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by Albert Barnes
Introduction to Zephaniah
Zephaniah was called to his role not long after Habakkuk. Since his time was near to that of Habakkuk, so his subject was also related. Both lived when, for the sins of the reign of Manasseh, God had pronounced an irreversible sentence of destruction upon Jerusalem. The mission of both was not to the whole people whose sentence was fixed, but to the individuals who would flee from the wrath to come. The form of Habakkuk’s prophecy was (as we might say) more subjective; that of Zephaniah was more objective. Habakkuk exhibits the victory of faith in the oppressed faithful - how it would hold to God amid the domestic oppressions, amid the oppressions of the Chaldees by whom those oppressions were to be punished, and, when all shall seem to fail, should, in the certainty of its unseen life, rejoice in its God. The characteristic of Zephaniah is the declaration of the tenderness of the love of God for that remnant of Israel, “the afflicted and poor people,” whom God would “leave in the midst of them” Zephaniah 3:12.
Zephaniah has, like Habakkuk, to declare the judgment on the world. He renews the language of Joel as to “the day of the Lord,” and points to nations and individuals. He opens with the prophecy of one wide destruction of the land and all the sinners in it, its idolaters and its oppressors, its princes, its royal family, its merchants, its petty plunderers, who used rapine under color of their masters’ name, and brought guilt upon themselves and them. Nothing is either too high or too low to escape the judgments of God. But the visitation upon Judah was only partially of a more comprehensive judgment. Zephaniah foretells the wider destruction of enemies of God’s people on all sides - of Philistia, Moab, Ammon, on each side of them, and the distant nations on either side, Ethiopia (which then included Egypt) and Assyria. All these particular judgments contain principles of God’s judgments at all times. But in Zephaniah they seem all to converge in the love of God for the remnant of His people. The nation he calls “a nation not desired” Zephaniah 2:1. He calls to God individuals: “It may be, ye shall be hid in the day of the Lord’s anger” Zephaniah 2:3. He foretells a sifting time, wherein God would “take away the proud among her” Zephaniah 3:11-12; yet there follows a largeness of Gospel promise and of love Zephaniah 3:12-17, the grounds of which are explained in the Gospel, but whose tenderness of language is hardly surpassed even by the overwhelming tenderness of “the love of Christ which passeth knowledge” Ephesians 3:19.
The prophet’s own name “the Lord hath hid” corresponds with this. The Psalmist had said, using this same word, “He shall hide me in His tabernacle in the day of evil: in the secret of His tabernacle He shall hide me” Psalms 27:5; and, “O how great is Thy goodness, which Thou hast “laid up” for them that fear Thee. Thou shalt hide them in the secret of Thy presence from the pride of man. Thou shalt “keep them secretly” Psalms 31:19-20 in a pavilion from the strife of tongues.” “They take counsel against Thy “hidden” ones” Psalms 83:4.
The date which Zephaniah prefixed to his prophecy, has not been disputed; for no one felt any interest in denying it. Those who disbelieve definite prophecy invented for themselves a solution, whereby they thought that Zephaniah’s prophecy need not be definite, even though uttered in the time of Josiah; so the fact remained unquestioned.
The unaccustomed fullness with which his descent is given implies so much of that personal knowledge which soon fades away, that those who speak of other titles, as having been prefixed to the books, or portions of books of the prophets, by later hands, have not questioned this. The only question is, whether he lived before or in the middle of the reformation by Josiah. Josiah, who came to the throne when eight years old 641 b.c., began the reformation in the 12th year of his reign, 2 Chronicles 34:3-7, when almost twenty; 630 b.c. The extirpation of idolatry could not, it appears, be accomplished at once. The finding of the ancient copy of the law, during the repairs of the temple in the 18th year of his reign, 2 Kings 22:0; 2 Chronicles 34:8-28, 624 b.c., gave a fresh impulse to the king’s efforts. He then united the people with himself, bound all the people present to the covenant 2 Kings 23:3; 2 Chronicles 34:31 to keep the law, and made a further destruction of idols 2 Kings 23:4-20; 2 Chronicles 34:33 before the solemn passover in that year. Even after that passover some abominations had to be removed 2 Kings 23:24. It has been thought that the words, “I will cut off the remnant of Baal from this place” Zephaniah 1:4, imply that the worship of Baal had already in some degree been removed, and that God said, that He would complete what had been begun. But the emphasis seems to be rather on the completeness of the destruction, as we should say, that He would efface every remnant of Baal, than to refer to any effort which had been made by human authority to destroy it.
The prophet joins together, “I will cut off the remnant of Baal, the name of the Chemarim.” The cutting off “the name of the Chemarim,” or idolatrous priests, is like that of Hosea, “I will take away the names of Baalim out of her mouth, and they shall no more be remembered by their name” Hosea 2:17. As the cutting off of “the name of the Chemarim” means their being utterly obliterated, so, probably, does “the cutting off the remnant of Baal.” The worship of Baal was cut off, not through Josiah, but (as Zephaniah prophesied) through the captivity. Jeremiah asserts its continuance during his long prophetic office Jeremiah 2:8; Jeremiah 7:9; Jeremiah 11:13; Jeremiah 19:5; Jeremiah 32:29.
In the absence of any direct authority to the contrary, the description of idolatry by Zephaniah would seem to belong to the period, before the measures to abolish it were begun. He speaks as if everything were full of idolatry Zephaniah 1:4-5, the worship of Baal, the worship of the host of heaven upon the housetops, swearing by Maleham, and probably the clothing with strange apparel.
The state also was as corrupt Zephaniah 3:3-4 as the worship. Princes and judges, priests and prophets were all alike in sin; the judges distorted the law between man and man, as the priests profaned all which related to God. The princes were roaring lions; the judges, evening wolves, ever famished, hungering for new prey. This too would scarcely have been, when Josiah was old enough to govern in his own person. Both idolatry and perversion of justice were continued on from the reign of his father Amon. Both, when old enough, he removed. God Himself gives him the praise, that he “did judgment and justice, then it was well with him; he judged the cause of the poor and needy, then it was well with him; was not this to know Me? saith the Lord” Jeremiah 22:15-16. His conversion was in the eighth year of his reign. Then, while he was yet young, he began to “seek after the God of David his father.”
The mention of the “king’s children” (see the note at Zephaniah 1:8), whom, God says, He would punish in the great day of His visitation, does not involve any later date. They might, anyhow have been brothers or uncles of the king Josiah. But, more probably, God declares that no rank should be exempt from the judgments of that day. He knew, too, that the sons of Josiah would be then punished for their great sins. The sun of the temporal rule of the house of David set in unmitigated wickedness and sorrow. Of all its kings after Josiah, it is said, they did “evil in the sight of the Lord;” some were distinguished by guilt; all had miserable ends; some of them with aggravated misery.
Zephaniah then probably finished his course before that 12th year of Josiah, (for this prophecy is one whole) and so just before Jeremiah was, in Josiah’s 13th year, called to his office, which he fulfilled for half a century, perhaps for the whole age of man.
The foreground of the prophecy of Zephaniah remarkably coincides with that of Habakkuk. Zephaniah presupposes that prophecy and fills it up. Habakkuk had prophesied the great wasting and destruction through the Chaldaeans, and then their destruction. That invasion was to extend beyond Judah (for it was said “he shall scoff at kings” Habakkuk 1:10), but was to include it. The instrument of God having been named by Habakkuk, Zephaniah does not even allude to him. Rather, he brings before Judah the other side, the agency of God Himself. God would not have them forget Himself in His instruments. Hence, all is attributed to God. “I will utterly consume all things from off the land, saith the Lord. I will consume man and beast; I will consume the fowls of the heaven, and the fishes of the sea, and the stumblingblocks with the wicked, and I will cut off man from the land, saith the Lord. I will also stretch out Mine hand upon Judah; and I will cut off the remnant of Baal. In the day of the Lord’s sacrifice, I will punish the princes, etc. In the same day also I will punish all those etc. I will search Jerusalem with candles. The great day of the Lord is near, and I will bring distress upon, etc. O Canaan, land of the Philistines, I will even destroy thee. The Lord will be terrible upon them. Ye Ethiopians also, ye shall be slain by My sword. And He will destroy Nineveh” Zephaniah 1:2, Zephaniah 1:4, Zephaniah 1:8-9, Zephaniah 1:13-14, Zephaniah 1:17; Zephaniah 2:5, Zephaniah 2:11-13. The wicked of the people had “said in their heart, The Lord will not do good, neither will He do evil” Zephaniah 1:12. Zephaniah inculcates, throughout his brief prophecy, that there is nothing, good or evil, of which He is not the doer or overruler.
But the extent of that visitation is co-extensive with that prophesied by Habakkuk. Zephaniah indeed speaks rather of the effects, the desolation. But the countries, whose desolation or defeat he foretells, are the lands of those, whom the Chaldaeans invaded, worsted, in part desolated. Beside Judah, Zephaniah’s subjects are Philistia, Moab, Ammon, Ethiopia (which included Egypt), Nineveh. And here he makes a remarkable distinction corresponding with the events. Of the Ethiopians or Egyptians, he says only, “ye shall be slain by My sword” Zephaniah 2:12. Of Assyria he foretells Zephaniah 2:13-15 the entire and lasting desolation; the capitals of her palaces in the dust; her cedar-work bare; flocks, wild-beasts, pelican and hedgehog, taking up their abode in her. Moab and Ammon and Philistia have at first sight the two-fold, apparently contradictory, lot; “the remnant of My people,” God says, “shall possess them; the coast shall be for the remnant of the house of Judah” Zephaniah 2:9; and, that they should be a perpetual desolation.
This also was to take place, after God had brought back His people out of captivity. Now all these countries were conquered by the Chaldaeans, of which at the time there was no human likelihood. But they were not swept away by one torrent of conquest. Moab and Ammon were, at first, allies of Nebuchadnezzar, and rejoiced at the miseries of the people, whose prophets had foretold their destruction. But, beyond this, Nineveh was at that time more powerful than Egypt. Human knowledge could not have discerned, that Egypt should suffer defeat only, Nineveh should be utterly destroyed. It was the custom of the great conquerors of the East, not to destroy capitals, but to re-people them with subjects obedient to themselves. Nineveh had held Babylon by viceroys; in part she had held it under her own immediate rule. Why should not Babylon, if she conquered Nineveh, use the same policy? Humanly speaking, it was a mistake that she did not.
It would have been a strong place against the inroads of the Medo-Persian empire. The Persians saw its value so far for military purposes, as to build some fort there ; and the Emperor Claudius, when he made it a colony, felt the importance of the well-chosen situation . It is replaced by Mosul, a city of some “20,000 to 40,000” inhabitants. Even after its destruction, it was easier to rebuild it than to build a city on the opposite bank of the Tigris. God declared that it should be desolate. The prediction implied destruction the most absolute. It and its palaces were to be the abode of animals which flee the presence of man; and it perished.
Again, what was less likely than that Philistia, which had had the rule over Israel, strong in its almost impregnable towns, three of whose five cities were named for their strength, Gaza, “strong;” Ashdod, “mighty;” Ekron, “deep-rooting;” one of which, Ashdod, about this very time, resisted for 29 years the whole power of Egypt, and endured the longest siege of any city of ancient or modern times - what, to human foresight, less was likely, than that Philistia should come under the power of the “remnant of the house of Judah,” when returned from their captivity? Yet, it is absolutely foretold. “The seacoast shall be for the remnant of the house of Judah; they shall feed thereupon: in the houses of Ashkelon they shall lie down in the evening. For the Lord their God shall visit them, and restore their captivity” Zephaniah 2:7. As unlikely was it, that Moab and Ammon, who now had entered upon the territory of the two and a half tribes beyond Jordan, should themselves become the possession of the remnant of Judah. Yet, so it was!
It is then lost labor, even for their own ends, when moderns, who do not believe definite prophecy, would find out some enemy whom Zephaniah may have had in mind in foretelling this wide destruction. It still remains that all that Zephaniah says beforehand was fulfilled. It is allowed that he could not foretell this through any human foresight. The avowed object in looking out for some power, formidable in Zephaniah’s time, is, that he could not, by any human knowledge, be speaking of the Chaldaeans. But the words stand there. They were written by Zephaniah, at a time when confessedly no human knowledge could have enabled man to predict this of the Chaldaeans; nay, no human knowledge would have enabled anyone to predict so absolutely a desolation so wide and so circumstantially delineated.
That school, however, has not been willing to acquiesce in this, that Zephaniah does “not” speak of the instrument, through whom this desolation was effected. They will have it, that they know, that Zephaniah had in his mind one, who was “not” the enemy of the Jews or of Nineveh or of Moab and Ammon, and through whom no even transient desolation of these countries was effected. The whole argument is a simple begging of the question. : “The Egyptians cannot be meant, for the Cushites, who are threatened Zephaniah 2:12, themselves belong to the Egyptian army Jeremiah 46:9, and Psammetichus only besieged Ashdod which he also took, without emblazoning ought greater on his shield (Herodotus ii. 157). The Chaldaeans come still less into account, because they did not found an independent kingdom until 625 b.c., nor threaten Judaea until after Josiah’s death. On the other hand, an unsuspicious and well-accredited account has been preserved to us, that somewhere about this time the Scythians overflowed Palestine too with their hosts. Herodotus relates , that the Scythians, after they had disturbed Cyaxares at the siege of Nineveh, turned toward Egypt; and when they had already arrived in Palestine, were persuaded by Psammetichus to return, and in their return plundered a temple in Ascalon.”
It is true that Herodotus says that “a large Scythian army did, under their king Madyes, burst into Asia in pursuit of the Cimmerians and entered Media - keeping Mount Caucasus on the right,” and that “the Medes opposed and fought them and, being defeated, lost their rule” .
It is true also that Herodotus relates, that “they went thence toward Egypt, and when they were in Palestine-Syria, Psammetichus king of Egypt, meeting them, turned them by gifts and entreaties from going further; that when in their return they were in Ascalon, a city of Syria, whereas most of the Scythians passed by without harming ought, some few of them, being left behind, plundered the temple of Venus Ourania.” In this place also, it is true, Herodotus uses a vague expression, that “for 28 years the Scythians ruled over Asia, and that all things were turned upside down by their violence and contempt. For beside the tributes, they exacted from each what they laid upon each, and beside the tribute, they drove together and took what each had. And most of them Cyaxares and the Medes entertaining as guests, intoxicated and killed. And then the Medes recovered their empire and “became masters of what they held before.”
But, apart from the inconsistency of the period here assigned to their power, with other history, it appears from the account itself, that by “all Asia” Herodotus means “all upper Asia,” as he expresses himself more accurately, when relating the expedition of Darius against them. : “Darius wished to take revenge on the Scythians, because they first, making an inroad into Media and defeating in battle those who went against them, began the wrong. For the Scythians, as I have before said, “ruled upper Asia” for 28 years. For, pursuing the Cimmerians, they made an inroad into Asia, putting down the Medes from their rule, for these, before the Scythians came, ruled Asia.” The Asia then, which Herodotus supposes the Scythians to have ruled, is co-extensive with the Asia which he supposes the Medes to have ruled previously. But this was all in the north, for having said that , “Phraortes subdued Asia, going from one nation to another,” he adds that, having brought Persia under his yoke, “he led an army against those Assyrians who had Nineveh, and there lost most of his army and his own life.”
Apart then from the fabulousness of this supposed empire, established by Phraortes , (Cyaxares having been the real thunder of the Median empire,) it is plain that, according to Herodotus himself, the Asia, in which the Scythians plundered and received tribute, were the lands north of Assyria. The expedition against Egypt stands as an insulated predatory excursion, the object of which having been mere plunder, they were bought off by Psammetichus and returned (he tells us) doing no mischief in their way, except that a few lingerers plundered a temple at Ascalon. It was to Media that they first came; the Medes, whom they defeated; the Median empire to which they succeeded; Cyaxares and the Medes, who treacherously destroyed most of them; the Medes, whose empire was restored by the destruction of some, and the return of the rest to their own land.
With this agrees the more detailed account of the Scythians by Strabo, who impeaches the accuracy of the accounts of Herodotus . Having spoken of the migrations of leaders, and by name, of “Madyes the Scythian” (under whom Herodotus states the irruption to have taken place), he says , “the Sacae made the like inroad as the Cimmerians and the Trerians, some longer, some nigh at hand, for they took possession of Bactriana, and acquired the best land of Armenia, which they also left, named after them Sacasene, and advanced as far as to the Cappadocians and especially those on the Euxine, whom they now call of Pontus (Pontians). But the generals of the Persians who were at the time there, attacking them by night, while they were making a feast upon the spoils, utterly extirpated them.”
The direction which he says they took, is the same as that of the Cimmerians, whom Herodotus says that they followed. : “The Cimmerians, whom they also call Trerians, or some tribe of them, often overrun the right side of the Pontus, sometimes making inroads on the Paphlagonians, at others, on the Phrygians. Often also the Cimmerians and Trerians made the like attacks, and they say that the Trerians and Cobus (their king) were, at last expelled by Madyes king of the (Scythians).” Strabo also explains, what is meant by the tributes, of which Herodotus speaks. He is speaking of the Nomadic tribes of the Scythians generally : “Tribute was, to allow them at certain stated times, to overrun the country (for pasturage) and carry off booty. But when they roamed beyond the agreement, there arose war, and again reconciliations and renewed war. Such was the life of the nomads, always setting on their neighbors and then being reconciled again.”
The Scythians then were no object of fear to the Jews, whom they passed wholly unnoticed and probably unconscious of their existence in their mountain country, while they once and once only swept unharming along the fertile tracks on the sea-shore, then occupied by the old enemies and masters of the Jews, the Philistines. But Herodotus must also have been misinformed as to the length of time, during which they settled in Media, or at least as to the period during which their presence had any sensible effects. For Cyaxares, whom he represents as having raised the siege of Nineveh, in consequence of the inroad of the Scythians into Media, came to the throne, according to the numbers of Herodotus, 633 b.c. For the reign of Cyaxares having lasted according to him 40 years , that of Astyages 35 , and that of Cyrus 29 , these 104 years, counted back from the known date of the death of Cyrus, 529 or 530 b.c., bring us to 633 or 636 b.c. as the beginning of the reign of Cyaxares. But the invasion of the Scythians could not have taken place at the first accession of Cyaxares, since, according to Herodotus, he had already defeated the Assyrians, and was besieging Nineveh, when the Scythians burst into Media. According to Herodotus, moreover, Cyaxares “first distributed Asiatics into troops, and first ordered that each should be apart, spearmen, and archers and cavalry, for before, all were mixed pele-mele together.”
Yet, it would not be in a very short time, that those who had been wont to fight in a confused mass, could be formed into an orderly and disciplined army. We could not then, anyhow, date the Scythian inroad, earlier than the second or third year of Cyaxares. On the other hand the date of the capture of Nineveh is fixed by the commencement of the Babylonian Empire, Babylon falling to Nabopolassar. The duration of that empire is measured by the reigns of its kings , of whom, according to Ptolemy’s Canon, Nabopolassar reigned 21 years; Nebuchadnezzar, (there called Nabocollasar) 43; Evil-Merodach (Iluaroadam) 2; Neriglissar (Niricassolassar) 4; Nabunahit (Nabonadius with whom his son Belshazzar was co-regent) 17; in all 87 years; and it ends in an event of known date, the capture of Babylon by Cyrus, 538 b.c. The addition of the 87 years of the duration of the empire to that date carries us back to the date assigned to the capture of Nineveh by Nabopolassar in conjunctitan with Cyaxares, 625 b.c. The capture then of Nineveh was removed by 8 or 9 years only from that, which Herodotus gives as the time of the accession of Cyaxares, and since the attack upon Nineveh can hardly have been in his first year, and the last siege probably occupied two, the 28 years of Scythian dominion would dwindle down into something too inconsiderable for history. Probably, they represent some period from their first incursion into Media, to the final return of the survivors, during which they marauded in Media and Upper Asia. The mode, by which “the greater part” (Herodotus tells us) were destroyed, intoxication and subsequent murder at a banquet, implies that their numbers were no longer considerable.
History, with the exception of that one marauding expedition toward Egypt, is entirely silent as to any excursions of the Scythians, except in the north. No extant document hints at any approach of theirs to any country mentioned by Zephaniah. There was no reason to expect any inroad from them. With the exception of Bactriana, which lies some 18 degrees east of Media and itself extended over some 7 degrees of longitude, the countries mentioned by Strabo lie, to what the kings of Assyria mention as the far north, Armenia, and thence, they stretched out to the west, yet keeping mostly to the neighborhood of the Euxine. Considering the occasion of the mention of the invasion of the Scythians, the relief which their invasion of Media gave to Nineveh, it is even remarkable that there is no mention of any ravages of theirs throughout Mesopotamia or Babylonia. Zephaniah speaks, not of marauding, but of permanent desolation of Assyria, Philistia, Moab, Ammon, and of destructive war also on Ethiopia. There is no reason to think that the Scythians approached any of these lands, except Philistia, which they passed through unharming. The sacred writers mention even smaller nations, by whom God chastised Judah in their times, “bands of the Syrians, of Moab, of the children of Ammon,” as well as Assyria and Babylon. Ezekiel Ezekiel 38:0; Ezekiel 39:0, when he prophesies of the inroad of Northern nations, Meshech and Tubal, Gomer and Togormah, speaks of it as far removed in the future, prophesies not their destroying but their own destruction.
It does not affect the argument from prophecy, whether Zephaniah did or did not know, through whom the events, which he predicted, should be brought to pass. But, setting aside the question whether he had from the prophecies of Habakkuk and Isaiah, a human knowledge of the Chaldees or whether God instructed him, how what he foretold should be accomplished, or whether God spread out before his mind that which was to be, apart from time, in prophetic vision, Zephaniah did picture what came to pass. But it is an intense paradox, when men, 2500 years after his date, assert, not only that Zephaniah’s prophecies had no relation to the Chaldees, in whom his words were fulfilled, and who are the objects of the prophecies of Habakkuk and Jeremiah, but that they know, what must have been, and (as they assert) what was in the prophet’s mind; and that he had in his mind, not those in whom his words were fulfilled, but others in whom they were “not” fulfilled, to whom he does not allude in one single trait, who left no trace behind them, and whose march along an enemy’s tract on the seacoast was of so little account, that no contemporary historian, nor Josephus, even alludes to it . But there is to this day a city beyond Jordan into which this name enters in part, Scythopolis.” Quaestt. Hebr. ad Gen. (Opp. iii. 358. ed. Vall.) quoted by Reland, p. 992).
It has been already observed, that each prophet connects himself with one or more of those before them. They use the language of their predecessors in some one or more sentences, apparently with this precise object. They had overflowing fullness of words; yet, they chose some saying of the former prophet, as a link to those before them. We have seen this in Amos , then in Obadiah, , who uses the language of Balaam, David, Joel, Amos; of Jeremiah, in regard to Obadiah ; of Micah to his great predecessor, Micaiah, and Amos ; of Jeremiah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Ezekiel to Micah ; of Nahum to Jonah ; and of Isaiah (I think), to Nahum ; of Habakkuk, to Isaiah and Micah , It is in conformity with this, that Zephaniah, even more than those before him, uses language of earlier prophets.
It arises, not (as people have been pleased to say) from any declension in the originality of prophets at his date, but from his subject. It has been said, “if anyone desire to see the utterances of the prophets in brief space, let him read through this brief Zephaniah.” The office of Zephaniah was not to forewarn of any instrument of God’s judgments. The destruction is prophesied, not the destroyer. His prophecy is, more than those of most other prophets, apart from time, to the end of time. He prophesies of what shall be, not when it shall be, nor by whom. He does not “expect” or “anticipate” or “forebode!” He absolutely declares the future condition of certain nations; but not the “how” of its coming to pass. If Nineveh, Edom and Ammon had not been desolated, his prophecy would have been falsified; each fulfillment became the earnest of a larger fulfillment; but all shall not be completed until “the earth and all that is therein shall be burned up.”
It belongs to this character of Zephaniah, that he gathers from other prophets before him, especially Isaiah, Joel, Amos, Habakkuk, expressions relating to, or bearing on, judgment to come, or again to that his other great subject, God’s love for the remnant of His people; yet mostly in fragments only and allusively. They were key-notes for those who knew the prophets. Thus, in calling on man to hushed submission before God, because a day of judgment was coming, he blends into one verse Habakkuk 1:7 Habakkuk’s call, “hush before the Lord” Habakkuk 2:20, and the warning words of Isaiah, Joel, Obadiah Isaiah 13:6; Joel 1:15; Joel 3:15; Obadiah 1:15, “nigh is the day of the Lord;” the image of the “sacrifice,” which God had commanded, and the remarkable word, “consecrated,” of God’s instruments. The allusion is contained in single words, “sacrifice, consecrated;” the context in which they are embodied is different.
The idea only is the same, that Almighty God maketh, as it were, a sacrifice to Himself of those who incorrigibly rebel against Him. Elsewhere, Isaiah draws out the image at much length; “A sword of the Lord is full of bloods; it is smeared with fat, with the blood of lambs and of goats; with the fat of kidneys of rams: for the Lord hath a sacrifice in Bozrah, and a great slaughter in the land of Edom” Isaiah 34:6. Jeremiah uses the image in equal fullness of the overthrow of Pharaoh-Necho at the Euphrates; “This is a day of the Lord God of hosts, a day of vengeance, that He may avenge Him of His adversaries: and the sword shall devour, and it shall be satiate and made drunk with blood, for the Lord God hath a sacrifice in the north country by the river Euphrates” Jeremiah 46:10. Ezekiel expands it yet more boldly Ezekiel 39:17. Zephaniah drops everything local, and condenses the image into the words, “The Lord hath prepared a sacrifice; He hath consecrated His guests,” adding the new bold image, that they whom God employed were, as it were, His invited guests whom He consecrated thereto.
In like way, as to the day of the Lord itself, he accumulates all words of terror from different prophets; from Joel the words, “a day of darkness and of gloominess; a day of clouds and of thick darkness” Joel 2:2; Zephaniah 1:15 : to these he adds “of shouting and the sound of the trumpet” Zephaniah 1:16; Amos 2:2, used by Amos in relation to the destruction of Moab; the two combinations, which precede, occur, the one in a different sense, the other with a slightly different grammatical inflection, in Job.
From Isaiah, Zephaniah adopts that characteristic picture of self-idolizing, which brings down God’s judgments on its pride; (the city) “that dwelleth securely, that said in her heart, I and no I beside” Isaiah 47:8; Zephaniah 2:15.
Even where Isaiah says, “For a consumption and that decreed, the Lord God of hosts makes in the midst of all the earth” Isaiah 10:23, and, slightly varying it, “For a consumption and that decreed, I have heard from the Lord God of hosts upon all the earth” Isaiah 28:22, Zephaniah, retaining the two first words, which occur in both places, says more concisely, “For a consumption, nought but terror, will He make all the inhabitants of the earth.” Yet, simple as the words are, he pronounced, that God would not only “bring a desolation upon the earth,” or “in the midst of the earth,” but would make its inhabitants one consumption. Nahum had said of Nineveh, “with an overflowing flood He will make the place thereof an utter consumption” Nahum 1:8. The most forceful words are the simplest.
He uses the exact words of Isaiah, “From beyond the rivers of Cush” Zephaniah 3:10; Isaiah 18:1, than which none can be simpler, and employs the word of festive procession, though in a different form, and having thus connected his prophecy with Isaiah’s, all the rest, upon which the prophecy turns, is varied.
In like way he adopts from Micah the three words, “her-that-halteth, and-will-gather her-that-is-driven-out” Micah 4:6; Zephaniah 3:19. The context in which he resets them is quite different.
It has been thought, that the words, “I have heard the reproach of Moab,” may have been suggested by those of Isaiah, who begins his lament over Moab, “We have heard of the pride of Moab;” but the force and bearing of the words is altogether different, since it is God Who says, “I have heard,” and so He will punish.
The combination, “the exulters of pride” Isaiah 13:3; Zephaniah 3:11, is common to him with Isaiah: its meaning is uncertain; but it is manifestly different in the two places, since the one relates to God, the other to man.
The words, “They shall build houses and shall not dwell therein; they shall plant vineyards and not drink the wine thereof” , are from the original threat in Deuteronomy, from which also the two words, “They-shall-walk as-the-blind Zephaniah 1:17, may be a reminiscence, but with a conciseness of its own and without the characteristic expressions of Deuteronomy, adopted by other sacred writers: “They shall grope at noonday, as the blind gropeth in darkness” Deuteronomy 28:29.
Altogether these passages are evidence that Zephaniah is of later date than the prophecies in which the like language occurs; and the fact that he does employ so much language of his predecessors furnishes a strong presumption in any single case, that he in that case also adopted from the other sacred writer the language which they have in common.
It is chiefly on this ground, that a train of modern critics have spoken disparagingly of the outward form and style of Zephaniah. It has, however, a remarkable combination of fullness with conciseness and force. Thus, he begins the enumeration of those upon whom the destruction should fall, with the words, “consuming I will consume all” Zephaniah 1:2 : to an enumeration co-extensive with the creation, he adds unexpectedly, “and the stumblingblocks with the wicked” Zephaniah 1:3, anticipating our Lord’s words of the Day of Judgment, “they shall gather the stumblingblocks and them that do iniquity” Matthew 13:41 : to the different idolatries he adds those of a divided faith, “swearers to the Lord and swearers by Malcham” Zephaniah 1:5; to those who turned away from God he adds those who were unearnest in seeking Him Zephaniah 1:6.
Again, after the full announcement of the destruction in the day of the Lord, the burst, in those five words, “sift-yourselves and-sift (on) nation unlonged for” Zephaniah 2:1, is, in suddenness and condensation, like Hosea; and so again, in five words, after the picture of the future desolation of Nineveh, the abrupt turn to Jerusalem, “Woe rebellious and-defiled (thou) oppressive city” Zephaniah 2:1, and then follow the several counts of her indictment, in brief disjointed sentences, first negatively, as a whole; each in three or four words, “she-listened not to-voice; she-received not correction; in-the-Lord she-trusted not; to-her-God she-approached not” Zephaniah 3:2; then, in equally broken words, each class is characterized by its sins; “her-princes in-her-midst are roaring lions; her-judges evening wolves; not gnawed-they-bones on-the-morrow; her-prophets empty-babblers, men of-deceits; her-priests profaned holiness, violated law” Zephaniah 3:3-4 Then in sudden contrast to all this contumacy, neglect, despite of God, He Himself is exhibited as in the midst of her; the witness and judge of all; there, where they sinned. “The-Lord righteous in-her-midst; He-doth not iniquity; by-morning by-morning His-judgment He-giveth to-light; He-faileth not” Zephaniah 3:5; and then in contrast to the holiness and the judgments of God, follows in four words, the perseverance of man in his shamelessness, and - the fruit of all this presence and doings of the holy and righteous God and judge is, “and-not knoweth the wrong-doer shame.”
Zephaniah uses the same disjoining of the clauses in the description of God’s future manifestation of His love toward them. Again, it is the same thought, “The-Lord thy-God- (is) in-thy-midst” Zephaniah 3:17; but now in love; “mighty, shall-save; He-shall-rejoice over-thee with-joy; He-shall-keep-silence in-His-love; He-shall-rejoice over-thee with-jubilee.” The single expressions are alike condensed; “she-hearkened not to-voice” Zephaniah 3:2, stands for what Jeremiah says at such much greater length, how God had sent all His servants “the prophets, daily rising up early and sending them, but they hearkened not unto Me nor inclined their ear, but hardened their neck” Jeremiah 7:24-28. The words “shall-be-silent in-His-love, in their primary meaning, express the deepest human love, but without the accustomed image of betrothal.
“The whole people of Canaan” (Zephaniah 1:11, compare Hosea 12:7) reminds one of Hosea; “the-men-coagulated on-their-lees” Zephaniah 1:12 is much expanded by Jeremiah Jeremiah 48:11, his word occurs before him in Job only and the song of Moses Job 10:10; Exodus 15:8. Single poetic expressions are, that Moab should become “the possession of briars” Zephaniah 2:9, the word itself being framed by Zephaniah; in the description of the desolation of Nineveh, “a voice singeth in the window; desolation is on the threshold” Zephaniah 2:14, the imagery is so bold, that modern criticism has thought that the word “voice” which occurs in the Old Testament 328 times and with pronouns 157 times more, must signify “an owl,” and “desolation” must stand for “a crow.” Very characteristic is the word, ““He (see below the note at Zephaniah 2:11) shall famish” all the gods of the earth,” expressing with wonderful irony, the privation of their sacrifices, which was the occasion of the first pagan persecutions of the Christians.
When then a writer, at times so concise and poetic as Zephaniah is in these places, is, at others, so full in his descriptions, this is not prolixity, but rather vivid picturing; at one time going through all the orders of creation Zephaniah 1:3; at another, different classes of the ungodly Zephaniah 1:4-9 : at yet another, the different parts of the scared woe-stricken city Zephaniah 1:10-11, to set before our eyes the universality of the desolation. Those who are familiar with our own great northern poet of nature, will remember how the accumulation of names adds to the vividness of his descriptions. Yet, here too, there is great force in the individual descriptions, as when he pictures the petty plunderers for their master, and “fill their masters’ houses” - not with wealth but - “with violence and fraud” , all which remains of wealth gained by fraud and extortion being the sins themselves, which dwell in the house of the fraudulent to his destruction.
In the strictly prophetic part of his office, Jerusalem having been marked out by Micah and Isaiah before him, as the place where God would make the new revelation of Himself, Zephaniah adds, what our Lord revealed to the Samaritan woman John 4:21, that Jerusalem should no longer be the abiding center of worship. “They shall worship Him, every man from his place, all the isles of the nations” Zephaniah 2:11, is a prophecy which, to this day, is receiving an increasing accomplishment. It is a prophecy, not of the spread of Monotheism, but of the worship of Him, to whose worship at that time a handful of Jews could with difficulty be brought to adhere, the desertion or corruption or association of whose worship with idolatry Zephaniah had to denounce and to foretell its punishment. The love which God should then show to His own is expressed in words, unequaled for tenderness and in conformity to that love is the increasing growth of holiness, and the stricter requirements of God’s holy justice.
Again, Zephaniah has a prelude to our blessed Lord’s words, “to whom much is given, of him shall much be required” Luke 12:48, or His Apostle’s, of the great awe in working out our salvation Philippians 2:12. Progress is a characteristic and condition of the Christian life; “We beseech you, that as ye have received of us, how ye ought to walk and to please God, ye would abound more and more” 1 Thessalonians 4:1. Even so Zephaniah bids “all the meek of the earth, who have wrought His judgments or law to seek diligently that meekness” Zephaniah 2:3, which had already characterized them, and that, not in view of great things, but, if so be they might be saved; it may be that ye may be hid in the day of the Lord’s anger, as Peter saith, “If the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?” 1 Peter 4:18. It is again remarkable, how he selects meekness, as the characteristic of the new state of things, which he promises. He anticipates the contrast in the Magnificat, in which the lowest lowliness was rewarded by the highest exaltation. As it is said there, “He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek” Luke 2:52, so the removal of the proud “from within thee,” and the “leaving of an afflicted and poor people within thee” Zephaniah 3:12, is the special promise by Zephaniah.
Little is said of the captivity. It is a future, variously assumed subject Zephaniah 3:13. Judah in the farthest lands, “beyond the rivers of Ethiopia, is the daughter of My dispersed” Zephaniah 3:10; the whole earth is the scene of their shame Zephaniah 3:19; their praises should be commensurate with their shame, “when I turn back your captivity before your eyes” Zephaniah 3:20; Zephaniah 2:7. But this turning away of their captivity is the only notice, that their punishment should be the going into captivity. The captivity itself is pre-supposed, as certain and as known. So neither are there any images from temporal exaltation. All pride should be removed, as utterly unbefitting God’s holy presence: “thou shalt no more be haughty in My holy mountain” Zephaniah 2:11. The words expressive of the abasement of those within her are proportionably strong, “My afflicted and poor” Zephaniah 2:12. Some are accustomed, in these days, to talk of God’s prophets as patriots. They were such truly, since they loved the land of the Lord with a divine love. But what mere “patriot” would limit his promises to the presence of “a poor people in a low estate,” with an unseen presence of God? The description belongs to His kingdom, which was “not of this world” John 18:36 : the only king whom Zephaniah speaks of, “the king of Israel” Zephaniah 3:15, is Almighty God. The blessing which he promises, is the corresponding, blessing of peace, “Fear thou not; thou shalt not see evil anymore, none shall make them afraid” Zephaniah 3:16. But the words “Let not thy hands be slack” (Zephaniah 3:2, (Zeph. 4:2 in Hebrew)), imply that they shall be aggressive on the world; that they were not to relax from the work which God assigned to them, the conversion of the world.
An allusion to the prophet Joel makes it uncertain whether words of Zephaniah relate to the first coming of our Lord, or the times which should usher in the second coming, or to both in one; and so, whether, in accordance with his general character of gathering into one all God’s judgments to His end, he is speaking of the first restoration of the one purified language of faith and hope, when “the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul” Acts 4:32, or whether he had his mind fixed rather on the end, “when the fullness of the Gentiles shall come in” Romans 11:25. The words also (since they may be taken either way) (see the note at Zephaniah 3:10) leave it uncertain whether the Gentiles are spoken of as bringing in the people of God, (as they shall at the end) or whether the first conversion of the Jews, even in the most distant countries, is his subject.
In any case, Zephaniah had a remarkable function - to declare the mercy and judgment of God, judgments both temporal and final, mercies, not of this world, promised to a temper not of this world, “the wisdom which is from above, pure, peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy” James 3:7.
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13