Summary: Zephaniah tells how ’The Day of the Lord’ affects the nations either for punishment of the non-repentant and blessing for believers in the ’Now’ and ’Not Yet’.
ZEPHANIAH’S MESSAGE OF ‘THE DAY OF THE LORD’
The Old Testament prophets were commissioned by Jehovah, the God of Israel, to ‘hear the Word of the Lord’ and then to speak it out to the people, whether or not they were willing to receive it. Often they were unwilling hearers. In many cases the prophets weren’t what we in the 21st century would recognize as ‘professionals’. Instead, they were chosen for a short period was to hear what God wanted His chosen nation to know for that particular moment of time. They were God’s spokesmen, speaking for God in the times in which they lived. As they went about their normal activities they would have a positive awareness that God had a message for them. It was sometimes expressed as ‘a burden’ for often it wasn’t what the people wanted to hear and it made them very unpopular.
As true believers in the God of Israel they knew it wasn’t possible to isolate the sacred and secular parts of life into separate compartments and to say that the two don’t mix. Zephaniah was such a man. He not only had his physical eyes open but his spiritual antennae were alert to see what was going on in the world. This is important for us living in the 21st century. Jesus was constantly telling His disciples to be aware of the "signs of the times", to recognise the significance of what was happening in the world around them. As Christians we have a duty to be both spiritually and socially conscious, to evaluate what’s going on in our community.
We must always ask ourselves if our lifestyles and the practices of our community are in keeping with God’s revelation in Scripture. This has been called ‘double listening’ – hearing what God says to us through His Word and being alive to what is happening around us. If we don’t like what we see, it’s no good just closing our eyes and, like the proverbial ostrich, burying our heads in the sand and pretending it’s not there. The 18th Century Irish statesman Edmund Burke is said to have claimed ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing’ and all too often that’s the case.
The prophets’ message was often a combination of ‘forth-telling’ and ‘foretelling’. It was a dual role. They ‘told forth’ God’s message in their own situations. While their world, over 2,500 years ago, can seem to us strange and remote, in principle nothing changes, and we can often see equivalent situations in our world. But in addition to ‘forth-telling’ they also ‘foretold’ what would take place in the future as it would affect their nation and even the world. The actions of men and women inevitably have consequences, and especially to those to whom God has revealed His law. Rebellion would bring judgement but if there was genuine repentance God is His mercy and grace would bring about restoration and blessing.
‘THE PROPHETIC PERSPECTIVE’
When the prophets were speaking of what would happen as a result of what was taking place in Judah the message was very specific. But when they looked out into the future the great events foretold were compressed in a brief space of time. This is called ‘the prophetic perspective’. They saw the future rather like a traveller seeing a mountain range on a distant horizon. From that perspective at ground level it seems that one mountain top rides right behind another when in reality they are miles apart. There’s a prime example of this in the words of Jesus when He foretold the destruction of Jerusalem which took place only 40 years after He spoke and He went on to disclose what would take place immediately before His Second Coming and the final judgement of mankind which of course we still await (Matt 24). Jesus combined the two events in such a way that at the time they could hardly be separated.
The message of Zephaniah has meaning in terms of time – ‘Now’ and ‘Not Yet’ – as the prophet spoke of the judgement of a righteous God and also of His grace in bringing about restoration and blessing. It was relevant in 7th century BC and just as relevant today. Zephaniah tells us that God is in the forefront of the action but has His own timing of events: ‘“Therefore wait for me,” declares the Lord, “for the day I stand up to testify”’ (3:8).
ZEPHANIAH’S PROPHETIC MINISTRY
The prophets often prefaced their statements with the words ‘The Lord declares …’ as the anointing of the Spirit of God came upon them. This is certainly true of the little known messenger of God, Zephaniah. His short prophecy begins ‘The word of the Lord came to Zephaniah’ (1:1). At the beginning of the 7th century before Christ he follows the distinguished ministries of Isaiah, Micah, Amos and Hosea. These great men of God had brought hope to the troubled nation of Israel but sadly their message of repentance had been largely ignored and resulted in the northern kingdom of Israel being conquered by the Assyrians and the people taken into exile and completely losing their identity as the people of God. The southern kingdom of Judah almost suffered the same fate but in God’s mercy and forbearance was spared for a time in the reformation under the rule of Hezekiah and Josiah. But the change of heart was superficial and the nation soon returned to its former state of rebellion against God’s laws. They again turned to the corrupt religion of the surrounding nations.