Perhaps the least known book of the least known section of the Bible, the Minor Prophets, is the book Zephaniah. Zephaniah takes place during the reign of King Josiah in the southern kingdom of Judah (Zeph 1:1). Understanding the context of King Josiah’s reign is crucial to appreciating the significance of this prophecy. Josiah was the son of Amon, who was the son of Manasseh. Amon had a short reign of a mere two years, at the end of which he was assassinated in a failed coup that resulted in his son, Josiah, ascending the throne. Amon’s reign, while short, was not short on wickedness, as he was an brazen idolater (2 Chronicles 33:21-25). His father, King Manasseh, was also an infamous monarch whose iniquity was so heinous it sealed the fate of Judah; they would go into exile to Babylon, and the decree was irrevocable.
Josiah stepped onto the scene as an 8-year-old king of a kingdom doomed to destruction. His prospects were not promising. However, in 2 Chronicles 34:3, we read the King Josiah began to seek the Lord in the 8th year of his reign, around his 16th birthday. Four years later, when he was 20, he destroyed the idols of the land, the very idols his father and grandfather had built and venerated. What courage and fortitude it must have required for Josiah to demolish the godless legacy of his father and grandfather as a young man of merely 20 years of age! In the 18th year of Josiah’s reign, while rebuilding the temple, the book of the Law was discovered (2 Chronicles 34:8-21). Shaphan the scribe read the Law to Josiah, who went into mourning over his sin and the sin of Israel. He knew they were under the covenant curse of God, and his heartfelt repentance moved God to stay His judgment of Judah for another generation.
The narrative of King Josiah is both shocking and hopeful. God is able to transform a nation in a generation. God is able to place godly kings on the throne even after the most wicked men have ruled. God can bring about revival in the midst of total and complete spiritual ruin. But how did God accomplish all of this in Josiah’s life? Zephaniah 1:1 also tells us that Zephaniah was the great-great-grandson of King Hezekiah, making the prophet the older cousin of the king. It is highly probable that Josiah’s spiritual renaissance was brought about by God in part through the preaching of his older cousin, Zephaniah. Zephaniah as a member of the royal family would have had access to the palace and the king’s court, and with Josiah being so young upon his ascension to rule, he would have been flanked by trusted advisors to guide and lead him in making decisions for the kingdom. Zephaniah played a formative and pivotal role in Josiah’s spiritual life.
What is most surprising about Zephaniah’s message and its consequent results is the tone of the message: Zephaniah preached a message largely of divine judgment. The first two chapters of the book consist almost entirely of oracles of doom against Judah, Jerusalem, and the nations to the west, east, south, and north (respectively) of Judah. God’s global judgment is coming on the Day of the Lord (see my post on Joel for more discussion on the Day of the Lord). The first eight verses of the third chapter continue the theme of judgment with a lament over Judah’s deplorable condition and God’s decision to judge the nation. Only at the end of the book, in verses 9-20, does salvation come to the fore. Nevertheless, the book of Zephaniah presents God as both a terrifying Judge and a merciful Savior. For His people, He will prove to be a gentle, tender, loving Savior who rejoices over them. For those who reject Him and worship idols, He will appear on the Day of the Lord as the terrifying Judge who will uncreate the universe, condemn the nations, including unrepentant Israelites, and turn every human endeavor done in rebellion against Him into nought.
The burden of Zephaniah’s prophecy is the singular question, How does one become part of God’s people? Zephaniah does not answer in terms of ethnic descent, for all evildoers will be condemned no matter their ethnic heritage. He embeds his answer right in the middle of his scathing section on judgment, in 2:1-3, and he gives three keys to seeking the Lord in such a way that He would be a merciful Savior rather than a terrifying Judge.
First, he exhorts his readers to feel a sense of shame over their sins (2:1). He tells the rebellious who are in danger of suffering God’s judgment to gather together, and he calls them a nation without shame. That title is a rebuke, indicating that they should have shame because of their sins. A person cannot seek the Lord aright who does not deplore his disobedience to the divine standard. This message is largely lost in evangelicalism today as sin is trivialized and a gospel without guilt is substituted for the gospel of grace. Revival cannot come to people who are entrenched in their sin with no sense of remorse, no sense of their guilt, no sense of their desperate need of salvation. If we would seek God and see the kind of work He did in Josiah’s day, we must begin with a sense of horror about our sin.
Second, Zephaniah tells his readers to respond to the Lord urgently (2:2). The judgment of God upon the ungodly is coming, and the day for that judgment has been determined by divine decree. With each passing moment we edge closer to the cliffs of judgment from which no one can survive a fall. Our lives are like chaff which is tossed up into the air and a moment later is blown away by the harvest breeze. A failure to understand the seriousness of sin and the terrifying nature of divine judgment often leads to a lethargic and apathetic response to the Word of God. The delusion that we have more time when we have no idea what time we have left leaves many hearts hard and cold when they hear the Word of God. Urgency is necessary when it comes to responding to God’s Word. Today is the day of salvation.
Finally, Zephaniah urges his readers to respond with humility to God’s Word (2:3). To escape divine judgment and find God to be a merciful Savior demands we seek Him, that we desire righteousness, and that we long to be humble before Him. The Old Testament does not use the explicit language of faith and belief as often as the New, but the concept pervades these prophets (cf. Habakkuk 2:4 for an obvious reference point). The word faith is not used, but it is pictured as a humble seeking of God. Such seeking of salvation from the Lord’s judgment must trust that God will be faithful to save those who come to Him humbly and ask for His forgiveness, His mercy, and His righteousness. The prophet notes that those who so seek the Lord will perhaps be hidden in the day of the Lord’s anger. This contingent note is played to remind us of our constant need for humility as well as endurance (cf. Zeph 1:6 for those who lacked endurance and therefore were condemned). Salvation is not a transaction wherein the sinner says some magic words and God opens the pearly gate, but it is a relationship of continual trust, of abiding in Christ through faith, and only those who endure to the end will be saved. Zephaniah encourages us to be humble, never to presume upon God, and never to think that we have earned something in God’s sight or that He is indebted to us. We must instead respond humbly to God’s Word, believing His promises.
Zephaniah is a powerful book that exhibits the meaning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Gospel that begins with the revelation of God’s wrath against all ungodliness (Rom 1:18) and culminates with the mercy of God (Rom 11:32). God is a terrifying Judge and a merciful Savior. When you stand before Him, which will you find Him to be toward you?