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I. HEADING 1:1
What follows is the word that Yahweh gave to Zephaniah during the reign of King Josiah of Judah (640-609 B.C.). This "word" includes all that the Lord told the prophet that He also led him to record for posterity (cf. Hosea 1:1; Joel 1:1; Micah 1:1). This was a divine revelation that God gave through one of His servants the prophets.
Zephaniah recorded his genealogy, the longest genealogy of a writing prophet in any prophetical book. It goes back four generations to Zephaniah’s great-great-grandfather, or possibly more distant relative, Hezekiah. As noted in the "Writer" section of the Introduction above, it is impossible to prove or to disprove that this Hezekiah was the king of Judah with that name. Chronologically he could have been since people married quite young during Israel’s monarchy. I think this Hezekiah probably was the king since the name was not common and since it would make sense to trace the prophet’s lineage back so far if Hezekiah was an important person (cf. Zechariah 1:1). [Note: See ibid., p. 898; Smith, pp. 182-83; G. A. Smith, The Book of the Twelve Prophets, Commonly Called the Minor, p. 46; and Baker, p. 91.] Normally the writing prophets who recorded their ancestors named only their fathers (cf. Jonah 1:1; Joel 1:1). We have no complete genealogy of King Hezekiah’s descendants in the Old Testament.
Yahweh revealed that He would completely remove everything from the face of the earth (cf. 2 Peter 3:10-12). This is one of the most explicit announcements of the total devastation of planet Earth in the Old Testament (cf. Isaiah 24:1-6; Isaiah 24:19-23). While it may involve some hyperbole, it seems clearly to foretell a worldwide judgment.
"Its imminent reference, some think, was to the fact that the barbaric Scythians, who had left their homeland north of the Black Sea, were sweeping over western Asia and might be expected to attack Judah at any moment. The ruthless Scythians employed the scorched earth policy with fury and vengeance." [Note: Hanke, p. 884.]
A. The judgment on the world 1:2-3
Zephaniah presented three graphic pictures of the day of the LORD. [Note: Warren W. Wiersbe, "Zephaniah," in The Bible Exposition Commentary/Prophets, pp. 426-27.] The first is that of a devastating universal flood.
II. THE DAY OF YAHWEH’S JUDGMENT 1:2-3:8
Zephaniah’s prophecies are all about "the day of the LORD." He revealed two things about this "day." First, it would involve judgment (Zephaniah 1:2 to Zephaniah 3:8) and, second, it would eventuate in blessing (Zephaniah 3:9-20). The judgment portion is the larger of the two sections of revelation. This judgment followed by blessing motif is common throughout the Prophets. Zephaniah revealed that judgment would come from Yahweh on the whole earth, Judah, Israel’s neighbors, Jerusalem, and all nations. The arrangement of this judgment section of the book is chiastic.
A Judgment on the world Zephaniah 1:2-3
B Judgment on Judah Zephaniah 1:4 to Zephaniah 2:3
C Judgment on Israel’s neighbors Zephaniah 2:4-15
B’ Judgment on Jerusalem Zephaniah 3:1-7
A’ Judgment on the all nations Zephaniah 3:8
This verse particularizes the general statement in Zephaniah 1:2 (cf. Genesis 1:1-31). The Lord will remove animal life, not that plants will survive-if animals die, plants will undoubtedly die too-, but animal life was His focus of interest. This includes human beings, beasts of all types, birds, and fish, in other words, animal life on the land, in the air, and in the water. Ruins still standing from previous destructions, or perhaps false religious practices that have caused people to stumble, would perish, as would the wicked. The Lord repeated that He would cut off man to make that fact indisputable. This would be a reversal of Creation (cf. Genesis 1:20-26) and a judgment similar to the Flood in its scope (Genesis 6:17; Genesis 7:21-23).
Does this prophecy refer to the judgments that will come during the Tribulation (Revelation 6-18) or at the end of the Millennium (2 Peter 3:10; Revelation 20:11-15)? In view of what follows in this section describing judgment, especially Zephaniah 3:8, the parallel passage to Zephaniah 1:2-3, I think it refers to the Tribulation judgments.
B. The judgment on Judah 1:4-2:3
Zephaniah gave more particulars concerning the fate of Judah (Zephaniah 1:4 to Zephaniah 2:3) and Jerusalem (Zephaniah 3:1-7) than about the fate of the rest of humanity (Zephaniah 1:2-3; Zephaniah 2:4-15; Zephaniah 3:8). He did this both in the section of the book dealing with coming judgment and in the section about blessing. In the section on blessing he gave only one verse to the purification of the nations (Zephaniah 3:9) but 11 to the transformation of Israel (Zephaniah 3:10-20).
Yahweh announced that He would stretch out His hand in judgment against Judah and the people of Jerusalem. Stretching out the hand is a figure of speech that implies a special work of punishment (cf. Exodus 6:6; Deuteronomy 4:34; 2 Kings 17:36; Isaiah 14:26-27; Jeremiah 27:5; Jeremiah 32:17; et al.). He promised to cut off the remnant of Baal worshippers who remained in Judah, or perhaps the temple (cf. Deuteronomy 12:5; Deuteronomy 12:11; 1 Kings 8:29-30; Ezekiel 42:13), as well as the priests of Baal and the unfaithful priests of Yahweh. He would also terminate their reputations and the memory of them (cf. 2 Kings 23:5; Hosea 10:5).
This reference has suggested to some interpreters that Zephaniah wrote after Josiah began his reforms since Josiah revived the worship of Yahweh and tried unsuccessfully to eliminate idolatry (2 Chronicles 34:4). However, this verse may simply mean that the Lord would judge the idolaters in Judah, "Baal" being a figure (synecdoche) for all idolatry.
"Wherever excitement in religion becomes an end in itself and wherever the cult of ’what helps’ replaces joy in ’what’s true,’ Baal is worshiped." [Note: Motyer, p. 912.]
1. The cause for Judah’s judgment 1:4-6
The Lord would also judge those who worshipped the sun, moon, stars, and planets, which the idolatrous Israelites did on their flat housetops (cf. Deuteronomy 4:19; 2 Kings 21:3; 2 Kings 21:5; 2 Kings 23:4-5; Jeremiah 19:13). He would also punish the Judeans who worshipped both Yahweh and the pagan gods of the nations (cf. 2 Kings 16:3; 2 Kings 21:6; Jeremiah 32:35). "Milcom," (Molech, the god of Ammon; 1 Kings 11:33), probably represents all foreign gods. Swearing to and by a deity meant pronouncing an oath that called on that god to punish the oath-taker if he or she failed to do what he or she promised. Swearing by another god involved acknowledging its authority, which God forbade in Israel.
Judgment would come, too, on all God’s people who had apostatized, namely, departed from loving and following Yahweh, and had stopped praying to Him. They might not have participated in pagan idolatry, but if their love had grown cold, they were still guilty (cf. Revelation 2:1-7). The Lord commanded His people to love Him wholeheartedly (cf. Deuteronomy 6:5). They may have forgotten Him, but He had not forgotten them.
"Sometimes it is the apathetic and indifferent who are more responsible for a nation’s moral collapse than those who are actively engaged in evil, or those who have failed in the responsibilities of leadership." [Note: Peter C. Craigie, Twelve Prophets, 2:114.]
In this pericope the prophet identified three types of idolatry: "the overtly pagan, the syncretistic, and the religiously indifferent." [Note: Hannah, p. 1526.] Practitioners of all three would draw punishment from Yahweh.
How does this promise to judge the Israelites harmonize with the earlier prophecy that God would destroy the whole earth (Zephaniah 1:2-3)? This is an example of a prophet’s foreshortened view of the future in which he could not see the difference in time between some events that he predicted (cf. Isaiah 61:1-3; Daniel 11:35-36; et al.). God judged Israel when the Babylonians overran Judah and destroyed Jerusalem in 586 B.C. He will also judge the Israelites in the Tribulation (cf. Jeremiah 30:7; Revelation 6-18; et al.). Zephaniah described God’s judgment of the people of Judah without specifying exactly when He would judge them. Most of what Zephaniah prophesied in this pericope found fulfillment, at least initially, in 586 B.C.
In view of the inevitability of coming judgment for idolatry, it was appropriate for the Judeans to be quiet before sovereign Yahweh (cf. Habakkuk 2:20).
"This is a call to the people of Judah to cease every manner of opposition to God’s word and will, to bow down in submissive obedience, in unconditional surrender, in loving service, to their Covenant God." [Note: T. Laetsch, The Minor Prophets, p. 358.]
This is Zephaniah’s first reference to the day of the Lord, to which he referred 24 times in this book. [Note: For a brief excursus on the day of the Lord, see Robert B. Chisholm Jr., "A Theology of the Minor Prophets," in A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, pp. 417-18.]
|References to the day of the LORD as a time of judgment||References to the day of the LORD as a time of blessing|
|The day of the LORD Zephaniah 1:7; Zephaniah 1:14 (2)||That day Zephaniah 3:11; Zephaniah 3:16|
|The day of the LORD’s sacrifice Zephaniah 1:8||That time Zephaniah 3:19-20|
|That day Zephaniah 1:9-10; Zephaniah 1:15||The time Zephaniah 3:20|
|That time Zephaniah 1:12|
|A day of the LORD’s wrath Zephaniah 1:18|
|The day Zephaniah 2:2; Zephaniah 3:8|
|The day of the LORD’s anger Zephaniah 2:2-3|
|A day Zephaniah 1:15 (5), Zephaniah 1:16|
The day of the Lord was a time when God works, in contrast to man’s day in which he works.
"As employed by the prophets, the Day of the Lord is that time when for His glory and in accordance with His purposes God intervenes in human affairs in judgment against sin or for the deliverance of His own." [Note: Patterson, p. 310.]
Here the prophet announced that the Lord’s day was near; He was about to intervene in human history (e.g., the Flood). The Lord had prepared a sacrifice, namely, Judah (cf. Isaiah 34:6; Jeremiah 46:10), and He had set apart "guests" to eat it, namely, the Babylonians (cf. Jeremiah 10:25; Habakkuk 1:6). Another view is that the invited guests were the Judeans who, ironically, would also serve as the sacrifice. [Note: Baker, p. 95.]
2. The course of Judah’s judgment 1:7-13
Zephaniah’s second picture of the day of the LORD is that of a great sacrifice.
When the Lord slew Judah like a sacrifice, He would punish the king’s sons and those who wore foreign clothing. The king’s sons, the future rulers of the nation, bore special responsibility for conditions in the land. Josiah’s sons did indeed suffer Yahweh’s punishment. Jehoahaz was taken captive to Egypt (2 Kings 23:34). Jehoiakim was defeated by Nebuchadnezzar and died in Jerusalem (2 Kings 24:1-6). Josiah’s grandson, Jehoiachin, was taken captive to Babylon (2 Kings 24:8-16). The last son of Josiah to rule over Judah, Zedekiah, was blinded and also taken captive to Babylon (2 Kings 24:18 to 2 Kings 25:7). Wearing foreign garments evidently expressed love and support for non-Israelite values and so incurred God’s wrath (cf. Numbers 15:38; Deuteronomy 22:11-12).
The Lord would also punish those who leaped over the thresholds of their neighbors in their zeal to plunder them and who filled the temple with gifts taken through violence and deceit. Another view of leaping over the threshold is that this expression describes a superstition that anyone who walked on a building’s threshold would have bad luck (cf. 1 Samuel 5:5). In this case the temple in view might be the temple of Baal. "Their lord" is literally "Their Baal" (cf. Zephaniah 1:4).
When the Lord brought judgment on Judah, there would be crying out from various parts of Jerusalem representing the total destruction of the city. The Fish Gate was the gate through which the fishermen normally entered the city with their catches. It was a gate that pierced Jerusalem’s north wall close to the fish market (cf. 2 Chronicles 33:14; Nehemiah 3:3; Nehemiah 12:39). It was probably through this gate that Nebuchadnezzar entered Jerusalem since he invaded it from the north. The Second (or New) Quarter was a district of Jerusalem northwest of the temple area (cf. 2 Kings 22:14; 2 Chronicles 34:22). The hills may refer to the hills on which Jerusalem stood or the hills surrounding the city or both. In any case, the Babylonian army doubtless caused loud crashing on all the hills in and around Jerusalem as the soldiers destroyed the whole city and its environs.
Zephaniah called the inhabitants of the Mortar, the market or business district of Jerusalem, to wail because judgment was coming. This section of Jerusalem may have received the name "mortar" (bowl) because it lay in the somewhat geographically depressed Tyropoeon Valley. The Canaanites who did business there would fall silent because business would cease. Those who weighed silver as they conducted commercial transactions would also perish from the city.
The Lord would search among the residents of Jerusalem carefully then, as one searches by using a lamp (cf. Luke 15:8). He would punish the people whose love for Him had stagnated, like wine left undisturbed too long (cf. Revelation 3:15-16), and who concluded indifferently that He was complacent and would not act (cf. Isaiah 32:9; Ezekiel 30:9; Amos 6:1).
The treasures of the Jerusalemites and all the Judeans would become plunder for the enemy, and their houses would become vacant if not destroyed. They would build houses but not be able to live in them because the Babylonian invasion would come quickly. They would plant vineyards but not be able to drink their wine for the same reason (cf. Leviticus 26:32-33; Deuteronomy 28:30; Deuteronomy 28:39; Amos 5:11; Micah 6:15).
"Rather than condemning the use of alcohol, as the passage could be understood (NEB), Zephaniah condemns apathy." [Note: Ibid., p. 98.]
Zephaniah reported that this great day of the Lord was near, very near, and coming very quickly. His hearers needed to realize that it would be a day in which Yahweh would act (cf. Zephaniah 1:12). When it came, warriors would cry out bitterly because that day would involve fierce fighting. The first deportation of Judeans to Babylon came in 605 B.C. not many years from whenever Zephaniah must have first announced this message.
3. The imminence and horrors of Judah’s judgment 1:14-18
Zephaniah’s third picture of the day of the LORD is that of a great battle.
The prophet wanted to emphasize the danger his complacent hearers faced even more strongly. He described the effects of the day of the Lord on people by using five synonymous word pairs. If would be a day marked by emotional distress and anguish as well as physical destruction and devastation. The prophet described the terror as darkness and gloom, and clouds and blackness. Trumpet blast and battle cry picture the tumult of that day. The fortified cities of Judah would face invasion, and the high corner towers of their walls would come under siege.
The Lord would distress His people so severely that they would grope around as though they were blind. He would do this because they had sinned against Him (cf. Deuteronomy 28:28-29). Their precious blood would lie all over the ground like common dust, and their dead flesh would lie in the streets like putrid, decaying dung.
"Humans may categorize their sins into the serious, the mediocre, and the insignificant. To Zephaniah (see James 2:10-11) the mere fact of sin excited and merited the whole weight of divine rage. The simple statement ’they have sinned’ is sufficient." [Note: Motyer, p. 924.]
The Judeans would not be able to buy themselves out of their trouble when the Lord poured forth His wrath (cf. Ezekiel 7:19). He would devour the whole earth with the fire of His jealous rage, jealousy provoked by His people’s preference for various forms of idolatry (Zephaniah 1:4-6). He would destroy completely and terribly all the inhabitants of the earth (cf. Zephaniah 1:2-3; cf. Joel 2:1-11).
The comprehensive nature of this judgment suggests that at this point the prophet’s perspective again lifted to what we can now see will be the eschatological fulfillment of this prophecy. The Babylonian invasion only previewed it. Another possibility is that we should understand "all the earth" as referring only to the Promised Land. However, other descriptions of the worldwide extent of God’s eventual judgment of sin and sinners in this book and others make this interpretation unattractive.
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Zephaniah 1". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/
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