Zephaniah does not hesitate to grab your attention. In the beginning: “I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord (Zephaniah 1:1). Why will the Lord destroy everything? Idolatry, the worship of things not Him. “I will sweep away… the idols that cause the wicked to stumble” (1:3); “I will destroy every remnant of Baal worship in this place, the very names of the idolatrous priests” (1:4); in the fire of his jealousy the whole earth will be consumed (1:18).
Idolatry entails neglecting the true God. Abandonment has been on my mind recently, and I can safely say it leads to anger. It’s very difficult to process being ignored, being made to feel like you should not even try to meet others or communicate. That anger seems to be present in Zephaniah’s rhetoric: “I will bring such distress on all people that they will grope about like those who are blind” (1:17). As you, who are ignored, act blindly—not sure who you should talk to or where you should go— the Lord has been blinded by those unfaithful. He’s not sure whom He should approach. Justice, then, would be blindness for the sinful.
Condemnation of idolatry in Zephaniah means condemnation of foreign influence and other nations. “I will punish… all those clad in foreign clothes” (1.8); Gaza will be abandoned and Ashkelon left in ruins (2:4); “Moab will become like Sodom, the Ammonites like Gommorah” (2:9); Nineveh [will be] utterly desolate and dry as the desert (2:13). Jerusalem and Judea are called to repent, to be different, but they are not above criticism. Jerusalem is called the city of oppressors, rebellious and defiled (3.1). I cannot argue with a prophet, but I can express discomfort at his rhetoric and articulate moral reasons for the discomfort. We do not live in ordinary times, where allegory can be trusted to remain a literary device. Many states are asserting the moral purity of one part of their people over against other parts of their people. They decry “corruption” as a condition that can never be washed away; the foreign always remains the foreign. They are willing to attack other nations and their own neighbors over the most trivial of differences. To Zephaniah’s credit, only God takes up the mantle of “warrior” (1:14; 3:17). Those who are called to repent are to be “meek and humble,” to “eat and lie down” and not be afraid (3:12-13). It does not seem those who choose the Lord should take up arms. Still, it does seem a space has been created for a figure to raise himself by means of violence and be accepted by those who think themselves pure.
What to make, then, of the instrument of the Lord’s justice? Idolatry, like abandonment, is a form of violence if not explicit violence itself. Idolaters “fill the temple of their gods with violence and deceit” (1:9); they are evening wolves who profane the sanctuary and do violence to the law (3:3-4). God Himself, truth and justice, has been made to feel like He does not deserve to exist. The reply, the prophecy, takes the form of violence in at least one aspect, as God promises a day of wrath (1:15).
I feel like I am articulating a very contemporary concern. I’m not saying Zephaniah cannot provide an answer, or has not provided one already. But we need an answer that has a certain immediacy, that speaks the world we live in, not the world where Nineveh is the seat of empire. Enter Paul Hoover’s “God’s Promises:”
God's Promises (from poetryfoundation.org) Paul Hoover I, the Lord, will make barren your fields and your fairways. Your refrigerators will be empty, no steaks and no leg bones, no butter and no cornbread. And I will remove your screen doors, force the mosquitoes indoors where you lie on the bed undead. For my house you have not readied, no flat screen and no broadband. My habitation is a wasteland of furniture from motel rooms. I will send the ostrich and badger in herds through your wrecked rooms; your beds will be entered by turnstile; the floor will seethe with bees. For my house is but a prefab; its roof lets in my rain. Woe is the Lord of Heaven who has no mansion on earth. Cries are heard from my fish traps, crows flap on my hat rack, pandemonium at the threshold as the owls and bats flit in. Silence reigns in the last place and the first place has no sway. For my knife-edge is impatient, my ledge crumbles like cake. I have warned you to beware. You await a handsome savior, but the plain man draws near... (Zephaniah)
Hoover, in contrast to Zephaniah, begins gently: I, the Lord, will make barren your fields and your fairways. Your refrigerators will be empty, no steaks and no leg bones, no butter and no cornbread. Not brother taking arms against brother, but a loss of luxury. Already, especially for those of us accustomed to a certain style of preaching, I can hear the screeching: “This isn’t Biblical.” What warrant do any of us have to take a God who speaks in violent terms and replace that with no “fields and… fairways?”
I can say this. If the purpose of thinking through these sorts of things is to discover something about yourself, something you could be doing better, Hoover’s on the right track. The question concerns the nature of violence. For Judea, being overrun by some gigantic empire is a real problem; the desire to be like other nations is not simply blasphemy, but an understandable reaction to who actually has power and why. There’s a part of this rhetoric that cannot translate to the United States of America, not in the slightest. I know one of the people who told me racism doesn’t exist worked with some of the poorest people in this area. When you have everything, it’s possible to be so blinded by privilege you can’t even see that other people are in need.
The nature of the violence we confront nowadays is like global warming. You won’t see it until it takes away a comfort that’s immediate. No fields, no fairways, no meat, no butter, no cornbread. The earth has suddenly stopped giving, and only then we realize we paid no attention to it. We did our best to keep it out, and now it is angry and will not accept that: I will remove your screen doors, force the mosquitoes indoors where you lie on the bed undead.
Hoover navigates the coming crisis as a blend of environmental catastrophe and our neglect of the poor. In truth, the issues are one: when a coal magnate is governor of, say, West Virginia, worth 1.6 billion and grifting through the very government meant for the people, you can see the link immediately. Some people are ripping the earth to shreds for dollars while everyone else, with nothing, has to wander through whatever is left. My house you have not readied, no flat screen and no broadband. My habitation is a wasteland of furniture from motel rooms.
When the crisis hits, rich and poor will be on a level field. Ostrich and badger [will be sent] in herds through your wrecked rooms; your beds will be entered by turnstile; the floor will seethe with bees. That leveling is the sign of justice, but not justice or redemption itself. It is woe, woe shared by oppressors who thought themselves above others and the oppressed who the Lord said He was. Woe is the Lord of Heaven who has no mansion on earth.
Where is true justice, then? Hoover brings us to a very contemporary idiom, our fascination with survivalists: Cries are heard from my fish traps, crows flap on my hat rack, pandemonium at the threshold as the owls and bats flit in. Silence reigns in the last place and the first place has no sway. You can hear in those lines someone trying to get food and deal with too many creatures during an apocalypse. You can hear the loneliness: there’s all this noise, but silence reigns. Maybe idolatry really is abandonment. A cult of self-sufficiency has made some monsters who would devour the world and proclaim themselves great, others loners who would push others away at the slightest provocation. But what happens if you actually need to survive, alone? The very possibility of justice is lost, it seems. To do justice to each other is a blessing.