Zephaniah pronounces judgment against Judah and her wicked rulers, prophets, and priests. God sent them ample examples of nations being disciplined for evil, but rather than learn and repent, Judah eagerly pursued wickedness.
No nations are pursuing righteousness, so God announces His decision to destroy the earth and all nations. He says He will first rise up as a witness, which might refer to Jesus’s first advent, where He resurrected and defeated death.
After the divine judgment, the LORD promises to purify the people’s lips, take them under His refuge, and fill the earth with righteousness.
Speaking in the prophetic past, showing the certainty of what is predicted in the future, Zephaniah calls the people of Judah to shout for joy because the LORD their Suzerain God has overturned the sentence of condemnation against them and dismissed their adversaries.
The LORD promises to regather His covenant people to the land of Israel and restore their blessings.
Zephaniah prophesied during the reign of Josiah, king of Judah. He encouraged the people to return to God, honor the vows they made to God under their covenant with Him, and avoid the penalties associated with violating their vows. The message of Zephaniah complements that of the prophet Jeremiah. Both seek to encourage Judah to repent and return to their Suzerain (Ruler) God, and honor their covenant with Him, thus avoiding His day of wrath.
King Josiah reigned in Judah from 640 to 609 BC. The Babylonians placed Judah under servitude shortly after his death, in 605 BC, taking its then king Jehoiachin captive, and carrying off the treasures from the temple, along with many officials and soldiers. Judah rebelled again. In 586 BC, Jerusalem was destroyed and all but the poorest of the people were exiled.
Zephaniah’s prophecy has not only an immediate application to Judah, and the looming invasion by Babylon, but also pictures the ultimate judgment Jesus will inflict upon the earth, cleansing it of evil, exploitation, and violence, and restoring it to its original, perfect design.
In this short book, Zephaniah calls to repentance, and prophesies judgement upon Judah, its neighboring nations, and the nations of the earth. The book can be viewed as a study in the moral cause-effect relationships God built into His creation.
God built into the moral universe what might be considered a moral law of reciprocity. The second greatest commandment is to love others as we love ourselves. If we set aside selfish interests and serve others, we actually discover our greatest fulfillment. Since (because of the Fall of Man) this is not our natural instinct, the first and greatest commandment is an essential precursor to follow this moral reality: to love God and obey Him with all our being. If we trust that God has our best interest at heart, that leads to a perspective that allows us to live into this great moral law.
The moral mirror of this “love-your-neighbor” principle might be called the “exploit-before-you-are-exploited” principle. There is a natural death, and (ironic) self-destruction God built into His creation for those who follow this exploit-your-neighbor principle. We can see this many places in scripture, including Zephaniah 2:8-11. In the New Testament, we see God’s wrath described as giving people over to their own passions, where (to use modern terminology) they become addicts, then lose their mental health (Romans 1:24, 26, 28).
Zephaniah can help the modern reader understand that the laws of cause-effect in God’s moral universe are just as certain, and just as inevitable as the physical laws. We can decide not to believe in gravity, but we will still hit the ground.
Zephaniah 3 continues with the theme of judgment begun in the previous chapter. The focus turns to Judah, but then spans back to all the peoples of the earth, and God’s plan to redeem the earth and fill it with righteousness, along with restoring His people.
He will also leave a faithful and humble remnant in Judah, giving them a privileged position among all the peoples of the earth. He will restore their fortunes and allow them to regain their status. The outline of the passage is as follows: