Those who bow before the Lord, yet swear by Milcom.

September 5, 2014.

“I will stretch out my hand against Judah
    and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem;
and I will cut off from this place the remnant of Baal
    and the name of the idolatrous priests along with the priests,
those who bow down on the roofs
    to the host of the heavens,
those who bow down and swear to the Lord
    and yet swear by Milcom,
those who have turned back from following the Lord,
    who do not seek the Lord or inquire of him.”
(Zephaniah 1:4-6)

Zephaniah was a prophet during the last part of the divided Kingdom of Israel, before Babylonian captivity. It is obvious from the text that the prophet lived in a time where idol worship and polytheistic religion was rampant throughout the kingdom as Zephaniah constantly makes mention of this detestable idea in the sight of God. It would seem that he lived in Jerusalem and is specifically speaking to the children of Israel in a time just before they were going to be overtaken by world powers, yet I hold that there are timeless lessons that can be learned from the prophets of old that we would be wise to turn our attention to. Paul writes to the Romans:

“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”
(Romans 15:4)

The prophets spoke to a people in their time of need (though the people didn’t see it that way), yet their revelations are too written for our instruction, that we through encouragement of the Scriptures might have hope. One of the best things that I think the prophets do for us (besides their witness of Christ) is reveal the character of God. There are times that we can read about God through what He has the prophets proclaim that might not line up with our picture of Him. This disharmony is hard to reconcile by many readers and is indeed difficult to understand with only a superficial reading of the Old and New Testaments. I am sure that this is one of the reasons many Christians are somewhat frightened (perhaps intimidated is the better word) of the Old Testament and shy away from it, focusing on the love of the gospel. Whereas it may be true that it is easier to pinpoint the “love” of God in the New Testament and the “wrath” of God in the Old, a more thorough reading of both will reveal that both “love” and “wrath” are found throughout the entirety of the Scriptures, not localized in one place.

The opening passage is an example of what I mean by timeless lessons that reveal the character of God through the mouth of the prophets. We know that God does not change, for He was, and is, and is to come, a constant supernatural being by which our physical laws and morals are defined (even if He is not agreed with by a majority of humanity). In the passage above, the Lord is pronouncing judgment on different groups of people who have transgressed and left Him by turning to other gods, though they be no gods at all. As stated above, idol worship was a major problem in this time period. I would like to focus on a specific group that had left God to draw today’s lesson:

those who bow down and swear to the Lord
    and yet swear by Milcom,”
(v. 5b)

If I were to ask you if you were a Christian, what would you say? If you answered yes, why? What makes you a Christian? Is it the fact that you acknowledge Christ? Perhaps you saw a prayer before meals? Maybe that’s what your family was, and it is what you check on the senses. Or maybe you strive to live each day following our Lord and Savior, being his witness on earth. The point I’m making is that there are many different reasons that someone might answer “Yes, I’m a Christian.” If we look at this verse, we see that the children of Israel had not all completely forsaken God. Many still professed his name and believed that he was a “god.” Perhaps they even believed he was the God of gods. But the prophet adds a small tag to the group here, “and yet  swear by Milcom.” They were bowing down to the Lord. They were worshipping the Lord. They were even swearing by Him. Yet, they had an idol in their hearts, and in a relationship with the Almighty, there is no room for an idol.

You might be thinking at this point “Okay… that’s great to know, but how does this apply to us today? We don’t really have idols, or at least they aren’t very prevalent in our society.” Do we not? John in his first epistle uses five chapters to to make strong points about overcoming this world of sin and the pleasures it offers to entice us. But at the very end, he pens this seemingly misplaced phrase:

“Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”
(I John 5:21)

Nowhere else in the letter does he mention anything outright about idols. Did he just make a mistake? Was this just a piece of information that he forgot to talk about so he added in at the end? I don’t think so. I think he was making the point (or at least the point can be made) that anything we hold in our heart that pushes God out is an idol. No, we may not have the physical carved idols of Zephaniah’s day, or we may not be directly polytheistic as is the case in other cultures around the world, but that does not alleviate our heart from idols. Perhaps it even makes us more vulnerable, for they are hidden where we might not recognize them. Do you have an idol? Is your love of money pushing God away? Is your quest of fame hindering your relationship with Christ? Do you put more time and effort into your job than you do with your God?

These are not easy questions, as I know they hit close to home for me as I would assume they do for you too. But we serve the same God that told his children when he brought them out of Egyptian bondage “You shall have no other gods before me. (ref. Ex. 20:3)” These “gods” can be in the form of many things, and we need to be on guard to identify and expel the idols we harbor. What is most interesting to me about the passage from Zephaniah? The fact that the people still believed they were worshipping the Lord in a proper manner. They had not left. They had not denied him. They had simply added in something else. Is that not what many of us have done today?

So lets ask some more difficult questions:

those who bow down and swear to the Lord
    and yet swear by Milcom,”

1. Do you bow down before the Lord, yet swear by your job?

2. Do you worship the Lord, yet teach a different gospel?

3. Do you fall before the Almighty, yet deny him by your actions?

4. Do you claim Christ, yet consider the teachings of the Holy Spirit to be mere “suggestions” that can be ignored if convenient?

Unfortunately, I believe that many of us, if we were to take an honest evaluation of ourselves, would have to answer yes to some, if not all of those questions. Is claiming Christ enough? Is worshiping him enough? It wasn’t for the children of Israel who came to bow before God but still harbored idols in their heart. If we worship God, yet do no obey His will, we cannot be pleasing in His sight. Beloved, think on these words.

“Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
    as in obeying the voice of the Lord?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,

    and to listen than the fat of rams.
 For rebellion is as the sin of divination,

    and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry.”
(I Samuel 15:22b-23a)

Suggested Daily Reading: I Samuel 15, Zephaniah 1-3.

“Little children, keep yourself from idols.”

-Walter

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