Zephaniah - Seer of the Apocalypse

Nahum’s prophecy had not yet been fulfilled when Zephaniah was awakened by God’s call. Nineveh had not yet fallen. As God had used Hosea and Amos in the last days of Israel, now God would use Zephaniah to give the final words of warning before destruction would come to Judah. Zephaniah is the author of an Old Testament Apocalypse. He wrote of the culmination of history and the fall of all nations. George Adam Smith wrote, "No hotter book lies in all the Old Testament. Neither dew nor grass nor tree nor any blossom lives in it, but it is everywhere fire, smoke and darkness, drifting chaff, ruins, nettles, salt pits, and owls and ravens looking from windows of desolate places" (The Book of the Twelve Prophets).

Zephaniah ministered during the reign of Josiah. He was a distant relative and could trace his heritage back to King Hezekiah himself. It was Hezekiah who had a face-off with the mighty Sennacherib. It was Hezekiah who led Judea into a time of spiritual revival. However, it has been aptly said that "God has no grandchildren." Hezekiah’s children did not share his faith nor enthusiasm for the things of God. Each generation must discover the living God for itself. Every generation must rediscover the faith and be "born again."

Hezekiah’s son was the most wicked of all the kings of Judea. Manasseh’s reign of half a century proves longevity is no measure of spiritual things. Under this longest reign all the economic indicators pointed to prosperity, while the things of the spirit suffered. Manasseh had a change of heart later in life but his son Amon was unimpressed and copied his fathers corruptness rather than his conversion. After two years of darkness he was killed by his own servants (2Chron. 33:24). After the assassins were themselves executed, Amon’s son Josiah was installed as king at the age of eight. It is at this time that Zephaniah begins his ministry.

The fact that the prophet records his pedigree back to Hezekiah suggests that his message must have had an influence on the eight year old. By the twelfth year of his administration he began to purge the land of the dark debris inherited from Manasseh and Amon. Exactly how much influence this cousin to the king had on Josiah is not as important as how much influence he has on me. Though long dead, the words of Zephaniah are still, "quick and powerful and sharper than a two edged sword." If God must use them to cut our own hearts, may we not attempt to stay his hand, or try to dull the edge of his word by calling it ancient history.

"I will utterly consume things from off the land" (1:2). An impending doom is the topic once again. Man has a way of quickly forgetting in prosperity lessons learned hard in poverty. The lesson of a destroyed Israel seems to be lost on the dull hearts of Judah. No sooner does the invading army of adversity disappear than foolish men return to their old ways.

The focus of Zephaniah is on the heart rather than the heathen. God will use the heathen, and he will judge the heathen, but the central figure on the world’s stage is always God’s wayward nation Israel. And at this point it is good to remember as Paul so carefully did in his epistle to the Romans, " they are not all Israel, which are of Israel" Rom. 9:6. Zephaniah’s voice is a shepherd’s voice which only God’s sheep will recognize. The continual and constant mistake of the Hebrew was in mistaking political boundaries for belief. The fact that a person found himself within the walls of Jerusalem or the borders of Judea was no guarantee that he was one of God’s own.

Zephaniah tells of the coming judgment of God upon Judea and all nations. This is not a history lesson, it is a call to examine the heart. The sins condemned by this prophet are still found in our own land and the chariots of God’s judgment can be heard by all who have "ears to hear."

"I will overthrow the stumbling blocks" 1:3. Idolatry is ever producing its idols and each is a stumbling block to the idolater. An idol can be anything that has taken the place of God in our society. Our country is filled with them and they are all hindrances to any who would attempt to walk godly in Christ Jesus. From sports, to entertainment, to pleasure palaces, and marketplaces there are enough obstacles for any pilgrim to beware. Our churches are empty, our shopping malls (fish gates) are full. Our chapels are forsaken, our sports arenas are over flowing with fans. Tabernacles are silent, televisions have become electronic altars and high places.

"I will cut off mankind from the face of the earth" (1:3 Amplified). Zephaniah is seeing far beyond Assyria, Babylon, and Rome, he is seeing clear to Armageddon and the final triumph of good over evil, and yet "now" is in the picture as much as some world tomorrow.

God promises to cut off those who "worship the starry host." Even in our "so-called" sophisticated day there is a revival of astrology which places a man’s destiny in the stars, as well as a resurgence of interest in "Physic" phenomenon. People are consulting mediums to reach the dead (supposedly), studying horoscopes, and calling upon spirits (angels) for help and success. To think God is any less likely to judge our land than he did Israel, Judah, and Assyria is the height of presumption. The implication of the prophet is that these star worshipers do so while "pretending" to worship the LORD. These people had an amalgamated religion that was a strange mixture of pretence and profanity that grieved God. Many "so-called" Christians also have created a theological stew in a caldron of religious chaos.

Many who claim to worship and know God also burn incense at the altars of humanism, psychology, mysticism, and pray to the god of luck while hoping for a financial windfall. Zephaniah’s words are also directed to those who have "drawn back" from following the LORD. While our nation is filled with idolators, it is also filled with "backsliders." The only message to a "backslider" is to repent.

Included in the condemnation are the princes or "officials" who have adopted the dress (standards and attire) of the world. It may seem strange that apparel should even be considered in this judgment of God, and seem to be inapplicable to those who live in the age of Grace, yet there is a lesson even here. The leaders set aside their old-fashioned Jewish identity in order to wear the popular Babylonian, and Egyptian styles. While the uniform does not make the soldier, there is definitely something wrong with the soldier who discards his uniform. The Torah specifically described a certain dress that would act and a reminder of Jewish identity and obligations (Num. 15:38). It speaks volumes when the church dresses itself in the garments of paganism and imitates the fashion of those who worship the sensual and ridicule the spiritual. Body piercing has become fashionable, as well as dying hair purple, and immorality and abortion are eyed with indifference and souls are sold for silver. I compare our own day with the dying days of Judea only because it would border on malpractice for any preacher worth his salt not to do so.

While the storm clouds of God’s judgment were rolling in on Zephaniah’s world men who should have known better were "settling on their lees." That is to say they were unmoved. Zephaniah came to stir them up. "Their wealth shall become plunder" 1:13. While our modern Assyrians and Babylon seem to have fallen and are no longer a threat, we are on the brink of our own annihilation unless we have a spiritual awakening and revival. The world’s populations have become restless and large numbers of peoples are desperate. Our own "underclass" is only being held in check by the unseen Spirit of God. The enemy is already within our gates. The moment the Almighty removes his hand an angry sea of godless classes will erupt into a social upheaval and violent inferno that may very well burn our civilization to the ground. In that day "neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them" 1:18.

The second chapter addresses the world. The last chapter gives the final word to Jerusalem (the city of God) and calls her the "polluted" city. Her prophets spoke filling their cannons with tissue paper instead of cannon balls. They were called "light and treacherous persons." The clergy had profaned the sanctuary and holy place. It is for the same reason Jesus overturned the money changers tables and drove out the cattle in the famous "cleansing of the temple." God would judge Judah, but one day he will restore her. The "poor in spirit" will survive as they wait for the coming of the Lord. "I will also leave in the midst of thee the afflicted and poor people; and they shall trust in the name of the LORD" 3:12. Every generation has this "remnant’ (v.13). Every generation has those listening for the Master’s voice which says "blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

Zephaniah’s ministry reached its apex sometime before Josiah reached his. In 621 Hilkiah discovered the Book of the Law in the temple and read it before the pious king. As it was in the day of Jonah, revival held back the hour judgment and reform stayed flood of ruin.

Because Zephaniah is lacking in what preachers call "pulpit texts" many congregations are unfamiliar with this sage and have never heard of sermon out of his book. Yet, God is at this very moment gathering from among the peoples of the earth souls of the "afflicted" into a kingdom of which he himself will be king (3:19, 20, 15) and all who come will "rest in his love." Jesus said, "come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest."

To Modern Preachers and Teachers

Even though there seems to be only scorched earth and judgment remaining after Zephaniah is finished with his prophecy there is still hope for God's people. It is almost as if we come to an ash covered and charred remains of a wood after a forest fire. Everywhere there is blackness and bleakness and grotesque charcoaled monuments pointing upward like twisted and broken fingers to heaven. Then there in the center of a large burned out spot a shoot of green has broken through the now cold cinders, as a witness and a promise that God is not finished with Israel.

The New American Standard translation says "Shout for Joy....The LORD has taken away His judgments against you, He has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the LORD , is in your midst; You will fear disaster no more." 3:14-15.

Then in what has to be a reference to the Messianic kingdom, he goes on with these words of hope "I will save the lame, and gather the outcast, and I will turn their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you in, even at the time when I gather you together... I will restore your fortunes before your eyes." 3:19-20.

No prophet should forget to hold out hope. No matter how dark the sin, no matter how grievous the judgment. As long as there is life, there is hope. There is salvation and security in Christ. However, all that those outside of Christ can hope to find is judgment. Not a single soul that rejects God will survive the wrath that must fall on evil, and though they may be long in coming, not one of God's promises will fail. "Wait for me," says the LORD (3:8).