The Bible teaches that there are times when God is unmistakably evident. However, such seasons of public proof may be followed by centuries of self-concealment. For example, the last dynamic miracle in the Old Testament was when God, for Daniel’s sake, shut the lions’ mouths. In the meantime God continued to speak through His prophets until He closed the mouth of prophecy at the end of Malachi’s ministry. Then there was nothing comparable until God shut the mouth of Zacharias, the priest (Lk. 1:20). God’s opening the mouth of this same servant indicated a time of revived revelation, as the Baby born at Bethlehem was destined to perform more miracles than could be recorded. Indeed, Jesus revealed Himself to be God “manifest in the flesh” (1 Tim. 3:16 KJV). Had Zephaniah lived to see his prophecy fulfilled, he could have said, “The king of Israel, even the LORD, is in the midst of thee” (Zeph. 3:15). For indeed this One named Emmanuel was “God with us” (Mt. 1:23). Little wonder then that a confounded Thomas was compelled to acknowledge this same Jesus as “My Lord and my God” (Jn. 20:28).
In any case, during the 400 so-called “silent” years between Malachi to Matthew, the children of God had a Scripture sufficient for salvation, sanctification and service. They also had a treasury of written prophecy to encourage them while they waited and watched for the promise of Messiah. Their faith was not in vain. For according to Isaiah (Isa. 7:14) the virgin Mary conceived and “brought forth her firstborn son” (Lk. 2:7). Also according to the command of the angel, Joseph “called His name JESUS” (Mt. 1:21,25). After so long a time of indirect divine action there was a dynamic burst of practical miracles, prophecies and inspired Scriptures.
If 39 books sufficed during 400 years of silence, then an additional 27 books would be enough till the end of the world. For such is the sufficiency of the New Testament that God has been scarcely “visible” for about the last nineteen centuries. After the apostolic age, the gifts faded away gradually as the Scriptures asserted themselves. While in the days of Origen (185-254 AD) the disciples were still able to cast out demons, but by the days of Athanasius (296-298) the Councils which met to consider the heresies of Arius demanded nothing but the written Word of God as the first and final court of appeal.
The point is that in these last days, God has given us Scripture sufficient for salvation, sanctification and service. And anyone who comes with an alleged “dream from God” or a “visitation of angels” must be judged by the Word of God. And so, the message of God to those whose “revelations” are leavened with heresy is “thou speakest lies in the name of the LORD” (Zech. 13:3).
Where Is Your God?
As for those who ridicule a non-interventionist God, all the misery in this world is directly traceable to human failure. All the woes are derived from commandments broken, whether by Adam or his many offspring. In this sense, evil is its own avenger in that the children of men are only reaping what they have sown. And Zephaniah was able to justify his dire prophecy on the basis of human rebellion.
In the meantime during these “signless” seasons, the miracles of prophecy-fulfilled and sinner-conversion remain invariable constants. Likewise, these silent years will yet be followed by signs and wonders which can neither be denied nor quantified. And so “silence in heaven … of half an hour” (Rev. 8:1) shall be followed by the most severe signs this world has yet to witness. For if the enemies of the saints suppose that God’s allowing His children to suffer means that God is a myth, then they shall learn that “the way of transgressors is hard” (Prov. 13:15). Therefore “shall not God avenge His own elect, which cry day and night unto Him, though He bear long with them?” (Lk. 18:7). The long-suffering of God must be followed by the eternal suffering of sinners.
Now whereas the prophecy of Zephaniah was hateful to many, yet his dire forecasts and forewarnings were the direct result of Judah’s sins. In particular, the incurable epidemic of idolatry became intolerable to the One True God. Therefore Jeremiah, the overlapping prophet, was obliged to cry “according to the number of thy cities were thy gods, O Judah; and according to the number of the streets of Jerusalem have ye set up altars to that shameful thing, even altars to burn incense unto Baal” (Jer. 11:13). The breaking of the first commandment was their foundational fault. Those who got it wrong about God went astray altogether. To deny or doubt the existence of God is enough to condemn a sinner forever. Likewise, anyone who denies that Jesus is the one True God (1 Jn. 5:20) has committed spiritual suicide.
As for those whom God had saved out of Egypt, they had never purged themselves of their idols. Since the days of Moses the people of God fell back into idolatry no matter how often they promised they would never sin again. They were hardly out of Egypt before they were prancing around the golden calf (Ex. 32:1-4). Also, having entered the Promised Land, they could not wait to sacrifice to the very gods which they had been commanded to destroy (Jud. 2:11-15). During the days of the Judges, they found themselves serving those who should have been serving them.
No matter how severe the servitude, the nation continually relapsed. So the reformation imposed by good king Josiah was wrecked by his evil son Jehoahaz (2 Ki. 23:30-37). History repeated itself. After Hezekiah died his successor son, Manasseh, likewise hastened to break every rule in the Book. In consequence, after half a century of this same king’s reprobate madness, God sentenced His people to extended heathen captivity and enslavement (2 Ki. 21:11-15). In other words, the call to repentance in Zephaniah 2:1-3 was not the offer of amnesty. Rather, it referred to the preservation of the faithful in times of terror and captivity. By this means the just would live by faith. In the first instance this meant that their lives would be spared. So Daniel and his three friends survived Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace and the lions’ den. By the time of Zephaniah, the Lord was determined to stamp out Judah’s idolatry. And God took His people back to where their idolatry had begun.
The Message Underscored
This was one of the reasons for the prophet’s devastating message. God had to make it clear that long-term captivity was non-negotiable. There was no longer any accommodation for repentance. For God was not a man that He should relent of His avowed intent (2 Ki. 23:26-27). Indeed, the captivity was destined to be endured even by such righteous souls as Daniel, his three friends and Ezekiel.
So Zephaniah’s introductory remarks are short on ceremony. In a day of crisis, he comes quickly to the point. He is not interested in making friends or influencing people. The language of the prophet is refreshingly frank as he drives the message home with clear and uncompromising clarity. It is not the time for discreet niceties and diplomacy. Judah must learn quickly that God is severely serious. Thereby the Lord will hold His people strictly to the 70 year life-time sentence. Even if many must die during their long exile in Babylon, after so long a time of hateful captivity, the people would live to abhor all forms of idolatry. For this cause, the few faithful who returned to the land abandoned the idols of their fathers forever. But marriage to the heathen remained a stumbling-block for some, as seen in Malachi 2:11.
Judgment Of The Gentiles
God is careful to number the minority who returned after the 70 years to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem. For by this time their settled brethren had learned to live happily in the place their enslaved fathers hated. Now whereas the returnees suffered from the heathen about them, yet effectively Nebuchadnezzar obliterated many of their long-time enemies. And so in Zephaniah 2 God denounced those nations which had vexed His people over the centuries. Thereby the advancing Babylonians smashed through the defenses of those who had tempted and enslaved God’s people for centuries. This meant that thereafter the Jews in the Captivity were destined to suffer mostly from the Gentile empires which comprised the elements of Nebuchadnezzar’s nightmare image. Additionally, between the Old and New Testaments, the profane and cruel Antiochus Epiphanies (Dan. 11:21) foreshadowed the dreaded Man of Sin (2 Th. 2:3-4; Dan. 11:36).
In effect, by the time of their return, many of Israel’s traditional foes had been exterminated or seriously weakened. Nevertheless, God left enough of the heathen to ensure that His people would have to fight for their rights. For there is more to restoring the old paths than correct Bible interpretation. It has cost the faithful dearly in their struggle to recover the truths associated with the gospel and the apostles’ doctrine. The sword-and-trowel rebuilding policy of Nehemiah (Neh. 4:15-18) preserved the fearful but fervent few who were bold enough to risk all at the return. Consequently, with God’s help and diligent human vigilance, the minority remnant proved to be a match for the hostile heathen. Also, by a great miracle, God preserved the land of Israel during the long years of Judah’s exile.
The State Of Israel
This is in sharp contrast to 70 AD when the Jews were driven out by the Romans to wander the earth for 19 centuries. Those seeking to return in 1948 learned that their claims to the land were the substance of fierce debate and armed conflict. For down through the centuries Jerusalem had passed through many hands. And so, by a strange providence it was not a Jewish rabbi but an Arab shepherd-boy who in 1947 discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls! Immediately the Jewish Diaspora interpreted these ancient documents to be the title deeds to the land of their fathers. Nonetheless, after more than half a century of resettlement, much remains to be recovered. For even in these late days the words of Hosea 3:4 remain radically true: “The children of Israel shall abide many days without a king, and without a prince, and without a sacrifice.”
The Day Of The Lord
This leads on to the consideration of what the Scriptures call “the Day of the LORD” (Zeph. 1:7; Isa. 13:6; Ezek. 30:3; Amos 5:20; Obad. 1:15; Zech. 14:1; Mal. 4:5). Or as Jeremiah likewise describes it, “the Day of the Lord GOD of hosts” (Jer. 46:10). In the New Testament, none but Peter and Paul use the term (Acts 2:20; 1 Th. 5:2; 2 Pet. 3:10). Even so, wherever or however it is expressed, it has a dispensational application. It is a time of divine judgment and vengeance tempered with the salvation of God’s afflicted saints. It is an open and undeniable work of God. For the signs accompanying that day are unmistakably public and miraculous. How shall it be otherwise when “the sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come” (Acts 2:20)?
A Day With The Lord
It is not a day of twenty-four hours. Also, in its final expression it shall involve the destruction of the present creation followed by the judgment of the Great White Throne (Rev. 20:11). However, before this final expression there shall be another interim fulfillment when the Son of Man returns to destroy the Man of Sin and his abominable works (2 Th. 2:8). In that same day, the risen Redeemer shall rescue His oppressed saints from otherwise certain death (Zech. 14:4-5). In the light of these things, Zephaniah 3:9-20 is a description of the blessings obtained during the 1,000 year reign of Christ (Rev. 20:3-4).
In summary, Zephaniah’s prophecy establishes some first principles:
- The restoration of the Jews is literal and inevitable (Rom. 11:26).
- The age of Gentile domination will end with Israel’s ruling the world under the authority of the Christ enthroned as King in Jerusalem (Isa. 2:3).
- God is overseeing the nations continually with a view to divine response (Ps. 7:11).
- God will reward the faithfulness of His people and punish the wickedness of those who oppress His “worthy” ones (2 Th. 1:5-7).
- God is not in a hurry to destroy sinners, but in His mercy is giving them time to repent (Acts 17:30-31).
- The Lord’s immediate lack of intervention does not mean that He shall not act suddenly and decisively in His own good time (2 Pet. 3:9).
- As for those who serve Him, while everlasting life is free yet “we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
- Our being with Christ, though assured, does not mean that we shall reign with Him apart from the imitation of His sufferings (2 Tim. 2:12).
- God will preserve His people morally and ethically in all seasons that they may be saved from committing sin (Dan. 1:8; 3:18).
- God Himself will provide the Man and the means of achieving all these great wonders (Zeph. 3:13-17; Mt. 1:21).
May these few mediations be of comfort, joy and encouragement to those who in patience wait for the return of their beloved Lord (Rom. 8:25).
By Tom Summerhill
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org