>Zephaniah and the Judgment of God

>Today I resume my studies on the book of the prophet Zephaniah. For the previous studies on this series, follow the links mentioned below.

In my previous studies, I mentioned Zephaniah’s relationship with Hezekiah, king of Judah. I also emphasized that Zephaniah preached in the days of king Josiah and that his message was instrumental in bringing about the religious reforms that Josiah implemented in order to purify the religious life of Judah.

A cursory reading of the book will clearly show that Zephaniah did not limit his message of divine judgment to the royal family alone. Zephaniah took his message into the streets of Jerusalem and spoke to all who were willing to listen.

Zephaniah was familiar with the geography of the city. In his book, he refers to the Fish Gate (Zephaniah 1:10), to the Second Quarter (Zephaniah 1:10), and to the Mortar (Zephaniah 1:11). The Fish Gate was a gate on the northern wall that protected Jerusalem. The Second Quarter was a section of Jerusalem, west of the Tyropoeon Valley, the valley that divided Jerusalem into two sections. The Mortar was a trading district in Jerusalem.

The message of Zephaniah is firmly rooted in the prophetic traditions of his predecessors. Zephaniah’s book contains oracles against Judah (1:2-2:3), against foreign nations (2:4-15), and oracles of hope and restoration (3:8-20). The book is short. It is composed of only 3 chapters and 53 verses. However, the book contains typical pre-exilic elements of judgement on the people with a promise of restoration. The book also features major elements of post-exilic apocalyptic eschatology that includes the destruction of the enemy, the ingathering of the exile, and the restoration of the nation.

In the seventh century, at the time Zephaniah was ministering in Jerusalem, Judah was facing a time of religious apostasy. Zephaniah preached to a people who had rejected the demands of the covenant. The people of Judah had become indifferent to their religious practices and had neglected the worship of Yahweh to follow other gods. They had become complacent in their religious duties, driven by the syncretism present in their society and by the excessive religious tolerance introduced by their political and religious leaders.

As mentioned in a previous post, Manasseh introduced astral worship and other pagan practices in the Temple. Because Judah had been an Assyrian vassal for several decades, the gods of Assyria had become a part of the religious life of the people for as long as that generation could remember.

The people who turned away from following Yahweh were probably those who were born during the reign of Manasseh. Those who from their youth had never submitted to Yahweh were being called to faithfulness and repentance. Many of these people were born after the religious reforms of Hezekiah. With the syncretism introduced by Manasseh, these people were not committed to follow the Lord or to keep his laws. The religious persecution under Manasseh (2 Kings 22:16) drove the prophets underground, probably after Isaiah’s ministry ended in 687. No prophet arose in Judah until Zephaniah appeared at the beginning of the reign of Josiah.

Zephaniah’s message was very critical of the political and religious leadership of the nation who lived in Jerusalem. He said: “The officials within it are roaring lions; its judges are evening wolves that leave nothing until the morning. Its prophets are reckless, faithless persons; its priests have profaned what is sacred, they have done violence to the law” (Zephaniah 3:3-4).

The most severe criticism Zephaniah uttered against the people and their leaders, indeed, against the whole nation, is found in Zephaniah 2:1, where he called them a “shameless nation.” The word used here for “nation” is gôy, a word generally used to designate pagan nations. The interpretation that gôy in this context is used derogatorily is based on the meaning of the word kāsaph in verse 1. Although the meaning of the word in this context is not very clear, the two words are translated “shameless nation” (NRSV), “shameful nation” (NIV), “undesirable nation” (HCSB), and “a nation not worthy to be loved” (Douay-Rheims). With these words, Zephaniah accused the people of Judah of behaving like the gentiles.

Zephaniah accused the people worshiping in the Temple of practicing pagan rituals alien to Yahwism. The people were serving both Yahweh and idols. This is the reason Yahweh announced a severe judgment upon their pagan practices:

“I will stretch out my hand against Judah, and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and I will cut off from this place every remnant of Baal and the name of the idolatrous priests; those who bow down on the roofs to the host of the heavens; those who bow down and swear to the LORD, but also swear by Milcom; those who have turned back from following the LORD, who have not sought the LORD or inquired of him” (Zephaniah 1:2-6).

One important aspect of the message of Zephaniah is his emphasis on the inevitable coming of the “Day of the Lord” or the “Day of Yahweh.” This motif appears in several prophetic books prior to Zephaniah. In the eighth century, Amos warned the people of Israel that the day of Yahweh would be a time of calamity, a day when Yahweh would bring judgment, beginning with his own people:

“Disaster for you who long for the Day of Yahweh! What will the Day of Yahweh mean for you? It will mean darkness, not light, as when someone runs away from a lion, only to meet a bear; he goes into his house and puts his hand on the wall, only for a snake to bite him. Will not the Day of Yahweh be darkness, not light, totally dark, without a ray of light?” (Amos 5:18-20 NJB).

For Zephaniah, the “Day of Yahweh” will be a time when Yahweh will bring severe judgment upon the nation. The strong language that accompanies the prophet’s message surpasses even the strong language of Amos, a prophet who probably influenced him. In a series of graphic, memorable phrases, the prophet proclaimed what the people would experience on that dark day when Yahweh visits his people. That day will be “the day of the LORD’s sacrifice” (1:8), “the day of the LORD’s wrath” (1:18), “a day of wrath, 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” (Zephaniah 1:15 ), and “a day of trumpet blast and battle cry” (Zephaniah 1:16). And, according to Zephaniah, “the great day of the LORD is near, near and hastening fast” (Zephaniah 1:14).

Zephaniah not only condemned the people of Judah, but he also indicted the foreign nations by proclaiming that they also would be judged by Yahweh. Zephaniah proclaimed oracles against the Philistines (2:4-7), against Moab and Ammon (2:8-11), against Ethiopia (2:12), and against Assyria (2:13-15). On that day, Yahweh will defeat the gods of the earth (2:11). Fire will consume the earth and the nations will feel the impact of God’s wrath (3:9).

However, Zephaniah was much more interested on the judgement that was coming upon Jerusalem. Zephaniah called the people of Judah to repentance. He stood against the idolatry of the temple priests (Zephaniah 1:4; 3:4), he rebuked the palace officials and the king’s sons who dressed themselves in foreign attire (Zephaniah 1:8), he called the people involved in pagan worship to return to Yahweh.

Zephaniah charged that Jerusalem was not worthy of her king because of the corruption found within the city: “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” (Zephaniah 3:1-2 RSV).

Throughout the book, Zephaniah’s message is mainly concerned with the imminent coming of the Day of Yahweh and God’s judgment upon the nations. But the Day of Yahweh will be focused not only on the judgment of Judah and the nations, but also on salvation. According to Zephaniah, on that day the nations will come to know God: “I shall purge the lips of the peoples, so that all may invoke the name of Yahweh and serve him shoulder to shoulder” (Zephaniah 3:9 NJB).

The last words of Zephaniah were a message of hope to Israel. A remnant will survive the judgment of God. This remnant will be gathered and brought together by Yahweh into one place, “my holy mountain” (Zephaniah 3:11). The book of Zephaniah concludes by saying that the judgment of God came in order to purge Israel of its sin and disobedience. The land and the people had to be purified prior to the remnant’s return to Jerusalem.

Other Studies on Zephaniah:

The Historical Context of Zephaniah’s Ministry

Prophets in Israel

Zephaniah the Prophet

Zephaniah and the Palestinians

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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