Settled On Their Lees
The prophet Zephaniah gets right to the point in his prophecy of judgment contained in the first chapter of the book bearing his name. Although he states that the Lord will bring judgment on all creation, he quickly turns his attention to the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.
4 So I will stretch out My hand against Judah And against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And I will cut off the remnant of Baal from this place, And the names of the idolatrous priests along with the priests.
5 And those who bow down on the housetops to the host of heaven, And those who bow down and swear to the LORD and yet swear by Milcom" (Zephaniah 1:4,5)
Here were the people of God living in the holy city in the shadow of the temple, yet engaged in every evil under the sun. They were worshiping Baals and acting as priests to other gods. Many people had idols in their homes. They worshiped both God and the Baals at the same time. They swore by the name of Molech (the name is also variously translated as Milcom, Malcam or Malcham). "Molech" means "king." He was purported to be the king of the Baals in the Canaanite pantheon. Thus he was their direct rival to the true God. The people of Jerusalem were so far gone into sin that they worshiped two competing deities. They had forgotten the lesson that Elijah had taught in Ahab's day. "And Elijah came near to all the people and said, "How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him." But the people did not answer him a word." (1 Kings 18:21) So they committed the same sin even in the holy city.
6 And those who have turned back from following the LORD, And those who have not sought the LORD or inquired of Him." (Zeph. 1:6)
As a group, they were far from God and heading even farther out. They did so because they were completely indifferent toward God. They didn't even seem to care that they had drifted. They didn't think that anything was lacking in their lives, or if they did, they were so pleasure bound that they found freedom from God's restrictions a relief.
So even though every page of God's word either implicitly or explicitly states the need to find out what God wants for us to do and to do it, they really didn't care. They were like Rehoboam, the king whose rebellion brought the division of the kingdoms. "And he did evil because he did not set his heart to seek the Lord." (2 Chron. 12:14)
The next verses (vss. 7-11) describe almost district by district the judgments that were going to come on the city of Jerusalem. Then vs. 12 tells of the thoroughness of God's scrutiny of the city and reason for its judgment.
"And it will come about at that time That I will search Jerusalem with lamps, And I will punish the men Who are stagnant in spirit [that are settled on their lees - KJV], Who say in their hearts, 'The LORD will not do good or evil!'" (Zeph. 1:12)
Zephaniah describes the reason that these inhabitants of Jerusalem were in such a poor spiritual condition with a very telling figure of speech. His figure of speech is rendered as "men that are settled on their lees" (in the King James and American Standard Versions). The New Revised Standard Version updates the figure, giving it as "people who rest complacently on their dregs." Pictured here is undisturbed wine. The dregs (lees) have precipitated out, and have not been disturbed for a very long time. When bottles of wine are not rotated in their racks or casks of wine that are not turned, the wine becomes thick and it's flavor is unchanged. For a cask of wine to sit for so long undisturbed implies prosperity and affluence. As a result, good wine becomes great and bad wine simply becomes worse.
Some of the newer translations simply give the meaning of Zephaniah's figure of speech. The New American Standard speaks of the people being "stagnant in spirit" and the New King James says that they "are settled in complacency." Speaking either literally or figuratively, it is obvious that the conscience of these people has not been exercised for a long time. When wicked men are allowed to go to long without disturbance they become set in their sensual ways and they sink so far into moral degradation that it is often impossible for them to recover.
The great symptom of their indifference was that they didn't think that the Lord cares, rewards or punishes. To borrow a phrase from the prophet Amos, they are "at ease in Zion," (Amos 6:1) At ease not because of what they know, but because of what they ignore. These are not atheists in profession; yet are atheists in practice. They don't take the time or effort to deny God in thought and work out a philosophy of it, they just live like it doesn't matter. They live in complete disregard for the Creator who showers them with life and all blessings. So they rest at complete ease in their evil.
God promised to come and search His city and people as with a lamp (or a candle) and reveal all that was going on there. But these men were so spiritually blind that they didn't see their destruction coming. Even though God warned them over and over again, they didn't believe that it would happen. But eventually the day came and God sent an army to destroy them. Such a tragic cost in human life and property could have been avoided if they would have given heed to God's numerous warnings.
God's word and the history of His people teach us that all evil men will be found out and punished. Many of them may ignore the presence of God, but God does not overlook a single one of them for sin cannot go unpunished. Not then, and not now. So examine your own heart and conduct. Realize the light of God searches both your actions and your conscience.
Rather than be complacent, and let your sins stack up, continually have the attitude of David: "Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; And see if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way." (Ps. 139:23,24) You know that God will examine everything concerning our lives anyway, so invite Him in to cleanse and perfect it, rather than just waiting until He comes to punish and give retribution for the sin that we've all committed.
By Jay Horsley
From Expository Files 8.8; August 2001