Notes on the Prophecy of Zephaniah

Chapter 1
The Day Of The Lord

Of the prophet Zephaniah practically nothing is known beyond what he himself tells us in the first verse. His pedigree is traced back through four generations, and the date of his ministry is given as “in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah.” Those were days of blessing and revival for a remnant; but the mass of the people, though outwardly reformed, were in the sad state described in this book and in the early chapters of Jeremiah. The object of the Spirit in Zephaniah was, therefore, to warn the formalists of coming judgment, and to comfort the hearts of the godly residue who had a little strength, and had not denied His name. In fact, the prophecy of Zephaniah has much in common with the New Testament letter to the Philadelphian assembly, contemplating a condition of things answering in large measure to what we see at the present time—a day when many vaunt themselves in Laodicean pride while walking in utter indifference to the written Word of God and despising a feeble remnant who cling to that Word and seek to honor Him who gave it. Such may be like Zephaniah himself, whose very name means, “Hidden of Jehovah;” but though unknown to men, they are well known to Him who speaks of an hour coming when the haughty opposers of the truth shall “come and worship before thy feet, and know that I have loved thee” (Rev. 3:7-13).

The very fact that a remnant are at any time distinguished from the mass implies that the latter are ripe for judgment; for when all goes as it should, there is no occasion for the faithful to be thus distinguished. Therefore this prophecy has much to say about the coming of the Lord when everything will be dealt with in the light of His revealed will. Zephaniah speaks of judgment about to fall, first on Judah and Jerusalem, yea, the whole land (though the ten tribes had been carried into Assyria nearly a century ere his time); then, on all the surrounding nations. For, if God begins with His people, He will not stop there, but all must know the power of His anger when He makes inquisition in regard to their ways.

The three chapters may be considered as three divisions. Chapter 1 presents the general truth as to the day of the Lord which is coming upon Judah. Chapter 2 gives the judgment of the nations. Chapter 3 is the indictment of Jerusalem, with the eustomary promise of restoration, to be made good after the purging of the period of tribulation.

Zephaniah was contemporary with Jeremiah for at least a part of the latter’s ministry, but he probably passed off the scene before the predicted destruction of Jerusalem was fulfilled.

Coming to a somewhat careful notice of this first chapter, we find in verses 2 to 6 the solemn announcement of the stretching out of Jehovah’s hand in judgment against the people of His choice. He was about to consume all things from off the land. Man and beast, fowls and fishes, all alike must feel the stroke. It speaks of utter desolation—the result of the fearful ravages of bloody warfare. Judah and Jerusalem were to be given up to the woes of which they had been warned for so long. They had turned away from Him, who would have been their Saviour, to follow Baal, the demon of the heathen. God would not cease His strange work until He had cut off the last vestige of Baal-worship from the land. The idolatrous priests who had been the instruments used to deceive the people were to be cut off too till the very name of the Chemarim would cease. The worshipers of the heavenly bodies, together with those who professed to follow the Lord, but whose profession was unreal, as also those who swore by Malcham,26 the “great king” —all must be included in the coming doom.

The host appointed to death is divided into two classes in the sixth verse: “Them that are turned back from the Lord; and those that have not sought the Lord, nor inquired for Him.” There were some who had at first heeded Josiah’s call to repentance, and who had sought for a time to obey the voice of the Lord; but, putting their hand to the plow, they looked back and relapsed into their old idolatrous ways. There were others who had never known, nor cared to know, the mind of God. All must perish in the common destruction that was coming.

Beginning with verse 7, we have a more detailed account of the manner in which the awful threatenings were to be carried out. It will be noticed that while the prophet himself had before his mind, beyond any doubt, the Babylonian conquest, the Holy Spirit who empowered him to speak and write had something far more serious before Him. The day of the Lord was at hand, a day which will only be known in its fulness when man’s day has come to a close. In that day the Lord will prepare a great sacrificial feast. Already “He hath bid His guests.” The language reminds us of the supper of the great God, or, as it should be rendered, the great supper of God, in Rev. 19:17, 18. In that day He will visit the iniquities of the princes and the king’s household upon them, as also all of foreign birth who are gathered together in the land of Palestine. Violence and deceit shall meet their just desert, and evil be everywhere abased (vers. 7-9).

From gate to gate the cry of anguish will be heard. The merchants and great ones who have lived in pleasure on the earth shall in no wise escape the day of His wrath. James 5:1 seems to be intimately connected with verse 11 of this chapter. Both have to do with the collapse of the great commercial system which in our own day has assumed such gigantic proportions.

It is a matter of solemn moment, the place / given in Scripture to the mad rush for silver and gold in the last days. The world today presents an amazing spectacle if viewed from this standpoint. Commerce is the Baal of the hour. In the accumulation. of great wealth, conscience and Christianity are pressed to the wall. Gold is king and god. For gold men will sacrifice every principle, human and divine. Covetousness is the ruling passion of the age. All else must go down before it. And Scripture warrants us to expect this, and emphasizes the fact that it is a sign of the near approach of the end. Happy are those saints who are preserved from this unholy spirit of the times, and who, having food and raiment, seek to be therewith content!

With a lighted lamp the Lord will search Jerusalem in that day; not, as now, to find the lost piece that typifies the poor sinner lying in dust (Luke 15:8-10), but to ferret out every man who has been indifferent to His truth and has sought to make God a nonentity in His own creation, saying, “The Lord will not do good, neither will He do evil” (ver. 12). This is likewise characteristic of the present times. Men no longer believe in a particular providence. Even the so-called clergy often ridicule he idea of divine intervention in the affairs of men. Law, hard and inexorable, is supposed to control all things; so that human responsibility and a prayer-hearing God are alike practically denied. But the hour of awakening is nearing, when, too late, men will be made to know the reality of God’s government and the truth of His Word. Their goods shall become a prey and their abodes a desolation when they are snatched away by the fierce anger of the Lord, whose power and hatred against sin they have disdainfully ignored (ver. 13).

In fervid rhythm the prophet winds up the first section of his book with a stirring description of the day so long expected—the day of the Lord. It is near, and hasteth greatly; the day wherein the mighty man shall cry bitterly when he sinks beneath the weight of divine wrath. It shall be “a day of trouble and distress, a day of wasteness and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of the trumpet and alarm!” No refuge will then avail, no high tower protect from the avenging hand of Him whom men have insulted to His face for so long. Like the blind who stumble in the daytime, they shall grope in their distress, only to fall into the pit prepared, “because they have sinned against the Lord.” The riches for which they have labored will be useless to save them. “Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them in the day of the Lord’s wrath.” He will not cease until He has made “a speedy riddance” of all who have defiled His land. The fire must burn till all the chaff be consumed (vers. 14-18).

To this, men are fast hastening on. For this, the Jews are even now returning in unbelief to their ancient home. For this, men are sacrificing every right and noble instinct, building, as has been well said, for the fire!

What sobriety and other-worldliness27 becomes the Christian in view of the end toward which everything is now hastening so rapidly! The day of the Lord is near. The Morning Star will soon shine forth. Be it ours then to live and act as men who wait for their Lord!

Chapter 2
The Judgments Of The Nations

It is a principle over and over again emphasized in the Scriptures that while God will overlook nothing in His people’s ways that merit its rebuke, He will, on the other hand, visit severest judgment on all who lift their hands against them. Philistia, Moab, Ethiopia, or Assyria, might be used of Him to chastise Israel; but they should not delight in such service, and glory over them. Because of their unholy hatred and vindictive spirit, their own punishment would be all the more severe.

This is all a picture of the time of the end. Judah then will be much in the position she occupied in Zephaniah’s day—in the land, surrounded by enemies, a feeble remnant, crying, “How long, O Lord?” the mass, apostate and swayed by Antichrist—and all this because of their rejection of Messiah when He came in grace. Therefore they must drink the cup of retribution to the dregs; but that cup emptied, the Lord will arise in His might as their Deliverer, and their enemies who have gloried over their helplessness shall become the objects of His avenging wrath, preparatory to the ushering in of the world-kingdom of our God and His Christ.

The three opening verses are a call to Judah with a view to the distinguishing of the remnant. The nation as such is not desired; they are no more lovely in His eyes. Polluted by sin and bearing the brand-marks of apostasy, Judah has become as a vessel wherein is no pleasure. But, ere the day of the Lord’s anger arrives, there is a summons for the faithful to gather together. As in Malachi’s day, they will speak often one to another, and will be drawn to their own company by a common tie and common interests. They are bidden to seek the Lord, to seek righteousness and meekness. Indeed, they are distinctively called, “Ye meek of the earth, which have wrought His judgment” (ver. 3).

Pretension is never becoming in fallen creatures, much less in a remnant in days of apostasy. Nor power nor great things are they to seek, but Jehovah Himself is to be their object, and therefore, necessarily, righteousness coupled with lowliness. It is the only suited state to such a company at such a time. No matter what the ruin that has come in throughout each succeeding dispensation, God has always had a remnant who have sought grace to walk in His truth. But there is ever danger of pride destroying such a testimony, and thus they who begin in weakness, owning their nothingness, become occupied with their fancied remnant place and character, in this way getting out of the very position they at first took in meekness.28

The true remnant will not be occupied with their remnant character, but with Him to whom they are separated. Such will not talk of being “the testimony,” or “Philadelphia,” but will be here to testify of Christ, and will seek to manifest Philadelphia (“brotherly love”) in their ways, while holding fast Christ’s word and not denying His name. Thus will they have His approbation in that day, if content to be unapproved of men in this. Satisfied to let the Lord act for them, they will be concerned about acting for Him. In His own time He will show what was truly of Himself, even as, in connection with Judah, the hour was about to strike when He would deal with the surrounding nations and the apostate mass, bringing to light the hidden things of darkness and making manifest the counsels of the heart.

Philistia must be one of the first powers destroyed, answering largely to corrupt Christendom; for the Philistines, of Egyptian origin, were dwellers in Canaan, who sought to hold all for themselves apart from divine title, and vauntingly gave their name, Palestine, to the whole land. It is religious pretension seeking to control all that stands for God, yet only an imitation like that false, corrupt church that for centuries dominated Christendom, and still claims, while but a fragment of the professing body, to be alone catholic and apostolic. Verses 4 to 7 relate to Philistia’s judgment and the deliverance of the despised Jewish remnant, picturing for us the overthrow of prelatic domination and the setting free of a Thyatiran residue (Rev. 2:24) at the coming of the Lord. For Judah and Philistia there has already been a carrying out of this prediction literally. A more complete fulfilment will take place in the last days.

Moab and Ammon (vers. 8-11) are, as often in the past, linked together, both being illegitimately descended from fallen Lot (Gen. 19:33-38). They too will be judged nationally in the last days, when the remnant of Jehovah’s people shall possess them. “This shall they have for their pride, because they have reproached and magnified themselves against the people of the Lord of hosts” (ver. 10). For centuries they have been under God’s hand. They shall be fully dealt with at the time of the end. For us they speak of those who, having a name to live, are dead: who, professing to be of the family of God, were never truly born again, but are “strange children,” in whom is no faith. We see them all about us in the so-called “church,” saying, “I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing,” while in God’s sight they are “wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.” It is the proud, Christless professors of the day who look with contempt and pity on any who seek to be guided only by the Word of God, and press the need of new birth giving life eternal.

Ethiopia and Assyria are appropriately joined together, Nineveh being the chief city of the latter (vers. 12-15). Man in the darkness of nature —the Ethiopian unable to change his skin—and man in his pride and haughtiness, having no sense of need whatever—of these do the two nations speak: on all, such desolation is soon to fall. We get a full description of Nineveh’s doom in Nahum’s prophecy. She shall never rise again. For Ethiopia there is yet hope, when she shall stretch out her hands unto God (Ps. 68:31).

The true significance of Nineveh is given in verse 15: “This is the rejoicing city that dwelt carelessly, that said in her heart, I am, and there is none beside me.” It is man all-sufficient in himself, utterly indifferent to God, living in pleasure on the earth, and nourishing his heart as in a day of slaughter. But the hour of his doom is about to strike, when he will learn that power belongs to God alone.

Chapter 3
The Remnant And The Lord In The Midst

The remark made in the notes on chapter 1, that we have here what answers largely to Philadelphia, is fully sustained in this last section. Here the mass are viewed in utter rejection of the truth, but the remnant are seen in weakness, yet holding fast the Word and the Name, while the Lord Himself is found “in the midst,” as He in the days of His flesh declared He ever would be where two or three were gathered together unto His name (Matt. 18:20).

It is Jerusalem, the most highly privileged of all cities, which is described in verse 1 as filthy and polluted. A fourfold indictment is drawn up in verse 2: “She obeyed not the voice; she received not correction; she trusted not in the Lord; she drew not near to her God!” Intensely solemn are these statements. Well may we search ourselves before Him who is called “He that is holy, He that is true,” that we may detect in our ways any departure answering to what is here charged against Jerusalem. Have we obeyed the voice? Have we received correction from the Word of God? Do we truly confide in the Lord, and draw near to our God? Serious questions are all these. May we answer in the fear of the Lord!

Verse 2 is collective. In verges 3 and 4 the various classes who should have been the leaders in the things of God are mentioned, and individually indicted. The princes were roaring lions, seeking only for prey; i. e., they sought their own profit, not the blessing of the flocks they should have shepherded. The judges were even worse—evening wolves, secretly devouring all they could obtain, while professing to administer justice. The prophets were triflers with holy things, handling the Word of God deceitfully, traitors to their trust. The priests, who should have been holy and undefiled, had polluted the very sanctuary itself with their uncleanness, and done violence to the law.

Thus, all had failed that God had established in responsibility. What then remained? Only this: “The just Lord is in the midst thereof; He will not do iniquity.” He remained “the faithful and true witness.” He, the Amen, was still the resource of every faithful heart, and in Him the heart of God could rest.

It is the manifestation of the Man of God’s pleasure when all else has been, humanly speaking, a disappointment. In the Millennium this will be seen in its fulness. It is to that time of blessing the passage applies. It is then that the words will be fulfilled: “Morning by morning doth He bring His judgment to light, He faileth not; but the unjust knoweth no shame” (ver. 5). Never will wickedness have risen to such a height as at the very time when the Lord descends to take the kingdom; but righteousness will then be firmly established, and morning by morning the wicked will be cut off. For centuries men have been warned of this, but then it will be actually carried into effect (vers. 6-8).

Then shall the confusion of Babel be undone, and the Lord will give to all peoples “a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of Jehovah, to serve Him with one consent” (ver. 9). From all the lands of their scattering He will bring His redeemed earthly people home to Zion, purging out pride and haughtiness, and making them willing in the day of His power (vers. 10, 11).

The apostate portion of the nation of Judah will be destroyed in the time of Jacob’s trouble, and at the appearing of the Son of Man; but He says, “I will also leave in the midst of thee an afflicted and poor people, and they shall trust in the name of the Lord. The remnant of Israel shall not do iniquity, nor speak lies; neither shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouth: for they shall feed and lie down, and none shall make them afraid” (vers. 12, 13). Thus are the faithful found in weakness and dependence, owned of the Lord, preserved in the midst of all the surrounding corruption, and made the nucleus of the kingdom when Gentile dominion and Jewish and Christian apostasy have alike been overthrown forever. It is the preserved virgin-company of Rev. 14:1-5, standing with the Lamb on Mount Zion when the glory is about to be displayed.

In the present time it is part of God’s ways to preserve likewise an afflicted and poor people who trust in His name. Such will be characterized by loving devotedness to Christ, by brotherly kindness, by integrity of heart, by the endeavor to maintain a conscience void of offence toward God and man, by holding fast the faithful Word, by not denying the name of the Lord, by consistent testimony to the world and the world-church for the absent One now rejected, by separation from evil, by following “righteousness, faith, love, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure (or single) heart.” This is the “original ground of gathering.” This is Philadelphian position. This alone constitutes a true remnant company. Such a path can only be maintained in the energy of faith. Nature can form a confederacy of assemblies based on mutual acceptance of certain guiding principles, or the bowing to assembly-judgments; but this is not faith, and only results in the formation of a system as rigid and unscriptural as any of the sects of men. It does away with the individual exercise of conscience, and substitutes the voice of the church for the voice of God in His Word.

In the last part of our chapter the book comes to a fitting close (vers. 14-20) by setting forth the day of display, when the hitherto despised remnant will be enjoying the unalloyed favor of the Lord for whose name they had borne reproach in restored Jerusalem, with Himself in their midst. For us, faith appropriates this now, and enters into the enjoyment of it in spirit.

Zion is called upon to sing; Israel, to shout. The day of gladness and rejoicing has arrived for Jerusalem; for the Lord will then have taken away her judgments and cast out her enemy. He Himself, the glorious King of Israel (once crucified outside the gate, on a felon’s cross, beneath the title, “This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”), will then dwell in the midst of the restored city and people, and they shall not see evil any more.

This will be their joy and blessing throughout the Millennium. To Jerusalem it shall be said, “Fear thou not;” and to Zion, “Let not thy hands be slack.” Loving service will follow full deliverance from all her foes. Again it is stated, “The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty.” To Him salvation is ascribed. He will rejoice over them with joy and rest in His love, joying over them with singing. It will be “the time of the singing” spoken of in the Canticles (2:12), when all redeemed creation, heavenly and earthly, will resound with songs of praise and exultation.

Once more Israel will keep her solemn assemblies, and her griefs will be changed to gladness. All who have afflicted her will be undone, and she who was driven away in weakness will be re-gathered in power. In every land where the people of the wandering foot had been put to shame, they will become objects of praise and fame when the Lord Himself shall make them “a name and a praise among all people of the earth, when I turn back your captivity before your eyes, saith the Lord” (ver. 20).

Thus are we brought again to the end of the ways of God with Israel on the earth; who, whatever their failures, are beloved for the fathers’ sakes.

Their portion is earthly. Ours is heavenly. But both alike are to contribute to the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ, and both alike shall be vessels for the display of the matchless grace of our God throughout all the ages to come.

26 Malcham is generally identified with Milcom, or Molech, whose abominable worship, with its human sacrifices, the Israelites were warned against when they first entered the land, but whose vile service many were early led to adopt.

27 I have purposely written, “other-worldliness.” Mere unworldliness is not enough. To walk apart from this world might make a nun or a monk. To walk in the power of another world will make a true ambassador for Christ.

28 Only lately I heard of one self-complacently locating the special company of Christians to which he was particularly attached as follows: God had called out a remnant in these last days. Certain meetings formed the remnant. Divisions had come in. A few remained on “divine ground,” and “alone had the Lord’s table.” It was like a biscuit: pieces had been broken off here and there, “but we remain the middle of the biscuit!” Could anything be more wretchedly pretentious in such a day?