one from his place.” Wherever he is. He need not go to any particular scene--to temple, chapel, or cathedral.
3. The extent of true worship. “Even all the isles of the heathen.” What a glorious future awaits this world! (Homilist.)
He will stretch out His hand against the north.
National pride and national ruin
Two facts are suggested--
I. That men are often prone to pride themselves on the greatness of their country. The men of the city of Nineveh--the capital of Assyria--were proud of their nation. There was much in the city of Nineveh to account for, if not to justify, the exultant spirit of its population. It was the metropolis of a vast empire; it was a city 60 miles in compass, it had walls 100 feet high, and so thick and strong that three chariots could be driven abreast on them; it had 1500 massive towers. Italy, Austria, Germany, America, England, each says in its spirit, “I am, and there is none beside me.” This spirit of national boasting is unjustifiable. There is nothing in a nation of which it should be proud, except moral excellence. On the contrary, how much ignorance, sensuality, worldliness, intolerance, impiety, that should humble us in the dust. It is moreover a foolish spirit. It is a check to true national progress, and its haughty swaggerings tend to irritate other countries.
II. That the greatest country must sooner or later fall to ruin. “He will stretch out His hand against the north, and destroy Assyria.” “Flocks shall lie down in the midst of her,” etc. Not only a receptacle for beasts, but a derision to travellers. “Every one that passeth by her shall hiss, and wag his hand.” This is the fate that awaits all the nations under heaven, even the greatest. (Homilist.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Zephaniah 2". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13