Written by, J.G. Stevenson,
of Union Hall, Brighton, 1904
And it shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with candles, and punish the men that are settled on their lees: that say in their heart, The Lord will not do good, neither will he do evil.
Zephaniah is an amazing book, stupendous and terrible in its suggestion…
…Its fervor of denunciation seems to express the fury of fifty moral tornadoes and a thousand spiritual cyclones merged into one devastating movement of ethical indignation. From beginning to end there is scarcely a note of tenderness, and so hard and harsh does it seem that it has been suggested that it must have been written by a prophet who died young, before the fiery ardors of youth had mellowed into the gentle sweetness of later years. Yet there is much about the very fury of the prophet that makes his utterances morally wholesome.
They are a tonic, and not a poison to the discerning soul. You have more sympathy with him when you understand the probable circumstances that led him to translate the results of communion with God into the burning words of this book. As far as your preacher has been able to gather from the work of George Adam Smith and other scholars, the position was this: Hezekiah, who had peace in his kingdom of Judah in his latter days, spent the last years of his life in a Puritan attempt to purify the religion of his people.
But at his death, just as in England the purity of the Commonwealth was succeeded by the immorality and irreligion of the reign of Charles II, so in Judah the religious fortunes of Israel were reversed. His successor Manasseh was only a boy of twelve, harem bred, and under the control of the less moral section of the Court. His contact with foreign countries infected him with Paganism, and Baal worship was carried on in the very Temple of Jehovah. To heathenism he added persecution and massacre of those who were faithful to the one true God.
When Manasseh died, Amon; his son, was true to the false things his father had taught him, and sacrificed to heathen images; but he had reigned for less than two years when his own servants stabbed him in his palace. Popular justice took swift vengeance on his slayers, and his son Josiah was placed on the throne. It seems to have been during his reign that Zephaniah prophesied, and there was a suggestion of reform in the air. But Zephaniah does not seem to have believed that what they wished would come to pass. He may or may not have doubted the sincerity of the would-be reformers, but in any case he saw that the soul of the people was not behind the forces that made for reformation.
Verses 4 and 5 of this first chapter will tell you that there was still a remnant of Baal in the land, and if the worship of the sun had been banished from the Temple of Jehovah, yet services in his honor were held on the flat roofs of the houses of Jerusalem. Men swore by false gods. There were some who turned back from Jehovah, while others had been so brought up in heathenism that they neither sought for the Lord nor inquired for Him. The princes royal and the Court gentry dressed in foreign fashions that merely meant that, as in dress so in religion, their preferences were not for the things of Jehovah. In courts of justice violence and deceit reigned. The business men of Jerusalem were unclean of soul and foul of hand.
And what so stirred the soul of Zephaniah was not only these things, but the fact that no one seemed to care…
The people were prosperous and contented, and regarded the moral state of the nation as none of their business. To Zephaniah came visions of the Nemesis that must follow decay of conviction. Just as Diogenes went through Athens in later days with a lighted lantern, looking in the faces of all,in the vain attempt to discover a real man, so Jehovah Himself would search Jerusalem with candles: and all that he would find would be men settled on their lees. The metaphor conies from the making of wine.
New wine was left to clear, and when clarified was removed from the clearing vessel. If you left it too long, its own sediment clouded it again and made it muddy and syrupy. Hence in Palestine, if a man were lazy and indifferent, muddy of soul and cloudy of mind, people said that he was like wine settled on its lees.
And to the prophet, Judea was full of such people. The times were ripe for reform. The religious and political atmosphere was charged with great issues. Abuses were rife, yet improvement was possible to an awakened nation. But, alas! men were settled on their lees. If they troubled to excuse themselves, to excuse their inaction, they said that God did not seem to care. He did nothing. “The Lord will not do good, neither will He do evil.” Why, then, should a man bestir himself?
It was against this carelessness of high things and content with low, against the muddy soul and stagnant mind, that Zephaniah directed his denunciation. For indifference and lethargy were so fixed in the national character as to invite national doom. Prosperity and respectability making for national decay. The princes of the people were content to be parasites. The judges sold justice, and the priests were profaners of the sanctuary and scoffers of the law. In the Caucasus the Scythian hordes were gathering, and soon they would sweep through Egypt, and devastate that nation of indifferents and sloths called Judah. The great day of the Lord was hastening in which mighty men would cry bitterly and common men would stagger with blindness,because of blood poured out as dust. Only a remnant, the few that cared, would survive, purified by their sorrows. Over these God would rejoice. For these His love would be so great that even He could not speak it,though He would try to express His gladness by lifting up His voice in singing. And so the remnant would be a name and a praise among all the peoples of the earth in the day when the Lord brought again their captivity.
Now, of course, it is not possible to establish an absolute parallel between the days of Zephaniah and these later times. Yet our points of similarity are many, and the main lines of his indictment do not lose their way if applied to the British peoples of the twentieth century. The dominant note of our life today is respectability and, we are respectable rather than religious. Never was there an age in which men and women were at once so careless of their characters and so careful of their reputations. Add to respectability to prosperity, and inevitably the result is a people settled on their lees and beclouded by the precipitate of their own self-complacency. Hence, then, you get a folk like the people of this generation, who have but little care for the great and high issues involved in national life. A fair number of us care enough for public affairs to talk about them. But the test for our earnestness is not our talking, but our thinking, and especially our thinking with the Divine as inspiration and final test, that thinking that drives us to communion with God more naturally even than to speech with our fellows.
The absence of such Theo-centric thinking accounts for the flaccidity of true principles in our national life.
If any one feels that my words are hardly fair, let him look for example at the political activities of the nation. He will see in them much clashing of interest and little conflict of principle. Further, speaking as I do from the pulpit of a Free Church, I venture to say that the Nonconformist Churches are by no means free from the prevailing apathy. Take the question of our Protestantism. We are really leaving the defense of our Protestant principles to the narrower and hence less effective sections of our spiritual communities.
Even to some of you who sit before me the Roman Church simply represents a somewhat amazing variation from the type of church with which you are familiar, and you cannot understand why any one troubles to condemn it. Meantime that Church takes advantage of your blindness, and is daily increasing her ecclesiastical and political power.
It will be well for us to learn from history rather than from future happenings that the Roman Church by its very nature stands for spiritual tyranny, and the Free Churches stand for spiritual liberty. The Roman Church believes that it is for your good that your spiritual affairs should be controlled by presumed experts who are men like yourselves, but endowed with special sacerdotal powers. The Free Churches believe that your greatest good comes when you are personally brought face to face with Christ, and that the care of your soul should be a partnership that is also a comradeship between Him and you.
Only as you strive in national and religious affairs you should work from a spiritual rather than a political base, for there is nothing worse than secular politics dominating a sphere that ought to be permeated with religion.
If there be even a fair measure of truth in what has been said to you, there can be no serious person in this church who is not concerned to find a remedy. An article in a current Journal deals with the decay of conviction, and suggests that this decay is due, amongst other things, to the increase in riches and in pleasure. There is a great deal of truth in the suggestion. In our prosperity, and perhaps even more in our desire for prosperity we, are forgetting God. And many a man who could be true to the Divine in his poverty is forsaking the Eternal, as the things of this life mean more and more to him. With regard to pleasure, there seems but little doubt but that the larger diffusion of money is yearly adding to that class of people who aim not so much at redeeming the time as a killing it. And if, as Pope somewhere suggests, folk are passing from a youth of frolics to an old age of cards, you can never expect from them any serious conviction whatsoever. Yet one can imagine that the English-speaking peoples might become both poor and unhappy and still find no remedy for their decay of earnestness.
To my mind the only possible correction of that decay will lie in our increase of the sense of God. What we want is that all-pervading sense of the Eternal that was possessed by the old Puritans, and when that revival comes which some of us are so eagerly anticipating, it must come along the lines of that old Puritanism.
Puritanism has been very much misunderstood. We have been told that it banished music and art from the life of England, and was, indeed, a veritable kill-joy. Let it be admitted that there is some slight excuse for this statement; but, on the other hand, let us remember that, for instance, Milton had his organ. The dominant factor in Puritanism was its intense reverence, a reverence so full of solemnity that the supernatural was the very commonplace of existence.
Men dominated by the Puritan habit of mind move nowhere without a deep sense of God touching them to seriousness in all that calls for solemnity. If in the councils of Cromwell some new measure was proposed, as often as not men would gravely consult their Bibles to see if some point suggested was in accord with the spirit of the New Testament, and, if so, they voted affirmatively. In their private life the Puritans were men who never made an attempt to escape from God. Let us get back this old sense of the dominating of the Divine and the abiding presence of the Eternal, and we shall have a renascence of spirituality that will give earnestness to every phase of our national life. Instead of opinions we shall have convictions; instead of views we shall have principles.
And in that day when our private lives are wholly consecrated, the public life of Christians shall be God-like and wholesome and pregnant with mighty possibilities of progress.