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.
These concluding verses of chapter 3 are different from the rest of the book, because it foresees a time when Yahweh will redeem his people—when they will be freed from exile and allowed to return to Jerusalem.
ZEPHANIAH 3:14-15. SING! SHOUT! BE GLAD AND REJOICE!
14 Sing, daughter of Zion!
Be glad and rejoice with all your heart,
daughter of Jerusalem.
15 Yahweh has taken away your judgments (Hebrew: mis∙pat).
He has thrown out your enemy.
The King of Israel, Yahweh, is in the midst of you.
You will not be afraid of evil any more.
“Sing, daughter of Zion! Shout, Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, daughter of Jerusalem” (v. 14). Zion, Israel, and Jerusalem are essentially synonymous as used in this verse.
At this point, the time of punishment that Zephaniah foresaw in his earlier chapters has ended, and the time of rejoicing has come. This is the rejoicing that the people will experience when released from exile in Babylonia and allowed to return to Jerusalem.
“Yahweh has taken away your judgments (mis∙pat). He has thrown out your enemy“ (v. 15a). In this context, the word mis∙pat has to do with a legal verdict. The prophet has dealt with Judah’s guilt and the judgment that would be pronounced against her (1:1-13; 3:1-7)—a judgment that would come to pass when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and carried its inhabitants into exile in Babylonia.
But now, in the conclusion of this book, the prophet fast-forwards to a time when Yahweh will annul the verdict against Judah—will pronounce her punishment as having been accomplished—will redeem her from her captivity—will save her from her enemies.
“The King of Israel, Yahweh, is in the midst of you” (v. 15b). Israel has known a series of kings, good and bad, beginning with Saul. But God was Israel’s true king. It was when Israel rejected God as king (1 Samuel 10:19), desiring a human king like other nations (1 Samuel 12:12), that God allowed human kings to reign.
Israel’s greatest king was David, with whom God established a covenant to establish his throne forever (2 Samuel 7:12). While the prophet does not mention David here, the ultimate fulfillment of this prophecy will await the birth of the son of David—the messiah.
“You will not be afraid of evil any more” (v. 15c). What is being portrayed in the book of Zephaniah is a death and resurrection. Judah will die when the Babylonians destroy Jerusalem and take the people into captivity—but Judah will live again when the Lord makes provision for her to be redeemed from captivity and restored as a nation. When that restoration takes place, Judah can live without fear.
ZEPHANIAH 3:16-18a. DON’T BE AFRAID, ZION
16 In that day, it will be said to Jerusalem,
“Don’t be afraid, Zion.
Don’t let your hands be weak.”
17Yahweh, your God,
is in the midst of you,
a mighty one who will save.
He will rejoice over you with joy.
He will calm you in his love.
He will rejoice over you with singing.
18a I will remove those who grieve about the appointed feasts from you.
“In that day, it will be said to Jerusalem” (v. 16a). “On that day” refers back to the last verse—to the day when the Lord takes away the judgments against Judah (v. 15).
“Don’t be afraid, Zion” (v. 16b). Fear paralyzes people and makes them weak—but with the Lord as their king, the people of Judah will have nothing to fear.
“Don’t let your hands be weak” (v. 16c). The posture of the hands can symbolize the state of the heart. Hands held in a posture of submission symbolize weakness—discouragement. With the Lord as their king, the people of Judah will have no reason to let their hands grow weak—to act submissively.
“Yahweh, your God, is in the midst of you, a mighty one who will save” (v. 17a). In the day which the prophet is predicting, Yahweh will be present with his people—present as a warrior who will bring Judah victory over her enemies.
“He will rejoice over you with joy” (v. 17b). How can this be? How can Yahweh rejoice over a people who have betrayed him time and time again? This verse is describing a miracle—a miracle of grace.
“He will calm you in his love” (v. 17c). A more literal translation would be “He will quiet you with his love” (Bennett). The reality of God’s love will bring peace to this people who have known so much turmoil—will quiet their spirits as they begin to recognize that Yahweh has provided them with security.
But we have to ask, “How can the Lord love such people?” Once again, it is only by a miracle of grace. The same is true today. The Bible teaches us that God loves all people. As I deal with people day after day, I wonder, “How can God do that? Why would God love these people? There are a few who are genuinely lovable and many who are lovable sometimes, but there are others who are more often toxic than lovable—and a few who are unremittingly toxic. How can God love all of them? The answer is to be found, not in the deserving nature of the people, but in the loving nature of God.
Robertson refers to this verse as “the OT version of John 3:16” (Robertson, 342).
He will rejoice over you with singing” (v. 17d). What is portrayed here is the kind of celebration that we normally associate with a wedding or some equally joyous occasion. The Lord’s joy in his people is no halfway thing. The Lord’s joy can be expressed only in full-blown festivity.
ZEPHANIAH 3:18-19. I WILL REMOVE THOSE WHO GRIEVE YOU
18b I will remove (Hebrew: asap—gather or take away)
those who grieve (Hebrew: yagah—grieving)
about the appointed feasts from you.
They are a burden and a reproach to you.
19 Behold, at that time I will deal with all those who afflict you,
and I will save those who are lame,
and gather those who were driven away.
I will give them praise and honor,
whose shame has been in all the earth.
“I will remove (asap—gather or take away) those who grieve (yagah—grieving) about the appointed feasts from you. They are a burden and a reproach to you“ (v. 18). The voice shifts from the prophet to Yahweh.
This is a difficult verse to translate, but the sense is clear. Yahweh promises to gather up the grieving of his people and to do away with it so that they will no longer suffer the damage to their reputation caused by the exile. It is a promise of full restoration.
These people will experience a great deal of grief in the Babylonian Exile. They will see friends die at the hands of the Babylonians. They will see Jerusalem and the temple laid waste. They will lose their freedom. Every religious observance will remind them that they no longer have the privilege of worshiping in the temple. It will appear to their captors and neighbors (and, perhaps, even to themselves) that Babylonia’s gods are more powerful than the God of Israel.
But the time will come when their grieving will be ended—a time when Cyrus of Persia will grant them permission to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the temple—a time when their tarnished reputation will be restored—a time when Yahweh will gather up their grief and dispose of it.
“Behold, at that time I will deal with all those who afflict you” (v. 19a). This almost certainly refers to the Babylonians, who will destroy Jerusalem and take its citizenry into exile.
“and I will save those who are lame, and gather those who were driven away” (v. 19b). It isn’t only the strong whom Yahweh will save, but the weak as well.
Yahweh has always shown a concern for those who are weak and vulnerable. Torah law included provisions to provide for the needs of the poor. Landowners were required to leave the edges of their fields unharvested so that poor people could glean those fields and obtain enough food for survival (Leviticus 19:9-10). The law also made provision for the next of kin to redeem land sold by a relative (Leviticus 25:25), and required families to support indigent kin (Leviticus 25:35). The prophets emphasized concerned for the poor and condemned ill treatment of widows and orphans (Isaiah 1:17, 23; 10:1; Jeremiah 5:28; 7:6; 22:3; Malachi 3:5). Jesus will continue that emphasis during his ministry, healing the sick and showing compassion on vulnerable people generally.
But there might be another meaning in this verse as well. If Yahweh intends to “save those who are lame, and gather those who were driven away,” perhaps he intends his service to the weak to serve as a sign that he will bring salvation to all—both weak and strong.
“I will give them praise and honor, whose shame has been in all the earth” (v. 19c). The people will experience shame when the Babylonians defeat them and take them into exile, but that shame will turn to praise when Cyrus allows them to return to Jerusalem. Their reputation will be restored.
ZEPHANIAH 3:20. I WILL BRING IN, AND I WILL GATHER YOU
20 At that time will I bring you in,
and at that time will I gather you;
for I will give you honor and praise among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says Yahweh.
“At that time will I bring you in, and at that time will I gather you” (v. 20a). This verse amplifies what was said in verse 19. It makes explicit that the exiles can expect to return to their homeland—that Yahweh will gather them together and bring them home.
“for I will give you honor and praise among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says Yahweh” (v. 20b). People everywhere have seen their shame. Now people everywhere will see their restoration. While it seemed impossible that the people of Judah would ever see freedom again, the miracle happened. Thus their reputation will be restored.
“So the book of Zephaniah ends where it begins. The prophet opened with a scene of cataclysmic overthrow…. The prophet closes with another scene of cosmic scope…. The ultimate of blessing in the covenant joins with the ultimate of cursing to consummate the entirety of the historical process” (Robertson, 347).
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