Minor Prophets XIV: Zephaniah 1-3
Zephaniah is a prophecy of God’s coming in judgment on Jerusalem, but Zephaniah gives us a glimpse of the joy that drives the judgment.
The Text: Zephaniah ministers during the reign of King Josiah, probably around 639-629 B.C., before the fall of Nineveh (1:1, cf. 2:13) and probably before Josiah’s reforms. Zephaniah says that the Day of the Lord is coming, and in a passage reminiscent of the judgment of the flood, the prophet proclaims the complete destruction of Judah and Jerusalem and their idols, including even the birds and the fish (1:2-7). He says it will be as though God is turning His city and His people into a sacrifice, pouring out their blood for sin and devouring the land with the fire of His jealousy (1:7-18). Therefore, Zephaniah calls the people to gather themselves together to seek the Lord in humility before it is too late (2:1-3). Here Zephaniah surveys ten of the surrounding nations, announcing God’s plan to march through their lands destroying them one by one, culminating with Assyria and Nineveh (2:4-15). Zephaniah says that Yahweh will finally come to Jerusalem, which is the worst for not obeying God’s voice and receiving His correction (3:1-2). The princes and prophets and priests have led the way in this injustice, but Zephaniah says that Yahweh is in their midst and His justice never fails (3:3-5). Though His judgment may be long in coming, Yahweh says when it falls the earth will be devoured with the fire of His jealousy (3:6-8). When this happens, He will restore a pure language to all people so that they can call on the name of the Lord and walk before Him faithfully (3:9-13). Zephaniah closes by calling Israel to rejoice and sing because Yahweh is in their midst, and He will save them with the song of His love (3:14-17). Then He will heal them and bring them back from captivity (3:18-20).
The Procession of the Lord
Think of the book of Zephaniah like a processional in three parts: first, is the announcement that the Day of the Lord is coming (Zeph. 1). The Day of the Lord is full of smoke and fire and destruction and blood. The prophet says he can see it in the distance; he can hear the roar and rumble. And this leads to the call for repentance (Zeph. 2:1-3). Then we hear about the processional marching through nations all around Israel, culminating in the destruction of Nineveh, and then coming all the way down to the gates of Jerusalem (Zeph. 2:4-15). As before, the processional is unstoppable and it marches right into the midst of the city, and we find there princes and judges like lions and wolves devouring God’s people. But when the Lord comes into the midst of Jerusalem, He announces judgments, and just when we think we know what will happen next, we’re caught off guard.
But there’s something strange about the whole procession. Zephaniah hints all along that there’s something different about this procession. The descriptions are not only gritty and graphic and apocalyptic, but in places they seem a little overdone: even the birds and the fish will be consumed (1:3)? The day of the Lord is at hand, and it will be like a sacrifice (1:7)? Even God’s fire is spoken of as His “jealousy” – it’s a fierce and zealous love (1:18, 3:8) and might make us wonder if something strange is going on. But it’s the conquest too; it’s God’s procession marching through all the nations. Even there, God is not merely destroying; it turns out He’s also setting things up, arranging things specifically for the blessing of His people in Judah (2:6-7, 2:9-10). And even as this procession comes marching into the midst of the city, His wrath is described as also simultaneously restorative. And specifically, He says He will restore to Judah a “pure language” or a “purified lip” to worship with (3:9).
Judgment by Song
It’s as though as the smoke and fire and rumble come roaring into town, it’s as though the smoke begins to clear and the wolves and lions have been struck down and scattered but as you peer into the midst of the city to catch a glimpse of the Mighty Warrior, you are surprised not to see Him swinging a sword, plunging it into the hearts of His enemies – instead you see a Warrior singing. He’s singing a song of joy and He’s beckoning everyone to sing with Him. Some people plug their ears and runaway, some scream in terror like His song is hurting them in some way. But others begin to hum the tune, and then take up the words. Zephaniah himself seems to break out in the end, telling Israel to sing, to shout, to rejoice. Why? Because God Himself is singing. Because God is rejoicing over His people with gladness. I think what Zephaniah is announcing is captured very well by in scene in C.S. Lewis’s story Prince Caspian where Aslan leads a procession through the countryside with Bacchus and Silenus and the gods and goddesses of the forest and the fairies and a whole host of animals and Lucy and Susan, dancing and singing and playing musical instruments and laughing. This is the Day of the Lord: fierce and terrifying joy to those who hate the Lord, but freedom and gladness for those who love Him.
Jesus & the Day of the Lord
Zephaniah was primarily pointing toward the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. and calling Israel to prepare for that day by walking with God in humility and joy. Though the walls of Jerusalem would come tumbling down under God’s judgment, Zephaniah (like Ezekiel and other prophets) seems to have caught of glimpse of the possibility that God was actually going to use this destruction to perform a great deliverance of those who truly trusted in God. It’s no accident that hundreds of years later, Jesus came eating and drinking and turning water into wine. It’s no accident that this is precisely what made many of the Jews hate Him and want Him dead. But Psalm 2 says that when they conspired against the Lord and against His Anointed, He who is seated in the heavens laughed (Ps. 2:4). And that laughter was principally the delight of the Father in the Son announced at His baptism, echoed at the transfiguration, but thundered at His resurrection (Acts 13:33). In other words, it was the joy of God that sent Jesus into the world, and it was the joy of God that sinful men tried to destroy. But in fact what God was doing in the crucifixion was laying all the gloom, all the cynicism, all the sadness of the world on Him (Is. 53:4). And when He rose, did you catch what His first word was in Matthew 28? Rejoice. Now, in the New Covenant, the Day of the Lord has become the Lord’s Day, the day we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, the day we process into the heavenly places singing and rejoicing with Him and making merry, filled with the fire of His Spirit.