Zephaniah, Exile, and the Failure of Leadership

I know I probably don’t need to remind you of these details, but the prophet Zephaniah speaks the word of God to God’s people in Judah just before Babylon shows up, destroys the Temple, and exiles the nation into slavery. This period of time is well documented in Scripture, not only in the historical books (2 Kings, 2 Chronicles), but also in at least three other OT prophets (Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel). The people of God refused to listen to God’s voice, return to him, and restore their fortunes with God. As a result, Babylon was on their way and judgement was ready to fall.

This is the general picture of the situation, but as you read these prophets the specifics come clear. In the first five verses of Zephaniah chapter three, the specifics of Judah’s decay are laid at the feet of its leaders. Judah’s leaders failed to fill their roles with integrity and with the design God gave each role. As a result, the culture failed.

Zephaniah begins:

1 Woe to her who is rebellious and defiled,

    the oppressing city!

2 She listens to no voice;

    she accepts no correction.

She does not trust in the Lord;

    she does not draw near to her God.

The prophet does not speak here of the pagan empire, Babylon, but of Judah, the people of God. The general picture is of a nation that has become oppressive (as opposed to living in the justice of God) and refused to listen to the voice of God and draw near. How did they get to this point where justice failed, and religious devotion is all but gone?

3 Her officials within her

    are roaring lions;

her judges are evening wolves

    that leave nothing till the morning.

4 Her prophets are fickle, treacherous men;

her priests profane what is holy;

    they do violence to the law.

The decay of culture followed the decay of their leadership. (Surely the relationship is symbiotic – a decayed culture can only produce poor leaders).

The officials cannot be entrusted with public safety and well-being. Instead, their roles became platforms for injustice and their own benefit. Their legal structure can no longer be trusted with guarding the rule of law or the innocent. Judges take bribes and devour the poor.

Just as important (and devastating) is the failure of spiritual leadership. God’s ambassadors to the people are unreliable with teaching and doctrine, they are not trustworthy with people’s lives, and they do not treat the things of God with due reverence. The Law of God is light and flexible instead of weighty and unchanging.

The character of God is the bulwark of his people and the moral and intellectual touchstone for leaders.

The parallels to our culture are chilling. The institutions in our culture that build our leaders are trusted less and less. People sense the lack of integrity in leaders where they instinctively know they need people of honor and wisdom. If politics is now more about activism than the public good, division and distrust will inevitably follow (and will be intractable). When courts become the next political battleground, people will measure judges by their political standards and not fidelity to the law.

And, in matters personal to me, people trust spiritual leadership less and less. For all kinds of reasons, the integrity that ought to accompany religious institutions has suffered significant decay. One of the leading causes of this decay has to be the general un-seriousness of the American church over the last 40 years or so. When the most popular forms of evangelical church are more about production value and flash-and-dash than it is the word and power of God, pastors and churches end up contributing to the decay of culture. When people who want access to the things of God have a hard time finding them in church or among their Christian friends, nothing good can follow.

Is there a path out of this for the people of God? Zephaniah says next,

5 The Lord within her is righteous;

    he does no injustice;

every morning he shows forth his justice;

    each dawn he does not fail;

    but the unjust knows no shame.

The character of God is the bulwark of his people and the moral and intellectual touchstone for leaders. If politicians and judges legislate and execute justice according the law of God, the people will flourish. And if those entrusted with spiritual leadership lead people toward Christ, the culture will grow stronger.

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