Nahum’s prophecy had not yet been fulfilled when
Zephaniah was awakened by God’s call. Nineveh had not yet fallen. As God
had used Hosea and Amos in the last days of Israel, now God would use
Zephaniah to give the final words of warning before destruction would
come to Judah. Zephaniah is the author of an Old Testament Apocalypse.
He wrote of the culmination of history and the fall of all nations.
George Adam Smith wrote, "No hotter book lies in all the Old Testament.
Neither dew nor grass nor tree nor any blossom lives in it, but it is
everywhere fire, smoke and darkness, drifting chaff, ruins, nettles,
salt pits, and owls and ravens looking from windows of desolate places"
(The Book of the Twelve Prophets).
Zephaniah ministered during the reign of Josiah. He
was a distant relative and could trace his heritage back to King
Hezekiah himself. It was Hezekiah who had a face-off with the mighty
Sennacherib. It was Hezekiah who led Judea into a time of spiritual
revival. However, it has been aptly said that "God has no
grandchildren." Hezekiah’s children did not share his faith nor
enthusiasm for the things of God. Each generation must discover the
living God for itself. Every generation must rediscover the faith and be
Hezekiah’s son was the most wicked of all the kings
of Judea. Manasseh’s reign of half a century proves longevity is no
measure of spiritual things. Under this longest reign all the economic
indicators pointed to prosperity, while the things of the spirit
suffered. Manasseh had a change of heart later in life but his son Amon
was unimpressed and copied his fathers corruptness rather than his
conversion. After two years of darkness he was killed by his own
servants (2Chron. 33:24). After the assassins were themselves executed,
Amon’s son Josiah was installed as king at the age of eight. It is at
this time that Zephaniah begins his ministry.
The fact that the prophet records his pedigree back
to Hezekiah suggests that his message must have had an influence on the
eight year old. By the twelfth year of his administration he began to
purge the land of the dark debris inherited from Manasseh and Amon.
Exactly how much influence this cousin to the king had on Josiah is not
as important as how much influence he has on me. Though long dead, the
words of Zephaniah are still, "quick and powerful and sharper than a two
edged sword." If God must use them to cut our own hearts, may we not
attempt to stay his hand, or try to dull the edge of his word by calling
it ancient history.
"I will utterly consume things from off the land"
(1:2). An impending doom is the topic once again. Man has a way of
quickly forgetting in prosperity lessons learned hard in poverty. The
lesson of a destroyed Israel seems to be lost on the dull hearts of
Judah. No sooner does the invading army of adversity disappear than
foolish men return to their old ways.
The focus of Zephaniah is on the heart rather than the
heathen. God will use the heathen, and he will judge the heathen, but the
central figure on the world’s stage is always God’s wayward nation Israel.
And at this point it is good to remember as Paul so carefully did in his
epistle to the Romans, " they are not all Israel, which are of Israel"
Rom. 9:6. Zephaniah’s voice is a shepherd’s voice which only God’s sheep
will recognize. The continual and constant mistake of the Hebrew was in
mistaking political boundaries for belief. The fact that a person found
himself within the walls of Jerusalem or the borders of Judea was no
guarantee that he was one of God’s own.
Zephaniah tells of the coming judgment of God upon
Judea and all nations. This is not a history lesson, it is a call to
examine the heart. The sins condemned by this prophet are still found in
our own land and the chariots of God’s judgment can be heard by all who
have "ears to hear."
"I will overthrow the stumbling blocks" 1:3. Idolatry
is ever producing its idols and each is a stumbling block to the idolater.
An idol can be anything that has taken the place of God in our society.
Our country is filled with them and they are all hindrances to any who
would attempt to walk godly in Christ Jesus. From sports, to
entertainment, to pleasure palaces, and marketplaces there are enough
obstacles for any pilgrim to beware. Our churches are empty, our shopping
malls (fish gates) are full. Our chapels are forsaken, our sports arenas
are over flowing with fans. Tabernacles are silent, televisions have
become electronic altars and high places.
"I will cut off mankind from the face of the earth"
(1:3 Amplified). Zephaniah is seeing far beyond Assyria, Babylon, and
Rome, he is seeing clear to Armageddon and the final triumph of good over
evil, and yet "now" is in the picture as much as some world tomorrow.
God promises to cut off those who "worship the starry
host." Even in our "so-called" sophisticated day there is a revival of
astrology which places a man’s destiny in the stars, as well as a
resurgence of interest in "Physic" phenomenon. People are consulting
mediums to reach the dead (supposedly), studying horoscopes, and calling
upon spirits (angels) for help and success. To think God is any less
likely to judge our land than he did Israel, Judah, and Assyria is the
height of presumption. The implication of the prophet is that these star
worshipers do so while "pretending" to worship the LORD. These people had
an amalgamated religion that was a strange mixture of pretence and
profanity that grieved God. Many "so-called" Christians also have created
a theological stew in a caldron of religious chaos.
Many who claim to worship and know God also burn
incense at the altars of humanism, psychology, mysticism, and pray to the
god of luck while hoping for a financial windfall. Zephaniah’s words are
also directed to those who have "drawn back" from following the LORD.
While our nation is filled with idolators, it is also filled with
"backsliders." The only message to a "backslider" is to repent.
Included in the condemnation are the princes or
"officials" who have adopted the dress (standards and attire) of the
world. It may seem strange that apparel should even be considered in this
judgment of God, and seem to be inapplicable to those who live in the age
of Grace, yet there is a lesson even here. The leaders set aside their
old-fashioned Jewish identity in order to wear the popular Babylonian, and
Egyptian styles. While the uniform does not make the soldier, there is
definitely something wrong with the soldier who discards his uniform. The
Torah specifically described a certain dress that would act and a reminder
of Jewish identity and obligations (Num. 15:38). It speaks volumes when
the church dresses itself in the garments of paganism and imitates the
fashion of those who worship the sensual and ridicule the spiritual. Body
piercing has become fashionable, as well as dying hair purple, and
immorality and abortion are eyed with indifference and souls are sold for
silver. I compare our own day with the dying days of Judea only because it
would border on malpractice for any preacher worth his salt not to do so.
While the storm clouds of God’s judgment were rolling
in on Zephaniah’s world men who should have known better were "settling on
their lees." That is to say they were unmoved. Zephaniah came to stir them
up. "Their wealth shall become plunder" 1:13. While our modern Assyrians
and Babylon seem to have fallen and are no longer a threat, we are on the
brink of our own annihilation unless we have a spiritual awakening and
revival. The world’s populations have become restless and large numbers of
peoples are desperate. Our own "underclass" is only being held in check by
the unseen Spirit of God. The enemy is already within our gates. The
moment the Almighty removes his hand an angry sea of godless classes will
erupt into a social upheaval and violent inferno that may very well burn
our civilization to the ground. In that day "neither their silver nor
their gold shall be able to deliver them" 1:18.
The second chapter addresses the world. The last
chapter gives the final word to Jerusalem (the city of God) and calls her
the "polluted" city. Her prophets spoke filling their cannons with tissue
paper instead of cannon balls. They were called "light and treacherous
persons." The clergy had profaned the sanctuary and holy place. It is for
the same reason Jesus overturned the money changers tables and drove out
the cattle in the famous "cleansing of the temple." God would judge Judah,
but one day he will restore her. The "poor in spirit" will survive as they
wait for the coming of the Lord. "I will also leave in the midst of thee
the afflicted and poor people; and they shall trust in the name of the
LORD" 3:12. Every generation has this "remnant’ (v.13). Every generation
has those listening for the Master’s voice which says "blessed are the
poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
Zephaniah’s ministry reached its apex sometime before
Josiah reached his. In 621 Hilkiah discovered the Book of the Law in the
temple and read it before the pious king. As it was in the day of Jonah,
revival held back the hour judgment and reform stayed flood of ruin.
Because Zephaniah is lacking in what preachers call
"pulpit texts" many congregations are unfamiliar with this sage and have
never heard of sermon out of his book. Yet, God is at this very moment
gathering from among the peoples of the earth souls of the "afflicted"
into a kingdom of which he himself will be king (3:19, 20, 15) and all who
come will "rest in his love." Jesus said, "come unto me all ye who labor
and are heavy laden and I will give you rest."
To Modern Preachers and Teachers
Even though there seems to be only scorched earth and
judgment remaining after Zephaniah is finished with his prophecy there is
still hope for God's people. It is almost as if we come to an ash covered
and charred remains of a wood after a forest fire. Everywhere there is
blackness and bleakness and grotesque charcoaled monuments pointing upward
like twisted and broken fingers to heaven. Then there in the center of a
large burned out spot a shoot of green has broken through the now cold
cinders, as a witness and a promise that God is not finished with Israel.
The New American Standard translation says "Shout for
Joy....The LORD has taken away His judgments against you, He has cleared
away your enemies. The King of Israel, the LORD , is in your midst; You
will fear disaster no more." 3:14-15.
Then in what has to be a reference to the Messianic
kingdom, he goes on with these words of hope "I will save the lame, and
gather the outcast, and I will turn their shame into praise and renown in
all the earth. At that time I will bring you in, even at the time when I
gather you together... I will restore your fortunes before your eyes."
No prophet should forget to hold out hope. No matter how dark the sin,
no matter how grievous the judgment. As long as there is life, there is
hope. There is salvation and security in Christ. However, all that those
outside of Christ can hope to find is judgment. Not a single soul that
rejects God will survive the wrath that must fall on evil, and though they
may be long in coming, not one of God's promises will fail. "Wait for me,"
says the LORD (3:8).