They Have Sinned Against the Lord

14 The great day of the Lord is near,
    near and hastening fast;
the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter;
    the mighty man cries aloud there.
15 A day of wrath is that day,
    a day of distress and anguish,
a day of ruin and devastation,
    a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness,
16 a day of trumpet blast and battle cry
against the fortified cities
    and against the lofty battlements.

17 I will bring distress on mankind,
    so that they shall walk like the blind,
    because they have sinned against the Lord;
their blood shall be poured out like dust,
    and their flesh like dung.
18 Neither their silver nor their gold
    shall be able to deliver them
    on the day of the wrath of the Lord.
In the fire of his jealousy,
    all the earth shall be consumed;
for a full and sudden end
    he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.Zephaniah 1:14-18 ESV

Zephaniah is warning of two judgments to come. One will involve the people of Judah. The other will include the rest of humanity, as well as all beasts, birds, and fish. What makes reading these prophetic passages so difficult is that the timeline regarding these future judgments is unclear. The prophet seems to combine portions pertaining to each judgment into one message, making it nearly impossible to differentiate between the two. He uses a single phrase to reference both judgments: The great day of the Lord.

This speaks of a day, an actual point in time when God will display His wrath against sinful mankind. But it is important to recognize that Zephaniah is foretelling the coming judgment of Judah, the people of God, and the far-more-distant judgment of mankind. These are two separate events that will both be seen as “great days” because they will each involve the inescapable wrath of God against the sins of men.

And Zephaniah makes it quite clear that the coming judgments of God will be due to sin. God is not capricious or cavalier. He does not have an anger-management problem. The book of Ezekiel describes God as persistently patient and kind, having displayed amazing self-control, even in the face of mankind’s ongoing refusal to honor Him as their Creator and God. But God will not put up with humanity’s rejection of Him forever. As a holy God, He cannot allow sin to remain unpunished. The guilty must be condemned and face the righteous consequences for their acts.

The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation. – Ezekial 36:23 ESV

And Zephaniah states that the great day of the Lord is coming on sinful mankind “because they have sinned against the Lord” (Zephaniah 1:17 ESV). King Solomon added his assessment of the problem: “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20 ESV). And centuries later, the apostle Paul would provide his own Spirit-inspired take on the problem: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV).

In verses 14-16, Zephaniah describes the day of the Lord as being near. It is barreling down the track like an out-of-control freight train, with no means of stopping its devastating arrival.

It will be…

…a day of wrath
a day of distress and anguish
… day of ruin and devastation
a day of darkness and gloom
…a day of clouds and thick darkness
a day of trumpet blast and battle cry

It will be marked by bitterness and distress. It will involve great suffering and, ultimately, death. And there will be no escape.

These descriptors were meant to apply to the coming judgment of Judah, which would take place with the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BC. But they also describe the final day of the Lord, which will occur at the end of the seven-year period of time called the Great Tribulation – an end-times event that will precede the establishment of Christ’s Kingdom on earth.

Both of these events, the defeat of Judah by the Babylonians, and the final judgment of all mankind at the hand of Christ are examples of the “day of the Lord.”

“As employed by the prophets, the Day of the Lord is that time when for His glory and in accordance with His purposes God intervenes in human affairs in judgment against sin or for the deliverance of His own.” – Richard D. Patterson, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah

When Zephaniah described the day of the Lord as being near, he was not exaggerating. He was not using hyperbole. We know from the opening lines of the book that Zephaniah prophesied during the reign of Josiah (640-609 BC). We also know that the first deportation of Jews to Babylon took place in 605 BC. Josiah died in 609 BC, and his son, Jehoahaz, replaced him on the throne. But his reign would last just three months, and he would be succeeded by his brother, Jehoiakim. At this point, the Babylonians had already begun their conquest of the region, demanding tribute payments from the occupants of the land. Jehoiakim joined the other nations in the area by sending exorbitant sums of money to Nebuchadnezzar in an effort to stave off further destruction. In spite of these ransom payments, Nebuchadnezzar began deporting the people of Judah in 609 BC.

When Zephaniah delivered this prophetic word concerning the coming day of the Lord, the end was nearer than anyone could have imagined. No more than five years remained until the pending judgment would begin. The deportation of the people of Judah to Babylon would ultimately be accompanied by the destruction of Jerusalem. And before the city fell, there would be a prolonged siege followed by intense fighting and the total annihilation of the city.

The people of Judah would no longer be able to buy their way out of trouble.

Neither their silver nor their gold
    shall be able to deliver them
    on the day of the wrath of the Lord. – Zephaniah 1:18 ESV

Once God made His decision to bring judgment against His people, there would be nothing they could do to prevent it. The opportunity to repent would no longer exist. The hope of buying more time by bribing the Babylonians would end. God’s patience with His people will have run its course, and the promise of His judgment will find its fulfillment.

But notice how this chapter ends.

In the fire of his jealousy,
    all the earth shall be consumed;
for a full and sudden end
    he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth. – Zephaniah 1:18 ESV

This is one of those instances where the two different judgments being predicted by Zephaniah seem to overlap, creating a somewhat confusing and difficult to comprehend scenario. In the same verse, he warns that the people of Judah would be unable to buy their way out of God’s judgment, but he also warns that God’s judgment will result in the complete destruction of all the inhabitants of the earth.

The question that must be asked is whether this prophecy has yet to be fulfilled. And the answer is obviously, “No.” The inhabitants of the earth still exist. The earth itself has not yet been consumed. So, it would make sense that there are two judgments involved. One, in the not-so-distant future that will involve the nation of Judah. The other, in the as-yet-to-be-revealed future that will involve all the nations of the earth.

It is clear, from the historical record, that Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 586 BC. It is also clear that after 70 years in captivity in Babylon, the Jews were allowed to return to the land of Canaan. Under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, a remnant of the people were given permission by King Cyrus to return to the land, rebuild the city of Jerusalem, restore its walls, and renovate the long-abandoned temple. The sacrificial system would be reinstituted, and the celebration of Passover reinstated to the annual calendar.  In keeping with His covenant promise, God would restore the Israelites to the land He had given them. And they remain in that land to this day.

And their restoration to the land was in order that God might one day send His Son in human flesh, born as a descendant of King David, into the tribe of Judah. But as the apostle John points out, Jesus would come to His own, but they would refuse to receive Him (John 1:11). And John adds that Jesus came into the world He created, “yet the world did not know him” (John 1:10 ESV).

The first advent of Jesus into the world was marked by rejection. The vast majority of the world, including His own people, the Jews, would refuse to accept Him as the Son of God and the Savior of the world. And their rejection of Him would take the form of their demand for His crucifixion. The prophet Isaiah predicted that when Jesus came, He would be “despised and rejected— a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief” (Isaiah 53:3 NLT).  Rather than accept Him, the people would turn their backs on him and look the other way. He would be despised, and no one would care.

But there is a day when Jesus will come again. He will have a second advent or arrival on earth, but this time He will come to bring judgment. It will be the great day of the Lord when, as Robert Patterson put it, “God intervenes in human affairs in judgment against sin or for the deliverance of His own.”

God’s plan for mankind extends well beyond the people of Judah and the time period in which Zephaniah prophesied. He is providing through His prophet a glimpse into His full redemptive plan, which will find its final fulfillment in the Second Coming of Christ and the pouring out of His judgment upon unrepentant humanity. But all those who have placed their faith in God’s Son will find forgiveness for their sins, restoration to a right relationship with Him, and the joy of unbroken, undiminished fellowship with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

Sin will be punished. Faith will be rewarded. The earth will be made new. The saints of God will receive their resurrected bodies. And the joy of the eternal state will begin and never end.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

   

 

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