7 Be silent before the Lord God!
For the day of the Lord is near;
the Lord has prepared a sacrifice
and consecrated his guests.
8 And on the day of the Lord’s sacrifice—
“I will punish the officials and the king’s sons
and all who array themselves in foreign attire.
9 On that day I will punish
everyone who leaps over the threshold,
and those who fill their master’s house
with violence and fraud.
10 “On that day,” declares the Lord,
“a cry will be heard from the Fish Gate,
a wail from the Second Quarter,
a loud crash from the hills.
11 Wail, O inhabitants of the Mortar!
For all the traders are no more;
all who weigh out silver are cut off.
12 At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps,
and I will punish the men
who are complacent,
those who say in their hearts,
‘The Lord will not do good,
nor will he do ill.’
13 Their goods shall be plundered,
and their houses laid waste.
Though they build houses,
they shall not inhabit them;
though they plant vineyards,
they shall not drink wine from them.” – Zephaniah 1:7-13 ESV
The message of Zephaniah is one of judgment. He is a messenger of God delivering a series of prophecies that outline specific acts of divine retribution awaiting Judah for its persistent apostasy. His message contains the “what” but not the “when.” Zephaniah has no idea of the timeline involved in God’s judgment. But God had made it clear that the “what” was going to be significant and inescapable. The entire world would bear the brunt of God’s righteous indignation.
“I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth…” – vs. 2
“I will sweep away man and beast;…the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea…” – vs. 3
“I will cut off mankind from the face of the earth…” – vs. 3
God warns of the global and all-encompassing nature of His coming judgment. The entire world will experience the wrath of God being poured out on the sins of mankind. But God also directs the prophet’s attention to the fate of Judah.
“I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem…” – vs. 4
There seems to be a separate series of judgments reserved for the nation of Judah. The “what” God has in store for them is distinctly different than the one He has planned for the rest of the world. And as we will see, the “when” or the timeline concerning their judgment will also differ.
Judah’s status as God’s chosen people had always set them apart. They had enjoyed the distinct privilege of being His treasured possession (Exodus 19:5), a people holy to the Lord (Deuteronomy 7:6), and had been called to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6). So, it only makes sense that God would have a separate and distinct judgment in store for His chosen people. Their unmerited status as His chosen people had afforded them unprecedented blessings and had set them apart from all the nations of the earth.
Centuries earlier, Moses had told the Jews who had been released from captivity in Egypt: “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 7:6 ESV). And God had graciously provided them with His law to establish His criteria for holy conduct. If they were to be a holy nation they would have to live holy lives. And for those times when they failed to live up to God’s law, He had provided the tabernacle and the sacrificial system as a means for receiving atonement for their sins. God had given them the land of Canaan as their inheritance. A land flowing with milk and honey, rich in produce, and abundant in natural resources. They had been richly blessed. And yet, they had proven to be deeply unfaithful.
The oft-quoted phrase, “with great power comes great responsibility” applies here. The people of Judah had enjoyed periods of tremendous power and prestige. They had benefited greatly from their relationship with God. But as Jesus Himself once said, “When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required” (Luke 12:48 NLT).
So, we see in this prophecy from the pen of Zephaniah a two-fold description of coming judgment. There will be a judgment reserved for the nation of Judah and one that will encompass the rest of mankind. In the text, the two are woven together, creating an overwhelming sense of God’s righteous anger with the state of His creation and the spiritual apostasy of His chosen people. God is not happy, and He will not continue to tolerate the current state of affairs in the world or in the nation Judah. The question remains, who will He punish first, when He will do it, and how.
Verses 4-6 contain God’s indictment against the people of Judah. They were guilty of idolatry. They worshiped Baal, Molech, and a host of other false gods representing the sun, moon, and stars. And while the people still swore allegiance to God, they committed spiritual adultery by giving themselves to the gods of the Canaanites. They had turned their backs on God. They had repeatedly displayed their unfaithfulness through acts of infidelity.
So, Zephaniah warns them, “the day of the Lord is near” (Zephaniah 1:7 ESV). And he commands the people of Judah to “be silent.” Now that they were hearing about God’s coming judgment, they were to keep their mouths shut. It was too late to cry out for mercy. Notice that in verse six, the people of Judah are described as those “who do not seek the Lord or inquire of him.” They had stopped calling on God. They were too busy bowing down to their false gods. And now that judgment was coming, God denied them the right to call out to Him for mercy.
Zephaniah describes the familiar scene of a sacrifice. But in this case, God is the one offering the sacrifice, and He has invited guests to join Him for the occasion. In this case, Judah represents the sacrificial animal and the Babylonians are the guests. When the time is right, God will issue an invitation to the Nebuchadnezzar and his army to feast on the sacrifice that God has offered. In 586 BC, the nation of Judah would fall to the Babylonians. The city of Jerusalem would be plundered and destroyed. The temple would be ransacked and left as a pile of stones. The people would be taken captive and returned to Babylon as slaves.
And God warns “And on the day of the Lord‘s sacrifice — ‘I will punish the officials and the king’s sons’” (Zephaniah 1:8 ESV). With great power comes great responsibility. To whom much has been given, much will be required. The kings of Judah would be held responsible by God. Rather than using their power and positions to lead the people in the faithful service of God, they had displayed a pattern of disdain and disobedience. And God warned that they would suffer the consequences.
According to 2 Kings 23:34, Jehoahaz, the son of Josiah who would ascend to the throne after him, was taken captive to Egypt. The next king, Jehoiakim, would fall to the Babylonians (2 Kings 24:1-6). Jehoiachin, the grandson of Josiah, was taken captive to Babylon (2 Kings 24:8-10). Zedekiah, the last son of Josiah to reign in Jerusalem, was eventually blinded by Nebuchadnezzar and taken captive to Babylon (2 Kings 24:18-25:7). Each of these men had been guilty of idolatry and of making alliances with foreign nations, rather than trusting in God. Zephaniah describes them as having arrayed themselves in foreign attire. They had modeled themselves after pagan kings, emulating their appearance and worshiping their false gods.
But not only the kings of Judah will suffer judgment at the hands of God. The nation as a whole stands guilty and worthy of divine punishment. Zephaniah describes “everyone who leaps over the threshold, and those who fill their master’s house with violence and fraud” (Zephaniah 1:9 ESV). The exact meaning of this phrase is unclear, but it seems likely that Zephaniah is accusing the people of Judah of practicing injustice, in direct violation of God’s commands.
Thus says the LORD: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place. – Jeremiah 22:23 ESV
And yet, the people of Judah had made a habit out of taking advantage of one another.
The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the sojourner without justice.
– Ezekiel 22:29 ESV
They were marked by greed, violence, and fraud. And they would pay for dearly for their decision to ignore God’s commands.
On that day – when the judgment of God comes – the impact will be felt throughout the city of Jerusalem. From the Fish Gate to the Second Quarter and from the hills to the marketplace, every single inhabitant of Jerusalem would feel the heat of God’s wrath. “Their goods shall be plundered, and their houses laid waste” (Zephaniah 1:13 ESV). No one will escape judgment because all will stand as guilty before God.
And while there will be those who think that God is disinterested in their affairs and has turned a blind eye to their behavior, they will be in for a rude awakening.
“I will punish the men
who are complacent,
those who say in their hearts,
‘The Lord will not do good,
nor will he do ill.’” – Zephaniah 1:12 ESV
God would no longer tolerate sin among His people. He would not allow them to continue denigrating His name and defaming His holy character by their actions. They were His people and their behavior was leaving a black mark on His name. But God was about to rectify that problem.
“And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.” – Ezekiel 36:23 ESV
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.