Most of the prophets studied in a previous quarterly were sent to prophecy against Judah and surrounding nations. The words to Judah are as strong as, or stronger than, to the other nations. Zephaniah's message is no exception. Zephaniah is speaking to the people of Judah and the nations surrounding them. What were the conditions in Judah at the time? It was an Idolatrous nation according to 2 Kings 21-25 and 2 Chron. 33-36. How had the nation gotten to this point? After Hezekiah's death, Manasseh became king and led the country so far into idolatry so that "they did more evil than the nations" they had displaced in Canaan. (2 Chron. 33:9).
Who was the king when Zephaniah was prophet? Josiah. Our lesson states that Josiah was the sixteenth king to rule in the Southern Kingdom; his dates were 640-609 b.c. He became king at the age of eight, after more than half a century of moral and spiritual decline under his father (Amon) and grandfather (Manasseh), two of the most evil kings in Judah. Josiah's reign lasted for thirty-one years. Unlike his ancestors, however, Josiah did that which was right in the sight of the Lord (2 Kings 22:2), despite an environment that worked against him.
Born of a wicked king, beset with temptations to follow in his father's steps, and with few counselors to encourage him in the right way, Josiah nevertheless was true to the God of Israel. Warned by the errors of past generations, he chose to do right, instead of descending to the low level of sin and degradation to which his father and his grandfather had fallen. He 'turned not aside to the right hand or to the left.' As one who was to occupy a position of trust, he resolved to obey the instruction that had been given for the guidance of Israel's rulers, and his obedience made it possible for God to use him as a vessel unto honor.-Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, p. 384.
What was the king doing? He was attempting reform. What was his reformation like? Josiah's reform consisted of two main components: First, it was getting rid, as much as possible, of anything and everything that smacked of idolatry. That is, he worked to remove the evil practices that had arisen in the nation. He destroyed the high places, "did away with" the false priests, broke down Asherah poles, tore down the shrines of the male prostitutes which were in the temple, desecrated sites and shrines and he tried to get rid of everything else that was dedicated to false gods. The Bible says during his lifetime, the people "did not fail to follow the Lord, the God of their fathers" (2 Chron. 34:33.)
But that was only the first step. An absence of evil or wrong practices doesn't automatically mean that good will follow. Second, after hearing the book of the law read to him, the king made a covenant before the Lord to keep his commandments, and his testimonies, and his statutes, with all his heart, and with all his soul, to perform the words of the covenant which are written in this book (2 Chron. 34:31).
Josiah knew that the kingdom of David, of which he was now the ruler, was virtually on the rocks; their very existence was only a "millimeter" away from national disaster, for God was on the verge of withdrawing His care and protection from them, leaving them to the mercies of the pagan Babylonians.
Hilkiah the high priest had found the book of Deuteronomy in the Temple, and when Shaphan the scribe read it to the king he "rent his clothes" (II Kings 22:8-13). He was utterly sincere in his efforts to avert the national ruin he saw coming. He put his whole soul into a work of repentance as he saw it was needed; what he led the people into was a "national repentance" or one might say, a "corporate repentance." It began in the king's palace, the proper place for any national or corporate repentance to begin.
Jeremiah hopes that there will be no more weeping his eyes out in anguish for the incomprehensible rebellion of God's own people. The evidence indicates that they are repenting and doing what is right, for they are following their king (Jer. 9:1, 2).
But that was exactly their problem--they were following their king. That's what Israel did throughout their history--they followed their good kings like Hezekiah and Josiah and they followed their bad kings like Manasseh and Ahab. They never truly followed the Lord!
Ellen White described this condition: "Depending on man has been the great weakness of the church. Men have dishonored God by failing to appreciate His sufficiency, by coveting the influence of man. Thus Israel became weak. The people wanted to be like the other nations of the world, and they asked for a king. They desired to be guided by human power which they could see rather than by the divine Theocracy, the invisible power which till then had led and guided them, and given them victory in battle. They made their own choice, and the result was seen in the destruction of Jerusalem and the dispersion of the nation." [Ellen G. White, Ms. 159, 1899.]
Was Josiah successful? Not really. How do we know? As soon as he was gone, the people returned to their false gods. What does this tell us about the state of their hearts even during the reformations of Josiah? They were hard-hearted…they conformed outwardly, but there was no real heart change. Josiah's heart was in the right place. But, the people's heart was not. Josiah's heart had been transformed by the renewal of his mind (Romans 12: 2), but not the peoples'. The people did not truly reform, they conformed.
A survey of our church leads us to conclude that we have fallen in the same trap of the Jews in Josiah's time. And, the solution to our problem is found in the message to Laodicea combined with the 3rd Angel's Message (Revelation 3: 14 – 22; 14: 6 – 12). He that hath an ear let him hear and heed.