The English word “terrifying” comes from the Latin root terrere, meaning “to terrify, to inspire fear or dread, to frighten greatly.” But from the same root we also get the word “terrific,” meaning “very good, intense, excellent”. When reading Zephaniah we do well to keep in balance these two English words to describe God – terrible and terrific. He does not compromise in His dealings with any of His creation. Who was Zephaniah? From Scripture we don’t know much about Zephaniah except for a very brief record of his lineage (1:1). What this prophet said was more important than who he was. Zephaniah’s name in Hebrew means “hidden or treasured of Jehovah.” This tells me that it is possible for a person to live a godly Christian life even when it is not fashionable to do so. Just because others are doing wrong there is no need to join them. In difficult times God kept Zephaniah safe because He had a use for him.
The “reign of Josiah” (1:1) can be read about in 2 Kings 22:1-23:30 and 2 Chronicles 34:1-36:1. Zephaniah almost certainly had influence on the king. He inspired many to follow their “terrific” God against a strong opposing current.
The presence of King Hezekiah’s name in 1:1 suggests that Zephaniah was a prince of the royal house of Judah. When he denounced the princes in 1:8, he knew first hand what he was talking about. They preferred fashionable foreign gods. Zephaniah would have none of it. And there is no other way for the believer.
Josiah, the new, young and godly king, seems to have been helped in his reformed life by God’s contemporary spokesmen: Zephaniah, Nahum and Jeremiah. Sadly, most people listened and then switched them off. Their personal choices meant they would ultimately face the “terror” of Almighty God on their own. What a dreadful thought!
This book of the Bible, like all the others, is “the Word of the LORD” (1:1,10). Whatever we may think about its loveliness, its truthfulness is beyond question. When God speaks He means every word. God’s truth is truth beyond question.
One way to learn from this Old Testament book is to read it and note repeated words and phrases. In Zephaniah I counted God saying, “I will” at least 20 times; “the day (of the LORD)” at least 20 times, four of them with His “wrath.”
Get this straight: Zephaniah’s prophecy begins in gloom but ends in grace! It begins with sorrow but ends with singing! There are two major messages in it.
- God said, “I will.” Our sovereign and severe God, who has always threatened punishment for the unrepentant sinner, will definitely bring it about when His time is right. “It is a dreadful (terrible) thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).
- God said, “the day of the Lord” and of His “wrath.” Our sovereign and saving God, who has been bringing sinners to salvation throughout history, by His own mercy will keep that door open until the very end (2 Pet. 3:9). There is “terrific” salvation to be received from our “terrific” God. God’s fire of judgment is for purification. He seeks our holiness through His refining fire.
Notice the incredible lengths God will go to completely remove sin from His presence and from His earth. “I will” is repeated nine times in the first chapter (1:2-4,8,9,12,17) and ends with, “He (God) will make a sudden end of all who live in the earth” (1:18). The people were punished for false worship (4-5); for indifference to true worship (6); for vanity, pride, economic misdeeds (8-11); and for trusting in their own achievements (12-13). We can’t fool God.
We are quickly led to the second oft-repeated phrase in Zephaniah’s prophecy: “the day” – also found as “the day of the LORD” (1:7,14); and “the day of the LORD’s wrath” (1:18; 2:2; 3:8). In 597 BC, 30 years after Zephaniah began preaching God’s warnings, the first wave of destruction came upon Jerusalem. God used the Babylonians as His servants. By 587 almost the whole known world was consumed by them – and there is a second fulfillment still to come. In the end times God will bring about a final Day of Judgment on the world. Our Lord Jesus spoke about it (Mt. 24:3-25:46). It will begin with unequalled distress (24:21); will pass through the return of the Son of Man (Jesus) in great glory (24:30); and will end with some people going to eternal punishment while others to eternal life (25:46). The early Christians believed “the day of the Lord” would come as unexpectedly as “a thief in the night” (1 Th. 5:2; 2 Pet. 3:10). We are to expect the unexpected.
Here “day” means more than 24 hours, more like an extended period of time. But on one awesome future day, “the day of God’s wrath” (1:18), terrifying judgment will begin. The date is unknown to anyone but God Himself. However, that coming day is absolutely certain, and there is no escaping it. God will not allow it, but mercifully He does offer shelter: “Seek the LORD … you will be sheltered on the day of the LORD’s anger” (2:3).
God’s wrath is mentioned in 1:15, 1:18, 2:2 and 3:8. To begin to realize the awful meaning of “wrath” reread Zephaniah, noting every time “everything” or “all” is judged or destroyed. In 2:5 and 3:6 we read that “none will be left.” God’s wrath is targeted, executed and complete. God’s holiness cannot co-exist with sin in any shape or form – sin must be destroyed. Zephaniah’s teammate, the prophet Nahum, spoke graphically of this: “The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The LORD takes vengeance on His foes and maintains His wrath against His enemies” (Nah. 1:2). This verse makes it easy to agree with Vine’s Expository Dictionary definition of God’s wrath: “Heat, rage, a state of anger and fury … God as the Almighty Potentate is angered by the sins and pride of His people, as they are an insult to His holiness.”
Of course we expect God to judge the ungodly, but surely God’s own people are exempt. Not so! Read Zephaniah 3:1-4. God’s careless people, His fruitless people, His proud people, His rebellious people, explicitly “Judah and … all who live in Jerusalem” (1:4) – people so close to His heart – He will judge all in due course. But here His words were for His own chosen people.
God’s people worshiped other gods. Jerusalem is described as a city where there was rebellion: people listened to no one but themselves; they absented themselves from God’s true worship; their civic and religious leaders proudly thought they had God under control (3:2). God called to them but “they were still eager to act corruptly in all they did” (3:7). God was about to show to them all unwanted and unpleasant truths. Imitators of God’s people would be exposed for who they really were. Along with heathen and pagan nations, God’s awesomely terrible judgment closely awaited all who were still openly sinning.
Reading the historically concurrent accounts of Josiah in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles, I was struck by 2 Kings 23:25: “Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the Lord as he did – with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses.” I thought, surely now God would turn away His holy anger. But I was wrong. Read on. “Nevertheless, the LORDdid not turn away from the heat of His fierce anger, which burned against Judah because of all that Manasseh had done to provoke Him to anger. So the LORD said, ‘I will remove Judah also from My presence’” (26-27).
Similarly, 2 Chronicles 34:23-25 says: “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel says: Tell (the king) I am going to bring disaster on this place and its people … Because they have forsaken Me and burned incense to other gods and provoked Me to anger by all that their hands have made, My anger will be poured out on this place and will not be quenched.” Terrifying as it is, we must learn about the severity of our loving God who hates sin. If we ignore these awesome attributes of God we end up worshiping a disabled, deformed God.
In the midst of all this gloom there is grace. In 2 Chronicles 34:27 God gives a special message to King Josiah who was doing his best to please Him. Josiah was an early “conscientious” believer. “Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before God when you heard what He spoke against this place and its people, and because you humbled yourself before Me and tore your robes and wept in My presence, I have heard you, declares the LORD.” Josiah would die in peace before this judgment came from his raging God.
As long as we seek to honor God He will make a way for us to do so in His sight! See this chain of thought running through Zephaniah.
- “Be silent before the Sovereign LORD” (1:7).
- “The great day of the LORD is near” (1:14).
- “In the fire of His jealousy the whole world will be consumed” (1:18).
- “Seek the LORD, all you humble … you will be sheltered” (2:3).
- “The nations on every shore will worship Him” (2:11).
- “The LORD … is righteous … He dispenses His justice” (3:5).
- “The whole world will be consumed by the fire of My jealous anger” (3:8).
- “The LORD has taken away your punishment … never again will you fear any harm” (3:15).
- “The LORD … 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” (3:17).
- “At that time I (God) will bring you home” (3:20).
One phrase in 3:17 has a special meaning for me. It was written on a card sent to me as I went into the hospital in 2006 to have an aggressive cancer removed from my throat. The surgeon had to remove my voice box. I could no longer speak and preach naturally. I mused on the words, “He will quiet you with His love” (3:17). I thought, “God shut me up!” I passed through that suffering and I am now enjoying the other side. I am learning my limits and living within them. In that life-threatening cancer I saw the severity of God. Having lived through the surgery I can better appreciate God’s sovereign behavior in outworking good through all human events, even bad ones. As a boy, I always hummed while washing up. My brother always commented on it. I can’t hum anymore, so I listen to God as He “rejoices over (me) with singing.” That is terrific!
What God Wills
We learn three things from Zephaniah:
- The severity of God is a terrifically terrifying reality.
- The sovereignty of God is a terrifyingly terrific reality.
- The saving God can be absolutely trusted for salvation. He will bring home to heaven all people whom His merciful grace has made righteous, meek, humble and faithful. His people are imitations of His Son, Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18).
Finally, in Zephaniah 3:9-20 notice the ten “I will” statements God makes. Every one of them contributes to our being transformed into the holy people of the Almighty God. Every one of us is currently living away from our real home in heaven. Every day brings us one step nearer to that home. Every challenge we face gives us the opportunity to learn more about grace, to have the jagged edges smoothed from our lives so we are made fit for our place in heaven. Then, the Lord says, “At that time I will bring you home” (3:20). God is never early or late. God is always right on time. In The Coming Of The Warrior King (Welwyn Commentary), Daniel Webber wrote, “Behind every promise Scripture makes, lies a Sovereign God determined that His will be done.” What a terrific thought!
By Colin Salter
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org