zephaniah. Day of Wrath ~ Day of Singing.

Key Notes: Total destruction of the earth. Four classes of sinners. The approaching destruction of Jerusalem. In the end, judgment completed, people at home, rejoicing everywhere. God singing over His people!

Zephaniah was the great-great-grandson of Hezekiah, King of Judah. He prophesied during the time of King Josiah. He may have had access to the Court. Josiah was a reformer (II Chron. 34–35) who destroyed idols and broke down the altars of Baal, repaired the Temple and recovered a copy of the Law of Moses when cleaning out the Temple rooms. Huldah the prophetess warned Josiah of God’s judgment but promised that he would die in peace. Josiah was the last good king of Judah, and was succeeded by Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin and Zedekiah as the kingdom collapsed before Babylon.

There is one other minor prophet who is even closer in time to the sack of Jerusalem—Habakkuk. Unlike Habakkuk, Zephaniah is little known and considered obscure. However, he has a message that we will all want to remember forever. Part of it is frightening—the Day of Wrath—“Dies Irae.”  Part of it is the most sublime promise of blessing we can find anywhere. Zephaniah hits the extremes.

1:2–3   The opening lines are the prediction of the destruction of all life on the earth. The idea is shocking but not strange to the Bible student. The same idea is found in many other places in both Old and New Testaments.

“Behold, the Lord will lay waste the earth and make it desolate, and He will twist its surface and scatter its inhabitants.” Is. 24:1
“…the earth is laid waste before Him , the world and all that dwell therein.” Nahum 1:5
“All the host of heaven shall rot away and the skies be rolled up like a scroll.” Is. 34:40
“You, Lord, founded the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of Your hands; they will perish, but You remain; they will all grow old like a garment, like a mantle You will roll them up and they will be changed. But You are the same and Your years will never end.” Heb. 1:10–12
“…the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist have been stored up for fire, being kept until the Day of Judgment and destruction of ungodly men.” II Pet. 3:6–7
“But the Day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise and the elements will be dissolved with fire; and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up.” II Pet. 3:10
“…the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by the gale; the sky vanished like a scroll that is rolled up and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth…hid among the rocks of the mountains….” Rev. 6:12–15

“Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth and the former things shall not be remembered." Is. 65:17
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away and the sea was no more.” Rev. 21:1

Why would God destroy all life on the earth?

It is not the earth, but the World, the culture of human society, that is in rebellion against God. That is where the trouble lies. It may be, as with the Flood, that in order to destroy all human life (almost all; Noah and his family survived), all animal life must be sacrificed as well. Perhaps it also will be polluted chemically and genetically. As in the prelude to the Flood, we believe that there may again come a time when human thought is “only evil continually.”

If the earth is totally destroyed, with all life snuffed out, where will the believers be? Will they die in the judgment of the earth? We think not.

II Peter. 2:4–19 discusses this subject and uses Noah and the Flood and Lot in Sodom and Gomorrah to assure us that “God knows how to rescue the godly from trial….”
“For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation….” (I Thes. 5:9). This text follows close on the heels of the promise of the resurrection of the dead and the rapture of the living Believers when Christ returns to the earth. I Thes. 4:16–17

1:3–5   Four classes of sinners are described, all in spiritual rather than moral terms.

  1. “…those who bow down on the roofs to the host of the heavens” – the idolators.
  2. “…those who bow down and swear to the Lord and yet swear by Milcom” – the syncretists, who worship the Lord but also borrow from other religions.
  3. “…those who have turned back from following the Lord” – the apostates who walk away from their first faith.
  4. “…who do not seek the Lord or inquire of Him” – the indifferent.

1:7–9   The sacrifice prepared by God appears to be

*the officials of the kingdom
*the king’s sons
*those who dress up like Assyrians
*those who honor Baal by jumping over the threshold, as the Philistines did for Dagon (I Sam. 5:5)---a best guess at the meaning.
*those who fill the king’s house with violence and fraud.

All of these may be the same group, the corrupt court that surrounds Josiah. The focus has been changed from the earth to the near-coming destruction of Jerusalem.

1:10–13   The destruction of Jerusalem is detailed district by district. The “Mortar” is thought to be a bowl-like formation where the merchants congregated. “Men who are thickened upon their lees” refers to people who are like the dregs of the wine—sluggish and useless—hence, those who are dulled and unresponsive to the mess around them as well as to God.

1:14–18   The Day of Wrath was vividly portrayed in the Middle Ages, and was incorporated as a choral piece in the Latin Mass. It is included in more modern requiems by Mozart, Berlioz and Verdi.

2:1–3   “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do His commands; seek righteousness, seek humility. Perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the wrath of God.”
“Perhaps” is reflected also in Amos 5:15:  “…perhaps it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.”

“It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is Thy faithfulness.” Lam. 3:22–23, KJV

2:4–7   Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod and Ekron, four of the five cities of the Philistines, are due to be destroyed. The first city, Gath, had been taken by David. (I Chron.18:10). Some of the Philistines were also called Cherethites, referring to Crete, the island from which the sea people had come. The Cherethites were loyal to David. To call Canaan “the land of the Philistines” is an insult which persists to this day. “Palestine” is a corruption of the word “Philistine.”

2:8–11   The taunts of Israel by her neighbors, like Moab and Ammon, have been mentioned by other prophets. (Ezek. 25:1–11). Obadiah made a special reference to Edom’s harassment when Judah was under siege by other powers. Obad. 10–14

2:12   “The Lord’s sword against Ethiopia” was Assyria.

2:13–15   The destruction of Ninevah is spelled out. One can visualize the devastation of an inhabited city when the details of building—capitals, windows, threshold and cedar work—are mentioned. We have all seen the scraps of buildings left by tornado, hurricane or bombing. Nahum, we recall, is a prophet dedicated to Ninevah’s destruction, as Jonah earlier was to Ninevah’s salvation.

3:1–8   The essence of rebellion is “listens to no voice, accepts no correction.”
Judges, prophets and priests are wicked, while the Lord continues to do righteousness in the city.
God’s judgment of surrounding cities (Samaria and the Northern Kingdom) left Judah unmoved.
Therefore, only the wrath of God remains.

3:9–13   “Yet at that time,” in the End of Days, God will make speech pure, all calling upon the Lord and serving Him in unity. From Africa His dispersed ones will come back.
The proud will be replaced by a humble and lowly people, truthful, peaceful and at rest.

3:14–20   The book ends with rejoicing in God, with the King of Israel, JHWH, in the midst.
Judgments have been taken away.
Enemies have been cast out.
The people are at home again, praised among all the peoples of earth.

But the most stunning thing is God’s rejoicing over His people ~

“The Lord has taken away the judgments against you…”
“The Lord your God is in your midst, a Warrior who gives victory;
He will rejoice over you with gladness;
He will renew you in His love;
He will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.”
“I will change their shame into praise.

How can God rejoice over us sinners? Surely not! I am wretched, burdened down with sin. How could He even look at me without scorn? I fail almost every day to meet even my own standards.
“He has taken away the judgments against you.”

But I am defeated in my Christian life.
“He is a warrior who gives victory.”

God is too big, too powerful, too far away—I can hardly imagine what Zephaniah is saying!
“The Lord your God is in the midst of you.”

I would be so embarrassed. I would die of shame.
"I will change their shame into praise.”

What could He possibly be happy about? This isn’t just approval; this is praising us as we are supposed to be praising Him.

Well, for one thing, He is not praising us in ourselves. He is rejoicing over us.
He sacrificed His Only Son to assure our salvation. He invested His very best in us.
We are the ones He has rescued—delivered from the powers of darkness—and transferred into the kingdom of His Dear Son. (Col. 1:13). He paid for us.
He has made us to sit together with Him in the Heavenly places in Christ. Eph. 2:6
Every soul won is a victory that the angels in Heaven rejoice over. Luke 7:10

Remember how happy you were to get your dog back—the one you thought was gone for good? You scoured the countryside for weeks. And your dog was just as happy to see you again. And we are not talking about dogs here, but rescued people.

See, He has covered all your objections.

In summary, the worst imaginable catastrophe starts Zephaniah’s prophecy—the destruction of all life on the earth.

It ends with an unimaginable festival of joy and delight—Praise God!

God Himself singing over His ransomed children. {With thanks to John Piper : The Pleasures of God. Multnomah; 2000; p. 219. See his text for a warm expansion of these ideas.}