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THE PENTATEUCH --- GENESIS ---EXODUS--- LEVITICUS --- NUMBERS --- DEUTERONOMY --- THE BOOK OF JOSHUA --- THE BOOK OF JUDGES --- THE BOOK OF RUTH --- SAMUEL --- KINGS --- EZRA---NEHEMIAH--- ESTHER--- PSALMS 1-50--- PROVERBS--- ECCLESIASTES--- SONG OF SOLOMON --- ISAIAH --- JEREMIAH --- LAMENTATIONS --- EZEKIEL --- DANIEL --- --- HOSEA --- --- JOEL ------ AMOS --- --- OBADIAH --- --- JONAH --- --- MICAH --- --- NAHUM --- --- HABAKKUK--- --- ZEPHANIAH --- --- HAGGAI --- ZECHARIAH --- --- MALACHI --- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW ---THE GOSPEL OF MARK--- THE GOSPEL OF LUKE --- THE GOSPEL OF JOHN --- THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES --- READINGS IN ROMANS --- 1 CORINTHIANS --- 2 CORINTHIANS ---GALATIANS --- EPHESIANS--- PHILIPPIANS --- COLOSSIANS --- 1 THESSALONIANS --- 2 THESSALONIANS --- 1 TIMOTHY --- 2 TIMOTHY --- TITUS --- PHILEMON --- HEBREWS --- JAMES --- 1 & 2 PETER --- JOHN'S LETTERS --- JUDE --- REVELATION --- THE GOSPELS & ACTS
Zephaniah prophesied during the reign of Josiah, one of the best of the kings of Judah. He reigned from 640 BC to 609BC. His reference to the future destruction of Nineveh (2:13), which took place in 612 BC, fixes his writing before that event So the prophet ministered somewhere between 640 and 612 BC. His contemporaries were Nahum, Habakkuk, and the young Jeremiah. Jeremiah's ministry continued beyond the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC.
In view of his references to Baalism, and the lack of reference to Josiah’s reform, most would place his writing before that reform which took place on discovery of the book of the Law in the temple (around 622 BC), although some level of reform had probably already taken place in the first place in order for the book to be discovered.
The political situation in Judah during Josiah's reign was fairly peaceful. Following Assyria's capture of Samaria in 722 BC, the Assyrian Empire first advanced to new heights until it had overstretched itself, and then began to decline, and around one hundred years later Nabopolassar, the first of the Neo-Babylonian kings, (626-605 BC), began his campaign to free Babylonia from their grasp, in alliance with the Medes and Scythians. They were successful and finally destroyed Nineveh in 612 BC (see our commentary on Nahum), by which time the Assyrian empire was on its last legs.
In 605 BC it met its final end at Carchemish in alliance with its old enemy Egypt who feared the rise of Babylonian power. Josiah in fact met his end seeking to prevent the Egyptians from joining the Assyrians.
But the fact that Zephaniah does not target the Babylonians (or the Medes) as the instruments of God’s judgment suggests an early date for the prophecy, before they came to prominence.
Josiah, who came to the throne at the age of eight, guided by the godly Hilkiah, followed the evil king Manasseh who in his long reign had strongly encouraged the worship of the Assyrian gods, and Josiah was able eventually to get rid of much of the Assyrian religious practises, partly due to Assyria’s growing weakness. (Conquerors usually insisted that their gods were prominently worshipped by subject nations along woth their own). He extended Judah's territory north into Naphtali.
But while the Assyrian gods strongly affected temple worship, it was Baal, the Canaanite god, and Melek (Moloch), the Ammonite god (who demanded human sacrifice), who gripped the idolatrous hearts of the people outside Jerusalem, something which the kings had never been able successfully to combat.
It was in the eighteenth year of Josiah's reign (622 B.C.) that Hilkiah the priest discovered the Law of Moses in the temple, (probably Deuteronomy at least), and when Josiah read it he instituted major reforms throughout Judah. Josiah's reforms were good. He eliminated much of the idolatry in the land and revived the celebration of the Passover, but unfortunately his reforms could not change the hearts of all the people, and when he died they slipped back to their idolatry, as Jeremiah reveals in his earlier prophecies.
So the people to whom Zephaniah ministered had a long history of formal and syncretistic religion behind them without much real commitment to YHWH. And God brought home to his heart that because of their formal religion and their negligence with regard to God’s Law, and their willingness to compromise with idolatry, God would have to chastise and punish them in order to produce a remnant for the furthering of His purposes.
While we may see in what follows a pattern of the judgment to come in the final days, we must take note that Zephaniah specifically relates it to Jerusalem and Judah and the surrounding nations. It is not honouring to the word of God to make it say more than it does in order to support a theory.
Finally we should note that Zephaniah was a member of the royal house. He had influence where others could not reach, and was directly related to those whose misdeeds and misgovernment would bring about what he prophesied. He is, however, not called ‘the prophet’ (compare Habakkuk 1.1; Haggai 1.1; Zechariah 1.1), and was thus probably not an official prophet.
Chapter 1. The Judgment Of God Will One Day Be Visited On Creation, But At This Time On Judah and Jerusalem.
Verses 2-3 of this chapter reveal God as Judge of all the world. It is a general picture of the far future. But in verses 4-6 we come closer to home, to His particular judgment on Judah and Jerusalem at this time. The prophets regularly see the far future and the near future together. To them they are in the future, and the timing is in God’s hands. Every judgment He carries out is a picture and symbol of the final judgment, every ‘day of YHWH’ is a picture of the final ‘Day of YHWH’ (indeed might be the final day of YHWH). Thus we must not read verse 4 onwards as referring to the apocalyptic future. On the other hand, as a day of YHWH that occurred in history it is a pattern of that day of YHWH yet to come, as described in verses 1-3, which introduce it.
1.1 ‘The word of YHWH which came to Zephaniah, the son of Cushi, the son of Gedaliah, the son of Amariah, the son of Hezekiah, in the days of Josiah, the son of Amon, king of Judah.’
The detailed genealogy, unusual for a prophet, suggests that his was an important family, and we are probably therefore to see the Hezekiah mentioned as the king of that name. He was thus of the royal house.
‘The word of YHWH’ came to him signifies that he spoke as from God through revelation.
God Will One Day Bring The World Into Judgment (1.2-3).
These first two verses speak of the apocalyptic future when YHWH will finally bring His judgment on the world because of their sin. This coming ‘Day of YHWH’ had first been spoken of by Amos (5.18, 20). There the people of Israel were looking forward to the day when God would act to bring in His final kingdom and Amos has to warn them that in view of their sinfulness they should recognise that such a day would be darkness for them rather than light. It is echoed by Isaiah, although in the latter case more connected with historical events such as the destruction of Babylon (Isaiah 13.6, 9) and the destruction of Edom (Isaiah 34.8). But note Isaiah 2.12 where it is more general and has in mind God’s final judgment on mankind.
The two ideas continually intermingled in the minds of the prophets because each had the final hope of God establishing His everlasting Kingdom, and each hoped that the coming ‘Day of the Lord’ that they saw as coming on the nations or on Israel/Judah might be the final one. So in their minds it had a near and not so near perspective. Zephaniah also has that idea. Thus he can commence with a declaration that the final Day of the Lord will come, and move on to deal with a Day of the Lord coming on Judah and Jerusalem. We must not simply apply every reference to the Day of the Lord as referring to the final one. They are simply one more portent of the fact.
Note the balance of the verses. All things will be consumed off the face of the ground (first lien), man will be cut off from the face of the ground (fourth line). Man and beast will be consumed (second line). All else will be consumed (third line)
This is a general declaration and can be compared with Genesis 6.7 on which it is probably based. It is a picture of world-wide judgment, with the known world in mind. Here however the fish replace the creeping things. This will not be by a flood. It is a general reminder that all creation is subject to the judgment of God, and will one day be judged and destroyed by Him. The world is temporary and not permanent. It is dependent upon God’s will.
Such a judgment is also declared in Isaiah 24.1-13, 17-23 where it will be by fire (see verse 6 and compare 2 Peter 3.10-12)
But also included are ‘the stumblingblocks together with the wicked’. The stumblingblocks in this case are probably to be seen as the idols of mankind, although in Ezekiel 7.19 it is man’s silver and gold, which have gripped their hearts, which were in mind. So it may mean all things that cause man to stray from God. Both idols and idolaters are to be swept away, together with all that distracts man from God, and those who are so distracted. And finally it is emphasised that man himself will be cut off from the face of the ground.
This is all another way of saying ‘I am the Judge of all the earth (Genesis 18.25), who will one day bring all into judgment, and will totally destroy sinful mankind and all creation because they have turned away from me to evil, just as I did in the days of Noah’.
But that does not exclude the sparing of some, for in the days of Noah the remnant, that is Noah and his family, were spared. It is always understood that the righteous, the elect of God, will survive (as also in Isaiah 24.23).
In the light of this how we should examine our lives to see how we will stand before the searching light of the judgment of God when it comes to us, and opens up our very hearts and inner thoughts. For we will all have to give account, and everything is open to the eyes of Him with Whom we have to do.
God’s Particular Judgment Will At This Time Be Applied To Judah and Jerusalem (1.4-6).
Having described the general final judgment of God, Zephaniah now moves on to the particular judgment that is coming, how God will behave towards Jerusalem and Judah in the nearer future.
Judah and Jerusalem are to experience the activity of God against them because they have forgotten YHWH and their covenant with Him. Stretching out the hand is a figure of speech which implies a special work of God in judgment (see Exodus 3.20; 6.6; Deuteronomy 4.34; 2 Kings 17.36; Isaiah 14.26-27; 31.3; Jeremiah 6.12; 15.6; 21.5; 51.25; Ezekiel 7 times). This is in contrast with the stretched out arm, which delivers.
He describes those who will be subject to judgment, and will be cut off. The list is comprehensive and basically includes all who fail to worship YHWH truly and be faithful to the covenant:
So all who have failed to worship YHWH truly, whether through deliberate act or through neglect, are to be cut off. Neglect and indifference is as great a sin as open rebellion. It is more insulting to God.
The Day of YHWH Against Judah and Jerusalem (1.7-18).
All are to be silent in awe in the presence of the Lord YHWH (compare Habakkuk 2.20; Lamentations 3.26; Zechariah 2.13; Revelation 8.1). The title the Lord YHWH is a favourite one of Ezekiel. It stresses His overlordship.
‘For the day of YHWH is at hand.’ This phrase ‘the day of YHWH’ appears in various forms in much prophetic literature. It can be a past day, a day in the relatively near future, or a day in the far distant, eschatological future. It is any day in which God is dynamically at work in human affairs. Wherever ‘the day of YHWH’ is found it is in contrast with the idea of man’s day (1 Corinthians 4.3), that is to say, the times when man is allowed relative freedom in his conduct of affairs. It is a day of God's restraint. ‘The day of YHWH’ is the time when God more directly takes over and acts. It is a day of God's judgment.
Thus here it is ‘YHWH’s day’ on Judah and Jerusalem fulfilled finally in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
‘For YHWH has prepared a sacrifice. He has sanctified his guests.’ The grim, ironic picture is of Judah and Jerusalem being offered as a sacrifice (compare Isaiah 34.6; Jeremiah 46.10; Ezekiel 39.17 on). The guests are either the people of Judah and Jerusalem, who will witness what is happening around them; the faithful of Israel who will watch YHWH, at His invitation, offering His sacrifice; the nations round about who act as witnesses; or the invaders who will bring it about (the Babylonians) but are not named. This depends partly on whether we take ‘sanctified’ as grim irony, ‘set apart for the purpose’, or as having its usual genuine meaning of guests being ‘set apart in purity’ in readiness for a sacrifice (1 Samuel 16.5), in which case it would refer to the true people of God, the remnant, for they are the ones on whose behalf the sacrifice is made, who have cause to feast because they are His, and who are set apart in purity.
The idea of the people of Judah and Jerusalem being offered as a sacrifice is stark. They are being offered by God as a sin offering because they in their turn have refused to offer the substitutes that God had provided for. The price of sin must be paid in one way or another. In terms of our own day if we will not turn to the great Sacrifice provided in Jesus Christ, we will have to bear our sin ourselves.
It will be a day of punishment for sin. That the princes and the king’s sons did indeed suffer YHWH's punishment we know. Jehoahaz was taken captive to Egypt (2 Kings 23.36). Jehoiakim was defeated by Nebuchadnezzar and died in Jerusalem (2 Kings 24.1-6). Josiah's grandson, Jehoiachin, with his princes, was taken captive to Babylon (2 Kings 24.8-16), and the last son of Josiah to rule over Judah, Zedekiah, was blinded and also taken captive to Babylon (2 Kings 24.18-25.7).
To be ‘clothed with foreign clothing’ may be metaphorical, signifying behaving like foreigners, or more likely refers to clothing that denoted those who were walking in foreign ways, in contrast with those who wore clothes which indicated their submission to the covenant (compare Numbers 15.38; Deuteronomy 22.11-12). There may indeed have been something about the clothing that indicated submission to foreign gods.
‘Those who leap over the threshold.’ The thought may be of those who eagerly leap into their masters’ houses in order to practise deceit and violence, because hardened in such ways, or may be descriptive of some religious activity to avoid and placate the demons seen as haunting the threshold (compare 1 Samuel 5.5).
‘Master’s house’ can refer to the king’ house as representative of his authority (2 Samuel 12.8; 2 Kings 10.3). Thus the thought here may simply be of the deceit and violence, either of the courtiers, or alternatively of all the people of Judah. Others have seen it as referring either to the temple, or to a sanctuary of the gods. But the major point remains the same. The people have revelled in deceitful practises and violence.
The way we live our lives reveals what we are. Some reveal what they are by the clothes they wear and their outward behaviour. They reflect their inner hearts. Others reflect what they are by giving way to superstition, or occult practises. They trust in magic rather than in God. While others openly sin. But all will have to give account. The choice before us is stark. It is God or judgment.
The Fish Gate was the gate through which fish vendors normally entered the city with their wares. It was a gate in Jerusalem's north wall close to the fish market (compare 2 Chronicles 33.14; Nehemiah 3.3; 12.39). The Second Quarter appears to have been the name given to the extension to the city on the western ridge to the north (the Mishneh - 2 Kings 22.14; 2 Chronicles 34.22), protected by an outer wall but not in the main city. Both these would be the first to receive warning of Nebuchadnezzar’s arrival. (Compare Zechariah 11.3)
‘And a great crashing (or ‘destruction’) from the hills.’ Jerusalem was built in the hill country, and on hills, and was surrounded by hills. This may be intended to signify the noise of the cutting down of trees to make siege engines, or the cries of people being slain who had not reached the shelter of the city. Either way it would be the evidence of the nearness of the besieging army.
Or ‘The Hills’ may refer to an outer section of Jerusalem, (paralleled with the Fish Gate and The Second Quarter), possibly seen as already encroached on by the invader. Or the crashing may be some way of sounding the alarm.
The inhabitants of The Mortar, a business section of Jerusalem, are called on to howl because of the effect on their profits of the invasion. Those who were piling up wealth will be cut off. Then what benefit will they have from their wealth? Their businesses will collapse, and they will possibly be killed. Certainly the opportunity of trading will cease, and their silver will be taken from them.
‘The Mortar’ Probably a section of Jerusalem in the upper part of the Tyropoeon valley within the walls of Jerusalem which was a centre of trade and industry.
‘Cana‘an’. Canaan or merchant. Cananean came to mean a merchant (Proverbs 31.24; Zechariah 14.21). In the context, in parallel with those laden with silver, the latter meaning seems more probable.
‘I will search Jerusalem with lamps.’ The picture is of YHWH going out on a night search to find the wastrels who are not abed preparing for the next day’s work, but frolicking and having a good time.
‘And I will visit (judgment) on the men who are thickened on their lees’, that is those who are lazy and dissolute, and living stagnant, ‘carefree’ lives. Wine thickened on its lees when it was left for a long time without being stirred or poured into another container. It became syrupy and sweet, lacking in strength and taste (see Jeremiah 48.11). The lees are the sediment at the bottom of the wine vat.
‘Who say in their hearts, “YHWH will not do good, nor will He do evil.” ’ They have settled into a somnolent state and think lazily and dissolutely, convinced that YHWH is like themselves, not ready to do anything (how easily we make God like ourselves). They think that as He has never interfered in their experience, He will not do so now. They are morally indifferent, and seek their consolation in wine. Compare Isaiah 32.9; Ezekiel 30.9; Amos 6.1.
‘Their wealth will become a spoil, and their houses a desolation,. Yes, they will build houses, but will not inhabit them. And they will plant vineyards but will not drink their wine.’ Such people were usually of well-to-do families. But they will lose their wealth, taken from them by the plundering of the invaders, and their houses will be destroyed. Though they build houses (probably for renting as idle landlords) and plant vineyards they will not benefit from them (compare Amos 5.11). (The building of the houses and the planting of the vineyards is, of course, seen as having been done earlier. Now they would see the fruits of their efforts disappear).
God’s time is fast approaching, indeed is in a great hurry. Soon the sound of His day will be heard, the day when He brings His judgment on His faithless people. The war cry is raised by the mighty men, and it is very bitter, for they can see what is coming. They know that they have no hope.
As can be seen there are possible alternative translations. The consonants of ‘in a great hurry’ can also mean ‘a soldier’ (as evidenced in Egyptian papyri, at Ugarit, and in the Amarna letters). Thus it may indicate that the Day of YHWH is coming speedily, or that it will result in the arrival of the soldiery. The latter would seen to be supported the parallel of the mighty man in line 4.
In one sense the day of YHWH is ever near, for in the midst of life we are in death. Each of us may suddenly be called on to give account at any time. But to every nation and people there will come a time when the nation is called to account, when the wrath of God falls on sin, and the nation collapses and is no more what it was. And there is the Final Day of YHWH, when all will be called on to give account together.
This is always the pattern of ‘a day of YHWH’, for days of YHWH are days when He turns man’s evil towards bringing about the final good. Zephaniah, although speaking of a soon coming event, may well have patterned his description on descriptions of both past prophecies relating to the near future, and those referring directly to the eschatological day of YHWH (e.g. Isaiah 13.6-13; Ezekiel 7.5-9; Joel 1.15; 2.1-2; Amos 5.16-20). Indeed as far as he was concerned it might well have been that the eschatological day of YHWH would commence around the same time. But he does not say so. His ‘day of YHWH’ on Judah and Jerusalem and surrounding nations is not worldwide.
‘Days of YHWH’ are first of all ‘days of wrath’. God’s anger at man’s sin goes parallel with man’s anger and fury revealed on earth. But they are in total contrast, for they are at opposite ends of the scale. Man’s anger is uncontrolled, bitter, vengeful, greedy. God’s anger is tightly controlled. It is describing His sense of the way in which sin violates everything that is good. Its aim is to remove sin and forgive the repentant. His anger is against man in sin. Man longs to destroy. God longs to redeem. He seeks nothing for Himself. He seeks only the removal of the curse of sin on creation. Man thinks he is fulfilling his own will, and to a certain extent it is true. But in the end he is but the instrument of the wrath of God against sin, for God will not allow sin to get out of control. Man’s purpose is for his own ends. It is totally selfish and he ignores the hurt he causes. God’s purpose is good, and in the end He bore in Himself the consequences of that sin.
God’s wrath is never undeserved. These who will be treated violently are themselves violent, or live among the violent, and the consequences they receive are in the end the consequences of their own violence, or of their own indifference. We must not overlook the fact that all are involved in the sin, even the non-violent. Each in his own way behaves selfishly and without consideration towards others. Each contributes to the general ill-will. Even today men and women may give great consideration to good causes, but in their private lives there has never been a time when people were less considerate or thoughtful towards each other.
‘A day of trouble and distress, a day of ruin and desolation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.’ This is how God’s wrath is experienced. Trouble and distress, ruin and desolation, darkness and gloom, clouds and thick darkness. Man feels his way and is lost. He cannot see. And because the means that God uses are human the distress reaches all. However, He knows how to keep His people in the day of trouble, and acts accordingly (Psalm 50.15). In the end not a hair of their head will perish (Luke 21.18). Meanwhile they are assured that the chastening and tribulation will be for their good (Deuteronomy 8.5-6; Psalm 94.11-13; Proverbs 3.11-12; Hebrews 12.11; Roman 5.3-5).
‘A day of the trumpet and alarm against the fenced cities and against the high battlements.’ It is made clear of what this day consists. Invasion, siege and destruction. This is not the final judgment. It is judgment along the way, man’s inhumanity revealed against man.
So Judah and Jerusalem were shortly to face the day of God’s wrath, and when the unbelievable happened, and the walls of Jerusalem fell, and the temple was destroyed, and they were carried off in chains to Babylon, those who knew God would recognise that His hand was with them even in this, for had He not forewarned them through the prophets of what would happen?
Again the description is vivid. Men distressed, stumbling blindly along. ‘YHWH will smite you with madness, and with blindness, and with astonishment, and you will grope at noonday, as the blind grope in darkness, and you will not prosper in your ways’ (Deuteronomy 28.28-29). They will grope first amid the blood and the ruins, the smoke and the devastation, blinded by grief and sorrow, and then in the chains of captivity as they are forced along, or as they flee for their lives with the little that they can carry. And he stresses that it is all because they have sinned against God.
‘And their blood will be poured out as dust, and their flesh as dung.’ Many will become a part of the earth from which they came, their blood joining the dust, their rotting bodies acting as manure to the earth.
Their wealth, for which many of them had lived, will do them no good. Once the enemy approach it is useless. It may buy a dead rat or two in the siege, but in the end it will all be lost. What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?
‘But the whole land (earth) will be devoured by the fire of His jealousy, for He will make an end, yes a terrible end, of all those who dwell in the land (earth).’ The whole land is going to be affected. It will be devoured by the fire of His jealousy. His jealousy arises from the fact that they have sought other gods, gods represented by earthly, debased creatures, and by silver and gold, which drag them downwards instead of lifting them upwards.
For He is jealous for their good, for their well-being, for their deliverance. He knows that such gods can only drag them downwards deeper and deeper into sin. And He is jealous for His own true people who have remained faithful through all the persecutions of the years, who have suffered injustice, maltreatment and ignominy. Without this dreadful judgment this would have continued into the future. In the midst of judgment God is delivering His own.
But should we translate ‘land’ as ‘earth’? It would make little difference. For to Zephaniah what the invader would do was to almost the whole known earth of his day. But there is a deliberate localisation. In chapter two further peoples and countries will be named, in a wide but limited area, in Canaan, Assyria and the Sudan. This is not the eschatological judgment of the last days. While a pattern of it, and widespread, it is localised and limited.
Chapter 2 YHWH’s Judgment Will Also Come On The Surrounding Nations For Their Sins.
A Final Plea to Judah and Jerusalem (2.1-3).
The ‘shameless’ (a translation based on an Aramaic root) or ‘not longed for’ (i.e. unloved = the literal Hebrew) people of Judah are commanded to come together, to assemble themselves, before God’s decree produces its final result in the coming of the invader. Before ‘the day passes as the chaff’. The chaff is the waste matter which is rapidly blown away once the threshing of the grain takes place. So as quickly as the chaff is blown away will the time pass before God visits them in judgment. The idea is that they should come together to consider their position and repent before it is too late, before YHWH’s fierce anger comes on them. For all too soon will come the day of YHWH’s anger.
The message is brought home. The purpose of the warning is that men might seek YHWH. Indeed had they all repented the day of YHWH would have been delayed (Jonah 3.10). But Zephaniah, who as a member of the royal house had no hope that they would respond, calls to the ‘humble’ of the land, those who have listened to Him and have wrought His demands as revealed in the covenant, the Law of Moses.
The ‘humble’ are often paralleled with ‘the needy’ (Job 24.4; Psalm 9.18; Isaiah 11.4; 32.7), and with the broken-hearted (Isaiah 61.1), for riches are often a hindrance to godliness (although we must remember that Zephaniah was probably from a wealthy family), and broken-heartedness is the sign of a godly spirit (Psalm 34.18; Isaiah 57.15). They are those who are ready to be taught His way (Psalm 25.9), they are those who hear YHWH (Psalm 34.2), they are those to whom He gives His kindness and favour because they are not scornful (Proverbs 3.34), and they do not hunger after wealth (Proverbs 16.19). They are the godly.
They are to continue to seek righteousness and godliness. For them there may be a way of escape from the coming wrath (compare Amos 5.15). Or they will find it easier to bear.
God’s Judgment on the Surrounding Nations.
These judgments on the surrounding nations were declared to Israel as an assurance to them that they will not be alone in coming under God’s judgment, and to demonstrate that God was the Judge of all the world. All nations came under His jurisdiction. All would be dealt with in accordance with His word. Their own gods are disregarded. And in the case of the first two they will finally be possessed by God’s people.
The Philistines (2.4-7).
The Philistines (Cherethites) who dwell on the sea coast of Canaan are to be annihilated. Their great cities, Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod and Ekron are to be desolated and emptied of inhabitants (Gath had already been destroyed - 2 Chronicles 26.6). For YHWH has spoken His word against them. He has passed judgment on them for their sinfulness, and for their attitude towards His people (Ezekiel 25.15; Isaiah 9.12). This judgment is a constant theme of the prophets (Isaiah 11.14; Jeremiah 25.17-20; 47.1, 4; Ezekiel 25.16; Amos 1.8; 6.2; Zechariah 9.6), and indicates YHWH’s universal sovereignty.
‘At noonday’ may be intended to suggest ‘at the height of their glory’. For ‘in the evening’ is when they have become a desolation (verse 7).
The Philistines originally came from Crete (Cherethites) (see 1 Samuel 30.14; Ezekiel 25.16). They had had trading posts there since the time of Abraham, but had come over in large numbers in 1200 BC, not long after Israel’s invasion of Canaan, and had established themselves in a confederation of five cities in the coastal plain of Canaan. In the early days they had caused much trouble to Israel, until finally defeated by David. As Israel declined they once again became fiercely independent. Gath had previously been destroyed (2 Chronicles 26.6; Jeremiah 47.1) and now the same fate was to befall the other four.
Nebuchadnezzar’s seizing of Ashkelon in 604 BC is reported in the Babylonian records known as the Babylonian Chronicle.
The vivid description of well populated Philistia becoming simply a place for sheep, and its cities mainly being replaced by shelters for shepherds and folds for their flocks, brings home the enormity of what is to happen.
There may be an intended contrast here between the noonday (the hot part of the day is an unusual time for battle) in verse 4 and the evening, indicating the passage of time.
The idea is that finally the sea coast ‘in the evening’ (line 5), will become Israel’s as part of the promised land. Once the ‘day’ is past evening will come. They will dwell there and feed their flocks, and the Philistine cities will be available for their use. This is confirmation that Israel will finally be restored to an even bigger and better land, and that the Philistines will finally ‘disappear’.
Moab and Ammon (2.8-11).
Judgment is to come on Moab and Ammon, not only because of their sinfulness, but also particularly because of their attitude and antagonism towards God’s people. Note that their sin is reproach and revilings, not invasion, although they are clearly threatening the border. This fits the fact that it occurred at this time, and not later when invasion had taken place. There was clear hostility indicated in all their dealings with Judah. This would later reveal itself in taking advantage of Israel’s condition once the invader had done his work, by occupying their territory (Jeremiah 49.1), but that is not mentioned by Zephaniah. The fact that Edom is not mentioned here confirms that this is not written after the event, for it was Edom which incurred the greatest wrath from Israel once the exile had taken place.
Moab and Ammon were in Transjordan, east of the Jordan, to the south and east of Israelite territory there (Gad). They had a record of constant enmity against Israel (Numbers 22; 24.17; Judges 3.12-14; 10.7-9; 11.4-6; 1 Samuel 11.1-11; 2 Samuel 10.1-14; 2 Kings 3) and always worked closely together, with first one and then the other in ascendancy.
Moab and Ammon were to be made as Sodom and Gomorrah, permanently destroyed and turned into wasteland. Moab occupied territory that had once been the surrounds of Sodom and Gomorrah. This should have been a continuing warning to them. Nebuchadnezzar in fact devastated both areas. Both territories suffered for a period of over two hundred years when there was no sedentary occupation (Jeremiah 48.42), and when resettled it was by different peoples. These consequences were put even more strongly by Jeremiah, Moab was to be destroyed from being a people (Jeremiah 48.42), and Ammon was to perish out of the countries and be destroyed (Ezekiel 25.7).
‘The residue of my people will spoil them, and the remnant of my nation will inherit them.’ Compare Isaiah 11.14. This probably refers to a period we know little about when Ammon and Moab were sparsely populated and partly taken over by a residue of Israelites. Later Judas Maccabaeus (second century BC) fought against the Ammonites and occupied Jazer and its surrounding towns (1 Maccabees 5.6) and Alexander Jannaeus subdued the Moabites in the second/first century BC, taking tribute from them. But these would be different peoples.
‘This will they have for their pride, because they have reproached and magnified themselves against the people of YHWH of hosts.’ The judgment that is coming on them is because of their pride in reproaching and assuming themselves as greater and more important than God’s people, and with it have reproached YHWH Himself. But this will lead on to them recognising His power and glory in the eschatological future and being in awe of Him.
God had promised that one day he would ‘bring again the captivity of Moab in the latter days’, and spoke similarly of Ammon (Jeremiah 48.47; 49.6 compare verse 39). This must mean in the eschatological future and be part of the idea that in that day all nations would worship YHWH, because in the end none can be outside His offer of mercy (Isaiah 2.2). He cannot be promising restoration to their land, for they are unidentifiable. They have ceased to be a people. There is no pure blood Moab today. And the same applies to Ammon. The idea is rather that they will be restored as part of the worldwide peoples who turn to YHWH at the spread of the Gospel.
‘YHWH will be terrible to them.’ This must mean that one day even some of these enemies of Israel will acknowledge YHWH, and will be in awe of Him, recognising that He is the great and terrible God (Nehemiah 1.5; 9.32). They will have recognised Him for what He is. Then the ‘gods’ of the earth will starve because no one takes any notice of them. So much for the gods of the nations. All His own will worship Him in all lands, even the furthest known, ‘the coastlands’.
So this further eschatological promise confirms that in the end the residue of all nations will worship YHWH (Malachi 1.11). One day God alone will be God, and He will be all in all, worshipped by some of all the nations who have responded to Him. The final fulfilment of this awaits the new heaven and the new earth in the eternal state when all the redeemed will serve Him, every one from his place. Idealistically they will have their own place there as well.
The Ethiopians (2.12).
2.12 “You Ethiopians also, you will be slain by my sword.”
This brief reference takes us by surprise. The Ethiopians (Cushi) would probably be the furthest nation south known to Zephaniah. But we would have expected more comment. This suggests that rather than having any particular reason for targeting the Ethiopians he was just deliberately thinking of as far south as possible. Basically he was indicating that almost the whole world of his day was to be included in the coming catastrophe. The ‘Ethiopians’ were more in the area of the Sudan on the upper cataracts of the Nile, although they may have extended into Ethiopia.
It has been suggested that Egypt was in mind for they had been ruled by Ethiopian kings for sixty years in the not too distant past (up to 664 BC), with the reference being contemptuous, ‘you Ethiopians’. But it seems unlikely that if it were Egypt the reference would be so brief, whereas Zephaniah probably knew little about the Ethiopians apart from the fact of their existence.
Nebuchadnezzar would in fact conquer Egypt and include Ethiopia in his conquests.
The Assyrians (2.13-15).
Having dealt with the far south he quickly moves to the north with which he is more familiar, for there lay Israel’s arch-enemy the Assyrians. They too will be caught up in YHWH’s judgments. They will be destroyed, and that great city Nineveh be flattened into ruins. It will be the dwellingplace of herds, the beasts of the conquering nations. Birds will lodge in its ruined lintels, and will sing in its window spaces. The wood will go dry having been exposed to the sun.
The words translated tawny owl and little owl probably represent birds, although the type is not certain. The names were probably chosen because both began with q and would go well together. Alternately qippod might indicate something like lizards darting around the ruins.
But Zephaniah’s stopping short at Assyria counts against too much emphasis on a world view. He was well aware of nations to the north of Assyria which could have been mentioned.
Attention is drawn to the attitude of Nineveh. In a world of poverty and suffering she was a good time city, a roistering city, that grew careless, as great empires do after a time, because they consider themselves invincible (compare Isaiah 10.12), saying ‘I am and there is none beside me’ (compare Isaiah 47.8 of Babylon). She was sure that no one could be compared with her. But she would shortly become a scene of destruction occupied by beasts and all who went past her would hiss or shake their heads.
Nineveh would fall to the Babylonians and Medes in 612 BC. For a time its ruins would be a thing to be derided, but in the not too distant future it would become a mound which passers-by simply looked on as a ruin. So quickly would the glory of Nineveh forgotten.
It is a reminder to us how little there is of real, lasting importance in this world. If we wish to achieve anything lasting we should do it by building up the Kingly Rule of God.
Chapter 3 The Future Hope.
In this chapter Zephaniah continues the theme of the judgment coming on Judah and Jerusalem, describing her present rebellious state, but then he moves on to the eschatological hope for the future. As with many prophets he moves easily from the near to the far. They are two mountain ridges ahead and from his perspective he cannot see the distance between them.
The Condition of Judah and Jerusalem (3.1-7).
Zephaniah returns to God’s verdict on Jerusalem, and pronounces a woe against her. She is a city of oppression, oppressing her people. She is rebellious against God and the covenant she has made with Him, and polluted through her disobedience. She is no more a holy city. Four reasons are given,
The description is vivid. Her leaders are like animal seeking the prey, and the people are the prey. Her princes are like roaring lions, frightening with their roars, pouncing on their victims. Her judges are like wolves in the evening, hungry, unsatisfied, descending on the people to tear them apart, and so ravenous that they leave nothing for the next day (literally ‘did not gnaw bones in the morning’).
The people had no word from YHWH, for the prophets were unreliable. They received no true vision. They treated all their great responsibilities lightly. They treated the truth lightly. They said what men wanted to hear, especially those in authority. They were men-pleasers. That was why Zephaniah had been raised up, so that at least someone would speak the truth and not what people wanted to hear. The priests profaned the sanctuary. They were careless, or worse, in their approach to YHWH, ignoring the rules of ‘cleanness’, and the requirements of sacrifice, and many served other gods as well. They failed to follow and teach the requirements of the Mosaic law passed down by tradition and word of mouth. (The actual book of the Law would be discovered later in the temple, which suggests that it was not being read).
God is revealed as the opposite of all this. He is among them in His dwellingplace but is totally righteous. He will not behave in a wrong or unseemly way. He is completely open. Each day what He has done can be scanned in the light of day without anyone finding anything amiss. He does not need to hide anything. The picture would appear to be that of the steward or administrator who each morning produces details of what he has done and how he has looked after what he controls. He is not afraid to do so because he is totally honest and has acted only for good. So God is completely righteous in all His doings.
In contrast the unrighteous do not bring what they have done into the light of day. That is how they avoid knowing shame. They are secretive and dishonest. Sadly most men would not like their fellows to know the truth about some of the things that they have done. They are done in darkness, and that is where they want them to remain. Others are so wicked that they know no shame. They are even worse.
We are reminded of Jesus’ words ‘he who does truth comes to the light that his deeds may be revealed, that they are wrought in God’ (John 3.21). We too are to ‘walk in the light’ (1 John 1.7).
God gives the examples from the past of nations who were once powerful, but whose cities are now desolate wastes, totally unused by man. They should be acting as a warning to the people of Judah.
God’s hope was that the example of these nations who had been cut off would stir His own people to give regard to Him, to take heed to Him and hear His warnings, to seek His guidance and walk in it. Then she would be secure in her land. All would be well. Her own dwelling would not be cut off, her cities would prosper, she would receive all the good that God wanted to do for her.
But they did not take notice. They enthusiastically (arose early) went about their sinful ways. They just ignored Him, giving Him perfunctory acknowledgement. In all they did they were deceitful and treacherous in their behaviour.
It is a warning to us that we should learn the lessons of the past. If only we would do that how much anguish it would save us.
The Future Hope Will Follow Judgment (3.8-13).
‘Wait for me.’ There will be delay. The world will have to await His timing. But God has determined that He will one day arise as a witness against the nations. He will gather them together so as to exact His anger on them, and all nations will experience His jealous wrath. Compare for this Joel 3.12-14 which depicts a similar idea (see also 1.2-3; Zechariah 14.2). He will call the world into judgment. For God is the God of all nations, and all of them are accountable to Him.
His anger will be on them because of their worship of other things (compare Romans 1.18-23), of idols, of wealth, of prestige and position, with the result that they have not acknowledged God, and have ignored His commandments. He is jealous for all that His name stands for, and will judge accordingly.
These pictures of judgment are all worded in terms of the understanding of those days, but are rather to be seen as depicting the reality and universality of God’s judgment than as literal descriptions of what will happen. The reality will be greater than the conception. Some of what happens in the future may, of course, come somewhere near to what is being described, nations may gather against Jerusalem, there may be catastrophes which come on those nations, but that is secondary. Such things are not required for the fulfilment of the idea. It is the idea that is important. It is God’s final judgment on all nations that is in mind, not some comparatively local battlefield.
And the purpose of this judgment is to turn the nations to God, to make their mouths pure so that they truly call on the name of YHWH, and serve Him as one man (contrast Isaiah 6.5).
The prophets, with their limited vision and perspective, had no way of knowing, nor would they have understood, how this would be accomplished in ways beyond their imagination, as the good news of the Kingly Rule of God went out to the nations, bringing them to Christ in partial fulfilment of these promises, resulting one day in the nations dwelling in His presence in the glory of a new heaven and earth.
What Zephaniah saw ahead was like a series of mountains in the distance. First the nearest one, clear to the vision, the coming judgment on Judah and Jerusalem, and then the more distant ones, with no realisation of the plains and distances that might lie between them, the fact of the facing up of the nations to the word and judgment of God, of the conversion of many in those nations, and of God’s final judgment, followed by the everlasting relationship of peace between God and man.
‘Beyond the rivers of Ethiopia’ (compare Isaiah 18.1) represented a world unknown from which traders occasionally came, i.e. from beyond the furthest tributaries of the Nile. But even the people ‘out there’, converted to the true God by the witness of His dispersed ones, distant colonists, (compare the Ethiopian eunuch who was a God-fearer - Acts 8.27) will come to God with their offerings. For all the world will come to know of His glory.
This vision of the missionary movement, first of the dispersed Jews, preparing the way for the Gospel, then of the early church, ‘the new Israel’, (and indeed of the late one of the last two centuries, also by missionaries of ‘the new Israel’), reveals wonderful insight. And today around the world such converts daily bring their offerings of worship, praise and thanksgiving to Him, just as Zephaniah describes.
The work of God will bring about a transformation among His people. They will no longer need to be ashamed of their doings. For those who in their pride misbehave, and glory in the fruits of their misbehaviour, will be no more, and those who remain will be ‘an afflicted and poor people’. In the Old Testament ‘the poor’ were often the equivalent of the godly and pious and paralleled with ‘the meek’, those who were humble before God (Isaiah 11.4; 25.4; Amos 2.7), on the grounds that in a society like Israel’s it was the violent, the dishonest and the ungodly who accumulated riches.
‘You will no more be haughty in my holy mountain.’ To be haughty in God’s holy mountain was a contradiction in terms. Man can have no pride in the presence of God. He can only confess his sinfulness and need. It was indeed a strange contradiction, only possible among human beings, that Israel could delight in having in their midst the holy mountain of God, and the awesomeness of His presence, and yet at the same time set themselves up against Him by worshipping idols and living contrary to His law. It is only paralleled by the way that today people can speak loudly of, and even exult in, the wonderful holiness of God and then go away and behave like devils. For the concept of ‘the holy mountain’ compare Psalm 2.6; Isaiah 65.11, 25; Jeremiah 31.23; Daniel 9.16; 11.45; Joel 2.1; 3.17; Obadiah 1.16.
‘But I will leave among you an afflicted and poor people, and they will trust in YHWH.’ The sufferings of Israel (and of the world) had in it a good purpose (Isaiah 48.10; Malachi 3.2-3), that through its afflictions a people of God might result whose trust would be fully in God, a humble and lowly people made strong in God. They may seem unimportant to the world, but they are God’s jewels.
But as the New Testament shows us, when we hear of Israel, we must not just think in terms of the old Israel in the land, but in terms of the full Israel which includes all who call on His name, whether ex-Jew or ex-Gentile (Ephesians 2.19, compare 12; Galatians 3.29; 6.16; Romans 11.17; James 1.1).
‘The remnant of Israel.’ It is a regular stress in the Old Testament that only a remnant of those who profess to be God’s people will actually prove to be so (Isaiah 6.13; 1 Kings 19.18; Zechariah 13.9; Obadiah 1.17).
Once the suffering is finally over there will be a pure remnant who will for ever done with sin (Isaiah 60.21), who will speak only truth and be totally honest (compare Revelation 14.5; Psalm 32.2; Isaiah 63.8; John 1.47). This can only happen in the new heaven and the new earth.
‘For they will feed and lie down, and none will make them afraid.’ They will be like sheep under a good shepherd (Micah 5.4; Isaiah 40.11). It is a picture of perfect serenity, and applies to all His people.
The Sing Of The Redeemed (3.14-20).
The final glorious triumph of God is here depicted. He has become King of all His people. He has delivered fully. No evil will ever trouble His people again. This can only refer to the eternal state, the everlasting kingdom (Ezekiel 27.24-28; Daniel 7.14, 27). This is the eschatological vision of the prophets. The ‘daughter’ of Zion includes all who have responded to God through His word going forth from Zion, who are the new and faithful Israel, having become part of the house of Jacob (compare Isaiah 2.2-4; 56.7-8; Zechariah 8.23; John 10.16; Ephesians 2.19, compare 12; Galatians 3.29; 6.16; Romans 11.17; James 1.1).
This would, of course, partly be fulfilled in His church, the new Israel. But it is Revelation 21-22 which brings out the full meaning of these words. In their lives lived in heavenly places, in the Jerusalem that is above (Galatians 4.26; Hebrews 12.22), and then in the new heavenly Jerusalem, which replaced the old after the death of Christ brought the old under a curse (Hebrews 12.22; Revelation 21.1-2; Galatians 4.26 see also Daniel 9.26), there will be no need for fear. God will openly dwell among them as the great Protector and Deliverer, mighty in deliverance, and His love will be on them, He will rejoice over them, He will enjoy with them the silence of a lover who is so content that he does not speak, He will sing with joy over them.
Those who have been afflicted (see verse 12) are to be ‘gathered’ by God ‘from the congregation, those who were from Zion’, (that is from the congregation of all Israel). These afflicted ones are those who will have been purified by their afflictions. They will be gathered by God as His true people.
‘The burden on it was a reproach.’ ‘It’ is feminine and probably therefore looks back to ‘love’ which is a feminine noun. This is probably referring to the fact that Israel’s sin was a burden on God’s love, which brought reproach on the majority of Israel, that is on those whom affliction did not bring to repentance.
But those who cause the affliction of God’s true people will be dealt with by God, while the lame and the outcast will be saved by God. They have been a shame throughout the land, but they will be made ‘a praise and a name’, that is will be made someone important and praiseworthy because they are those whom God has delivered. The deliberate contrast is that the so called worthies will be brought low and brought to judgment, while the weak and the shameful who repent will be exalted (as Jesus regularly taught - e.g. Matthew 21.31; Luke 13.30; 14.11).
Note the reference to the lame. It was to the lame and the blind that Jesus manifested His power (Isaiah 35.5-6; Matthew 11.5; 21.14).
Zephaniah finishes with the promise of restoration of the people of Israel, which will make them a witness to all the world of God’s power and goodness, for their fortunes will be reversed. This restoration has a near, a middle and a far view. The literal restoration to the land is the near view, which will take place after the exile, the gathering of those who responded in belief to the name of Christ is the middle view, but the final restoration comes when Gods people share glory with Him in the new heaven and the new earth.
So the message of Zephaniah is one of judgment that is coming, both in the near future and the far future, and of how God will use it to call out a people for Himself who will be purified through the afflictions they endure, and who in the end will rejoice in His presence.
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