The Day of YHWH became all the more imminent during the days of Josiah king of Judah: the appointed time of judgment for Judah and the surrounding nations drew near. YHWH spoke through Zephaniah to warn Judah against its tendency toward idolatry, oppression, and casual indifference toward its God (Zephaniah 1:1-2:2); he also pronounced judgment on all the surrounding nations with condemnation of Assyria as his crescendo (Zephaniah 2:3-15). The Day of YHWH’s sacrifice and anger drew near; more warnings proved necessary. Nevertheless, after the judgment, justice would arise in the morning, and restoration and hope would return to the people of God (Zephaniah 3:1-20).
Zephaniah lamented over and denounced Jerusalem as a rebellious, polluted, oppressive city (Zephaniah 3:1; cf. Zephaniah 3:1-8). First, and most fundamentally, the inhabitants of Jerusalem did not obey the voice of YHWH, did not accept His correction, and did not trust in or draw near to Him (Zephaniah 3:2). They therefore functioned like every other small kingdom of the ancient Near Eastern world. Their rulers devoured the living of their people like a lion or a wolf; their prophets participated in treachery, profaned what is holy, and did violence to God’s instruction (Zephaniah 3:3-4). In contrast, YHWH who dwelt in Jerusalem’s midst is righteous and does not commit iniquity; He brings His justice to light every morning and does not fail, while the unjust revel in shameful deeds (Zephaniah 3:5). YHWH warned Jerusalem: He cuts off nations and destroys cities, leaving them with no inhabitants; all He had asked Israel was to revere Him and receive correction, yet they would not, and corrupted themselves (Zephaniah 3:6-7). The day would now soon come, the day on which YHWH would devour the earth with the fire of His jealousy, pouring out His wrath upon the nations and kingdoms of the world (Zephaniah 3:8).
The Day of YHWH would be terrible and catastrophic, but it would not be the end of the covenant or of God’s covenant loyalty. YHWH promised a restoration for the remnant of the humble and lowly in Israel (Zephaniah 3:9-13): the speech of the people would be made pure so as to call on YHWH and serve Him together, and all His people would return with offerings, even those beyond the rivers of Cush (modern day Sudan; Zephaniah 3:9-10). The people would no longer be put to shame by their rebellion, for God will have removed all who were proud and arrogant, and the haughty would no longer dwell on His mountain (Zephaniah 3:11). Those who remained would be humble and lowly, seeking refuge in YHWH, no longer doing injustice or speaking deceit, and would rest securely (Zephaniah 3:12-13).
Zephaniah continued to speak of God’s restoration of Israel, projecting into the future a time in which Israel and Judah would again rejoice in YHWH (Zephaniah 3:14; cf. Zephaniah 3:15-20). On that day YHWH would demonstrate His forgiveness of Israel, clearing away judgment by taking away their enemies and dwelling in their midst, and they would have no reason to be afraid (Zephaniah 3:15). On that day Israel would be strengthened to apply themselves to labor, for YHWH their God would dwell in their midst, and YHWH is a mighty God who would rejoice over His people in song, and give serenity to them in His love (Zephaniah 3:16-17). YHWH would gather the faithful remnant, those who yearned for the spiritual assemblies of the people of God, and who acutely felt the reproach of the burden Israel bore (Zephaniah 3:18). YHWH would handle those who afflicted Israel, save the lame, gather those driven away, and would make them a praise and a name, overcoming the shame they experienced throughout the earth: they would be gathered in and made a name and praise among the nations of the earth when He would bring them back from captivity (Zephaniah 3:19-20).
In this way YHWH spoke to Judah through Zephaniah. Zephaniah represented the substance of the prophetic message YHWH sent to Israel and Judah in summary: the Day of YHWH was coming against Israel and/or Judah, since they had abandoned their God and had become as the rest of the ancient Near Eastern nation-states, serving all sorts of gods, oppressing the poor and marginalized, and participating in immorality and decadence; the Day of YHWH was coming against the nations, for they had slandered and abused the people of God; after the judgment YHWH would heal His people by restoring them to their place and rejoicing in them again (Zephaniah 1:1-3:20).
The end of the message is as important as its beginning, but its purpose in its context must always be honored. YHWH was righteously indignant against Judah and the nations, and His Day of sacrifice and anger would be satisfied; but that would not be Israel’s end. YHWH would still prove loyal to His covenant and would manifest steadfast love to Israel. There would be healing and restoration. Israel would have reason to hope in YHWH, but not yet: judgment would have to come first, for the people would not return to YHWH. Israel would have to learn their lesson the hard way. It would require the complete devastation of the foundation of everything in which they believed and accepted for them to recognize the enormity of their separation from their God and what life was like when YHWH removed His presence for them and gave them over to the fate of all the nations of the world. Then, and only then, would some humble themselves and accept YHWH’s chastening, and YHWH would rejoice in them and restore them to their place.
YHWH always has a message of hope and joy for those who are downtrodden, the meek and humble of the earth, and those who have undergone His chastening and trials. The situation of the people of God is never hopeless, no matter how dire. But when the people of God live in decadence, as alienated from their God, taking comfort in such hope as if it will not involve the suffering and tribulation of the Day of YHWH is folly. Those who live according to the world but profess the God of Israel have no share in this hope of restoration and comfort; it comes only for those who look to YHWH and trust in Him!
All Zephaniah prophesied would come to pass. The Assyrians would fall to the Chaldeans; the Chaldeans would overrun Judah and Philistia; over time all the nations of the Levant would come under judgment. YHWH would again restore His people, in part in a return from the exile, but in its fullness through the work of the embodiment of Israel, Jesus of Nazareth, and in the Kingdom established in His life, death, resurrection, and ascension, the fulfillment of all the hopes of restoration and reign of God nurtured and nourished by the prophets. This hope would extend not only to those in Israel according to the flesh: in Jesus God would cleanse the nations, and all from any nation who would submit to God in faith could receive adoption as sons, participate as fellow citizens among the holy ones, inherit the promise of faith in Abraham, and be reckoned among the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16, Ephesians 2:11-22). God’s justice comes in the morning: Israel suffered judgment and the remnant of the people of God find restoration in YHWH. May we share in the restoration of the remnant of God’s people, have YHWH’s justice shine on us, and obtain the resurrection of life in Jesus the Lord and Christ of God!
Ethan R. Longhenry