This is the first of our series in Zephaniah. Zephaniah belongs to the minor prophets in the Old Testament, but most of us don't really read the minor prophets because (a) poetry is hard, (b) it requires knowledge of some history and (c) the themes are hard-hitting. So before we look at the chapters and verses of the book of Zephaniah, let's also remember to understand the context.
(A) The Prophets: who were they? (Zeph 1:1a)
The book of Zephaniah begins with a specific event -- "the word of the LORD came to Zephaniah" (Zeph 1:1a). There is literary self-identification going on and it is not a random, casual phrase. In Exo 32:16, we know that this is a God who speaks and also wrote his words down on the tablets that Moses carried. We already know from Gen 1 that God speaks and Exodus further informs us that He writes. These commands are the basis of His spoken word written down by man. From there, Moses goes on to write the whole of the law.
This is the beginning of the tradition. From the time of the Exodus, God had appointed for his spoken word to be written down and treasured. In Deut 18:15-22) God further promised that God will give a prophet like Moses that will speak the words of God. If he is a false prophet, what he says will not come true. Therefore, the prophetic office is built around the word of the Lord. This is the significance of the opening of the book of Zephaniah. The prophets do not appoint themselves. God puts His words in their mouths. "The word of the Lord" is a claim to authority. Deut 18 also tells us that the prophets are held to a high standard!
What does this mean for us? Some Anglican or Presbyterian churches still proclaim "this is the word of the Lord" after reading of Scripture, and the congregation respond by saying "thanks be to God". If your church has such a tradition, don't mumble your response but say "thanks be to God" loudly, for God has given us His word! And, do not forget what it is that you are hearing -- the living words of the true God. The God who spoke things into being from nothing in Genesis 1 still speaks to us today.
The prophets, therefore, have a special job to represent and convey the words of this speaking God. Prophets, priests and kings are the 3 important offices that God had given to guide His people in the Old Testament, and this is also mentioned in Zeph 3:1-4. Throughout the history of Israel, God had been slowly revealing and giving His people these leaders at different points of time.
- Adam and Eve (Gen 2) -- His job was to be fruitful and multiply. He was also to lead and was held accountable when he failed. He did not protect creation and listened to the creature rather than the Creator.
- Moses the prophet (Exo 33:11) -- Moses is the prototype of the man with God's word in His mouth. Through his prophetic role, Moses facilitates the creation of the priesthood.
- Priests (Exo 28:41) -- The priesthood was established to administer the civic and spiritual life and was given before they enter the promised land.
- Kings and officials (1 Sam 8:7-8) -- Israel had judges, and was eventually given a king, king Saul. But David was the right king, not Saul. There were prophets (e.g. Nathan) and priests (e.g. Zadok) under the rule of this king.
- Prophets (2 Kings 3:11) -- The prophets appear towards the end of Israel's history, with the gradual failure of the kings.
God has always given leaders, and also prophets to reveal His word to us! Prophets have an important duty and therefore, the minor Prophets in the Bible are also important for us! And that's not all. In Heb 1:1-2, we are told that God spoke to us through prophets but in these last days, Jesus brings us the word!
Did you feel your mind wander while Zeph 1:1 was read? We are not used to this frequency and thinking like this. The prophets are like unfamiliar voices that we are not used to hearing and our own comfort or discomfort from this part of Scripture reveals how much we know about God and engage him. If you are a growing Christian, we need to hear every frequency of His voice. Take time to know Him as He wants to be known, and not as you want to.
(B) The Prophet: who is Zephaniah and what were his times like? (Zeph 1:1b)
Next, we move on to consider more specifically who Zephaniah is. We know that the word "came to him" as he is given a prophetic calling. His lineage, going back to 4 generation, is also provided, which establishes some credibility. It is likely that he comes from a known family (more about that later). His ministry is also "in the days of Josiah", indicating the time of Israel's political history, as well as the spiritual climate. His name is also significant! Zephaniah means "Yahweh has hidden" which implies that the LORD is the one who has kept and protected and hidden him. It also speaks about his background.
Let's take a closer look at his lineage. Zephaniah could have descended from the king Hezekiah mentioned in (2 Ki 18:1-20:21). A lot of material is dedicated to this king who is reforming and sets the right kind of spiritual climate in Judah. In 2 Kings 18:5, we are told that "there was none like him among all the kings of Judah...". He is a war-time leader, and God showed His power in miraculous victories that boost the national confidence. It also instilled a deep awe and reverence for the Lord. Zephaniah might have descended from this royal line. What does this tell you about the faith of His family?
Two other kings were mentioned. Amon was the complete opposite (c.f. (2 Ki 21:19-26). Amon "abandoned the Lord" and swung the country to idolatry. Amon followed in the footsteps of Manasseh. Josiah, however, was more similar to Hezekiah (c.f. 2 Ki 22:1-23:30). Josiah is a reforming, God-fearing king. This is the Judah of Zephaniah's day.
What can we learn from here? After spiritual decline, God is bringing voices again that speaks of the Lord. The nation of Judah is turning back. Reform takes time and it takes a long time for the culture to change, and this change is only possible because God speaks to His people.
We need to read this bearing in mind the life and times of the prophet. But at the same time, do you see that this word is coming to us in our time and place with a certain spiritual climate. Are God's prophets ministering among His people today? Are there false prophets? Are God's people running after false prophets? We are recipients of this prophetic word. We may not be Prophets who wrote down God's word, but we are no different from the people who hear the words of Zephaniah and live in a culture that looks very different from what God intentioned for things to be. How do you respond as recipients of the word of the Lord? Remember that we all have a prophetic role and that should be our response to hearing His word. Some of us today hear God's word and then leave and worship at the temple of Baal immediately. Our experience of God on Sunday fills us with so much emotion, but come Monday, we put on our work or school clothes and forget that there is ever a God. Let us not be like those described in Zephaniah 3:2.
(C) The Prophecy: what will God do and why? (Zeph 1:2-6)
In the opening verses of Zephaniah’s prophecy, it is made clear who the groups of people God is targeting (Zeph 1:2-6). God will sweep, stretch out His hand against and He will cut off. Who is he targeting? Everything (Zephaniah 1:2), man and beast and all creatures (Zephaniah 1:3), mankind (Zephaniah 1:3), Judah (Zephaniah 1:4). Thus, God will deal with everything and also Judah. This description of widespread judgment and God sweeping and wiping away is definitive, and is like how we treat trash and worthless things. This is meant to maybe point to the flood where God was destroying everything. It's the picture of a flood removing everything and beginning everything with a clean slate. He says it twice and in detail (Zephaniah 1:3), in case anyone has any doubt. This verse reverses the formula of Genesis. God will uncreate the world and reverse Genesis. God will also deal with the rubble (stumbling blocks and idols), and mankind will not be spared. Does this terrify you? It really should. Is this an uncomfortable and unfamiliar picture of God? Zephaniah and other books of the Bible speak honestly of the judgment and wrath of God. We must be careful not to pit God's attributes against one another. They are all true even if they seem paradoxical. His mercy comes alongside His judgment and love and holiness. We love the love of God because it makes us feel precious to Him, but we may not like the wisdom of God so much because it calls us to practical application. And judgment? Though it's something we would want to think about, like how C.S. Lewis describes Aslan as not a tame lion, we must be careful not to make God into our own image and into something that we like!
In Zeph 1:4-6, we are also given 5 reasons that God is “stretching out his hand” against Judah.
- The remnant of Baal dwells there (Zeph 1:4b). There were still parts of Jerusalem rejecting the reforms of Josiah. This is deep-seated, preserved religion.
The name of the idolatrous priests along with the priests continues among them (Zeph 1:4c). There was corruption within the priesthood. This is a kind of willful, intentional corruption of the priesthood.
They bow down on the roofs to the host of heavens (Zeph 1:5a). Look at the effort they take to worship nature. They worshiped what was meant to point to the glory of God and something greater. Every time we look at nature apart from the God who made it, we are doing the same thing!
They bow down and swear to both the LORD and Milcom (Zeph 1:5b). They were swearing by a false god and making false gods their standard of honor and truth. It was God and something else!
Turn back from following the Lord, they do not seek Him nor inquire of Him (Zeph 1:5c). They did not seek out God's prophets and did not want to hear his voice.
What is God saying in his word? He is proclaiming judgment but God is also explaining why. He shows why idolatry is so evil and not loving God with our all is so wicked and evil. In Zeph 1:6, we are told that they knew the ways of the Lord but did not obey. They heard but did not want to apply. This was their rejection of His Word, and ultimately God.
Each one of these reasons should also cause us to pause and reflect on our own lives. In their day, there was an incomplete weeding out of idols and incomplete repentance. There was a tolerance of false worship. Are we guilty of the same thing? The people also mixed God’s worship with worldly worship and their leadership was corrupt. They also worship the creature rather than the Creator and had mixed loyalties and allegiances. They also blatantly did not follow God and lived a life without Him. What about us today? Do we go to church on Sunday and emerge on Monday unchanged, and from Tuesday to Saturday, we have no place for God at all in our lives? Does God also have no place in our considerations of issues of life -- marriage, finances, time, what to watch and listen to? God's indictment is clear and for those who say that we know Him don't seek or inquire of Him!
How are we to? Seek His word and read it (C.f. Ps 119:9). Read the Bible and let the Bible read you! Let Scripture confront you and soak in it! Do not be content with your morning touch and go with His word! 1 Thess 1:2-10 provides a beautiful picture of responding to God's word. The Thessalonian church tuend from idols to the Lord, and in the same way, repentance means us turning from whatever idols we used to cherish and turning to God. It is a decision of our life's trajectory that is made at one moment, but is a resolve that needs to be renewed every day. It involves the active rejection of all the things of the world, and saying yes to God in all things in life. We do this every day as we "wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come" (1 Thess 2:10).