Zephaniah — King Josiah’s Messenger from God
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According to Nelson’s Complete Book of Bible Maps & Charts, this three-chapter communiqué was written some time between 635 and 625 B.C.—during the reign of Judah’s King Josiah, but before the reforms instituted by the Jewish monarch in 628 B.C. [p. 271]. Many Bible scholars believe that Zephaniah’s unusual description of his lineage to the fourth generation indicates that he may actually have been a member of the royal family of David—quite possibly a great-great-grandson of King Hezekiah, and a distant relative of King Josiah.
The prophet’s name means “hidden of YHWH”—a remarkable moniker, considering that this messenger of God is revealing a future not yet entirely disclosed to his people. The author’s theme is that of the coming “Day of the Lord,” a time of God’s judgment on the nations. Like a skilled photographer, the prophet zooms in with his eschatological camera. He focuses first on the fate of the nations in general, then concentrates on Judah and, finally, Jerusalem [Nelson’s p. 273]. The book does, however, end on a positive note, with God’s promise to restore His people.
Zephaniah Chapter 1
Like many of his predecessors, Zephaniah gave his pedigree. Only, instead of telling his father’s name alone—as Isaiah, Hosea, Joel and Jonah had done—Zephaniah listed four ancestors: Cushi, Gedaliah, Amariah and Hezekiah. While we do not know for certain, Bible scholars speculate that the reason for this longer genealogy was to establish that the prophet was a descendant of the great Jewish monarch, King Hezekiah [See, for example, the Introduction to Zephaniah in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Old Testament Edition, edited by John F. Walvoord & Roy B. Zuck, © 1985, by Scripture Press Publications, Inc.].
Also, the prophet explained that this was a message from YHWH which was revealed to him during the reign of “Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah” (Zeph. 1:1). Josiah was the last honorable king of Judah before the fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, who instituted sweeping reforms in Israel, after the Law of God was recovered and read to Him (2 Kings 22:1-23:30 & 2 Chron. 34-35).
God first warned that He intended to wipe out every living thing—including fish, birds, beasts and men—from the face of the land (Zeph. 1:2-3). He also planned to eradicate every trace of pagan worship (vv. 3-5). His objective was to eliminate those who sought false gods, rather than inquiring of YHWH for guidance and help (6). Those who dressed like foreigners would be targeted, as well as those who adopted pagan rituals—such as leaping over the threshold of a doorway, like the Philistines did to honor Dagon (Zeph. 1:8-9; c.f.—1 Sam. 5:1-5).
Zephaniah foretold mourning and wailing in every sector of Jerusalem (Zeph. 1:10-11). YHWH said He would scour the city for the corrupt and unbelieving, hauling off their goods and leaving their houses desolate (vv. 12-13). Like other prophets before him, Zephaniah warned that the coming “Day of the Lord” would be a time of unprecedented trouble, distress, devastation, desolation, darkness and bitterness (14-16). None of the people’s wealth would “be able to deliver them in the day of the Lord’s wrath;” but the entire countryside would be “devoured by the fire of His jealousy,” due to the people’s constant, flagrant sins (17-18). In very graphic terms, the prophet indicated that the victims of God’s wrath would be regarded as trash and sewage.
Zephaniah Chapter 2
God’s messenger urged his fellow Hebrews to assemble and seek God, while there was still hope for deliverance of those who humbled themselves (Zeph. 2:1-2). With a play on the meaning of his name, Zephaniah pleaded in verse 3:
Seek the Lord, all you meek of the earth,
Who have upheld His justice.
Seek righteousness, seek humility.
It may be that you will be hidden
In the day of the Lord’s anger.
Verses 4-7 name Philistine capitals that God would make into pasture lands for the returning captives of Judah. He intended to make Moab and Ammon like Sodom and Gommorah—“overrun with weeds and salt pits, and a perpetual desolation” (9). They would be plundered by God’s people, because of their pride and constant threats against Israel (8-10). YHWH decreed death to Ethiopia and humiliating destruction for Assyria, as well, because of the pride of those nations (12-15).
The end result would be world-wide respect for the God of Israel: “The Lord will be awesome to them when he destroys all the gods of the land. The nations on every shore will worship him, every one in its own land” (Zeph. 2:11, NIV).
Zephaniah Chapter 3
In this chapter, our focus is returned to Jerusalem, personified as an unfaithful woman. She is described as rebellious, polluted and oppressive (Zeph. 3:1). The city had not obeyed God, trusted in Him, or drawn near to YHWH (v. 2). Its civic and religious leaders were corrupt, greedy and unbelieving (3-4). “The Lord is righteous in her midst,” never failing, consistently bringing justice to light, “But the unjust knows no shame” (5).
In spite of all He had done to demonstrate His power and authority, God’s people were stubborn and unteachable (6-7). They would get up early to do all the same wicked things. Therefore, YHWH determined to gather up all the nations and pour on them His indignation, until everything was devoured by the fire of His jealousy (8).
Yet, once God’s wrath against sinful Judah and her neighbors was spent, the Lord promised better days. He said He would “restore to the peoples a pure language” (9). Does this mean God plans to reverse the effects of His curse at Babel (Gen. 11:1-9), giving everyone a unified language? Or maybe He meant that the names of foreign gods and pagan oaths would no longer be on their lips—a more likely possibility, considering the second half of Zephaniah 3:9, which says, “That they all may call on the name of the Lord, to serve Him with one accord.”
YHWH planned to remove the shame of their sins and bring His worshipers from far and wide (vv. 10-11). The proud would be abolished; only humble and honest people would remain (11-13). No more would the survivors of Israel be afraid or oppressed, for their Mighty God would save them (13-17). They would rejoice in the Lord and He in them, when He put an end to their punishment and drives out their enemy (14-15).
In one of the most affirming and beautiful passages of the Old Testament, the Lord expressed His love for Israel [and for others who belong to Him] by saying:
“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.” (Zeph. 3:17)
Can you see our heavenly Husband’s delight over His bride? Do you realize just how precious you are to Him? God sings love songs about us! He is thrilled to wrap His beloved in a tender embrace.
God promised to deal with those who afflicted His people and round up the citizens of Judah who were driven from their homes (vv. 19-20). Even the crippled will be praised, as YHWH turns Israel’s shame to fame!
As we have seen in other prophetic books, God’s love is great, but His patience with those who flout it has limits. His commitment to Israel as an everlasting Husband and Father would not allow them to stray for long to lesser pursuits. As a faithful Spouse, He cannot stand our infidelity and has to act to put an end to spiritual adultery. As a loving Father, He is compelled to discipline His children to keep them from destroying themselves and others.
But God’s anger toward sin never overrides His love toward His people. Even when we force His hand to strike in correction, He will not destroy us completely. He always acts with our best at heart and is quick to restore us to Himself and His favor. Because of Christ’s suffering for our sin, the sting of death is removed from those who believe. We may still suffer loss of things and relationships we deem valuable. However, we can never be bereaved of His eternal affection.
Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version of the Bible—© 1982, by Thomas Nelson, Inc.