What is the message of Zephaniah? What is the significance of this book for us today? This article discusses the historical context and the message of this book.

2016. 10 pages. Transcribed by Diana Bouwman. Transcription started at 2:51 and stopped at 37:29.

Zephaniah Minor Prophets Series: Lecture 16

Zephaniah is in some parts contemporary with the prophecy of Jeremiah, Jeremiah coming to the forefront at the end of Zephaniah’s period. We are going to date Zephaniah’s prophecy somewhere between 640 and 621 BC, 621 BC being the pivotal date there as a most important date in the history of Judah. It was in 621 BC that we have that great revival, that great reformation, under the leadership of Josiah.

Historical Context🔗

We set this up a bit last time. Remember this general time period. We have Hezekiah, that great and godly king that was the son of Ahaz. Ahaz had introduced all kinds of religious perversion, all kinds of idolatry and child sacrifices, closing the very temple, and led Judah into great sin. Hezekiah was his godly son—perhaps one of the most godly of all of Judah’s kings. He reversed many of those practices that Ahaz had introduced into the land. Hezekiah brought great religious revival and religious reform all the way through his land. And God blessed and God delivered them from the Assyrians. You remember that general context.

But the irony of that, I suppose, is that the son of Hezekiah was Manasseh, who has the reputation for being the most wicked of all of Judah’s kings. He then reversed all of his godly father's practices and did far worse in many ways than even Ahaz had ever done, as far as introducing and bringing back idolatry and immorality and all kinds of perversion within the land. God graciously (and here is the beauty of the gospel) saved Manasseh. I think the evidence of the Scripture is that Manasseh came to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. He was converted. There is a great lesson there in the power of grace to save even the worst of sinners.

But notwithstanding the grace of God that touched the life of Manasseh, it did not touch the people, and the perversion that he introduced continued on after him. We read that passage in 2 Chronicles 33 that reminded us of some of the things—the immorality and idolatry, you name it—that Manasseh had introduced. Once he was converted, he tried to put that aside, but it had become so ingrained in the hearts and the lives of the people that now, notwithstanding his testimony of conversion, it had no bearing upon the hearts of the people. It was ultimately because of the sin of Manasseh that the judgment by the Babylonians was going to come upon the land of Judah. Manasseh had a son by the name of Amon. He also was wicked. He did not rule very long.

Religious reform under Josiah. After Amon was Josiah, and this is the context that we are coming to here. Josiah was a young man when he came to the throne, but he was under godly influence. It was during his time period, around 621 BC, that the Book of the Law was rediscovered. The Book of the Law was read in his hearing, he became under great conviction, and he gave himself fully to follow the Lord. It was during that time of Josiah that there was a great religious reform and religious revival that just swept the land. He made it illegal to practice any kind of adultery religiously. He made sodomy against the law and enforced it. He made the high places illegal. There was a great national revival and reformation that swept across the land due to the influence of Josiah.

621 BC is when we put that revival of Josiah. That is about the time that Jeremiah is beginning his ministry. And again, I hope we can understand this. As we read these Old Testament books and these prophets, we tend to see them almost in isolation. “Here is Jeremiah, ministering all by himself, and here is this prophet…” And we sometimes fail to put them within the world in which they were living. Jeremiah was not by himself. There were other prophets. We studied Habakkuk last week, and Habakkuk was a contemporary of Jeremiah. These men were ministering together. Now sure enough, they do not refer to each other in their books always, but nonetheless they were serving together in the cause of the kingdom of the Lord Jesus and were making their mark according to the will of God.

Zephaniah was the prophet immediately preceding the coming of Jeremiah on the scene. Jeremiah comes right about this time when the revival is breaking out under Josiah. Now it was a short-lived revival, and what Josiah was able to do in legislating these things really had no effect upon the hearts of the people. Jeremiah makes that clear. He talks about these people that were going to the temple, and they were doing everything right according to the letter of Moses and the law of Josiah, but their hearts were far from God. They were going through the motions in the temple of God, but yet in their hearts they were worshipping the “queen of heaven” and were “weeping for Tammuz” and everything else. Their hearts were not right. But it was a time of great religious prosperity, and that is how Jeremiah began his ministry.

I am saying that to set up the context here of Zephaniah. We are dating Zephaniah’s prophecy somewhere between 640 and 621 BC. Although Zephaniah is not directly mentioned in the book of Kings, nonetheless, once we see his time framework here and we look at the nature of his message, I think we can argue that Zephaniah played a very important role in working that religious revival and inspiring that religious reformation during the days of the great King Josiah. We look at the nature of his message, and I think that becomes very clear.

The prophet Zephaniah. Let’s look at the first verse of Zephaniah. It is a tragedy to me how much this book is ignored in modern Christianity. I have probably said this before, but you get the impression that the only reason that Zephaniah is in the Bible is to have something to trip up teenagers on sword drills. It is a book that is never read. But there is a message here and there is a profound word here that God has for his people.

The word of the LORD which came unto Zephaniah the son of Cushi, the son of Gedaliah, the son of Amariah, the son of Hizkiah, in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah.Zephaniah 1:1, AKJV

Zephaniah means, “The Lord has hidden.” So we have here again that time framework of Josiah, during whose reign and administration this prophet is giving his ministry. Now, we have here something that is relatively unique. Most of the prophets, when they give any indication of their lineage and of the time framework in which they ministered, will name their father and will name the kings during whose reign they ministered, and that is about it. But Zephaniah here gives us four generations as he traces his lineage that was ministering during the days of Josiah. There are references made to Hizkiah. It is spelled differently here, but there are many that interpret this (and I would be among those) as a reference to Hezekiah. That would put Zephaniah himself within the royal family; not in the line of kings, but nonetheless in that royal family!

This is an indication again that God called his prophets from many different places and many different spheres of life. We have seen some prophets that were herdsman: Amos was nothing but a herdsman, a farmer, but God raised up Amos to be a magnificent voice for the Lord. We have now one coming perhaps even from the royal family, and God calls him to have a word unto his people. We cannot be dogmatic there. We can certainly be dogmatic as to the time framework in which he is ministering. But I think it may very well be that he himself was among the royal family, having then access and inroads directly to Josiah. And when we see again what was taking place during the time of Josiah and the great religious work that Josiah accomplished, I think certainly there was some spiritual influence. Zephaniah, among others, had the ear and ultimately the heart of good King Josiah.

The Message of the Book of Zephaniah🔗

The message of this book ultimately is one of great judgment. There are some messages that the prophets preached that would take the heart of the hearer to the heavens. As a preacher of the gospel, I have to say that there are certain themes that a preacher loves to preach on that are easy preaching and that can take the great doctrines of grace and the great doctrines of salvation in the Lord, in Christ, in Messiah, and it is very pleasurable to expound upon those things, and it can very easily lift the hearts of the congregation. But there is a responsibility to preach the other side of the gospel as well. And the other side of the gospel is that there is judgment that falls upon those that are rejecters and those that find themselves outside of the grace of God.

Zephaniah was a preacher of judgment. Much of his message is one of condemnation. It is a hard message of warning, exposing the sin of these people and warning them of the judgment of God that is going to come upon them unless they repent. But there is a message of hope, as we will see here in a moment when we come to Zephaniah 3, and some of the great statements of God's return to this people and the transformation of these people by grace into a people of pure lips and a people of pure language.

If you have my particular eschatological viewpoint, we are going to see in these closing statements of Zephaniah some very clear Millennial passages, as God restores this nation that was about to be judged, restoring them back to this place of great favour. But whether we take it as a Millennial or whether we take it simply in whatever way your eschatological views desire to take it, it becomes a great statement here of the goodness of God and the joy of God and the intent of God to save his people and to be faithful to his covenant that he had entered into with his own. So let me see if I can very quickly summarize some of the some of the themes here and demonstrate the great relevancy that this little prophecy has to us.

The Sin of the People🔗

He begins by exposing the sin of the people. If you can remember what we read last week in 2 Chronicles 33, we have there the chronicler, the historian, giving us a list and a description of the kinds of perversion—religiously and socially—that had infiltrated the land.

Worshipping false gods. Well, you can see that here in the prophecy of Zephaniah. The people had been guilty of worshipping false gods.

I will also stretch out mine hand upon Judah, and upon all the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and I will cut off the remnant of Baal from this place, and the name of the Chemarims with the priests…

The Chemarims were some kind of renegade priesthood that involved therewith some of this pagan worship.

…and them that worship the host of heaven upon the housetops…

We see that in Jeremiah. Remember, Jeremiah speaks of those that were worshipping the “queen of heaven” and the various hosts of heaven—astrology and every other kind of religious syncretism that had perverted the people.

…and them that worship and that swear by the LORD, and that swear by Malcham.Zephaniah 1:4-5, AKJV

Malcham is one of the pagan gods that is referenced here. [Malcham] means “king,” but it is a term that became associated with some of the Baal worship. [Zephaniah is] picturing here and exposing the religious attitudes of these people.

Insensitive toward the LORD. They were a people that had become insensitive concerning the Lord. They had thought that the true God was just another god that was just as inactive and just as powerless as any others.

And it shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with candles, and punish the men that are settled on their lees…

There is imagery of those that are content, those that are satisfied, those that seem to have no worries, no concerns and no threats. They are just there settled down in their own dregs.

…that say in their heart…

Here is what these people were saying about Jehovah:

The LORD will not do good, neither will he do evil.Zephaniah 1:12, AKJV

[They were saying], God’s inactive! He is nothing. Jehovah is nothing else than any of these other gods. He is not doing anything. You prophets keep saying that God is going to judge and that God is going to do this, but we are going on well. Everything seems to be going according to what we are planning and upon what we are programming. Everything is going well. You prophets say God is going to do this…what is he doing? What is he doing? God doesn’t do good; God doesn't do evil. He just sits there. We recognize his existence maybe, but God isn’t active.”

The people had a terrible spirit and a terrible attitude here religiously concerning the Lord. They were people that were haughty, a people that were violent and fraudulent against each other, a people that were shameless and a people that had wicked rulers and leaders. In Zephaniah 3 we have a description of their leaders:

Her princes within her are roaring lions; her judges are evening wolves; they gnaw not the bones till the morrow. Her prophets are light and treacherous persons: her priests have polluted the sanctuary, they have done violence to the law.Zephaniah 3:3-4, AKJV

These were terrible days. Religiously they were bad days, politically they were bad days, and socially they were bad days. Sound familiar? Does this not describe the kind of clergy that we have plaguing our society? Does this not describe the civil leaders that we have plaguing our society? Not much has changed. Oh, we are in a different geographic setting, but the same kinds of sins are here.

God does not tolerate this sin. Now, this is how we want to make the application: Here is the kind of sin that God does not tolerate. Here is the kind of sin that God will visit with his judgment. He did it to Israel. Israel is gone by this time. The northern kingdom has fallen. They have been taken captive by the Assyrians. And you remember the prophets’ declaration of the kinds of sins that were characterizing Israel. They did this, they did this, they did this, and God has judged them! Now here comes other prophets. Remember, we saw this in Micah. Here are the sins now of Judah. “You are doing the same thing that Israel did, you southern kingdom! God did not ignore their sin; how do you think God's going to ignore yours? God visited them in judgment because of those sins; you are guilty of the same sins. God is going to judge you as well!”

And God did! Judah had to wake up to see that God was going to be consistent and God is active. God is active! I made this statement many times: God is never passive. These people were assuming God was passive. “God didn't do this; he is just passive.” God is not passive. He never is. He cannot be by his very nature. He is active. And in that activity he is going to judge sin, always. Nobody gets away with sin. God did bring the judgment upon Judah.

A lesson for us. Now, let us learn the lesson. It does not take a whole lot of sense here. If God hated this kind of sin then and he judged it, He doesn't like the same kind of sin now and he is going to judge it. But you say, “We are going on well! America is going on! We are doing this…” Hey! Don't you be thinking God does not do good or God does not do evil! God has never been passive. There is a message here. And if we can look at our society, if we can look at our hearts and if we can look at our churches and see the same spirit and the same kind of sin that is being described here, who do we think we are, that somehow God will now all of a sudden overlook it? It is not going to happen! It is a message here that has great relevance and great application.

Don't [be saying], “That was for Israel; it has no bearing upon us.” Read your Bible people! Understand how your Bible works! It is a message that is relevant. We learn the lesson; we see the truths. The application may differ. The Babylonians may not be the instruments whereby God judges us. But the point is that God is going to be intolerant concerning sin. So read what the book says about sin, how God hates that sin and how God is going to judge that sin.

(Transcription of audio file from 23:00 to 23:14 omitted.)

God’s Judgment🔗

The message of this book is primarily judgment.

God’s judgment is necessary. We learn here that judgment is necessary because the Lord is who he is. Look at Zephaniah 3:5; it is going to hit some of the high points.

The just LORD is in the midst thereof; he will not do iniquity: every morning doth he bring his judgment to light, he faileth not; but the unjust knoweth no shame.Zephaniah 3:5, AKJV

[“Judgment” can also be translated “justice”]. Look at that explicit statement there. The Lord is just, and because God is who he is—because he is righteous, because he cannot deviate from himself, because he is the Absolute—he must and he will deal with sin. This sin cannot be set aside. God will not and he cannot let bygones be bygones and say, “Well, we will just let it go.” He cannot do it! Because he is the just Lord, he is the righteous Lord, and everything that he does is always going to be in conformity to who and what he is. God can only do what he does because he only is what he is. He is Absolute—the only Absolute—and whatever he does is right because he is right, and becomes intolerant concerning sin.

The very nature of God demands the judgment that must come upon Judah. But by application, it is the very nature of God that demands that judgment comes upon sinners, because of sinners and who they are.

And I will bring distress upon men, that they shall walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the LORD.

Zephaniah 1:17a, AKJV

There is the statement. Why does judgment come? Why is judgment necessary? Because these have sinned against the Lord. It is earned. You can be sure that judgment is always earned. God is not capricious. He gives man here in this judgment exactly what they deserve and exactly what they have earned.

They have missed the mark! That word “sin” is that most common word for sin in the Old Testament. It is that word that you had defined for you in Sunday school years ago of “missing the mark” or of failing to hit the target. What is the target? God’s righteousness! God's law! It doesn't change; it is inflexible. And man has failed to hit the target. And because of that, they warrant, they merit, they earn and they deserve the judgment of God. Because they have sinned. “Because they have sinned, I will bring distress upon them,” the Lord says.

Now, in addition to that generic statement, the prophet gives evidence on top of evidence as to what the sins are. We have highlighted some of these a moment ago. They are idolaters. We saw that back in Zephaniah 1:4-5. These people were idolaters. These people were insensitive spiritually:

And them that are turned back from the LORD; and those that have not sought the LORD, nor enquired for him.Zephaniah 1:6, AKJV

Here are people that did not care about God! They weren’t seeking the Lord! They were insensitive to spiritual things. It is a mark of natural man; it is a mark of every sinner. But that deserved judgment. They were unbelievers (we saw that in verse twelve). They were incredulous here, refusing to believe the Word of God. They were hardened. They were thick-headed and comfortable in themselves. But that unbelief is a deadly sin. Unbelief deserves the judgment of God.

(Transcription of audio file from 28:29 to 28:38 omitted.)

God’s judgment is dreadful. Now, having demonstrated that this judgment is necessary, he shows that this judgment is terrible. It is dreadful! Look at Zephaniah 1:14. He gives us this imagery and this context of the day of the LORD that we have addressed sometime earlier in this series. Zephaniah 1 is one of the most express, detailed, explicit descriptions that we have anywhere in God's Word concerning this day of the Lord—this time of divine visitation and divine intervention. Remember how we defined the day of the Lord? It is that period of time in which God lays bare his arm and enters into the affairs of his creation, either for judgment or for blessing. Here [it is for] judgment. But unmistakably it is the hand of God—that supernatural, epical event whereby God “breaks into” time. The day of the Lord. Look at what Zephaniah says:

The great day of the LORD is near, it is near, and hasteth greatly, even the voice of the day of the LORD: the mighty man shall cry there bitterly. That day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of wasteness and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of the trumpet and alarm against the fenced cities, and against the high towers.

And I will bring distress upon men, that they shall walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the LORD: and their blood shall be poured out as dust, and their flesh as the dung. Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them in the day of the LORD's wrath; but the whole land shall be devoured by the fire of his jealousy: for he shall make even a speedy riddance of all them that dwell in the land.Zephaniah 1:14-18, AKJV

That is hard talk. That is tough language. The day of judgment is a thing that ought to inspire fear in the hearts of those that hear! This is not a pleasant message. I do not know any preacher that enjoys preaching on the wrath of God and that enjoys preaching on the judgment against sin that must come upon sinners. Preaching about hell is not a pleasant message for any preacher. But must be done, and it is part of the gospel that we understand this. And Zephaniah here, under the inspiration and the leading of the Spirit of God, sets before these people this hard word of judgment that is coming.

Don't misunderstand it. This day is going to be like nothing you have ever seen. The descriptions here are highlighting the divine source of it and the horrors of it. I am not going to give an exposition of all those statements here, but they are great statements of how devastating and how fearful this day of judgment is going to be, and the worthlessness of life in comparison.

Verse eighteen stands out as a very graphic one. What can you do to escape it? Here are men that were trusting in their possessions, they were trusting in themselves, but there is nothing that you can do and there is nothing that you have that will give you escape from that day. Silver is not going to do it; gold is not going to do it, or your possessions or your abilities. There is no escaping. There is no buying your way out of this; there is no bribing your way out of this. They were living in a day where judges could be bribed. Remember Amos? Remember Micah? They were bribing judges all the time. But you can't bribe God! You are not going to give to God “under the table” to somehow make you exempt from this judgment. It can't happen! Man cannot escape.

The horrors are terrific. It is inevitable. It is certain. The language of Zephaniah 1:14 highlights the inevitability and the certainty of it. It is universal. It is a fearful message.


One final thought: The judgment was escapable.

Gather yourselves together, yea, gather together, O nation not desired; before the decree bring forth, before the day pass as the chaff, before the fierce anger of the LORD come upon you, before the day of the LORD's anger come upon you. Seek ye the LORD, all ye meek of the earth, which have wrought his judgment; seek righteousness, seek meekness: it may be ye shall be hid in the day of the LORD's anger.Zephaniah 2:1-3, AKJV

There is a play here upon the very meaning of Zephaniah’s name. Zephaniah means, “The Lord has hidden.” It may be that you can be hidden in the day of this judgment. But how do you escape? Here is the irony of it. You can try to outrun this judgment, and you are going to fail. You can try to somehow out-manoeuvre or bribe your way or buy your way out of it, but it is not going to happen. The only way that you can escape the judgment of this righteous Judge is by fleeing to the Judge. You cannot get away from it; you have to get to it.

Human reason says that if judgment is coming, you run the other way. If there is disaster out there, you run the other way. But spiritual judgment is: You flee to the source of that judgment. You flee to the source of that danger. God is the Judge. You can’t outrun him; you have to run to him. Zephaniah 2:3: “Seek ye the Lord.” There has to be righteousness. There has to be repentance. There is faith and there is repentance—you see how these two things work together. Faith and repentance are all part of the same deal. “Seek the Lord”: There is the positive aspect of it. Seek the righteousness: Away from your wrath, away from your sin. Verse 3: “Seek meekness.” There is the transformation. These people were proud, they were haughty, and they were unrighteous. You have to be something else! You have to be different! You seek the Lord. There is the only hope of safety.

But the Lord keeps his promise that those that seek in sincerity and those that seek in faith, he always allows himself to be found of those. God does not reject seekers. Those that are genuinely seeking him will find him. He makes that clear. And the passage in Zephaniah 3 finishes then with what happens to those and for those that wait upon the Lord:

Therefore wait ye upon me, saith the LORD, until the day that I rise up to the prey: for my determination is to gather the nations, that I may assemble the kingdoms, to pour upon them mine indignation, even all my fierce anger: for all the earth shall be devoured with the fire of my jealousy. For then will I turn to the people a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the LORD, to serve him with one consent. From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia my suppliants, even the daughter of my dispersed, shall bring mine offering.

In that day shalt thou not be ashamed for all thy doings, wherein thou hast transgressed against me: for then I will take away out of the midst of thee them that rejoice in thy pride, and thou shalt no more be haughty because of my holy mountain.Zephaniah 3:8-11, AKJV

There is going to be a transformation that takes place when the Lord comes! The ultimate blessing there is God’s presence:

The LORD thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing.Zephaniah 3:17, AKJV

There is God’s view of these people that are his, that are the objects of his grace and the objects of his redeeming love.

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