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Sunday, June 16th, 2024
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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Bible Commentaries
Zephaniah 2

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


The first three verses of this chapter must be understood in the light of the first chapter. Zephaniah established the theme of the whole prophecy as the judgment of all mankind (Zephaniah 1:1-3), and devoted the rest of the chapter to the judgment of Jerusalem and Judah, using terminology that includes glimpses of both the final judgment of all men, and the more immediate and particular judgment of Jerusalem. “He now exhorts the righteous to seek the Lord and strive after righteousness an humility, that they may be hidden in the day of the Lord”(F1) (Zephaniah 2:1-3). “These verses have the utility of distinguishing the remnant from the nation, which is not desired.”(F2) The stern tone of these verses is criticized by some because there is no mention of God’s mercy; but as Carson said, “We are not to understand that Zephaniah thought otherwise than that all our hopes of ultimate salvation begin in the mercy and grace of God.”(F3) Early nineteenth century critics in support of their subjective attacks upon the integrity of the prophecy usually removed these three verses as an interpolation or insisted that they were addressed to the Philistines;(F4) but such attacks upon the prophecy were incapable of being accepted. John D. W. Watts (1975), a highly respected, present-day scholar has this:

“(The passage) is addressed to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. The people of God are usually called “a people” and the word “nation” is used mainly for the heathen so that it became a synonym for heathen. But here Jerusalem is deliberately classed with foreign nations, as in Zephaniah 3:1-7. It had become so foreign in its ways that it seemed to belong more to them than to God.”(F5)

As for the allegations that these verses (or any other portion of the prophecy) are the work of some post-exilic “editor”; “There is no manuscript evidence for omission.”(F6) The arrogant subjective imaginations of Biblical critics are no valid substitute for MS authority. The “imaginations” of scholars today are no more trustworthy than were the imaginations of mankind before the flood, when “The imaginations of men were evil, and only evil, continually” (Genesis 6:5).

The balance of the chapter (Zephaniah 2:4-15) pronounces God’s judgment upon the heathen nations to the west, east, south, and north of Jerusalem, in such a manner as to present the judgments as a type of the Eternal Judgment, the general theme of the book. This echo of the Great Assize dominates Zephaniah and produces magnificent overtones of the Messianic Age and the kingdom of Jesus Christ.

Verse 1

“Gather yourselves together, yea, gather together, O nation that hath no shame.”

“Gather yourselves together” is a call for repentance.

“O nation that hath no shame” Many scholars comment on uncertainties in the text here; and Powis Smith has listed a number of possible translations of this place, thus:

“O nation unabashed; O nation undisciplined; O nation unlovable; O nation that does not desire to be converted to the law; O nation that never paled (at the fear of God); O nation not desired; O nation hated; O nation that hath no longing (after God).”(F7)

Despite all such possibilities, the general meaning is clear.

Verse 2

“Before the decree bring forth, before the day pass as the chaff, before the fierce anger of Jehovah come upon you, before the day of Jehovah’s anger come upon you.”

Scholars have long complained of the difficulties in the Hebrew text in this verse: “The verse is probably in some disorder: the first two clauses can hardly present the original text, and the last two clauses look like duplicates.”(F8) Despite such difficulties, however, we really have no problem with what the passage is saying. Bennett, after quoting Davidson (as above), stated that, “The intent or thrust of the verse is however surprisingly clear: the urgent need of repentance before the coming of the day of Jehovah.”(F9) Our own paraphrase of the verse is: “Repent in time !”

Verse 3

“Seek ye Jehovah, all ye meek of the earth, that have kept his ordinances; seek righteousness, seek meekness; it may be ye will be hid in the day of Jehovah’s anger.”

“All ye meek of the earth” This cannot possibly mean merely the meek and righteous remnant of Israel, proving that in this passage there is a much wider view reaching the ends of the earth and referring to the second “Israel” in the kingdom of Messiah, a “remnant” indeed, but nevertheless a remnant from which none of the old Israel will be excluded, provided only, that they truly wish to be included.

“It may be ye will be hid in the day of Jehovah’s anger” It is fashionable for present-day scholars to downgrade Zephaniah in this for his failure to mention God’s mercy, and for the uncertainty that seems to remain in the promise, “Ye may be hid.” We do not agree with any faultfinding. The cocksure attitude of modern theologians claiming eternal salvation on the basis of “faith alone,” and declaiming continually on the love and mercy of God does not echo the teachings of the Word of God. Even the apostle Paul said, “I count not myself to have apprehended” (Philippians 3:13); and, in Jesus’ picture of the eternal judgment (Matthew 25), those turned aside into eternal doom were precisely those who were the most cocksure that they were fully entitled to eternal life. Christ also asked, “Why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say” (Luke 6:46). As Deane also pointed out, “Even the righteous shall scarcely be saved (1 Peter 4:17-18).”(F10)

Criticism of this prophecy following the fashion just mentioned are also remiss in another way. If there is anything to the Old Testament at all, these words should be understood, not as the impressions and prognostications of Zephaniah at all, but as the Word of God. This is exactly the way we receive it. Satan is continually at work to discredit, in any manner possible, the Word of God, and especially its warning to rebellious men.

Verse 4

“For Gaza shall be forsaken, and Ashkelon a desolation; they shall drive out Ashdod at noonday, and Ekron shall be rooted up.”

The places condemned here were in Philistia, west of Jerusalem; and, taking the large view of this section to the end of the chapter, the four points of the compass are included in the sweeping condemnations. Although uttered in terminology with current meaning for the people of Zephaniah’s day, the prophecy, we believe, is typical of the final destruction of all the nations of the earth in the final judgment. In the first two clauses, “The Hebrew words here furnish an assonance that cannot be carried over into English.”(F11)

“For Gaza shall be forsaken” The two words in Hebrew for Gaza and forsaken are: [~’azzah] and [~’azubah],”(F12) and this type of pun is called paronomasia. Few scholars have tried to catch this in English; but Dummelow tried it: “Gaza shall be a ghastly ruin; and Ashkelon a deserted ash-heap.”(F13)

This prophecy of desolation of the coast of the Philistines (where these cities lay) was fulfilled, as indicated by the work of archeologists. Taylor commented that, “There is warrant, therefore, in Philistine history for these predictions of scattered populations and devastated cities.”(F14)

“They shall drive out Ashdod at noonday” This clause has a remarkable bearing on the allegation that the Scythian invasion is featured in Zephaniah’s prophecy. That popular theory is today disbelieved by many careful students, especially recent ones, who, as Galley said, “do not see any evidence of the Scythian invasion.”(F15) First, the thrust of the whole chapter concerns not a local and limited threat such as was posed by Herodotus’ tale of the Scythians. It is a worldwide situation that lies plainly in view. The north, east, west and south are all involved. Moreover, as Keil said, the nations mentioned seem to be, “To individualize the whole (world)… restricting the number (of nations mentioned here) to four, according to the four quarters of the globe.”(F16) But this reference to the fall of Ashdod at noonday, as generally agreed, envisions a short siege and quick fall of the city. Powis Smith has cited a number of ancient inscriptions using this terminology, thus:

“One of the inscriptions of Esarhaddon, found at Sinjirli, says, `Memphi, his royal city, in a half a day, I besieged, I captured, I destroyed it, I burned with fire.` The Moabite Stone likewise says, `I fought against it from the break of day till noon, and I took it.’“(F17)

But in Herodotus’ tale, the siege of Ashdod lasted twenty-nine years!(F18) Zephaniah’s prophecy, therefore, strongly suggests, not the Scythians, but the Assyrians.

Verse 5

“Woe unto the inhabitants of the sea-coast, the nation of the Cherethites. The word of Jehovah is against you, O Canaan, the land of the Philistines; I will destroy thee, that there shall be no inhabitant.”

“O Canaan” It was the excessive idolatry and debauchery of Canaan that led God to displace them with Israel; but, in the meanwhile Israel also had become “Canaan.” Therefore, Canaan is here a general term for the apostate and reprobate nations of the whole world. Sure, Philistia would be destroyed; but there is also a judgment here against that more comprehensive Canaan in the background.

“The nation of the Cherethites” The “Cherethites” were the same as the Philistines (1 Samuel 30:14; Ezekiel 25:16).

Verse 6

“And the sea-coast shall be pastures, with cottages for shepherds, and folds for flocks.”

Again, the scholars tell us of uncertainties in the text, suggesting all kinds of emendations, yielding a number of different shades of meaning. We may safely pass all of them by, for the picture of utter desolation still shines through in spite of the deterioration suffered by the text in transition through 2,500 years of history.

Verse 7

“And the coast shall be for the remnant of the house of Judah; they shall feed their flocks thereupon; in the houses of Ashkelon shall they lie down in the evening; for Jehovah their God will visit them, and bring back their captivity.”

When Jesus said, “The meek shall inherit the earth,” he said essentially what Zephaniah says here. The feeble fulfillment of this verse in the return of a few Israelites from Babylonian captivity is only a mere token of all this passage means.

“And bring back their captivity” Christ himself explained this phrase in Luke 4:18, where “releasing captives” means delivering from sin. Christ indeed came for the release of the captives, but he never got anybody out of jail, not even his friend and relative John the Baptist I This verse is, therefore, Messianic. The temporal description of blessings in Christ’s kingdom is a common feature of the prophets (Job 42:10; Hosea 6:11; Amos 9:14).

“The remnant” here does not at all mean exclusively a remnant of Judah. The remnant is a prophetic term for the redeemed of all ages. Deane was certainly correct in his observation that:

“The full accomplishment of this overthrow of Philistia is of a spiritual nature, and must be looked for in the Messianic era, when the kingdoms of the world become the kingdom of Christ; and so in the subsequent predictions.”(F19)

Carson also concurred in this understanding. “It is not simply that Judah will be restored nationally but that looking on down the centuries of time God’s chosen people, the new Israel of God will arise.”(F20)

Verse 8

“I have heard the reproach of Moab, and the revilings of the children of Ammon, wherewith they have reproached my people, and magnified themselves against their border.”

Moab and Ammon were east of Jerusalem. These peoples were akin to Israel through their ancestor Lot, but they were traditionally enemies of God’s people. Therefore, Ironside referred to the Moabites and Ammonites as “Strange children” of Abraham, similar to certain ’relatives’ of the Lord in our own times, “Christless professors who look with contempt and pity on any who seek to be guided only by the Word of God.”(F21)

Verse 9

“Therefore, as I live, saith Jehovah of hosts, the God of Israel, Surely Moab shall be as Sodom, and the children of Ammon as Gomorrah, a possession of nettles, and salt-pits, and a perpetual desolation: the residue of my people shall make a prey of them, and the remnant of my nation shall inherit them.”

The same spiritual application of the promises here as that given above in connection with the Philistines is appropriate. The recurrence of the word “remnant” is significant, as is also the mention of Sodom and Gomorrah, proverbial symbols of God’s judgment. “The same words are used in the New Testament to describe Christ’s victory (Matthew 12:29).”(F22) That passage cited by Watts is a definite reference to the conversion of men to Christ.

Of course, there was also an immediate and literal fulfillment of the destruction of those nations, as cited by Hailey:

“Nelson Glueck, the famous Jewish archeologist, has located hundreds of rock-strewn ruins of ancient villages and towns of Moab, Ammon, and Edom, which bear mute testimony to the prophet’s inspiration.”(F23)

Deane also mentioned the complex fulfillment of this prophecy thus:

“The old towns and villages are all deserted and in ruins. In fact, there is not at this moment a single inhabited town or village in Moab, except Kerak, which stands on the extreme southern border (Published in 1950).”(F24)

Verse 10

“This shall they have for their pride, because they have reproached and magnified themselves against the people of Jehovah of hosts.”

For centuries, Moab and Ammon had spoken against God’s people; and Moab in particular, in the persons of Balak and Balaam, had been the architect of the wanton seduction of Israel at Baal-Peor, which event issued finally in the complete apostasy of Israel. Moab and Ammon, while real enough in themselves, are in this prophecy a type of worldly opposition to the Word of God continually throughout history. God will eventually requite his enemies in the most appropriate manner.

Verse 11

“Jehovah will be terrible unto them; for he will famish all the gods of this earth; and men shall worship him, every one from his own place, even all the isles of the nations.”

Here again, there are Messianic overtones of overwhelming significance. In John 4:23 f, Christ spoke of a time when men would worship neither in Jerusalem nor in Gerizim but, “The true worshippers shall worship him in spirit and in truth.” As Gill said, “This was more than an after-thought on Jesus’ part. It was the main thrust of the Old Testament.”(F25) Of course, Zephaniah’s promise here contains that very promise. Furthermore, “Zephaniah’s promise is that when all the false gods are made desolate, famished by God, every man will worship God in his own place, even the isles of the nations.”(F26)

“The isles of the nations” “This means the most distant countries that lie across the seas (Genesis 10:5; Psalms 72:10; Isaiah 11:11, etc.).”(F27) (See further notes on Zephaniah 2:11 at the end of the chapter.)

Verse 12

“Ye Ethiopians also, ye shall be slain by my sword.”

Commentators usually point out that for a century prior to the times of Zephaniah, Egypt had been ruled by an Ethiopian dynasty; and, accordingly, they accept the view that this is a reference to the Egyptians. However, God certainly knew the word for the Egyptians, and our view is that if he had meant that, he would have said it. The reference is to the most southern kingdom that was known by the world of that period; and it is Zephaniah’s purpose of including the south in this universal montage of judgment which forms the fabric of his prophecy in this chapter.

“Shall be slain by my sword...” “This sword of Jehovah was put in the hand of Nebuchadnezzar for the execution of God’s will against Tyre (Ezekiel 29:17-20; Ezekiel 30:24-25).”(F28) From this we learn that whenever God’s will is to be executed against a sinful nation, the sword of God’s wrath is always available in the hands of another wicked and ruthless nation ready to use it. The king of Assyria was called God’s razor by Isaiah (Isaiah 7:20).

Verse 13

“And he will stretch out his hand against the north, and destroy Assyria, and will make Nineveh a desolation, and dry like the wilderness.”

“The north” Thus Zephaniah touches all the cardinal points of the compass. That anyone prior to the time when Assyria fell, about 612 B.C., would have dared to prophesy the destruction of so proud and powerful a city is simply incredible, from the human standpoint; and even Zephaniah did so only because he knew that he was declaring the true Word of God. Furthermore, all efforts to make it appear that such a thing as the fall of Assyria could have been calculated to take place merely upon the basis of astute political understanding are frustrated by the facts of the actual fall itself. On the night it fell, the king of Assyria declared a big banquet to celebrate the victory of the city over her besiegers. Neither the world of that day nor the Assyrians supposed that their fall was even possible. All allegations that the empire had been tottering for a decade or so, and that Zephaniah was aware of this are unhistorical speculations and manifestly untrue.

Zephaniah’s reference to Assyria’s being in the north, despite the fact of its actual situation northeast of Jerusalem should not be pressed. As Deane said, “Though this country lay to the northeast of Palestine, its armies attacked from the north; and it is usually spoken of as a northern power.”(F29)

The destruction of Assyria and the fulfillment of God’s prophecies against that proud and wicked nation were fully discussed in our commentary on Nahum, above; and it is not necessary to add very much here.

“Dry like a wilderness” From the human standpoint, Zephaniah must have thought this prophecy was impossible of fulfillment, for Nineveh was situated upon the world-renowned Tigris river. But that did not prevent the sands of the desert rolling over the city within two brief decades of the date of Zephaniah’s prophecy. Watts wrote: “Nineveh was destroyed in 612 B.C., about two decades after this was spoken.”(F30) Within only two hundred years, the very knowledge of Nineveh had faded from the earth:

“Her destruction was complete. Xenophon, passing the site in B.C. 401 was able to learn only that a great city had once occupied the spot and had been destroyed because Zeus had deprived its inhabitants of their wits!”(F31)

Afterward, Nineveh disappeared even farther from the memory of mankind:

“The utter destruction of the Assyrian capital is a fact of history. It was so completely destroyed that its very location was lost to the memory of man until the nineteenth century when its was discovered by archeologists.”(F32)

Verse 14

“And herds shall lie down in the midst of her, all the beasts of the nations; both the pelican and the porcupine shall lodge in the capitals thereof; their voice shall sing in the windows; desolation shall be in the thresholds: for he hath laid bare the cedar work.”

This verse is a further delineation of the desolation of Assyria. Space is taken up in a number of commentaries regarding whether or not “pelican” and “porcupine” are properly rendered, some suggesting other creatures than these given in our version. Uncertainties in the text and the very antiquity of the passage have contributed to the perplexity; but such problems are of very little significance. The point is that wild creatures (of what name, exactly, is immaterial) will take over the once proud city. As Nahum put it, “There shall be no healing of thy bruise.” Nor did any healing of it ever come.

Verse 15

“This is the joyous city that dwelt carelessly, that said in her heart, I am, and there is none besides me: how is she become a desolation, a place for beasts to lie down in! Every one that passeth by her shall hiss, and wag his head.”

“Shall hiss, and wag his head” That such scornful and deprecatory conduct really occurred during the generations that knew the proud Nineveh would appear to have been certain, as attested by the traditions that survived into the times of Xenophon. (See quotation from Smith under Zephaniah 2:13, above.)

“I am, and there is none besides me” “Thus, in effect, Nineveh claimed for herself the attributes of Almighty God. In this, she stands alone, mistress among nations, a type of the powers of this world which deify themselves and defy the Lord.”<32a> This is also revealed as the attitude of the great whore depicted in the prophecy of Revelation (Revelation 18:7). “These words also echo Isaiah (Isaiah 47:8).”(F33)

In our study of Nahum, above, it was pointed out that Assyria, the second head of the scarlet Sea Beast of Revelation 13, was for centuries a focal point of the world’s rebellion against God. In her judgment and destruction, therefore, there is contained the prophecy of the ultimate overthrow of all successive crystallizations of human opposition to the will of God. It is in this context that the prophecy exhibits such striking echoes of eternal judgment. Assyria was preceded by Egypt and followed by Babylon in the progression of the Scarlet Beast throughout history, one head after another rising to oppose God and then falling under his judgment.

Note on Zephaniah 2:11. Before leaving this chapter, we wish to call attention once more to the prophecy in Zephaniah 2:11, that “God will famish all the gods of earth.” This never happened until the times of the Messiah. It is true, of course, that Israel no longer worshipped the pagan gods of Canaan after the Babylonian captivity; but the whole world lay in idolatry until the times of Jesus and for nearly four centuries afterwards. The entire Pantheon of the pagan deities was very much alive and in business during the first century when the savage persecutions were mounted against Christianity.

And yet the prophecy was indeed fulfilled. The Emperor Theodosius in 389 A.D. outlawed the pagan temples and proscribed the worship of pagan deities. As Hailey expressed it, “Men would see God’s glory and worship him. The idols are long since gone.”(F34) Yes, there are still idols that are worshipped by men; but, as for that great Pantheon of the gods of Greece and Rome, no vestige of them whatever may be found in the whole world.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Zephaniah 2". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/zephaniah-2.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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