‘Reflections’ on the Writing Prophets 20
Z E P H A N I A H
Zephaniah 1:1 to 2:15
Zephaniah was a contemporary of Jeremiah. “The word of the LORD came to Zephaniah … in the days of Josiah, king of Judah”. His lineage through Cushi, Gedaliah and Amariah, tells us that he was a descendant of king Hezekiah. Interestingly, Hezekiah was the last “good king” (three kings earlier) to sit on the throne of Judah, before king Josiah, (the final ‘good king’ of this southern kingdom). He sat on the throne at the time of Zephaniah’s prophecy. Josiah broke down the altars of worship to Baal in about 628 BCE., and it was about 6 years later that the Book of the Law (Torah) was found during the repair of the Temple (2 Chronicles 34:14). When that book was read to him by Shaphan the scribe, Josiah’s reaction was immediate. “Go inquire of the LORD for me, and for those who are left in Israel and Judah, concerning the words of the book that is found; for great is the wrath of the LORD that is poured out on us, because our fathers have not kept the word of the LORD, to do all that is written in this book”. And we know that it was this failure of the forefathers which, out of concern for them, caused God to send these prophets to speak, in His name, to the people of Israel and Judah.
“I will utterly consume everything from the face of the land.” Says the LORD. Zephaniah brought a prophecy of profound proportion. It is evident that no longer is the LORD talking only of the people of that time, for which this prophecy would have a degree of immediacy, and be of relative temporary duration. The prophet is talking about events which are even future to us living today. It is both future in regard to the time of Messiah’s return (bear in mind He had not at that stage visited the earth in person the first time), but further still beyond the timing of Messiah’s reign on this earth during His Millennial Kingdom. Much of this destruction is referred to in the vision given to the Apostle John in Revelation. In regard to the immediacy, the prophet writes “I will stretch out My hand against Judah, and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem”. This is much closer to home for them.
For their idolatrous worship of Baal (the Canaanite god of fertility), the northern kingdom, Israel, had already been judged, and taken captive by the Assyrians about 100 years earlier. Now this southern kingdom was tainted by the same idolatry. God is promising that He will “cut off every trace of Baal from this place”. In effect, God is saying to them, (and it is hard to consider those words not also being directed at all who are His), in my paraphrase, ‘I have given you plenty of warning that I will not be worshipped by those who worship Baal (or any other idol). Either you cut it out yourself, or I will do it for you.’ In His words, “Be silent in the presence of the Lord GOD; For the day of the LORD is at hand, for the LORD has prepared a sacrifice; He has invited His guests”. Speaking directly to the Judeans here, He says ‘don’t try to justify yourselves’. It is now My turn to act. The sacrifice which has been prepared is that of these rebellious people themselves. The guests invited are the Babylonians who will act like ‘priests’ in killing that sacrifice. Because we are privileged to know the whole story, we know that not many years later, king Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem and started to carry people into captivity in Babylon.
The words of this prophecy are clear and direct. Complacency has become entrenched in their minds. “I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and punish the men who are settled in complacency, who say in their heart, ‘the LORD will not do good, nor will He do evil. Therefore ….”. Do you sense, as I do, that such a situation seems to be present in our churches today? We appear to have lost the sense of the might and awesome power of our God. It is called ‘complacency’. It is complacency which deludes one into thinking all is well when it is not. Complacency causes one to miss clear signs of trouble. The prophet continues “The great day of the LORD is near; It is near and hastens quickly. The noise of the day of the LORD is bitter; There the mighty men shall cry out. That is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of devastation and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet and alarm against the fortified cities and against the high towers”. It seems as though the prophet could not find enough words to describe the horror.
But there remains hope for the people of the southern kingdom. In His grace and love for these people, the LORD tells Zephaniah to deliver a kind of final warning. In the midst of this outcry against their rebellious behaviour he says “Gather yourselves together, yes gather together, O undesirable nation, before the decree is issued, or the day passes like chaff, before the LORD’s fierce anger comes upon you” (it’s like asking them to call a meeting to discuss the issues). It reminds me of another warning brought by Isaiah. “Come let his reason together, says the LORD”. The wise among us see this as a message for today. As God also told Isaiah that “His word would not return to Him void but would accomplish the purpose for which it was sent”.
The focus of Zephaniah turns onto the surrounding territories of the enemies of Israel. They have modern names now, but the geography and hostility remains. Gaza, Moab, Ammon, Ethiopia, Assyria, all get a dishonourable mention. Read the account of their future in Chapter 2 of our text. Nations that arrogantly “said in her heart, ‘I am it, and there is none besides me’”. To “become desolate”so that those who pass by will “hiss and shake his fist”. God will not be mocked. He cares about those who are His. But He warns again and again against complacency.