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Bible Commentaries
Zephaniah 1

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-18


Zephaniah 1:1-18 - Zephaniah 2:3

TOWARDS the year 625, when King Josiah had passed out of his minority, and was making his first efforts at religious reform, prophecy, long slumbering, woke again in Israel. Like the king himself, its first heralds were men in their early youth. In 627 Jeremiah calls himself but a boy, and Zephaniah can hardly have been out of his teens. For the sudden outbreak of these young lives there must have been a large reservoir of patience and hope gathered in the generation behind them. So Scripture itself testifies. To Jeremiah it was said: "Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee, and before thou earnest forth out of the womb I consecrated thee." {Jeremiah 1:5} In an age when names were bestowed only because of their significance, both prophets bore that of Jehovah in their own. So did Jeremiah’s father, who was of the priests of Anathoth. Zephaniah’s "forbears" are given for four generations, and with one exception they also are called after Jehovah: "The Word of Jehovah which came to Sephanyah, son of Kushi, son of Gedhalyah, son of Amaryah, son of Hizkiyah, in the days of Joshiyahu, Amon’s son, king of Judah." Zephaniah’s great-great-grandfather Hezekiah was in all probability the king. His father’s name Kushi, or Ethiop, is curious. If we are right, that Zephaniah was a young man towards 625, then Kushi must have been born towards 663, about the time of the conflicts between Assyria and Egypt, and it is possible that, as Manasseh and the predominant party in Judah so closely hung upon and imitated Assyria, the adherents of Jehovah put their hope in Egypt, whereof, it may be, this name Kushi is a token. The name Zephaniah itself, meaning "Jehovah hath hidden," suggests the prophet’s birth in the "killing-time" of Manasseh. There was at least one other contemporary of the same name-a priest executed by Nebuchadrezzar. Of the adherents of Jehovah, then, and probably of royal descent, Zephaniah lived in Jerusalem. We descry him against her, almost a clearly as we descry Isaiah. In the glare and smoke of the conflagration which his vision sweeps across the world, only her features stand out definite and particular: the flat roofs with men and women bowing in the twilight to the host of heaven, the crowds of priests, the nobles and their foreign fashions: the Fishgate, the New or Second Town, where the rich lived, the heights to which building had at last spread, and between them the hollow mortar, with its markets, Phoenician merchants, and money-dealers. In the first few verses of Zephaniah we see almost as much of Jerusalem as in the whole book either of Isaiah or Jeremiah.

For so young a man the vision of Zephaniah may seem strangely dark and final. Yet not otherwise was Isaiah’s inaugural vision, and as a rule it is the young and not the old whose indignation is ardent and unsparing. Zephaniah carries this temper to the extreme. There is no great hope in his book, hardly any tenderness, and never a glimpse of beauty. A townsman, Zephaniah has no eye for nature; not only is no fair prospect described by him, he has not even a single metaphor drawn from nature’s loveliness or peace. He is pitilessly true to his great keynotes: "I will sweep, sweep from the face of the ground; He will burn," burn up everything. No hotter book lies in all the Old Testament. Neither dew nor grass nor tree nor any blossom lives in it, but it is everywhere fire, smoke, and darkness, drifting chaff, ruins, nettles, salt-pits, and owls and ravens looking from the windows of desolate palaces. Nor does Zephaniah foretell the restoration of nature in the end of the days. There is no prospect of a redeemed and fruitful land, but only of a group of battered and hardly saved characters: a few meek and righteous are hidden from the fire and creep forth when it is over. Israel is left "a poor and humble folk." No prophet is more true to the doctrine of the remnant, or more resolutely refuses to modify it. Perhaps he died young.

The full truth, however, is that Zephaniah, though he found his material in the events of his own day, tears himself loose from history altogether. To the earlier prophets the Day of the Lord, the crisis of the world, is a definite point in history: full of terrible, Divine events, yet "natural" ones - battle, siege, famine, massacre, and captivity. After it history is still to flow on, common days come back and Israel pursue their way as a nation. But to Zephaniah the Day of the Lord begins to assume what we call the "supernatural." The grim colors are still woven of war and siege, but mixed with vague and solemn terrors from another sphere, by which history appears to be swallowed up, and it is only with an effort that the prophet thinks of a rally of Israel beyond. In short, with Zephaniah the Day of the Lord tends to become the Last Day. His book is the first tinging of prophecy with apocalypse: that is the moment which it supplies in the history of Israel’s religion. And, therefore, it was with a true instinct that the great Christian singer of the Last Day took from Zephaniah his keynote. The "Dies Irae, Dies Illa" of Thomas of Celano is but the Vulgate translation of Zephaniah’s "A day of wrath is that day."

Nevertheless, though the first of apocalyptic writers, Zephaniah does not allow himself the license of apocalypse. As he refuses to imagine great glory for the righteous, so he does not dwell on the terrors of the wicked. He is sober and restrained, a matter-of-fact man, yet with power of imagination, who, amidst the vague horrors he summons, delights in giving a sharp realistic impression. The Day of the Lord, he says, what is it? "A strong man-there!-crying bitterly."

It is to the fierce ardor, and to the elemental interests of the book, that we owe the absence of two features of prophecy which are so constant in the prophets of the eighth century. Firstly, Zephaniah betrays no interest in the practical reforms which (if we are right about the date) the young king, his contemporary, had already started. There was a party of reform, the party had a program, the program was drawn from the main principles of prophecy and was designed to put these into practice. And Zephaniah was a prophet and ignored them. This forms the dramatic interest of his book. Here was a man of the same faith which kings, priests, and statesmen were trying to realize in public life, in the assured hope-as is plain from the temper of Deuteronomy-that the nation as a whole would be reformed and become a very great nation, righteous and victorious. All this he ignored, and gave his own vision of the future: Israel is a brand plucked from the burning; a very few meek and righteous are saved from the conflagration of a whole world. Why? Because for Zephaniah the elements were loose, and when the elements were loose what was the use of talking about reforms? The Scythians were sweeping down upon Palestine, with enough of God’s wrath in them to destroy a people still so full of idolatry as Israel was; and if not the Scythians, then some other power in that dark, rumbling North which had ever been so full of doom. Let Josiah try to reform Israel, but it was neither Josiah’s nor Israel’s day that was falling. It was the Day of the Lord, and when He came it was neither to reform nor to build up Israel, but to make visitation and to punish in His wrath for the unbelief and wickedness of which the nation was still full.

An analogy to this dramatic opposition between prophet and reformer may be found in our own century. At its crisis, in 1848, there were many righteous men rich in hope and energy. The political institutions of Europe were being rebuilt. In our own land there were great measures for the relief of laboring children and women, the organization of labor, and the just distribution of wealth. But Carlyle that year held apart from them all, and, though a personal friend of many of the reformers, counted their work hopeless: society was too corrupt, the rudest forces were loose, "Niagara" was near. Carlyle was proved wrong and the reformers right, but in the analogous situation of Israel the reformers were wrong and the prophet right. Josiah’s hope and daring were overthrown at Megiddo, and, though the Scythians passed away, Zephaniah’s conviction of the sin and doom of Israel was fulfilled, not forty years later, in the fall of Jerusalem and the great Exile. Again, to the same elemental interests, as we may call them, is due the absence from Zephaniah’s pages of all the social and individual studies which form the charm of other prophets. With one exception, there is no analysis of character, no portrait, no satire. But the exception is worth dwelling upon: it describes the temper equally abhorred by both prophet and reformer-that of the indifferent and stagnant man. Here we have a subtle and memorable picture of character, which is not without its warnings for our own time.

Zephaniah heard God say: "And it shall be at that time that I will search out Jerusalem with lights, and I will make visitation upon the men who are become stagnant upon their lees, who say in their hearts, Jehovah doeth no good and doeth no evil." The metaphor is clear. New wine was left upon its lees only long enough to fix its color and body. If not then drawn off it grew thick and syrupy-sweeter indeed than the strained wine, and to the taste of some more pleasant, but feeble and ready to decay. "To settle upon one’s lees" became a proverb for sloth, indifference, and the muddy mind. "Moab hath been at ease from his youth and hath settled upon his lees, and hath not been emptied from vessel to vessel; therefore his taste stands in him and his scent is not changed." {Jeremiah 48:11} The characters stigmatized by Zephaniah are also obvious. They were a precipitate from the ferment of fifteen years back. Through the cruel days of Manasseh and Amon hope had been stirred and strained, emptied from vessel to vessel, and so had sprung, sparkling and keen, into the new days of Josiah. But no miracle came, only ten years of waiting for the king’s majority and five more of small, tentative reforms. Nothing Divine happened. They were but the ambiguous successes of a small party who had secured the king for their principles. The court was still full of foreign fashions, and idolatry was rank upon the housetops. Of course disappointment ensued-disappointment and listlessness. The new security of life became a temptation; persecution ceased, and religious men lived again at ease. So numbers of eager and sparkling souls, who had been in the front of the movement, fell away into a selfish and idle obscurity.

The prophet hears God say, "I must search Jerusalem with lights" in order to find them. They had "fallen from the van and the freemen"; they had "sunk to the rear and the slaves," where they wallowed in the excuse that "Jehovah" Himself "would do nothing-neither good," therefore it is useless to attempt reform like Josiah and his party, "nor evil," therefore Zephaniah’s prophecy of destruction is also vain. Exactly the same temper was encountered by Mazzini in the second stage of his career. Many of those who with him had eagerly dreamt of a free Italy fell away when the first revolt failed-fell away not merely into weariness and fear, but, as he emphasizes, into the very two tempers which are described by Zephaniah, skepticism and self-indulgence.

All this starts questions for ourselves. Here is evidently the same public temper, which at all periods provokes alike the despair of the reformer and the indignation of the prophet: the criminal apathy of the well-to-do classes sunk in ease and religious indifference. We have today the same mass of obscure, nameless persons, who oppose their almost unconquerable inertia to every movement of reform, and are the drag upon all vital and progressive religion. The great causes of God and Humanity are not defeated by the hot assaults of the Devil, but by the slow, crushing, glacier-like masses of thousands and thousands of indifferent nobodies. God’s causes are never destroyed by being blown up, but by being sat upon. It is not the violent and anarchical whom we have to fear in the war for human progress, but the slow, the staid, the respectable. And the danger of these does not lie in their stupidity. Notwithstanding all their religious profession, it lies in their real skepticism. Respectability may be the precipitate of unbelief. Nay, it is that, however religious its mask, wherever it is mere comfort, decorousness, and conventionality; where, though it would abhor articulately confessing that God does nothing, it virtually means so- says so (as Zephaniah puts it) in its heart, by refusing to share manifest opportunities of serving Him, and covers its sloth and its fear by sneering that God is not with the great crusades of freedom and purity to which it is summoned. In these ways, respectability is the precipitate which unbelief naturally forms in the selfish ease and stillness of so much of our middle-class life. And that is what makes mere respectability so dangerous. Like the unshaken, unstrained wine to which the prophet compares its obscure and muddy comfort, it tends to decay. To some extent our respectable classes are just the dregs and lees of our national life; like all dregs, they are subject to corruption. A great sermon could be preached on the putrescence of respectability-how the ignoble comfort of our respectable classes and their indifference to holy causes lead to sensuality, and poison the very institutions of the home and the family, on which they pride themselves. A large amount of the licentiousness of the present day is not that of outlaw and disordered lives, but is bred from the settled ease and indifference of many of our middle-class families.

It is perhaps the chief part of the sin of the obscure units, which form these great masses of indifference, that they think they escape notice and cover their individual responsibility. At all times many have sought obscurity, not because they are humble, but because they are slothful, cowardly, or indifferent. Obviously it is this temper which is met by the words, "I will search out Jerusalem with lights." None of us shall escape because we have said, "I will go with the crowd," or "I am a common man and have no right to thrust myself forward." We shall be followed and judged, each of us for his or her personal attitude to the great movements of our time. These things are not too high for us: they are our duty; and we cannot escape our duty by slinking into the shadow.

For all this wickedness and indifference Zephaniah sees prepared the Day of the Lord-near, hastening, and very terrible. It sweeps at first in vague desolation and ruin of all things, but then takes the outlines of a solemn slaughter-feast for which Jehovah has consecrated the guests, the dim unnamed armies from the north. Judah shall be invaded, and they that are at ease, who say "Jehovah does nothing" shall be unsettled and routed. One vivid trait comes in like a screech upon the hearts of a people unaccustomed for years to war. "Hark, Jehovah’s Day!" cries the prophet. "A strong man-there!-crying bitterly." From this flash upon the concrete he returns to a great vague terror, in which earthly armies merge in heavenly; battle, siege, storm, and darkness are mingled, and destruction is spread abroad upon the whole earth. The first shades of Apocalypse are upon us.

We may now take the full text of this strong and significant prophecy. We have already given the title. Textual emendations and other points are explained in footnotes.

"I will sweep, sweep away everything from the face of the ground oracle of Jehovah-sweep man and beast, sweep the fowl of the heaven and the fish of the sea, and I will bring to ruin the wicked and cut off the men of wickedness from the ground- oracle of Jehovah. And I will stretch forth My hand upon Judah; and upon all the inhabitants of Jerusalem: and I will cut off from this place the remnant of the Baal, the names of the priestlings with the priests, and them who upon the housetops bow themselves to the host of heaven, and them who swear by their Melech, and them who have turned from following Jehovah, and who do not seek Jehovah nor have inquired of Him."

"Silence for the Lord Jehovah! For near is Jehovah’s Day. Jehovah has prepared a slaughter, He has consecrated His guests."

"And it shall be in Jehovah’s day of slaughter that I will make visitation upon the princes and the house of the king, and upon all who array themselves in foreign raiment; and I will make visitation upon all who leap over the threshold on that day, who fill their lord’s house full of violence and fraud. "And on that day oracle of Jehovah-there shall be a noise of crying from the Fishgate, and wailing from the Mishneh, and great havoc on the Heights. Howl, O dwellers in the Mortar, for undone are all the merchant folk, cut off are all the money-dealers. "And in that time it shall be, that I will search Jerusalem with lanterns, and make visitation upon the men who are become stagnant upon their lees, who in their hearts say, Jehovah doeth no good and doeth no evil. Their substance shall be for spoil, and their houses for wasting "Near is the great Day of Jehovah, near and very speedy. Hark, the Day of Jehovah! A strong man-there!-crying bitterly A Day of wrath is that Day! Day of siege and blockade, day of stress and distress, day of darkness and murk, day of cloud and heavy mist, day of the war-horn and battle-roar, up against the fenced cities and against the highest turrets! And I will beleaguer men, and they shall walk like the blind, for they have sinned against Jehovah; and poured out shall their blood be like dust, and the flesh of them like dung. Even their silver, even their gold shall "not avail to save them in the day of Jehovah’s wrath, and in the fire of His zeal shall all the earth be devoured, for destruction, yea, sudden collapse shall He make of all the, inhabitants of the earth."

Upon this vision of absolute doom there follows a qualification for the few meek and righteous. They may be hidden on the day of the Lord’s anger; but even for them escape is only a possibility Note the absence of all mention of the Divine mercy as the cause of deliverance. Zephaniah has no gospel of that kind. The conditions of escape are sternly ethical-meekness, the doing of justice and righteousness. So austere is our prophet.

"O people unabashed! before that ye become as the drifting chaff before the anger of Jehovah come upon you, before there come upon you the day of Jehovah’s wrath; seek Jehovah, all ye meek of the land who do His ordinance, seek righteousness, seek meekness, peradventure ye may hide yourselves in the day of Jehovah’s wrath."

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Zephaniah 1". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/zephaniah-1.html.
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