Zephaniah 1 – Coffman Commentaries on the Bible – Bible Commentaries
Zephaniah announced his theme at once, following his identification of himself as God’s spokesman (Zephaniah 1:1), that being the universal final judgment of the whole world (Zephaniah 1:2,3). Would the Jews escape the terrors of that day? Certainly not! Passing from the general to the specific, a device which Dummelow described as being in harmony with the “genius of the Semitic mind,” Zephaniah detailed the effect of the judgment upon Judah and Jerusalem (Zephaniah 1:4-7) and pointed out that it would fall heavily upon sinners of every rank (Zephaniah 1:8-13). The terrible day of the Lord will burst suddenly upon the whole earth and all of its inhabitants (Zephaniah 1:14-18).
“The word of Jehovah which came unto Zephaniah, the son of Cushi, the son of Gedaliah, the son of Amariah, the son of Hezekiah, in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah.”
See the introduction for full discussion of this superscription which is received by this writer as genuine and Zephaniah’s own claim of divine authority for what is included in his prophecy. All subjective, imaginative, unscientific objections to this view have been proved to be worthless.
It appears to be quite obvious that Zephaniah’s reason for including so many of his ancestors in this verse was for the purpose of indicating his royal descent from the good king Hezekiah of Judah. It is barely possible that there could have been another reason. His father was Cushi, which means “an Ethiopian or a Cushite.” The offspring resulting from a Hebrew girl’s marrying a foreigner “would not have been accepted in the Jewish community unless he could show a pure Jewish pedigree for at lease three generations (Deuteronomy 23:8).” That also could have entered into this unusual inclusion of four of his forbears in Zephaniah’s superscription.
There are many internal evidences that require us to believe that the portion of Josiah’s long reign of 39 years during which the prophet delivered his message was the first part, before the reforms.
“I will utterly consume all things from off the face of the ground, saith Jehovah.”
“This is a proclamation of the universal judgment of God.” “Ground,” as rendered in this verse would be more clearly rendered “earth” as in the Revised Standard Version.” I will utterly sweep everything from the face of the earth, says the Lord.” This is an assertion of God’s sovereign right and power (also his intention) to judge the whole earth (not land, as in the King James Version).”
Eakin pointed out that the Hebrew in this passage literally means: “I will cut off mankind ([~’adam]) from the face of the earth ([~’adamah]).” This is extremely illuminating, for it reveals that the primeval sentence upon Adam for his rebellion against God, which, of course, was death, would at last be executed in the final judgement and destruction of Adam in the person of his total posterity, the unique exceptions being the redeemed in Christ.
“Saith Jehovah …” In the proclamation of final and universal judgment, “The prophet is merely the vehicle of the Divine announcement.” “Those who would tell us that Zephaniah’s prophetic insight came merely from an informed political prognosticator, do so only by ignoring the prophet’s claim.” The message is from God, not from Zephaniah.
“I will consume man and beast; I will consume the birds of the heavens, and the fishes of the sea, and the stumbling blocks with the wicked; and I will cut off man from the face of the ground, saith Jehovah.”
“The birds of the heavens … fishes of the sea …” Even that life which survived the divine judgement of the great flood would be included in the final destruction. By such an emphasis as this, Zephaniah shows that, “The approaching judgment will be general over all the earth, and as terrible as the judgment of the flood (Genesis 6:7).”
“I will cut off man from the face of the ground, saith Jehovah …” (See Eakin’s comment on this sentence given under Zephaniah 1:2, above.) Barnes translated as follows:
“I will cut off the whole race of man from the face of the earth, saith the Lord” … All this shall be fulfilled in the Day of Judgment, and all other fulfillment’s are earnests of the final judgment.”
As Hailey warned, “This all-embracing declaration is not to be explained away simply as hyperbole.” That the race of Adam, running wild in their rebellion against God, will most surely be eventually terminated is, in fact, the theme of the entire Bible. True, God promised death to Adam “in the day” that he rebelled; but what is that day? It is the current dispensation, as indicated in the writer of brew’s reference to this whole period as “the seventh day,” the very day in which Adam sinned (Hebrews 4:4-6). An understanding of this also explains why this judgment is always spoken of by the prophets as being “at hand.” Moreover, all of the lesser judgments that have fallen, throughout history, upon Israel, Judah, Babylon, Assyria, Jerusalem, and Rome, etc., are but tokens and reminders of the eventual catastrophe that God has promised as the termination of his Operation Adam! One of these lesser judgments, which Zephaniah would immediately expound, was upon Judah and Jerusalem; and all of them are like the ultimate Judgment in that man himself is to blame for them because of his sin and wickedness.
“And I will stretch out my hand upon Judah, and upon all the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and I will cut off the remnant of Baal from this place, and the name of the Chemarin with the priests.”
“I will stretch out my hand upon Judah …” The popular misunderstanding of the Judgment Day among the Jews regarded it as a day of personal triumph for themselves over their Gentile enemies, an error Amos had sought to correct a century prior to Zephaniah (Zephaniah 5:18-20). It was therefore necessary for Zephaniah to warn Judah that they would not escape divine judgment while living in rebellion against the Lord. All the world is wicked; but, “The sin of God’s people is worst of all, precisely because they are God’s people. As Peter has it, ‘Judgment must begin at the house of God’ (1 Peter 4:17).”
“Cut off the remnant of Baal …” Reid thought that, “This implies that reform had begun,” but such an implication is not in the passage at all. As a matter of fact, some translate it, “The vestige of Baal”; and as Taylor noted (see introduction) it does not require the deduction that only a vestige of Baal remained, having rather the meaning that, even the last vestiges of Baal will be rooted out. Furthermore, many ancient authorities render this place “the name of Baal,” including the Septuagint, thus making it parallel with the “name of the Chemarin” in the next clause. Thus, no valid argument for dating Zephaniah after Josiah’s reform can be made from this.
“And the name of the Chemarin with the priests …” “Chemarin is the usual Aramaic word for priest, which comes from a root whose meaning is ‘to be black.'” “It means ‘black-robed’ and is applied to idolatrous priests (2 Kings 23:5; Hosea 10:5).”
“And them that worship the host of heaven upon the housetops; and them that worship and swear to Jehovah and swear by Malcam.”
These verses (Zephaniah 1:4-6) give the reasons why God’s judgment would fall upon Judah. They might all be summed up in a word, “apostasy” from the knowledge and worship of God.
“Worship the host of heaven …” Astrology and the worship of the sun, moon, and stars, as practiced by the Assyrians and Babylonians, became common among Jewish idolaters (2 Kings 23:11; Jeremiah 19:13,32,29; Ezekiel 8:16). As Stephen said, “God turned and gave them up to serve the host of heaven” (Acts 7:42).
“And swear by Jehovah and swear by Malcam …” Worshipping God and any other god, or anything else, adds up to apostasy. The Jews did in fact mention the true God, but in the same breath they honored and served Baal, Malcam, and other pagan deities. Hanke and other scholars have identified the “Malcam” of this passage with “Molech, a Semitic deity honored by the sacrifices of children.” Our Lord himself made it plain that one cannot serve “two masters” (Matthew 6:24).
The syncretism of ancient Israel in their foolish efforts to worship both the true God and the pagan deities has its counterpart in our own society today. As Gill noted: “The Assyrian worship of the planets has infected the people of God in their preoccupation with horoscopes.” Christianity today is likewise seeking a peaceful co-existence and accommodation with Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, etc. “The World Council of Churches is itself a form of religion syncretism.” Colin W. Williams, dean of the Yale Divinity school stated that, “What is true for the Buddhist in his situation may be as valid for him as mine is for me”; and Max Therian, speaking before the World Council in New Delhi, affirmed that truth and charity were taught by both Mohammed and Jesus, declaring that both are “recognized as Master and Prophet.” Such views are totally wrong; “There is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved.”
Of all the pagan deities, none was any more despicable than Molech; and Israel’s participation in his worship is Biblically attested in the fact that at least three of their kings engaged in it (Ahab, 1 Kings 16:34; Ahaz, 2 Kings 16:3, and Manasseh (2 Kings 21:6). Jeremiah responded to such a situation with the ironic question:
“Will ye steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense unto Baal, and walk after other gods, and come and stand before Me in this house, which is called by my name, saying, we are delivered to do these abominations?” (Jeremiah 7-8-10).
Such also are Christians who fancy, “That they can serve together the world and the Lord Jesus Christ, and please two masters, God and Mammon.”
“And them that are turned back from following Jehovah; and those that have not sought Jehovah, nor inquired after him.”
This is addressed to the vast company of the irreligious who have given up all pretense of serving God or of manifesting any concern whatever regarding God’s will. Taylor stated that this verse might properly be rendered thus: “The wicked, in the pride of his countenance, does not go to church.”
“Hold thy peace at the presence of the Lord Jehovah; for the day of Jehovah is at hand: for Jehovah hath prepared a sacrifice, he hath consecrated his guests.”
“Hold thy peace …” Jamieson rendered this, “Let the earth be silent at God’s approach,” similar to the words in Habakkuk 2:20. He also gave Calvin’s comment on this place, thus:
“Thou, whosoever who has been wont to speak against God, as if he had no care about earthly affairs, cease thy murmurs and self-justifications; submit thyself to God, and repent in time.”
“The day of the Lord is at hand …” All of the judgments of God are “at hand,” whether partial and specific, as in the case of the approaching destruction of Judah, or that eventual day, that Day when Jesus Christ shall appear as the Judge of all men. In the case of the destruction of Judah, it was “at hand” in the most immediate sense. “Zephaniah’s prophecy of the doom of Israel was fulfilled less than forty years later in the fall of Jerusalem and the great exile.” The final Judgment is “at hand” in that it will be the terminal of the Adamic race upon the earth, and toward which the human family is madly rushing in full and reckless speed. In the dispensational sense, this is still the day in which Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit. All of the prophets spoke of the final judgment as “at hand.”
“Jehovah hath prepared a sacrifice …”
“This sacrifice is the Jewish nation; those who are invited to the sacrificial meal are not beasts and birds of prey, as in Ezekiel 39:17, but the nations which God has consecrated to war that they may consume Jacob (Jeremiah 10:25).”
God’s ownership and employment of the destroying nations called to punish Judah is the same here as in Matthew 22:7 where Jesus indicated the same thing regarding the Roman armies that would destroy Jerusalem, saying, “The king was wroth, and sent his armies and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.”
It is annoying that so many commentators go out of their way in these verses to tell how Zephaniah believed that the destruction of Jerusalem was about to take place by the Scythians, paying lip service to the allegation that Zephaniah was no prophet at all, but merely an astute political prognosticator. As a matter of truth, Herodotus’ vague story does not mention Judah at all, nor is there the slightest proof that Zephaniah ever heard of the Scythians. If Zephaniah, in reality foretold the destruction of Jerusalem by the Scythians, who could believe that the Jews gathered up the words of his prophecy and preserved them in the sacred Canon for over 25 centuries? Dean’s comment is:
“The vague account of Herodotus (i. 105) gives no support to the assertion that the Scythians. invaded Palestine in Josiah’s reign; nor is there a trace of knowledge of such irruption in either Zephaniah or Jeremiah.”
As Ironside said, this “sacrificial feast” with Judah as the victim strongly reminds us of the “Supper of the great God (Revelation 19:17,18)”; thus indicating that the immediate judgment about to fall on Jerusalem and the ultimate Final Judgment are one, the first being a token of the ultimate.
“And it shall come to pass in the day of Jehovah’s sacrifice, that I will punish the princes and the king’s sons and all such as are clothed with foreign apparel.”
“Punish the princes and the king’s sons …” Some have professed to find a difficulty here, because Josiah, who was under the age of twenty at the time we believe Zephaniah was written would not have had any children in the times of Zephaniah old enough to fall under the criticism given here. However, “The Septuagint translation used ‘house of the king’ here, and that may be more accurate.” If that should not be allowed, “the king’s sons” might refer to the sons of preceding kings who would still have been living when Zephaniah wrote. Another possibility is that Zephaniah here spoke of Judah in a general sense, not focusing upon the reign of Josiah at all. Certainly a number of “king’s sons” died without mercy during God’s terrible judgment upon Judah. For example, Zedekiah who was carried away to Babylon saw his sons put to death before his eyes, and then he himself was blinded by the barbarous Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 25:1-7).
“Such as are clothed with foreign apparel …” It is hard to believe that God would have punished his people for any innocent preference of one kind of clothing or another; so what is meant here is that something most shameful and reprehensible was involved in the wearing of the “foreign apparel” here mentioned. “Grotius said this refers to clothing forbidden by the law, e.g., men’s garments worn by women, and vice versa, a heathen usage in the worship of Mars and Venus (Deuteronomy 2:5).” By aping the popular fashions of Assyria and other pagan nations, the leaders of the people were also showing their willingness to receive the philosophy and morals of the pagans. It is only a small step between accepting the dress of pagans and accepting their teachings.
“And in that day will I punish all that leap over the threshold, that fill their master’s house with violence and deceit.”
Some have tried to make “leap over the threshold” here a reference to some pagan custom; but we believe that Barnes was correct in viewing the second clause as an explanation of the first.
“Neither language, nor history, nor context allow this to be understood of the idolatrous customs of Ashdod. The same persons who “leap over the threshold” are those who “fill their master’s house with violence.”
We believe Hailey was correct: “it is more plausible that the term had become a common term for burglary and thievery.”
Despite our preference for the views of such writers as Hailey and Barnes on this passage, the possibility remains that some pagan significance might have pertained to leaping over the threshold. Eakin noted that:
“The threshold was judged in antiquity to be the abode of a demon (or demons), thus a place of particular danger. In Roman times this belief found expression in the protective carrying of a bride across the threshold.”
“And in that day, saith Jehovah, there shall be the noise of a cry from the fish gate, and a wailing from the second quarter, and a great crashing from the hills. Wail, ye inhabitants of Maktesh; for all the people of Canaan are undone; all they that are laden ‘with silver are cut off.”
“The fish gate …” This was one of the north entrances to Jerusalem (Nehemiah 3:1-6). The second quarter was where Huldah the prophetess lived (2 Kings 22:14). Maktesh is not elsewhere mentioned in the Bible. Perhaps all of these places were in the north sector of the city, indicating that the invasion would come from the north. “The hills …” probably refers to the terrain upon which the city was built.
“All the people of Canaan are undone …” This is not a reference to the original Canaanites, but to the Jews who had adopted the customs, the clothing, the religion, and the immorality of the old Canaanites, thus becoming in themselves another Canaan. The word for “Canaan” may also be translated Phoenician or trafficker. (See under Hosea 12:7 for further discussion of this.) It was the shameful wickedness of the original Canaanites that caused God to remove them from the land and to re-populate the area with Israel; now that Israel had themselves become “Canaan,” God had no choice but to remove them also.
“And it shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with lamps; and I will punish the men that are settled on their lees, that say in their heart, Jehovah will not do good, neither will he do evil.”
“I will search Jerusalem with lamps …” Here is the reason why ancient and mediaeval artists depicted Zephaniah as the man with a lamp or candle, thus missing the main point that it is not Zephaniah who will search Jerusalem, but the Lord God Almighty. This verse deals particularly with people who hide from responsibility; and the thrust of it is that God will find and punish them anyway. In the fall of Jerusalem depicted here, it doubtless happened exactly as it did in 70 A.D., an event described by Josephus:
“Princes and priests and chieftains were dragged from sewers, pits, caves, and tombs, where they had hidden themselves in fear of death, and were mercilessly slain wherever they were found.”
“I will punish the men that are settled on their lees …” As explained in the next clause, these were the people who were totally indifferent to God, the practical atheists who did not take God into account as either a plus or minus factor in their lives. They simply lived as if God were not.
The figure of being “settled on their lees” is most appropriate. Laetsch commented on it thus:
“Judah had settled down on its dregs and impurities (the “lees” is the solid waste that settles to the bottom in the wine-making process; and unless the wine is periodically removed from these, it is ruined), until the lusts of its wicked flesh had completely permeated the good wine of sanctification and obedience to the Lord and had changed God’s chosen people to a nation of hardened iniquity, equaling and surpassing the Gentiles in moral impurities, shameless vices, and self-satisfied lip-service.”
The classical comment of George Adam Smith has also been cited by many commentators in this context:
“We have today the same mass of obscure, nameless persons, who oppose their almost unconquerable inertia against all vital religion. The great causes of God and humanity are not defeated by the hot assaults of the devil, but by the slow, crushing, glacier-like mass of thousands and thousands of indifferent nobodies. God’s causes are never destroyed by being blown up, but by being sat upon.”
This figure of being settled “on their lees,” described by Taylor as, “perhaps the most striking in the whole book,” was also used by Jeremiah:
“Moab hath been at ease from his youth, and he hath settled on his lees, and hath not been emptied from vessel to vessel, neither hath he gone into captivity: therefore his taste remaineth in him, and his scent is not changed (Jeremiah 48:11).”
In a word, the Judah of Zephaniah’s day was permeated by a large class of those revealed in the New Testament as Laodiceans, “neither cold nor hot,” and fit only to be spat out.
“And their wealth shall become a spoil, and their houses a desolation: yea, they shall build houses, but shall not inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, but shall not drink the wine thereof.”
Language of this kind was often used by the prophets to described the kind of destruction that was in store for Judah. A military disaster would overwhelm them.
“The great day of Jehovah is near, it is near and hasteth greatly, even the voice of the day of Jehovah; the mighty man crieth there, bitterly.”
The blatant and persistent sins of the chosen people were “the voice” that proclaimed the near approach of judgment; and, if it was true of ancient Judah, is it not also true that when the same wickedness is rampant in the whole world that such is “the voice” of the approaching final Judgment of all men? Of course it is.
“We live in times when these “signs” are all about us. Whether they portend the declining days of our culture and the beginning of another era, or the soon coming of the “Final Day” is irrelevant. In either case, we would be fools not to share with the prophets (of both Testaments) the sense of urgent need for preparation and repentance.”
This 14th verse, and to the end of the chapter, is a detailed enlargement upon the terrors of eternal judgment, presented in the hope of breaking through the persistent indifference and complacency of the people of God.
“That day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of wasteness and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness.”
The Vulgate rendition of the first two phrases is Dies Irae, Dies Illa, the title and opening line of the famous mediaeval hymn by Thomas of Celano, sung by churches all over the world as a solemn Requiem. The translation of the hymn is itself an appropriate commentary on this whole passage:
“Day of wrath! O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophet’s warning,
Heaven and earth in ashes burning!
O what fear man’s bosom rendeth
When from heav’n the Judge descendeth,
On whose sentence all dependeth!
Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth;
Through earth’s sepulchres it ringeth;
All before the throne it bringeth.
Death is struck, and nature quaking,
All creation awaking,
To its Judge an answer making.”<37a>
“A day of the trumpet and alarm, against the fortified cities, and against the high battlements.”
All of the places of human security will be useless in the day of God’s judgment, whether in a local and specific judgment like that which came upon Judah forty years after Zephaniah, or in the day of great terror that is prophesied to conclude human habitation of the earth. The only true security is in the knowledge and service of God.
“And I will bring distress upon men, that they shall walk like blind men, because they have sinned against Jehovah; and their blood shall be poured out as dust, and their flesh as dung.”
Modern men reject any conception of an eternal judgment, but in doing so they overlook one thing. Christ, the sovereign head of our holy religion, emphatically endorsed and expanded the very conception that is found here in Zephaniah and in the other prophets. The reason for the universal destruction accompanying that day is the rebellion of men against their God and Creator. In rejecting the very reason for which they were created, men, as a result, lose all cosmic and eternal value. Their blood and flesh alone, unadorned by a soul in tune with God, becomes as worthless as dust, fit only for a sewer. This verse is a promise that God will enforce such a judgment upon the wicked.
“Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them in the day of Jehovah’s wrath; but the whole land shall be devoured by the fire of his jealousy; ‘for he will make an end, yea, a terrible end, of all them that dwell in the land.”
“Neither their silver nor their gold …” All of the material things upon which men set their hearts are worthless in any eternal sense. The great judgment of God will not be conducted upon the basis or what any man has, but upon the basis of what he is, and whether or not he loves and serves God.
“Whole land shall be devoured by fire …” The apostle Peter elaborated this description of the earth’s destruction by fire in 2 Peter 3:10-13, a thing that the apostle most surely would not have done without the certain knowledge that what he wrote was in full harmony with the will and teachings of the Saviour of all men.
“End … of all them that dwell in the land …” Our version (American Standard Version) is weak in this passage. The Revised Standard Version is surely correct in the rendition, “In the fire of his jealous wrath, all the earth shall be consumed; for a full, yea, sudden end, he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.” It is thus clear that the final judgment is in view, for the totality of men will be involved in it. It is a marvel to some that Zephaniah seems to confuse the end of Judah and the end of the world; but, as Carson noted: “The near and the distant often merge as the prophets survey the horizon of events. Events which are historically separate are often seen in a timeless sequence.” 
The powerful message of these final verses of Zephaniah 1 should be heeded by all men. God’s eternal judgment will most certainly occur. There will be a time in history when the Son of Man shall suddenly appear in the vault of heaven with ten thousand of his angels, taking vengeance upon them that know not God and obey not the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. It will a time of “bad news” for Adam’s rebellious race. “All the tribes of the earth shall mourn over him when they see the Son of man coming with the clouds of heaven in power and great glory” (Matthew 24:29,30). All of the smooth infidels who have scoffed at holy religion will dramatically discover their fatal error, and the mightiest of all the earth shall scream for the rocks and mountains to fall upon them and hide them from the face of the Lamb and from him that sitteth upon the throne, a throne which they would not believe even existed!
Yes, preaching on the theme of Eternal Judgment has been grossly abused; and, as Edgar said:
“Fear that we may be classed with those melodramatic preachers who delight to portray the tortures of the damned have too easily made us forget this whole dimension of Biblical preaching.”
Nevertheless, our fears of human disapproval ought not to interfere with loyalty in regard to what Jesus Christ himself plainly taught. There can be no faithfulness to Christ without preaching the doctrine of Eternal Judgment.
The thunders of the Great Assize most certainly reverberate throughout the dramatic chapters of Zephaniah.
Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved
Zephaniah 1 – Coffman Commentaries on the Bible – Bible Commentaries