GREAT DAY COMING Zephaniah 1–3
“The great Day of the Lord is near—near and coming quickly. Listen! The cry on the Day of the Lord will be bitter” (Zeph. 1:14).I magine history as a speeding train and the prophets as conductors, calling out the next station. Zephaniah’s cry would be, “Last stop! We’re coming into Judgment. Everybody off!”
The age of Josiah.
Josiah was Judah’s last godly king. He took the throne following a half century of apostasy under Manasseh and Amon, and soon determined to lead his people back to the Lord. He attempted to purge the land of idolatry and reinstituted temple worship. Yet both Habakkuk and Zephaniah, who ministered in Josiah’s time, viewed the reformation as superficial at best. Habakkuk portrayed the corruption of the legal system and society itself (Hab. 1:1–4), while Zephaniah cited evidence that Assyrian and Canaanite religions maintained a hold on the people (Zeph. 1:4–5). Prophets and priests were false to their calling (3:4), and political leaders still resorted to violence and perpetrated injustices (vv. 2–3). There were in Josiah’s reforms outward indications of a return to God, but the lifestyle of the people gave no evidence of repentance or return. It is against this background that Zephaniah cried out concerning the Day of the Lord, and emphasized its judgment aspects. The onrushing Day of the Lord “will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness” (1:15). For God’s sinful people there can now be no escape. Near the end of Josiah’s reign the ancient world experienced great political upheaval. As Assyria engaged in a death struggle with a suddenly emergent Babylon, Judah won brief independence. Josiah became involved in trying to tip the balance of power between these two and Egypt, and was killed in battle in 609B.C Within a few years Judah was reduced to a subject state in the Babylonian Empire. Within three decades the Babylonians denuded the land of Judah of its people, and left Jerusalem, with its once beautiful temple, a heap of ruins. When we read Zephaniah we find no unexpected revelation. All that Zephaniah said, earlier prophets had proclaimed over and over again. What we do sense, however, is a tone of finality. God had given His people opportunity after opportunity. Now, it was too late. Judgment was “near and coming quickly” (v. 14). How desperately we need to respond to every word of divine warning. If we fail to respond, one day it will surely be too late.
Zephaniah predicted the “Day of the Lord,” a dark day of judgment, due against Judah (1:1–2:3), Gentile nations (vv. 4–15), and against Jerusalem (3:1–8). Yet beyond the judgment lies a day of joy, in which God’s scattered people will return and be restored to relationship with Him (vv. 9–20).
Understanding the Text
“Zephaniah” Zeph. 1:1.
The prophet’s name probably means “watchman for the Lord.” But what is interesting is that Zephaniah provided more genealogical information about himself than any other Old Testament prophet. He traced his ancestry back four generations, to “Hezekiah.” Most commentators believe that this is King Hezekiah, the last godly king prior to Josiah. Some see here simply Zephaniah’s attempt to link himself with Judah’s royal family. But the genealogy suggests something even more important. It reminds us that two whole generations, over 50 years, passed by during which Judah lacked godly leadership. The royal family faltered in its commitment to the Lord, and as a result the whole land turned eagerly to idolatry and sin. You and I can no more afford to neglect the nurture of our children than could the kings of Judah. God may well bring a future generation back to Him, as He brought back Hezekiah’s great grandsons, Josiah and Zephaniah. But how great the tragedy if son and grandson are lost. “Those who turn back from following the Lord” Zeph. 1:2–13. These verses announce sweeping judgment, and express the reasons for God’s anger. They also do more. They help us understand the futility of man’s search for “freedom.” The people of Judah turned back from following the Lord. They thought obedience to Him was too restrictive. But what did they actually obtain? They refused to worship the one true God, and found themselves worshiping a confusing host of pagan deities: Canaanite baals, the Assyrian “starry host,” the Phoenician Molech. Some even added the Lord to this roster of gods, as if He were on a par with idols (vv. 4–5). The people of Judah still were bound by man’s deep need for relationship with the supernatural. They refused to obey God, and in seeking freedom adopted “foreign clothes” (v. 8). As today, the clothing one chose then indicated basic attitudes or orientations. The choice of foreign clothing suggests a rejection of Jewish identity and an effort to identify with Egyptian or Babylonian peoples (cf. Num. 15:38; Deut. 22:11–12). They were “free,” but in their pursuit of freedom they lost their true selves. They refused to obey God, and demanding freedom fell prey to superstition, such as the practice of refusing to step on the threshold of a house of pagan worship (Zeph. 1:8; cf. 1 Sam. 5:5). They refused to obey God, and created a society in which each person was selfish, where violence and deceit were the norm (Zeph. 1:9). They refused to obey God, and in asserting their freedom they lost all sense of spiritual reality, so that however great their need they never thought to seek the Lord, or ask Him what way they should go. People today seem to have that same insistent desire for “freedom.” God’s ways seem restrictive, and so they “turn back from following the Lord.” But always when human beings demand such freedom, they find themselves caught in a monstrous web. They become trapped, falling victim to counterfeit religions both humanistic and supernaturalistic, to superstition, to confusion, loss of identity, and finally loss of all touch with reality. They live in a world of illusion, not only lost, but subject to the wrath of the God who warns, “On that day I will punish” (vv. 8–13). How glad we are to surrender such an illusory “freedom,” and to choose to follow the Lord. We who follow Him gladly are free indeed. “The great Day of the Lord” Zeph. 1:14–18. The “Day of the Lord” is a phrase used by Old Testament prophets to indicate events associated with God’s direct involvement in human affairs to carry out some phase of His plan for humankind. While the “Day of the Lord” is most often an eschatological term used when describing history’s end, any act of God can be identified with that day. Thus there is “the” eschatological Day of the Lord, and also “a” non-eschatological Day of the Lord. What is important to note is that “a” Day of the Lord merits that identification because it bears marked likeness to “the” Day of the Lord. This is what Zephaniah predicted here. “A” Day of the Lord was rushing down on Judah which, like “the” Day of the Lord, would be a day of wrath, distress, anguish, trouble, and ruin. The horrors of the imminent Babylonian invasion can be compared only to the horrors of the great day of divine judgment that will mark history’s end. This is an important reminder. God’s final judgment day seems far off to most people. But for those who, like Judah, persist in sin, there is often “a” judgment day, as well as “the” judgment day! God is no less hostile to sin today than He was in our prophet’s time. A Day of the Lord may be no farther from us than it was from Judah. “You humble of the land” Zeph. 2:1–3. Zephaniah’s warning concluded with an invitation. Before the time appointed for judgment comes, we can find shelter in the Lord. All it requires is humility. What is humility? It is an attitude in stark contrast to that of those who demand the right to live their own lives. The humble gladly submit to God. The humble express their submission by seeking the Lord, and by doing what He commands. The humble are eager not for wealth, but for righteousness; not for high position, but to bow low before the Lord. There is shelter for the humble, even when the storm breaks around us. There is hope for the humble. There is no hope for those who demand to be “free.” “I will destroy you” Zeph. 2:4–15. The coming Day of the Lord would not only devastate Judah but also the pagan peoples who have been hostile to the Lord. Afterward the remnant of God’s own will at last be secure. Zephaniah said of their land, “It will belong to the remnant of the house of Judah; there they will find pasture. In the evening they will lie down in the houses of Ashkelon. The Lord their God will care for them; He will restore their fortunes” (v. 7). “I have decided to assemble the nations” Zeph. 3:1–8. Now Zephaniah focused on Jerusalem, the capital city of Judah and its very heart. What he saw, despite the renewed activity on the temple mount which rose above Jerusalem’s homes and businesses, was a city of oppressors, “rebellious and defiled” (vv. 1–5). The city had failed to respond to God’s correction, and now must be punished. God is never impressed by appearances. His concern today as in Zephaniah’s time is with the heart.
O Say Can You See (Zeph. 3)
I’ve always been fascinated by the story. A British fleet stood off Baltimore, bombarding the fort that guarded its harbor. All through the night the guns roared. Through the clouds of acrid smoke explosions could be seen over the fort, as hollow powder-filled balls called bombs burst in the air. The darkness shrouded the stone walls of the fort, but the cacophony of sounds—the shrill whistling of shells, the booming of the cannon, the hollow thump of hit after hit—convinced every shipboard witness that the fort must fall, and Baltimore would be taken. And then, as dawn’s first light drove back the shadows, the witnesses saw an astounding sight. The fort still stood! And there, flying proudly above her ramparts, was the American flag. Hurrying down below one witness seized a pen and dashed off lines that every citizen has heard a thousand times. “O say can you see,” wrote Francis Scott Key, a prisoner that night on the British flagship, “through the dawn’s early light, what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming.” The fort, and the flag, had survived. What a picture of the scene we see in Zephaniah 3. The city of Jerusalem was under siege, being punished for her many sins (vv. 1–7). The Lord Himself was the assailing force, pouring out His wrath, striking the city in His fierce anger. The devastation seemed enough to consume the entire world in an awesome conflagration (v. 8). And then, in the rest of the chapter, we make an amazing discovery. As that dreadful night of judgment comes to an end, and day dawns, we realize there are survivors! We see God’s scattered people, purified, return to worship their God (vv. 9–10). We realize that the arrogance that characterized Jerusalem had been burned away, and the city now held only the meek and humble, who would do no wrong (vv. 11–13). And we hear a voice raised in song, tentative at first, but soon swelling in a glad chorus of joy as the people of the city realize that God, mighty to save, is with them, and will quiet them with His love (vv. 14–18). And suddenly we see the city itself begin to glow, as God gives His now holy people the honor and praise they thought that they had forfeited forever by their sin (vv. 19–20). Just so we need to remind ourselves. When you or I suffer under the discipline of God, everything seems so dark. We feel crushed, unable to go on. Yet if we were only to look beyond, to tomorrow, we would catch a glimpse of the sight seen by Key, and by Zephaniah too. O say can you see, just beyond the horizon of your dark today, the dawn of what God intends for you? Purified and restored, humbled enough to accept God’s love, you too will be quieted with His love, and be given praise and honor in a peaceful land.
Look beyond your present circumstances, and fix your eyes on the good God will surely do you.