Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
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 Yahweh (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.
In this passage, the voice changes from the prophet (v. 7) to Yahweh (vv. 12-13) to the prophet (vv. 14-16) to Yahweh (vv. 17-18).
ZEPHANIAH 1:7. THE DAY OF YAHWEH IS AT HAND
7 Be silent at the presence of the Lord Yahweh, for the day of Yahweh is at hand. For Yahweh has prepared a sacrifice. He has consecrated (Hebrew: qadas) his guests.
“Be silent at the presence of the Lord Yahweh” (v. 7a). This is the prophet is speaking. He has portrayed the devastation of the world in general (vv. 1-3) and Judah in particular (vv. 4-6). Now he calls the people to silence so they can hear the specifics of the judgment that they are facing.
“for the day of Yahweh is at hand” (v. 7b). The Day of the Lord Yahweh is an eschatological (end of time) event that will bring judgment to the guilty and deliverance to the faithful. There are numerous references in the prophets to the Day of Yahweh (Isaiah 13:6, 9; Jeremiah 46:10; Ezekiel 13:5; 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14; Amos 5:18, 20; Obadiah 1:15; Zephaniah 1:7, 14; Malachi 4:5). Most of these references emphasize God’s wrath, but a few include a note of vindication. Zephaniah’s prophecy is particularly scathing, but in chapter 3 he will end on a note of joy.
As noted above, we who have the advantage of hindsight can understand that he was predicting the Babylonian Exile and the eventual return of the exiles to Jerusalem.
The prophet does not propose a remedy. There is no call to repentance. Judgment is nigh.
“For Yahweh has prepared a sacrifice” (v. 7c). This is backwards. It is the people who are supposed to prepare sacrifices to Yahweh. But this verse is heavy with irony. Yahweh has prepared the sacrifice, and the sacrifice is the people of Jerusalem and Judah. The guests at the table will be their enemies, brought by Yahweh to chastise them.
“He has consecrated (qadas) his guests” (v. 7d). To consecrate (qadas) is to set apart someone or something for a holy purpose. Yahweh commanded the Israelites to consecrate their firstborn as belonging to Yahweh (Exodus 13:2). They consecrated Aaron and his sons as priests (Exodus 28:41). Now Yahweh will consecrate Judah’s enemies for the holy purpose of chastising them.
ZEPHANIAH 1:12-13. I WILL PUNISH THEM
12 It will happen at that time,
that I will search Jerusalem with lamps,
and I will punish the men who are settled on their dregs,
who say in their heart, “Yahweh will not do good,
neither will he do evil.”
13 Their wealth will become a spoil,
and their houses a desolation.
Yes, they will build houses, but won’t inhabit them.
They will plant vineyards, but won’t drink their wine.
“It will happen at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with lamps” (v. 12a). This is Yahweh speaking.
None of the inhabitants of Jerusalem will be able to escape the judgment that Yahweh is planning to bring upon them. There will be no place where they can hide that Yahweh cannot find them. Yahweh will use lamps to ferret out every guilty person, no matter where they have secreted themselves. Yahweh will give them over to their enemies.
“and I will punish the men who are settled on their dregs” (v. 12b). We use a similar expression today—to rest on one’s laurels. That expression has its roots in the practice of granting a laurel wreath to acknowledge a notable achievement. To rest on one’s laurels means to rely on one’s past awards rather than continuing to work.
In the army, people used the phrase “Retired on active duty” to speak of people who were still drawing a paycheck but just didn’t care anymore. Most organizations have a few people who are retired on active duty.
This verse gives us the picture of a people who are resting on their laurels—retired on active duty. They expect Yahweh to take care of them, but they give precious little in return.
“on their dregs” (v. 12b). This expression comes from the winemaking art. The dregs are solid particulates that settle at the bottom of a wine bottle or keg and are unfit for human consumption. The longer the bottle or keg sits unmoved, the more completely the dregs settle. The sense that we get in this verse is that these people have been spiritually immobile for so long that their dregs are very well settled indeed.
“who say in their heart, ‘Yahweh will not do good, neither will he do evil'” (v. 12c). These complacent people assume that Yahweh is also complacent. They believe that Yahweh will neither help nor hinder them. They expect no rewards for doing Yahweh’s will and no punishment for doing otherwise. They are functional atheists—not in the sense that they would deny the existence of God, but in the sense that they believe God no longer counts for much.
“Their wealth will become a spoil, and their houses a desolation” (v. 13a). But the people are wrong. Yahweh will do them harm, because they have sinned. They will see their wealth plundered and their comfortable houses destroyed when the Babylonians sack Jerusalem.
“Yes, they will build houses, but won’t inhabit them. They will plant vineyards, but won’t drink their wine” (v. 13b). These people have labored long and hard to build comfortable houses and to plant vineyards to sustain their comfortable lifestyle. However, they will not be allowed to live in their houses, because the Babylonians will kill many of them and take most of the rest into exile. They will not have opportunity to reap the harvest from their vineyards and to drink the wine, because they will be in Babylon.
ZEPHANIAH 1:14-16. THE GREAT DAY OF YAHWEH IS NEAR
14 The great day of Yahweh is near.
It is near, and hurries greatly,
the voice of the day of Yahweh.
The mighty man cries there bitterly.
15 That day is a day of wrath,
a day of distress and anguish,
a day of trouble and ruin,
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and blackness,
16 a day of the trumpet and alarm,
against the fortified cities,
and against the high battlements.
“The great day of Yahweh is near. It is near, and hurries greatly” (v. 14a). This is the prophet speaking once again.
The great day of Yahweh will be a day of wrath (see the comments above on verse 7b). This sentence emphasizes by threefold repetition (“near, near and hastening fast”) that they can expect the day of Yahweh soon.
“the voice of the day of Yahweh. The mighty man cries there bitterly” (v. 14b). The sounds of the day of Yahweh will be warriors whooping and the people of Jerusalem screaming in agony and wailing in grief. The warriors in question could be either enemy soldiers or soldiers of Judah—or both. It seems likely that the soldiers of both sides will shout and cry aloud, but the enemy soldiers will prevail. God has ordained that.
“That day is a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness” (v. 15). The devastation described here is apocalyptic in its scope—a great and final doom.
This verse is a litany of misery. The phrase, “a day of,” is repeated five times.
The descriptors linked to each repetition all bespeak total disaster.
“a day of the trumpet and alarm, against the fortified cities, and against the high battlements” (v. 16). The picture we have here is of an enemy army (the Babylonians) besieging Jerusalem. Trumpet blasts and battle cries serve three purposes. First, they signal the general’s intent to the troops. Second, they inspire the troops. Third, they demoralize the populace of the besieged city.
City fortifications include high walls, strong gates, and lofty battlements—towers rising above the walls to give the defenders a good view of the enemy, a broad field of fire, and “high ground” from which they can launch their weapons on hapless troops far below.
Except that, in this instance, the attacking troops will be anything but hapless. They will be well-led, well-armed, and well-trained. They will besiege the city, starving it into submission. They will use battering rams to breach the walls and gates. They will use catapults to launch fireballs and rocks over the ramparts. They will use tall ladders to scale the walls. Jerusalem’s fortifications and lofty battlements will not protect her, because their foe will be consecrated by Yahweh to the holy task of chastening the people of Jerusalem (see v. 7d).
ZEPHANIAH 1:17-18. I WILL BRING DISTRESS
17 I will bring distress on men,
that they will walk like blind men,
because they have sinned against Yahweh,
and their blood will be poured out like dust,
and their flesh like dung.
18 Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to deliver them
in the day of Yahweh’s wrath,
but the whole land (Hebrew: kol ‘eres) will be devoured
by the fire of his jealousy;
for he will make an end, yes, a terrible end,
of all those who dwell in the land (Hebrew: ‘eres).
“I will bring distress on men, that they will walk like blind men” (v. 17a). This is Yahweh speaking once again, but verses 17 and 18 both refer to Yahweh in the third person (“sinned against Yahweh” and “the day of Yahweh’s wrath”). The prophet is recording what Yahweh said, but isn’t using a verbatim manuscript. Therefore the prophet occasionally slips from first person to third person—especially when using common phrases such as “sinned against Yahweh” and “the day of Yahweh’s wrath.”
People who have been blind for many years might develop other senses to help them function somewhat normally. However, people who are newly blinded can be expected to be overwhelmed by their darkness—immobilized by their handicap. Everything they do will be tentative, whether walking or reaching for a glass of water. Without assistance, they are helpless. So it will be with the people of Jerusalem. The affliction that Yahweh will impose on them will be of such magnitude that they will be stunned—disoriented—helpless.
This prophecy will be literally fulfilled in the case of Zedekiah, king of Judah. The Babylonians will slaughter his sons before his eyes, so that his last sighted memory will be of that terrible moment. Then they will put out his eyes, bind him, and take him into captivity (2 Kings 25:6-7).
“because they have sinned against Yahweh” (v. 17b). The people of Judah are in a covenant relationship with Yahweh—a covenant that began with Abram (Genesis 12:1-3) and was renewed with Moses (Exodus 24) and Joshua (Joshua 24) and Jehoiada (2 Kings 11) and Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 29:10 and Josiah (2 Kings 23:3) and David (2 Samuel 7:12-17).
In a covenant relationship, both parties accept responsibilities. For instance, in the covenant between God and Abram, God required Abram to go from his country to the land that God would show him. In return, God promised, “I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great. You will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you. All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you” (Genesis 12:2-3).
In later iterations of the covenant, Israel became responsible for keeping the laws laid down in the Torah. When they violated these laws, whether in letter or the spirit, they sinned against Yahweh. Violations of this sort by one party to the covenant would excuse the other party to the covenant from his obligations. In other words, when God’s people sinned against Yahweh, those sins would excuse Yahweh from any obligation to protect the people. In this case, Yahweh has decided to do more than to remove his protection. He will actually commission the Babylonians to bring to pass his judgment on the people of Jerusalem.
There is, however, an unspoken grace note here—unspoken until the very last verses of this book (3:14-20). The people will go through a period of unspeakable suffering, but then Yahweh will bring them joy—great joy (3:14). Yahweh will take away the judgments against Judah and turn away Judah’s enemies (3:15).
In other words, the punishment that Yahweh will impose will be temporary—meant to chastise and cleanse, but not to destroy. The people’s suffering will have an end, and then they will enjoy Yahweh’s favor once again. Then they will rejoice once again.
“and their blood will be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung” (v. 17c). But the time of restoration lies far in the future. When the Babylonians besiege their city, they will slaughter many people. Their blood will be poured out like worthless dust—no longer capable of sustaining life. Their corpses will rot in the sun so that their flesh will become like dung.
For Jewish people, proper burial is important. Jewish law requires them to provide proper burial even for bodies discovered along the way (Deuteronomy 21:1-8) and criminals executed for capital crimes (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). For the people of Jerusalem to contemplate their own violent deaths without proper burial would be an unspeakable horror.
“Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to deliver them in the day of Yahweh’s wrath” (v. 18a). It was common for people being besieged by an enemy to offer tribute—silver or gold paid to the enemy to buy peace. However, the people of Jerusalem will not be permitted to use money to buy peace. The Babylonians will take their wealth violently, but will not give them peace. They will wreak havoc on Jerusalem, because the city is under Yahweh’s judgment—can expect to experience Yahweh’s wrath.
“but the whole land (kol ‘eres) will be devoured by the fire of his jealousy“ (v. 18b). It is the fire of Yahweh’s passion that will consume kol ‘eres—which can mean either “the whole earth” or “all the land.” Does Yahweh intend to consume the entire world (“the whole earth”) or just Judah/Jerusalem (“all the land”)? Almost certainly the latter, given the context.
“for he will make an end, yes, a terrible end, of all those who dwell in the land” (‘eres) (v. 18c). Once again, we can translate ‘eres as “earth” or “land.” The former suggests a global holocaust, while the latter suggests a more limited holocaust directed at Judah/Jerusalem. The events to come (the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem, Jerusalem’s destruction, and the captivity of the Jewish people in Babylonia) favor the more limited holocaust. However, Robertson says, “If (God’s) own covenant people are to be destroyed, it can be expected that the whole of the universe will be consumed with them” (Robertson, 287).
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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Copyright 2009, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan