Welcome to Bible Fiber where we are encountering the textures and shades of the prophetic tapestry in a year-long study of the twelve minor prophets, one prophet each month. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern.
We had a little break since our last Bible Fiber. I was in Israel helping with the writing for a new documentary called Uncovering the Tabernacle which should be out by November 2022. If you want to learn more about the documentary, go to www.geshermedia.com or follow Gesher Media on Facebook for behind-the-scenes photos.
This week we are closing out the prophet Zephaniah. Zephaniah’s condemnation of nations in chapter 2 was a rhetorical device. Listeners in Judea surely agreed with the prophet about the urgent need to punish their enemies. As covenant people, they presumptuously anticipated their own pardon. Granted, Assyria destroyed the Kingdom of Israel, but they felt Judah was different. Judah had Jerusalem, the place of God’s presence. Even when Assyria destroyed Israel a century before, Judah was shown mercy (Hos. 1:6). Mercy once shown became mercy taken for granted.
Accountability of the Chosen
In chapter 3, the prophet narrows his focus and points the finger at His listening audience. God is angry with Jerusalem. Jerusalem is guilty of the same sinful behavior as the nations and they will be punished accordingly. He writes, “Woe, soiled, defiled, oppressing city! It has listened to no voice; it has accepted no correction” (3:1-2). Jerusalem has become so self-exalting that the chosen city is no longer capable of hearing God’s voice.
God chose Israel to be a light to the world. God entrusted His laws to them on Mount Sinai so they could create a just, free, and fair society in covenant relationship with Him. By Zephaniah’s day, they were neglecting both the revelations of God and His fellowship. The world outside of Judah lacked a standard for moral and ethical behavior. And still, God held them accountable for their arrogance and violence. Judah, however, knew the ways of God. Therefore, God held them to an even higher standard.
When Yahweh delivered His people out of Egypt, he commanded them, “Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; walk only in the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you” (Jer. 7:23). The job of the prophet was to put the people on alert when they were no longer walking in God’s ways.
Their rebellion and misdeeds were made that much worse considering that Yahweh’s presence dwelled in their midst. Zephaniah writes, “The Lord within it is righteous” (3:5).
Zephaniah grimly announces the beginning of God’s judgement by singling out four target groups: officials, judges, prophets, and priests. Zephaniah’s oracle contrasts the failures of Judah’s leaders with the faithfulness of Yahweh. In the first two stanzas of the poem, Zephaniah describes the actions of Israel and her leaders. In the third and fourth stanzas, he portrays God’s faithful partnership. Israel is guilty of not drawing near to Him (3:2) while Yahweh abides in their presence (3:5). The officials are roaring lions who devour their own (3:3) while Yahweh never neglects His duties (3:5). Israel’s judges are “evening wolves that leave nothing until the morning” (3:3). They do not care for the welfare of the people, only themselves. Yahweh never abandons his post as judge.
Zephaniah writes, “Every morning he renders his judgment, each dawn without fail (3:5). The prophets lie and lack integrity (3:4) while God “does no wrong” (3:5). The takeaway is that God provides a model for them of self-less, ever-present, loving, wise leadership. The leaders of Zephaniah’s day lack any of these assets.
Prophets like Hosea blamed the whole of the people for forsaking the covenant. All of Judah and Israel were guilty. Hosea lamented, “there is no truth, no love, and no knowledge of God in the land” (Hos. 4:1). Zephaniah falls more in line with the prophet Amos. Zephaniah and Amos target the powerful and wealthy for judgement, maintaining the innocence of the powerless and poor.
Day of the Lord
So, what does the future hold for Israel? By judging a few select nations first, Yahweh hoped Judah would wake up, repent, and return. Yahweh said, “Surely the city will fear me; it will accept correction” (3:7). Instead of receiving the correction, however, Judah became “more eager to make all their deeds corrupt” (3:7). Zephaniah’s emphasis on the eagerness of the people to do evil shows their sin is beyond mere complacency. Their hearts have become callous towards God. In earlier times, the prophet Micah accused the greedy of Judah of plotting injustices in their beds and waking up early to get a head start on their corrupt plans. Because Yahweh cannot continuously countenance evil, the wheels of His judgement inevitably set in motion. He declares, “For my decision is to gather nations, to assemble kingdoms, to pour out upon them my indignation, all the heat of my anger” (3:8).
Zephaniah references the Day of the Lord twenty-one times in his book, far more frequently than the other prophets. Zephaniah requires a careful reading to separate when the prophet is envisioning a “day” of near judgement and a “day” of future judgement, or the eschatological. The prophet often seems to be speaking on the temporal realm.
Like his contemporary Jeremiah, Zephaniah anticipates that the Assyrian empire was going to collapse (2:13) and the Babylonian rampage would destroy Jerusalem and turn the region on its head. For Zephaniah, the end of Jerusalem would be the end of his known world.
Purge and Purification
Previously, Zephaniah offered in his own voice a glimmer of hope for possible escape from judgement. He exhorted the people to pursue righteousness and seek humility so perhaps they “may be hidden on the day of the Lord’s wrath” (2:3). The glimmer reappears in the book’s concluding oracle which starts with 3:9. This time the consolation is given in the divine voice after the period of judgement. Zephaniah switches often between prophetic speech and divine speech, sometimes within a stanza. Change of voice is common in all the prophets, with an intermixing of messages from Yahweh and about Yahweh. Admittedly, it is not easy on modern ears that expect the point of view to stay consistent within a chapter.
In the concluding oracle, Zephaniah transitions from a Day of Judgement to a Day of Salvation, striking an extremely different chord than the first chapter. Just as he anticipated judgement for all the earth in chapter 1, he looks forward to salvation in chapter 3. Zephaniah reaches out for both ends of the spectrum in his display of God’s wrath and love. The prophets are not contradicting themselves by presenting God’s message of wrath alongside His desire to extend mercy. They are two sides to the same divine coin that mirror the nature of God.
In the salvation portion of the book, Zephaniah is no longer addressing the “proudly exultant ones” (3:11) of Jerusalem. As explained in Psalm 1, the wicked may prosper for the moment, but they are “chaff that the wind drives away” (Ps. 1:4). The subject of his address has switched to the future remnant, the protected ones of Jerusalem. Yahweh has promised to preserve the meek and humble (2:4). They are not rebuked but encouraged. If they can wait (3:8) for the Lord and endure the judgement, restoration will be on the other side. Zephaniah builds his theology around the idea that divine punishment is the smelting process that leads to purification.
Only once Yahweh purges the nation of the proud can His anger be resolved. He is then free to restore the relationship with Israel, and the entire world.
Zephaniah presents a universal vision when Yahweh will set the world right. Yahweh says, “At that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord” (3:9). Zephaniah is predicting the reverse of Babel. In the story of Babel, a coalition of the prideful tried to outbuild God. By confusing their speech, God displayed His power and ended their intention to build a tower “that reaches to the heavens” (Gen. 11:4). In Zephaniah, all the nations summoned for judgement join in one voice, one language to submit to Him. In the new world order, God will clarify the speech of the people, not confuse it.
These verses also contain a return to Eden, where Yahweh abides with His people. Their submission and obedience recreate a world built on justice where all feel safe and at peace. Zephaniah writes, “On that day you shall not be put to shame because of all 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. For I will live in the midst of you a people humble and lowly” (3:10-11).
If you are keeping count, this is the fourth time Zephaniah shoots a side-glance at a story from Genesis. He started by using flood language for the coming universal judgement in chapter 1. He described the destruction as if it was a reversal of the creation process. In his judgement of the nations in chapter 2, he connected the plight of the Ammonites and Moabites to the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. And here in chapter 3, we have a reversal of the Tower of Babel.
Cush comes back into the story. This time not as a place of judgement but as the place “from beyond the rivers” where Yahweh’s “scattered ones” will return and bring an offering (Zeph. 3:10). Here, the prophet is likely talking about the exiles of the Northern Kingdom dispersed all over the Ancient Near East by Assyria. Exile is the greatest source of shame for an ancient nation, proof that their national god has forsaken them. Yahweh says He will “save the lame” and “gather the outcast” (3:19). They will no longer be shamed; they will be admired (3:19-20) and their fortunes reversed. The return from exile will have the added effect of exalting Yahweh and exposing the pagan gods.
The last seven verses of Zephaniah are a self-contained psalm. As Zephaniah looks to the future, he sees a remnant who rejoice in their reconciliation. When the prophet imagines the day of restoration, Yahweh speaks of Jerusalem as His personified city. Twice, Yahweh reiterates that he is the Lord their God dwelling “in their midst” (3:15, 17). In the first chapter of Zephaniah, the people accused Yahweh of being absent, unable to do good or harm (1:12). Here, as the prophet closes, all praise Yahweh for his constant presence as a source of peace, renewing the people with His love (3:17).
Zephaniah is the first of our minor prophets studied so far that is never quoted in the New Testament, not by Jesus, James, or Paul. Likewise, sermons rarely reference Zephaniah. The New Testament does, however, reflect the essence of Zephaniah, particularly the embrace of the meek and humble. Zephaniah praises the “humble of the land” for obeying God’s requirements (2:3). He believes Yahweh lives amid the “lowly and humble” (3:12); His heart is for them. Like Zephaniah, Jesus exalts the lowly and “poor in spirit” in his Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:3), promising the future will be theirs. This outlook stood in sharp contrast to the Roman culture of Jesus’s day. Roman historian Tacitus explicitly stated, “The gods are on the side of the stronger.”
Zephaniah taught that overreliance on wealth or power were obstacles to the kingdom mindset. In Jesus’s interaction with the rich man in Mark 10, he tells the rich man to go sell what he owns and give the money to the poor. “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God,” Jesus said (Mark 10:23). James echoes Zephaniah in his place of primacy for the poor in the kingdom. He wrote, “Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up” (James 1:9).
Zephaniah envisions a day when “distant nations will bow down to him, all of them in their own lands” (2:11). Zephaniah’s universal mindset was ahead of his time. Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote, “It was not an emperor, but a prophet, who first conceived of the unity of all men” (The Prophets, pg. 215). The prophet foretold Yahweh’s rescue plan for the world. Just as future punishment will be universal, so will be the restoration. Interestingly, Zephaniah does not place a messianic figure in these prophetic promises. Our messianic prophecies are found in Micah, Isaiah, and Zechariah. Zephaniah’s contribution was his concern for the world, not just the nation of which he was a part.
As a Gentile, I have to say I really appreciate Zephaniah. I am not Judah. I do not have Jewish lineage. I do not claim the land and covenant promises given to the Jews specifically for myself. What I do claim is the “pure lips” of Zephaniah, his reversal of the Tower of Babel. I join shoulder to shoulder with the nations, not to build a tower to demonstrate our own power, but to yield to Yahweh, the creator of the universe. I hope you are all standing right there with me.
Thank you for listening and please continue to participate in this Bible Reading Challenge. For all of the Biblical references each week, please see the show transcript on our blog or by signing up for our emails at www.thejerusalemconnection.us/
I don’t say all the references in the podcast but they are all in the transcript.
Send me a message. I will respond. Bible Fiber is available on YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts.