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Bible Commentaries
Zephaniah 3

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This chapter contains the glorious climax of Zephaniah’s great prophecy in the last paragraph (Zephaniah 3:9-20). The first paragraph details the reason for the judgment of Jerusalem (Zephaniah 3:1-7), with Zephaniah 3:8 forming a bridge between two sections and relating both to the eternal judgment at the last day, the judgment of Jerusalem being a token of it, and the Messianic Age (Zephaniah 3:9-20) being climaxed by it.

No serious commentator on the Bible can ignore the arrogant denials of critical scholars who bluntly declare that, “Only the first few verses of the chapter are a genuine work of Zephaniah.”(F1) One has a right to expect that such assertions should be supported by some hard evidence; but this is never the case, simply because no evidence of any kind has ever been available. We are thankful for the forthright honesty of Graham who gave the reason allegedly supporting such radical conclusions. “The clearest indication that Zephaniah did not write the passage (Zephaniah 3:14-20) lies in the contrast (with this) and the rest of the book.”(F2) Thus, the only objection that scholars have to the passage is that it does not fit (in their view) the fierce denunciations found in the rest of Zephaniah. Why doesn’t it fit? Answer: the old critical bias invented in the nineteenth century to the effect that the same prophet could not prophecy both doom and salvation! Such a falsehood was never true, either in the eighteenth century or now. The greatest prophet of all, Jesus Christ, prophesied both doom and salvation, sometimes in the same breath. Who has never heard of heaven and hell? Furthermore, no less an authority than the apostles found Christ in all the prophets. Twice in three verses, the apostle Peter declared that “all of the prophets” spoke of Jesus Christ and of his glorious kingdom (Acts 3:18; Acts 3:20). The inspired apostles, schooled in the wisdom of Christ himself, therefore found Messianic import in Zephaniah, as in all the others; and it could be only the arrogance and conceit of evil men that would dare to oppose their subjective imaginations against that which is flatly declared to be a fact in the word of God. As a matter of truth, if men allowed the opponents of Holy Scripture to remove the Messianic portion of Zephaniah from his prophecy, it would vitiate and contradict the very purpose of those prophecies.

It should be noted that the two scholars just quoted are before the first third of this century (Smith, 1896, and Graham, 1929). Most of the current generation of scholars have rejected such radical views; and those still parroting them may be considered as uninformed. Every believer in the Word of God should resist with all of his strength the efforts of Satan (through his spokesman) to eliminate all references to the Messianic kingdom of Jesus Christ from Zephaniah and other prophets of God. We are happy indeed that many of the present generation of scholars are flatly rejecting the radical criticisms of the first half of this century.

Therefore, we receive this chapter of Zephaniah, along with the totality of it, as the true and inspired Word of God.

Verses 1-3

“Woe to her that is rebellious and polluted! to the oppressing city! She obeyed not the voice; she received not correction; she trusted not in Jehovah; she drew not near to God. Her princes in the midst of her are roaring lions; her judges are evening wolves; they leave nothing till the morrow.”

“No city is mentioned by name, but it is quite clear that Jerusalem is intended.”(F3)

The fashionable attitude today has led some to criticize Zephaniah because he did not denounce such sins as oppression and exploitation of the poor with the same emphasis as that found in Amos; but Zephaniah dealt more with the “cause” of such sins than with the particular excesses themselves. “The supreme sin of man’s inhumanity to man is the inevitable consequence of false religion dealt with in Zephaniah’s first two chapters.”(F4) In this light, perhaps the supreme sin should be understood as “false religion ? In any case, Zephaniah certainly dealt with the evils of injustice and exploitation in these very verses.

“Polluted” “This word is a term usually connected with blood (Isaiah 59:3; Lamentations 4:14).”(F5)

Zephaniah 3:2 carries a four-fold indictment of the proud and wicked Jerusalem:

She obeyed not the voice (of God).

She received not correction (by the true prophets).

She trusted not in Jehovah (but in the false gods).

She drew not near to God (but went farther and farther from him).

Zephaniah 3:3 begins the detail of wickedness on the part of the princes, judges, prophets, and priests who led the city in its corruption.

The princes and judges “practiced the violence and predatory oppression of wild beasts.”(F6) The princes were compared to lions and the judges to “evening wolves,” a comparison that has lived throughout history. “That leave nothing till the morrow” is added for the purpose of indicating that the false judges were even worse than wolves. The wolf, after killing the prey, will retain enough of it for him to gnaw on the remains during the next day until nightfall, the time for another kill. The false judges, however, made a clean end of their victims as soon as possible, leaving nothing “till the morrow.”

Verse 4

“Her prophets are light and treacherous persons; her priests have profaned the sanctuary, they have done violence to the law.”

“Her prophets” The New English Bible renders this concerning the prophets of Jerusalem as, “Her prophets were reckless, no true prophets.”(F7) Carson said of the priests and prophets:

“The prophets trimmed their message to court popularity; and the priests profaned their sacred task of teaching the law, violently altering its precepts… They were extravagant and arrogant in their own conceits.”(F8)

This word from Carson is especially appropriate today, when God’s people must again struggle with the arrogant and conceited imagination of God’s enemies.

“They have done violence to the law” Thus, in Zephaniah, as in all the prophets, there is the most emphatic evidence of the prior existence of the Pentateuch, the Torah, as being not merely in existence, but generally known by all the Hebrews. In fact, as repeatedly stated in this series, none of the prophets makes any sense at all apart from the certainty that all of them presuppose the existence of a covenant relationship between God and Israel, a relationship that had long existed, and which through centuries of neglect and abuse, Israel was in the process of rejecting.

Verse 5

“Jehovah in the midst of her is righteous, he will not do iniquity; every morning doth he bring his justice to light, he faileth not; but the unjust knoweth no shame.”

Jehovah had not hidden his word from the people. It was known to all, from the least to the greatest of them. The very existence of false priests and prophets was predicated upon the certainty of there having been at one time true priests and prophets. The alteration of God’s law by the false priests could not have been successful without the concurrence of popular support. The people simply did not wish to retain the knowledge of God and his word in their lives. “It was visible to all except those determined not to see… God’s standards of righteousness are as constant and visible as the natural law that ushers in the dawn every morning.”(F9)

“Jehovah… is righteous” One purpose of introducing this thought is to warn Israel, that even if they do change, God is righteous still; he will punish evil.

Verse 6

“I have cut off nations; their battlements are desolate; I have made their streets waste, so that none passeth by; their cities are destroyed, so that there is no man, so that there is no inhabitant.”

“I have cut off nations” It had been only a hundred years since God had cut off the northern kingdom, an event still fresh in the memory of Judah. Furthermore, throughout history, there had been many other examples of God’s displeasure with great and wicked civilizations, cut off forever by the divine displeasure due to their sins. This was introduced as a warning to Judah. As Hailey said:

“When God gave them the land of Canaan, he had told the people that it was not because of their righteousness but because of the wickedness of the inhabitants whom he was casting out (Deuteronomy 9:4-5), and that if they would forget him, he would likewise cast them out (Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28).”(F10)

Israel was called “Canaan” twice in this prophecy, meaning that they had become one in vile character with the pagans whom they had displaced, carrying the stern implication that what God had already done once to the old Canaan, he would do again to Israel (Zephaniah 1:11; Zephaniah 3:5).

Verse 7

“I said; Only fear thou me; and receive correction; so her dwelling shall not be cut off, according to .all that I have appointed concerning her: but they rose early and corrupted all their doings.”

“Only fear thou me” These are the words of God. His desire is that all men should fear and obey him. “Only the fear of God will bring about the correction of the evil against which judgment must otherwise come.”(F11)

“One can only shudder today at the church member whose twisted misinformation about the love of God has led him to a contemptuous familiarity which does not believe that one should or must fear Jehovah.”(F12)

As Deane said, “The fear of God is the one condition of salvation.”(F13) This should be interpreted as meaning that with the proper fear of God one will not hesitate to obey the commandments which are antecedent to the forgiveness of sins and to maintain such obedience to the best of one’s ability all the days of life. Anything else, is eternal death.

Verse 8

“Therefore wait ye for me, saith Jehovah, until the day that I rise up to the ,prey; for my determination is to gather the nations, that I may assemble the kingdoms, to pour upon them my indignation, even all my fierce anger; for all the earth shall be devoured with the fire of my jealousy.”

Despite the fact of Deane and other respected commentators understanding this verse as a prophecy of the nations “being converted”(F14) unto God, it appears to us that the verse must refer to the eternal judgment. “All the earth shall be devoured with the fire of my jealousy” could hardly apply to anything else. See chapter introduction for the manner in which this verse actually ties the preceding and succeeding paragraphs together. The great theme of Zephaniah is the judgment; and the doom of Jerusalem for their sins soon to executed upon them by the power of Assyria prompted this reference to the final judgment, of which Jerusalem’s judgment, like all similar judgments, was a pledge and token.

“Gather the nations” We agree with Bennett that this “does not mean that Jerusalem shall be the gathering place.”(F15) The “gathering” of this passage is a “harvesting” of the earth, the execution of the final judgment upon all men. This gathering of the nations is that of Revelation 16:14; and it is “to gather them together unto the war of the great day of God, the Almighty.”

“Therefore, wait ye for me” Such an exhortation is directed to the righteous remnant in all ages, who oppressed by the general wickedness of mankind and tending ever to discouragement are admonished to wait patiently for the fulfillment of God’s purpose upon the earth. Hailey’s comment on this clause is helpful:

“The exhortation `wait for Jehovah’ is a favorite with Isaiah, who uses it over and over. `They that wait for Jehovah shall renew their strength’ (Isaiah 40:31); `the isles shall wait for his law’ (Isaiah 42:4); `they that wait for me shall not be put to shame’ (Isaiah 49:23); `neither hath eye seen a God besides thee, who worketh for him that waiteth for him’“ (Isaiah 64:4).(F16)

“That I may assemble the kingdoms” This is parallel with the gathering of the nations, the purpose for which is stated in the next clause, “that I may pour upon them my indignation.” This assembling of the kingdoms of the earth will be orchestrated and controlled by Satan himself (the beast), as in this reference to it: “I saw the beast, and the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against him that sat upon the horse (the KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS), and his army” (Revelation 19:19). The imagery of a battle so strongly suggested here is, however, misleading. The so-called battle of Armageddon was prophetically revealed as not a traditional struggle at all, but a summary triumph of God. The beast and the false prophet, along with all the kings and their armies “were cast alive into the lake of fire that burneth with brimstone” (Revelation 19:20). That will be the day when God shall indeed “rise up to the prey!”

It is noteworthy that John D. W. Watts unequivocally assigned this verse eight to the final judgment. “The scene returns to the universal judgment with which the book began.”(F17)

Verse 9

“For then will I turn to the peoples a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of Jehovah, to serve him with one consent.”

“For then” is somewhat similar to “at that time,” or “in the day,” or “in the last days,” all of which are frequently used as references to the times of the Messiah. From here to the end of the chapter lies one of the most extensive and revealing Messianic passages in the whole Bible. “From this point forward, there is a new note of victory in Zephaniah.”(F18) Like all the true prophets of God, Zephaniah bore his witness to the coming Christ and his blessed kingdom (Acts 3:18; Acts 3:20). Carson went on to characterize this dramatic change in the tone of the prophecy as “so marked that some commentators insist that this section must belong to a much later period”;(F19) but all such reasonings appear to be grounded in a phenomenal unawareness of both Testaments. If any prophet should have omitted such encouragements as are in this chapter, he could not have fitted either the established pattern in the Old Testament, nor the affirmations of the New Testament.

“I will turn to the peoples a pure language” The essential thought behind this is unity of purpose and holiness of life. It is not that men may use better Hebrew, but that their hearts and lives should conform to the will of God, a characteristic distinctive of the redeemed “in Christ” who are “a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). “The essential thought finds utterance in plain prose in Jeremiah 32:39 and in Ezekiel 11:19-20,” where they are “predicated of Israel in the Messianic age,”(F20) as indeed they are here also.

It should also not be overlooked that the focus is not here upon secular Israel at all. It is not merely Israel that shall turn to God with a “pure language,” but all men. “This section is reminiscent of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11).”(F21) “It means the confusion of Babel shall be done away, and all shall speak the language of faith in one God.”(F22) Deane also added that, “This, of course, points to Messianic times.”(F23) In fact, the miracle of tongues on the Day of Pentecost was a token fulfillment of this promise.

Verse 10

“From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia my suppliants, even the daughter of my dispersed, shall bring mine offering.”

“From the rivers of Ethiopia” “The use of Ethiopia here is to include the most distant nations of all, Ethiopia being considered as far away as they could imagine.”(F24) The dominion of Messiah is universal, with no racial or national distinctions whatever.

“Even the daughter of my dispersed” “This expression often means the scattered people of Israel; but the parallels to Genesis 11 suggest that the scattered and confused peoples of the world are intended here.”(F25) Here again, light from the New Testament clarifies the passage. James addressed the whole New Testament Church as “The Twelve Tribes in the Dispersion” (James 1:1, RSV).

Verse 11

“In that day shalt thou not be put to shame for all thy doings, wherein thou hast transgressed against me; for then I will take away out of the midst of thee thy proudly exulting ones, and thou shalt no more be haughty in my holy mountain.”

“In that day” is another reference to Messianic times. It refers to the time “when the Gentiles shall be converted.”(F26)

“Thou shalt not be put to shame… for transgressions” The only way that the shame from transgressions can be removed is through the forgiveness of sins, to which there is undoubtedly a reference in these words, the same being another characteristic of Messianic times, as indicated in Jeremiah 31:31-35. “No one has any reason to be ashamed of the sin from which he was redeemed.”(F27)

The placement of these verses (Zephaniah 3:9-20) seems to place their fulfillment after the eternal judgment prophesied in Zephaniah 3:8; but as Keil noted, “All of this commenced to be fulfilled with the coming of Christ, and will be completely realized at his return to judgment.”(F28) The Old Testament prophets apparently did not distinguish between the First Advent and the Second Advent, consequently events connected with those occasions seem to be blended. It is only in the fuller light of the New Testament that their differentiation is made plain.

“Zephaniah sees beyond the events that are near, beyond the inequities of Judah and her neighbors, even beyond the events of the impending future to the time and the judgment of the end.”(F29)

Verse 12

“But I will leave in the midst of thee an afflicted and poor people, and they shall take refuge in the name of Jehovah.”

The great thrust of the gospel is to “the poor” and the “poor in spirit”; and the savage persecutions of the early ages of the church were plainly foretold in this prophetic description of the worldly status of God’s true followers in the present age. Paul also testified that, “not many mighty… not many noble were called” (1 Corinthians 1:26). In this is another great hallmark of Christianity and the entire Messianic age. The humble character of Christians is contrasted with the general attitude of unregenerated men. “In contrast to the proud and haughty revelers, these will be the afflicted who have committed themselves to the Lord and are dependent upon his mercy.”(F30)

Verse 13

“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.”

“The remnant of Israel” It is only the “remnant” of Israel that is to have any portion in the kingdom of Messiah; yet, strangely enough, none of the old secular Israel is excluded. There was never any prohibition against all of secular Israel accepting their Messiah; but it is revealed in all the prophets that only “the remnant” would choose to participate.

“Lies… deceitful tongue” God’s once chosen people had developed the art of falsehood and deceit into a science in which they were skilled indeed. In utter amazement, Jesus Christ denominated Nathaniel as “an Israelite in whom there is no guile” (John 1:47), which, in context, appears to be an indictment of the whole nation charging them with the very sins mentioned here. Honesty, straightforwardness, truth-speaking, and lack of deceit are further hallmarks of Christianity.

Verses 14-15

“Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem. Jehovah hath taken away thy judgments, he hath cast out thine enemy: the King of Israel, even Jehovah, is in the midst of thee: thou shalt not fear evil any more.”

This remarkable passage is one of the most amazing in the Old Testament. As for who “the King of Israel” is, who was prophesied to dwell in the midst of the redeemed people, Nathaniel identified him absolutely, “Rabbi (addressed to Jesus), Thou are the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel” (John 1:48). Dummelow and others missed the significance here in their complaint that, “Not the Messiah, but Jehovah himself is the promised King and Deliverer.”(F31) But why should this be hailed as something different? Is not Jesus Christ himself God come in the flesh? Of course, he is; and John’s gospel is totally dedicated to proving that very point; and Nathaniel’s great confession hailing Christ as “King of Israel” and “Son of God” has the status of a topic sentence for John’s entire gospel.

Thus, Zephaniah must be hailed as the Old Testament prophet who made it clear that the Prophet who would dwell among the people of his kingdom would actually be God Himself. The Greek New Testament declares no less than ten times that Jesus of Nazareth is that divine Person, the Dayspring from on High who has visited us, and who promised his church, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.” Deane, therefore, properly understood this passage as a reference “to the perpetual presence of Christ in the Church.”(F32)

“Daughter of Zion… daughter of Jerusalem” These are both synonyms for Israel”;(F33) but, of course, not the old Israel, but the New Israel of God (Galatians 3:29; Romans 9:6, etc.) is the Israel which is meant here.

If there had been any doubt of the Messianic thrust of this whole section, Zephaniah 3:14-15 are sufficient to have removed it. As Hanke confidently wrote: “This is a prophetic anticipation of the day when the King Messiah shall reign.”(F34)

Verse 16

“In that day it shall be said to Jerusalem, Fear thou not; O Zion let not thy hands be slack.”

According to Ironside, these words, “will be their joy and blessing throughout the Millennium.”(F35) This is profoundly true, of course, provided that the Millennium is understood to be the present period of the Church’s sojourn in the wilderness of her probation. The current theories of some kind of a Golden Age called the Millennium to take place after the Second Advent of Christ have no support in the Bible. The expression “a thousand years” is applied in the Book of Revelation to the entire current dispensation of God’s love; and the same period is also called “a little time,” and “a thousand, two hundred and three score days,” and “forty two months,” and “time and times and half a time”; and a careful study of Revelation requires all of them to be understood as a reference to the current age of the Church on earth. (See a full discussion in this in my commentary on Revelation, pp. 459-464.)

Both these verses (Zephaniah 3:16-17) are encouragement to the Church. They include admonition against fear, exhortation to diligence in the work of the Lord, and stimulate confidence and a feeling of security in the knowledge of the love and blessing of the Father.

Verse 17

“Jehovah thy God is in the midst of thee, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love; he will joy over thee with singing.”

(See the comment under Zephaniah 3:16, which is also applicable here.) All of these verses are part of the Messianic prophecy which concludes Zephaniah, and all of them deal with the felicity, confidence, security, and joy of Christ’s kingdom.

“Singing” is especially noticeable. The savage beats his tom tom; the Muslim shouts, “To prayer, to prayer!” from his minaret; the Jew intones the words of the Torah; but the Christian SINGS! In Christ has come to pass the marvelous prophecy of those “with songs of everlasting joy upon their heads!”

Verse 18

“I will gather them that sorrow for the solemn assembly, who were of thee, to whom the burden upon her was a reproach.”

“I will gather them that sorrow” Christ seems to have been very familiar with this passage, for, in the Sermon on the Mount, he said, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” The great concern of Christianity has always been for the meek, the poor, the lowly, the sorrowful. Thus, Zephaniah is still speaking of conditions within the kingdom of Christ. As Keil said:

“The fulfillment of all this commenced with the founding of the Christian church by the apostles for Judah and for the whole world, and has been gradually unfolded more and more through the spread of the name of the Lord and his worship among all nations.”(F36)

In Micah 4:6-7, a similar promise brings into the solemn assembly the lame, that which has been driven away, and the afflicted. No other system ever known to mankind has ever concerned itself with the downtrodden and dispossessed in the same degree as that which marks the onward sweep of the Christian religion.

We do not wish to leave this passage without pointing out that such scholars as Eaton and Carson believe there is a reference in these verses, by implication, to the Bridegroom, Christ, and to his holy Bride, the Church. Whether or not this is so may be questioned, but the intimacy of the terminology surely seems to suggest it. “He is further represented as the Bridegroom, who in his love for his Bride, now proclaims his joy, now falls into rapt silence.”(F37)

Verse 19

“Behold, at that time I will deal with all them that afflict thee; and I will save that which is lame, and gather that which was driven away; and I will make them a praise and a name, whose shame hath been in all the earth.”

This verse is addressed to the suffering saints of the new dispensation who continually suffer shame and contumely all over the earth; and if so, “at that time” would refer to the period of the final judgment upon the earth. It is most natural that the persecuted and oppressed should wonder, “O Master, the holy and true, How long I dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth” (Revelation 6:9). This verse is a promise that God will do it “at that time.” In the meanwhile, there is a lot of suffering in store for the redeemed still upon earth. The answer here corresponds to that which came from the throne of God, “That they should rest yet for a little while till their fellow servants… and brethren… shall have fulfilled their course” (Revelation 6:11). The glorious reward shall yet come in due season.

“In these closing verses of Zephaniah, the Messianic light burns brightest. In some verses, it is difficult to know; but here there is no doubt. The enemies of the people have been destroyed; the gathering of the faithful has been accomplished; Jehovah is in their midst; a praise and a name are theirs among all the people of the earth.”(F38)

Verse 20

“At that time will I bring you in, and at that time will I gather you; for I will make you a name and a praise among all the peoples of the earth, when I bring back your captivity before your eyes, saith Jehovah.”

Such a marvelous promise as that of Zephaniah 3:19 required the repetition of it, which is featured in the greater part of this verse; but perhaps it was for the sake of emphasizing “at that time,” as the moment of fulfillment, which from all indications points far away to the times of the end.

“When I bring back your captivity” This is sometimes applied to the return of the Babylonian exiles, and in which there doubtless was a partial and token fulfillment of this promise. However, we believe that something far more than that is intended here. “The expression is often (and possibly here) used metaphorically for the abolition of misery and the restoration to a happy condition (Deuteronomy 30:3; Job 42:10; Job 42:15; and Jeremiah 29:14).”(F39) Jesus referred to conversion from sin as “the release of the captives” (Luke 4:18).

“Before your eyes”

“So that we shall see what we now believe and hope for, the end of all our sufferings and chastisements, and losses, even the fullness of our Redemption. That which our eyes have looked for, our eyes shall behold and not another, the everlasting God as HE IS, face to face, saith the Lord!(F40)

Carson’s concluding comment was:

“Finally the Bridegroom brings home his Bride, and she sees at last with her own eyes all that her Lover and Lord has done for her… Zephaniah ends his prophecy with a shout of triumphant assurance echoing out of his heart and into ours, “The Lord hath said it!(F41)

That God Himself is the speaker in this prophecy is dramatically emphasized in these closing verses. As Hailey pointed out:

Note the use of the personal pronouns:

I will gather...

I will deal...

I will save...

I will make...

I will bring you in...

I will gather you...

I will make...

When I bring back your captivity before your eyes.(F42)

Note also that the word “gather” occurs no less than three times in Zephaniah 3:18-20, a term suggestive of the harvest at the end of the world, indicating that it is the final judgment of the Great Day that dominates the prophecy throughout, although there also appear many promises and blessings characteristic of the age of the church itself.

We praise the Lord for this inspired and inspiring prophecy of the ultimate triumph of righteousness over evil, which also provides the utmost confidence and assurance of the blessings of the Lord upon them who love his Name forever and ever. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Amen.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Zephaniah 3". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/zephaniah-3.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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