Zephaniah, Nahum, and Jeremiah appeared on the prophetic seen after a couple generations of prophetic silence, not to call the nation to repentance to prevent the coming exile, but to call out a believing remnant from among those who would go into exile.
Zephaniah dates his ministry in the reign of Josiah (1:1). Josiah came to the throne at the ripe old age of 8.i In the 12th year of his reign (628, age 20), he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem of idolatry (2 Chron. 34:3). The description Zephaniah gives of conditions in Jerusalem points to a time before Josiah’s reforming activities of 628. In fact, the preaching of Zephaniah may have been the impetus behind Josiah’s reform movement.
Zephaniah gives us the most awesome description of God’s wrath and the most moving description of God’s love to be found in Scripture.ii Oddly enough, he places both topics under the umbrella of the Day of the LORD. The unifying theme of Zephaniah is the Day of YHWH. iii
The Day of YHWH, iv then, has two aspects—judgment and salvation—and two times—immediate/present and future/ultimate. There is a now/not yet aspect to the day of the LORD.
The classical understanding of the Day of the LORD was God defeating his enemies and saving his people. Judah and Jerusalem misunderstood the application of that truth. They reduced it to mean God was bound to them regardless of their covenant faithfulness and would never let earthly Jerusalem fall.
Fundamentally in biblical theology, God chose Israel to save the world, and God will save the world to save Israel. Judgment is an indispensable part of God’s saving work because it is the only way God can secure for His people the perfect world of love that Zephaniah envisions.
We will look today at the aspects of the Day of the LORD in Zephaniah. We want to let the concept of the Day of YHWH minister to us in relation to its purpose: to call us to seek the LORD in humility and righteousness, to move us to holy living, and to fill us with hope for the future. God is after a people who will love Him, trust Him, and, flowing out of that, obey Him.
The NT is clear about the present operation of God’s wrath. John said, Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him (3:36). Romans 1:18 says, For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.
It is possible to live comfortably with the thought of universal judgment. Somehow it does not seem to involve us. We are like people who live in a house atop a cliff overlooking a beautiful view of the sea. We are on the couch binge watching Person of Interest unaware that the ground is giving way, and we are about to be washed into the sea. Zephaniah is concerned that Judah and Jerusalem have a false sense of security because they view the universal judgment of God as something from which they have been granted exemption.v
Zephaniah frames this chapter with the concept of universal judgment (2-3, 14-18). Between verses 2-3 and 14-18, He focuses on the judgement of Judah and Jerusalem. Both the ultimate judgment of the world and the immediate judgment of Judah and Jerusalem are spoken of as the Day of the LORD (7, 14). So future universal judgment is already at work in the world. Present judgment anticipates and assures us of the final consummation.
Zephaniah’s description of universal judgement echoes the Flood, the undoing of creation (2-3). The order of creation is reversed. Obviously, this universal final judgment has not taken place. A global feeling persists through the ages that somehow, someway catastrophe is coming on the earth. How many movies have been made about a giant asteroid hitting earth causing extinction or a pandemic reducing us to the last man?vi At the same time, for some reason, it seems remote and, therefore, does not impact our lives.
Judah and Jerusalem cannot pretend to be exempt. This is a point of theology and a point of logic. God will judge the world. You are an earth dweller. This truth impacts you personally. Because you are living in covenant unfaithfulness the Day of the LORD will impact you negatively. The present working of final judgment is not remote from Judah. They are about to experience the wrath of God.
At this point in the history of Judah and Jerusalem, the Book of the Law was missing, pagan altars were in the temple, and the land was polluted with idolatry. It is not easy to know where to begin in addressing an age that no longer has respect for God. Zephaniah challenges their worldview with his message of divine justice.
It is instructive that before judgment would come on the world, it would come on Judah and Jerusalem. There can be little doubt that texts like this shaped Peter’s thinking when he wrote: For it is time for Judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?vii
Judah and Jerusalem are called to be silent before the judgment of God. They are pictured as a sacrifice to be offered and guests are invited to the sacrificial event. God would search Jerusalem to punish the complacent, those who with apathy say, The LORD will not do good nor will He do ill (12).
The description of the day of the LORD counters the view that God is inactive. Notice the first person references (2-6, 8-9, 12, 17). The SK had become insensitive and complacent toward the God of the covenant.viii They abandoned the clear teaching of the covenant, even lost the Word of God, and adopted the cultural view of religion. So they mixed the worship of the YHWH, the God is Israel, and the gods of the nations. To do this, they necessarily felt that God was indifferent.
You can almost hear the modern refrains in the voices of those ancient people: I think God is fine with my worship as long as I am sincere; God is all-inclusive; All religions are right, except the dogmatic ones; Religious expression is a cultural metaphor.
The idea of universal judgment should not leave us unaffected. Judgment must begin at the house of God. If as a people we don’t walk in holiness and pursue holiness together, we will be judged with the world.
The day of the LORD was coming and the believing remnant would have to batten down the hatches and ride out the storm. Noah is our example. He had to ride out the storm in the ark. As believers in this world in which the wrath of God is being revealed, we must hold fast to Christ. He is the ark. He is the only place where we can ride out the storm. He knows how to keep His people. When all the cosmic dust settles and all evil is finally put away, no matter what—life, death, angels, rulers, the present, the future, powers, the pain of excruciating loss, disappointment, suffering, hardship, grief—we will be just fine!
This section of text makes three points needed to understand the function of the Day of the LORD.
This section of text is bookended by words specifically for Judah and Jerusalem (2:1-3 and 3:1-7). Between the bookends is the judgment on the nations surrounding Judah. The point is Judah was acting like the nations, so they would get treated like the nations. There is a woe for the Philistines and a woe (2:5) for Jerusalem (3:1), equating them. The word nation in 2:1 is the word that is used for the gentile nations. Shameless describes a people who have gotten to the place that they no longer realize how disgraceful their attitudes and conduct are.
How easily social morals are turned on their heads—now in our society prolife is the evil position; traditional marriage is the evil position; Christianity is a bigoted, misogynistic religion. What is shameful is now plastered on social media as morally good. You are fine until your facts contradict the approved social narrative.
God had brought His people out of Egypt and led them through the conquest. No other god had ever done such a thing. God’s judgment on the nations in the past (3:6-7) was designed to move Judah to accept correction (3:7), but they would accept no correction (3:1). The result would be they would be judged with the world (3:8).
2:4 begins with the purpose word for. The very fact that the Day of the LORD (2:2,3) is coming and the nations will be judged is not simply to give us information about the future but to call us to believe. The prophet urgently issues the call with three imperatives: seek the LORD, seek righteousness, and seek humility. The reason is For Gaza will be deserted (2:4). Humility is realizing our own lack of resources and being satisfied in God. It is not asserting our desires over what the LORD requires. Righteousness is conforming our behavior to the Word of God. Seeking the LORD is finding our shelter in Him. If we are to have shelter in this world, it is to be found in Him (2:3b).
In the following verses, judgment is outlined against nations is 4 directions surrounding Judah. This points to the universal rule of God. God’s judgment on the Seacoast people (2:4-7) and on Moab and Ammon (2:8-11) not only is because of their sin, but answers God’s promise of a place for His people (2:7, 9b). This anticipates and points to the people of God inheriting the earth. God made the world for His people. Not only is there a place for the believing remnant of Judah, there is a place for the believing among the nations (2:11). This is, at least in part, becoming a reality in the global preaching of the gospel.
We should not simply dismiss what has happened in the history of the world as simply the accident of history. Judah had ignored their own history. If God has judged peoples and nations in the past, we have every reason to expect that He would act the same way again.
The spirit of this age blinds unbelievers to the gospel of the grace of God. So enchanted do people become with this world that they can’t take seriously the world to come. Satan delights to bring people to ruin and then give them a view of the reality they have chosen. His lies look so good, satisfying, fulfilling, and true, but the reality is always disappointing at best and damning at worst. The devil’s deal is like a cable television contract—200 channels of nothing. It’s like going to a fancy restaurant, ordering something you can’t pronounce, being served by a gloved waiter with a domed plate, and having the lid lifted only to find a microscopic bite of food positioned nicely in the middle of a big plate. Lord, help us. Don’t you see, friend, the devil is a master of description and deception. How many times could I lie to you, and you still believe me?
The ongoing work of future judgment is to teach us to seek the LORD and walk in humility.
Zephaniah emphasizes the personal presence of God in judgment and salvation (3:5,11,12,15,17; see also all 1st person references).
He is calling out of the world a people from whom He will remove sin and guilt and over whom He will sing and exult. This necessarily involves removing from His world the proud and haughty, those who speak lies and do injustice.
John Frame said it this way: So God’s wrath serves the purposes of His love, and God’s love is the richer for it: it [wrath] bestows on His beloved the ultimate blessing of a sin-free world.ix This is the meaning of the Day of the LORD, the meaning of God defeating His enemies and saving His people.
In this final section Zephaniah stays with his Day of the LORD theme (3:9,11,16,19). The ultimate purpose of God’s judging work in the world is to call out a people for Himself and create a sin-free world for them.
The scope of those who make up His people is staggering. The prophet envisions the formation of new community out of the ashes of judgment and exile. The restored community consists not only of purged and forgiven Israel (11-13) but also the converted from every nation (9-10).
Verse 9 begins with a purpose statement, For, and depicts the undoing of Babel. God will transform the speech of the peoples. The word for peoples here is the Word used specifically for God’s people.x The purified language they are given is so that they may call upon the name of the LORD.
Notice the language of verse 9. Only God can change the speech of peoples. Any turning of the nations must be attributed to the sovereign grace of God. Zephaniah sees arising from among the gentile nations a people making a pure-hearted confession. Joel tied this same language to the Day of Day of YHWH (Joel 2:32) saying, Whoever shall call on the Name of the LORD shall be saved.
On the Day of Pentecost, the apostles interpreted the gathering of the nations under the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as the fulfillment of this text and Joel’s text of widespread calling on the Name of the LORD (Acts 2:21).
Not only with their language but with their lives they serve him in community. The picture of serving with one accord is with a single shoulder. Side by side the converted Gentile nations serve the LORD. You see this in the early church where it is noted they were in one accord.
The grace of God is far reaching, moving beyond the rivers of Cush (10) past the southernmost branches of the Nile deep into the continent of Africa. There they call upon the Name of the LORD. There can be little doubt that the reference is meant to show the global advance of the gospel well beyond the extent of any one human empire. It is telling, however, that soon Sub-Sahara Africa will be the epicenter of global Christianity. The nations are an offering to the LORD. You understand that when you see peoples calling on the Name of the LORD the end of the ages have come upon you. To some extend I think we have lost the wonder of the fact that we, also, are those very people who have been called out to call on the name of the LORD.
The restored people of God are described as those who experience no shame over their former rebellion against the LORD. To be sure in the immediate context Zephaniah is addressing Jerusalem again, but the same is true for all the redeemed community. The restored community is not ashamed because they have no guilt but because the LORD graciously removes it. We are in process now, but I want you to see where we will end up. All shame will be removed from the community of God’s people. Not only will guilt be eliminated, but all of the crippling psychological effects of sin will be removed. Nothing will hinder us from serving God.
The restored community is not be a mixed community of saints and sinners. This is why the church should have a regenerate membership, anticipating the final community of saints. The proud, the arrogant, the unbelieving are not part of God’s community of saints. His community is a people who are humble and lowly, seeking refuge in the Name of the Lord (12).
To experience the reality of this text requires nothing less than being born again and placed in the community of the redeemed. We need to be transformed by the Spirit. If you have experienced bitterness, if sensitivity to your own failures plagues your mind, if you are unable to love and be loved, if you feel you are damaged goods and worthless, if you struggle with self-image and feelings of inferiority, the LORD is at work today to remove your shame (11) and put you in a place where there is no fear (13b).
God has brought into being a new community comprised of Jews and Gentiles. They are brought into community by the power of the Holy Spirit bringing them to call on the Name of the LORD, to serve Him with a single shoulder, and to live holy lives. In fellowship with that community, there is healing for every soul. The power of God is there to heal and transform. There is nothing wrong with you that God can’t fix.
Zephaniah ends on a high note of praise as God and His people rejoice. I don’t think there is another text quite like this one in the Bible. It is a holy place.
God restored community is called on to sing, shout, rejoice, and exult. They have been acquitted, and their enemies have been removed (15). God has put us in a position that evokes praise. The King of Israel is in their midst, they will never again fear.xi True praise can never be less than the whole person (Ps. 103:1). In reality, their praise is reflection of God’s rejoicing over them.
I can’t even begin to imagine this text is in the Bible and that it is a description of God’s disposition to His people. Maybe you can’t imagine anyone not singing over you.
The LORD, the King, the Mighty One who is able to save your soul rejoices over His people. I want you to notice the three parallel lines in verse 17:
He will rejoice over you with gladness;
He will quiet you by His love;
He will exult over you with loud singing.
These 3 lines express the deepest inner joy and satisfaction of God Himself in His love for His people. If you asked, What is the most astounding truth about God you know? I would have to say that God rejoices over, contemplates, and exults over His people. It is astounding that God takes away the guilt of a sinful human, acquits that person of all wrong doing, and then sings over that life. If your first thought about God is that He is the cosmic killjoy, you have the wrong thought about God and you need to change—for your sake and the sake of those around you.
Because the lines are parallel I think the middle line should be read like the two outer lines: He will be quiet over you with His love.xii In other words, God contemplates his loves for us. Have you ever looked at a person you love when he or she doesn’t notice and simply feel your love for that person? That is the meaning of the middle line. To consider the LORD, YHWH, the God of Israel, sinking in contemplation of His love for you is hard to absorb. God is absolutely content in His love for you.
Over you He will delight; over you He will rejoice with singing; over you He will be quiet in his love. Whoever His people are, wherever they are, whatever their ethnicity, God’s love, His delight, His rejoicing reaches to all who call on the Name of the LORD.
Have you ever wondered what the lyrics are? What God sings over you? He sings over your life.
In the concluding 3 verses (18-20), the LORD himself speaks and takes the vision of future joy and applies it to the remnant of believers who will go into captivity. We cannot dismiss the power of the vision of things to come to sustain our faith in dark days ahead. God would restore them and make them a source of praise and renown among the nations.xiii This promise found partial fulfillment in the return from Babylonian captivity. The possession of the Land, however, always anticipated paradise restored. Paul said God made Abraham heir of the world, and Abraham knew it. That’s why he sojourned all his life. The ultimate fulfillment of what God will do for us awaits the resurrection and the gathering of the people of God in the new heavens and the new earth and the New Jerusalem.
i 2 Kgs 22:1.
ii Robertson, NICOT, 334. Robertson’s comments on Zephaniah 3 are unsurpassed.
iii 1:7,9,10,12,14x2,15x5,16,18; 2:2,3; 3:9,11,16,19,20. Robertson, NICOT, has a good discussion of Day of the LORD, the most thoughtful of any commentary I’ve read (266-273).
iv Smith, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 32, 123. Zephaniah expands and clarifies the concept of the Day of YHWH that Amos and Isaiah preached. After Zephaniah, Obadiah, Ezekiel, and Joel will take up the theme of YHWH’s day.
v MacKay, Focus on the Bible, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, 339. This commentary has been very helpful in preparation to preach the message of Zephaniah.
vi Armageddon, Deep Impact, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Meteor Storm, Asteroid, Asteroid: Final Impact, The Green Slime, Asteroid vs. Earth, Tycus, The Day the Sky Exploded; Pandemic, The Flu, World War Z, Contagion, Carriers, 12 Monkeys, Fatal Contact, Virus Undead, Virus, Panic in the Streets.
vii 1 Peter 4:17.
viii Robertson (NICOT,268) comments that Zephaniah is showing that judgment is coming on the SK for covenant unfaithfulness. He sees references to the Noahic covenant (2-3), Abrahamic covenant (7 c.f. Gen. 15), and the Mosaic covenant (15-16).
ix Frame, Systematic Theology, 276.
x Compare 2:1 where Judah is called nation (goyim) a term primarily reserved for gentiles and 3:9 where peoples is ‘am a term primarily reserved for Israel as a people.
xi This the messianic reference in Zephaniah, King of Israel in your midst. In the Triumphal entry, John’s Gospel says, Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion (Jn. 12:15). This quote is rightly attributed to Zechariah 9:9. But Robertson points out that Zechariah does not say, Do not be afraid. The phrase, Do not fear, is from Zephaniah 3:15-16 where it is used twice. It may be the Fourth Gospel conflated OT sources in identifying the King of Israel. Robertson, NICOT, 338. Robertson’s comments on Zephaniah 3 are unsurpassed.
xii The parallelism is intransitive. There should be no direct object but simply the preposition over you like the other lines.
xiii C.f. Deut 26:19