And it shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with lamps; and I will punish the men that are settled on their lees, that say in their heart, “The LORD will not do good, neither will he do evil.” And their wealth shall become a spoil, and their houses a desolation: yea, they shall build houses, but shall not inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, but shall not drink the wine thereof (Zephaniah 1:12-13).
In many places, especially in the teachings of Jesus, it seems that God has it out for rich people. Jesus declared that it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (cf. Matthew 19:23-24). And yet all wealth ultimately derives from God and His abundant blessing and provision for the earth. So what is the problem with wealth?
Over six hundred years earlier the prophet Zephaniah was charged to warn the Kingdom of Judah about the upcoming day of the LORD despite the present material prosperity of the nation in the days of King Josiah (Zephaniah 1:1). His first messages of chastisement are for the usual suspects: those committing idolatry and those rulers who have conformed to the nations (Zephaniah 1:2-11). But then Zephaniah has a message of condemnation for those men who are “settled on their lees,” saying in their heart, “the LORD will not do good or evil” (Zephaniah 1:12). What does this mean?
The image of “sitting on their lees” is also used by Jeremiah to describe Moab in Jeremiah 48:11. The “lees” are collections of dead or residual yeast at the bottom of a container of wine after the fermentation process. The old wine which would sit on the lees would maintain their flavor and smell and would not be altered no matter the environment. Men who are “sitting on the lees” are therefore complacent, indifferent to their situation, especially their spiritual situation. This is exemplified by the thoughts in their heart: God will not do good or evil. In their perspective, it is as if God is an absentee landlord, gone, inactive in His creation. Whether they do good or evil, work hard or play, seek righteousness or revel in evil, is irrelevant; God will not do anything about it either way.
How does a person get to this position? How could someone come to the point of conviction of God’s indifference to what goes on in His creation, to think, feel, and act as if God were not there? One gets to such a position only when one has come to the conviction that he or she is no longer in need of God. They have everything they need: they have houses and vineyards and things are well!
This is the picture we can see in Zephaniah 1:13: yes, God is saying that they will lose their wealth, houses, and vineyards, but for the time being they do have them and are enjoying them. The days of Josiah were good days for Judah: the Assyrian menace was in disarray, and while Babylon was a rising power, its influence had not yet been strongly felt in Israel. Josiah was able to reconquer much of the lands of northern Israel, and Judah was quite prosperous.
Yet it would not last. Within twenty-five years of Josiah’s death, Jerusalem would be a ruin. It all happened just as Zephaniah said it would. Destruction, pain, misery, and suffering came upon all the men and women of Judah. Many things might have been said in those days, but “God will not do good or evil” was not one of them!
We can therefore see one of the major dangers of wealth: those who have material prosperity easily fall into the trap, however consciously or subconsciously, of putting their trust in that prosperity. They are aware that things might get difficult, but they believe that their prosperity will allow them to ride through those difficult times. Such an attitude breeds complacency: I have all I need, therefore, I do not need God. Plenty of people do good things and suffer for it; plenty of people do evil and get material prosperity. God seemingly does nothing; God, therefore, will not do good or evil. We can just carry on as we wish.
Such explains so much of modern Western attitudes toward God. Western societies have developed a prosperous civilization, abundant in wealth and material goods. Most people put their trust in that civilization, however consciously or subconsciously, and have the expectation that no matter how bad it gets, that civilization and its prosperity will get them through it. Little wonder, then, how so many people today are indifferent to God and what He has established. Some are more obvious about it than others. Some claim to be atheists; they at least admit it. Far too many others profess some belief in God but really say in their hearts that God will not do good or evil. They are sitting on their lees, doing whatever they are going to do no matter what God may say about it. How many imagine God as the God of the Deists, the Creator who packed up and left after He was finished creating and left everything to run on its own?
Perhaps one day we also will experience a “day of the LORD” akin to the day which saw the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE and no one will be able to say such things anymore. Perhaps the danger will only become clear when it is too late as we all stand before the judgment seat of God (cf. Romans 2:5-11). But that day will come, because even if we might think that God will not do good or evil, God will do what He is going to do. We can believe that God is indifferent, but God remains living and active, sustaining the creation, as critical and active today as He was in the first century and before (cf. Ephesians 3:10-11, Colossians 1:16-17, Hebrews 1:1-3). We can see God’s hand in His creation if we want to; if we do not, we will always be able to find reasons to deny it. Let us heed the warning of the prophet; let us not be as those sitting on their lees, trusting in their wealth, indifferent toward God, and heading for destruction. Let us praise and honor God our Creator, the Giver of all blessings, and find salvation in Jesus His Son!
Ethan R. Longhenry