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Zephaniah prophesied at a critical time in the history of the kingdom of Judah. The opening verse of the book tells the reader that he lived and served during the reign of Josiah, the last godly king. During his reign the Temple was repaired, at the time of which the book of the Law was discovered and the Passover was re-introduced. Outwardly it was a time of great revival, but in fact the revival was not fully supported by the people. It did not reach down into their hearts and it was not sustained. So often in the history of testimony for God this has been the situation. Emotional feelings lead to "revival", but the lives of the people are not deeply touched and it is not long before the enthusiasm wanes and circumstances return to what they had been.
Against this background Zephaniah works, teaching that the "Day of the Lord" would overwhelm them. This day would see the nation overcome in judgment, but it also looked forward to a day yet to be when the wrath of God will not only be endured by Israel, but by all nations. Let us never forget that sin brings with it a cost, and a promise of the judgment of God. Today sin is not recognised for what it is, rather it is regarded as being acceptable, a means of enjoyment and fulfilment, and even a sign of strength and maturity. The Bible, however, teaches that sin is abhorrent to God and will be punished, no matter who the perpetrator is. Only the gospel can save an individual from such a consequence. In Josiahs day, as in our modern society, sin was regarded lightly.
World-wide judgment (1.2-3.8)
Although the judgments of God which are here described are intended primarily for Israel, they reach out to cover the whole earth. Twice over Judah is specifically in mind (1.4-2.3; 3.1-7) and on three occasions it is the world that is in view (1.2-3; 2.4-15; 3.8).
Judgment on the world
The judgment of God will be certain (1.2-3). The language of vv.2-3 indicates clearly that none will escape: "I will utterly consume"; "I will consume man and beast"; "I will consume the fowls and the fishes"; "I will cut off man". From this judgment there will be no escape as the wrath of God falls on a godless world.
The judgment of God will be complete (2.4-15). Not only will this judgment fall on all, but also it will be complete in that it will be carried out to the full. In these verses the nations surrounding Israel are brought to the attention of the reader. The Philistines, Moab and Ammon, the Cushites (Ethopians), and the Assyrians all bear the weight of these terrible days. Nations rise to power and prominence and in their pride consider that they need not heed God. What is the consequence of this? Each of them is reduced to nothing. The land of the Philistines will be laid waste (2.5), Moab and Ammon will become as Sodom and Gomorrah (2.9), Nineveh, the great city of the Assyrians will be desolate and wild beasts will make her their place of habitation (2.13-15).
The judgment of God will be climactic (3.8). There will come a day when the nations of the earth will be gathered together and the great climactic judgment of God will fall on the gathered godless host. When His "fierce anger" is displayed God declares that "all the earth shall be devoured with the fire of my jealousy".
In all this we can see that the judgments that would fall on the nations in the not too distant future after Zephaniahs prophecy are foretelling an even greater judgment, yet to be, that will fall on this world.
Judgment on Judah - due to there being no devotion to the Lord (1.4-6)
Note the cause of this judgment. Two classes of priests are mentioned, the first being the priests of Baal and the second being the idolatrous priests called the Chemarims (1.4). What is seen here is the problem of idolatry. Lest we think that we are immune from this sin we must consider the words of the Apostle John when he writes, "Little children, keep yourselves from idols" (1 Jn 5.21). Idols are not always images of wood and stone, they can be idols of the heart, that which we have in our hearts which displaces the Lord Jesus and draws our affection and devotion away from Him (Ezek 14.3,4,5,7). The question for us is clear: "Is there that in our heart which attracts us and draws us away?".
The second problem if that of spiritism (1.5). They engaged in the worship of the stars, combining astrology with the occult. "The host of heaven" was worshipped in a manner that is followed by many of the cultic groups today which worship "nature", "mother earth", or engage in the black arts of astrology. These practices are wide-spread around us and no believer should touch them in any way.
The third problem was that of inter-religious unity. They swore by the Lord and by Malcham (probably a reference to the "god" Molech). The ecumenical movement today is driving towards such a goal. At the moment it is officially an attempt to unite so called "Christian churches", but already there are signs that its objectives will reach beyond that to unite what have been called "faith groups", irrespective of the object of the faith of their adherents. So as long as there is faith in someone or something they warrant inclusion.
The fourth problem, one well recognised in our times, is that of indifference. There are those who have "turned back from the Lord; and those who have not sought the Lord, nor inquired for him" (1.6). These people will be content to let the others follow whatever "religious" pathway they chose, but they have no beliefs; they are completely unmoved by the Word of God or by the entreaties of the prophet. Once again we can see this attitude in the people around us; so occupied with work, materialism, and pleasure that they are indifferent to the gospel and the claim of God upon them.
Judgment on Judah - due to there being no distinctiveness in their manner of life (1.7-10)
When devotion to the Lord is absent this will be seen in how the people live. The people were dressed and behaved in the manner of the world (1.8). The warning today is necessary as there are powerful forces at work seeking to eliminate the distinctiveness of Christian living. We must not be "conformed to this world" (Rom 12.2). The evidence of this was seen in the violence which was common, stealing in order to became rich; an unprincipled lust after possessions.
Judgment on Judah - due to there being no discernment in their understanding (1.11-13)
So insensitive had the nation become to the Lord that there were those who asserted that "The Lord will not do good, neither will he do evil" (1.12). No matter how they behaved, the Lord would not intervene in any way, and they would be left to live as they saw fit. They acted as if the Lord had abdicated from His responsibility to rule this world and no longer had an interest in what He had created. Little did they realise that every sinner would be judged and their possessions would be taken from them. What folly it is to build wealth for time alone and ignore eternity! They had no spiritual discernment.
World-wide rejoicing (3.9-3.20)
As has already been pointed out, the solemn events which overtook Judah in judgment point forward to the Day of the Lord, after the rapture of the Church, when the nation of Israel will endure great tribulation, a time of trouble that will also engulf other nations. But that is not the end, because at the close of that period the remnant of Israel (believing Jews) will be called back to their land where the King will reign from Zion and the 1,000 year kingdom of the Lord Jesus will be established.
In the midst of the record of great return, at the complete recovery and the united rejoicing of the faithful remnant of Israel, two great facts are placed before them.
1. "The king of Israel, even the Lord is in the midst of thee" (3.15).
This always has been the desire of the Lord. He walked in the midst of the Garden of Eden; He dwelt in the Tabernacle in the midst of His people; the Lord declared that where two or three were gathered together He was in the midst (Mt 18.20), and now He reigns supreme in the midst of a faithful, recovered nation. In that day there will be safety for them.
2. "The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty" (3.17).
Now the other side is seen. If it is safety for the people, it is satisfaction for the Lord. He will rejoice over them and rest in His love. Then the world will see conditions that have never been seen before, even in Eden - a whole world enjoying His rule, and the nation of Israel giving Him the satisfaction that they have failed to give in the past, that which they were chosen to enjoy and to give.