What Is the Source of Evil?
A Study in the Minor Prophets: Zephaniah
September 1, 2002 - We wept in sorrow and frustration as we watched our television screens last September 11. The United States was shocked and outraged at the atrocities on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and defenseless airline passengers. While supporting relief efforts, we felt anger against those who had cruelly terrorized the innocent. Destruction and loss can serve to unite a people against those clearly in the wrong.
by David W. Baker
What happens, however, when the destruction is not brought by evil forces against innocent people but by an angry God against sinful people? What happens when destruction is a deserved punishment? This is the situation confronted by the Prophet Zephaniah and a question that confronts us as well.
Judah Abandoned Its Covenant
Zephaniah could look back over his people’s recent roller-coaster ride in their relations with God, drawing close and then abandoning Him. Just before the reign of his ancestor Hezekiah, 14th king of Judah (c.716-686 B.C.), the northern kingdom of Israel was captured and exiled by the Assyrians because Israel had left its covenant with God in order to worship other gods.(1)
Zephaniah’s people, Judah, were guilty of the same things.(2) Judah returned to Yahweh during Hezekiah’s reign,(3) but departed again under his son Manasseh(4) (c.687-642 B.C.) and grandson Amon(5) (642-640 B.C.). Josiah (640-609 B.C.), during whose reign Zephaniah prophesied,(6) also reformed Judah’s religion back toward Yahweh.(7)
Zephaniah condemned idolatrous practices,(8) perhaps indicating that he preached early in Josiah’s career, before effective reforms. More likely, however, it indicates that official policy of Yahweh worship was not universally followed. The fact that so many prophets delivered a message of punishment for abandoning Yahweh demonstrates that the problem was never completely uprooted.
Prophets, like preachers today, often need to preach the same message again and again since people too often seem hard of hearing. Zephaniah’s confrontational message of total destruction—not only against the most blatant sinners but also against everything in Judah, man and beast(9)—was difficult to deliver.
The Day of the Lord
Punishment will come on the day of the Lord, a concept introduced by other prophets, but more fully developed by Zephaniah perhaps than by any other. This day is a two-sided coin, with followers of God experiencing blessing and His opponents finding suffering and woe. The people of Judah believed that, as God’s chosen people, they were by definition to receive blessing. God through His prophets had to remind them that parentage does not determine position, devotion does.
Zephaniah taught that social position would not help those who do wrong;(10) all over the nation and its capital, Jerusalem, evildoers would be searched out.(11) Punishment for them would be horrible.(12)
Their sin should sober us who often say, "I have never murdered or stolen, so I must be OK." A chief sin for Judah was apathy, thinking that God doesn’t care so they should not care either.(13) Today we settle too easily into the same mind set—God won’t notice or care what I do; besides, it doesn’t hurt anyone else, so it has nothing to do with anyone else, including God. We forget that God places a high premium on how we live, not just on what we claim to believe.(14)
Judah’s situation was not hopeless. Prayer is a fitting response—in fact the only response—to God’s indictment of them. Those who humble themselves, acknowledging that they are wrong and unable to make anything right through their own will or strength, should call on God for mercy.(15)
Judah felt some hope that "perhaps" God would still respond positively to them.(16) This "perhaps" is theologically powerful. The Church today, like the nation of Judah, too easily sinks into an entitlement mentality, thinking that because of birth, whether biological or spiritual, God must forgive sins. God’s patient suffering due to our sins, and His repeated forgiveness of them, must not become an expected event, or even worse, one that we demand of Him.
The powerful Creator and Sustainer of the universe has every right to wipe us off the earth as He did to humanity in the time of Noah.(17) The fact that He does not do so, that He does forgive and restore, is part of His nature. From the human perspective, however, this must be seen as a continuing grace from Him and should cause us to be grateful each time He forgives and restores us.
Several Nations Faced Punishment
Judah was not alone in facing punishment. Five of her neighbors were singled out. The Philistines to the southwest were a longstanding thorn in Israel’s flesh.(18) Their land would be resettled by a restored Judah.(19) Eastward Moab and Ammon,(20) descendants of Lot and his daughters,(21) were opposed to Israel for years.(22) They share Sodom and Gomorrah’s fate,(23) obliterated so that their location is uncertain even today.
Two countries bracket Judah to the south and north. To the south was Cush (Ethiopia), probably including Egypt, a world power who for more than 50 years (c.780-656 B.C.) was subject to Ethiopia, her southern neighbor. Cush would suffer the very sword of Yahweh, the warrior God.(24)
Finally, to the north and east was Assyria, in what today is Iraq. Assyria took Israel into exile in 722 B.C. Pride was Assyria’s problem,(25) and she would pay for it. While still on the top of the heap, Assyria would become a heap of rubbish.(26) She who brought fear and dread to many would become a laughingstock among those who had previously felt her booted heel.(27)
Judah’s corruption spread to every level of her society. Leaders and judges, who had been called to look after their flocks, instead devoured them for their own gain and gratification.(28) Prophets and priests, called to speak for and minister to God, did the opposite.(29)
While God had not departed, His people had left Him, and punishment would fall.(30) God does not abandon His promises, however. He would purify what had become corrupted, restoring not only His people but all peoples,(31) to a right relationship with Him.
With justice and righteousness restored, Judah would move to the other side of the day of the Lord—from punishment to blessing. God in His grace would take those who had defiled themselves and restore their good name and good fortunes.(32)
What happens, then, when evil happens? At times it is due to violent acts of terrorists upon innocent people, and one can call on God for restoration and vengeance. At other times it results from our own violence and sinfulness, and then the cry needs to be for mercy and healing.
Rather than reacting automatically in violence or despair, times of pain should serve as a call to fall to our knees, asking God where the source of the evil lies. Is it springing only from the hearts of others, or is it also coming from ourselves?