Zephaniah, son of Cushi, wastes no time getting down to business. In the second verse of his prophetic tract, we hear the following:
I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the land, declares Yahweh.
The obscure Zephaniah features no seraphim-filled call narratives like Isaiah. Zephaniah has no pithy nickname like Jeremiah, the “Weeping Prophet.” We have for him no memorable biographical details like being swallowed by a whale (Jonah) or marrying a prostitute (Hosea). Zephaniah does not even have a verse to feature on Christmas cards, like Micah who tells us about the coming king from Bethlehem. Zephaniah simply has three chapters of old fashioned prophetic zeal.
What Zephaniah does do is show us that the Lord makes a distinction between those who are his people and those who are not, as He did when the Angel of Death moved through Egypt. And he shows us that God’s intention is the ultimate peace and prosperity of those who are His. Zephaniah teaches us that all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to his purpose. If you can make it past the opening threats, there is much comfort to be found.
So, moving on from the sweeping away of everything from the face of the land promised in 1:2, we get to details:
I will sweep away man and beast; I will sweep away the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea, and the rubble with the wicked. I will cut off mankind from the face of the land,” declares Yahweh. “I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and I will cut off from this place the remnant of Baal (1:3-4).
It is a threat of a new flood—not even the animals are safe. And as always, judgment begins at the household of God: the Lord’s hand is stretched out against Judah and Jerusalem, and against its idolatrous priests. The charge is laid specifically against those who would have other gods in the presence of Yahweh, who “bow down and swear to Yahweh, and yet swear by Milcom” (1:5). So that is the opening threat. The view is broad, but the first concern is with the covenant people. And this is why it is ultimately encouraging: as we move on in Zephaniah, it is the covenant people who will receive grace.
Progressing further: The Day of Yahweh is near (1:7). In biblical usage, “Day of the Lord” is not a reference to the final judgment. It may be in some contexts, but the phrase simply refers to any visitation of God upon a people. In the immediate context, that day is the approaching decimation of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, which in Zephaniah’s time was not many years out. (Zephaniah prophecies in the days of King Josiah; 1:1). On that day, the dead bodies of God’s rebellious people would constitute a sacrifice. The image is meant to be twisted: “Yahweh has prepared a sacrifice and consecrated his guests . . .” (1:7), and those guests are “the officials and the king’s sons and all who array themselves in foreign attire” (1:8). These are “guests” in an utterly sarcastic sense. They will actually be the ones slain. This will not be a happy party filled with Christmas cheer—instead there will be “a cry from the Fish Gate, a wail from the Second Quarter, a loud crash from the hills” (1:10). Jerusalem will be searched out; the wicked will be hunted from house to house (1:12). It will be “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, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements” (1:15-16). Perhaps the reference to thick darkness and a trumpet blast are meant to be bitter reminders of Sinai, and the Law that Israel has transgressed. The final threat is sweeping: “In the fire of Yahweh’s jealousy all the land will be consumed; for a full and sudden end he will make of all the inhabitants of the land” (1:18).
It is important to understand that these kinds of prophetic carpet-bombings are meant to move the people to action. They are threats, and the comprehensive “all” language does not mean there is no hope. God is always ready to work for those who turn to Him. Zephaniah is no doofus; he knows that the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and that the Lord can be counted on to faithfully preserve a remnant of his people:
Gather together, yes, gather, O shameless nation, before the decree gives birth—before the day passes away like chaff—before there comes upon you the burning anger of the Lord, before there comes upon you the day of the anger of the Lord. Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do his just commands; seek righteousness; seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the anger of Yahweh (2:1-3; cf. Joel 2:12-14).
Here is the thing: After this word of hope, attention turns to the Philistines:
For Gaza shall be deserted, and Ashkelon shall become a desolation; Ashdod’s people shall be driven out at noon, and Ekron shall be uprooted. Woe to you inhabitants of the seacoast, you nation of the Cherethites! The word of Yahweh is against you, O Canaan, land of the Philistines; and I will destroy you until no inhabitant is left. And you, O seacoast, shall be pastures, with meadows for shepherds and folds for flocks. The seacoast shall become the possession of the remnant of the house of Judah, on which they shall graze, and in the houses of Ashkelon they shall lie down at evening. For Yahweh their God will be mindful of them and restore their fortunes (2:4-7).
Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Ekron, Philistine cities all, will also face the Day of the Lord. But it is the remnant of Judah that will be restored. Purging fire will come, and it will begin at the household of God and sweep away the wicked, the covenant breakers. The fire will consume the Philistines as well, but it is the remnant of Judah who is given reassurance. Moab and the Ammonites will taunt (2:8), and they will become like Sodom and Gomorrah (2:9), but “the remnant of my people will plunder them, and the survivors of my nation shall possess them” (2:10). All have sinned, but the Lord’s heart is set on His people, and he will restore them. Whatever is ultimately to become of the Gentile nations, Zephaniah wants us to see that the Lord is first of all faithful to His covenant people. Zephaniah has another cycle of denunciation against Judah (3:1-8), because the people need discipline for sure. But there is a certain word of grace once again:
On that day you shall not be put to shame because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against me; for then I will remove from your midst your proudly exultant ones, and you shall no longer be haughty in my holy mountain. But I will leave in your midst a people humble and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name of Yahweh, those who are left in Israel; they shall do no injustice and speak no lies, nor shall there be found in their mouth a deceitful tongue. For they shall graze and lie down, and none shall make them afraid (3:11-13).
A people humble and lowly, the meek . . . will inherit the earth. When Jesus came and announced a blessing on the meek, when He gave the Beatitudes, He was not in the first instance recommending ethical principles. He was announcing the time. He was announcing the year of the Lord’s favor. He was announcing that the Day of the Lord which had come in Zephaniah and Jeremiah’s time, and would come again upon his own generation, had for the time being given way to the day of salvation, an opportunity to seek refuge in the name of the Lord. In his vision of the coming restoration, Zephaniah twice says that “the King of Israel, Yahweh, is in your midst.” That is cause to rejoice, and it is the reality that caused Jesus to announce salvation to his flock. The Lord promised in Zephaniah that he would “save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise” (3:19). It was to signify the fulfillment of this promise that Jesus saved the lame and the outcast of Israel. It was to declare that the Lord God had indeed returned to Zion, and was returning in the person of Christ the Son.
The Jews were expecting the return of the Lord to Zion. It is what they were waiting and hoping for. They wanted Him to return and deal with their oppressors. What they did not expect was that the Lord in their midst would be the carpenter from Nazareth. What they really did not expect (but ought to have) was that the Lord would again hold a sacrifice, as He had threatened back in Zephaniah 1:7, but that this time the sacrifice would be the Lord Himself. To make a refuge for His people, to allow the preservation and restoration of a remnant, and to restore their fortunes and deal with their real oppressors—sin and the Devil—the Royal Son would come dwell in their midst and offer Himself up in sacrifice on their behalf. Even more, He would seat them in heavenly places alongside Himself when raised up: “For I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the land, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes” (3:20).