Bible Commentary: Zephaniah 1

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Zephaniah 1

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Introduction to Zephaniah—the Days of Josiah

The prophet Zephaniah prophesied during the days of King Josiah. We have no knowledge of his background except for what is given in verse 1 regarding his lineage. He was a fourth-generation descendant of Hezekiah. Most sources believe this refers to Hezekiah the king, which would make him a cousin of Josiah, though others correctly maintain that we can't know for sure. In favor, however, is the fact that his lineage is traced back four generations. Commentator Charles Feinberg remarks, "No other prophet has his pedigree carried back so far" (The Minor Prophets,1990, p. 221). Thus, the Hezekiah mentioned would seem to be someone of distinction.

Zephaniah's theme is the Day of the Lord, the time of God's intervention and punishment on the nations. "He uses the expression more than any other prophet of the Old Testament" (p. 221).

Zephaniah prophesied for a few years, beginning some say in the same year as Jeremiah, who began to prophesy in 627 or 626 B.C. Others place Zephaniah at a later date. Because there is no hint of Josiah's reformation in his writings, most scholars believe Zephaniah prophesied before the reforms began, though some believe the reformation was already underway. The words of the prophet in Zephaniah 1:2-6 Zephaniah 1:2-6 [2] I will utterly consume all things from off the land, said the LORD. [3] I will consume man and beast; I will consume the fowls of the heaven, and the fishes of the sea, and the stumbling blocks with the wicked: and I will cut off man from off the land, said the LORD. [4] I will also stretch out my hand on Judah, and on all the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and I will cut off the remnant of Baal from this place, and the name of the Chemarims with the priests; [5] And them that worship the host of heaven on the housetops; and them that worship and that swear by the LORD, and that swear by Malcham; [6] And them that are turned back from the LORD; and those that have not sought the LORD, nor inquired for him.
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do seem to indicate that he prophesied prior to any significant repentance by the nation of Judah—though this could be because the prophecy was meant primarily for the end time, the time of the Day of the Lord.

Indeed, Zephaniah's utterances have dual application. The Day of the Lord was a warning to seventh-century-B.C. Judah that God would punish them when their sins came to a climax—but, more directly, the words of the prophet mainly allude to the coming great Day of the Lord that is in the future. The language of Zephaniah 1:15 Zephaniah 1:15That day is 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,
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is identical to the description of the Day of the Lord as described in Joel 2:2 Joel 2:2A day of darkness and of gloominess, a day of clouds and of thick darkness, as the morning spread on the mountains: a great people and a strong; there has not been ever the like, neither shall be any more after it, even to the years of many generations.
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: "A day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness." The prophet Ezekiel will later use language similar to Zephaniah 1:18 Zephaniah 1:18Neither 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: for he shall make even a speedy riddance of all them that dwell in the land.
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, describing the time of the end when a man will deem his wealth (silver and gold) as totally worthless because it provides no shield against the terrible wrath of God (Ezekiel 7:19 Ezekiel 7:19They shall cast their silver in the streets, and their gold shall be removed: their silver and their gold shall not be able to deliver them in the day of the wrath of the LORD: they shall not satisfy their souls, neither fill their bowels: because it is the stumbling block of their iniquity.
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).

The message of doom apparently brought Judah to a degree of repentance, along with the warnings of Jeremiah and the leadership of King Josiah. Their great reform is described in 2 Kings 22:3-23 2 Kings 22:3-23 [3] And it came to pass in the eighteenth year of king Josiah, that the king sent Shaphan the son of Azaliah, the son of Meshullam, the scribe, to the house of the LORD, saying, [4] Go up to Hilkiah the high priest, that he may sum the silver which is brought into the house of the LORD, which the keepers of the door have gathered of the people: [5] And let them deliver it into the hand of the doers of the work, that have the oversight of the house of the LORD: and let them give it to the doers of the work which is in the house of the LORD, to repair the breaches of the house, [6] To carpenters, and builders, and masons, and to buy timber and hewn stone to repair the house. [7] However, there was no reckoning made with them of the money that was delivered into their hand, because they dealt faithfully. [8] And Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the scribe, I have found the book of the law in the house of the LORD. And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, and he read it. [9] And Shaphan the scribe came to the king, and brought the king word again, and said, Your servants have gathered the money that was found in the house, and have delivered it into the hand of them that do the work, that have the oversight of the house of the LORD. [10] And Shaphan the scribe showed the king, saying, Hilkiah the priest has delivered me a book. And Shaphan read it before the king. [11] And it came to pass, when the king had heard the words of the book of the law, that he rent his clothes. [12] And the king commanded Hilkiah the priest, and Ahikam the son of Shaphan, and Achbor the son of Michaiah, and Shaphan the scribe, and Asahiah a servant of the king's, saying, [13] Go you, inquire of the LORD for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that is found: for great is the wrath of the LORD that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not listened to the words of this book, to do according to all that which is written concerning us. [14] So Hilkiah the priest, and Ahikam, and Achbor, and Shaphan, and Asahiah, went to Huldah the prophetess, the wife of Shallum the son of Tikvah, the son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe; (now she dwelled in Jerusalem in the college;) and they communed with her. [15] And she said to them, Thus said the LORD God of Israel, Tell the man that sent you to me, [16] Thus said the LORD, Behold, I will bring evil on this place, and on the inhabitants thereof, even all the words of the book which the king of Judah has read: [17] Because they have forsaken me, and have burned incense to other gods, that they might provoke me to anger with all the works of their hands; therefore my wrath shall be kindled against this place, and shall not be quenched. [18] But to the king of Judah which sent you to inquire of the LORD, thus shall you say to him, Thus said the LORD God of Israel, As touching the words which you have heard; [19] Because your heart was tender, and you have humbled yourself before the LORD, when you heard what I spoke against this place, and against the inhabitants thereof, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and have rent your clothes, and wept before me; I also have heard you, said the LORD. [20] Behold therefore, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered into your grave in peace; and your eyes shall not see all the evil which I will bring on this place. And they brought the king word again.
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:25. The repentance was short-lived though, lasting only through the lifetime of Josiah. After this, the people of Judah fell back into grievous sin, and the warnings of the prophets came to pass in some measure through the horrendous invasion by the Babylonians.

Idolatry Then and Now

God states that He will "utterly consume all things from the face of the land" (verse 2), including the "stumbling blocks" (verse 3)—"figurative of idols" (NKJV margin). A large reason for God's anger is Baal worship (verse 4) and because the people "swear by Milcom" (verse 5), an Ammonite god known elsewhere as Molech (see "Milcom," Smith's Bible Dictionary). The worship of Milcom or Molech was reprehensible to God. It included gruesome acts of infant sacrifice (2 Kings 23:10 2 Kings 23:10And he defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of the children of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter to pass through the fire to Molech.
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; Jeremiah 32:35 Jeremiah 32:35And they built the high places of Baal, which are in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire to Molech; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.
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).

Of course, this did fit the situation in the wake of the evil reigns of Manasseh and Amon over Judah. Yet Zephaniah's prophecy, it must be remembered, is primarily for the end time, as it concerns the coming Day of the Lord. How, then, does the prophecy apply in these last days? Notice that God is going to stretch out His hand "against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem" (verse 4). Jerusalem today is a city of Jews, Muslims and various Christian denominations. Can these groups be labeled as idolatrous? Indeed, they can. As surprising as it may seem, many of their doctrines and practices are derived from paganism.

Judaism was eventually corrupted by Babylonian and Greek religion. Mainstream Christianity adopted many of the same concepts and, to gain preeminence over the Roman Empire, embraced still more and more from paganism. Islam arose out of a blend of Jewish and false Christian concepts and Arab mythology. Notice that the people are guilty of syncretism—worshiping God but with pagan concepts and practices, which is viewed by God as their worshiping false deities (compare verse 5).

Consider that Molech is "probably to be equated with…the Roman god Saturn or Mithra" (Jan Knappert, Encyclopaedia of Middle Eastern Mythology and Religion, 1993, p. 206, "Molech"). Mithra has been identified with Baal, the sun god. His birthday was celebrated in ancient times on December 25. The modern holiday of Christmas derives from this ancient celebration and the Roman Saturnalia—in honor of Saturn, essentially the same god—which immediately preceded it. (To learn more, download or request our free booklet Holidays or Holy Days: Does It Matter Which Days We Keep?)

In verse 4, the phrase "idolatrous priests" is left untranslated in the King James Version. It is the Hebrew chemarim. "The Hebrew root means 'black' (from the black garments which they wore or the marks which they branded on their foreheads)" (Jamieson, Fausset & Brown's Commentary,note on verse 4). As we will soon read, Josiah removed the chemarim of his day (see 2 Kings 23:5 2 Kings 23:5And he put down the idolatrous priests, whom the kings of Judah had ordained to burn incense in the high places in the cities of Judah, and in the places round about Jerusalem; them also that burned incense to Baal, to the sun, and to the moon, and to the planets, and to all the host of heaven.
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). Yet it is interesting to consider that such "black-robed priests" could designate various groups today—from Catholic priests to Greek Orthodox presbyters to orthodox Jewish rabbis to many Muslim imams. This may be the "foreign apparel" of verse 8—in that case denoting gentile religious garb—although the subject of verse 8 could also be people who exploit others to become wealthy, enabling them to purchase exotic foreign clothing.

In Zephaniah 1:9 Zephaniah 1:9In the same day also will I punish all those that leap on the threshold, which fill their masters' houses with violence and deceit.
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, God says He will punish "all those who leap over the threshold." The Nelson Study Bible says this "may refer to a pagan practice like one mentioned in 1 Samuel 5:5 1 Samuel 5:5Therefore neither the priests of Dagon, nor any that come into Dagon's house, tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day.
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. The priests of Dagon would not step on the doorway of the temple to Dagon because the hands and the head of Dagon had fallen there." Are there modern participants of Dagonism? Surprisingly, a case can be made that "the two-horned mitre, which the Pope wears, when he sits on the high altar at Rome and receives the adoration of the Cardinals, is the very mitre worn by Dagon, the fish-god of the Philistines and Babylonians" (Alexander Hislop, The Two Babylons, 1916, 1959, p. 215).

The "Fish Gate" of verse 10 "received its name from the fish market which was near it. Through it passed those who used to bring fish from the lake of Tiberias and Jordan" (JFB Commentary,note on verse 10). Perhaps this is actually a figurative reference here to those by whom the fish-god Dagon, alluded to in the previous verse, has come into Jerusalem. In the same context we are told of punishment to befall the "merchant people"—"lit[erally], the 'Canaanite people': irony: all the merchant people of Jerusalem are very Canaanites in greed for gain and in idolatries" (note on verse 11).

Yet for all this, far too many sit complacently, believing "the Lord will not do good, nor will He do evil" (verse 12)—meaning He won't do anything. The apostle Peter referred to such people as "scoffers…in the last days" who say, "Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation" (2 Peter 3:3-4 2 Peter 3:3-4 [3] Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, [4] And saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.
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). Yet, as the book of Zephaniah makes clear, the scoffers are sorely mistaken. Those sacrificing to false gods (participating in false worship) will themselves become a sacrifice of God if they fail to repent (verses 7-8; compare Isaiah 34:6 Isaiah 34:6The sword of the LORD is filled with blood, it is made fat with fatness, and with the blood of lambs and goats, with the fat of the kidneys of rams: for the LORD has a sacrifice in Bozrah, and a great slaughter in the land of Idumea.
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; Revelation 19:21 Revelation 19:21And the remnant were slain with the sword of him that sat on the horse, which sword proceeded out of his mouth: and all the fowls were filled with their flesh.
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), slain for the sake of all mankind