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Homily on the Holy Prophet Zephaniah (Sophonias)

An Excerpt from Of Whom the World was not Worthy

by Protopresbyter James Thornton

The Holy Prophet Zephaniah was of royal blood, a descendant of King Hezekiah of Judah. His prophetic ministry dates from the second half of the seventh century B.C. The Saint prophesied at approximately the same time as the Holy Prophet Jeremiah. He centered his activities in Jerusalem, during the reign of King Josiah of Judah, a good man whose efforts to restore his people to true belief and true worship, and banish paganism from his Kingdom, he supported.

You will note that with certain of our Holy Prophets, especially now that we are dealing with the downfall of the Kingdom of Judah, we do not proceed forward in chronological fashion but go back a short distance from time to time, since the lives of several of these men overlap. The kernel of the prophetic messages of these prophets whose lives overlap are also quite similar, since they were all dealing with the same looming cataclysm brought on by the abandonment by the Hebrew people of their closeness to God and the inexorable advance of foreign conquerors. So, since the Holy Prophet Zephaniah’s message differs little from that of some of the Holy Men we have already discussed, I will today focus on just a few verses from the first chapter of the Book of Zephaniah, since they are so relevant to our own efforts as Orthodox Christians in the world.

Historians tell us that King Josiah achieved much success during his reign in eradicating pagan worship in Judah, yet it stubbornly persisted in certain places. The Holy Prophet, enlightened by God by his genuine sanctity, writes as if he is quoting God, Who, he says, will not tolerate any corruption or idolatry among His people: “I will also stretch out mine hand upon Judah, and upon all the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and I will cut off the remnant of Baal from this place, and the name of the Chemarims with the priests. And them that worship the host of heaven upon the housetops; and them that worship and that swear by the LORD, and that swear by Malcham; And them that are turned back from the LORD; and those that have not sought the LORD, nor enquired for him.” [1]

The Chemarims were the pagan priests, veritable personifications of evil, while the “priests” mentioned directly after the Chemarims were the Hebrew Priests who had become unscrupulous careerists, who lived comfortable, even luxurious, existences, without struggle or much effort, who had essentially lost their faith in God, and who had compromised with falsehood by trying to take the easy way through blending the Hebrew religion with paganism. The worshippers of the host of heaven from their housetops refers to those who worshipped the moon, stars, and planets, much like the people of today who are obsessed with astrology and fortune tellers. Malcham was a pagan deity, and those “that swear by the LORD, and that swear by Malcham” were, again, the compromisers—one could say that they were the ecumenists of their time—, men who possessed neither the courage to stand up for truth nor the insight to recognize falsehood and evil for what it is, and who therefore mixed, or thought that they could mix, pure gold with pig iron, that is, the light of the true God with the darkness of paganism. Those who had turned back from God, who had not sought Him nor enquired for him, were the lukewarm, the indifferent, and the lazy, no different in Saint Zephaniah’s day than in our own time. All such men, the Holy Prophet states, God will punish.

The Holy Prophet, speaking again for God from Whom he had received the enlightenment and authorization to speak thus, then writes, “Hold thy peace at the presence of the Lord GOD: for the day of the LORD is at hand: for the LORD hath prepared a sacrifice, he hath bid his guests. And it shall come to pass in the day of the LORD'S sacrifice, that I will punish the princes, and the king's children, and all such as are clothed with strange apparel.” [2]

Here, he is saying that we must be silent and submissive at the approach of God, or in the presence of the things of God, and that we must prepare ourselves since “the day of the Lord is at hand.” The “day of the Lord” refers both to the judgment that was about to befall Judah, and to eschatology, that is, to the last days, when the judgment of the Almighty will come down upon all of mankind. It may be taken also to refer to the judgment each of us will face at our repose. The sacrifice that God has prepared is the sacrifice of faithless Judah, the people and national existence of which will be sacrificed in order to chastise God’s chosen and thereby salvage at least some remnant of the faithful. He chastised them, as he sometimes chastises us, for precisely the same reason. The punishment of the princes and the king’s children is a reference to the nation’s leaders, who should have defended Judah’s Godly heritage, but instead were the instigators of her fall from God’s Grace. Our national leaders today, who promote or spinelessly acquiesce in the radical secularizing of our society and government, are our modern equivalents. Those “clothed with strange apparel” were the men and women who had adopted foreign ways and customs in preference to the way of life dictated by the religion of the true God.

A few verses later, the Holy Prophet cries that the “great day of the LORD is near, it is near” [3] and that that day will be “a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of wasteness and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness….” [4] These words foretell the conquest of Judah by the Babylonians, but they relate also to eschatology, to the end of the ages, when Christ God will “come again, with glory, to judge both the living and the dead.” [5]

The wrath, the trouble, the distress, the wasteness, the desolation, the darkness, and the gloom of that day pertain to the shocked reaction, the stupefaction, of all of the people among the living and dead who had convinced themselves that God and religion are myths, or that material things and fun are all that matter, or that God does not take sin seriously, or that one may play at being religious without serious commitment, or that never-ending procrastination is appropriate, that time will never run out for them, or that one may mock God with impunity, or that Christ the Judge is too sweet and loving to punish anyone. They will be dumbfounded to discover that they were mistaken, and overwhelmed with regret and pain that it is too late, that the “day of the Lord” has arrived; hence the distress, desolation, darkness, gloom, and so forth.

Christ God is indeed the God of mercy and of love, and there is certainly a sweetness in serving Him. Yet, He is also the God of perfect justice, and therefore the unrepentant must expect no quarter from Him when the day of reckoning, the “day of the Lord,” arrives. Neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament makes sense otherwise. Not even Christ’s own words in the Holy Gospels make sense unless we appreciate that, while those who have lived lives in conformity to God’s will receive everlasting blessings in paradise, as is consonant with God’s justice and His All-Holy Nature, the unrepentant doers of evil will face His wrath and punishment, since they have failed to struggle to transform their inward beings, to make themselves acceptable to God.

Let us all be cognizant of these harsh realities. Let us not harbor illusions about God or His requirements for us. Let us not hesitate. Let us, without delay, prepare ourselves, for “the day of the Lord is at hand.”

Endnotes

  1. Zephaniah 1:4-6.
  2. Ibid., 1:7-8.
  3. Ibid., 1:14.
  4. Ibid., 1:15.
  5. The Holy Creed, the Symbol of the Faith.

From Of Whom the World was not Worthy: Sermons on the Lives and Works of the Patriarchs and Prophets of the Old Testament, by Protopresbyter James Thornton (Etna: CA, Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 2010), pp. 131-134. Posted on November 12, 2010.