A Clean Sweep

Zephaniah 1:2­3 - "I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth," declares the Lord. 3"I will sweep away both men and animals; I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. The wicked will have only heaps of rubble when I cut off man from the face of the earth," declares the Lord.

Zephaniah 1:18 - Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord's wrath. In the fire of His jealousy the whole earth will be consumed. He will make a complete end, indeed a terrifying one, of all the inhabitants of the earth.

Zephaniah 3:8 - "Therefore wait for Me," declares the Lord, "for the day I will stand up to testify. I have decided to assemble the nations, to gather the kingdoms and to pour out My wrath on them--all My fierce anger. The whole earth will be consumed by the fire of My jealous anger."

Read all three chapters of Zephaniah.

If you heard that your place of employment was going to make "a clean sweep," would you be happy or fearful? Your initial excitement over the prospects of an efficient company reorganization might turn to fearful anxiety when you realized that all the old ways, including your job, were being eliminated. A similar situation occurred in the kingdom of Judah in the days of the prophet Zephaniah.

Zephaniah lived and prophesied during the time of Josiah in the 7th century BC. King Josiah was one of the good kings of Judah and during his reign a great revival took place. (Read 2 Kings 22-23 and 2 Chronicles 34-35.) While King Josiah was the spark-plug of this revival, undoubtedly it was the ministry of Zephaniah that helped pave the way. The ministries of the prophets Jeremiah, Habakkuk, Nahum and the prophetess, Hulda, were factors as well. However, the revival of Josiah was short-lived and much of its effect was only surface. While outward idolatry was curtailed, the inward condition of most hearts was not changed. The people were complacent in their faith and really believed that they were not too bad--like many people today who call themselves Christians. Most of the citizens of Judah were convinced that the coming Day of the Lord would be a great and happy day for them. They believed that in that great day the Lord would suddenly appear to put down all of their enemies and bring in a great time of blessing for the nation. They believed that because they were God's people, and not as bad as the surrounding pagans, the Lord's good favor was upon them and they would go scot free when it came to judgment. But Zephaniah had news for them. The Day of the Lord would bring a clean sweep. The pagan nations would be swept clean, but Judah would be swept as well! There would be total reform, not just token reform.  The Day of the Lord was not to be a day of celebration for them, but rather a day of wrath (1:15). Before the blessings associated with the coming of the Lord could be realized, there would be judgment--judgment of national sin as well as individual sin. No nation or individual would be exempt--not even God's chosen people. There would be a clean sweep!

While the message of Zephaniah was addressed specifically to the nation of Judah during Old Testament times, we see from our selected texts that the scope of Zephaniah's prophecy is world-wide and looks forward to the judgments of the end times. Certainly the phrases "the whole earth" and "all the inhabitants of the earth" cannot refer to a judgment which has already taken place. But how then are we to explain the prediction of Zephaniah that the great day of the Lord was near and coming very quickly (1:14)? The explanation is that although the ultimate and complete fulfillment of Zephaniah's prophecies is still in the future, a partial fulfillment occurred when the Babylonians invaded Judah soon after the days of Zephaniah's ministry. In 586 BC the kingdom of Judah fell to Nebuchadnezzar and the people were carried away into captivity in Babylon. Truly that was "a day of trouble and distress, a day of destruction and desolation" (1:15). The Jewish people were in exile for 70 years because of their failure to follow the Lord. There they were swept clean from their idolatry (1:4­6). There they experienced to their sorrow the truth of Zephaniah's prophetic warnings.

Partial fulfillment is also the explanation of the prophecies in chapter 2 concerning the nations surrounding Judah. As Zephaniah looked west, east, south and north, he predicted the destruction of Philistia, Moab, Ammon, Ethiopia and Assyria. Portions of these prophecies have already been fulfilled and they are a clear testimony to the accuracy of Scripture. But some parts of these prophecies await to be fulfilled. (See, for example, verses 7 and 11 of chapter 2.) Thus the destruction, desolation and distress associated with the Babylonian takeover of Judah and the downfall of the nations listed in chapter 2 were only precursors of the world-wide clean sweep that will take place when the Lord Himself returns to this earth. At that time, the day of the Lord, judgments will be fully realized.

God's judgment is never a pleasant subject but it is part of God's revealed Word to us. What can we learn from Zephaniah about God's clean sweep of judgment that will come upon this earth? First of all, we learn that God's sweep of judgment will be complete. Verses 2 and 3 of chapter 1 reveal that the scope of His judgment is all-encompassing. The judgment that comes upon this earth for the sins of mankind will be so complete that all life--even animal life--will be affected. When we read the details of the end-time judgments in Revelation we see how completely devastating these judgments will be. (Read Revelation chapters 6, 8­9 and 16.)

The magnitude and extent of God's judgments reveal to us God's abhorrence of idolatry and other sins in the lives of His people. If we are honest with God and with ourselves, we will acknowledge that varying degrees of idolatry exist in our own hearts, and our lives are certainly not free from sin. What, then, should our response be when we read the message of the book of Zephaniah? We should do what the kingdom of Judah was exhorted to do--but didn't do! Zephaniah told the people of Judah to seek the Lord in humility and righteousness before it was too late. "Gather together, gather together, O shameful nation, before the appointed time arrives and the day sweeps on like chaff, before the fierce anger of the Lord comes upon you, before the day of the Lord's wrath comes upon you. Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, you who do what He commands. Seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you will be sheltered on the day of the Lord's anger" (2:1-3). Three times the word "before" was used to emphasize the urgency of the situation. If the people would turn back from their wicked ways, perhaps the Lord would hold back the coming devastation at the hands of the Babylonians. But Judah did not turn back. Josiah's revival was a step in the right direction, but only a handful of the people became true seekers of righteousness and humility. It wasn't long before the revival was forgotten and the nation plunged on to reap the consequences of her sins. The Book of Lamentations gives the heart-rending account of the desolation of Jerusalem, the destruction of the beautiful Temple and the demise of the kingdom of Judah. Are we, as individuals, seeking the Lord before the ultimate day of the Lord's anger? We should ask ourselves the following questions. Have we carried out God's command to trust in Christ as the only escape from His coming complete sweep of judgment? Am I, as a Christian, "seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness" (Matthew 6:33), or am I living my life in a self-righteous and inwardly unchanged way? Outward revival and reform without the righteousness of Christ will not save us from God's sweep of judgment, just as Judah was not spared from judgment.

We also learn from Zephaniah's prophecy that God's clean sweep of judgment will be just. God does not subject a nation or an individual to His judgment because He enjoys seeing terrified people. God must judge sin because He is holy. If He turned a blind eye when people sinned, He would not be righteous. But God never judges a nation or an individual without giving the reason for judgment, and throughout Zephaniah's prophecy we see reasons given for God's judgment. Judah would be judged for idolatry (1:4-6), for violence and deceit (1:9), for spiritual complacency (1:12), for unbelief (3:2), for social injustice (3:3), for sacrilegious attitudes (3:4) and for moral corruption (3:7). The nations around Judah would be judged for insulting and taunting and threatening the people of God (2:8), for their arrogance and pride (2:10) and for their independent attitude (2:15). Dare we question the rightness of God's terrifying judgment after reading His list of reasons?

There's an appropriate question to ask at this point. How does our own nation measure up in light of this list of sins? How long can God's patience tolerate the increasing moral corruption and godless attitude of this country? The clean sweep of God's judgment would not be just if the United States escaped. As Zephaniah looked forward to the coming judgments of the day of the Lord, he saw the bottom-line reason why God would be just in bringing judgment on all mankind--including the United States. "I will bring distress on the people and they will walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the Lord. Their blood will be poured out like dust and their flesh like dung" (1:17). How thankful we can be that there is an escape for every individual who puts his trust in Christ. Because Jesus died for every sin listed in Zephaniah's prophecy, as well as every other sin, God can still "be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (Romans 3:26).

The best news about God's clean sweep of judgment on this earth is that it paves the way for future blessings on this very planet. The assembling of the nations to be consumed by the fire of God's wrath in verse 8 of chapter 3 leads to the blessings of the rest of the chapter. We see that blessing will come upon Gentiles (3:9­10) and Jews (3:11-20). What wonderful news--"The Lord has taken away His judgments against you" (3:15)! When will this take place? These verses show clearly that it will be when the Lord returns to this earth and dwells in the midst of His people (3:15-17). Could any three lines better describe the joy and blessing and excitement of this coming celebration. "He will exult over you with joy, He will be quiet in His love, He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy" (3:17). Think of the Lord Jesus shouting with joy over His redeemed people. Almost too good to be true!

While the focus in these verses from chapter 3 is the Lord's relationship with the faithful Jews of the end time (3:13), we also see that blessing will go out to all the earth (3:19­20). And we who have trusted in Christ now will be with Him then to be part of the celebration! He alone will bring in the long-sought-for peace on earth--an earth swept clean, just as Zephaniah prophesied.

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