Karl Menninger graduated from Harvard Medical School with academic distinction (cum laude). A few years later, Dr. Menninger founded the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, where he practiced psychiatry, founded a sanitarium, established a foundation, and gained worldwide fame. Menninger refused to divorce his understanding of the human mind from human will and good psychiatry from sound theology. He wrote several books during his successful career, notably a bestseller titled, Whatever Became of Sin?
I seriously doubt that any book with the word “sin” in the title would sell in today’s publishing marketplace. One hundred years after Menninger graduated from an elite medical school, we rarely talk about sin or acknowledge it as the source of pain and anguish in the world. One well-known preacher of positive, self-esteem-boosting sermons admits that even he avoids talking about sin because it is negative and shaming. For that reason, his pew-packed church has probably never heard a sermon from the Old Testament book of Zephaniah.
Like the prophet Joel, Zephaniah’s theme is the awesome day of the Lord. Around 625 B.C., he made it crystal clear why God’s judgment was near for Judah, “because they have sinned against the Lord” (1:17). The Minor Prophet’s diagnosis of Israel’s condition was correct, but the prognosis was not good. Like shock therapy for the soul, God’s righteous and just judgment was the prescription, followed by the promise of restoration for a repentant remnant. Healing, not harm, is always God’s desired end.
Two words summarize the book of Zephaniah: Wrath and blessing. These twin ideas serve as bookends and cannot be separated from the character of God. The Lord begins with a warning for Judah, “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth” (1:2), and He concludes with reference to the future Millennial Kingdom, “At that time I will bring you in … and restore your fortunes before your eyes” (3:20). What Zephaniah says between the bookends is a worthwhile study and should make us wonder what became of sin at the end of the age.
Zephaniah begins with a strong historical reference in 1:1, “The word of the Lord that came to Zephaniah the son of Cushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah, in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah.”[i]
From this opening, we learn that Zephaniah was the great-great-grandson of King Hezekiah, making him the only prophet of royal lineage. Perhaps this gave him greater access to Judah’s political leadership as he ministered “in the days of Josiah,” a good king who introduced many reforms that led to a revival among God’s people (2 Chronicles 34-35). It is possible that Zephaniah helped Judah prepare for Josiah’s reforms and perhaps contributed to them.
Zephaniah grew up during the reign of Josiah’s evil predecessors, King Manasseh (Josiah’s grandfather) and Manasseh’s son. Zephaniah’s faith in God is noteworthy given the idolatry, unjust killings, and child sacrifice that surrounded him as a youth.
The Day of the Lord
The description of judgment in 1:2-6 is not for the fainthearted and required reverential silence. After sweeping away beasts, birds, and fishes of the sea, the Lord declares, “I will cut off mankind from the face of the earth.” A wordplay exists in the Hebrew language that hints further at creation. “I will cut off adam from the face of the adamah.” In other words, I will reverse creation, reducing Adam to the dust from which he came.
Then, the Lord pinpoints his fury against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem. They are idolaters “who have turned back from following the Lord, who do not seek the Lord or inquire of him.” This serves as another reminder from the prophets that judgment always begins at the house of God (1 Peter 4:7).
Zephaniah quickly returns to a common theme among the Minor Prophets, the awesome day of the Lord (1:7-2:3), which might have inspired the great medieval hymn Dies irae (“Day of Wrath”), ascribed to Thomas of Celano in 1256 A.D.[ii] The day of the Lord is hardly a slap on the hand for a few disobedient children. Rather, the Lord’s day of wrath is a swift, sweeping, and devastating destruction brought upon evildoers. On the day of the Lord, nobody is exempt from punishment, including “the officials and the king's son and all who array themselves in foreign attire” (1:8). Zephaniah, a child of royal descent, does not even acquit the elite.
In Bible prophecy, the day of the Lord is near and far, immediate and ultimate, historical and eschatological. To his immediate audience, Zephaniah says, “The day of the Lord is near” (1:7). No doubt, this was in reference to the Babylonians who invaded Jerusalem in three sieges, beginning in 605 B.C. The Lord says, “At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the men who are complacent, those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do ill.’” The prophet leaves no doubt as to what will happen to those who remain indifferent to the Lord’s warnings.
A few verses later, Zephaniah refers to the day of the Lord a second time, using the superlative “great.”
The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter; the mighty man cries aloud there. A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements. … Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them on the day of the wrath of the Lord. 1:14-15, 18
As quickly as chapter 1 closes with “a full and sudden end” of Jerusalem, chapter 2 begins with a generous call to repentance, a pattern we have seen with other prophetic writings.
Gather together, yes, gather, O shameless nation, before the decree takes effect—before the day passes away like chaff—before there comes upon you the burning anger of the Lord, before there comes upon you the day of the anger of the Lord. Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do his just commands; seek righteousness; seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the anger of the Lord. 2:1-3
Zephaniah writes with urgency, telling God’s people to seek the Lord “before the decree takes effect.” Approximately twenty years passed before the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem, an example of the Lord’s long-suffering.
Judgment on the Judah’s Enemies
For the remainder of chapter 2, Zephaniah turns his prophetic attention to the surrounding nations, Judah’s enemies. First, he pronounces judgment against Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Ekron. Then, the Lord warns the inhabitants of the seacoast—the Cherethites, who were elite mercenaries employed by King David from among the Philistines. The entire coastal area “shall become the possession of the remnant of the house of Judah” (2:7).
Furthermore, the Lord will make Moab “like Sodom and Gomorrah” for taunting His people, and “he will make Nineveh a desolation” (2:13). God will reduce the secure, haughty Assyrians to nothing, making their glorious capital city a place where “everyone who passes by her hisses and shakes his fist” (2:15). This is a strong warning from the Lord. What man pridefully builds, God will quickly destroy.
Chapter 3 continues with warnings to both Jerusalem and the nations (3:1-8). “Woe to her who is rebellious and defiled, the oppressing city!” God sets His eyes on cities, seeing those who are “eager to make all their deeds corrupt.” Moreover, the Lord is decisive and proactive, acting in His own way and time. “For my decision is to gather nations, to assemble kingdoms, to pour out upon them my indignation, all my burning anger; for in the fire of my jealousy all the earth shall be consumed” (3:8). The day of the Lord is truly a day to fear.
Restoration and the Millennial Kingdom
Zephaniah ends on a high note, full of hope and blessing for both the nations of the world and Israel (3:9-20). Twice, the courageous prophet reuses the phrase “on that day,” this time in reference to the ultimate, eschatological day of the Lord (3:11, 16), which happens when Jesus Christ returns to defeat His enemies at the Battle of Armageddon. After pouring out His wrath upon the nations, the Lord will bless the regathered, redeemed, restored, and rejoicing remnant who believe, Jew and Gentile. Read these words and rejoice with them.
“On that day you shall not be put to shame because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against me; for then I will remove from your midst your proudly exultant ones, and you shall no longer be haughty in my holy mountain. But I will leave in your midst a people humble and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord, those who are left in Israel; they shall do no injustice and speak no lies, nor shall there be found in their mouth a deceitful tongue. For they shall graze and lie down, and none shall make them afraid.” 3:11-13
Under the righteous rule of Jesus Christ, Israel will inherit all the covenant blessings promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As promised, Christ will sit on King David’s throne in Jerusalem, ushering in Israel’s future golden age for one thousand years, known as the Millennial Kingdom. With hope-filled euphoria, Zephaniah continues and concludes.
Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem!The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: “Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival, so that you will no longer suffer reproach. Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you in, at the time when I gather you together; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,” says the Lord. 3:14-20
Whatever became of sin? On the one hand, the day of the Lord is a reminder that the righteous God of heaven never winks at sin, nor does He pass it off as a mere sickness that requires man’s self-help medication. Sin is a serious offense to a holy God and must be judged by Him. The preacher who never talks about sin because it is too negative is like an oncologist who never diagnoses cancer because the thought of it is too painful for his patients. Clergy malpractice is just as bad as medical malpractice.
On the other hand, for those who repent, seek the Lord, and walk humbly before Him, the day of the Lord is a reminder that God forgives and is willing to bless us immeasurably. Jesus delivers us from the wrath to come through His death upon the cross (1 Thessalonians 1:10). Also, the promises of God are yes and amen! One day, Christ will return to judge evildoers and then welcome His repentant children into His kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10), and ultimately into His eternal dwelling.
[i] The reference to Zephaniah being “the son of Cushi” could refer to (1) his Cushite ethnicity, (2) his dark skin, (3), his place of birth, or (4) the name given to his father in honor of the Cushites. The geopolitical struggle between the Assyrians and Cushites, rulers of Egypt, provides much of the background in Zephaniah 2:1-3:13.
[ii] Britannica, Book of Zephaniah, accessed on October 22, 2021, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Book-of-Zephaniah