Zephaniah was the great-great grandson of king Hezekiah (715-697 BCE) of Judah. His name means “treasured of YHVH.” He is listed ninth among the “minor” prophets in the TaNaKh (Old Testament), but he is by no means minor in status. It is only the books that are shorter than the “major” prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah & Ezekiel – that are classified as “minor.” In his time, Zephaniah was a powerful voice speaking on behalf of God. His book contains messages for both Jew and gentile alike.
Zephaniah’s prophecies took place at a time when the barbaric Scythians were invading the land now known as Palestine (630-625 BCE). In Judah, Josiah was on the throne.
At the time, Judah had descended into idolatry. Pagan priests in full regalia could be seen plying the streets of Jerusalem. They worshiped the usual suspects: Baal, Molech and the stars (Zephaniah 1:4-5). The way of the true God had atrophied almost out of existence. The people of God seldom, if ever, consulted God about anything (Zephaniah 1:6). The leaders wore foreign garb to show solidarity with pagans (verse 8b).
In verse 9 we find a peculiar statement: “On that day I will punish,” says God, “all who avoid stepping on the threshold…” What does this mean? Apparently, a superstition had arisen in which people believed that demonic spirits lived above and under thresholds of houses – so they leaped over the threshold to avoid making contact. A similar superstition had arisen earlier in history in connection with the false god, Dagon. You can read about it in I Samuel 5:1-5.
The Business Community
A major business center in Jerusalem was located in the vicinity of the fish gate. The prophet warns the merchants, “Wail, you who live in the market district; all your merchants will be wiped out, all who trade with silver will be ruined…” (Zephaniah 1:11). Why economic collapse? What is their offense? Complacency (Verse 12)! These money changers don’t take God’s warning through his prophet seriously. They are deluded into thinking, “The Lord will do nothing, either good or bad” (verse 12b).
This is similar to the mentality of those about whom Peter wrote, “First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, ‘Where is this “coming” he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation,’ (II Peter 3:3-4).
If divine action doesn’t immediately follow divine warning, people grow complacent. They become skeptical, doubting the veracity of the message. Yet, between the warning and the action, God often allows time for repentance. God told the ancient Judeans more than 2500 years ago that the “day of the Lord” was coming and that “Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them,” (Zephaniah 1:18). The same may be true for our time. Many are buying and hording gold, silver and diamonds in hopes they will “make it through” the hard times that are coming. “Apocalyptic survivalists” are frantically storing food, building underground bunkers and arming themselves to the teeth as a means of surviving end time scenarios. It may or may not work.
Who Will Survive?
In Zephaniah’s day, God singled out a particular kind of people for favor while the rest were destined for punishment: “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, you do what he commands. Seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you will be sheltered on the day of the Lord’s anger,” (Zephaniah 2:3).
There were no guarantees. The prophet said “perhaps” the humble would be spared. The point is those who humbled themselves and lived by God’s standards stood a better chance of surviving than the rest. In Luke’s Gospel, we find a warning for the end times. Jesus tells us, “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will come upon you unexpectedly like a trap. For it will come upon all who live upon the face of the earth. Be always on the watch and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man,” (Luke 21:34-36).
For a godly person, there’s no room for “business as usual.” There is no place for complacency. We can’t afford to slip back into carnality and self-indulgence. We must walk in humility and obedience before God on whom our salvation depends. Even then, we may or may not be spared the pain that will come upon the world.
Indicting the Nations
The next section of Zephaniah indicts the nations and peoples that are close to Judea. Coastal kingdoms like Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod and Ekron are warned, “I will destroy you and none will be left,” (Zephaniah 2:5b). He speaks also to the Kerethites (also spelled “Cherethites”) in Canaan (5a). Their land will be given to the remnant of Judah when God restores their fortunes (2:6-7).
Moab and Ammon are also excoriated. They were guilty of taunting and insulting the Jews (2:8). Like the Arabs and Iranians of today, they “made threats” against the chosen people. Their lands would therefore go to “the survivors of my nation,” says God (verse 9b). Today’s nations should think twice about mocking, insulting and threatening God’s Israelite people (verse 10). Long ago, God had promised Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse,” (Genesis 12:3). Many other Biblical passages support that promise including Acts 7:7; Deuteronomy 7L7-8; Isaiah 43:10-12; Obadiah 15 and Joel 3:4 &19. To oppose Israel is to oppose Israel’s God.
Next Zephaniah prophesies against the Cushites (possibly Ethiopians) and against Assyria (then in decline). Then the prophet returns to his indictment of Jerusalem and Judea.
Jerusalem’s problem – that is her leader’s problem – is that “she obeys no one, she accepts no correction. She does not trust in the Lord, she does not draw near to her God,” (Zephaniah 3:2). The religious leaders, prophets and priests, are treacherous and cavalier about Torah. They are brazen in their misconduct, knowing no shame (verses 4&5).
Therefore punishment must come. After the storm, the light breaks through. The relative few, who have humbled themselves in obedience to God, even in captivity, will provide the seed of redemption. “But I will leave within you the meek and the humble who trust in the name of the Lord,” (Zephaniah 3:12). God will again gather his people and return them to his land (verse 14-end).
In our time, God may be bringing our nations down. If he is doing so, all the gold and guns in the world won’t save us. No matter how ingenious our hiding places, and no matter how much food and water we have stored, if God wants to take us down, we’ll go down. We all need to turn to God whether we are Arabs, Turks, Iranians, Americans or Israelis. God is sovereign over all the nations and their kings. The words of a humbled Nebuchadnezzar ring down through the centuries:
“His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: ‘What have you done?’
“…those who walk in pride he is able to humble,” (Daniel 4:34, 35, 37 excerpts).
Nebuchadnezzar had to learn one vital lesson: “…that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes,” (Daniel 4:32b). That principle is no less true today than it was in ancient times.
Zephaniah’s prophecies were written more than two and a half millennia in the past in another language and in the context of a very different world than our own. Yet, his words contain valuable object lessons for our day. God has not changed. He still looks for humility in those who worship him. “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word,” (Isaiah 66:2).