The prophet Zephaniah prophesied during the reign of King Josiah. Zephaniah was the great-great-grandson of King Hezekiah (1:1), making him of the royal line of David. His message is one of judgment, though it ends with hope. He begins by pronouncing judgment on the whole earth (v. 2). There will be a day when God comes in judgment, and all of creation will be subject to destruction, and all of mankind will be “cut off” (v. 3). As a picture of this coming judgment, God then focuses on the immediate judgment of Judah. The will be “cut off” from the Promised Land along with the false gods they worship: Baal (v. 4) and Milcom (v. 5). Note that Judah became functional polytheists, worshiping YHWH and these other Gods. This means they have turned away from following YHWH (v. 6 – see Ex 20:3).
In verse 7, Zephaniah refocuses on the day of YHWH. It is compared to a feast with an exclusive guest list and a readied sacrifice. When the sacrifice is killed, the leaders of the earth will be part of that sacrifice for sin (v. 8). Leaping over the threshold in verse 9 is a reference to the worshipers of Dagon. When YHWH destroyed the idol of Dagon, those who worshiped him would no longer step on the threshold (see 1 Sam 5:5). This is a picture of those going out of their way to worship false gods. “On that day” they will be judged.
In verse 10, we have a repetition of “on that day” that refers to the final judgment (see Isa 5:30, Hos 1:5, Amos 8:9). God describes crying and wailing coming from Jerusalem. The “traders” of verse 11 is literally “the people of Canaan.” In verses 12-13, God describes Himself coming to Jerusalem and searching out the unbelievers to plunder their goods and remove them from their dwelling place.
Verses 14-18 describe the horrors of the judgment on the “great day of YHWH.” It is soon to come (v. 14). It is a day of wrath and darkness (v. 15 – see Isa 8:22). In verse 16, YHWH is pictured as a warrior entering into battle (see Isa 1:24). In verse 17, God says He will make mankind “like the blind” because they have sinned against Him. This is God hardening the hearts of those who willfully sin against Him – the interplay of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. Then God repeats what He said at the outset of this prophecy. He will destroy all the earth (v. 18 – see vv. 2-3).
Chapter 2 begins with a call to repentance for God’s people. The shameless nation is Judah (2:1). He calls them to repent before the predicted judgment comes to pass (v. 2). This is speaking of the final judgment, not the captivity. This is a call to all who would be His spiritual people, not His physical people. Those who seek YHWH, carry out just judgment, and humble themselves may be “hidden” on the day of judgment (spared from judgment – v.3 – see Isa 26:20-21). In verse 4, God names all four remaining Philistine territories (see Jer 25:20), and speaks of their sure judgment. God is using physical terminology to describe the spiritual reality of His judgment.
This continues in verse 5. The seacoast and the Philistines are Gentiles. However, Canaan is a reference to Judah (see 1:10-13). Remember, God forsook Judah because their wickedness made them no different than the peoples He removed out of the land (see 2 Chr 33:2, 36:14). God’s final judgment will be meted out regardless of physical descendance – this is a spiritual matter. In verse 7, the restoration of a remnant of Judah is said to possess the whole earth. This is the spiritual people of God (see Matt 5:5). This idea of inheriting the earth is continued in verses 8-9. The “pride” of those who are against God’s people will be judged (v. 10), along with their so-called gods (v. 11). This extends to Cush (v. 12) and Assyria (v. 13). They will be made wastelands (v. 14), because they had become their own gods (v. 15).
Chapter 3 turns the message of judgment from the Philistines, Cush, and Assyria to Jerusalem. She is the “oppressing city” (3:1). To Jerusalem were the prophets sent, to no avail (v. 2). She does not draw near to “her God,” Who is YHWH. The ungodly leadership of Judah are judged (v. 3). The false prophets are judged (v. 4). The priests who profane the Temple are judged. A holy God is in their midst, yet they do not turn from their injustice (v. 5).
YHWH had defeated nations for Judah (v. 6). Judah surely should have heeded His correction and humbled themselves so that He would not have to turn His wrath against them (v. 7). But they would not turn. In fact, they became more sinful! In verse 8, God promises a day when His patience will reach and end and He will judge the whole earth in His jealousy (v. 8 – 1:18). However, He tells the people of Judah to “wait for Me.” This may be a call to the spiritual people to yet hope in Him even though judgment has been ordained for the physical people (see Isa 8:17). This may be a call to the wicked people of Judah to wait for Him because they will be included in the judgment of the whole world. It may be both.
The prophet’s message ends with hope. Remember, the day of YHWH (or “in that day”) includes judgment and salvation. Here, God promises salvation for the whole world. He will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech (v. 9). This is the undoing of His judgment at Babel (see Gen 11:7). This is so people of all nations can “call upon the name of the Lord” (see Rom 10:12-13). Worshipers of YHWH will come from the ends of the earth (v. 10).
“On that day” of salvation, the works of those who seek YHWH will not be judged (v. 11). God will justly judge them some other way! This is a promise of Christ! And the proud who refuse to repent will be removed and not allowed in God’s holy mountain (the place of His dwelling where heaven meets earth). Only the humble and lowly will be there (v. 12). The remnant (“those who are left in Israel – the true Israel!) will sin no more, will be provided for, and will have no need to fear (v. 13 – see Rev 21:1-4).
In verse 14, God calls for the daughter of Zion, the true Israel, the heavenly Jerusalem to rejoice. This is God’s spiritual people. Those for whom YHWH has taken away the judgment of sin (when we repent and believe) and even the presence of sin (at our final salvation). “On that day” of salvation, it will be said to God’s people “fear not” (v. 16). God will be with us; we will dwell with Him (v. 17). He will gather us from the ends of the earth and we will be saved. The “no longer suffer reproach” is literally “not bear the burden of shame.” This is when God will judge the wicked and save those made righteous (v. 19). The whole earth will see our vindication (v. 20). This is our final salvation.
The prophet Zephaniah is encouraging the spiritual people of God who are among the physical people to look beyond the worldly circumstances. They are about to go into captivity, but there is yet hope! God will yet save them if they humble themselves and seek Him!