In this episode, Stephen explores the book of Zephaniah, which focuses on two themes: the bad news of divine judgment and the good news of divine grace. Despite being preached during the godly reign of King Josiah, Zephaniah's prophecy starts with a pronouncement of universal judgment. The people of Judah are worshiping false gods and engaged in other forms of idolatry, which led to their destruction. However, Zephaniah also offers hope and an invitation to repentance, urging the sinful nation to gather in repentance and seek righteousness. The rest of the book focuses on God's promised judgment against the wicked nations surrounding Judah and the promise of future blessings for His repentant, believing people. You'll learn that God's word promises a coming, glorious day that is still future and how God can always be trusted.
The Bad News and Good News of God’s Word
I think all of us would rather hear good news than bad. I’m reminded of the man who had a rough day at work. Nothing went right; it was one problem after another. He came home to his wife and four children at the end of the day and said to his wife, “Honey, I’ve had a terrible day, so please don’t give me any bad news.” So she replied, “Well, then, I have good news to tell you. Three of our four children did not fall out of a tree today and break their arm.” Well, I am not so sure that was good news.
Now as we set sail today on our Wisdom Journey, we arrive at the little book of Zephaniah. In its three chapters, Zephaniah is going to focus on two themes—the bad news of divine judgment and the good news of divine grace.
The first verse gives us the family tree of Zephaniah. We discover that he is the great-great-grandson of the godly king Hezekiah. Zephaniah evidently did not go into politics—he went into the prophetic ministry. He will preach God’s word, verse 1 says, “in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah.” Josiah was Judah’s last godly king.
So, if Zephaniah is preaching during the godly reign of Josiah, why all this bad news about God’s judgment? Well, keep in mind that Josiah’s reign followed fifty-seven years of godless apostasy under King Manasseh and his son Amon. Judah is at a low point, spiritually. King Josiah instituted godly reforms, but unfortunately the hearts of the people were unrepentant and unchanged.
Zephaniah, therefore, begins his prophecy with a pronouncement of universal judgment, here in verse 2: “‘I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth,’ declares the Lord.” This apparently describes the judgment that comes in the last days—at the time of the great tribulation. As one writer notes, this serves to emphasize “the power and scope of God’s judgment.”
That may be off in the future, but there is going to be more immediate judgment as well. God speaks through His prophet here in verses 4-5:
“I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and I will cut off from this place the remnant of Baal and the name of the idolatrous priests . . . who bow down on the roofs to the host of the heavens.”
They are worshiping the moon and the stars and the Canaanite god Baal.
The people of Judah, verse 5 tells us, also are swearing by Milcom, or Molech. This was an Ammonite god to whom children were sacrificed (2 Kings 23:10, 13). Josiah was trying to wipe out this idolatry, but he was not successful.
But this kind of evil is not going to go unpunished for long. Verse 7 says, “The day of the Lord is near.” “Day of the Lord” often refers to the tribulation judgments following the rapture, but it also frequently points to a nearer demonstration of God’s wrath.
And that is what Zephaniah is describing here—the coming destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC. This particular “day of the Lord” is now about fifty years away at the most. Zephaniah describes it in verse 13: “Their goods shall be plundered,and their houses laid waste.”
Verse 15 adds:
A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.
Along with that bad news, however, Zephaniah offers some good news by way of an invitation to the people, here in the first verse of chapter 2:
Gather together, yes, gather, O shameless nation, before the decree takes effect … before there comes upon you the day of the anger of the Lord.
This is a call for the sinful nation to gather in repentance. Here is an offer of hope to any who will turn from their sin and call upon the Lord. It is followed by this appeal in verse 3:
Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do his just commands; seek righteousness; seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the anger of the Lord.
And by the way, God did protect some of these people from death when the Babylonians invaded the land and destroyed Jerusalem.
This is an important reminder for us, beloved. We might be surrounded by wicked people today and we might even suffer because of them, but we are to respond by faithfully and humbly following the Lord. Our faithful trust in the Lord will be a powerful witness to our world.
Just as God’s judgment is promised here against Judah, it is also promised against the wicked nations surrounding Judah. God will not allow them to get away with their own idolatry. In fact, the rest of chapter 2 prophesies the coming wrath of God.
To the Philistines God says here in verse 5, “I will destroy you until no inhabitant is left.” Then verse 9 tells us, “Moab shall become like Sodom, and the Ammonites like Gomorrah.”
Verse 12 promises coming judgment on the people of Cush in Africa, and verse 13 promises the destruction and desolation of Assyria and the Ninevites. In each case, God will use the mighty Babylonians as His instrument of judgment.
Chapter 3 again focuses on the judgment of God against the people of Judah and specifically the city of Jerusalem. Here is how the chapter opens in verse 1:
Woe to her who is rebellious and defiled, the oppressing city! She listens to no voice; she accepts no correction.She does not trust in the Lord; she does not draw near to her God.
Zephaniah’s words now target Jerusalem’s civil leaders. He writes in verse 3, “Her officials within her are roaring lions; her judges are evening wolves that leave nothing till the morning.” They are preying on people for their own benefit.
The religious leaders—the prophets and priests—are no better. Verse 4 says, “Her prophets are fickle, treacherous men; her priests profane what is holy.”
In sharp contrast Zephaniah says in verse 5, “The Lord within her is righteous; he does no injustice.” Don’t miss this. Despite the wickedness within Jerusalem, the Lord is still present. They have abandoned God, but God has not abandoned them.
But God warns them in verse 8, “Therefore wait for me . . . for the day when I rise up to seize the prey.” In other words, if they will not repent, there is nothing more to do but to wait for the day when God’s wrath arrives and He seizes His prey. That is exactly what will happen when the Babylonians invade their land.
At this point Zephaniah does what so many other prophets of God do. In the rest of the chapter, he points our attention to the future day when the millennial kingdom of Christ begins. Even as the fall of Judah approaches, the Lord promises never to abandon His people. Zephaniah preaches the good news of a future day when the Lord will regather His repentant, believing people and rebuild Jerusalem.
One author writes:
Those who saw the fall and destruction of Jerusalem . . . had only one reason to believe such future blessing could ever be possible: the promise of God. . . . God . . . can be trusted regardless of what the world around us looks like [today].
The bad news is that divine judgment is on Judah’s dark horizon. The good news is that God will not abandon His people forever. How do we know that? Because God never tells a lie. His word promises a coming, glorious day that is still future. God says in verse 20:
“At that time . . . I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes.”