Read Deuteronomy 28:1-29
My kids and I were playing in the backyard the other afternoon when my youngest, Gavin, asked me a question. He asked, "Daddy, why you build a fence?" He was referring to our chain link fence that encloses the backyard. I explained as best I could to an almost-three-year-old that we had put the fence up so that he and his siblings could safely play in the backyard. The fence helped keep them in and safe, and it kept bad things out. My answer seemed to satisfy his curiosity as he then turned to climb on the playset that had served as the backdrop of our quick conversation.
In Deuteronomy 28, we find Moses again reminding the Israelites of what they needed to do to enjoy God's blessings in the land they were about to enter. This land they were about to enter would later become known as Israel. For things to go well with them in their new land, they were to keep their end of the Mosaic Covenant. In other words, to enjoy the benefits listed in verses 3-13, they were to obey the LORD their God fully, carefully following His commands, and worship Him alone (Exodus 19:5, 8; Deuteronomy 28:1-2, 14).
We can think of the LORD's commands as His fence for His people, Israel. Under the Mosaic Covenant, if His people stayed within the boundaries of His commands, He would provide for them, care for them, and protect them. Yahweh's commands were for their good (Deuteronomy 6:64; Jeremiah 7:6, 19). To step outside those boundaries was to step out from God's provision and protection and instead invite God's loving discipline on themselves as a nation.
The remaining 54 verses in chapter 28 spell out the curses for not staying within the fence of God's commands. Despite Moses spending more time explaining the cursings than the blessings, the Israelites often found themselves experiencing God's discipline as described in these verses.
By Zephaniah's time, the people of Judah could look back at the time of the judges and see how God disciplined His people when they forsook Him and worshipped other gods. A more recent and vivid example of God being faithful to His promise of judging His people's lack of faithfulness was the decimation of Israel. Approximately 90 years earlier, in 722 B.C., God used the Assyrians to conquer and disperse the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
Despite these examples of divine judgment, the people of Jerusalem and Judah were persistent in worshipping other gods (Zephaniah 1:4-6). Because of the people's relentless rebellion, the day of the LORD was approaching (Zephaniah 1:7). The coming onslaught by the Babylonians was God's way of remaining faithful to His end of the Mosaic Covenant when the Israelites didn't hold up to their end. The warning of the coming judgment also served as an invitation and a motivation for anyone to repent and humbly seek their God (Deuteronomy 3:19-20; Zephaniah 2:1-3) before it was too late.
As with any of the prophets, we are privileged to see how well or how poorly people lived out the truths and instructions God gave in the Foundational Books (Genesis - Deuteronomy) of the Old Testament. The content of Zephaniah's message reveals that the majority of the people were not doing well at all in keeping their end of the Mosaic Covenant. Many people had faith in idols and had false hope for the future due to their misplaced trust. As a result of Judah's unfaithfulness to and abandonment of God as a whole, we see the effects of the covenant that God made with Moses and the Israelites at Sinai begin to play out in real-time. Having a general knowledge and understanding of this covenant between God and Israel helps provide a framework for understanding the background of Zephaniah's messages. I find this knowledge of the Mosaic covenant helpful in understanding God's actions towards His people and their sins.
The spiritual and moral climate to which Zephaniah and Jeremiah preached and Josiah reigned reminds us that the Israelites needed Jesus like us today. Galatians 3:19 tells us that God gave the Mosaic Law to guide Israel and show them their need for a Messiah.
Like the people of Judah during Zephaniah's time, we need a mediator to go between a holy God and us (1 Timothy 2:5). The God of the Bible is perfectly holy (Isaiah 6:3) and demands us to be holy like He is holy (Isaiah 6:5; 1 Peter 1:15-16). Whenever and wherever unholiness or sin is found, the logical result is cursing. By God's grace, Jesus has become the curse for all those who have faith in Him and His work (Galatians 3:10-14)! Placing our faith in Jesus results in us being made permanently holy before God (2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 10:10). His Spirit gives us the desire and the ability to become more and more like Jesus as we yield to Him and God's Word in obedience (2 Corinthians 3:18).