Did you know that God will punish those who wear foreign styles of clothing? Really! It's in the Bible. Zephaniah 1:8 (NET) says:
"On the day of the Lord’s sacrificial meal, I will punish the princes and the king’s sons, and all who wear foreign styles of clothing."
This could be a bit of a problem for me, as on my travels around the world I’ve picked up various items of clothing. I don’t get to wear my Russian fur hat much in South Africa as it’s a bit too warm, but if I did then I’d rather hope that I wouldn’t be punished by God for doing so. It seems rather odd, harsh even, and if someone doesn’t believe in God then this is one of those verses that might make them think the Bible is just a crazy book. For those of us who believe the Bible is God’s word, we have to ask ourselves whether this verse is really as strange as it sounds – or is there a good explanation for it?
A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text
A Canadian preacher was once quoted as saying “A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.” This is true of many verses in the Bible, where if we take it out of context, we can make it mean something it doesn’t really mean at all. I’d certainly hope this is true of this verse because I’m rather attached to my Russian fur hat! Thankfully, we know that “People look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:17). This suggests that God isn’t concerned about my fur hat so much as my heart. So, what does it mean to be punished for wearing foreign styles of clothing?
This prophecy in Zephaniah chapter 1 was spoken to Judah when they were in a pretty awful place. They had a new king, Josiah, who was just a boy. His father, King Amon, had led Judah into terrible idolatry before he was assassinated. We can read about Amon in 2 Chronicles 33:22-23 (NET):
These idols were the idols of the nations around Judah and Israel – Zephaniah mentions specifically the worship of Baal and of the stars. Both were common deities in the area, particularly in Canaan, and these gods were an intrinsic part of their culture and lives. The people of Judah – led by Amon – had discarded their faith in Jehovah and instead had adopted the culture and gods from the people around them.
This is why God referred to their ‘foreign styles of clothing’. The clothing people were wearing was a sign of just how much God’s chosen people had lost their identity. They wanted to look just like their neighbours and to worship their gods just like everyone else. They wanted to blend in, and this is why they were wearing the clothing styles of the people around them. It wasn’t the actual fabric or even the style of the clothes themselves that were the issue, but what they represented. God was angry at this. He hadn’t called them to be like everyone else. He had called them to be set apart, to be holy.
So, is this just a prophecy to the people of Judah? Is it relevant to us today?
Judah is judged
It certainly was a prophecy to the people of Judah as they were defeated and carried away in exile to Babylonia, although it took about 30 years for that to start to happen. Young King Josiah turned out to be a great kid, and he listened to the prophets. Even more than that, he believed the prophecies but he didn’t give up seeking God’s forgiveness and favour. Instead, he brought Judah back to God. Because of this, God withheld his judgement from Judah until Josiah died and was buried. We can see this in God’s words to Josiah in 2 Kings 22:19-20 (NET):
This is a lovely story of how grace was extended for a little while. However, judgement still came. God’s holiness could not be scorned, and Judah had to be judged. But what is this saying to us?
The foreign clothes we wear
When reading the Old Testament and God’s relationship with Israel and Judah, we have to remember that the whole story arc is an example of God’s relationship to all of us. We can learn about God’s nature by reading how He acted and related to His people. This story in Zephaniah is no different. Yes, the prophecy was for Judah, but not just for Judah. The principle of the prophecy and what it says about God’s call to holiness applies just as much to us today. The prophecy talks about “the day of the Lord’s sacrificial meal” and that was a picture of Jesus’ coming and death. These are the days we are now living in – the end times. We don’t worship a god called Baal anymore, or worship the stars (hopefully you don’t follow astrology!). However, we all too often give up the holiness God calls us to in order to adopt the customs of the world – to blend in and make things easier.
What does this look like, practically? Ask yourself these questions:
- How often have you watched a TV series with swearing, violence, or nudity that your friends have watched so that you can talk about it with them? Or even just so that you can get the same enjoyment from it that they do?
- How often have you changed your speech so that you seem cooler or more able to fit in? Maybe a smutty joke? Maybe some coarse language?
- How often have you turned a blind eye to sex outside of marriage, or the specialness and sanctity of marriage itself, so that people will like you and not accuse you of being judgemental?
- How often have you worn something – maybe even immodest or inappropriate – only because you want to be seen as cool and fit in with the crowd?
- How often have you bought something flashy – a nice car or a nice watch – not because you need it, but because you want people to think of you as some kind of success story?
- How often have you kept quiet when people have been speaking badly of someone, or even spoken of them badly yourself, just to feel accepted?
- How often have you done something you shouldn’t, like go to a dodgy bar or smoke illicit substances, just so that you can be part of the ‘in crowd’?
- How often have you kept quiet when you could have spoken about Christ’s love, simply because you didn’t want people to think you were weird?
Of course, there are a million other ways that we can betray God’s calling on our lives and compromise ourselves to fit in with the world. All of us have been guilty of this at some point, because the lure of the world is strong, and the fear of the world is often stronger still. It is so, so easy for us to quickly slip on the ‘foreign clothes’ of the world and make life easy for ourselves. The temptation will grow even stronger as the world rejects Christian morals and principles and makes us social outcasts for our faith. Already we are seen as bigots and socially unacceptable simply for believing the Bible. Each of us, and the church as a whole, is increasingly pressured to ‘modernise’ and accept their culture and values rather than God’s.
Repaying the price paid
Thankfully then, I do get to keep my Russian fur hat for the rare frosty day in Cape Town. However, it makes me think hard about how much of the world’s culture I have adopted just to fit in. This is a challenge to me and a challenge to you. We were bought at a great price. The ultimate price. That price was paid so that we could be different. So, we would be different! Are we going to buckle to the world’s pressure? Or are we ready to honour the price that was paid and put aside those fleeting, worldly things and man’s approval? Are we ready to open our cupboards, grab a big box and throw away our own ‘foreign clothes’?