4 For Gaza shall be deserted,
and Ashkelon shall become a desolation;
Ashdod’s people shall be driven out at noon,
and Ekron shall be uprooted.
5 Woe to you inhabitants of the seacoast,
you nation of the Cherethites!
The word of the Lord is against you,
O Canaan, land of the Philistines;
and I will destroy you until no inhabitant is left.
6 And you, O seacoast, shall be pastures,
with meadows for shepherds
and folds for flocks.
7 The seacoast shall become the possession
of the remnant of the house of Judah,
on which they shall graze,
and in the houses of Ashkelon
they shall lie down at evening.
For the Lord their God will be mindful of them
and restore their fortunes. – Zephaniah 2:4-7 ESV
God now turns His attention to the nations surrounding Judah. He has already warned that one aspect of the great day of the Lord will be His judgment of all humanity. He will “cut off mankind from the face of the earth” (Zephaniah 1:3 ESV).
Judah must face its future judgment, but God is not going to overlook the sins of the rest of mankind. And in this passage, He will point out five different nations that surround Judah and outline His plans for their future demise. Located north, south, east, and west of Judah, these neighboring countries become surrogates or stand-ins for all the nations of the earth. While they could not claim to be the people of God, they will still experience the judgment of God.
Each of them is marked by the worship of false gods represented by a litany of fabricated idols, the byproduct of man’s fertile imagination and creative capabilities. As the psalmist points out, they are not gods at all, and stand in stark contrast to the God of the universe.
For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols,
but the Lord made the heavens.
Splendor and majesty are before him;
strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
bring an offering, and come into his courts!
Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness;
tremble before him, all the earth!
Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns!
Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved;
he will judge the peoples with equity.” – Psalm 96:5-10 ESV
The one true God will judge all the people and nations who have chosen to worship their many false gods while ignoring His invisible, yet undeniable attributes.
For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. – Romans 1:20-23 ESV
They will all answer for the same sin: Their rejection of God as the one true God.
And Zephaniah begins by listing four cities located in the region of Philistia, located just to the west of Judah: Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Ekron. Except for Ekron, these are all coastal cities, providing access to the Mediterranean Sea. It is believed that the Philistines originated from the island of Crete (Caphtor) and migrated to the western coast of Canaan.
Their name derives from the Hebrew word Philistia. In Greek, that word became palaistinei, and it is why the land of Canaan is sometimes referred to as Palestine. The Philistines are sometimes referred to as the “Sea Peoples” because of their close ties with and dependence upon the sea. Their ships would have plied the waters of the Mediterranean, making the inhabitants of the ports of Gaza, Ashkelon, and Ashdod quite profitable. Each of the cities mentioned in verse four were governed by a “king” or “lord.” They were independent and autonomous realms, but when the need arose, the kings would form alliances in order to defend their lands or attack their common enemies.
Yet, God pronounces judgment on these five cities, addressing them indirectly, but very specifically.
Gaza shall be deserted (`azab – forsaken, abandoned)
Ashkelon shall become a desolation (shĕmamah – devastation, waste)
Ashdod’s people shall be driven out at noon (garash –cast out, expelled)
Ekron shall be uprooted (`aqar – plucked up, rooted out)
The news is not good. Even the prophet Jeremiah wrote of God’s coming judgment against the Philistines.
For the time has come
to destroy all the Philistines.
The time has come to destroy all the help
that remains for Tyre and Sidon.
For I, the Lord, will destroy the Philistines,
that remnant that came from the island of Crete. – Jeremiah 47:4 NET
These “inhabitants of the seacoast” were going to discover the unmistakable and inescapable severity of God’s righteous wrath.
The word of the Lord is against you,
O Canaan, land of the Philistines;
and I will destroy you until no inhabitant is left. – Zephaniah 2:5 ESV
These are words that warn of annihilation, not just discipline. God was not going to punish them. He was going to eliminate them altogether.
And it is only natural to question the reasoning behind God’s harsh treatment of these people. What had they done to deserve such drastic judgment at the hand of God? For nearly two centuries, the Philistines had played a major role in the lives of God’s people, using their advanced weaponry and superior military power to harass and hinder the Israelites in their quest to possess the land given to them by God as an inheritance.
Through the prophet, Amos, God provided further proof of the Philistines’ guilt and well-deserved judgment.
“The people of Gaza have sinned again and again,
and I will not let them go unpunished!
They sent whole villages into exile,
selling them as slaves to Edom.
So I will send down fire on the walls of Gaza,
and all its fortresses will be destroyed.
I will slaughter the people of Ashdod
and destroy the king of Ashkelon.
Then I will turn to attack Ekron,
and the few Philistines still left will be killed,”
says the Sovereign Lord. – Amos 1:6-8 NLT
And Ezekiel records more divine justification for the Philistines’ destruction, directly from the lips of God Himself.
“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: The people of Philistia have acted against Judah out of bitter revenge and long-standing contempt. Therefore, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will raise my fist of judgment against the land of the Philistines. I will wipe out the Kerethites and utterly destroy the people who live by the sea. I will execute terrible vengeance against them to punish them for what they have done. And when I have inflicted my revenge, they will know that I am the Lord.” – Ezekiel 25:15-17 NLT
The day would come when their coastal communities would become inhabited by Israelite shepherds, grazing their flocks on pasturelands that had formerly been the sites of prominent and powerful Philistine cities. God will remove the Philistines and replace them with the remnant of His chosen people.
The remnant of the tribe of Judah will pasture there. – Zephaniah 2:7 NLT
And this remnant will find shelter in the abandoned homes of the former residents of Ashkelon. The image of shepherds pasturing their flocks carries the idea of peace, tranquility, safety, and security. The day will come when a remnant of God’s people will once again occupy the land of Canaan. But on that day, they will no longer have to deal with the Philistines, Moabites, Ammonites, and all the other pagan residents of the land. These nations had become thorns in their sides and their false gods had become a constant snare to the people of God (Judges 2:3).
God is not done. His redemptive plan is not quite completed. His Son came and died on the cross in order to pay for the sins of mankind. But He must return. He has to come back again and complete the final stage of His Father’s divine will for the restoration of creation and the redemption of a remnant of sinful humanity.
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.