The Gospel of Zephaniah

If any of the writing prophets is more obscure than Nahum, it is probably Zephaniah.  And I’m just as weak in my knowledge of this prophet as anyone.  So this post is virtually all fresh research.

The opening lines actually give more information about Zephaniah than almost any other prophet, His lineage is traced back four generations, including a Hezekiah. No absolute proof that this is the good king Hezekiah of Isaiah’s day, but why would his great great grandfather be mentioned at all unless he was someone well known from Israel’s history? If so, and I believe likely, then he was from an upper crust family and more familiar with current political realities that most.

Zephaniah prophesied in the days of the King Josiah, the last good king of Judah, If he is a descendant of King Hezekiah, then he was a cousin of Josiah and may have had access to the king’s ear, perhaps influential in the reforms and revival under Josiah as described in 2 Kings 22 and 23. Revival is no doubt an overstatement as it probably didn’t widely affect the nation as a whole, but was restricted to palace and temple, and faded quickly after Josiah’s death.

A contemporary of Jeremiah and Nahum, Zephaniah’s primary theme was the unpopular but vital message of the coming day of the LORD.

The great day of the Lord is near—
    near and coming quickly.
The cry on the day of the Lord is bitter;
    the Mighty Warrior shouts his battle cry.
15 That day will be a day of wrath—
    a day of distress and anguish,
        a day of trouble and ruin,
    a day of darkness and gloom,
        a day of clouds and blackness—
16     a day of trumpet and battle cry
against the fortified cities
    and against the corner towers.

17 “I will bring such distress on all people
    that they will grope about like those who are blind,
    because they have sinned against the Lord.
Their blood will be poured out like dust
    and their entrails like dung.
1:14-17

What is the day of the LORD?

It no doubt has a near reference to the judgment about to come upon Jerusalem through the long siege by Babylon, the series of three exiles of the people of Judah to Babylon and finally, in 586 BC, the destruction of Jerusalem and the great temple built by King Solomon. Specifics of that judgment are prophesied in 1:2-13, the utter devastation of the great city,

But the greater day of the LORD is yet future, the day of the LORD’s wrath, more likely a reference to, or art least including, the judgment on the world described in the Revelation of John, the last book of the Bible,

So there isn’t much good news in the early part of Zephaniah’s prophecy, but God ‘s purpose in salvation is evident in the Call to Repentance at the beginning of chapter two.

Gather together, gather yourselves together,
    you shameful nation,
before the decree takes effect
    and that day passes like windblown chaff,
before the Lord’s fierce anger
    comes upon you,
before the day of the Lord’s wrath
    comes upon you.
Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land,
    you who do what he commands.
Seek righteousness, seek humility;
    perhaps you will be sheltered
    on the day of the Lord’s anger.
2:1-3

No matter how far a people have fallen, the invitation to turn from sin to God is the consistent appeal. You’ve seen this before, but it just keeps coming up and affirming the principle of 2 Peter 3:9 – The Lord …is patient with you not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance,

Then comes another section of judgment, similar to the first two chapters of Amos, starting with God’s judgment on Philistia, then Moab and Ammon, then Cush (a reference to the upper Nile of Egypt under the Cushite dynasty), then Assyria (soon to be defeated by Babylon in 612 BC), and finally judgment on Jerusalem, who refused to learn from the experience of other nations and failed to repent.  No one who refuses to repent is safe from God’s wrath. The whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger, 3:8

So, where is the Gospel here?  Can Good News be found in Zephaniah?

The closing section of the prophecy finally breaks through with the Gospel. The last twelve verses declare God’s purpose to restore his people.  Exiles will be brought home.  Jerusalem will be restored as a city of peace. This no doubt also has a relatively short term fulfillment, as the exile to Babylon would last seventy years, after which exiles would be returned to rebuild the city and the temple. Read Ezra and Nehemiah for the history of this fulfillment,

But there is a longer term fulfillment, seemingly evidenced in the twentieth century with the return of the Jewish people from all over the world to Palestine. Yet this too, in spite of popular prophetic literature of the past fifty years, is not the complete fulfillment of God’s promise. When will this restoration be complete?  Only when Jesus Christ returns to reign as king on the earth.

There are several parts to this final section that only make sense in light of the Gospel.

3:9 – Then I will purify the lips of the peoples, that all of them may call on the name of the LORD,

Two things from this verse:

1.  purify the lips – This is surely more than a hint of the new birth, the transformation of hearts noted in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 26 and fulfilled in what the New Testament calls regeneration, being born again by the Holy Spirit, the essence of what salvation means.

2.  of the peoples – LIke many texts going back to Genesis 12:3, all peoples on earth will be blessed through you, so God’s rescue plan for the world is not an exclusively Jewish salvation but the inclusion of Gentiles, the peoples from all over the world, each and every people group to be represented in God’s eternal family.  Thus with God’s plan to include all peoples, Jesus commanded us to make disciples of all nations (ethnicities), Matthew 28:19.

Then consider Zephaniah 3:15, a statement that only makes sense in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the LORD has taken away your judgment,

How does the LORD take away judgment? By providing a substitute sacrifice; illustrated by Abraham’s sacrifice of his son, Isaac (Genesis 22), prophesied in Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53, fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus, the sacrifice for our sin.

This is our ultimate Good News, worthy of great celebration, a celebration that God initiates and leads,

3:17 — The LORD your God is with you, He is mighty to save,  He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.

 

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