The early portion of Zephaniah’s prophecy is dark, heavy, and full of the thunderings of the law. But only those who are stubborn and stiff-necked need to be fearful of these thunderings. The proud only hear the fire and thunder of God’s just anger over their sin. But the meek are given news ears. They don’t hear the tumult of God’s wrath; they hear the sweetest song. A song that all the most gifted composers, if they worked together for a thousand years, would be unable to compare with.
Woe to her that is filthy and polluted, to the oppressing city! She obeyed not the voice; she received not correction; she trusted not in the LORD; she drew not near to her God. Her princes within her are roaring lions; her judges are evening wolves; they gnaw not the bones till the morrow. Her prophets are light and treacherous persons: her priests have polluted the sanctuary, they have done violence to the law. The just LORD is in the midst thereof; he will not do iniquity: every morning doth he bring his judgment to light, he faileth not; but the unjust knoweth no shame. [. . .]
Summary of the Text
Zephaniah has taken us to the four corners of the compass, to declare to all nations that God is coming in judgement upon the whole world (2:2-15). But now Jerusalem is again addressed, but as if she was one of the heathen nations. She’s become indistinguishable from the nations. She’s a filthy, polluted, oppressing city (v1), rather than being clean as commanded by God (Cf. Lev. 10:10, 11:47). Her chief sins are listed (v2): she wouldn’t obey (שמע) the voice (Cf. Deu. 6:4), receive correction (מוּסָר) (Cf. Deu. 11:2), trust the Lord (Cf. 2 Ki. 18-19, 2Ch. 32, Is. 36-37), or draw near to God (Cf. Is. 29:13). Her princes are lions, her judges are wolves, her prophets are treacherous, her priests have polluted the sanctuary and raped the law (vv3-4).
Despite all this corruption, God the just is still in their midst, and His justice is an inescapable reality (v5). The Lord has ruined nations before, toppling their towers of vain glory (think of Babel in Gen. 11); this should have been a cause for fear for the Jews, but instead they eagerly pursued their corruptions (vv6-7).
The Lord returns to addressing “all the meek of the earth” who were summoned to gather together to seek the Lord (2:2-3). They’re to wait upon the Lord; trusting that He will hasten the promised day, when He’ll gather all nations and kingdoms to pour upon them the fire of His jealousy (v8). Running parallel to this is the Lord’s promise to cause people from all nations to call upon Him with pure lips, while gathering the scattered, yet faithful, Israelites (v9-10). This multi-national host won’t be ashamed for their sins, for God shall have purged His church of the haughty, self-assured boasters (v11). The proud shall be purged out like dross, and in their place the afflicted and the poor who trust in the Lord’s name shall dwell in Jerusalem (v12). The remnant of Israel shall indeed be holy, and shall enjoy her promised rest (v13). Zephaniah initially addresses the people of Judah, but as he zooms out begins to refer to these gathered faithful as the remnant of Israel.
This motley band of faithful Jews and gathered Gentiles––though having been poor and afflicted––are called to sing, like true children of Jerusalem (v14). The Lord has forgiven their sins, destroyed their enemies, and now assumes His place as their rightful King (v15). The gathered remnant shall not dwell in fear, but will be fortified to render faithful service unto God (v16). God their King dwells in their midst as a mighty conquerer, a sure defender, and a husband in the throes of delighted love for His beloved (v17). Those faithful Israelites who endured various afflictions––the derision of their unbelieving countrymen and their foreign captors––will be brought back in glory, fame, and praise, for God will have turned back their captivity before their very eyes (vv18-20).
The One Left Singing
The heathen cities have been presented as rejoicing in their corruption (2:15); but now they are cut down and God and His people are the ones who end the day in joyful song. This is the way it will always go. Recall Bunyan’s “Interpreter’s House”. Passion gets all his now, but Patience waits on and receives a greater reward. Passion is left barren, empty-pocketed, and forlorn. Patience receives all he longed for and more.
Zephaniah is like a cliff notes version of the minor prophets. He summarizes the message which the faithful prophets had proclaimed. First, God will judge the wicked. Second, God is the God of the whole world and so there is nowhere to hide from Him. Third, the only escape is to seek the Lord in meekness. In other words, the proverb rings true: “Surely he scorneth the scorners: but he giveth grace unto the lowly (Pro 3:34).” The proud shall be brought low, but God will raise the humble up to glory and gladness. God will get the last word, and the last word will be set to heavenly music.
Judgement & Redemption
God’s judgement and our redemption go hand in hand. The faithful await God’s judgement on wickedness, as a means of attaining their deliverance and redemption.
This is unfurled with great glory when Christ comes and takes the brunt of God’s judgement that was due to us, for we were God’s enemies. You can only be saved if first your sin is defeated. So, Christ died for you. He took your judgement, so that you might enjoy the redemption freedom He purchased for you.
A Royal Lineage
Remember that Zephaniah begins this book by trotting out his ancestry.com findings. His connection to the royal lineage is highlighted in the opening verse. Those kings and princes listed there either failed miserably to reform the people, or else played a large role in willfully corrupting the people.
But as Zephaniah concludes his prophecy, he tells of how God will be the King in the midst of His people. He begins with a reminder of the failures of both the good and evil kings of Judah. He concludes by declaring that “great David’s greater Son” will use the Gentile nations to gather scattered Israel back to Him (Cf. Num 27:17). While David’s glorious songs, and Solomon’s lavish wealth were Israel’s ancient glory, the coming Messiah would turn men from every nation to worship the Lord, enjoying His songs over them, delighting in His blessing, grace, and favor.
Your Sins Are Forgiven
As with the whole Bible, the message of Zephaniah is that you are proud sinner, deserving God’s wrath. But for those whom God chooses to humble, who then seek Him with the rest of those He has chosen to gather unto Himself, they are given a bright promise which outshines the sun. God will take away all your shame, all your proud boastings, all your abuses of His law, all your crimes against your neighbor. God will not only forgive you, but He shall delight over you.
This might seem a bit much. A bit over the top to describe God as singing over us a like a love-struck bridegroom would serenade His bride. But the Gospel is over the top. It is good news. It is the news that your sins are forgiven, and God looks upon you, not with a cloud of brooding suspicion, but with joy. He has taken away your shame. God loves you. God loves His bride. Because His Son endured all the wrath you deserved, and has now gathered you to Himself. God has turned back your captivity before your very eyes (Zeph. 2:7, 3:20), so gather together to sing, and feast, and dwell in safety, for your God has redeemed you.