The Islamic State is killing minorities in Iraq and Syria who won’t convert to Islam. It’s genocide. Women and children are taken as sexual slaves. People are fleeing to save their lives. How would you feel in the face of this onslaught if you were one of the Turkmen, Shabaks, Yazidis or Christians? Terrified? Shocked in unbelief? Wanting to escape?
This article looks at the book of Zephaniah where the Jews are warned of an impending terrible destruction. We will see that, because of the sins of humanity, judgment is coming, but deliverance is promised for the repentant.
Zephaniah prophesised “during the reign of Josiah” (Zeph. 1:1NIV), who was king over Judah in 640 – 609 BC. At this time Judah was influenced by three foreign powers: Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia. There was tension between these super powers for world supremacy (like between USA, Russia and China today). Power shifted from Assyria and Egypt to Babylonia when Assyria was conquered in 612BC and Egypt conquered in 605BC. These large nations dominated the smaller ones. Judah was a vassal state of Assyria during much of the 7th century BC. So Judah was a weak nation that was surrounded by many enemies.
Josiah’s father Amon and grandfather Manasseh were wicked kings who spread idolatry across Judah. They worshipped Baal, Asherah, and the stars and planets, with child sacrifice to Molech and ritual prostitution (2 Ki. 21:6-9; 2 Chr. 33:6-9). There was occultism and the righteous were martyred. Josiah turned back to God and repaired the temple, restoring temple worship in 622BC.
Zephaniah was part of a line of Old Testament prophets. He lived about 70 years after Isaiah and Micah and was a contemporary of Nahum and the young Jeremiah. He is recognised as the last pre-exilic prophet.
Before Zephaniah, Isaiah proclaimed God’s judgement and deliverance. He warned that Judah’s wickedness would be punished by the Babylonians. The judgment is called “the day of the Lord”. But they would be restored when the Messiah would reign. Micah also proclaimed God’s judgement and deliverance. He lists their sins, and predicts a ruler from Bethlehem and the restoration of a remnant. The main theme of these prophets was God’s judgment and God’s restoration of Judah. We will see that this is what Zephaniah prophesied as well. So he may have been already familiar with the content of his message from the earlier prophets.
During the time of Zephaniah, Nahum predicted the destruction of Nineveh, the largest city of the time. This would have been good news for Judah who had been threatened by Assyria since the fall of Samaria in 722 BC. It showed that God judges His enemies. At this time, Jeremiah (Ch. 1-38) denounced the sins of Judah. He predicted that because of these they would be defeated by the Babylonians and be exiled for 70 years. But he also predicted their restoration and life under the Messiah with a new covenant.
So, at the time when Zephaniah prophesised, the Judeans were threatened by foreign enemies. Idolatry and sinfulness were prevalent; they were no longer following the laws given to Moses. So Zephaniah warns them of the consequences of their behavior.
Apart from the first verse, the book of Zephaniah is poetry, not prose. It teems with figures of speech such as metaphors, similes, metonymy and synecdoche.
God is the central character. He is a God of action. At the beginning He is a merciless judge. But by the end he shows mercy and pardons people. Zephaniah is a humble spokesman: he speaks about God and not himself.
The story is that God wants Judah to serve Him. However, this is prevented by their sins.
Through “the day of the Lord”, Judah is restored to serve Him and they are joined by believing Gentiles.
The two main themes of Zephaniah are predictions of God’s judgment and God’s deliverance, which show His justice and mercy. Zephaniah mainly concerns the coming judgment and punishment of Judah and other nations because of their sinfulness (1:2-3:8). This is followed by the promised restoration of a Jewish remnant (3:9-20). So an imminent threat is balanced by the hope of ultimate deliverance.
Those who “have sinned against the Lord” (1:17) will be judged and those who obey and trust the Lord will be restored (2:3; 3:12). The themes of judgment and restoration are linked by a call to repentance (2:1-3).
Looking at these linkages shown in the schematic diagram, four major themes can be identified: Humanity’s sinfulness, God’s warning, God’s judgment, and God’s deliverance. We will now look at each of these in turn.
Zephaniah shows that human sinfulness is a universal problem; it affected both Judah and the other nations.
The sins of Judah included: idolatry (1:3, 4), syncretism (where the true God is worshipped through or alongside other gods) (1:5; 2 Ki. 17:41), apostasy (1:6), following foreign (pagan) customs and culture, which compromised their identity as God’s special people (1:8-9), violence (1:9), apathy and pride (1:12; 3:11), love of money (1:18), oppression (3:10), rebellion (3:10), self-sufficiency, unruliness and ungodliness (3:2), greedy and corrupt leaders (3:3-4, 7), lying and deceit (1:9; 3:13), and thinking that God doesn’t punish sins or reward repentance (1:12). They didn’t “seek the Lord” or “inquire of Him” via prayer or the Scriptures (1:6).
The sins of other nations included: pride (2:10, 15), self-sufficiency (2:15), and insulting, mocking and threatening God’s people (2:8, 10).
This sinfulness was the source and reason for God’s judgment. God had given His people standards to live by in the Mosaic law. So they should have known better.
Now we come to God’s response to their sins.
The prophets warned God’s people about the consequences of their sinfulness. They were breaking the covenant with their God. Instead of living like God’s people, they were living like pagans. They were breaking most of the ten commandments. The punishment for disobeying the covenant is given in the Pentateuch (Lev. 26:14-45; Dt. 28:15-68). It included being defeated by their enemies, having their cities besieged, plundered and destroyed and their people captured and scattered to other nations.
Zephaniah calls for repentance (2:3). There is deliverance for the humble who trust God. But Jerusalem is unrepentant (3:6-7). They didn’t learn from the mistakes of the northern kingdom about 100 years earlier that lead to them being captured by the Assyrians and destroyed as a nation.
So God is merciful: He warns His people of the consequences of their behavior. And we know that king Josiah did repent.
There are two possible responses to a warning. The first is to ignore it. Now we come to the major theme of God’s judgment.
Judgment is predicted for both Judah and other nations for their ongoing sinfulness.
First for the Jews. The “day of the Lord” is mentioned at least eleven times in the book of Zephaniah (1:7, 8, 9, 10, 14 (twice), 15, 18; 2: 2 (twice), 3). Each occurrence is associated with a message to Judah. According to the NET Bible the concept of “the day of the Lord” may have originated in the ancient Near Eastern idea of the sovereign’s day of conquest, where a king would boast that he had concluded an entire military campaign in a single day. In the Old Testament the phrase first appears in the book of Amos (Amos 5:18-20).
It is a time of great judgement. But when and where will it occur? The book begins with God declaring (1:2-3): “I will sweep away (“destroy” NET) everything from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord. “I will sweep away both man and beast; I will sweep away the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea—and the idols that cause the wicked to stumble.” “When I destroy all mankind on the face of the earth,” declares the Lord.
At the end of chapter 1, Zephaniah comments (1:18): “In the fire of His jealousy the whole earth will be consumed, for He will make a sudden end of all who live on the earth.”
So everything on the ground will be devastated. Where will it occur? It is clear from the next verse that both Judah and Jerusalem will be attacked (1:4). He calls it “the day of the Lord” (1:7, 14) and “the day of the Lord’s wrath” (1:18; 2:2). Jerusalem will be devastated (1:10-13) because of her sinfulness (3:1-5) and unrepentance (3:7).
But why does the NIV say the judgment is on “the face of the earth” (1:2, 3), “the whole earth” and “all who live on the earth” (1:18)? It seems to me that these phrases are translated poorly by most modern translations of the Bible. Click the link to see my reasons. A better translation is: “the land (of Judah)” (1:2, 3), “the whole land (of Judah)”, and “all who live on the land (of Judah) (1:18).
The judgment is directed to the unrepentant, those who don’t seek the Lord (1:6). Zephaniah gives three pictures of God’s judgement, “the day of the Lord”: a devastating flood (1:2-3), a great sacrifice (1:7-8), and a great battle (1:14-18).
As it described total destruction of living things and idols, yet there are survivors (a humble remnant), the description of the judgment seems to include hyperbole (1:2-3, 18b, 2:3; 3:11-13). Some resolve this dilemma by assuming that the verses on deliverance (3:9-20) were written after the time of Zephaniah. But this isn’t necessary because the combination of the themes of judgement, deliverance of a remnant and a new life of blessing for the faithful is an old as Noah’s flood. So the day of the Lord includes both punishment and purification. Zephaniah wasn’t just a prophet of doom, but of doom and hope. After all God is characterised by both justice (when he punishes sinners) and mercy (when he restores the repentant).
When will the judgment occur? “The great day of the Lord is near—near and coming quickly” (1:7, 14). It’s imminent. It describes the desolation after an army invades Judah and Jerusalem (1:4-18a). Nothing will be able to save the Judeans (1:18a). It will be “a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness” (1:15). A time of wailing (1:11). This prediction was probably given at least 30 years before it was fulfilled when Babylonia invaded Jerusalem. That’s when the judgment was to occur. In the meantime, the purpose of the distress was so Judah would repent.
Secondly, judgment is also predicted as total destruction for nations around Judah. Philistia in the west (2:4-6), Moab and Ammon in the east (2:8-11), Egypt in the south (2:12) and Assyria in the north (2:13-15). As there is judgment in all directions, no one can escape. God also promised to judge all the wicked Gentiles (3:8). This is when other nations experience “the day of the Lord”. It was announced by Zephaniah to call Judah to repentance (3:6-7).
About 50 years later Ezekiel also prophesied the destruction of Ammon, Moab and Philistia (Ch. 25) (Assyria had already been invaded by the Babylonians). Ammon and Moab would be invaded by Babylonia. God would take vengeance on Philistia. Also, Egypt and its allies would be invaded by Babylonia (Ch 29-32). After this it was invaded by the Persians. So all these judgements occurred within 100 years of Zephaniah’s predictions.
God’s judgment in “the day of the Lord” shows that justice comes to all.
The other response to a warning is to take notice and change your behavior so as to avoid the consequences. Now we come to the other major theme of God’s deliverance.
Deliverance is predicted for both Judah and other nations.
First for the Jews. Believers would be protected during “the day of the Lord” (2:3). Then God promises to restore a Jewish remnant (2:7; 3:10-13, 18-20). Deliverance and salvation follow judgment. The scattered Jews will return to the land of Judah. They will seek the Lord, trust in Him, obey Him and be humble (2:3; 3:12). They will resume the temple offerings. Their enemies will be punished and there will be peace and honesty in their land. Shame and wickedness will cease (3:11-13). The Jews will be praised and honored around the world – praise and honor has replaced their shame. They will occupy Philistia, Moab and Ammon (2:7, 9c). This leads to joyful celebration in Jerusalem under God’s leadership (3:14-17). Singing has replaced their wailing (3:14), because the punishment has been taken away, the enemies turned back and God is with them (v.15). There is joy and singing in heaven as well (3:17). God “will rejoice over you with singing”.
When will the deliverance occur (Zeph. 3:10-20)? A Jewish remnant returned to Judah after 70 years of exile in Babylon. Although Gentiles called “on the name of the Lord” when they became Christians (Zeph. 3:9; Rom. 10:13), I don’t think that the deliverance described has been completed yet. Did Judah have peace (3:13)? After Jerusalem was rebuilt, Judea was ruled by the Greeks, Egyptians, Syrians and Romans. In 70 AD, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and in 134 AD the Romans attacked again and the Jews were killed, enslaved and dispersed to surrounding countries including Europe and North Africa. Since this time, Judea has been ruled by the Byzantine Empire, the Islamic Empire, the Crusaders, the Mamluk Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the British Empire. The Jews were persecuted and driven out of many regions culminating in the holocaust. Have the Jews been praised and honored in other lands (3:19-20)? It says “never again will you fear any harm” (3:15), yet Jerusalem, was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70.
Secondly, redemption is also predicted for believing Gentiles. When God destroys Judah’s enemies (2:11): “Distant nations will bow down to Him, all of them in their own lands”. When they realise the awesomeness of God, they will repent and worship Him. They will also seek His help in prayer and serve Him (3:9). This has been fulfilled to some degree in the Christian church.
We have seen that Zephaniah told the Jews of the 7th century BC that because of humanity’s sinfulness, God will judge the Jews and the Gentiles in the “day of the Lord”. And God did judge them. But God is merciful. He warns them of their situation and their need to repent.
After this a Jewish remnant will be restored and they will worship Him as King of Israel.
So Zephaniah’s main themes are: Mankind’s sinfulness, God’s warning to repent, God’s judgment (the day of the Lord) for the unrepentant, and God’s deliverance for the repentant (the remnant). This is an example of “the kindness and sternness of God” (Rom. 11:22). These are two aspects of God’s character. The kindness is for those who repent, while the sternness is for the unrepentant.
The Jews should have known about these themes because they come from the Pentateuch. It contains rewards for obedience and punishment for disobedience. It also says if they confess their sins with humility, then God would remember their covenant (Lev. 26:40-45). So their repentance is the goal of their punishment. God wanted them to turn back to following Him once again.
Zephaniah also implies that God is the God of all nations. In those days each nation had their own gods. People were polytheistic. Here we see that Judah’s God is sovereign and supreme over other nations. He will destroy all the other gods (2:11). Therefore, He was sovereign and supreme over their gods. So the fact of one true God as expressed in the first two commandments is another theme of Zephaniah.
Furthermore, it implies that God intervenes in history (1:12). They thought He wouldn’t intervene, but God says He will search Jerusalem (2:11). So the fact that Judah’s God intervenes in human affairs and history is another theme of Zephaniah.
In order to apply Zephaniah’s prophecy to our modern world, we need to take of account of what God has revealed since then. Today we know that the New Testament teaches that because of humanity’s sinfulness, we all deserve God’s punishment. But God is merciful. In the Bible He warns us of our situation and our need to repent. Jesus took the punishment for us when He was crucified. Those who repent are redeemed to worship Him as their Lord.
When Paul addresses the sins of the self-righteous moralist, he writes “because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when His righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom. 2:5). So God warns people today of a coming judgment. Also, Peter warns that God’s final judgment of the universe is coming as “the day of the Lord” (2 Pt. 3:7-10). In the meantime, we are to be faithful followers of Christ (2 Pt. 3:11-14).
Even though it was written over 2,600 years ago, Zephaniah’s book is relevant to our times. We can apply the four main themes to ourselves. What are our sins? What are our gods? Are we apathetic? Are we materialistic? Are we selfish? How loyal are we to God? They had a choice. So do we. Will we confess and repent of our sins in order to maintain our relationship with the Lord? There is deliverance and salvation for the humble who trust in the death of Jesus Christ for their sins. Do we have the hope of heaven? The hope of a better time to come.
Because of the sins of humanity, judgment is coming; but deliverance and salvation is promised for the repentant.
Written, November 2014
Also see: What is the meaning of adamah and erets in Zephaniah?