If only people would read this terrifying prophecy concerning the “Day of the LORD.” But there is little likelihood that many will. People do not like to read their own fate clearly written in the Bible. Nor do people like to read that God in the end will have His own way whether they like it or not. Even if happiness and blessing is the result they still do not like it, for men are at enmity with God. They hate Him because their master Satan, the Devil, also hates God and wants to destroy everything which is of God, anywhere and everywhere. Judgment Of Israel In Zephaniah 1 there are 14 references to the Day of the Lord. It is a day when God speaks to the nations in rebuke, so that He might not have to act in judgment. But He will act in judgment if the nations do not listen. Though all the nations of the world have committed many heinous sins, yet the sins which God will not forgive in the end are their cruel treatment of Israel and their rejection of the Lord Jesus. Though the people of Israel too are in rebellion against Him, they are also God’s people and He will not let them go nor cast them off (Rom. 11:1). So the Day of the Lord is coming and, in God’s good time, will put everything right. The foolish politics of this world, by the intervention of God will be brought to nought for, “the lofty looks of man shall be humbled. The haughtiness of men shall be bowed down. And the LORD alone shall be exalted in that day” (Isa. 2:11,17 NKJV).
The first chapter is about the judgment of God upon Israel. In particular the rich are marked out for punishment: “Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them in the day of the LORD’s wrath; but the whole land shall be devoured by the fire of His jealousy” (Zeph. 1:18). It is worth noting that Zephaniah concentrates on the rich and powerful, and the nations as a whole are seen as deserving of God’s anger, finally unleashed on unrepentant peoples.
In fact it is precisely this which is the purpose of many of God’s judgments. They can be and often are remedial. We see that more clearly in Zechariah which shows God eventually pouring out “the spirit of grace and of supplication” on Israel that they might be brought to repentance. This is a time, eventually, when “they will look upon Me whom they pierced … they will mourn for Him” (Zech. 12:10.)
If Zephaniah deals with the rich and powerful – magistrates, priests and false prophets – the other prophecies at the end of the Old Testament deal with other segments of society. Haggai ends with an overthrow but is addressed to Israel and the task they ought to have been about but were not – that of building God’s house. In Zechariah God gives us a perspective on world events from heaven itself. And in Malachi we see more clearly His dealings with the common man in a rare and beautiful picture of the remnant, “those who feared the LORD” during a period of great terror and earth-shattering judgments. They “spoke to one another, and the LORD listened and heard them” (Mal. 3:16). The godly remnant encouraged one another by resting in God’s precious Word.
Judgment Of The Nations
It is important to realize that salvation must come to Israel before there can be any blessing for the nations. Chapter 2 has God acting justly and bringing under His hand a succession of world powers who have persecuted His people: The Philistines, in our day the Palestinians, who wish for complete destruction of Israel; Ammon and Moab, the modern state of Jordan, that has likewise “made arrogant threats” against Israel (Zeph. 2:10); the Ethiopians and the Assyrians, northern Africa and the rest of the Middle East. None of these have yet felt the full weight of the Lord’s anger against them for their irrational hatred of God’s people.
Chapter 2 begins this theme of judgment with a reminder of what we saw in chapter one – “the day of the LORD’s anger” (Zeph. 2:2). In 1:15-16 it is described as “a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of devastation and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of the trumpet and alarm against the fortified cities and against the high towers.”
It is not hard to imagine the dark clouds rolling across the sky, the gloom deepening to a thick darkness like that of Egypt (Ex. 10:21-23), a darkness that strikes dread into every heart. Then out of the dark the sound of the trumpet getting louder and louder, rising to an ear-splitting crescendo which goes on and on while it heralds God Himself, no longer standing apart from world affairs, but involving Himself personally to bring judgment and justice. It is long overdue but in His mercy it has been withheld until it is impossible to withhold any longer. With all this we hear the noise, the screams and shrieks of battle also rending the air. These tell us that “the day of the LORD’s anger” has come at last (Zeph. 2:2-3).
This crescendo has also its political and military climax, for God says: “My determination is to gather the nations to My assembly of kingdoms, to pour on them My indignation, all My fierce anger; all the earth shall be devoured with the fire of My jealousy” (3:8). God has yet to have out His controversy with the nations. Joel develops this theme saying, “Let the nations be awakened, and come to the valley of Jehoshaphat; for there I will sit to judge all the surrounding nations” (Joel 3:12). It is clear that the nations refuse to let go of their satanic determination to exterminate the one nation which God has called.
Judgment here begins at the center of things – at the house of God. Peter reminds us of this principle in no uncertain terms, writing: “For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? Now ‘If the righteous one is scarcely saved, where will the ungodly and the sinner appear?’” (1 Pet. 4:17-18; Prov. 11:31). If neither Israel nor the churches are under God’s government then there is no hope for the world. We are channels of God’s grace to the world, His ambassadors. If the channels are blocked and if the ambassadors are conspiring with the governments to whom they are sent, then there is no hope for anyone; only anarchy prevails and this will usher in a tyranny such as the world has never seen. It will be the direct rule and worship of Satan himself as he sets up his chosen man, his anti-Christ, on the throne of the world.
We must remember that all this was prophesied during the early part of the reign of Josiah, when he was about to start his reforms (2 Chr. 34:14-25). We may see from time to time some small revival of God’s ways, but on the whole godliness and justice are very much in decline in this world since men’s minds are set upon evil. Whatever Josiah was about to do it was to effect only superficial changes; and as soon as he was gone Israel would revert to its habitual corruption and idolatry. The world has never bothered even to try to drag itself out of the cesspool of sin and depravity – to cheat, lie, quarrel and intoxicate itself with its degraded worship of its perverted gods and goddesses.
Paul, writing to the Romans, opens up to us in simple terms the inevitable logic of this. The corruption and therefore the need for judgment is due to the worldwide idolatry which involves the refusal to see the clear evidence of a Creator God. For a little while the nations of the English-speaking world believed Him. Then came Darwin with a monstrous lie that was so interesting to the perverted tastes of the natural man that they eagerly swallowed it against all rationality and all the clear evidence to the contrary. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in the thoughts and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man – and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things” (Rom. 1:18-23).
Reforms are at best ephemeral – that is the verdict of God. There is an inevitability of judgment: “‘I will utterly consume everything from the face of the land,’ says the LORD; ‘I will consume man and beast … birds of the heavens … the fish of the sea … the stumbling blocks along with the wicked. I will cut off man from the face of the land,’ says the LORD.” (Zeph. 1:2-3).
The inner reality is that, in the words of Jeremiah, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it? I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind” (Jer. 17:9-10). It is not that we are intellectually incapable of righteousness, but temperamentally we have a hatred and mistrust of God and a tendency always towards what is vile.
This wicked fixation on idols was deeply entrenched in the national and the human psychology. Things had plunged to the depths of depravity during the long reign of Manasseh and during the short one of his son Amon (2 Ki. 21). Josiah could only enforce the Law of God and the temple worship, destroying the idols and the sordid practices imported from the nations. What he could not do was to change the hearts and the minds of his subjects: If the idols were burned and the groves cut down they were not burned nor cut out of the hearts of the people.
We are given a view of the future in the final chapters of Revelation and see that even after 1,000 years of peace and plenty, of justice and truth, the people will still listen to Satan’s lies rather than to God’s Word (Rev. 20:3,7-10). So it has ever been. We see the truth and the urgency of the words of Jesus to Nicodemus: “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God … unless one is born of water and of the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:3,5). Israel has yet to learn and experience this truth, but they will (Ezek. 36:24-29).
Zephaniah’s prophecy deals with the upper classes (whereas in Malachi we see God’s ways with the lower classes). In chapter 3 he compares the leading men of Jerusalem to “roaring lions,” her magistrates to “evening wolves” and he calls her prophets “insolent, treacherous people” while their “priests have polluted the sanctuary” (3:3-4). Once more we see this in our own day as well. Speaking for my own country, Great Britain, in the last few years we have had scandal after scandal among those who should know better and who should be examples of decency to the people. Can we discern that all is not as it should be in Christendom (the worldwide body of professing Christians) nor even among true, born again Christians?
There Is Hope!
Nevertheless, there is hope for those who remain faithful. It is not all judgment, for out of it will shine all the brighter those who have, “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14). The fears, the tears and the sufferings will all be forgotten as God says to His people: “Sing, O daughter of Jerusalem! Shout, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away your judgments. He has cast out your enemy. The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; You shall see disaster no more … For I will give you fame and praise among all peoples of the earth” (Zeph. 3:14-20).
By Roger Penney
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org