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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Zephaniah 1

 

 

Introduction

Chapter 1. The Judgment Of God Will One Day Be Visited On Creation, But At This Time On Judah and Jerusalem.

Zephaniah 1:2-3 of this chapter reveal God as Judge of all the world. It is a general picture of the far future. But in Zephaniah 1:4-6 we come closer to home, to His particular judgment on Judah and Jerusalem at this time. The prophets regularly see the far future and the near future together. To them they are in the future, and the timing is in God’s hands. Every judgment He carries out is a picture and symbol of the final judgment, every ‘day of YHWH’ is a picture of the final ‘Day of YHWH’ (indeed might be the final day of YHWH). Thus we must not read Zephaniah 1:4 onwards as referring to the apocalyptic future. On the other hand, as a day of YHWH that occurred in history it is a pattern of that day of YHWH yet to come, as described in Zephaniah 1:1-3, which introduce it.


Verse 1

‘The word of YHWH which came to Zephaniah, the son of Cushi, the son of Gedaliah, the son of Amariah, the son of Hezekiah, in the days of Josiah, the son of Amon, king of Judah.’

The detailed genealogy, unusual for a prophet, suggests that his was an important family, and we are probably therefore to see the Hezekiah mentioned as the king of that name. He was thus of the royal house.

‘The word of YHWH’ came to him signifies that he spoke as from God through revelation.


Verse 2-3

God Will One Day Bring The World Into Judgment (Zephaniah 1:2-3).

These first two verses speak of the apocalyptic future when YHWH will finally bring His judgment on the world because of their sin. This coming ‘Day of YHWH’ had first been spoken of by Amos (Amos 5:18; Amos 5:20). There the people of Israel were looking forward to the day when God would act to bring in His final kingdom and Amos has to warn them that in view of their sinfulness they should recognise that such a day would be darkness for them rather than light. It is echoed by Isaiah, although in the latter case more connected with historical events such as the destruction of Babylon (Isaiah 13:6; Isaiah 13:9) and the destruction of Edom (Isaiah 34:8). But note Isaiah 2:12 where it is more general and has in mind God’s final judgment on mankind.

The two ideas continually intermingled in the minds of the prophets because each had the final hope of God establishing His everlasting Kingdom, and each hoped that the coming ‘Day of the Lord’ that they saw as coming on the nations or on Israel/Judah might be the final one. So in their minds it had a near and not so near perspective. Zephaniah also has that idea. Thus he can commence with a declaration that the final Day of the Lord will come, and move on to deal with a Day of the Lord coming on Judah and Jerusalem. We must not simply apply every reference to the Day of the Lord as referring to the final one. They are simply one more portent of the fact.

Zephaniah 1:2-3

“I will utterly consume all things from off the face of the ground, says YHWH.

I will consume man and beast.

I will consume the birds of heaven and the fish of the sea, and the stumblingblocks with the wicked.

And I will cut off man from off the face of the ground.”

Note the balance of the verses. All things will be consumed off the face of the ground (first lien), man will be cut off from the face of the ground (fourth line). Man and beast will be consumed (second line). All else will be consumed (third line)

This is a general declaration and can be compared with Genesis 6:7 on which it is probably based. It is a picture of world-wide judgment, with the known world in mind. Here however the fish replace the creeping things. This will not be by a flood. It is a general reminder that all creation is subject to the judgment of God, and will one day be judged and destroyed by Him. The world is temporary and not permanent. It is dependent upon God’s will.

Such a judgment is also declared in Isaiah 24:1-13; Isaiah 24:17-23 where it will be by fire (see Zephaniah 1:6 and compare 2 Peter 3:10-12)

But also included are ‘the stumblingblocks together with the wicked’. The stumblingblocks in this case are probably to be seen as the idols of mankind, although in Ezekiel 7:19 it is man’s silver and gold, which have gripped their hearts, which were in mind. So it may mean all things that cause man to stray from God. Both idols and idolaters are to be swept away, together with all that distracts man from God, and those who are so distracted. And finally it is emphasised that man himself will be cut off from the face of the ground.

This is all another way of saying ‘I am the Judge of all the earth (Genesis 18:25), who will one day bring all into judgment, and will totally destroy sinful mankind and all creation because they have turned away from me to evil, just as I did in the days of Noah’.

But that does not exclude the sparing of some, for in the days of Noah the remnant, that is Noah and his family, were spared. It is always understood that the righteous, the elect of God, will survive (as also in Isaiah 24:23).

In the light of this how we should examine our lives to see how we will stand before the searching light of the judgment of God when it comes to us, and opens up our very hearts and inner thoughts. For we will all have to give account, and everything is open to the eyes of Him with Whom we have to do.


Verses 4-6

God’s Particular Judgment Will At This Time Be Applied To Judah and Jerusalem (Zephaniah 1:4-6).

Zephaniah 1:4-6

“And I will stretch out my hand on Judah,

And on all the inhabitants of Jerusalem,

And I will cut off those who remain of Baal from this place,

And the name of the Chemarim with the priests,

And those who worship the host of heaven on the housetops,

And those who worship who swear to YHWH and swear by Malcam (probably ‘Melek, Moloch’),

And those who are turned back from following YHWH,

And those who have not sought YHWH nor enquired after him.”

Having described the general final judgment of God, Zephaniah now moves on to the particular judgment that is coming, how God will behave towards Jerusalem and Judah in the nearer future.

Judah and Jerusalem are to experience the activity of God against them because they have forgotten YHWH and their covenant with Him. Stretching out the hand is a figure of speech which implies a special work of God in judgment (see Exodus 3:20; Exodus 6:6; Deuteronomy 4:34; 2 Kings 17:36; Isaiah 14:26-27; Isaiah 31:3; Jeremiah 6:12; Jeremiah 15:6; Jeremiah 21:5; Jeremiah 51:25; Ezekiel 7 times). This is in contrast with the stretched out arm, which delivers.

He describes those who will be subject to judgment, and will be cut off. The list is comprehensive and basically includes all who fail to worship YHWH truly and be faithful to the covenant:

· 1) The remnant (those who remain) of Baal (although some translate as ‘Baal to the last vestige’). The word for remnant simply means what remains and is not necessarily a small proportion (see 1 Chronicles 11:8; 1 Chronicles 16:41; Ezra 4:3; Ezra 4:7; Nehemiah 10:28; Nehemiah 11:1; Esther 9:12 etc.). It need not thus suggest that this is after the reforms took place, it simply refers to all who still worshipped Baal, however large the number.

· 2) ‘The name of the Chemarim with the priests.’ The Chemarim were burners of incense to the gods (2 Kings 23:5). They were depicted as rejoicing over the calves of Bethaven (Bethel), those set up by Jeroboam in 1 Kings 12:28-29 (Hosea 10:5). In the few references they are seen in a bad sense. The priests would therefore be idolatrous priests.

· 3) ‘Those who worship the host of heaven on the housetops.’ The host of heaven were a prominent feature in Assyrian religion particularly and in idolatrous religion generally (Deuteronomy 4:19; Deuteronomy 17:3; 2 Kings 17:16; 2 Kings 21:3; 2 Kings 21:5; 2 Kings 23:5; 2 Chronicles 33:3; 2 Chronicles 33:5 Jeremiah 8:2; Jeremiah 19:13). They were often worshipped in small shrines on the housetops, from where the host of heaven could be seen (Jeremiah 19:13).

· 4) ‘Those who worship, who swear to YHWH and swear by Malcam.’ These were the syncretists who combined YHWH and Malcam. Malcam means ‘their king (or their Melek)’ but should possibly be repointed as Milcom (i.e. the Ammonite god Melek (Molech) - 1 Kings 11:5; 1 Kings 11:33; 2 Kings 23:13). Melek demanded that children be ‘passed through the fire’ to him.

· 5) ‘Those who are turned back from following YHWH.’ This covers those who forsook the covenant and worshipped any other gods.

· 6) ‘Those who have not sought YHWH, nor enquired after Him.’ This covers anyone else who has not truly worshipped YHWH. They are indifferent and ignore Him in their lives.

So all who have failed to worship YHWH truly, whether through deliberate act or through neglect, are to be cut off. Neglect and indifference is as great a sin as open rebellion. It is more insulting to God.


Verses 7-18

The Day of YHWH Against Judah and Jerusalem (Zephaniah 1:7-18).

Zephaniah 1:7

‘Hold your peace at the presence of the Lord YHWH.

For the day of YHWH is at hand.

For YHWH has prepared a sacrifice.

He has sanctified his guests.’

All are to be silent in awe in the presence of the Lord YHWH (compare Habakkuk 2:20; Lamentations 3:26; Zechariah 2:13; Revelation 8:1). The title the Lord YHWH is a favourite one of Ezekiel. It stresses His overlordship.

‘For the day of YHWH is at hand.’ This phrase ‘the day of YHWH’ appears in various forms in much prophetic literature. It can be a past day, a day in the relatively near future, or a day in the far distant, eschatological future. It is any day in which God is dynamically at work in human affairs. Wherever ‘the day of YHWH’ is found it is in contrast with the idea of man’s day (1 Corinthians 4:3), that is to say, the times when man is allowed relative freedom in his conduct of affairs. It is a day of God's restraint. ‘The day of YHWH’ is the time when God more directly takes over and acts. It is a day of God's judgment.

Thus here it is ‘YHWH’s day’ on Judah and Jerusalem fulfilled finally in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.

‘For YHWH has prepared a sacrifice. He has sanctified his guests.’ The grim, ironic picture is of Judah and Jerusalem being offered as a sacrifice (compare Isaiah 34:6; Jeremiah 46:10; Ezekiel 39:17 on). The guests are either the people of Judah and Jerusalem, who will witness what is happening around them; the faithful of Israel who will watch YHWH, at His invitation, offering His sacrifice; the nations round about who act as witnesses; or the invaders who will bring it about (the Babylonians) but are not named. This depends partly on whether we take ‘sanctified’ as grim irony, ‘set apart for the purpose’, or as having its usual genuine meaning of guests being ‘set apart in purity’ in readiness for a sacrifice (1 Samuel 16:5), in which case it would refer to the true people of God, the remnant, for they are the ones on whose behalf the sacrifice is made, who have cause to feast because they are His, and who are set apart in purity.

The idea of the people of Judah and Jerusalem being offered as a sacrifice is stark. They are being offered by God as a sin offering because they in their turn have refused to offer the substitutes that God had provided for. The price of sin must be paid in one way or another. In terms of our own day if we will not turn to the great Sacrifice provided in Jesus Christ, we will have to bear our sin ourselves.

Zephaniah 1:8-9

“And it will be in the day of YHWH’s sacrifice,

That I will punish the princes and the king’s sons,

And all who are clothed with foreign clothing.

And in that day I will punish all those who leap over the threshold,

Who fill their master’s house with deceit and violence.”

It will be a day of punishment for sin. That the princes and the king’s sons did indeed suffer YHWH's punishment we know. Jehoahaz was taken captive to Egypt (2 Kings 23:36). Jehoiakim was defeated by Nebuchadnezzar and died in Jerusalem (2 Kings 24:1-6). Josiah's grandson, Jehoiachin, with his princes, was taken captive to Babylon (2 Kings 24:8-16), and the last son of Josiah to rule over Judah, Zedekiah, was blinded and also taken captive to Babylon (2 Kings 24:18 to 2 Kings 25:7).

To be ‘clothed with foreign clothing’ may be metaphorical, signifying behaving like foreigners, or more likely refers to clothing that denoted those who were walking in foreign ways, in contrast with those who wore clothes which indicated their submission to the covenant (compare Numbers 15:38; Deuteronomy 22:11-12). There may indeed have been something about the clothing that indicated submission to foreign gods.

‘Those who leap over the threshold.’ The thought may be of those who eagerly leap into their masters’ houses in order to practise deceit and violence, because hardened in such ways, or may be descriptive of some religious activity to avoid and placate the demons seen as haunting the threshold (compare 1 Samuel 5:5).

‘Master’s house’ can refer to the king’ house as representative of his authority (2 Samuel 12:8; 2 Kings 10:3). Thus the thought here may simply be of the deceit and violence, either of the courtiers, or alternatively of all the people of Judah. Others have seen it as referring either to the temple, or to a sanctuary of the gods. But the major point remains the same. The people have revelled in deceitful practises and violence.

The way we live our lives reveals what we are. Some reveal what they are by the clothes they wear and their outward behaviour. They reflect their inner hearts. Others reflect what they are by giving way to superstition, or occult practises. They trust in magic rather than in God. While others openly sin. But all will have to give account. The choice before us is stark. It is God or judgment.

Zephaniah 1:10

“And in that day,” says YHWH,

“There will be the sound of a cry from the Fish Gate,

And a howling from the Second Quarter,

And a great crashing from the hills (or ‘The Hills’).”

The Fish Gate was the gate through which fish vendors normally entered the city with their wares. It was a gate in Jerusalem's north wall close to the fish market (compare 2 Chronicles 33:14; Nehemiah 3:3; Nehemiah 12:39). The Second Quarter appears to have been the name given to the extension to the city on the western ridge to the north (the Mishneh - 2 Kings 22:14; 2 Chronicles 34:22), protected by an outer wall but not in the main city. Both these would be the first to receive warning of Nebuchadnezzar’s arrival. (Compare Zechariah 11:3)

‘And a great crashing (or ‘destruction’) from the hills.’ Jerusalem was built in the hill country, and on hills, and was surrounded by hills. This may be intended to signify the noise of the cutting down of trees to make siege engines, or the cries of people being slain who had not reached the shelter of the city. Either way it would be the evidence of the nearness of the besieging army.

Or ‘The Hills’ may refer to an outer section of Jerusalem, (paralleled with the Fish Gate and The Second Quarter), possibly seen as already encroached on by the invader. Or the crashing may be some way of sounding the alarm.

Zephaniah 1:11-13

“Howl, you inhabitants of Maktesh (The Mortar) for all the merchant people (or ‘people of Canaan’) are undone.

All those who were laden with silver are cut off.

And it will be at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with lamps,

And I will visit on the men who are thickened on their lees (are lazy),

Who say in their heart, ‘YHWH will not do good, nor will he do evil.’

And their wealth will become a spoil, and their houses a desolation.

Yes, they will build houses, but will not inhabit them.

And they will plant vineyards but will not drink their wine.”

The inhabitants of The Mortar, a business section of Jerusalem, are called on to howl because of the effect on their profits of the invasion. Those who were piling up wealth will be cut off. Then what benefit will they have from their wealth? Their businesses will collapse, and they will possibly be killed. Certainly the opportunity of trading will cease, and their silver will be taken from them.

‘The Mortar’ Probably a section of Jerusalem in the upper part of the Tyropoeon valley within the walls of Jerusalem which was a centre of trade and industry.

‘Cana‘an’. Canaan or merchant. Cananean came to mean a merchant (Proverbs 31:24; Zechariah 14:21). In the context, in parallel with those laden with silver, the latter meaning seems more probable.

‘I will search Jerusalem with lamps.’ The picture is of YHWH going out on a night search to find the wastrels who are not abed preparing for the next day’s work, but frolicking and having a good time.

‘And I will visit (judgment) on the men who are thickened on their lees’, that is those who are lazy and dissolute, and living stagnant, ‘carefree’ lives. Wine thickened on its lees when it was left for a long time without being stirred or poured into another container. It became syrupy and sweet, lacking in strength and taste (see Jeremiah 48:11). The lees are the sediment at the bottom of the wine vat.

‘Who say in their hearts, “YHWH will not do good, nor will He do evil.” ’ They have settled into a somnolent state and think lazily and dissolutely, convinced that YHWH is like themselves, not ready to do anything (how easily we make God like ourselves). They think that as He has never interfered in their experience, He will not do so now. They are morally indifferent, and seek their consolation in wine. Compare Isaiah 32:9; Ezekiel 30:9; Amos 6:1.

‘Their wealth will become a spoil, and their houses a desolation,. Yes, they will build houses, but will not inhabit them. And they will plant vineyards but will not drink their wine.’ Such people were usually of well-to-do families. But they will lose their wealth, taken from them by the plundering of the invaders, and their houses will be destroyed. Though they build houses (probably for renting as idle landlords) and plant vineyards they will not benefit from them (compare Amos 5:11). (The building of the houses and the planting of the vineyards is, of course, seen as having been done earlier. Now they would see the fruits of their efforts disappear).

Zephaniah 1:14

“The great day of YHWH is near,

It is near and in a great hurry (or ‘and the soldiery’),

The sound of the day of YHWH is bitter.

The mighty man raises the war cry.”

God’s time is fast approaching, indeed is in a great hurry. Soon the sound of His day will be heard, the day when He brings His judgment on His faithless people. The war cry is raised by the mighty men, and it is very bitter, for they can see what is coming. They know that they have no hope.

As can be seen there are possible alternative translations. The consonants of ‘in a great hurry’ can also mean ‘a soldier’ (as evidenced in Egyptian papyri, at Ugarit, and in the Amarna letters). Thus it may indicate that the Day of YHWH is coming speedily, or that it will result in the arrival of the soldiery. The latter would seen to be supported the parallel of the mighty man in line 4.

In one sense the day of YHWH is ever near, for in the midst of life we are in death. Each of us may suddenly be called on to give account at any time. But to every nation and people there will come a time when the nation is called to account, when the wrath of God falls on sin, and the nation collapses and is no more what it was. And there is the Final Day of YHWH, when all will be called on to give account together.

Zephaniah 1:15

“That day is a day of wrath,

A day of trouble and distress,

A day of ruin and desolation,

A day of darkness and gloom,

A day of clouds and thick darkness.

A day of the trumpet and alarm

Against the fenced cities

And against the high battlements.”

This is always the pattern of ‘a day of YHWH’, for days of YHWH are days when He turns man’s evil towards bringing about the final good. Zephaniah, although speaking of a soon coming event, may well have patterned his description on descriptions of both past prophecies relating to the near future, and those referring directly to the eschatological day of YHWH (e.g. Isaiah 13:6-13; Ezekiel 7:5-9; Joel 1:15; Joel 2:1-2; Amos 5:16-20). Indeed as far as he was concerned it might well have been that the eschatological day of YHWH would commence around the same time. But he does not say so. His ‘day of YHWH’ on Judah and Jerusalem and surrounding nations is not worldwide.

‘Days of YHWH’ are first of all ‘days of wrath’. God’s anger at man’s sin goes parallel with man’s anger and fury revealed on earth. But they are in total contrast, for they are at opposite ends of the scale. Man’s anger is uncontrolled, bitter, vengeful, greedy. God’s anger is tightly controlled. It is describing His sense of the way in which sin violates everything that is good. Its aim is to remove sin and forgive the repentant. His anger is against man in sin. Man longs to destroy. God longs to redeem. He seeks nothing for Himself. He seeks only the removal of the curse of sin on creation. Man thinks he is fulfilling his own will, and to a certain extent it is true. But in the end he is but the instrument of the wrath of God against sin, for God will not allow sin to get out of control. Man’s purpose is for his own ends. It is totally selfish and he ignores the hurt he causes. God’s purpose is good, and in the end He bore in Himself the consequences of that sin.

God’s wrath is never undeserved. These who will be treated violently are themselves violent, or live among the violent, and the consequences they receive are in the end the consequences of their own violence, or of their own indifference. We must not overlook the fact that all are involved in the sin, even the non-violent. Each in his own way behaves selfishly and without consideration towards others. Each contributes to the general ill-will. Even today men and women may give great consideration to good causes, but in their private lives there has never been a time when people were less considerate or thoughtful towards each other.

‘A day of trouble and distress, a day of ruin and desolation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.’ This is how God’s wrath is experienced. Trouble and distress, ruin and desolation, darkness and gloom, clouds and thick darkness. Man feels his way and is lost. He cannot see. And because the means that God uses are human the distress reaches all. However, He knows how to keep His people in the day of trouble, and acts accordingly (Psalms 50:15). In the end not a hair of their head will perish (Luke 21:18). Meanwhile they are assured that the chastening and tribulation will be for their good (Deuteronomy 8:5-6; Psalms 94:11-13; Proverbs 3:11-12; Hebrews 12:11; Romans 5:3-5).

‘A day of the trumpet and alarm against the fenced cities and against the high battlements.’ It is made clear of what this day consists. Invasion, siege and destruction. This is not the final judgment. It is judgment along the way, man’s inhumanity revealed against man.

So Judah and Jerusalem were shortly to face the day of God’s wrath, and when the unbelievable happened, and the walls of Jerusalem fell, and the temple was destroyed, and they were carried off in chains to Babylon, those who knew God would recognise that His hand was with them even in this, for had He not forewarned them through the prophets of what would happen?

Zephaniah 1:17-18

“And I will bring distress on men, that they shall walk as blind men ,

Because they have sinned against YHWH.

And their blood will be poured out as dust,

And their flesh as dung.

Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to deliver them,

In the day of YHWH’s wrath.

But the whole land will be devoured by the fire of his jealousy,

For he will make an end,

Yes a terrible end,

Of all those who dwell in the land.”

Again the description is vivid. Men distressed, stumbling blindly along. ‘YHWH will smite you with madness, and with blindness, and with astonishment, and you will grope at noonday, as the blind grope in darkness, and you will not prosper in your ways’ (Deuteronomy 28:28-29). They will grope first amid the blood and the ruins, the smoke and the devastation, blinded by grief and sorrow, and then in the chains of captivity as they are forced along, or as they flee for their lives with the little that they can carry. And he stresses that it is all because they have sinned against God.

‘And their blood will be poured out as dust, and their flesh as dung.’ Many will become a part of the earth from which they came, their blood joining the dust, their rotting bodies acting as manure to the earth.

Their wealth, for which many of them had lived, will do them no good. Once the enemy approach it is useless. It may buy a dead rat or two in the siege, but in the end it will all be lost. What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?

‘But the whole land (earth) will be devoured by the fire of His jealousy, for He will make an end, yes a terrible end, of all those who dwell in the land (earth).’ The whole land is going to be affected. It will be devoured by the fire of His jealousy. His jealousy arises from the fact that they have sought other gods, gods represented by earthly, debased creatures, and by silver and gold, which drag them downwards instead of lifting them upwards.

For He is jealous for their good, for their well-being, for their deliverance. He knows that such gods can only drag them downwards deeper and deeper into sin. And He is jealous for His own true people who have remained faithful through all the persecutions of the years, who have suffered injustice, maltreatment and ignominy. Without this dreadful judgment this would have continued into the future. In the midst of judgment God is delivering His own.

But should we translate ‘land’ as ‘earth’? It would make little difference. For to Zephaniah what the invader would do was to almost the whole known earth of his day. But there is a deliberate localisation. In chapter two further peoples and countries will be named, in a wide but limited area, in Canaan, Assyria and the Sudan. This is not the eschatological judgment of the last days. While a pattern of it, and widespread, it is localised and limited.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Zephaniah 1:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/zephaniah-1.html. 2013.

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