53. Zephaniah

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 53. Zephaniah

Zeph 3:14,15   Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away your punishment,

If you want an example of a gory prophet, Zephaniah is it – judgment all the way – until you get to the latter part of chapter 3. We have chosen the above verses because they come in stark contrast to most of what has gone before. Unusually, we are told Zephaniah comes from a royal line (1:1a) and prophesied during Josiah’s reign which lasted 640-609 but as he speaks of Nineveh yet to fall (2:13), and as we’ve seen previously that happened in 612, it seems he was speaking against Judah in the early part of Josiah’s reign before his reforms took place.

Now there is a problem that arises when you read Zephaniah and it is his use of the phrase “the day of the Lord” which he uses 3 times (1:7,14×2)  and then refers to this particular day at least a further seventeen times. The question has to be asked, does he intend us to understand that this day is the Final Day of Judgment often referred to in Scripture or does it mean a specific day when He is going to deal with Judah. The fact that he is so close to the coming fall of Jerusalem suggests that it is the latter. (But he doesn’t only speak against Judah (e.g. 1;4), he also speaks against the Philistines (2:4,5), against Moab and Ammon (2:8,9), Egypt (2:12) and Assyria (2:13))

The difficulty is the all-encompassing language. For example, I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth,declares the LORD.” (1:2) and “when I cut off man from the face of the earth,” declares the LORD.” (1:3c). It is only helped when he refers to Judah in the next verse and we see that this extensive cleansing is coming to Judah in the near future, to come against their idol worship (v.4-6,9). But then again in 1:14-18 there is apocalyptic-sounding, end-time-sounding language that ends, “In the fire of his jealousy the whole world will be consumed, for he will make a sudden end of all who live in the earth.”  It is difficult to know if chapter 2 was spoken at the same time or is a separate prophecy that speaks to a “shameful nation” (2:1) but it goes on to speak to all those groups we observed at the end of the previous paragraph. Similarly we read, “The whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger.” (3:8)

The judgments of chapter 2 are clearly against specific regional people groups (nations, states, cities) which concluded with a longer warning to Nineveh which was certainly approaching its end in 612, just a few years off. That much was clearly for that time of history and, as we know, was heralding the impending doom of Jerusalem, possibly less than 20 to 30 years off (a small time in God’s economy.)  It was a confusing time so we should perhaps not be surprised if there is any lack of clarity here. The prophet senses great gloom and doom, and so it would be, for the Exile was possibly the single greatest event in Israel’s Old Testament history after the Exodus. If his words seem extreme it is more likely to be that he catches something of that awfulness that was soon to come, rather than be speaking into the End Times.

Although there is no immediate indication of it, chapter 3 must be against Judah for he could not speak of anyone else with reference to prophets, priests and the sanctuary (3:4) and with the Lord within her (3:5). Although the whole book has its origin in the Lord, in chapter 1 we saw Him say at least seven times “I will,” (1:3-6,8,9) declaring His intent personally. Now when we come to chapter 3 that use of “I” is repeated again and again from verse 6 onwards.

“I have cut off nations …. I have left their streets deserted” (v.6) was supposed to be a warning to Judah, as if to say, ‘Look what I’ve done to other rebellious nations!’ but to no avail: “I said to the city, `Surely you will fear me and accept correction!’ …. But they were still eager to act corruptly in all they did.” (v.7) So, “Therefore wait for me.. for the day I will stand up to testify (or plunder them), I have decided to assemble the nations, to gather the kingdoms and to pour out my wrath on them.” (v.8) i.e. OK, keep watching what I am about to do to the other nations through Nebuchadnezzar (for that is what happened) – but it will come to you also (see ‘the whole world’ v.8c)

Then follow what appears as three reducing stanzas, 9-13 (5 verses), 14-17 (4 verses) and 18-20 (3 verses), about His redemption: v.9-13 the nations will be purified, the scattered remnant restored and Jerusalem purged, v.14-17 the joy of Jerusalem, v.18-20 the Lord’s final assurance of His plans for restoration.

If you are like me, you are possibly feeling drunk with information of the impending judgment on Jerusalem through a number of these prophets. Yes, in each case there is this hope that the Lord is working through this impending judgment to bring His people through to the good of knowing Him in an idol-free people. Whenever you read about the Exile remember it is simply a stage before the restoration of Israel to their land as a people purged from centuries of idol worship, a stepping stone, if you like, to a new day, a day through would stretch some four hundred years until the Son of God appeared in their midst. The Exodus had been a prolonged stepping stone from slavery to nationhood within their own land, and now the Exile a stepping stone from an idolatrous nation to a purified nation.  Both events are of mega-magnitude so it is not surprising there is so much said in the prophets about this latter event. What does it all say? The Lord is sovereign, King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Worship Him.

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