When was the last time you sang a hymn about the future judgment of the world? Most modern hymnals don't contain songs about the Day of the Lord, and you certainly won't find the phrase in your daily newspaper or weekly news magazine. Even if they do believe in God, most people don't connect Him in any way with either current or future events. The closest we come to involving God in human events is when insurance policies mention "acts of God over which we have no control." But that's a far cry from Zephaniah's the Day of the Lord.
Thinking people used to take God's judgment of the world seriously and even sang hymns about it. A famous medieval Latin hymn was based on Zephaniah 1:15, "That day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress...." The first two verses read:
Day of wrath! O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophets warning,
Heav'n and earth in ashes burning!
O what fear man's bosom rendeth
When from Heav'n the Judge descendeth
On whose sentence all dependeth!
I wonder how popular a worship leader would be if he or she selected that particular hymn today?
The Day of the Lord is an important biblical concept that we must take seriously, because it tells us where things are going and how they're going to end. During the Day of the Lord, God will send tribulation to the world, judge the nations, save His people Israel, and then establish His righteous kingdom. God warns the world that judgment is coming, and it's foolish for anybody to be unprepared. The big question is "Where will you hide on that great day?" (see Zeph. 2:3).
In the first two chapters of his book, the Prophet Zephaniah relates the Day of the Lord to both the Jews and the Gentiles.
You would expect the great-great-grandson of King Hezekiah to be living comfortably in Jerusalem, enjoying a life of ease. Instead, you find him ministering as God's prophet, which was a dangerous calling. His contemporary, Jeremiah, was arrested and put in a filthy cistern for admonishing the leaders of Judah to surrender to the Babylonians.
God had shown Zephaniah that judgment was coming upon Judah in the form of the Babylonian Captivity, and the prophet had to share this message with the people. However, Babylon's invasion of Judah was but a feeble example of what would occur on that final Day of the Lord, which would sweep over all the earth. Zephaniah opened his book by presenting three graphic pictures of the Day of the Lord.
The first picture is that of a devastating universal flood (Zeph. 1:2-3). The Hebrew word translated "consume" in the kjv means "to sweep away completely." The picture is that of total devastation of all that God created and is probably a reference to Noah's flood. (You find similar wording in Gen. 6:7; 7:4; 9:8-10.) God gave man dominion over the fish, the fowls, and the beasts (1:28; Ps. 8:7-8), but man lost that dominion when Adam disobeyed God. However, through Jesus Christ, man's lost dominion will one day be restored (Heb. 2:5-9).
God will not only destroy His creation, but He will also destroy the idols that people worship—the "stumbling blocks" that offend the Lord (Ezek. 14:1-8). In Zephaniah's day, idolatry was rife in Judah, thanks to the evil influence of King Manasseh. When God stretches out His hand, it means that judgment is coming (Isa. 9:12, 17, 21). The prophet names two of the false gods that had captured the hearts of the people: Baal, the rain god of the Canaanites (Zeph. 1:4), and Malcom (Milcom, Molech), the terrible god of the Ammonites (1 Kings 11:33; Amos 5:26). The people also worshiped the host of heaven (Deut. 4:19; Jer. 19:13; 32:29) and followed the godless example of the idolatrous priests ("Chemarim" in Zeph. 1:4; see 2 Kings 23:5, 8; Hosea 10:5).
These idolaters may have claimed that they were still faithfully worshiping Jehovah, the true and living God, but Jehovah will not share worship or glory with any other god. In turning to idols, the people had turned away from the Lord and were not seeking Him or His blessing (Zeph. 1:6). They were guilty of sins of commission (worshiping idols) and omission (ignoring the Lord).
During the Babylonian Captivity, the Jews were cured of their fascination with foreign gods. Their temple was destroyed, their priesthood was scattered, and for seventy years they could not worship the way Moses had commanded them. When they were finally allowed to return to their land, one of the first things the Jews did was rebuild their temple and restore the sacrifices.
The second picture is that of a great sacrifice (vv. 7-13). Since the Jewish people were accustomed to attending communal sacrifices (1 Sam. 9:11ff), this image was familiar to them. But this sacrifice would be different, for it was God who was hosting the sacrifice. His guests were the Babylonians; and the sacrifices to be offered were the people of Judah! No wonder the prophet called for silence as he contemplated such an awesome event (See Amos 6:10; 8:3; Hab. 2:20.)
You would expect the royal family and the religious leaders of the land to be the honored guests at God's feast, but they are the ones to be sacrificed! (Zeph. 1:8-9). God punishes them because they have abandoned His Word and adopted foreign practices, including wearing foreign clothes and worshiping foreign gods (see Num. 15:38; Deut. 22:11-12). After the death of King Josiah in 609, the last four kings of Judah were weak men, who yielded to the policies of the pro-Egyptian bloc in the government. Instead of trusting the Lord, they trusted their allies, and this led to disaster.
Zephaniah must have been a resident in Jerusalem, for he know the layout of the city (Zeph. 1:10-13). When the Babylonians, God's guests, would come to the sacrificial feast, they would enter the city, plunder it, and then destroy it. The Fish Gate was where the fisherman had their markets; the "second quarter" was where the rich people lived in their fashionable houses, built from the wages owed to poor laborers. "Maktesh" was the market and business district of the city where the merchants and bankers were located.
But the city would be destroyed, and the merchants' wealth confiscated. So thoroughly would the Babylonians do their work that they would search the city carefully and find even the people who were hiding.
The tragedy is that the invasion could have been avoided if the people had not been so complacent and indifferent toward what God was saying through His prophets. Judah was certain that the Lord was on their side because they were God's covenant people. They were like wine that sits undisturbed for a long time (Jer. 48:11; Amos 6:1) and congeals because it isn't poured from vessel to vessel to get rid of the bitter dregs. The worship of false gods had polluted the nation and the pure wine had become bitter.
The prophet's third picture of the Day of the Lord is that of a great battle (Zeph. 1:14-18). The description is a vivid one: You can hear the cries of the captives and the shouts of the warriors; you can see thunderclouds of judgment and flashes of lightning; you behold the victims' blood poured out like cheap dust and their "entrails like filth" (v. 17 niv). What a scene of destruction and carnage, and all because the nation refused to submit to the Word of the Lord. The fire of God's jealous zeal would consume everything, and no one would escape. Even the wealthy would not be able to ransom their lives, and the enemy would take away their ill-gotten riches.
What Zephaniah describes here is but an illustration of what will happen in the end times when God's judgment falls on a wicked world, only that final Day of the Lord will be far more terrible (see Rev. 6-19). There will be cosmic disturbances that will affect the course of nature and cause people to cry out for a place to hide (Amos 5:18; 8:9; Joel 2:1-2, 10, 30-32; Rev. 6:12-17). Unless you know Jesus Christ as your own Savior, you will have no place to hide (Zeph. 2:3).
This explains why the prophet closed this message with a plea for the people to repent of their sins and turn to the Lord for His forgiveness (vv. 1-3). Like the Prophet Joel (2:16), he told them to call a solemn assembly and seek the Lord. Zephaniah especially called upon the godly remnant ("you meek of the earth") to pray and seek God's face, perhaps referring to the promise in 2 Chronicles 7:14. But even if the majority of the nation followed false gods and turned away from the Lord, God would still protect His own precious remnant when the Day of Judgment comes (Mal. 3:16-18).
Zephaniah and Jeremiah ministered during the same period in history, and both of them begged the rulers to trust God and turn from sin, but the kings, officials, and priests refused to obey. God would have rescued the nation at the last minute, but the leaders were insensitive to God's call and disobedient to His Word.
But the Lord did spare a godly remnant that stayed true to Him throughout the seventy years of captivity. They were a "company of the concerned," who became the nucleus of the restored nation when they returned to the land. In every period in history it is the godly remnant that keeps the light burning when it seems as if the darkness is about to cover the earth. Today, God needs a "company of the concerned," who will walk the narrow road regardless of what others may do, obey God's Word, and share His Gospel with the lost. God is keeping His "book of remembrance" (Mal. 3:16-17), and you and I want our names in that book.
God's judgment begins in the house of the Lord (1 Peter 4:17), which explains why Zephaniah started with the people of Judah; but now he explains how the Day of the Lord will affect the Gentile nations surrounding Judah. Though they were never given God's Law as were the Jews (Ps. 147:19-20), the Gentiles are still responsible before God; for God has revealed Himself to them in creation and conscience (Rom. 1:18ff). Furthermore, these nations had not always treated the Jews kindly, and now the time had arrived for God to judge them.
The nations named may represent all the Gentiles, since these nations correspond to the four points of the compass: Assyria (north), Cush (south), Moab and Ammon (east), and Philistia (west). During the great Day of the Lord, all the nations of the earth will taste the judgment of God.
Philistia (Zeph. 2:4-7). The Philistines were ancient enemies of the Jews (Gen. 20-21, 26). According to Amos 1:6-8, they took Jewish people captive from cities in southern Judah and sold them to other nations as slaves. But the time would come when their populous cities would be empty and their land left desolate, a place for shepherds to feed their flocks. Their coastal cities, made wealthy by vast shipping enterprises, would be destroyed by the enemy and left in ruins. Nebuchadnezzar invaded Philistia and conquered it, and the only remnant of that great nation left today is the name "Palestine," which comes from "Philistine" (see Ezek. 25:15-28:26).
However, the Jews will inhabit the land of the Philistines when the kingdom is established, and the Lord will enable them to live in peace. Zephaniah will later have more to say about this when he describes the kingdom blessings (Zeph. 3:9-20).
Moab and Ammon (Zeph. 2:8-11). The Moabites and Ammonites originated from Lot's incestuous union with his two daughters (Gen. 19:30-38) and were hateful enemies of the Jews (Num. 22; Judges 3, 10; 1 Sam. 11:1-5; 2 Sam. 12:26ff). But these two arrogant nations would end up like Sodom and Gomorrah, wiped off the face of the earth (Gen. 19; note the connection here with Lot). No more would they insult either the nation of Israel or the God of Israel. (See Amos 1:13-2:3 for further evidence of the wickedness and inhumanity of these two nations.) Once again, the prophet promised that the Jews would occupy the land of their enemies when the kingdom is established (see also Ezek. 25:1-11).
Cush (Zeph. 2:12). This nation was located in the upper Nile region. Some students think the reference includes Egypt, another long time enemy of the Jews. It was Nebuchadnezzar and the swords of the Babylonian soldiers that conquered this ancient nation (Ezek. 30:4-5).
Assyria (Zeph. 2:13-15). Until the rise of Babylon, Assyria had been the dominant power, a ruthless people who were notorious for their pride and their cruelty to their enemies. A century and a half before, God had sent the Prophet Jonah to Assyria's capital city of Nineveh to warn them of God's judgment, and the people had repented, but successive generations went back to the old pagan ways, and Nineveh was destroyed in 612. Within the next few years, the once great Assyrian Empire simply vanished from the face of the earth, and Zephaniah saw it coming.
Because Nineveh thought it was an impregnable city, her citizens were careless and carefree when Zephaniah made his prediction, but God brought both the people and their city down into the dust of defeat. (See the Book of Nahum and Isa. 45; 47:10)
Since the predictions about the destruction of these nations have all come true, isn't it reasonable to assume that Zephaniah's other predictions will also be fulfilled? Each of these local invasions and conquests was a precursor of the end times Day of the Lord, which will come upon the whole world. But when the Day of the Lord has run its course, Israel will be delivered, and the Lord will establish His glorious kingdom on the earth. In the last chapter of his prophecy, Zephaniah explains how the Day of the Lord will relate to this promised kingdom.
Before we leave Zephaniah 1 and 2, we must note some practical truths that apply to believers today. First, God judges His people when they deliberately disobey His law. His people are to be different from the other nations and not imitate their ways or worship their gods (Num. 23:9; Ex. 33:16; Deut. 32:8). "Be not conformed to this world" is an admonition for all believers today (Rom. 12:2; see 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1).
Second, God's promise to Abraham still stands: Those who bless Israel, God will bless; those who curse Israel, God will curse (Gen. 12:1-3). The nations that have sinned against God by mistreating the Jews can expect Him to judge them.
Finally, God's Word is true and will be fulfilled in its time. God's people can claim His promises and know that their God will be faithful, and God's enemies can be sure that His words of warning carry costly penalties. "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Heb. 10:31).