The Bare Soul - May 8, 2011
The Lamp of the Lord

The following is the message text and audio recording of a sermon titled "The Lamp of the Lord" delivered to the homeless
at the Kansas City Rescue Mission Chapel on April 28, 2011.

The Lamp of the Lord - April 28, 2011

Zephaniah 1:12 - 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.

I have many fond memories of childhood. One of these was helping my father fix the family car. At best, my father was a “shade tree” mechanic. I can remember that no matter how much light we had in the garage, he invariably needed more as he was loosening spark plugs or setting points in one of his many “fixer-uppers.” I learned from an early age the importance of holding the light steady and secure for him to see what he was doing. I soon found out that it didn’t matter whether I could see what he was working on or not. What mattered is that the light shone in that dark area where he needed it most. Many of us can probably relate to a similar circumstance. If not, possibly there was that time when you needed a little extra light in an already well-lit room. There seemed to be just enough shadows that didn’t allow a “visual” of possibly a lost coin or a small piece of jewelry. In that case, a flashlight served well to illuminate those gray areas where the light didn’t shine bright enough.

Light is a wonderful thing and can illumine those dark crevices with a focus of the beam. Throughout the ages, mankind has used some type of luminary to make the seemingly invisible visible once again. Of course, before our modern use of electrical lighting, man had to rely on fire or possibly a refractory device to reflect either the sun or another luminary. Man has always had an innate compulsion to chase away the darkness by lighting his way however possible. In many instances in scripture, we find biblical authors using the metaphor of light as a method to reveal darkness that has either entered an individual’s life or that of a nation’s. We find this is the case through the words of Zephaniah the Prophet. In Zephaniah 1:12, we read the following in the King James Version (KJV):

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.

What does this verse mean in context with the chapter and the rest of the Book of Zephaniah? Is the author talking about himself or someone else when he refers to searching Jerusalem with candles to punish men that are “settled on their lees?” What, if anything, does this peculiar set of aforementioned words mean in relation to this prophetic writing? To answer these questions is to define the theme of this oracle to the house of Judah. Let’s take a brief look at the background of the Book of Zephaniah and the prophet’s message to God’s chosen people.

Since the time of King David and his son Solomon, Judah experienced a number of successors to the throne. A minority of these were good kings who attempted to do the Lord’s bidding. However, the majority followed in the wickedness of the kings of the northern kingdom, Israel. One of these good kings, Hezekiah, bore a son named Manasseh who reigned 55 years in Jerusalem. Some speculate that Isaiah prophesied into Manasseh’s reign before the former was martyred by being sawn in two, as Jewish tradition suggests. Regardless, most scholars believe that Zephaniah was the prophet who broke a 50 year prophetic silence when he began his lament against the idolatrous atrocities of Manasseh’s reign. This son of Hezekiah corrupted the kingdom of Judah to a seemingly worse state than his father had restored and revived the kingdom during his rule. (We might also note here that Manasseh and Zephaniah were related since Zephaniah 1:1 provides us the prophet’s royal lineage back to Hezekiah.) So, when Zephaniah appeared on the scene in the middle of the 7th century, he became God’s emissary of the doom that would soon overtake Judah. Although we are told that Zephaniah spoke his oracles in the time of good king Josiah’s reign, the die had already been cast for all the evil that Manasseh and others had previously perpetrated.

The Book of Zephaniah centers around two themes. The first is an overarching threat of impending disaster through God’s judgments, and the second is the hope of ultimate deliverance. For our purposes, we will concentrate on the first theme of impending judgment which embodies the literary genre of prophetic oracle in Chapter One. Within this oracle genre is possibly one of the most descriptive sub-genre of God’s judgment or wrath within the entire Old Testament. Zephaniah wastes no time getting to the purpose of his pronouncement of wrath in the name of Yahweh. We see in the first few verses that he speaks judgment to both people and princes regarding their blatant worship of the false gods Baal, Milcom, and the host of heaven. These passages prepare us and lay the background for our study in verse 12.

As previously mentioned, I set forth the question regarding who was searching Jerusalem with “candles” to punish those who were “settled on their lees.” From the context, it is clear that God is speaking through the prophet and will search with candles until He finds all those who have wickedly turned to idols rather than giving Him their worship. First of all, let’s define what a “candle” was in the time of this writing. The root or the etymology of this word means “lamp” which is a more precise translation than what is offered in the KJV. Most newer translations, such as the New American Standard Bible (NASB), translate this noun as “lamp.” We know from ancient history that these were olive oil pottery lamps that consisted of an opening for the oil reservoir and another at the other end of this elongated vessel for the wick. Lamps of this kind did not burn intensely bright because of the low volatility and flash-point of olive oil. For God to use this metaphor through the words of the prophet is striking indeed. It would take a great amount of patience and thoroughness to complete a search of all the darkness in Jerusalem by the Creator with a pottery lamp. Of course, this is merely a figure of speech for the metaphor used in this passage. It is clear, however, that the Lord’s intent was to do a complete search and purge the wickedness from His sight.

This leads us to our second question: What does “settled on their lees” have to do with God’s search for wickedness in His chosen city? This term actually hearkens back to ancient times. It is an old adage from winemaking that refers to wine settling and becoming stagnant rather than “living” which is what wine is supposed to characterize. Let me briefly explain. Lees are what would commonly be called particles of solid material from the wine itself. Winemakers would often allow wine to “settle” on the lees for a certain amount of time. This would give the wine a richer and more satisfying flavor. However, if it was left too long on the lees, the wine could become too thick and often syrupy. In short, it was ruined. That’s why winemakers would frequently “shake up” the wine in order for it to continue to remain palatable. This, in my opinion, provides a vivid word picture regarding what the Lord was trying to reveal to the Judeans. While newer versions portray the word “lamp” better than the King James “candle,” I believe the KJV provides a better description of what it means to become “settled” or “stagnant.” For instance, the NASB states the following in verse 12 of Zephaniah Chapter One:

It will come about at that time
That I will search Jerusalem with lamps,
I will punish the men
Who are stagnant in spirit,
Who say in their hearts,
'The LORD will not do good or evil!'

“Who are stagnant in spirit” does not seem to capture the imagination quite as well as solid waste actually settling at the bottom of the wine skin or wine vat. God has painted a vivid picture of what it means to become stagnant in spirit in the KJV. Having settled on their lees, God’s chosen people had become apathetic and uncaring. Yahweh was declaring that He was coming soon to “shake things up.”

This is further clarified by the prophetic word in the last two lines of this verse. In the 7th century Near East, a particular religion had become quite prevalent due to its Persian origins. Zoroastrianism was a cultic faith originating in present day Iran and was widely accepted in Medo-Persia and also in its subject provinces. In a nutshell, it basically taught that all men should show common respect and goodness for all. However, there were not true definitions regarding what “goodness” might be from one person to the next. Zoroastrianism, in general, was an ecumenical belief that taught as long as good was both the pursuit and the goal, then the relativity of what that meant was not deemed important, as long as good was progressed. The ultimate goal was to live in the right and to dispel the wrong. To put it simply, their belief was that mankind should pursue goodness as revealed to their own hearts. This non-absolutism had more than likely pervaded the Hebrew society, and now the prophet was making a pronouncement regarding the evil in simply doing good as man saw fit. Yahweh was pronouncing judgment on this attitude of relativity toward His goodness which was not arbitrary. He would no longer tolerate this blatant disrespect for His absolute law.

From the reading, and with this additional background information regarding the social and religious climate of the day, it is quite understandable why Jehovah was distraught with the Judeans. They had disregarded the laws that He had given them and substituted them with whatever they conceived of in their own hearts as being correct. Furthermore, they had become apathetic to the point where seeking the will of God was no longer the impetus of their religious existence. As long as they could rest on their proverbial laurels and pursue what they deemed right, they believed this should satisfy their own religious needs. However, God was quick to point out that indeed this sort of thinking would bring about their destruction. They had given themselves to worship wrong gods, such as the Baals, Milcom, and the host of heaven, having been steeped in a Zoroastrianistic mindset that was destroying them both morally and spiritually. The time, according to the prophetic message, was a time of retribution and judgment regarding this fallacious thinking.

In reading Zephaniah Chapter One and particularly verse 12, how might we apply this to our lives today? As stated in the beginning, the major theme in the first chapter of Zephaniah is judgment and impending doom. Can we relate this to our day and time? Let’s spend a few moments comparing our present day with that of the prophet’s. We should be able to ask ourselves particular questions from our main text in verse 12. Are God’s chosen people of today in an apathetic state? Do similar conditions exist which would imply that we are resting on our proverbial lees and that we are stagnant in our faith toward God? Have we sacrificed God’s word for relativism, seeking instruction that teaches morality, yet devoid of Yahweh’s spirituality? I believe to some degree the answers to these questions are “yes.” While we are seeing a great turning toward Jesus Christ in many churches, there are just as many or more that are on the brink of total apostasy. Here are just a few statistics from a 2008 study that may give us pause:

My friends, while this seems alarming to many of us who desire to walk with the Lord, we are not without hope. Even as the main theme of Zephaniah Chapter One is judgment, the hope of redemption lies in further reading of this short book. Even today, the Lord is undoubtedly searching the Church of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, with His lamp, seeking out both the wicked and the righteous. With His searchlight of truth and justice, He is looking for those who are apathetic and those who would no longer define good and evil by His holy word. We must surely believe that God is searching out wickedness as faithfully today as He did in millennia past. May we not be those whom He would need to find in the dark places of His Son’s Church. May we live in the light of His glory and be witnesses of a revived Church that He desires to spread throughout the entire earth.

Heavenly Father, You indeed are the one who searches our hearts. You are the great omniscient one who knows our comings and our goings. May we give ourselves totally to You this night. May You search us and find that there is no wrong way within us. If there is, Lord, we ask that You would bring Your light to all areas of our heart that might be wrong before You. Remove our apathy, O Lord, and give us wisdom and understanding to know what is right in Your eyes, and not what we determine to be so. We ask You to empower us, helping others to come into the light of Your presence that we may be able to rejoice in their salvation. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Your Barefoot Servant,

Rick

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