Zephaniah 2:3; 3:12-13
THE BROAD CONTEXT:
The first verse of this book tells us that “the word of Yahweh… came to 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” (1:1).
We don’t know whether or not the Hezekiah of Zephaniah’s genealogy is the good king Hezekiah who reigned from 715-687 B.C. If so, Zephaniah is establishing his own royal lineage in this verse.
King Josiah reigned from 640-609 B.C., having risen to the throne at age eight following the assassination of his father, King Amon (2 Kings 21:24 – 2:1). He reigned during a turbulent time. Not only was there internal turbulence, as evidenced by the assassination of his father, but Assyria, the reigning superpower, was in decline and Babylonia was emerging as the new superpower.
Josiah “removed all the houses also of the high places” in Samaria (2 Kings 23:19) and put away “those who had familiar spirits, and the wizards, and the teraphim, and the idols, and all the abominations that were seen in the land of Judah and in Jerusalem, that he might confirm the words of the law which were written in the book that Hilkiah the priest found in the house of Yahweh” (2 Kings 23:24).
A few years after the end of Josiah’s reign (609 B.C.), Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians (587 B.C.). The Babylonians killed many of the people of Judah, and carried most of the rest into exile in Babylonia. It is this terrible time that Zephaniah predicts in the first chapter of this book.
The book of Zephaniah is quite short—only three chapters in length. The prophet portrays a grand sweep of history that begins with judgment on Judah (1:1-13), the Great Day of the Lord (1:14-18), judgment on Israel’s enemies (2:1-15), the wickedness of Jerusalem (3:1-7), the punishment and conversion of the nations (3:8-13), and a Song of Joy (3:14-20). We who have the benefit of hindsight can see that he was predicting the Babylonian Exile and the eventual return of the exiles to Jerusalem.
THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT:
The prophet began by portraying a terrible judgment that Yahweh was about to inflict on Judah (1:1-13)—the Great Day of the Lord (1:14-18).
Chapter 2, verses 1-2 counsel, “Gather yourselves together, yes, gather together, you nation that has no shame, before the appointed time when the day passes as the chaff, before the fierce anger of Yahweh comes on you, before the day of Yahweh’s anger comes on you.” This emphasis continues seamlessly into verse 3, which begins the reading.
ZEPHANIAH 2:3. SEEK YAHWEH—RIGHTEOUSNESS—HUMILITY
3 Seek Yahweh, all you humble of the land,
who have kept his ordinances.
Seek righteousness. Seek humility.
It may be that you will be hidden in the day of Yahweh’s anger.
“Seek (Hebrew: baqqesu) Yahweh, all you humble of the land, who have kept his ordinances. Seek righteousness. Seek humility” (v. 3a). Earlier, Yahweh said that he would cut off “those who haven’t sought Yahweh nor inquired after him” (1:6). Now the prophet calls the people to seek Yahweh—to seek righteousness—to seek humility.
The Hebrew word baqqesu (seek) suggests an active, determined search. It is used for a person seeking hidden treasure (Proverbs 2:4) or water (Isaiah 41:17) or a lost sheep (Ezekiel 34:6). A person looking for treasure would seek diligently, because finding treasure would be a life-changing event. A person seeking water would seek diligently, because water is essential to sustaining life. A shepherd looking for a lost sheep would seek diligently, knowing that failure would likely result in the sheep’s death.
So also, for the people of Judah, seeking Yahweh would be a matter of life or death. Yahweh can show them the path of life (Psalm 16:11). Those who live in the presence of Yahweh will find goodness and mercy (Psalm 23:6). Yahweh will be their light and salvation—the strength of their lives (Psalm 27:1). Yahweh will restore their lives (Psalm 30:1).
How can they go about seeking Yahweh? What steps might they take? For one thing, they could consult their scriptures to see what God would call them to do, and then they could begin to obey. For another thing, they could seek Yahweh in prayer. They could engage in worship, both corporate and individual. But the most important thing would be the state of their hearts. If their hearts were truly set on seeking Yahweh, they could be sure that Yahweh would make it possible for them to find him.
“Seek righteousness (Hebrew: sedeq) (v. 3b). Righteousness is life lived in accord with ethical principles—life lived in accord with God’s law and God’s will—life lived in God’s presence.
“Seek humility” (Hebrew: anawa) (v. 3c). Yahweh desires a humble spirit (Psalm 51:17; Micah 6:8). He delivers those who are humble, and humbles those who are proud (1 Samuel 2:7; 2 Samuel 22:28). Humility comes before honor (Proverbs 15:33; 18:12). “The result of humility and the fear of Yahweh is wealth, honor, and life” (Proverbs 22:4).
“It may be that you will be hidden in the day of Yahweh’s anger” (v. 3d). The prophet falls short of promising that they can escape Yahweh’s anger—his judgment—but he holds out that possibility. At present, they are under indictment. If they will seek Yahweh, righteousness, and humility, their seeking might very well be the key to their salvation.
ZEPHANIAH 3:12-13. THE REMNANT OF ISRAEL
12 But I will leave in the midst of you an afflicted and poor people,
and they will take refuge in the name of Yahweh.
13 The remnant of Israel will not do iniquity,
nor speak lies,
neither will a deceitful tongue be found in their mouth,
for they will feed and lie down,
and no one will make them afraid.
“But I will leave in the midst of you an afflicted and poor people, and they will take refuge in the name of Yahweh” (v. 12). The people of Judah have been proud (vain, conceited), and their pride has created a barrier separating them from Yahweh. When Yahweh exercises judgment on them, he will “take away out of the midst of you your proudly exulting ones” (3:11). But he will leave in their midst “an afflicted and poor people”—a people who have been humbled. People such as that—those who know the limitations of their personal resources—naturally turn to the Lord for help—”take refuge in the name of Yahweh.”
“The remnant of Israel will not do iniquity, nor speak lies, neither will a deceitful tongue be found in their mouth” (v. 13a). The word “remnant” is important in both Old and New Testaments. The concept (if not the word itself) was introduced with Noah and the flood. In that story, God destroyed the evil populace, but saved righteous Noah and his family (Genesis 6-9). In that instance, Noah and his family constituted the remnant—the righteous nucleus preserved by God to reestablish the people of God.
The idea behind the remnant is that God will be faithful even when his people are not. The people’s apostasy will not nullify God’s promise. God will sometimes impose a harsh judgment, but for the purpose of purifying rather than destroying. God will insure that a righteous remnant will survive.
The remnant that Yahweh leaves in place “will not do iniquity, nor speak lies, neither will a deceitful tongue be found in their mouth.” In other words, they will be obedient servants of Yahweh, committed to doing Yahweh’s will and pursuing honest dealings with one another.
“for they will feed and lie down, and no one will make them afraid” (v. 13b). The picture here is of this remnant as Yahweh’s flock—with ample provisions and no need to fear. Yahweh will make them to lie down in green pastures. He will lead them beside still waters. He will restore their souls. Even though they walk through the valley of the shadow of death, they will not fear evil, because they will understand that Yahweh is with them—that Yahweh’s rod and staff are there to guide and to protect them. Their cup will run over (Psalm 23).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Barker, Kenneth L. and Bailey, Waylon, The New American Commentary: Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Vol. 20 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999)
Bennett, Robert A., The New Interpreters Bible: Zephaniah, Vol.VII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Brown, William P., Westminster Bible Companion: Obadiah through Malachi (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996)
Goldingay, John and Scalise, Pamela, New International Biblical Commentary: Minor Prophets II (Peabody, Massachusetts, 2009)
Kaiser, Walter C., The Preacher’s Commentary: Micah-Malachi (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1992)
Motyer, J. Alec, in McComiskey, Thomas Edward (ed.), The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1992, 1993, 1998)
O’Brien, Julia M., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004)
Roberts, J. J. M., The Old Testament Library: Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991)
Robertson, O. Palmer, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990)
Smith, Ralph L., The Word Biblical Commentary: Micah, Malachi, Vol. 32 (Dallas: Word Books, 1984)
Copyright 2014, Richard Niell Donovan