Although there is nothing funny about Zephaniah’s prophecy – it does contain a play on words that helps us to find hope in the midst of the terrifying judgement God promises.
Zephaniah’s name means, “the Lord has hidden.” He is the first prophet to bring the word of the Lord to the Hebrew people in almost a hundred years, and that word is “seek the LORD.” That’s LORD with all capital letters – meaning God’s own name for Himself. The message is a command to seek the one true and living God – the God who has not spoken anything new to His people since the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians.
In a sense, God has been hidden for a good while – but is now calling His people in Judah to look for Him, to pay attention to Him as He reveals Himself to them in the midst of King Josiah’s renewal of the Covenant.
Josiah was the great-grandson of King Hezekiah, who carried out his own reforms in Judah. But Hezekiah’s son Manasseh had altars built to the Canaanite goddess Ashtoreth, the Moabite god Chemosh, the Ammonite god Milcom, and the sun, moon, and stars, which were worshipped by the Assyrians. He even reinstated the horrific practice of child sacrifice, and named his own son, Amon – after an Egyptian deity.
So God condemned the neighboring nations in Zephaniah’s prophecy, partly because they were a military threat to God’s people in Judah, but mostly because they were a spiritual threat to His people.
And the curse extended beyond just these neighbors of Judah. The nations listed in Zephaniah 2 represented the entire Gentile world: Philistia was to the west of Judah, Moab-Ammon to the east, Syria to the north, and Ethiopia to the south.
And He ends with Judah again – just to be fair in His judgments, because Judah and her capital city of Jerusalem had sinned every bit as badly as her pagan neighbors. In chapter 3, verse 2: “She obeys no one, she accepts no correction. She does not trust in the LORD, she does not draw near to her God.”
And in verse 7: “I said to the city, ‘Surely you will fear me and accept correction!’ Then her dwelling would not be cut off, nor all my punishments come upon her. But they were still eager to act corruptly in all they did.”
The call to “seek the Lord” is found three times in Zephaniah’s prophecy. Amos used the same message more than a hundred years before, but – as we talked about last week – the revival did not last. This warning was as much for God’s chosen people as for the rest of the nations.
The nations. “Goyim”. Have you ever heard the word used in a Jewish context? It literally means “nations” in a generic sense – but has long been used to mean people who are not Jewish. In other words, the non-Jewish nations – the Gentiles.
Even though they were probably unaware of it before this, one of the messages from God through Zephaniah was that the Gentiles are subject to the same laws as the people of Judah – and will be punished for breaking those laws.
To the Philistines: “I will destroy you, and none will be left.”
To Moab and Ammon: “Surely Moab will become like Sodom, the Ammonites like Gomorrah – a place of weeds and salt pits, a wasteland forever.”
To Ethiopia and the neighboring region: “You too, O Cushites, will be slain by my sword.”
And to Assyria – which had conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel almost a hundred years before: “She said to herself, ‘I am, and there is none besides me.’ What a ruin she has become, a lair for wild beasts! All who pass by her scoff and shake their fists.”
However – the mercy and forgiveness of God is also available to the Gentiles, just as it is to the Chosen People – and through the same means: by seeking the Lord.
We hear echoes in this passage of the second Psalm – the first of the Psalms about the coming Messiah – which asks:
Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One. “Let us break their chains,” they say, “and throw off their fetters.” The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. Then he rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, “I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill.” “You will rule them with an iron scepter; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.” Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth.
In our reading today from Revelation 19, John sees the Rider on the white horse – who is Jesus, coming in glory to judge the nations (there’s that word again) of the world. Verse 15 – which includes a quote from the second Psalm: “Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. ‘He will rule them with an iron scepter.’ He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.”
So Zephaniah’s prophecy is calling the Hebrew and Gentile people of the world to seek the one true and living God – as He would come to them in the person of Jesus Christ. And God calls to the people of the world today to seek God through Jesus Christ – who has promised to come to us again.
Sadly, the vast majority of the Jewish world rejected Jesus as Zephaniah’s Messiah. Sadly, the vast majority of the Gentile world today also rejects Jesus as Messiah.
Zephaniah’s “Day of the LORD” – that is, “Day of Yahweh” – would come by way of the Babylonians, who conquered most of that part of the world.
And it would be just a foreshadowing of the Day of the LORD that is yet to come – when Jesus returns as John saw Him in the Revelation, to judge the nations who have rejected Him. What a judgement that will be!
How do we and all the people of every nation on earth escape? There is only one way to avoid facing that judgement: by seeking the Lord God, as He reveals Himself to us in Jesus Christ.
We turn to Him, instead of away from Him. We ask Him to reveal His will for us to us, and we put that into action. We place our faith in Him instead of in ourselves, our government, our military, our institutions, our employers, our bank accounts, and our best efforts at holiness. Most importantly, we move ourselves and all our other idols off the throne in our lives, and joyfully accept the Lordship of Jesus Christ. And now is the best time to do it.