Chronologically, the prophetic work of Zephaniah falls somewhere between Isaiah and Jeremiah. Like many of the prophets, his message from God is twofold. He warns them of imminent destruction, which alludes to the universal judgment in the last days, but also offers mercy to those who trust in Him and humbly obey His word. How fitting that both sides of God’s character, His love and His justice, are evident in the communication God has with His people.

Memory Text: “The Lord will be awesome [‘terrible’ in the KJV] to them, for He will reduce to nothing all the gods of the earth; people shall worship Him, each one from his place, indeed all the shores of the nations.” NKJV

One can’t help but notice the difference in the use of the words “awesome” and “terrible” in this verse. They seem to hold almost opposite connotations. When something is described as “awesome” in our culture, we think of it in a good context. But “terrible” certainly holds a negative meaning. I really want to know how God’s acts of judgment should be described, since we are so close to these events in our present time as well.

This is when I’m thankful for my parallel Bible, allowing me to see it from several translations and paraphrases. The New International also goes with “awesome”, but the Revised Standard and even the Living Bible uses the word “terrible”. So, I’m left with a real division of thought and wondering how the original language would render the meaning of this word.

Fortunately, one does not have to know Hebrew or Greek when you have a comprehensive Strong’s Concordance on hand. Whether you use it electronically, or the old-fashioned book way (like me), you can discover answers to many Biblical puzzles. After seeing the Hebrew definition in Strong’s, I seemed to get the sense that “terrible”, even “fearful”, were more adequate in describing the punishing, destructive acts of God.

It does refer to being in reverence of something though. And that would fit in with the part of the verse that talked about men worshiping Him at this time. When we see some acts of nature, like natural disasters or even an everyday spring thunderstorm, the power of God in nature does tend to send us to our knees. The events in the last days will be so universal, so supernatural, I’m sure God will be evident, to everyone on the planet, to all the nations.

Sunday: A Day of Darkness (chapter 1)

A very important verse in Zephaniah would also be chapter 1, verse 7, which reads, “Hold thy peace at the presence of the Lord God: for the day of the Lord is at hand: for the Lord hath prepared a sacrifice, he hath bid his guests.” KJV

I wondered what the word “bid” meant here. Other versions use the word “consecrate”. The Hebrew word does denote “consecrate, dedicate, hallow, purify”. But also “appoint, proclaim, and prepare”.

Our real focus in this verse, however, should be “the day of the Lord”, a term used by many Biblical prophets. Our lesson quarterly described this well, as “a specific period of time in which God intervenes in human affairs in order both to save and to judge.” Read more about what Zephaniah has to say about this day in verses 14-18.

The last part of chapter one describes this “day of the Lord” as a day of wrath, trouble and distress, wasteness and desolation, darkness and gloominess, clouds and thick darkness, and even a “day of the trumpet and alarm”. Strong’s definition includes the “punishment of the wicked”, but also a “restoration of the remnant”.

Verse 12 of chapter one brings out a class of people in Jerusalem who will be very surprised when Babylon overtakes them. The verse describes these men as “men that are settled on their lees [the Living Bible says ‘contented in their sins, indifferent to God’]: that say in their heart, The Lord will not do good, neither will he do evil.” KJV

The New International Version calls these people “complacent” and in the next verse we find that they don’t expect their wealth to be plundered and their houses destroyed. As a matter of fact, v. 18 probably refers to them again when it says “neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them”. KJV

How many will be in this category on God’s final day of judgment? Most these days are either trusting in their bank account or trusting that they will win the lottery someday. The rich and poor alike are in danger of depending on the economy to save them. How better to put your trust in the Lord, as Zephaniah is pleading with his people to do.

Monday: The Humble of the Lord (chapter 2)

The first three verses of chapter 2 are the prophet’s call to repentance. He is announcing that there is still time to escape the coming calamities, but only through sincere repentance and humbly seeking the Lord and His righteousness. Verse 3 mentions the meek, or humble, of the earth. There is a remnant who remain faithful and who are led and taught by God.

Nothing says it better than this beautiful passage from Ministry of Healing, p. 182, which says, “Nothing is apparently more helpless, yet really more invincible, than the soul that feels its nothingness and relies wholly on the merits of the Saviour. By prayer, by the study of His word, by faith in His abiding presence, the weakest of human beings may live in contact with the living Christ, and He will hold them by a hand that will never let go.”

Zephaniah goes on to express woes on several heathen nations: Philistia, Moab, Ammon, Cush, and Assyria. But the real shock to his readers comes in chapter three…

Tuesday: A Corrupt City (chapter 3)

A reading of the whole chapter leaves no doubt that the prophet is talking about Jerusalem itself in these verses. He exposes their sins and lays much blame on the leaders who failed to live up to their sacred responsibilities. There was a period of repentance under Josiah’s reign, but the country later apostasized and would soon suffer the same fate as Ninevah, who followed a similar path of repentance and return to sin.

Personal Thought Question: How can I avoid the same fate and protect myself from the coming time of trouble? With the Lord as my only hope, how can I learn to lean more on Him and not trust in the vain, corrupt, and empty things of the world?

Wednesday: God’s Greatest Delight (ch. 3 continued)

The last half of chapter 3 talks about the remnant singing and rejoicing over their deliverance. But the fantastic part of this scene is the picture of God singing a joyful song over His beloved children. We are even given the words to His song in the last three verses of Zephaniah’s writings. I like the New International Version:

“”The sorrows for the appointed feasts I will remove from you; they are a burden and a reproach to you. At that time I will deal with all who oppressed you; I will rescue the lame and gather those who have been scattered. I will give them praise and honor in every land where they are put to shame. At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home. I will give you honor and praise among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortunes before your very eyes.” Zephaniah 3:18-20 NIV

Isaiah also talked about a time when God rejoices in His chosen ones. Isaiah 65:19 says, “And I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in my people: and the voice of weeping shall be no more heard in her, nor the voice of crying.” KJV

Even amidst all the dire warnings in these prophecies of doom, we can find in them hope and comfort that justice will prevail, that God will totally eradicate sin at some point, and it will indeed be worth waiting for.

Thursday: God’s Answer to Injustice (Nahum)

We skipped over the book of Nahum last week, but not for long. The message seemed to fit nicely into the study of Zephaniah, because it brings up the destruction of Ninevah. Ninevah experienced a similar short-lived repentance following the preaching of Jonah, just as Jerusalem saw some reforms during Josiah’s reign.

The book of Nahum reinforces the theme of God’s justice. It may seem like the wicked are winning, but we know that God will ulitimately prevail, that sin will not always be tolerated by God. It has to come to an end. And God is the only one worthy and omniscient enough to know when that end will be.

Nahum 1:15 tells us, “Behold upon the mountains the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace! O Judah, keep thy solemn feasts, perform thy vows: for the wicked shall no more pass through thee; he is utterly cut off.” KJV

And my favorite verse in Nahum, worth memorizing–perhaps you have it underlined in your Bible too: “The Lord is good, a strong hold in the day of trouble; and he knoweth them that trust in him.” Nahum 1:7 KJV

This verse is a fitting summary of all the prophecies we have looked at this quarter. There is no middle ground. We either know and trust God, or we don’t. Jesus himself tells us in Matthew 12:30, “He that is not with me is against me…” Trust Him today!

Next week Haggai will help us get our priorities straight!