12 You also, O Cushites,
shall be slain by my sword.
13 And he will stretch out his hand against the north
and destroy Assyria,
and he will make Nineveh a desolation,
a dry waste like the desert.
14 Herds shall lie down in her midst,
all kinds of beasts;
even the owl and the hedgehog
shall lodge in her capitals;
a voice shall hoot in the window;
devastation will be on the threshold;
for her cedar work will be laid bare.
15 This is the exultant city
that lived securely,
that said in her heart,
“I am, and there is no one else.”
What a desolation she has become,
a lair for wild beasts!
Everyone who passes by her
hisses and shakes his fist. – Zephaniah 2:12-15 ESV
Verse 12 contains a very brief word of warning from God concerning the Cushites. The land of Cush is most commonly associated with the modern-day nation of Ethiopia. But even the ancient Jewish historian made this connection.
“For of the four sons of Ham, time has not at all hurt the name of Cush; for the Ethiopians, over whom he reigned, are even at this day, both by themselves and by all men in Asia, called Cushites” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews).
As Josephus points out, Cush was the oldest son of Ham and, therefore, a grandson of Noah. But the original land of Cush most likely encompassed a much larger region than that of modern-day Ethiopia. It is believed that ancient Cush encompassed land on both sides of the Red Sea, including Upper and Lower Nubia, as well as Sudan. The prophet Isaiah provides a colorful description of the land of Cush.
Ah, land of whirring wings
that is beyond the rivers of Cush,
which sends ambassadors by the sea,
in vessels of papyrus on the waters!
Go, you swift messengers,
to a nation tall and smooth,
to a people feared near and far,
a nation mighty and conquering,
whose land the rivers divide. – Isaiah 18:1-2 ESV
And Jeremiah includes the nation of Cush in his prophetic warning against Egypt.
“Who is this, rising like the Nile,
like rivers whose waters surge?
Egypt rises like the Nile,
like rivers whose waters surge.
He said, ‘I will rise, I will cover the earth,
I will destroy cities and their inhabitants.’
Advance, O horses,
and rage, O chariots!
Let the warriors go out:
men of Cush and Put who handle the shield,
men of Lud, skilled in handling the bow.” – Jeremiah 46:7-9 ESV
At the point in time in which Zephaniah penned his book, the nations that occupied the northeastern tip of Africa were closely associated, having formed alliances that allowed them to survive the chaos and turbulence of those ancient days. The prophet Ezekiel also included Cush in his
Thus says the Lord God:
“Wail, ‘Alas for the day!’
For the day is near,
the day of the Lord is near;
it will be a day of clouds,
a time of doom for the nations.
A sword shall come upon Egypt,
and anguish shall be in Cush,
when the slain fall in Egypt,
and her wealth is carried away,
and her foundations are torn down.
“Cush, and Put, and Lud, and all Arabia, and Libya, and the people of the land that is in league, shall fall with them by the sword.” – Ezekiel 30:1-5 ESV
It seems that Zephaniah is including Cush in order to represent the far reaches of God’s coming judgment. Representing the southernmost nation known to the people of Israel, Cush would also experience the wrath of God, and it would likely be due to their close association with Egypt.
Those who support Egypt shall fall,
and her proud might shall come down… – Ezekiel 30:6 ESV
Suddenly, Zephaniah shifts the focus from the far south to the polar opposite region in the north. The extent of God’s righteous judgment will be vast and all-encompassing. No nation will be able to escape His coming judgment.
And he will stretch out his hand against the north
and destroy Assyria… – Zephaniah 2:13 ESV
Assyria and its capital city of Nineveh had figured prominently in the political and military turmoil that marked this region of the world. The Assyrians had been major power brokers for quite some time. It was the Assyrians whom God used to destroy the northern kingdom of Israel, beginning in 740 BC.
So the God of Israel stirred up the spirit of Pul king of Assyria, the spirit of Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria, and he took them into exile, namely, the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, and brought them to Halah, Habor, Hara, and the river Gozan, to this day. – 1 Chronicles 5:26 ESV
In Zephaniah’s day, Nineveh would have been one of the most beautiful and impressive cities in the ancient world. Yet, he is given a vision of this magnificent city being turned into a wasteland by God.
he will make Nineveh a desolation,
a dry waste like the desert… – Zephaniah 2:13 ESV
These mighty nations, with all their power, wealth, opulence, and pride, would find themselves humbled under the mighty hand of God. From the far south to the distant north, the nations had all be vying for dominance and the people of God had found themselves situated at the epicenter of this ongoing quest for dominion.
Throughout this section of his book, Zephaniah is pointing out God’s sovereignty over all the earth. The Almighty God is in control of all things, including the nations of the earth. It is God who puts kings on their thrones. And it is He who has the sole authority to remove them as He sees fit. In fact, Daniel spoke the following words to Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the all-powerful Babylonians.
You, O king, the king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, and the might, and the glory, and into whose hand he has given, wherever they dwell, the children of man, the beasts of the field, and the birds of the heavens, making you rule over them all… – Daniel 2:37-38 ESV
And since God is the one who establishes the rule and the reach of kings, He has a distinct dislike for pride in any form or fashion. Kings who dare to boast of their greatness or who arrogantly take credit for their accomplishments will face the wrath of the omnipotent King of the universe. Nebuchadnezzar would learn this lesson the hard way. At one point during his reign, he stood on the roof of his royal palace and took in the impressive sight that spread out below him.
“Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” – Daniel 4:30 ESV
And no sooner had the words left his lips, than this pride-filled king found himself relegated to acting and living like a wild animal. The man who had just gloried in his self-achievements lost his mind. And Daniel warned him that his insanity would last until he recognized “that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (Daniel 4:32 ESV).
These declarations of coming destruction against Cush and Assyria are meant to convey God’s dominance and dominion over the affairs of men. There is no kingdom that exists without His divine permission. There is no ruler who reigns without God’s sovereign sanction. These mighty nations thought they could do as they wished, declaring themselves the rulers of the known world. But each of them was nothing more than an instrument in the hand of God. Their very existence was due to the will of God. They ruled at the whim of God. And they would all eventually fall under the just and righteous judgment of God.
Mankind is pride-filled and self-exalting. And the mighty city of Nineveh expresses the autonomous, self-righteous attitude of humanity.
This is the exultant city
that lived securely,
that said in her heart,
“I am, and there is no one else.” – Zephaniah 2:15 ESV
David, the great king of Israel, would later pen the words that chronicle the foolishness of man’s egocentric outlook on life.
Only fools say in their hearts,
“There is no God.”
They are corrupt, and their actions are evil;
not one of them does good!
The Lord looks down from heaven
on the entire human race;
he looks to see if anyone is truly wise,
if anyone seeks God.
But no, all have turned away;
all have become corrupt.
No one does good,
not a single one!
Will those who do evil never learn?
They eat up my people like bread
and wouldn’t think of praying to the Lord.
Terror will grip them,
for God is with those who obey him.
The wicked frustrate the plans of the oppressed,
but the Lord will protect his people. – Psalm 14:1-6 NLT
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