The Prophet Zephaniah

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    It was Zephaniah’s lot to speak on the most unpleasant subject in the Bible — the judgment of God. This is not the only place where this theme occurs, of course, but it is the most concentrated treatment of the judgment of God as the whole book is devoted to this one theme.

    There are many people who would like to rule this subject of judgment out of the Bible entirely. There are those who tell us that the God of the New Testament, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is the kind of a God who can never move in judgment. His heart is so tender, his love is so gracious, his patience is so infinite that there never will be a time when God will move in vengeance. It should be noted though, that in the New Testament the Lord Jesus spoke very frequently about the judgment of God. In the fourth chapter of Luke we are told that the Lord came back to his home town after preaching in Judea for many months. He had done many miracles and the word of his miracles had preceded him, so all the folks in Nazareth were very anxious to see him. He had not behaved like this when he was a boy growing up, and they were keen to see if he was going to do some mighty work when he came home.

    Luke tells us that Jesus went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day and he was given the book of the prophecy of Isaiah to read. Opening the scroll he found the place in Isaiah 61:1-2a; The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. Luke 4:10 Then he stopped right in the middle of a sentence, right at a comma, and his last word was that he had come to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. But Isaiah goes on to say, and the day of vengeance of our God.  Isaiah 61:2b  Jesus did not read that because it was not the time for the Day of vengeance of God. It is this day particularly, that Zephaniah is talking about.

    Zephaniah means “hidden of the Lord” and the prophet is speaking as if he were a representative of the remnant of faith — those relatively few people who will remain true to God and be faithful to Him, through this disaster that is to come upon the earth. They will be hidden, as it were, by God himself among the nations of the earth and God will watch over them to keep them in faith during this time. And it is about these people that the book of Zephaniah is written, and especially of that coming day, the Day of the Lord’s vengeance and wrath, which is vividly described by the prophet.

    In chapter 1, Zephaniah gives us the character of God’s vengeance. It is not a pleasant passage.

    “I will utterly sweep away everything
    from the face of the land, says the Lord.
    I will sweep away man and beast;
    I will sweep away the birds of the air
    and the fish of the sea.
    I will overthrow the wicked;
    I will cut off mankind
    from the face of the earth,” says the Lord.
    “I will stretch out my hand against Judah,
    and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem,
    and I will cut off from this place the remnant of Baal
    [the false god of the peoples around Israel]
    and the name of the idolatrous priests;
    those who bow down on the roofs to the host of heavens;
    [the star worshipers]
    those who bow down and swear to the Lord
    and yet swear by Milcom;
    [one of the other gods the surrounding nations]
    those who have turned back from following the Lord,
    who do not seek the Lord or inquire of him.

    Be silent before the Lord God!
    For the day of the Lord is at hand.

    The day of the Lord is the day of the manifestation of God’s hand directly in human affairs. Notice the personal pronoun all through that passage: “I will sweep away everything.” I will sweep away man and beast.” “I will cut off mankind.” God is working through events in history, working through nations and armies and calamities of various sorts. But as He did in Noah’s day, He will use His creation to once again reset civilization, this time with fire, as over 70 prophesies tell us.

    The Apostle Paul also uses the term “the Day of the Lord.” In 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6 he says:

    But as to the times and seasons, brethren, you have no need to have anything written to you. [Why not? Well, because they already had it in the Old Testament.] For you yourselves know well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When people say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as travail comes upon a woman with child, and there will be no escape. But you are not in darkness, brethren, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all sons of light and sons of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.

    There are many other passages that also refer to the Day of the Lord and they all agree that in the time when men are proclaiming peace, but preparing for war; in a time when they are holding to a form of godliness but denying the powers thereof; in a time when they are declaring that the problems of life are being solved. but when actually they are in greater danger than they have ever been before, then the Day of the Lord will come.

    Now let us return to Zephaniah and see what he has to say about this (chapter 1. verses 7-9):

    Be silent before the Lord God!
    For the day of the Lord is at hand;
    the Lord has prepared a sacrifice
    and consecrated his guests.
    And on the day of the Lord’s sacrifice —
    “I will punish the officials and the king’s sons
    and all who array themselves in foreign attire …
    every one who leaps over the threshold,
    and those who fill their master’s house
    with violence and fraud.

    How can this be? How can the God of love — the God of the New Testament — do a thing like this? How can God, who loves mercy and is slow to anger, ever come to this place?

    It is this kind of reasoning that suggests we should go through our Bibles and tear out every part that does not agree with our concepts of God. But what we have left, of course, is nothing more than what we like, what we think God ought to be like.

    You can see how such an argument defeats itself. The very book that tells us that God is a God of love also says he is a God of vengeance. And anyone who thinks carefully about himself and about love will understand why a God of love has to be a God of vengeance. For if we love someone, we hate everything that injures that person. We are against whatever threatens or destroys what we love. And the very love that moves the heart of God to pour himself out over the centuries in an unceasing effort to awaken man to his need and to hear the call of grace, is the same love that at last prompts him to eliminate those who refuse all the province of his grace, and identify themselves with that which is opposed to his will and to his work among men. Then he has nothing left to do but to destroy them. And that is why the prophet speaks so plainly about this.

    Continuing in Zephaniah 1:14-18:

    The great day of the Lord is near,
    near and hastening fast;
    the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter,
    the mighty man cries aloud there.
    A day of wrath is that day,
    a day of distress and anguish,
    a day of ruin and devastation,
    a day of darkness and gloom,
    a day of clouds and thick darkness,
    a day of trumpet blast and battle cry
    against the fortified cities
    and against the lofty battlements.

    And God says in stark frankness,

    I will bring distress on men,
    so that they shall walk like the blind,
    because they have sinned against the Lord;
    their blood shall be poured out like dust,
    and their flesh like dung.
    Neither their silver nor their gold
    shall be able to deliver them
    on the Day of the wrath of the Lord.

    Now it is not easy for God to speak this way. He himself says that he takes no delight in the death of men. He says that he does not delight in judgment. Judgment, the prophet says, is his strange work. His heart delights in mercy. But eventually, if his will is to be done, if earth at last is to break out into the glorious freedom of the promises of the prophets concerning man, if the dreams that lie hidden away in the hearts of men of a warless world, a time of prosperity. a time when joy floods the earth, when men live together in glorious harmony, when even the animals lose their enmity toward one another and peace shall cover the earth as the waters cover the sea — if that is ever to come, then God must deal with the entrenched evil of men. This is why the coming of the day of vengeance of our God is absolutely certain. The prophets warn of this and the word speaks very clearly. all through the New Testament as well, that when God’s grace is turned aside, God’s judgment awaits.

    In Zephaniah  2:8-9  we trace the extent of God’s vengeance. Certain nations are named;

    “I have heard the taunts of Moab
    and the revilings of the Ammonites, “Moab shall become like Sodom,
    and the Ammonites like Gomorrah,

    The Ethiopians are mentioned in verse 12 and the Assyrians in verse 13. The interesting thing is that although all these nations are long since lost in the dust of history, the promise of this day of the Lord is in the future. How can this be? Why are these nations mentioned here when they have long been buried in antiquity? How can they yet be destroyed in a day to come?

    The answer is, of course, that these nations are used symbolically throughout the Scriptures as well as literally. They were literally destroyed in the course of history, but they are used symbolically with reference to the full and final meaning of the day of the Lord. Moab, for instance, is always a picture of the flesh of man — his dependence upon his own resources. The Ammonites picture the same thing. Ethiopia is a picture of the stubbornness, or the intransigence of man. “Can the Ethiopian change his color?” the Scriptures say. And Assyria is man in his arrogance and his pride. Now God says he is against all these things, and as he moves at last in judgment on the human race, these are to be eliminated. In chapter 3 you will notice how extensive God’s wrath is;

    Woe to her that is rebellious and defiled,
    the oppressing city!
    She listens to no voice,
    she accepts no correction.
    She does not trust in the Lord,
    she does not draw near to her God.

    This could be said of almost all the cities of the earth. As you read on you see that this is a world-wide matter;

    “Therefore wait for me,” says the Lord,
    “for the day when I arise as a witness.
    For my decision is to gather nations,
    to assemble kingdoms,
    to pour out upon them my indignation,
    all the heat of my anger;
    for in the fire of my jealous wrath
    all the earth shall be consumed.”

    What for? What is God after? Is he just interested in getting even, wreaking his vengeance at last upon the stubbornness and willfulness of men? Is he visiting the earth with this terrible hurricane of destruction in order to leave it nothing but a smoking ruin, barren and desolate, without inhabitants? No, that is what men would do if there were another world war. We would leave the earth desolate, but God will never leave it that way.

    After you read the description of all the darkness, gloom, and slaughter — after the desolation and the destruction, what is the next word? Verse 14:

    Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion;
    shout, O Israel!
    Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
    O daughter of Jerusalem!

    Why? You see, this is the new order that is to follow. This is why God is dealing with men, so that he might bring out songs instead of sorrow, service instead of selfishness, security instead of slavery. This will be the consequence of God’s judgment. And we are told that the Lord God is in the midst of the people, not for judgment;

    The Lord within her is righteous,
    he does no wrong; … The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
    a warrior who gives victory;
    he will rejoice over you with gladness,
    he will renew you in his love;
    he will exult over you with loud singing
    as on a day of festival.

    “I will remove disaster from you, …
    deal with all your oppressors.
    And I will save the lame
    and gather the outcasts,
    … change their shame into praise
    and renown in all the earth.
    At that time I will bring you home,

    What a picture this is! Specifically, of course, it has to do with the remnant of Israel, but it is a picture of God’s loving care during any time of despair or darkness., God calls back the remnant of Israel, plus all the people grafted in, to Himself and they will at last break out into the song of the redeemed. Now the singing here is led by the Lord himself in a marvellous, glorious melody of joy. It reminds me of that beautiful passage in the Song of Songs:

    For lo, the winter is past,
    the rain is over and gone.
    The flowers appear on the earth,
    the time of singing has come. Song of songs 2:11-12a

    That is what follows the time of judgment. But no one but the redeemed can join in that song. That is what Zephaniah tells us about. Although it is a painful scene, one that begins in darkness and gloom, it ends in joy and gladness and singing.

    Ref: Ray Steadman


    Steven Bliss

    …thanks Bruce.

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