Summary: Continuing a series on the minor Prophets
Continuing our series on the Minor Prophets, we come to the short book of Zephaniah, which means “the Lord hides.” As one great Bible commentator puts it, there is no hotter book in all the Old Testament. Zephaniah was a man that burned with the Spirit of God. Zephaniah was a prophet of the great day of wrath which was coming for all the nations of the world. He had a timeless and original insight into the nature and meaning of sin. And it was this sin that would bring down the judgement of God upon the chosen people and the heathen peoples of Zephaniah’s time. And it is for that insight into sin that we might best remember Zephaniah. And the edition of the book which comes to us expands the typical narrow nationalistic view of salvation, as we will see when we come to chapter 3.
First let us discuss who Zephaniah was and when his prophecies were made. His genealogy is listed back for four generations, which is unusual for a prophet. And in this list is the name Hezekiah, which could be the same man that was king in the time of Isaiah and Micah. This connection leads many to call Zephaniah the royal prophet. He began his work during the reign of Josiah, who was a good and ethical king, guided by good priests and religious leaders. But things did not remain well in the eyes of the Lord. The nation after Josiah’s death reverted to its idolatry and sin.
Zephaniah’s work is a warning. It is directed to the complacent chosen people, who sit about waiting for something to happen, waiting for God to act. In all of Zephaniah’s words about the coming day of the Lord, there is little spared. The message is all-consuming and universal. There is no escape from what God has intended to do. And there are only two sides which you can come out on, either the side of the Lord or the side of his enemies. There is no place to hedge your bets, no place to sit and figure out what to do, no place to watch the battle from the sidelines. The day of the Lord is a Day of Judgment upon you and upon me.
When Zephaniah begins his description of the sin-filled world in which he lived, like the rest of the prophets he does not hold back. And sin becomes far more than a personal thing. Sin is not relegated to the individual soul. It is a cosmic event. It is the force that rips us from our place at God’s hand, it destroys our relationships with one another, it causes the creation itself to fight against life. And because of the cosmic nature of sin, because it is so all-encompassing, then judgement as well has a cosmic extent. The pictures of judgment in the prophets
Listing the sins
Disobedience & revolt
Lack of faith and love
Zephaniah’s insight into the nature of sin does not lead him to simply put his hands up in air. Sin is not a concept that sits out there, for theologians to talk about, for preachers to complain about, for everyone else to forget about. Sin necessitates a response, and Zephaniah proceeds to show that response, both the response from God and the response from ourselves.
Beginning with God’s response, Zephaniah speaks the words of judgement which are a constant theme of prophetic books. These words of judgement are directed to a society which, as we have seen has lost its sense of who God is, what God has done, and where God will lead those who are his people. Zephaniah begins his description of judgement in the neighbouring peoples. He details the judgment on the Philistines, on the Ethiopians, the Assyrians, the Moabites, and the Ammonites. God will judge the enemies of his people Israel. That was a common theme in prophetic books. It was an easy theme to speak, and it was easy for the people to hear. Who does not want to hear about the downfall of their enemies? These are the parts of Scripture readily gobbled up by short-sighted believers who want proof that God will destroy all that stands in their path.
But Zephaniah’s vision of judgement does not stop at the border. Zephaniah’s’ judgement is as all-encompassing and cosmic as the fact of human sin. If sin is the destructive force in human life, then how can we say that judgement is held back from some, just because of their nationality, their color, their religious beliefs, the church they worship in on Sunday.
So, Zephaniah’s judgement turns inward. The chosen people are not spared. Jerusalem, the city of God, has become a city of corruption. Hear what Zephaniah says about the home of the temple in the beginning of chapter 3. “Woe to the city of oppressors, rebellious and defiled! She obeys no one, she accepts no correction. She does not trust in the Lord, she does not draw near to her God. Her officials are roaring lions, her rulers are evening wolves, who leave nothing for the morning. Her prophets are arrogant; they are treacherous men. Her priests profane the sanctuary and do violence to the law. The Lord within her is righteous; he does no wrong. Morning by morning he dispenses his justice, and every new day he does not fail, yet the unrighteous know no shame.” There is no hotter book in the Old Testament.