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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Zephaniah 3

Verses 1-2

Woe to the Rebellious City (3:1-2)

The prophet’s first declaration is a word of "woe" upon this city, together with a fourfold explanation of the threat: Jerusalem has not accepted correction; she has not listened to the voice of God as communicated through the prophets; she does not trust God; she does not draw near to him in penitent worship. Because of this recalcitrance she may expect disaster on the Day of the Lord.

Verses 1-8

The Indignation of the Lord (3:1-8)

The final chapter of the Book of Zephaniah is a mixture of elements of varied character, the first ones threatening but the later ones sounding a strong cry of encouragement. Verses 1-2 appear to be transitional, continuing the spirit of the prophecies against the foreign nations but bringing the direct application of God’s indignation back to Jerusalem. Although the rebellious, defiled, and oppressing city is not named in the section which refers to it (Zephaniah 3:1-7), it is clear from the pronouns and from the references to the Lord and to the Law that it is Jerusalem.

Verses 3-5

Wicked Leaders and Righteous God (3:3-5)

The next section of the statement regarding Jerusalem specifies four groups of leaders and characterizes their sins, using the imagery of wild animals and also more conventional religious language. Ezekiel 22:25-28 and Micah 3 provide parallels to this passage, enlarging on the details. The "officials" are members of the nobility; the "judges" represent members of the ruling class, the elders of good family who met regularly in the gate of the city to settle disputes. Instead of being shepherds (as the ideal ruler appears in Micah 5:4 and in Zechariah 11:4), these rulers are like the wild animals that immediately tear and devour whatever prey falls their way. But priests and prophets are no better; they are men without character who do not preserve the distinction between holy and profane and who provide instruction which does violence to the true guidance of God found in the Law.

Only the Lord does no wrong within the rebellious city; he remains constant and is always righteous. Evidence of his justice is to be seen daily at the return of the dawn. Men continue to yield to the temptations that come with power and positions of leadership, and soon lose any sense of shame in the evil they do; only God is always righteous.

Verses 6-7

The Unlearned Lesson (3:6-7)

The prophet speaks for the Lord, pointing to the destruction which has been wrought on other nations, and calling attention to the lesson such destruction should have brought to Jerusalem. Nations have been "cut off"; they are desolate and in ruins following the destruction of war. But the lesson which Jerusalem and Judah might have learned through such devastation has been lost. Her people or her leaders ("they" is indefinite) eagerly make their deeds yet more corrupt.

Verse 8

The Decisive Day of Wrath (3:8)

Thus far in the third chapter the prophet (or his editor) has centered attention on the rebellion of Jerusalem, on the character of its leaders, and on the refusal to learn the lesson of the conquered cities of neighboring nations. In all of this there has been no reference to the central theme of the book, the Day of the Lord. Now, in a transitional verse, we hear the voice of the Lord promising his decisive day of the gathering of the nations for the outpouring of his wrath.

The outpouring of wrath threatens the destruction of all the earth, for the Lord has decided to gather the various nations to hear his "witness." Whereas in Micah 6, God calls upon the hills and mountains to listen to his testimony against his people, here the witness is against all the assembled nations of the world. No one can escape the heat of his anger. Zephaniah, like his contemporaries, Jeremiah and Habakkuk, is concerned with the evil in all men, not just with the evil of the people of God.

In what spirit is the command to "wait" uttered? Addressed to a plural subject, it is not an invitation to the prophet to see God carry out his plans upon all peoples. It is rather an invitation to any believers who will hear to await quietly the destructive action of God in the hope of survival and blessing (compare Zephaniah 2:3; Zephaniah 2:7). The prophets seldom expressed the threats of God without permitting the pious listener to sense some indication of hope.

Verses 9-10

Gentile Conversion and Jewish Return (3:9-10)

Speaking in the first person, for God, and using an expression parallel to the familiar "on that day," the prophet (or his editor) announces two important developments, which presumably will follow the outpouring of the wrath of God. The one concerns the Gentile peoples who have not served the Lord, while the other affects the scattered Jews of the postexilic age.

The Lord declares that he will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, so that they may all call on the name of the Lord and offer united worship. The need for a pure speech arises not from a lack of acquaintance with Hebrew vocabulary, but from impure lips, such as Isaiah was conscious of in his inaugural vision (Isaiah 6:5). One step toward the conversion of the nations is provision for the proper language with which to worship God (compare Isaiah 19:18 where it is said, "In that day there will be five cities in . . . Egypt which speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the Lord of hosts"). In contrast, on the Day of Pentecost the Apostles were enabled to speak to a mixed crowd so that "each one heard them speaking in his own language" (Acts 2:6).

Scattered Jews, described as "suppliants, the daughter of my dispersed ones" (if this is the proper reading of an uncertain Hebrew text), will bring God’s offering from such far-off regions as the land "beyond the rivers of Ethiopia."

Verses 9-20

The Victory of the Lord (3:9-20)

How much the last sections of some of the prophetic books (notably Isaiah, Micah, and Amos) represent editorial additions to modify the severely condemnatory tone of the early prophets cannot be determined with any certainty, but it seems clear that some sections were added to some of the books by the successors of the prophets. Many of the additions appear to be efforts to make the language of the prophets apply more exactly to new conditions in the life of the people, and to show that God’s concern for his people did not come to an end in the Exile but continues into the new situations that arise in it and beyond it. Such seems to be the case with the Book of Zephaniah, although it is impossible to identify the precise point at which additions began to be made.

The final section of Zephaniah again refers to "that day," but now it is a day in which the victory of the Lord and the restoration of his humble people will be accomplished, instead of a day of wrath for all nations. So men have always found the vision of the victory of the Lord arising phoenixlike out of the ashes of their false hopes and their proud and rebellious boastings.

Verses 11-13

Comfort and Purification of Jerusalem (3:11-13)

The next section is clearly addressed to the city of Jerusalem, but it concerns the humble and lowly who will be gathered to her and there find refuge. Again it is God himself who speaks, promising the removal of the haughty from his holy mountain and the shepherding of the Remnant. The city will no more be put to shame, since in that coming day no wrong will be done in it and no lies or deceit uttered. The rebellious deeds of the past will be forgotten (on what basis is not specified), but because of the purification of those who will be left "in Israel" and because God’s promise to provide a refuge, "none shall make them afraid”.

Verses 14-20

God’s Victory: the Restoring of Fortune (3:14-20)

The final section of the book continues the address to Zion from God himself and stresses the victory of the Lord without ephasizing the exaltation of his people over other nations as some of the other prophetic writings do (notably Zechariah 12-14).

Addressing the people of Jerusalem as "daughter of Zion" and as "Israel," as the reconstituted people of God, God calls us singing and rejoicing (see Zechariah 9:9; Isaiah 54:1). The reason for joy is similar to what is expressed in the passages from Zechariah and Isaiah, but it is declared in different language: The Lord eliminated both the enemies who have afflicted his people as the reason for the presence of these enemies — the judgment against her. Instead the Lord himself stands as King in the midst of Jerusalem.

With God in her midst, Jerusalem no longer needs to fear to be afflicted with weak hands, a condition often figurative has always associated with tearfulness. Instead God is "a warrior who gives victory" (vs. 17) and promises to remove disaster. He will deal with all oppressors and will save the lame and gather the outcast (vs. 19).

Finally, God promises to make his people "renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth" (vs. 20). Such a promise is far from the bloodthirsty vengeance anticipated in Zechariah 12-14; instead, it is much more in the spirit of the vision of the exaltation of Jerusalem in Micah 4:1-4 and Isaiah 2:2-4. Here in Zephaniah it is consciously combined with a promise to gather the Jews of the dispersion into their home and restore their fortunes.

Thus, after a full application of the theme of judgment on "the day of the Lord" to Judah and Jerusalem and to some foreign nations, the Book of Zephaniah turns to look beyond the day of wrath and destruction to a time of singing and victory when God will restore the fortunes of his people.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Zephaniah 3". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/zephaniah-3.html.