Zephaniah is associated with the butterfly, iconic for the transformation of God’s people.
The people had effectively shut God out of every aspect of their lives, including even temple worship and the hearing of God’s word. There was little left to even identify them as a people set apart unto the Almighty.
A Look Within
Of the several possible time periods for Zephaniah’s book, I prefer the theory he wrote early in Josiah’s reign, when Josiah was still growing up, and was being formed in his spirituality and his character. I like to think of these two royal cousins spending much time together, talking deeply about things that mattered, about dreaming big, and wanting so very much for God to be glorified not only in their own lives, but in the life of the nation, in the lives of God’s people.
I picture them in my mind’s eye, Zephaniah and Josiah young teens, standing on the parapet of David’s ancient palace, staring across at Mount Zion, and the loveliness of Solomon’s time-honored temple. They see the jewel of God’s holy hill, God’s holy habitation, and God’s holy city, all Jerusalem spread out before them. But they also see the high places, as thick as fleas on a dog, all over the countryside, they see how the house of God is crumbling with disuse.
They can sense God’s nearness, for God’s Spirit is upon them both, one anointed as prophet, and the other anointed as king. They hear the Lord’s voice speaking softly, yet with such power. And as they dream, and gaze, and talk, these two young idealists are poised to change their world in a radical upheaval that would stay God’s judgement for an entire generation.
I Will Sweep All Away
At some point, as Zephaniah thought about his people, about the desperately wicked reign of Josiah’s father and grandfather (the evil kings Manasseh and Amon), the word of the Lord came to him. He must have been electrified, though being in the School of the Prophets, also hopeful God would speak through him one day.
The oracle begins and ends with terrifying judgement, almost like a Flood Judgement, God wiping the slate of the world completely clean.
I will utterly sweep away everythingZephaniah 1:2-3 (NRSV)
from the face of the earth, says the Lord.
I will sweep away humans and animals;
I will sweep away the birds of the air
and the fish of the sea.
I will make the wicked stumble.
I will cut off humanity
from the face of the earth, says the Lord.
What could have prompted such complete and total annihilation?
Jerusalem Had Four Failures
Cult: The people had the outward show of religion, but not inner faith in God.
I will cut off from this place every remnant of BaalZephaniah 1:4-5 (NRSV)
and the name of the idolatrous priests;
those who bow down on the roofs
to the host of the heavens;
those who bow down and swear to the Lord,
but also swear by Milcom;
those who have turned back from following the Lord,
who have not sought the Lord or inquired of him.
People who professed to be God’s people, because they had been born of Hebrew descent, in the land of Judah. They even observed many of the basic trappings of their religion, such as circumcision and the yearly calendar of celebrations. But, they were not circumcised in their hearts.
Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart . . .
The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live.Moses to the people, Deuteronomy 10:16, 30:6 (NRSV)
Customs: The people were imitating neighboring countries to gain political power and wealth. But they did not want to be recognized as children of Jehovah by their dress, and by the restrictive laws God gave them. And moreover, they had rationalized to themselves that there economic system—which lined the pockets of the wealthy—could legitimize what God called violence and fraud, yet which they might have termed entrenched poverty.
I will punish the officials and the king’s sonsZephaniah 1:8-9 (NRSV)
and all who dress themselves in foreign attire.
On that day I will punish
all who leap over the threshold,
who fill their master’s house
with violence and fraud.
Commerce: The poor were suffering from cheating and gouging merchants.
all the traders have perished;Zephaniah 1:11 (NRSV)
all who weigh out silver are cut off.
Complacency: The people lived for today. They convinced themselves there would be no day of accounting, they wanted nothing to rock the boat of their creature comforts. There was no hurry, no sense of urgency in returning their lives to God, to live out faith in God.
I will punish the peopleZephaniah 3:12 (NRSV)
who rest complacently on their dregs,
those who say in their hearts,
“The Lord will not do good,
nor will he do harm.”
That Great and Terrible Day
Zephaniah then painted a vivid picture of God’s judgement in verses 14-18, perhaps describing what he saw in his mind’s eye, as well as recording the words God gave him to speak.
- Immanent, near and hastening fast
- Bitter sound of warrior cries, of a trumpet blast and a battle cry against fortified cities and their high battlements
- Wrath, distress, anguish, ruin, and devastation
- Clouds and thick darkness
- So distressed they walk blindly
- Blood poured out like dust, and flesh discarded like dung
- All their wealth will be powerless to protect or save them
- The fire of God’s passion
- Will consume the entire earth
- Will bring about a full and terrible end to everything that lives upon earth.
End Time Prophecy
There are a number of prophecies in the Christian testament that echo Zephaniah’s vision.
Jesus spoke of battles and celestial signs in Matthew’s Gospel.
For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs . . .
“Immediately after the suffering of those days
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from heaven,
and the powers of heaven will be shaken.
Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.Jesus, Matthew 25:7-8, 29-31 (NRSV)
The Apostle Paul also spoke of a trumpet call and of clouds.
For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.Apostle Paul, 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 (NRSV)
And the Apostle Peter spoke of a judgment by fire that could consume the entire globe.
By the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the godless . . .
. . . The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.
Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.Apostle Peter, 2 Peter 3:7, 10-13 (NRSV)
As with so many prophets of his day, Zephaniah was experiencing a double vision—the judgment of God to come in his own age, in the form of the Babylonians, and the judgment of God to come, in the End of Days.