Zephaniah: Packing a Powerful Prophetic Punch

Posted on July 4, 2018

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By David Ettinger

Note: This series was published in the magazine Zion’s Fire a few years back. I offer it here for anyone interested. I plan to run one article a day for 13 days. Being magazine articles, obviously each post will be longer than my usual blog length.

Name of Book: Zephaniah 

Author: The prophet Zephaniah

Meaning of Author’s Name: “Yahweh hides” or “Yahweh has treasured” 

When Written: Between 640 and 628 B.C.

Themes

  • The Day of the Lord
  • The abomination of pagan worship
  • The redemption and restoration of Israel

Political Background
zephaniah bookVerse 1 tells us Zephaniah prophesied during the reign of Josiah (640-609 B.C.), Israel’s last great king, spiritually-speaking. Before Josiah, the Southern Kingdom of Judah, along with its capital of Jerusalem, was a pigsty of pagan practices. Because wicked King Manasseh (Josiah’s grandfather) was a vassal of Assyria, he found it politically expedient to adapt the Assyrian religion as his nation’s own. Such spiritual recklessness included altars to Assyrian deities in the Temple of God, soothsaying, witchcraft and sorcery, consulting with mediums and spiritists, and most abominably, human sacrifice (2 Chronicles 33:1-9). At his death, Manasseh’s son – Josiah’s father – Amon took over the realm and walked in the same evil path as Manasseh. This was probably the reason “his servants conspired against him, and killed him in his own house” (2 Chronicles 33:24), leaving the kingdom to 8-year-old Josiah. Fortunately, Josiah was made of far greater “stuff” than his grandfather and father. By age 16 (632 B.C.), Josiah “began to seek the God of his father David” (2 Chronicles 34:3). At age 20 (628 B.C.), he began a religious reform movement whereby he purged most of the Southern Kingdom of idolatry (2 Chronicles 34:3-7).

The landmark event of Josiah’s reign, however, occurred when He was 26 (622 B.C.). The high priest Hilkiah, while working with a paid crew to repair the Temple, “found a book of the law of the Lord given by Moses” (2 Chronicles 34:14). The momentous discovery inspired Josiah to initiate an era of spiritual renewal not seen in the land since the days of David almost 400 years earlier. Tragically, though Josiah was fully committed to the Lord, it appears the king’s efforts never found their way into his subjects’ affections; their worship of Yahweh was more surface-driven than heartfelt.

Judah prospered politically and economically as she reaped the benefits of a power vacuum. Assyria, under King Sinshar-sihkun, was rapidly deteriorating, and the ascending Babylonians were still several decades away from reaching their full might. Judah had freedom to govern its own economic and spiritual affairs, which proved both a blessing and a curse.

Putting all of the above together, and noting Zephaniah’s condemnation of overt heathenism (Zephaniah 1:4-6), he likely prophesied sometime before Josiah’s first reformation in 628 B.C.

Key Verses

  • Zephaniah 1:7: “Be silent in the presence of the Lord God; For the day of the Lord is at hand.”
  • Zephaniah 3:17: “The Lord your God in your midst, The Mighty One, will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness, He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing.”

References in the New Testament: None

Synopsis
darkness birdsIt is an angry God of judgment Zephaniah presents to us when he writes: “I will utterly consume everything From the face of the land” Says the Lord; “I will consume man and beast; I will consume the birds of the heavens, The fish of the sea, And the stumbling blocks along with the wicked. I will cut off man from the face of the land” (1:2-3). 

What did Judah do to incur such wrath? The answer is simple. She has engaged in the worship of Baal (1:4), the stars, moon, and sun, and taken oaths in the name of the Lord AND that of Milcom (also called Molech), the reprehensible God of the Ammonites (1:5). Basically, the inhabitants of Judah have “turned back from following the Lord, And have not sought the Lord, nor inquired of Him” (1:6). 

Zephaniah next tells us the “Day of the Lord” is coming. This expression refers to both localized judgment as well as the ultimate judgment of the world at the end of the age. On a localized level – involving judgment upon Judah and her neighbors – the retribution forecast calls for a cold front of destruction. 

This divine judgment will begin first with the royal family (1:8), proceed to those who are most heavily involved in pagan worship (that is, “those who tread on the threshold” as referenced in 1 Samuel 5:5), and overtake those who practice violence and deceit (1:9). 

The day of God’s punishment will wreak havoc on Judah’s economy (1:10-11), and result in punishment for the nation’s complacent citizens who have the audacity to say, “The Lord will not do good, Nor will He do evil” (1:12). These drunken boasters could not be any more wrong as the Lord will aggressively seek the destruction of the land, indicating that the Day of the Lord will be a time of bitterness, dread, wrath, distress, desolation, gloom, darkness, alarm, and downfall (1:14-15).

During that awful day, the Lord “will bring distress upon men, And they shall walk like blind men … Their blood shall be poured out like dust, And their flesh like refuse.” What is the reason for such wrath? The answer is elementary: “Because they have sinned against the Lord” (1:17). In that day, Judah’s wealth will fail to pacify the Lord’s anger. This is because the centuries of Israel’s sin have only served to stoke “the fire of His jealousy” (1:18).

It is difficult to believe that all of this has been laid out in just one chapter. It is even more unimaginable to consider that two chapters remain!

The bulk of Chapter 2 focuses on Judah’s neighbors, but just before moving on, Zephaniah holds out the offer of repentance to Judah. He invites the “undesirable [“shameless” is a better word] nation” (2:1) to come together as a unified people and “Seek … the Lord” (2:3). Zephaniah also pleads with his nation to court righteousness and humility with the hope that they “will be hidden In the day of the Lord’s anger” (2:3).

philistinesAs a stone causes a ripple to spread across the water, Zephaniah’s prophecy begins to spread beyond his focus on Judah and Jerusalem. He first moves to the nation on Israel’s western flank – the Philistines. The Lord promises, “I will destroy you; So there shall be no inhabitant” (2:5). While this prophecy became a reality when the Philistines ceased to be an identifiable people group within 100 to 150 years of Zephaniah’s day, there may be a future time when this prophecy has an ultimate, end-times fulfillment. (We say this in view of the fact that Gaza now occupies the southern coastal area of ancient Philistia.)

Zephaniah then crosses the entire nation and lands at the eastern reaches where he aims his prophetic arrow at Israel’s ancient foes: Moab and Ammon (2:8). You may find it instructive to read the account of the vulgar manner in which these two nations began. You can find this recorded in Genesis 19:30-38 (the account of Lot and his daughters), which stands as one of the most notorious and disturbing portions in all the Word of God. The Lord’s accusation against these two nations is that “they have reproached My people, And made arrogant threats against their borders” (2:8). In verse 9, the Lord makes clear He will obliterate the two nations. This is made evident by Zephaniah’s comparing them to Sodom and Gomorrah, both of which were annihilated. To make absolutely certain there isn’t any confusion regarding the fate of Moab and Ammon, Zephaniah says they will be “a perpetual desolation.”

Zephaniah next moves south, where he makes a very quick reference to the Cushites – translated here as Ethiopia (2:12) – descendants of Cush, the son of Ham. The Ethiopia of Zephaniah’s day may correspond to the modern-day people of southern Egypt, Sudan, and northern Ethiopia (though others believe the Cushites were located within the Arabian Peninsula). Why the harsh judgment upon these people? In 2 Chronicles 14:9-13, the Cushites launched a massive attack on Judah, which the Lord turned into a resounding victory for the Southern Kingdom. The Cushites would pay for their enmity against Israel.

From Ethiopia, Zephaniah turns to the then-current threat of Assyria, an empire whose terrible violence and inhumanity is outlined in the Book of Nahum. Besides being a ruthless oppressor, Assyria also sought to capture Judah, and would have done so if the Lord had not miraculously intervened (2 Kings 19:35-36; 2 Chronicles 32:20-21; Isaiah 37:36). The menacing superpower was already beginning to wane, but still struck fear into its victims. Another of Assyria’s “crimes” – one the Lord hates with a passion – is that of pride and arrogance: “This is the rejoicing city That dwelt securely, That said in her heart, ‘I am it, and there is none besides me’” (2:15). Woe to the nation – or individual – which makes such a boast. The Lord will not be neutralized, ignored, or downplayed!

In Chapter 3, the prophet leaves the pagan nations behind and turns suddenly, starkly, and even brutally to Jerusalem. We see that God’s fury is still intact as He pulls no punches. He pronounces: “Woe to her who is rebellious and polluted, To the oppressing city! She has not obeyed His voice, She has not received correction; She has not trusted in the Lord, She has not drawn near to her God” (3:1-2). This stinging indictment takes on even more meaning in the light of the condemnation of the heathens. Simply put, Judah should have known better (3:6-7)! A century earlier, the Northern Kingdom had been banished from the land for the same sin Judah is now committing. Because she didn’t learn her lesson, Judah will feel the wrath of God’s displeasure.

However, things won’t always be this way as suddenly, Zephaniah leaps majestically to the very end of the age. And with this leap comes some of the most soaring, tender, and impassioned writing found in all the Word of God.

jerusalem 3After promising Israel He will make a once-and-for-all end of her enemies, the Lord promises eternal salvation, peace, and glory for His people. This salvation will spread to the nations of the world as God vows to, “restore to the peoples a pure language, That they all may call on the name of the Lord, To serve Him with one accord” (3:9). The focus then turns to Israel as God will regather the “dispersed” Jewish people of the world to Jerusalem (3:10) and “bring you back, Even at the time I gather you; For I will give you fame and praise Among all the peoples of the earth, When I return your captives before your eyes” (3:20).

So ends Zephaniah’s small but lofty book of prophecy, one of warranted punishment and destruction followed by unmerited reward, restoration, and righteousness.

Aftermath

  • Josiah was killed in 609 B.C. during a misguided attempt to prevent Egypt from going to war with Babylon.
  • Judah was exiled to Babylon in 586 B.C.

Significance for Today
Though verse 3:17 (read it under “Key Verses”) was intended for Judah, the Christian can take great comfort in it knowing that our Lord’s attributes of strength, love, and mercy are bestowed on us in our weakness. During times of difficulty, the Lord is certainly “in your midst.” When in crisis, He “will save” you (perhaps physically now, or spiritually in that your soul will ascend to Heaven following this mortal life). God loves you and does indeed “rejoice over you with gladness.” When you are anxious, He will “quiet you with His love.” And at the very thought of your salvation, He “will rejoice over you with singing.” Some pretty uplifting truths from an otherwise dark and foreboding book of prophecy!

Implications for the World Today

  • zephaniah pageThe Day of the Lord IS coming! There is no escaping it. In that day, God will judge evil, corruption, and violence – particularly those nations who were persecutors of Israel. As America and other Western nations today turn their backs on the nation of Israel and move further and further away from the Christian roots on which they were founded, they draw nearer to judgment, and will ultimately experience the wrath of God during the Day of the Lord.
  • In Zephaniah’s day, Judah was guilty of gross wickedness, but until He declared judgment on her, the Lord offered Judah the opportunity to repent. Today, the Lord continues to graciously, lovingly, and mercifully offer the West – all the world, in fact – the same opportunity He held out to Judah. In time, the Lord will withdraw His offer, and when He does, the nations of the world will cower when He begins to pour out His wrath.

Of Note

Zephaniah was:

  • born during Manasseh’s reign,
  • the only prophet whose ancestry is traced back four generations in the text
  • a descendant of King Hezekiah, therefore royalty,
  • a contemporary of Jeremiah.
  • The expression “the Day of the Lord” is used more frequently in the small Book of Zephaniah than in any other book of the Bible.

Up Next: “Haggai: Stop Lounging Around and Get Back to Work!”

Part 1: “Introduction: The Major Messages of the Minor Prophets”

Part 2: “Hosea: Adultery, Judgment, and God’s Grace”

Part 3: “Joel: Behold the Day of the Lord”

Part 4: “Amos: A Corrupt People and a God of Fury”

Part 5: “Obadiah: Pride and Arrogance Brought Low”

Part 6: “Jonah: Running From God”

Part 7: “Micah: He Has Shown You, O Man”

Part 8: “Nahum: The Ultimate in Fire and Brimstone:

Part 9: “Habakkuk: Why, Oh Why, Lord?”

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