Zephaniah is associated with the butterfly, iconic for the transformation of God’s people.
After drawing the people’s eyes inward, to examine their own falsity against God, their faithlessness and corruption, and the judgment this would bring, Zephaniah urged them to look upwards, and consciously see not only God’s holy hill, but the invisible God who dwelt there. God was calling them back to the Lord, and to their lives of faith.
Then Zephaniah indicated every compass point in his call to look around. Sovereign and Almighty God held every nation to account, and would hold Judah to account as well.
Beginning in verse 4, Zephaniah described God’s authority over the whole earth.
God had given the greatest light to the Israelites. A thousand years later, when the northern kingdom of Israel was taken into captivity, at least some people—including scribes—had fled to the southern kingdom of Judah. They took with them the precious scrolls and chronicles vouchsafed by their ancestors, which they had added to over the centuries.
Now Jerusalem had become the full repository of all the sacred writings. Among the nations of earth, Judah alone had the fullest revelation of God. God’s word to Zephaniah began with Judah.
However, the nations surrounding Judah had also received some light from God. The record presented the travels and foreign mission of such prophets as Elijah in Phoenicia, Elisha’s service in Syria, and Jonah to Nineveh in Assyria. Later, the Apostle Paul would explain that actually every person has received some light from God,
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.
[Those] who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness.Paul to the believers in Rome, Romans 1:19-20, 2:14-15 (NRSV)
Every person has been given the outward revelation of a Creator with eternal power and divine nature, and the inward revelation of God’s righteousness and justice, carried within their own hearts.
In today’s day and age, pluralism is the politically correct religious stance. Worldly wisdom holds there is no one true God or true religion, everyone decides on their own what is true for them. You can have and enjoy whatever religion you like, just keep it at home and do not bother other people with it. Spirituality is for your own private enjoyment and has little do with the real, workaday world.
But the scriptures say this philosophy could not be farther from the truth!
From the first words of Genesis to the last words of the Revelation of Jesus to John, God is described as sovereign over the entire cosmos, from the vast reaches of space to the tiniest insect on our planet. It is not germane whether God is acknowledged. This is a reality that cannot be arbitrated by opinion or preference.
God has the authority to judge the nations.
It is by God’s command that nations rise and fall, by God’s purposes that nations thrive or fade away, as Zephaniah would have known Prophet Isaiah pointed out,
Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his handIsaiah 40:12-16 (NRSV)
and marked off the heavens with a span,
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure,
and weighed the mountains in scales
and the hills in a balance?
Who has directed the spirit of the Lord,
or as his counselor has instructed him?
Whom did he consult for his enlightenment,
and who taught him the path of justice?
Who taught him knowledge,
and showed him the way of understanding?
Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
and are accounted as dust on the scales;
see, he takes up the isles like fine dust.
Each of the nations listed in Zephaniah’s second oracle were rightly held accountable to Almighty God, regardless of what gods they had chosen for their own. Eternal, Infinite, and Almighty God continues to have the authority today to judge every nation and every individual.
Judgment of Nations
Each of the five countries Zephaniah targeted surrounded Judah:
- Verse 4-7, Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Ekron were the major cities of Philistia. The Cherethites are mention, and are often (though not here) listed with the Perethites, two ethnic groups that lived along the coast, and are believed to have been either allied with, or part of the larger Philistine group.
- Verses 8-11, Moab and Ammon were ethnically related to the Israelites, yet had positioned themselves as enemies very early in their history.
- Verse 12, the Ethiopians were closely associated with Egypt, the ancient oppressors of the Hebrews.
- Verses 12-15, Assyria and its capital city of Nineveh, long known for their savagery, had conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and taken its remnant into captivity.
Zephaniah outlined all that God held in store for each of these peoples.
- Philistia would become no more. No inhabitants would be left, and the seacoast would become Judah’s possession. Interestingly, though much of the seacoast actually has been restored to the new nation of Israel, some of the land is still disputed.
- Moab would become no more, in a conflagration similar to what happened with the Cities of the Plain, namely Sodom. Whatever was left would be plundered by Israel.
- Ammon, would become no more. Similarly to Moab, it would go up in flames, and what was left would be plundered.
- Ethiopia, would die by the sword, though the nation itself would not be removed.
- Assyria, would be no more. Like a desert scape, the land would become so desolate only wild animals would inhabit it.
Every Knee Will Bow
There is one line in amongst all this specific judgment, which seems to harken to a far future event the Apostle Paul also referred to.
The Lord will be terrible against them;Zephaniah 2:11 (NRSV)
he will shrivel all the gods of the earth,
and to him shall bow down,
each in its place,
all the coasts and islands of the nations.
A student in the two-centuries old School of the Prophets founded by Isaiah, it would make sense to hear echoes of Isaiah’s voice in Zephaniah’s writing, and we do in this verse.
By myself I have sworn,Isaiah 45:23 (NRSV)
from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness
a word that shall not return:
“To me every knee shall bow,
every tongue shall swear.”
Paul picked up that theme in his own letters:
For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written,
“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall give praise to God.”
So then, each of us will be accountable to GodApostle Paul to the believers in Rome, Romans 14:10-12
And, in a slightly different form,
Therefore God also highly exalted himApostle Paul to the believers in Philippi, Philippians 2:9-11 (NRSV)
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
As sovereign of the universe God created, one day the Lord’s eternal power and divine nature will be seen and recognized by all.
[Scales | Piqsels]