Defining Complacency, Zephaniah-style

I listened again to this poem this morning and thought it would be good to pass along.  It is worth a listen:  https://onbeing.org/blog/wendell-berry-the-peace-of-wild-things/

 

I have been reading in Zephaniah.  I wonder about the wording in chapter 1, verse 12:  At that time, I will search Jerusalem with lamps and I will punish the men who are complacent.  The literal translation of the word “complacent" refers to the dregs of wine, which happens to be the leftover part of the wine process that falls to the bottom and is essentially worthless or less than tasty.  In reading that word and pondering it a bit, I feared that perhaps it is true of me.  Have I grown complacent?  Thirty plus years of doing the same thing can cause a person to grow complacent.  There seems to be good bit of warning in the scriptures about this idea of growing complacent, albeit in different forms.  For example, Deuteronomy 8 warns God’s people with the duel formula of “remember” and “don’t forget.”  The writer to the Hebrew believers begins chapter 2 with these words:  Therefore we must pay closer attention to what we have heard lest we drift away from it.  And then perhaps the best example comes from Jesus, a different Jesus than the one with whom the apostle John walked the earth (1:12ff).  He told the Apostle to write these familiar words to the angel of the church at Laodicea:  I know your works: you are neither cold or hot.  Would that you were either cold or hot!  So because you are lukewarm (might complacent fit here?) and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.

Earlier in the first chapter of Zephaniah’s writing, God’s coming wrath is because the people stopped inquiring of the Lord.  That is in sharp contrast to the king who ruled Judah during this particular prophet’s day.  His name, v1, is Josiah.  He was one of the good guys.  His father was not.  Josiah became king in name only at the age of eight due to his father’s wickedness.  But 18 years later, he went into action.  He began a reformation.  The temple was restored and in the process, the book of the Law was discovered.  When this good-hearted king read the Law or most likely had it read to him, he wept over the failure of his nation. Repentant describes this young king’s heart.  Horrified by their national failure, he order the law to be read and the people, like their king, wept and repented.  Because of his actions, God promised him peace during his reign.  Josiah was not complacent nor did he do what the people had done before him, namely, stop inquiring of the Lord.

When I read this charge vs. the people of God in verse 6, my mind went immediately to the words of Jeremiah, chapter 2.  Jeremiah was a contemporary to Zephaniah.  In Jeremiah’s second chapter, we read that those responsible for the spiritual health of the nation—the fathers and the priests—had stopped asking an important question:  Where is the Lord?    Another way to say it might be this:  What is God up to?  When he appears silent, what might he be doing?  When he doesn’t answer our prayers, what is he up to? When circumstances overwhelm us and God seems distant, is He still at work?  When little changes in me, in others, in my children, or life is so boring or routine, is God doing anything at all?

A person dear to me stopped into my office yesterday struggling immensely with the direction life has gone.  While I ache over his pain, I reminded myself and him that everything is an opportunity.  God is not inactive.  He is working despite appearances.  I wonder if at the heart of complacency is this foolish belief that God doesn’t seem to be doing anything, doesn’t seem to care and thus, we are on our own to do whatever we deem best.  We are in survival mode because after all, life is confirming one of my deepest fears:  I really am all alone, on my own, so if I am to survive, I must take matters into my own hands.

Perhaps the rest of verse 12 of Zeph’s first chapter defines for us complacency in a way consistent with what I am suggesting.  Here is the verse in its entirety: 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.  This is a literary feature I like to call a “poetic double-down.”  We see it earlier in verse 6 when the people are told by the prophet that the judgment of God is coming because they do not seek the Lord, they do not inquire of him.  Same idea expressed twice but in different words in order to drive the point home.  Another way of saying complacent, then is this little, subtle heart sentence that God really isn’t personal, doesn’t really see me or care.

To be complacent is to assume something about God that just isn’t true. In fact, God gets testy when we assume something that is in stark contrast to the truth about Him.  In other words, nothing could be further from the truth than to suggest He is inactive, insensitive.  To assume he doesn’t really care, isn’t really concerned, isn’t active nor personal in our lives is foolish.  Years of beat down by life can lead a person to that assumption, subtly, deep in one’s heart, which is where the Lord says such a notion resides.  We might not say it with our words but it might be lodged somewhere difficult to detect that shapes how we live and think.  We need a wake up call like what Josiah received when the law was rediscovered.  We need to be stopped, hushed from our foolishness, exposed perhaps so that we awaken again and live with right understanding about our God.  I see this idea in verse 7 where the prophet, speaking for God says, Be silent before the Lord.  In other words, hush!  Quiet yourself to consider that Almighty God and his day is drawing near.  It is a day whether coming in Judah’s future or ours (their is allowance in scripture for both to be true) when everyone will see that God is THE God of gods and THE Lord of lords.  There is no other.  He is the King to whom we pledge our allegiance.  He has been ruling all along.  Seek him and him alone.

I remind myself today that if God is searching the city for those who are complacent, I believe he is also searching for those who aren’t.  I recall two other images from the prophets where God was searching or locating those who feared the Lord, or took him seriously amidst the difficulty of life.  The first is found in Ezekiel 9.  Six executioners have been summoned to spread out throughout the city to destroy those who have committed abominations in the temple.  But before they are sent out, God calls forth a single man, dressed in fine linen.  His job is to first go through the city and locate those who have lived troubled by what has and is transpiring in the world around them.  Mark the forehead, says the Lord God, of those who are not afraid to acknowledge and grieve over how bad things are and who, by implication, live in hope of a better day as they live for their God.

The second image is found in Malachi.  Amidst the complacency of God’s people during Malachi’s day, there is a band of faithful pilgrims who have gathered together to remind each other to persevere.  We are told that God bends down low to hear what they are saying amongst themselves and because they live taking the Lord seriously (fear of the Lord), He remembers them, recording their names in a Book of Remembrance.  I want my name in that book!  I suspect you do too!  God help us.  Reveal to us where we have become complacent.  Wake us up!  You are a good and merciful God.

Kent