Bible reading can make a reader uncomfortable. This morning, for instance, I came to Zephaniah 1:12.
“At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the men who are complacent, those who say in their hearts, ‘The LORD will not do good, nor will he do ill.’” [ESV]
The marginal reading explains that “complacent” translates the literal Hebrew word for “thickening in the dregs”. In other words these men were like the debris or lees of wine-making that settles out to become a thick, gooey mat at the bottom of the wine container. Ugly stuff.
Today’s common version of God can also be dreg-producing. God—often reshaped as a foggy notion of Nature or Evolution—is a distant and perpetually passive figure.
Most of the men in Jerusalem would have been religiously active—worshipping but with a cynical detachment. So much so that in another book God warned them, “Stop bringing me all these meaningless sacrifices!” He wanted hearts, not empty gestures.
The bigger problem of this dreg-like behavior is its depiction of God. God is just a token figure and his standing is hardly different from the weekly trash collector: a faceless figure who comes by to empty the bin and who then disappears for another week. All we need to do is haul the bin out in the morning and bring it back in the evening.
This misperception is easy to come by. God is busy shaping every moment of every day but we never see him. He has every hair on our heads counted and knows all the words we’ll speak today even before they’ve come to mind. He’s engages us in every moment of life from birth to the grave. He shaped us in the womb. He invites us to live out the good works that he prepared beforehand for us to enjoy. He also promises a future day when we’ll speak with him about all we’ve done in this life. But, for now, we can’t hear his voice or see his face.
But we can read his heart—which he shares freely in the Scriptures—and there we discover all we need to know about all we need to know. And for now, we learn, he wants us to live by faith rather than by sight.
This, I’m sure, reflects his purpose to reverse what happened in Eden when Satan took advantage of God’s temporary absence to challenge what God had told Adam. In place of God’s truth Satan’s offered Eve and Adam the great deceit that “you can be like God.”
God now reverses this: while he is again absent he offers us his word. He is still absent yet he wins our hearts with the truth that only he is God, that he is trustworthy, and that he loves us. He undoes what Satan did in Eden by reversing the outcome of the process Satan once used.
And it starts with his love. He loves us. All he does reveals his love. He loved the world before the creation, knowing it would reject him wholesale. So in love he sent his beloved Son to reveal his love and resolve our sins at the cross. In love he allows us to test Satan’s lie and then to flee back into his arms after we tasted the bitter dregs of death. He created us in order to care for us. And he invites us to love him in return.
Dreg-like-living ignores all of this. God becomes a distant good luck charm to us, useful when he’s needed but easily ignored for much of life. Satan still insists that God’s sole use is to help us succeed in our own ambition to be like God—to build our personal security, status, and self-satisfaction. But God’s word tells us otherwise.
This is where it’s important to grasp the love and hate language of the Bible that is parallel to Zephaniah’s reference to God doing good or ill. God’s good is for those who love him; who respond to his prior love for us. Ill comes to those who hate him with an irrational hatred.
God promises us that this phase of history—the era of the rebellion—will soon end and that in the next era we will again enjoy walking with him as our divine companion. But first we get to live by faith rather than by sight. And this oft-uncomfortable life of faith isn’t for the complacent.