Zephaniah was a prophet raised up by God to warn Judah of coming judgement. He prophesied in the reign of Josiah and his words are a startling reminder about the dangers faced by those living at the end of an age. History frequently repeats itself and the same patterns of behaviour emerge at the end of every age. Whether it is the days of Noah, or the days of Josiah and Jeremiah, or the days leading up to AD 70, or our own version of the last days, the remnant of God will continue to be confronted by extreme forms of ungodliness and wickedness (2 Tim 3:1–5).

The preeminent message of Zephaniah was that the day of Yahweh was at hand. No less than 17 times this day of wrath and anger is highlighted. In 1:14 we are informed that “the great day of the LORD is near, it is near, and hasteth greatly.” How much does this language find resonance with us who stand on the eve of the Lord’s return? We are a generation facing another “great day,” styled in the Scriptures “that great day of God Almighty” (Rev 16:14). This is why the lessons of Scripture become so timeless in their warnings, because what they say to one generation they say to all (cp Mark 13:37).

The day of our Lord’s coming should be one of joy and relief, but we often find in Scripture that the focus on the day of Yahweh is more often than not centred on punishment and warning. The reason for this is perhaps because human nature is prone to slip into patterns of bad behaviour rather than resist the avalanche of evil sweeping through the world. We can take heart, however, in the fact that there was a small remnant in the nation who stood fast in the face of all these challenges. They were styled the “meek of the earth” in 2:3 and they provide a wonderful example to the faithful in every generation.

The last days of Judah’s existence under the kings were characterised by a number of serious issues:

  • there was plenty of religious focus but it was marked by a broad range of tolerant practices. Some were wholesale idolaters; others, such as the priests, were freely mixing their ceremonies with the pagan Chemarim (1:4).
  • there were double standards in worship. They attended the meetings to worship the God of Israel and then when they got home they were on the housetops worshipping other gods (1:5). There was this duality of interests. The religious practices of the day had made an inroad into their thinking. There is the same kind of threat today from the evangelical churches, whether it be evangelical music, evangelical philosophies, or post-modernism and suchlike.
  • there were those who had accepted the Truth and then turned their back on God. They were accompanied by those who no longer sought Him or enquired after Him (1:6). Trusting in God through faithful prayer was no longer in evidence.
  • violence and deceit were on the rise, especially in “their masters’ houses” (1:9). It was a society where verbal, mental and physical abuses were everyday occurrences, even by lowly servants. Deceit, lies, dishonesty and un­trustworthiness ruled the heart.
  • then there were those who were “settled on their lees: that say in their heart, The LORD will not do good, neither will he do evil” (1:12). This figure is based on the practice of first letting wine settle in vats and then decanting it by pouring the top portion of the wine into other vessels (Jer 48:11). When the wine was left to settle too long it lost its freshness. This was the true state of the nation. The outward compliance to the law betrayed an apathy and indifference coalescing in their heart. Their perception of God was that of ambivalence. He won’t punish evil, nether will He recognise good. So they just settled back and did nothing in His service. Their life was a reflection of their understanding of God. They thought that He wasn’t at work, so they needn’t be either!

What a warning all of this presents to us. Do we fall into one of these categories? Are we mixing the Truth with evangelical practices? Are we settling back on our lees and letting others do the work of the Truth for us? Have we minimised the significance of faithful prayer and willing dependence on our God? All of these evils beset the people of God in Josiah’s day and this encourages us to examine ourselves in light of the imminent day of Yahweh, which hastens inexorably towards us.

The day of our Lord’s return will one day inevitably arrive and whilst the world will not escape the day of wrath, we can (Rom 2:5; 2 Thess 1:7–10). Similarly, Zephaniah outlined a way in which the nation could be hidden in the day of calamity. The first solution was at a national level; the second at a personal level.

“Gather yourselves together, yea, gather together,” he wrote in 2:1, “before the decree … before the fierce anger of the LORD come upon you, before the day of the LORD’s anger come upon you.” It was a call to assemble together in public repentance and petition before it was too late. The Hebrew word for the phrase “gather yourselves together” is used elsewhere of gathering stubble or dry sticks, which are picked up one by one, after carefully searching and selecting (cp Ex 5:7,12; 1 Kings 17:10,12). It is a graphic figure of self-examination and repentance, where we take each action and each thought and each word one at a time and sift through the pile until we can recognise what we need to cast aside and what we need to keep.

Then follows the personal call to the righteous. They are not commanded to repent; instead they are commanded to deepen their faithfulness and further cultivate their fruitfulness. They were already described as the meek who were working His justice in the land. This message of encouragement was for them. The three “befores” in 2:2 are now matched with three “seeks” in 2:3: “Seek ye the LORD, all ye meek of the earth, which have wrought his judgement; seek righteousness, seek meekness: it may be ye shall be hid in the day of the LORD’s anger.”

Seeking implies searching out and striving to find. It assumes that what you are searching for is not readily apparent, not easily grasped. In fact, in relation to finding closeness with God, the Word is very clear (Jer 29:13): “ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart.” Judah’s heart at the time was full of disinterestedness (Zeph 1:12) and now God wanted something entirely different.

Along with this call to prayer and closeness with God was a command to seek righteousness and meekness. It became the basis of the Lord’s words in Matthew 6:33: “seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” At first glance righteousness and meekness seem an unusual combination of ideas, but they are based on the words of Psalm 45:4. In this place we read in type of the majesty of the Lord Jesus Christ riding in power and glory. He has achieved this position of greatness “because of truth and meekness and righteousness.” As he himself once taught: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls” (Matt 11:29).

So what does it mean to “seek meekness”? How can we find it and learn about it? The world describes a meek and mild man as a spineless, subservient and mean-spirited man. But the Scriptural definition of meekness is entirely different. Meekness is not lack of conviction or refusing to stand up for one’s beliefs. To be meek is to be humble, to be lowly, to be gentle, patient, selfless and calm under provocation. It just doesn’t promote self-glorying.

In Numbers 12:3 we read that “the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.” Note the careful choice of language. Moses was a man just like all of us. This makes the quality even more remarkable because it is not within man naturally to be humble. Furthermore, he is meek “above all.” This is a paradox because the Hebrew word for meek denotes one who is abased. He is so low in his own estimation that he rises above all!

His immediate family accused him of marrying inappropriately. In addition to this they questioned His position in God’s sight. “Hath Yahweh indeed spoken only by Moses?” they said, “Hath He not spoken also by us?” (Num 12:2). The meekness of Moses was seen in his reaction to this provocation and jealousy by refusing to justify himself and leaving the matter in God’s hands. He was a faithful servant working in God’s house (v3), appealing for mercy for those who had attacked him (v13). Here are all the hallmarks of meekness. Meek men and women of the Bible demonstrated firm resolve, courage, conviction and strength, but they did so in a humble and contrite dependency on their God.

In Psalm 25:9 we read: “The meek will he guide in judgement: and the meek will he teach his way.” Meekness is a frame of mind that wants to be taught from the Word. It is dependent on that Word for wisdom and enlightenment. It understands the unworthiness of its position before God and its desperate need for encouragement and salvation. Meekness involves submission to the yoke of Christ and a willingness to harness ourselves to that yoke of service by emulating the Lord’s example of selfless humility (Matt 11:27–29).

A spiritually meek person is not self-willed; not continually concerned with his own ways and ideas to the exclusion of all else. These brethren and sisters are willing to put themselves in second place and submit themselves to others to achieve what is good for others. Meekness is therefore the antithesis of self-will, self-interest, and self-assertiveness. It requires great self-control to put yourself last for the sake of others.

Meekness is an attitude of humility toward God and gentleness toward people. How can we seek it? By developing a recognition of our true position of weakness before God and our need for redemption at His hand. Such a disposition will be reflected in our service towards Him. We recognise the inesti­mable privilege of being called to immortality and this creates an appreciation of total unworthiness. When we see the way God has treated us, we will treat others in the same way.

This humility and meekness will in turn permeate our lives. We will bow our understanding to every truth without dissent, receiving with meekness the engrafted word (Jas 1:21). We will restore others in the spirit of meekness (Gal 6:1). We will put on humbleness of mind, meekness and longsuffering so that we can forebear with others in love (Eph 4:2; Col 3:12). We will be gentle to all men, instructing them in meekness (2 Tim 2:25). We will speak evil of no man, but instead be “gentle, shewing all meekness unto all men” (Titus 3:2). We will demonstrate our faith with meekness of wisdom (Jas 3:13) and our sisters will manifest that hidden man of the heart, that ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price (1 Pet 3:4).

The day of our Lord’s return will soon be upon us. Let us “seek righteousness, seek meekness: it may be ye shall be hid in the day of the LORD’s anger.”