|The Book of Zephaniah|
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Go to Bible: Zephaniah 1
Zephaniah. He was the great, great grandson of the godly king Hezekiah, and that explains why the genealogy in Zephaniah 1:1 is so long, going back four generations. He apparently lived in Jerusalem because he called the city “this place” (Zeph. 1:4). He is the only prophet with such a long genealogy, but it was important to tie him back to Hezekiah and show his relationship to the royal family in order to understand the impact of the prophecies in the Book of Zephaniah. Zephaniah was the only prophet of royal blood and a distant cousin to the reigning king, Josiah (reigned 640-609 BC). Thus, he was also a distant cousin to Josiah’s sons, who reigned after Josiah was killed and who were evil in the sight of Yahweh (2 Kings 23:31-37). Zephaniah had likely finished his prophecy or had died by the death of Josiah since he is only mentioned as prophesying during his reign. Zephaniah’s blood relation to the royal family would have made his prophecies personal and uncomfortable to them when Zephaniah prophesied against Josiah’s evil sons (Zeph. 1:8) and foretold destruction for Jerusalem (Zeph. 1:4-6). But followers of God and Jesus do the right thing even when it is difficult. Jesus spoke about this when he said his followers would have to carry their own cross (Matt. 16:24).(top)
“sweep everything off of the face of the earth.” This statement is a hyperbole designed to catch our attention and emphasize to us the tremendous destruction that will occur on earth during the Great Tribulation, the horrendous period of time that is portrayed in the Book of Revelation. For more on the prophecies of the Great Tribulation, see commentary on Isaiah 13:9. Many of the statements fit well with the destruction of Judah by Babylon, and thus many scholars think that is the destruction coming that Zephaniah is referring to, but there is much in what God says that does not fit the Babylonian destruction but does fit with the Great Tribulation and Armageddon. Thus, the destruction of Judah by Babylon is at best a partial fulfillment of Zephaniah’s prophecy.(top)
“the birds of the heavens.” The word “heavens” (or “heaven”) is always plural in Hebrew; thus the phrase could be translated, “the birds of the sky.” In Zephaniah 1:3 God mentions much the same things as in the destruction of Noah’s Flood, except this list has “fish,” while Genesis had “creeping things” (Gen. 6:7), and this list adds “stumbling blocks. However, this next destruction will not be by water.
“the stumbling blocks with the wicked.” The Hebrew word can mean “stumbling blocks,” and that seems to make good sense here, although many modern English versions have “ruins” or some equivalent. In the Day of Yahweh, not only will the wicked be destroyed, but also the stumbling blocks that they have created. For example, the idols of Syria caused Israel to stumble (2 Chron. 28:23), and God said that he would destroy the idols (Ezek. 30:13). It is also very possible that it was because of this verse that Jesus said that God would gather both the lawless people, the wicked, and all the stumbling blocks (likely the idols) and cast them into the fire (Matt. 13:41).(top)
“the remnant of Baal.” That Baal was being worshiped in Judah and Jerusalem shows how insensitive the people of Israel had become to God and His ways. Baal was the top god of Canaan, the Canaanite storm god, and his worship involved sacred prostitution and occasionally child sacrifice. The sacred prostitution was a kind of sympathetic magic in which humans on earth engaged in sex which then was somehow tied into pleasing Baal and getting him to fertilize the earth so there would be a bountiful harvest. Only a blinded heart can worship both Yahweh, who promotes family and godly sexual practices, and Baal, who promotes promiscuity and then occasionally sacrifices the baby that is the fruit of the sexual union. No wonder Yahweh will put an end to Baal.
“idolatrous priests.” The exact meaning of the Hebrew word is uncertain and is debated. Presumably it refers to the priests who had turned to idols, but that may not be accurate.(top)
“worship.” Or, “bowed down to.” The same Hebrew verb, shachah (#07812 שָׁחָה), is translated as both “bow down” and “worship;” traditionally “worship” if God is involved and “bow down” if people are involved, but the verb and action are the same, the act of bowing down is the worship. The common biblical way of bowing down before people or God was to fall to one’s knees and bow the upper body to the earth. [For more on bowing down, see commentary on 1 Chron. 29:20].
“on the housetops.” The worship of the heavenly bodies was tied to the gods those heavenly bodies represented in the mind of the people (such as during the time of the Greeks the planet Mars representing the god Mars). The fact that these planets and stars were worshiped “on the housetops” shows that they were worshiped by families and friends, not only as some form of corporate worship done at a national level by idolatrous priests and pagan priests. Zephaniah’s words were not heeded, and so a half a generation or so later, in the time of Jeremiah, the practice was still going on (Jer. 19:13). In fact, although it seemed to have stopped after Jerusalem was destroyed, the women regretted stopping (Jer. 44:19). This worship of the heavenly bodies is parallel to the practice of astrology today, which is usually done on an individual level and involves the worship of the planets and stars. Although devotees of astrology would say they do not “worship” the stars, from a biblical perspective of looking to them for advice and guidance and giving one’s time to them, they are worshiping them and also disobeying Deuteronomy 4:9; 17:3; and 18:9-12.
“their ‘king’”. This is apparently a sarcastic referral to a god (perhaps Baal) that the people worshiped. Although the Hebrew text is debated and many versions prefer “Milcom” or “Moloch,” the meaning of the verse is not. The people of Israel were going through the motions of worshiping Yahweh but were also heavily involved in the worship of pagan gods. This kind of worship made a mockery of the first great commandment about not having any other gods.(top)
“have not sought Yahweh or asked anything of him.” Genuinely worshiping Yahweh means more than going through the motions of doing the sacrifices and things He requires. A true worshiper believes Yahweh exists and cares for His people, and so they seek a relationship with Him and ask things of Him in prayer. So Zechariah 1:6 gives us another proof the people did not worship Yahweh in their hearts but had another “king” and other gods, because they did not ask anything from Yahweh.(top)
“Be silent in the presence of the Lord Yahweh.” Zephaniah says the Day of Yahweh is at hand (is near), so Yahweh is also near. Be reverently silent in the presence of the Most High God, creator of the heavens and earth.
“the Day of Yahweh is at hand.” The “day of Yahweh” (“the Day of the LORD” in most English translations), is a general phrase, and the “Day of Yahweh” has many parts, including the Tribulation (see commentary on Dan. 12:1), the Battle of Armageddon, the judgments, and the coming kingdom of Christ on earth. The reader must pay close attention to the context to figure out which part of the Day of Yahweh is being emphasized in any given verse. Often the Day of Yahweh is simply called “the day” or “that day” (cp. Zeph. 1:9, 10; 2:2; 3:8, 11, 16). For example, in most of Zephaniah, “the Day of Yahweh” refers to the Tribulation and Armageddon, which will come with destruction on earth (cp. Zeph. 1:7, 8, 14, 18; 2:2, 3; 3:8). However, in Zephaniah 3:11 and 3:16, “the day” refers to the time after God’s wrath when Christ will reign on earth and things will be godly again.
The Day of Yahweh begins with terrible tribulation on earth (see commentary on Dan. 12:1), then comes the Battle of Armageddon, the Sheep and Goat Judgment (Matt. 25:31-46), the First Resurrection (Rev. 20:1-6), and then Christ’s reign on earth. There was no knowledge of the 1000-year Millennial Kingdom of Christ at Zephaniah’s time, so that was not included in their thinking. According to Zephaniah 1:7, the Day of Yahweh was very close, but it turned out that God delayed it (and has continued to delay it) for His own purposes. It is noteworthy that at no point in Zephaniah’s prophecy is there any mention of any course of action that would cool God’s wrath and stop the Day of Yahweh from coming. The Day of Yahweh was going to come, but an individual could repent and not be an object of God’s wrath. The Day of Yahweh is mentioned ten times in five verses later in the chapter (Zeph. 1:14-18). [For more on the Great Tribulation, see commentary on Dan. 12:2. For more on Christ’s Millennial Kingdom, see Appendix 3, “Christ’s Future Kingdom on Earth”].
“Yahweh has prepared a sacrifice.” This is covenant language, and the “sacrifice” is all the wicked people on earth. This is covenant language because under ordinary circumstances God would never do a “sacrifice” because there would be no God that He could offer the sacrifice to, nor any reason for Him to offer a sacrifice. But God had established covenants with Israel and had also promised a New Covenant. Israel had broken the Old Covenant, and humankind had lived in rebellion against their Creator. Now Zephaniah foretold a time when God would show Himself to be Creator and Lord of the universe by destroying His enemies and also fulfilling the curses of the covenant He made with Israel (Deut. 28:20-26).
The context of Zephaniah 1:7 is the Day of Yahweh, and that those people who will be killed during the Great Tribulation and Armageddon are referred to as a “sacrifice” points both backward and forward. It points backward to the fact that the sacrifices made at the inauguration of a covenant were a form of self-maledictory oath (an oath of destruction of oneself if the covenant was broken), and so dire consequences were coming because people had lived in rebellion against God. They had broken the covenant, so they will be sacrificed just as they sacrificed animals when they made the covenant. The “sacrifice” of God also points forward to the fact that a sacrifice is offered to inaugurate a new covenant, and God’s “sacrifice” of all the wicked people makes the way ready for Jesus to set up his Millennial Kingdom on earth and fulfill the New Covenant promises.
Jesus Christ himself was both a sacrifice that fulfilled the self-maledictory oath and the sacrifice that inaugurated the New Covenant from the standpoint of human salvation (cp. commentary on Luke 22:20). But Jesus knew that there was also going to be planet-wide destruction coming as a consequence of sin (the “Great Tribulation”), and he taught about the tribulation at different times in his ministry (cp. Matt. 24, esp. Matt. 24:21. Luke 11:50 also mentions a generation suffering because of sin and bloodshed).
“He has consecrated his guests.” This borders on sarcasm, but there really will be “guests” at the great sacrificial feast of God. The “guests” that God will call to His “sacrifice” and sacrificial banquet, which will be given due to the worldwide destruction coming on the earth, are the animals and birds that will feast on the dead bodies. They will especially gorge themselves on flesh after the Battle of Armageddon (Rev. 19:17-21; Ezek. 39:17). Most of the sacrifices that people offered according to the Law of Moses allowed for the people to eat some of the meat of the sacrifice, and so too, after Armageddon, God’s “guests” will gorge themselves on the meat of God’s “sacrifice.”(top)
“I will punish.” The sentence changed abruptly from 3rd person to 1st person. This kind of change happens quite often in the Old Testament and a number of times in Zephaniah. This is the kind of thing that supports that the book was inspired by a divine Author, God. A professional scribe, and even a fairly well-educated prophet, would not normally write in that seemingly broken fashion.
“the officials.” There are three categories of people mentioned: the officials, the king’s sons, and those people who were wearing foreign clothing. Why not the king? The answer is that Josiah was a godly king.
“the king’s sons.” This is a very important detail because the godly king Josiah was the only king of Judah or Israel to have three of his sons reign as king after him, and all three were evil in the sight of Yahweh. The three were Jehoahaz (2 Kings 23:30); Eliakim also called Jehoiakim (2 Kings 23:34), and the last king of Judah, Mattaniah who was called Zedekiah (2 Kings 24:17).
“clothed with foreign clothing.” Although some commentators think this refers to Judeans who adopted the ways and clothing of foreign lands, especially during Zephaniah’s time in the country of Babylon, that is not likely because God never condemned any specific kind of clothing unless it had pictures or pagan designs woven into the fabric. Besides, the clothing of the common people of the ancient Middle East was mostly all quite similar. One great exception to that was the priests of the various gods and goddesses. The pagan priests, just like the priests of Yahweh, had distinctive garments that set them apart from the rest of the people. For example, at the time of Jehu, the worshipers of Baal had distinctive garments that were specifically used in the worship of Baal (2 Kings 10:22). So there is good evidence that the people who were wearing foreign clothing were the Judean priests. Zephaniah 3:4 says the priest profaned the temple of God, and it would make sense that one of the ways they had done that was by dressing like the priests of pagan gods. There is no reason to assume that the atrocities committed by the priests of Judah that are revealed in Ezekiel were not already being committed in Jerusalem a generation earlier, even if they were not as open or widespread (cp. Ezek. 8:5, 10-17). Josiah’s reform did away with many of the atrocities but did not remove them from the hearts of the people, so they were hidden and then came right back when Josiah was not around.(top)
“In that day.” “That day” is the “day of Yahweh” (see commentary on Zeph. 1:7).
“those who leap over the threshold, who fill the house of their Lord with violence and deceit.” The custom of stepping over the threshold is not well understood. In the time of the Judges the ark of the covenant was captured from Israel by the Philistines, who took it to a temple of Dagon, and because of what happened the priests of Dagon do not step on the threshold of the temple “to this day” (that is, the day when Samuel was written; cp. 1 Sam. 5:5). But how that custom or a custom like it could have come into Israel and been practiced at the time of Josiah is not known.
What can be clearly seen, however, is the hypocrisy of the practice, because the same priests who were careful not to step on the threshold went on to fill God’s house with violence and deceit. Thus they cared about things that made no difference and cared nothing about things that mattered greatly. So 600 years before Christ, the priests were straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel, just as they were at the time of Christ (cp. Matt. 23:34).
“the house of their Lord.” This is God’s temple.(top)
“In that day.” “That day” is the “day of Yahweh” (see commentary on Zeph. 1:7).
“and a great crashing from the hills.” The hills around Jerusalem had idols and temples for idols, and it is likely that the great crashing from the hills in the Day of Yahweh is the idols and idol temples being destroyed (cp. Ezek. 6:3-6, 13), as God foretold in Leviticus (Lev. 26:30-31).(top)
“the Mortar.” The meaning of this is uncertain. It could refer to a part of Jerusalem that was bowl-shaped like a mortar where trading occurred, or, more likely, it refers to all of Jerusalem, which was surrounded by hills, making Jerusalem itself like a mortar in which the people and idols would be pounded and ground up in the Day of Yahweh.
“merchant people.” The Hebrew could be “the Canaanites,” but since the Canaanites were known to be merchants and traders, the term “Canaanite” came to refer to a merchant or trader, which is the meaning in this context. Jerusalem was a prosperous center of trade, wealth, power, and luxury, but all of that would come to an end.(top)
“I will search Jerusalem with lamps.” On the day of God’s wrath no one will be able to escape. There will be no dark corners to hide in. The “lamps” were the common oil lamps in use at the time, they put off the same amount of light as a candle.
“like wine comfortably settled on the lees.” This refers to the custom of letting wine age and develop strength and flavor by leaving it on the lees instead of straining it (cp. Isa. 25:6). Wine bought in bottles today is well strained and very rarely has any lees, which is a fine sediment at the bottom of the wine bottle or wineskin, but homemade wine almost always has lees. The lees at the bottom of a wine bottle are easily stirred up into the wine if the bottle is moved, so for people to be like wine comfortably settled on the lees is a picture of people who are completely comfortable sitting in their sin. They are not disturbed by their sin and have no intention of moving to correct it. They do not think that God would act against them and they certainly do not think about any future Judgment Day, but their unbelief will not change the reality that a day of reckoning is coming.
“Yahweh will not do good, nor will he do evil.” The essence of this phrase is picked up in the more paraphrased NET translation: “The LORD neither rewards nor punishes.” The people treated Yahweh as an unimportant and powerless god.(top)
“Their wealth will become plunder.” On the day of God’s wrath the people who had treated God as a powerless God and had said that He would not do good or evil will find out that they are the ones who are powerless; powerless to save themselves and the things that they coveted from the consequences of their sin.(top)
“Near...Near.” Placing the word “near” at the beginning of the phrase emphasizes it. It was as if the Day of Yahweh was so close you could even hear it coming: “The sound of the day of Yahweh.” Included in the sound of the Day of Yahweh is the screams and bitter cries of even the mightiest of men, as this verse says. Zephaniah said the Day was close, but as it has turned out, God has delayed that day for his purposes, and thus “the Day of vengeance of our God” (Isa. 61:2) is still future.
“the great Day of Yahweh.” The Day of Yahweh is now mentioned ten times in five verses, Zephaniah 1:14-18 (see commentary on Zeph. 1:7).
“the sound.” The Hebrew word translated “sound” can also be “voice,” and the “voice” of the Day of Yahweh is people’s bitter cries. It can also be nuanced to “listen” (HCSB; NASB; NIV), but given what will surely be the cacophonous noise of the Tribulation, “sound” seems like the best choice.
“The mighty man cries out bitterly.” The Day of Yahweh will be a horrible time, and the cries of the hurt and dying will be everywhere.(top)
“A day of darkness and gloom. A day of clouds and thick darkness.” This phrase is repeated in Joel 2:2. That the Day of Yahweh will be a dark time is also mentioned in Amos 5:18-20. The “gloom” is the same “gloom” as in Exodus 10:22, when Egypt was smitten with a “darkness that could be felt.”(top)
“shofar.” The ram’s horn trumpet, not the metal trumpet. In the Day of Yahweh there will be wars and conquests, so there will be trumpet blasts and battle cries (cp. Matt. 24:6; Rev. 6:2).
“the high corner towers.” The corner towers of a walled city were the most heavily fortified places in the city wall, so if the attack is against those, the defenders have no chance of victory.(top)
“they have sinned against Yahweh.” Although in many places God goes into great detail about how the people have abandoned Him and the various sins they have committed, here in Zephaniah God justifies the Day of Yahweh and the vengeance associated with it by simply saying that people have “sinned against Yahweh.” That is all that needed to be said.
“their blood will be poured out like dust, and their bowels like dung.” The contrast of blood and bowels with dust and dung is sharp and striking. Blood and bowels are the very life of the person, and in that sense they are priceless. In contrast, dust and dung are worthless. In effect, God is making the point that people who arrogantly spurn God and live a life of sinning against Him are ultimately worthless. Although many versions say “flesh” instead of “bowels,” the Hebrew word is not “flesh,” but a word used for the bowels, intestines, entrails.
[For more on the destruction of the wicked in Gehenna, see commentary on Matt. 5:22. Also see Appendix 5, “Annihilation in the Lake of Fire”].(top)
“Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to deliver them on the day of Yahweh’s wrath.” In the wars of the ancient world, often the weaker nation was able to give silver, gold and other wealth to the stronger nation to pay them off and avoid total destruction. This was common, and occurs several times in the biblical record (cp. 1 Kings 20:1-4; 2 Kings 12:18; 18:14; 23:31-33). But in this case the people sinned against God, and unlike earthly rulers, God is not interested in gold and silver. No one can pay off God; sin deserves wrath, and His wrath will come! For more on the “Day of Yahweh,” see commentary on Zeph. 1:7).
“the whole earth will be devoured.” Although some scholars believe this is “apocalyptic language” and just refers to the land of Israel, the scope of Scripture argues against that (see commentary below, “on the earth”).
“on the earth.” Although this could also be translated “in the land,” the beginning of the chapter applies more to the whole earth (cp. Zeph. 1:1-2) and there are many other scriptures that refer to the tribulation on both Israel and the nations of the earth (see commentary on Dan. 12:1). Thus, there does not seem to be any good reason to restrict this wrath to just the land of Israel, and some very good reasons not to. The Messiah will rule over the whole earth, and so all the evil on earth must be destroyed and the whole earth cleansed in preparation for his rule. The Book of Revelation describes the seal judgments, trumpet-judgments, thunder-judgments, bowl-judgments, and Battle of Armageddon, and collectively they will involve the entire earth. In the end, there are only two ends facing each person, just as verses such as John 3:16 and Romans 6:23 state: each person will either “perish” or get saved and live forever.(top)