“Woe to her who is rebellious and defiled, the oppressing city!” The subject abruptly shifts from Nineveh to Jerusalem. Although Jerusalem is not mentioned by name in this section, she is the city where Yahweh Himself lives (Zeph. 3:5), and the accusation that she did not draw near to “her God” could only refer to Yahweh (Zeph. 3:2). God would never chide a pagan city for not drawing close to her chief idol. Jerusalem was “rebellious” because the people of Israel had made a covenant with Yahweh, and in disobeying it they rebelled against Him. Furthermore, the people of Jerusalem and Judah were “defiled” because as part of the covenant they agreed to God’s terms of purity, but they ignored them, eating defiled offerings and committing adultery with other gods (some translations have “polluted,” but this verse is not referring to pollution in our modern sense of the word).
“the oppressing city.” The word “oppression” is very descriptive of what happens among people when God’s laws and moral principles are abandoned: people oppress one another. Life feels “hard” and “heavy,” and living does not seem “fun” or “safe.” Sometimes people deliberately oppress others for their own benefit, and sometimes they oppress others simply by their willingness to ignore the plight of others and unwillingness to enforce godly laws and put a stop to evil.
The Devil promotes the lie that people are basically good, and if left to themselves will be fine, and many people believe that lie. The Bible says exactly the opposite. God specifically said that people are evil from childhood (Gen. 8:21), and that children who are left to themselves and raised without discipline and training will only become shameful and godless (Prov. 29:15. Cp. Ps. 58:3). That is why the Bible has much to say about properly raising children. Anyone who has observed children knows that although they can be cute and fun, they are very selfish and have to be taught to be nice, to share, and to be respectful of others; they do not have those traits from the womb. The heart of human beings is corrupt and deceitful (Jer. 17:9), and people’s sin nature inclines them to evil and sin, which is why it is difficult even for Christians to live truly godly lives (Gal. 5:17; Ecc. 7:20). It takes much effort and godly laws and morals to have a decent society. God knows that, which is why the Bible has so much information about how to treat others and have a godly society. God has given laws, moral codes, wise counsel, and many good examples of how to have a safe and godly society, and He has given those directives because without godly laws and moral codes, people end up oppressing each other.
Why would the Devil promote the lie that people are basically good? Because he himself is lawless and a rebel. He rebels against laws and rules, and therefore against God. Furthermore, he is evil and he knows the hurt and pain that exists in lawless societies; he has watched those barbarian societies for millennia. The Devil knows that if he can successfully promote the lie that people are basically good, then people will not be concerned about having and enforcing godly laws, after all, everything will be okay without them, right? Wrong!
In Zephaniah’s time, Judah had abandoned God’s laws with predictable results—the city had become full of various types of oppression. That happens any time and place that God’s laws are abandoned, and in our modern world it is happening more and more. That too, is predictable, because as Jesus said, as earth moves closer and closer to the End Times, the love of many will grow cold, so people will begin to oppress each other (Matt. 24:12). The Bible describes exactly what people are like without godly laws, and sadly, it is a prophecy about how life will be in the End Times: “But know this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For people will be self-centered, greedy for money, boastful, arrogant, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, without family affection, unwilling to be reconciled to others, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, not interested in doing good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, friends of pleasure rather than friends of God” (2 Tim. 3:1-4).
The next life will be safe and fun because Jesus will be king and enforce godly law. That Jesus will conquer the earth and rule with a rod of iron is a well-established prophecy (Ps. 2:9; Rev. 2:27; 12:5; 19:15). If Jesus will need to have and enforce godly laws in his society, it goes without saying that we need to follow his example if we want our society to be godly.