Tough and Tender Love
July 18, 2021

Tough and Tender Love
Book of Zephaniah


Bill Johnson was a young man from California whose sole thrill was stealing cars. Eventually he was caught and at his sentencing, the judge did something very unusual. The judge didn’t send Bill to jail, because he knew that in prison Bill wouldn’t be rehabilitated, but rather learn to make his thrill into a profession, which would land him back in jail again and again.

But at the same time, the judge knew he couldn’t let Bill off the hook, so he blended some toughness with tenderness. He sent Bill to a ski camp and told him to remain there until he mastered the sport of downhill skiing. It wasn’t easy. The training was grueling. But Bill eventually mastered the sport and in 1984 he won the Olympic gold medal in Alpine skiing. The judge wasn’t so tough as to break Bill’s spirit, but he wasn’t too tender by letting him off easy. The judge blended toughness with tenderness to produce a desired end.

Most people think of God as a God of love and mercy. This is what I encountered with some Jehovah Witnesses that came to my door. What I found interesting is that the senior witness said that my trying to sway them away from their faith didn’t exhibit the love of God.

Actually, I believe that by sharing the truth of God’s word along with the obvious errors and deceptions of the Watch Tower Society is true love. What does show a lack of love, however, is when we don’t tell others of the judgment to come and how they need to accept Jesus Christ.

And when we talk to those who have accepted Jesus Christ, it shows no love if all we say is that life will get better. Instead, true love tells them that in this world there will be trials, therefore, we need to be courageous because Jesus has overcome the world, and even though we will experience trials we will eventually experience God’s peace, joy, and love forever.

Yes, God’s love is tender, but it’s also tough as well. And that’s because God is a God of justice as well as a God of mercy, and it’s from both of these aspects that God deals with His people. In Zephaniah’s prophecy we see both sides of God’s love, the toughness in judgment, and tenderness in His mercy.

To understand, we need to look at what happened in the southern Kingdom of Judah during this time.

Zephaniah prophesied during the reigns of Manasseh, Ammon, and Josiah. Manasseh was the son of Hezekiah, and what Manasseh did was destroy all the good his father had done. Manasseh set up alters to the false gods of the nations that surrounded Judah, and he even set up alters to them in the Temple. He also allowed the practice of witchcraft, soothsaying, and the consultation of spirits and mediums.

The Bible says, “So Manasseh seduced Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to do more evil than the nations whom the Lord had destroyed before the children of Israel.” (2 Chronicles 33:9 NKJV)

And this provoked God to anger. And so God allowed the Assyrians to take Manasseh captive. But in his captivity, Manasseh repented and turned his heart to God. Unfortunately, it was too late for Judah. God’s judgment was set.

Amon, Manasseh’s son, took over as king but continued in his father’s evil ways, and after two years he was assassinated. This brought his son, Josiah, who was only eight years old at the time, onto the throne. And while he turned out to be a godly king, and a great revival came about later in his reign, it didn’t happen until after God had Zephaniah pronounce judgment.

It was tough love as God pronounced his judgment which was also a prelude to the coming Day of the Lord.

“‘I will utterly consume everything from the face of the land,’ says the Lord; ‘I will consume man and beast; I will consume the birds of the heavens, the fish of the sea, and the stumbling blocks along with the wicked. I will cut off man from the face of the land,’ says the Lord. ‘I will stretch out My hand against Judah, and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem. I will cut off every trace of Baal from this place, the names of the idolatrous priests with the pagan priests– those who worship the host of heaven on the housetops; those who worship and swear oaths by the Lord, but who also swear by Milcom; those who have turned back from following the Lord, and have not sought the Lord, nor inquired of Him.’” (Zephaniah 1:2-6 NKJV)

Now, in bringing this out, we must be careful not to tone is down, but instead allow the harshness, horror, seriousness, and the certainty of God’s judgement to sink in. We must realize that God is serious about unrighteousness and ungodliness.

The question now becomes, “Why did God have to be so tough?” The answer is found in how the people treated God. Notice again verse six.

“Those who have turned back from following the Lord, and have not sought the Lord, nor inquired of Him.” (Zephaniah 1:6 NKJV)

First they turned their backs on God. They had returned to their worship of Baal, and worse they did so while swearing allegiance to God. They were continuing to maintain a godly appearance, but their hearts were not even close.

Isaiah described them this way. “These people draw near with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but have removed their hearts far from Me, and their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men.” (Isaiah 29:13 NKJV)

The prophet Ezekiel described them this way. “They come to you as people do, they sit before you as My people, and they hear your words, but they do not do them; for with their mouth they show much love, but their hearts pursue their own gain.” (Ezekiel 33:31 NKJV)

We could say it like this, they turned their backs on God but not their faces. Maybe, this is why they were a stiff-necked people.

Today, people say they believe in God and in His word, just not all of it. They serve God only when it agrees with their own views or when it doesn’t mess around with their lifestyles. They’ve turned their backs on God by living ungodly lives while still going to church, or while they still have their face turned towards God.

Others have become callous and complacent and no longer care. They have no desire to change, that is, to repent of their sins. And when confronted with their sins they say we aren’t to judge and then moved down the block to another church where they are allowed to continue in their sin and ungodly lifestyle. Not only have they turned their backs on God, but also they fail to truly seek Him, and thus desert His word, will and way.

God actually brings four specific charges against them, indictments if you would that are seen in Zephaniah 3:2.

“She has not obeyed His voice, she has not received correction; she has not trusted in the Lord, she has not drawn near to her God.” (Zephaniah 3:2 NKJV)

They Didn’t Obey God

They refused to obey God’s word for their lives. This is actually seen in what we would consider a minor infraction, yet it’s an infraction, that is, it is disobedience none the less. The violation, or sin, is seen in 2 Chronicles 36:20-21.

“And those who escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon, where they became servants to him and his sons until the rule of the kingdom of Persia”

To fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed her Sabbaths. As long as she lay desolate she kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years.” (2 Chronicles 36:20-21 NKJV)

For seventy weeks of years, or for 490 years, they failed to keep the law of the Sabbath year. That is, they could plant and sow for six years, but on the seventh year they were to let the land rest. But because they didn’t follow God’s law for these 70 Sabbath years, God sent them into captivity for 70 years to make up for the years they took.

Now, obviously they broke God’s commandments all over the place, probably all of the ten commandments without blinking an eye, but for God, one violation of His word is like all the rest.

They Didn’t Receive God’s Correction

God continually sent against them one judgment after another in the form of pestilence, drought, famine, and foreign armies. He sent anything and everything to correct their errors and to get them on the right path, but they continually spurned His correction.

Now, God’s discipline is not meant to harm, but to turn them back to God and to His will and way. Basically, God disciplines them so they would keep His word.

Notice what the Psalmist says, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word.” (Psalm 119:67 NKJV)

Further, God’s discipline is not for His enemies, but for His children in which He loves.

“My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor detest His correction; for whom the Lord loves He corrects, just as a father the son in whom he delights.” (Proverbs 3:11-12 NKJV)

They Didn’t Trust God

To trust means to rely upon. Like we rely upon these chairs, we trust that they won’t let us down when we plop down on them. This is the same trust God wants from His people, that is, to plop right down upon Him. But their trust wasn’t solely on God. It was more like, “Trust God, but tie up your camel.” In the time of Zephaniah, it was, trust in God, but just in case, let’s make alliances with other countries so that if God doesn’t come through, then maybe their allies would.

We need to be careful not to place our trust on anything other than God. In other words, don’t place our trust in our retirement accounts. Yes it is a good thing to do, we are to act wisely, but the great depression, and the more recent great recession, teaches us how fragile our economy is. One really good downturn can wipe all the gains and then some.

Business after business closed their doors with this pandemic, not only devastating the owners, but also those who relied on a paycheck from working. Now, for so many, nothing is left, and homelessness is now rampant in large metropolitan cities.

They Didn’t Draw Near to God

They had no desire to live a holy life, that is a life that is totally separated unto God. They had no desire to develop and practice the spiritual disciplines that would bring them back into a closer relationship with God. Instead, during the time of Zephaniah they preferred to draw near to false gods and the ungodly practices of those around them, the ones they made alliances with.

We need to cultivate these biblical disciplines so we can draw closer to God and not the gods of this world, that is, the gods of entertainment, recreation, power, finances, greed, and the list just keeps on going.

Now in the next two verses in Zephaniah, that is, chapter 3:3-4, God takes direct aim at Judah’s leadership.

“Her princes in her midst are roaring lions; her judges are evening wolves that leave not a bone till morning. Her prophets are insolent, treacherous people; her priests have polluted the sanctuary, they have done violence to the law.” (Zephaniah 3:3-4 NKJV)

First he addresses the political leaders, the princes. He says that instead of protecting the weak and those who need protecting, they devour them instead. “Her princes in her midst are roaring lions.”

They didn’t use their power God gave them to rule equitably, but instead, like roaring lions, they pounce on anyone who couldn’t defend themselves.

In a democratic society, politicians are elected to protect the rights of the people, not abuse those rights. They are elected to serve. People use to enter politics because they thought they could help, but now politics is a profession, we even have college classes on “political science,” or the science of politics. And because it is a profession, they are usually out for their own interest instead of the interest of the people.

Next, God takes aim at the judges. They were not judging in righteousness or with true justice. Notice how God describes them as evening wolves who prowl under the cover of darkness and devour their prey leaving nothing behind by first light. In a way, these judges were giving wolves a bad name.

Next are the prophets. They are insolent and treacherous, that is arrogant and unfaithful. Rather than representing God and speaking for Him, they presented message that the people wanted to hear.

Today we have pastors who formulate messages around the same thing, that is, what the people want to hear, not what God wants to say. And it all revolves around trying to get the people to come. And while this is an honorable goal, the methodology is all wrong. People don’t need to hear about how to succeed in life, they need to hear how to get right with God, and about sin and the judgment to come.

A pastor’s job is not to fill the pews, but to speak the whole of God’s word, even the hard and difficult stuff. Now, this isn’t a popular topic at pastor’s conferences or church growth seminars.

Next are the priests, that is, those who profane God’s holy sanctuary and continue to violate God’s law, that not only they were to follow, but help the people to follow. In many ways they were in bed with the politicians. They were supposed to represent God to the people, but instead they were representing themselves.

Now, Jesus spoke against these sorts of preachers calling them hypocrites, and that whoever they won over to their way of thinking they were actually making them twice the sons of hell that they themselves were.

And this has been the bane for much of the church. When we look back at church history, what we see is that the church displayed the power of God when it kept itself separate from politics and proclaimed the gospel message. But when church leaders started to get involved with social reform and politics, they no longer wielded the power of God, which is the power to transforms sinners into saints. Basically, they became their own power-brokers.

Zephaniah now continues, and we really don’t get it, I mean, how could this sort of thing continue, specially seeing that God didn’t remove His presence, but continued day by day making His displeasure known.

“The Lord is righteous in her midst, He will do no unrighteousness. Every morning He brings His justice to light; He never fails, but the unjust knows no shame.” (Zephaniah 3:5 NKJV)

Every morning without fail God reveals Himself in righteous judgment, and it’s as plain as the nose on our faces. In other words, they, as well we, have no excuse; and can not say, “I never knew.”

What I find amazing is that God did everything He could, short of writing in the sky that He was there and that they were going in the wrong direction. In fact, He reminds them in verse six to look back into their history for examples. Like their sister nation, Israel, whom God gave over to the Assyrians. God was basically saying, “In the same way that I brought judgment upon Israel, I will bring judgment upon you if you don’t repent.”

Their problem was that they were hardening their hearts and had no fear of God.

God said, “Surely you will fear Me, you will receive instruction — So that her dwelling would not be cut off, despite everything for which I punished her. But they rose early and corrupted all their deeds.” (Zephaniah 3:7 NKJV)

This should speak to us today. There is little if any fear of God. We need to learn this lesson that God is not only a God full of grace and mercy, who is loving and compassionate, but He is also holy, righteous, and just, and therefore can not condone sin.

So we see God’s tough love as He tells them to wait for His coming judgment. But God’s love is not only tough but tender. This is seen in the earlier chapter.

“Gather yourselves together, yes, gather together, O undesirable nation, before the decree is issued, or the day passes like chaff, before the Lord’s fierce anger comes upon you, before the day of the Lord’s anger comes upon you! Seek the Lord, all you meek of the earth, who have upheld His justice. Seek righteousness, seek humility. It may be that you will be hidden in the day of the Lord’s anger.” (Zephaniah 2:1-3 NKJV)

Here Zephaniah points out three things we are to seek.

Seek God

If we seek anything else or anything less than God, then we’ve fallen into the sin of idolatry. What is idolatry? It’s making something or someone else equal to, or greater than, God.

We see this within the cults and organized religion. They are not seeking after God, but rather they are serving an idol in their belief system and structure. They are placing their doctrines and teachings equal with God. They say, unless we belong to their church or religion, then we’re not getting into heaven.

Seek Righteousness

We should seek God’s righteous standards for our lives. And what the Scriptures make clear is that there is no one who is righteous, no not a single person. Therefore, the righteousness we are to seek after is the righteousness of Christ, who died so that we can be clothed in His righteousness thus making us acceptable to the Father.

Seek Humility

Humility is the opposite of pride, and the opposite of our own self-will. God’s tender love says, blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth, and blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God (Matthew 5:3, 5).


There is an interesting Scripture that reveals both the tough and tender love of God.

“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23 NKJV)

Finally, in chapter three we see God’s tender love for the remnant, those who remain faithful to Him.

“For then I will restore to the peoples a pure language, that they all may call on the name of the Lord, to serve Him with one accord. From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia My worshipers, the daughter of My dispersed ones, shall bring My offering. In that day you shall not be shamed for any of your deeds in which you transgress against Me; for then I will take away from your midst those who rejoice in your pride, and you shall no longer be haughty in My holy mountain. I will leave in your midst a meek and humble people, and they shall trust in the name of the Lord. The remnant of Israel shall do no unrighteousness and speak no lies, nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouth; for they shall feed their flocks and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid.” (Zephaniah 3:9-13 NKJV)

I love how God begins, “For then.” In other words, just when things look their darkest during the judgment, then God will restore. Notice he says that the first thing that He will restore is a pure language. This isn’t about a type of speech, but rather it is referring to a whole new heart. Remember Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12:34 NKJV)

And so, God is going to restore a new heart, one that is pure, one that has been washed clean. In the end, what I love about the tender love of God is that we don’t have to wait to receive this new heart and eternal life. It can be ours today. We just need to believe in the Lord Jesus, and we shall be saved. It is then that we will become new creations.

This then is the tough and tender love of God.

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