The Agora
Bible Commentary

1 2 3

Zephaniah 1

Zep 1:1

See Lesson, Prophet, the.

See Lesson, Minor prophets, and their messages.

ZEPHANIAH: "The hid of Yahweh" -- suggesting the hidden ones, the saints, hidden from the "world", but known to God Himself. To be "hidden" from trouble in the day of calamity (as Isa 26:20; cp Psa 57:1). Cp word "zaphan" in Psa 83:3; 27:5,6; Job 14:13,15. Cp thought, Zep 2:3.

THE SON OF HEZEKIAH: Note 4 generations, longest of any prophet -- suggesting something unusual. This Hezekiah is almost certainly the king of Judah. As a relative of the royal family, Zephaniah would prob have ready access to the king.

DURING THE REIGN OF JOSIAH: Approx dates: 640-609 BC. Background: 2Ki 22; 23; 2Ch 34; 36. Following Assyria's capture of Samaria in 722 BC, the Assyrian Empire began to decline. With its decline, Nabopolassar, the first of the Neo-Babylonian kings (626-605 BC), began to push Babylonia forward. Assyria declined and Babylonia advanced until Babylonia, with the Medes and Scythians, destroyed Nineveh in 612 BC and a few years later replaced Assyria as the dominant power in the ancient Near East. This happened in 605 BC when the Babylonians defeated the Assyrians and Egyptians at Carchemish.

Zep 1:2

Vv 2,3: God will sweep away all creatures -- by the agency of Nebuchadnezzar (Jer 27:6): political upheaval, or famine and depredation of all sorts. This would be a reversal of Creation (cp Gen 1:20-26) and a judgment similar to the Flood in its scope (Gen 6:17; 7:21-23). These other creatures might be worshiped by the idolaters mentioned in vv 4,5 also.

Cp 2Pe 3:10-12.

Zep 1:3

"Reading Zephaniah is somewhat like watching a science fiction movie about a nuclear disaster that leaves nothing but a sterile, uninhabited, windswept landscape with no life, no flowers, no fruit, and no beauty. What produces this horrible condition? The reason is people who are complacent and indifferent, who disregard and ignore God. They do not obey God's voice, receive His correction, trust in Him, or draw near to Him. They are materialized, self-centered, living in luxury oblivious to their danger. So God steps in and turns their complacency into chaos, disorganizes their orderly lives, and purges them in their indifference. All that is left is a wind-swept desert.

"What is the intent of this terrible activity? It is the creation of a new order with God Himself enthroned among His creatures (3:17)" (Const).

Zep 1:4

Vv 4-6: "I will sweep away -- or cut off"... four distinct classes of sinners: (a) The OPEN idolaters: "every remnant of Baal, the names of the pagan and the idolatrous priests -- those who bow down on the roofs to worship the starry host" (vv 4,5); (b) The SECRET idolaters: "those who bow down and swear by the LORD AND who ALSO swear by Molech" (v 5); (c) The backsliders: "those who turn back from following the LORD" (v 6); and (d) The indifferent: "those who... neither seek the LORD nor inquire of him" (v 6).

That seems to cover the field rather well! Can we imagine any sort of sinner who does not fall into at least one of these categories? Do we not sometimes find even ourselves perilously entrapped in sins of most of these types?

It all has to do with "caring": the open idolaters CARE, but they care wrongly; they have a zeal but not according to knowledge, and they bow five times a day toward Mecca or burn incense to a smiling stone image, but it profits them nothing.

The secret idolaters CARE too, but only half-heartedly; they serve God at times, but they never quite overthrow the altar of "Mammon" in their lives!

The backsliders CARED for God at one time, but they stopped caring. Perhaps the "cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches" entered their lives and choked the word of God. And, last, there are the indifferent, who CARE not at all, who cannot be moved even with dynamite from the comfortable ruts of their sad, empty little lives.

What is the lesson for us? God sees and will judge EVERY type of iniquity: the external idolatry of false religion as well as the secret, internal idolatry of covetousness (Col 3:5), which wears a cloak of "righteousness" in order to deceive (both itself and others).

"Search us, Lord, and know our heart.
With every idol bid us part."

These exhortations are lost on us if we think only of "idols" made of wood and stone, and pride ourselves as having nothing to do with such. But the "idols" that should frighten us, from whose bondage we should pray to be delivered, are the modern "gods" of materialism, licentiousness (in books, movies, and television), and pleasure-seeking! For God WILL judge EVERY type of sin: the open indifference of atheism no more than the hidden indifference of a lax Laodicean faith which seeks its own comfort and ignores its "nakedness" in God's sight.

I WILL STRETCH OUT MY HAND: Stretching out the hand is a figure of speech that implies a special work of punishment (cp Exo 6:6; Deu 4:34; 2Ki 17:36; Isa 14:26-27; Jer 27:5; 32:17; etc).

I WILL STRETCH OUT MY HAND... CUT OFF...: An unsparing reform, as that commenced by Hezekiah (2Ch 31), and later by Josiah (2Ch 34) -- not an incomplete cleansing (as 2Ch 15:17).

Josiah's evil predecessors, Manasseh (695-642 BC) and Amon (642-640 BC), had encouraged the people of Judah to depart from the LORD for over 50 years, so wickedness had become ingrained in them. In the eighteenth year of Josiah's reign (622 BC) Hilkiah the priest discovered the Law of Moses in the temple, and when Josiah read it he instituted major reforms throughout Judah. Josiah's reforms were good because they were official. He eliminated much of the display of idolatry in the land and revived the celebration of the Passover, among other things (2Ki 22:4-25). But unfortunately his reforms did not change the hearts of most of the people, as Jeremiah revealed in his earlier prophecies. So the people to whom Zephaniah preached had a long history of formal religion without much real commitment to Yahweh.

EVERY REMNANT OF BAAL: Who worship in the chambers of their imagery (Eze 8:12).

PAGAN: "Chemarim" is a KJV transliteration of the Hebrew, a term also found in 2KI 23:5 ("idolatrous priests": KJV; "pagan priests": NIV) and Hos 10:5 ("idolatrous priests": NIV, KJV). Some lexicons and commentators have suggested the term comes from a root for "black" (from the robes they wore) or from a root for "zealous" (for their fanaticism), but the precise meaning remains uncertain; it is left untranslated in the LXX. Usage in the Bible suggests the reference is to priests of foreign deities. (Generally, cp the "foul birds" of Rev 18:2.)

Zep 1:5

THOSE WHO BOW DOWN ON THE ROOFS: There were altars on the flat roofs, set aside for family worship: 2Ki 23:12; Jer 19:13. Jeremiah saw this: Jer 44:17.

TO WORSHIP THE STARRY HOST: "They bowed down to all the starry hosts, and they worshiped Baal" (2Ki 17:16). Cp Deu 4:19; 2Ki 21:3,5; 23:4,5; Jer 19:13.


"They worshiped the LORD, but they also served their own gods in accordance with the customs of the nations from which they had been brought" (2Ki 17:33). "Such persons thought themselves safe because they were with both parties: they went with the followers of Jehovah, and bowed at the same time to Malcham. But duplicity is abominable with God, and hypocrisy His soul hateth... To hold with the hare and run with the hounds, is a dastard's policy. In the common matters of daily life, a double-minded man is despised, but in religion he is loathsome to the last degree. The penalty pronounced in the verse before us is terrible, but it is well deserved; for how should divine justice spare the sinner, who knows the right, approves it, and professes to follow it, and all the while loves the evil, and gives it dominion in his heart?" (CHS).

Zep 1:7

THE DAY OF THE LORD IS NEAR: This is Zephaniah's first reference to the day of the Lord, to which he referred 24 times in this book.

References to the day of the LORD as a time of judgment: Zep 1:8,9,10,12,15,15,16,18; 2:2,2,3; 3:8.

The day of the Lord was a time when God works, in contrast to man's day in which he works.

"As employed by the prophets, the Day of the Lord is that time when for His glory and in accordance with His purposes God intervenes in human affairs in judgment against sin or for the deliverance of His own" (Patterson).

THE LORD HAS PREPARED A SACRIFICE; HE HAS CONSECRATED THOSE HE HAS INVITED: Christ is the one true sacrifice, so that in turn he may also be the bridegroom of the marriage feast. The Father has invited guests to the sacrifice -- to partake of the forgiveness of sins which Christ has made possible, and to obtain a "wedding garment" so that they will be suitably attired to attend the feast. But those guests who have not faithfully prepared themselves, when they do try to enter the great marriage feast, will be punished because they are, figuratively, "clad in foreign clothes" (v 8).

Alternatively, Judah may be the "sacrifice" in mind (cp Isa 29:1,2; 34:6; Jer 46:10) -- to be consumed by her enemies, the Babylonians (cp Jer 10:25; Hab 1:6).

Or, yet again, the nations themselves may be called to BE the sacrifice (Eze 39:17; Joel 3; Rev 16:16; 19:17).

Zep 1:8

ON THE DAY OF THE LORD'S SACRIFICE I WILL PUNISH THE PRINCES AND THE KING'S SONS: The princes would hold responsible positions in the government. Josiah's sons did indeed suffer Yahweh's punishment. Jehoahaz was taken captive to Egypt (2Ki 23:36). Jehoiakim was defeated by Nebuchadnezzar and died in Jerusalem (2Ki 24:1-6). Josiah's grandson, Jehoiachin, was taken captive to Babylon (2Ki 24:8-16). The last son of Josiah to rule over Judah, Zedekiah, was blinded and also taken captive to Babylon (2Ki 24:18 -- 25:7).

Some of royal house were the first to be carried away in captivity (cp Dan 1:3,4).

AND ALL THOSE CLAD IN FOREIGN CLOTHES: Wearing foreign garments evidently expressed love and support for non-Israelite values and so incurred God's wrath (cp Num 15:38; Deu 22:11,12).

Cp, generally, those who had no wedding garment (Mat 22)!

Zep 1:9

WHO AVOID STEPPING ON THE THRESHOLD: This may reflect a cultic practice referred to in 1Sa 5:5, where the pagan priests avoided stepping on a defiled or sacrosanct threshold. This practice originated when the head and hands of the Philistine god Dagon broke off and lay there. But more probably this custom would only be observed in temples of Dagon. It appears unlikely that such practice would be transferred to Israelite worship.

A more likely interpretation understands this passage to refer to theft and plunder. According to this interpretation, the verb should be translated "leap on" (or "over") the threshold, as in the RSV and KJV. Deu 24:10-13 prohibits entering a person's house to demand repayment of debts. Other vv in this ch refer to violence and exploitation of the poor: ie vv 10,11,13,18.

Zep 1:10

THE FISH GATE: On the north wall of the city, where fish arrived from Joppa (Neh 3:3). It was a gate that pierced Jerusalem's north wall close to the fish market (cp 2Ch 33:14; Neh 12:39). It was probably through this gate that Nebuchadnezzar entered Jerusalem since he invaded it from the north.

THE NEW QUARTER: Jerusalem was divided by the Tyropoean Valley; that part on the south side was called the "Second City", or -- as here in NIV -- the "New Quarter". Cp 2Ki 20:4; 22:14.

A LOUD CRASH FROM THE HILLS: Echoes of loud cries, or sounds of battle, etc -- coming from the hills surrounding the city. The Babylonian army doubtless caused loud crashing on all the hills in and around Jerusalem as the soldiers destroyed the city.

Zep 1:11

THE MARKET DISTRICT: Or "Mortar" (NIV mg). Zephaniah called the inhabitants of the Mortar, the market or business district of Jerusalem, to wail because judgment was coming.

MERCHANTS: Sw "Canaanites" -- a word that sig "traders", or lit, "those who bow the knee". The Canaanites who did business there would fall silent because business would cease.

Zep 1:12

AT THAT TIME I WILL SEARCH JERUSALEM WITH LAMPS: Searching the city or the house for leaven, done at Passover (cp 1Co 5:7). Cp Luke 15:8: the woman searching her house with a lamp.


Unstirred, unstrained, such "wine" absorbs the bitterness of the dregs, or sediment. Cp idea of 2Pe 2:22: "dog returned to its vomit". Suggests indifference, Laodiceanism (Rev 3:15,16).

WHO THINK, 'THE LORD WILL DO NOTHING, EITHER GOOD OR BAD': Is this the picture of the household of faith in the Last Days? By their attitudes (that is, in their hearts) some appear to be saying (although they would never dream of saying so openly) that God is indifferent to what man does. 'Don't remind me that He sees or cares what I do. Leave me alone to while away my satisfied, self-centered little life.'

The great causes of God are not often defeated by open frontal attack, but rather by the slow, crushing, glacier-like mass of indifferent disciples. The Truth of God cannot be destroyed by the enemy, but it can be smothered to death by the lazy "friend", who sits on it!

Let us examine ourselves. We all build "fences" around ourselves in one way or another. It is a deep-seated desire of human nature to seek protection and security, and to forget unpleasant things. But unless we are careful, we may come to seek our strength and support within ourselves, in our own possessions and accomplishments. "I will build bigger barns," we say, but God says, "You are fools. This night your lives may be required of you."

Let us not develop ingenious ways of keeping God and His demands out of our lives. Let us not be children, hiding in our "playpens", amusing ourselves with expensive and time-consuming "toys", until the urgency of the Truth has melted away in our lives.

"Woe to you who are complacent in Zion... You put off the evil day..." (Amo 6:1,3). "The vision he sees is for many years from now, and he prophesies about the distant future" (Eze 12:27). Cp Isa 32:9; Eze 30:9.

Zep 1:13



Zep 1:15

DARKNESS... GLOOM... CLOUDS... BLACKNESS: "Therefore night will come over you, without visions, and darkness, without divination. The sun will set for the prophets, and the day will go dark for them" (Mic 3:6; cp Jer 4:23-28; Amo 5:11).

Zep 1:16

AGAINST THE FORTIFIED CITIES: Not just literal cities, but men's minds and lives -- "fortified" against the warnings of Scripture.

Zep 1:17

THEY WILL WALK LIKE BLIND MEN: The LORD would distress His people so severely that they would grope around as though they were blind. He would do this because they had sinned against Him (cp Deu 28:28,29).


Zep 1:18

NEITHER THEIR SILVER NOR THEIR GOLD WILL BE ABLE TO SAVE THEM ON THE DAY OF THE LORD'S WRATH: The Judeans would not be able to buy themselves out of their trouble when the Lord poured forth His wrath (cp Eze 7:19).

IN THE EARTH: Prob means "in the Land" (eretz: the land of Israel). See, generally, Lesson, "Land" or "earth"?

Previous Index Next