We know nothing about Zephaniah other than what we read in 1:1 and what we might pick up from the rest of the book. It is somewhat unusual that Zephaniah traced his ancestry back four generations but there are scholars who believe the Hezekiah he lists as a great great grandfather may well have been King Hezekiah of Judah. Unlike Micah who focused on Judah’s common people, Zephaniah was apparently quite at home in the political arena and distinguished court circles. He wrote to the people of Judah to warn them of God’s impending judgement, to urge them to repent, and to offer them the hope of restoration. The focus of Zephaniah’s message is “The Day of the Lord”, which he perceived would be a day of judgement, first for Judah and then the other nations. He also anticipated a final day of salvation. It is quite possible that Zephaniah had recognized that Josiah’s reforms had not fully penetrated to the hearts of the people. Sadly, any resurgence of covenant faithfulness that Josiah had inspired was doomed to be short lived. Judgement was both deserved and unavoidable.
As with Habakkuk and several of the other Old Testament prophets, as we read there is a stark contrast between the author’s graphic images of horror and doom, and his comforting words of hope for restoration. In Zephaniah’s day incense to pagan deities was often burned on rooftops and the kings of Judah had gone so far as to erect pagan altars on the roof of the palace in Jerusalem. There was also a widespread pagan idea that the threshold of a house, temple, or other building was the dwelling place of the spirits. There are two main themes in the Book of Zephaniah. The first is judgement. His main theme was the coming day of the Lord. That day would be one of universal judgement. God would judge Judah and then the other nations. He also emphasized that religious syncretism…the mixing of idolatry with the worship of God…brings destruction. However, seeking the Lord and Him alone results in salvation. The second theme is restoration. Zephaniah assured his audience that judgement would be followed by restoration. God would purify His own, bring rejoicing to Jerusalem, and restore both His people and Jerusalem’s glory.
Zephaniah’s message from the Lord warns about worldwide judgement. He exhorts his readers to repent before the devastation overtakes them. He urges them to seek the Lord, live righteously, and humble themselves before the Lord in the hope that they might be spared His judgement. That is the gist of the first two chapters of the book. Zephaniah makes it clear that he is the spokesman for the Lord. As you read the list of the things that God will sweep away in His judgement, notice that it is the reverse order of creation (Genesis 1:20-26)…people and animals, birds, fish…because judgement is a reversal of creation. Zephaniah speaks not only of judgement in the near future for Judah but judgement at the end of time. And everything will be destroyed. Having pronounced judgement on the whole earth Zephaniah then focused his attention on his own people, Judah and Jerusalem. When Zephaniah made this prophecy, before Josiah’s reforms in 622 B.C., idolatrous priests enthusiastically promoted Baal worship and other forms of paganism. This message of impending judgement on Jerusalem must have shocked many people since they believed Jerusalem would never be harmed. After all, God’s holy temple was there and that had become more of a lucky charm than a house of true worship of the Lord.
Scripture denounced the practice of worshiping anything or anyone other than the Lord but the people in Zephaniah’s day also worshiped the sun, moon, and stars. They worshiped Molech, the Ammonite god who demanded the sacrifice of infants and young children. God’s law prohibited this practice but it was a continual temptation to the people of Judah and Jerusalem. God’s complaint is that His people who used to worship Him, no longer did. Verses 7-18 is a passage that has to be looked at as one big event. Some of this would be fulfilled when Jerusalem fell in 586 B.C. Others would be repeated in various
historical epochs like the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Eventually the whole prophecy will be fulfilled at the end of time when God acts fully and finally to judge the world and renew creation. Zephaniah called for silence. This was solemn preparation for the horror of divine wrath. The day of the Lord describes a period of divine activity on the part of God in the affairs of His people. The people of God were expected to prepare sacrifices for the Lord as acts of contrition and celebration. But the rebels, scofflaws, idolaters, and apostates would themselves become God’s sacrifice. The executioners He has invited are foreigners who will slaughter the wicked among the people. God will begin with the leaders and princes, the tribal chieftains of Israel, court officials, district supervisors, city officials, military leaders, and religious leaders. Their influential roles put them in a position of heightened responsibility before God. And all of them had led God’s people astray. Those who participated in pagan worship ceremonies…literally those who leap over the threshold…would also be judged. Because the pagans believed the spirits lived in the doorways they would leap or jump over the thresholds of a temple in order to avoid contact with it, in deference to the pagan god. This goes back to 1 Samuel 5:1-5 when the Philistines captured the ark of the covenant and put it in the house of their god Dagon. The next day he had fallen face down in front of the ark. They set him back up again but the next morning he was face down again and both hands were cut off and he was laying on the threshold of his temple. So the priests of Dagon do not tread on the threshold of Dagon to this day.
The fish gate was located in the northern wall of Jerusalem, in the northwest corner. The northern part of the wall was particularly vulnerable to attacks from the north. The New Quarter was also known as the second district and was most likely a suburb west of the temple. And the market district may have been an area in the Tyropoeon Valley, just south of Mount Moriah. The complacency of the wicked led them to believe that God is similarly complacent. They foolishly believed that the Lord would be inactive, neither blessing or punishing, neither benefiting or cursing His people. God would send an invading force to plunder Jerusalem. The destruction would come so quickly that those with ill gotten gain would not survive to enjoy their wealth. The language of verses 14-16 are much the same as Joel 2:1-11. Using the word near describes the imminence of the coming judgement, and the darkness and gloom speak of the one true God who will not only come in clouds but will send His judgements like lightning bolts from a mass of dark clouds. That the fortified cities and corner towers are in danger shows the extent of the damage of God’s judgement. God’s judgement would be so sudden and so overwhelming that the survivors would be in a state of shock, stumbling around in the dark. God’s people were already blind ethically and spiritually and they had sinned against the Lord repeatedly. Now they would incur the just penalties specified in God’s covenant with them.
The people doomed for judgement on the day of the Lord were commanded to gather together, perhaps in repentance. The people were called upon to repent and humble themselves before God. Farmers threshed grain on windy hilltops. When they tossed the mixture of grain and chaff up in the air, the wind blew the chaff away because it was worthless. The heavier grain would then fall back to the ground. Zephaniah means here that the opportunity to repent was a fleeting one. True humility involves submission to and dependence on God. What we see is that even in the most calamitous of judgement scenes, the mercy and Grace of the Lord is still available to a repentant people. For the rest of chapter 2 and all of chapter 3 Zephaniah turned his attention to the judgement of the foreign nations before returning to the judgements of Judah sand Jerusalem. Then he outlined God’s plans for his purified and obedient people.
Zephaniah began his pronouncement with the Philistines, whose kingdom lay to the west of Judah. From there he moved on to Moab and Ammon in the east and finally he singled out Cush (Ethiopia) to the south and Assyria to the north. King Nebuchadnezzar had conquered the Philistine cities of Gaza and
Ashkelon, Ashdod and Ekron. Gaza remained deserted but the others recovered and continued into later times. Zephaniah does not mention Gath, the fifth major Philistine city. It had either disappeared or became unimportant by Zephaniah’s time. The destruction of cities and their return to a natural state represents a severe form of punishment from God. The coastal cities that the Philistines had dominated for so long were soon to become pasture land for the Israelites. This means the same God who brought destruction upon the people of Judah would eventually restore their fortunes. The Baal worshipers and the Philistines would never be restored. By contrast, God promised to return the remnant of His people to their land, care for them, and restore them to prosperity. The Moabites and Ammonites were hostile to Judah from ancient times. Even though they were descendants of Lot and relatives there was nothing but hate between these people. Not only had Israel endured repeated attacks by the Moabites and Ammonites, but also they endured their insults over their successes. They remained Israel’s enemies to the end. God’s promise of retribution was stark, harsh and final. Moab would become like Sodom and Ammon like Gomorrah. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah served as an example of God’s severe judgement of sin, in both the Old Testament and the New. It would become a wasteland of weeds and salt pits forever. Salting the earth was a mark of permanent judgement because it made the ground barren.
For the righteous people of Judah and Jerusalem there would be a response of awe and wonder before God, who had responded to the prayers of His servant. For the wicked, their response would be terror and dread. At the end of history, all people in all places will worship God alone. Not only would there be a righteous remnant in Judah, there would be people coming to God from the nations of the earth. The Ethiopians or Cushites who were south of Egypt would be destroyed, obliterated. After this, Zephaniah turned to the north and like Nahum before him, he announced the imminent demise of Assyria. To drive home his point about Nineveh’s fate, Zephaniah invoked powerful imagery. Rubble would fill the doorways through which the wealthy and powerful of Nineveh had once walked. The eerie sounds of owls hooting in empty windows shows the depth of Nineveh’s desolation. Today what remains of the destroyed Nineveh is called the mound of the sheep. The city remains were eventually covered with blowing sand and the city forgotten. The remains were discovered by archaeologists in 1845. Verse 15 is a bit of sarcasm. Nineveh was once a rejoicing city. Their walls were thick. They had a moat that was 150 feet wide and they were on top of the world. They made a habit of boasting of how great they were and of all they had and that they were invincible. But, their doom was so certain and irreversible that Zephaniah saw no future for Assyria or her capital, Nineveh. So complete was Nineveh’s destruction that Greek historian Xenophon once passed by its ruins unaware that it was there. Those who would pass by would be very glad to see and hear of its demise.
Chapter three brings us back to Jerusalem’s judgement. Zephaniah pronounced a message of sorrow for Judah and Jerusalem and admonished them to wait patiently for the results of God’s righteous judgement. Jerusalem was polluted. In other words they had wandered far from their call to be holy because God is holy. All the idols and pagan gods had defiled the city. The leaders who were supposed to work for righteousness and lead the people to the Lord were more wicked than the regular citizens of Jerusalem. These leaders were defrauding and destroying the weak, the needy, and the helpless..the very people they were supposed to help. They have lied, been disobedient to the Lord, defiled the temple, and perpetuated injustice. But the Lord is still there and He does no wrong. However, because God is absolutely righteous, He had no place in the midst of such evil people. He has cut down, wiped out many of Jerusalem’s neighbors but still, Israel has not gotten the picture. This should have brought Judah and Jerusalem to their senses. But they couldn’t wait to get up early to continue to do more evil deeds. They had moved far away from the ways of their ancestor Abraham, who rose early to obey God’s command.
Zephaniah portrayed a courtroom scene next where God rises first as a witness on His own behalf, and then presides as judge to deliver His righteousness sentence. The fire of God’s jealousy describes the Lord’s righteous hatred of sin, as well as His concern for His holy name and for the welfare of His people. God reveals His plans for a humble and purified remnant of His people and encourages them to rejoice in the coming abundant blessings of their saving Lord. Verses 9-13 describe a glorious future for His people. They are to wait patiently for Him. Like many of the other prophets, Zephaniah uses the twin themes of judgement and hope. God intends for the blessings promised to the faithful remnant to reach people from every nation of the world. Not just Israel, but all people would be transformed, call on the Lord, and serve Him. The spread of the Good News to all nations furthered the fulfillment of this vision.
The rivers of Ethiopia are the distant headwaters of the Nile River. The ancient world considered the origin of the Nile a great mystery, so this expression speaks of the farthest reaches of the earth. Once the people begin coming to Jerusalem there will be no more shame because they will have been judged and purified. They won’t be rebels anymore and the proud and arrogant will be gone with the wicked. Those that are left, the remnant, resembles the qualities of Jesus; humble and lowly, trusting in the name of the Lord. Everything will be different and the faithful remnant will have no need to fear anything. They will be safe. Because of that there will be singing and rejoicing and one day God’s people will know unsurpassed joy. There will be no more judgement and the enemy armies will be gone. And the true King of Israel, the Lord Himself, will dwell among them. There will be no more trouble or disaster. Not only is the Lord Israel’s Lord and King; He is also a mighty Savior, divine warrior, and redeemer. The title, “The Mighty God” also applies to Jesus the Messiah. Not only will Jerusalem and all Israel rejoice in God but God will also rejoice over them as a purified and faithful people. The last three verses we see “I will” repeated several times by the Lord. This serves to underscore God’s further assurances to His people. God will gather those who have mourned the appointed festivals and no one will mock them. His assurance stands in stark contrast to the pronouncements at the beginning of the book, when God threatened to gather the nations to sweep the people of Judah from the face of the earth. Now He promises to gather up those who have been driven from Jerusalem and lead them safely home. God will turn His people’s former shame into glory and fame. And best of all, after a time of terrible wrath and judgement, the day of the Lord culminates in everlasting blessings for all who trust in Him. Zephaniah’s prophecy, which is entirely from God, is totally trustworthy and true. We know this because God tells us He has spoken.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W