Everyone Accountable

Introduction: Zephaniah introduces his prophecy by identifying himself as one that received the “Word of the Lord.”

That was his primary identification and the thing for which he had come into the world. Contrary to the attitude of those to whom he prophesied, his identification was bound up in the knowledge of God and his will.

Genealogically, God brought him to exist at this time for this purpose as “the son of Cushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah.” Out of all the prophets denominated minor, only three, besides Zephaniah, have even the name of their fathers given. For Zephaniah, however, we see a listing of four generations. We understand this if the Hezekiah mentioned is the king who reigned in Judah ca 715-587 B. C., a reign of almost thirty years. This prophet was the great-great-grandson of Hezekiah. Zephaniah’s knowledge of the princes and the officials was based on his having been within the group of the king’s descendants that received such training.

The particular time in which he was to pronounce the Lord’s message was “in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah“ from 640-609 B. C.. Though a great revival took place during the reign of Josiah around 621, Zephaniah described a state of apostasy. This probably means that he is writing during the minority of his cousin Josiah while protectors are ruling in his stead, that is, before he initiated the reforms of 621 (2 Kings 22:1, 3). The reforms described in 2 Kings 23 could be in part a response to the prophecies of Zephaniah reinforced by the rediscovery of the book of the Law (2 Kings 22:11-13).

Zephaniah states clearly that apostasy still is in the future and will bring forth an awesome display of divine judgment. This judgment will extend beyond the borders of Judah and will involve all the nations of the world in an exquisite display of divine wrath. God, nevertheless, will save a remnant both among the nations (3:9) and in Judah (3:14f). For a statement of this principle in the NT see 2 Peter 2:9.

As emblematic, however, of his zeal for his Name, Yahweh also will execute judgment on Judah. Even the reforms of Josiah did not arrest the downward trajectory of the nation’s spiritual energy for their covenant status.

I. Verses 2 and 3 – A picture of final and universal judgment

A In light of the fact that God will bring final judgment on the entire earth with absolute destruction of all that he has created, one must not think it strange that he will give periodic evidence for and displays of that throughout this present age. In verse 2, God said through Zephaniah that he would “utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth." This included “man and beast, . . . the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea.” Three times he emphasized that he would “sweep away,” one time, referring to ‘everything,’ with the modifier “utterly” and then changed the verb to “cut off.” He reiterates the universality and severity of this judgment in verses 17 and 18. “I will bring distress on mankind. . . . In the fire of his jealousy, all the earth shall be consumed.”” The language pictures an ultimate devastation of this present order. This carries overtones of the judgment of the world at the time of the flood.

B. A New Testament counterpart to this, including the reference to the flood, is found in 2 Peter 3:10-12. “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, etc.” The coming of this ultimate judgment and cleansing has been anticipated with several judgments throughout history (2 Peter 3:5-7).  Zephaniah sets the judgment of Judah in the context of the unalterable holiness and justice of Yahweh.

II. Verses 4 – 6 – In anticipation of this final judgment, God will bring his justice to bear on the crimes and covenant unfaithfulness of Judah.

A. He specifies the target of a special judgment, that, though coming in the form of the brutal attack from a godless nation, God does not hesitate to make it his own action: Verse 4: "I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” When God accomplishes his decrees, he does it through means completely at his disposal within the natural or moral order of the age.

B. The very things against which God warned through Moses as they prepared to go into the land had taken hold of the hearts of the people. In Exodus 34:11-17, God strictly forbad any level of tolerance with the false deities of the people of the land for “the Lord, whose name is jealous, is a jealous God.”

C. As long as Israel had dealt with Baal worship and as vigorous as the denunciation of such had been, still there was a remnant of Baal devotees. God would make a final end to such offensive and sensuous idolatry (Numbers 25:1-9; 1 Kings 18:20-40).

D. For particularly thorough sifting in judgment, the Lord pointed to the priests that led and encouraged the people in this idolatry.  Not only the priests, but even their names would vanish from the earth. This gross idolatry manifest itself in several ways.

1. Straightforward idolatry: “those who bow down on the roofs to the host of the heavens” – They looked to the stars and the moon as peculiarly influential in the affairs of life, and so, like Romans 1 summarized, “worshiped and served the creature rather than the creator.” Josiah deposed these priests and destroyed all the implements of this worship (2 Kings 23:4).

2.  Consent to paganism under the guise of Yahwehh worship: the hypocrisy of those that used the name of the Lord but practiced worship of Molech ([Milcom] 2 Kings 23:10). This worship also is expressly forbidden in Leviticus 18:21; 20:2-5 in such strong terms that the violation of God’s command was a capital offense. This was a peculiarly egregious type of idolatry in that it involved the sacrifice of children in fire. The American abortion industry is an absorption in the pagan devotions of Molech and its rationale often is built on the same search for personal pleasure and autonomy that undergirded that ancient pagan religion. It indicates virtually a pagan disregard for the sacredness of human life.

3. Religionless religious leadership: What a contradiction in concepts that priests, the leaders and teachers of the people in the ways of Yahweh, had “turned back from following the Lord” and neither sought him nor inquired of him, though by office, “the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth” (Malachi 2:7). One mark of a heart that has been brought to a true worship and adoration of God is an ever-elevating desire for the presence of God fueled by a sense of the excellence of Christ (Phil. 3:8; Hebrews 11:25, 26). What could be more worthy of time and energy than to seek the Lord in his beauty and to inquire of the Lord. “One thing have I asked of the Lord,” wrote David in the 27th Psalm, “and that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.” This had become tiresome and meaningless to the priests [!] of uncircumcised hearts and they saw no beauty and felt no delight in the worship of Yahweh.

Nominally Christian ministers that do not see the glory of the gospel and seek to lead a Christian congregation will plant a seed of destruction in a church and, in an attempt to create cultural relevance, will make it irrelevant for eternal purposes.

III. The Day of the Lord is near – He has marked out a time when he will show his holy power in bringing to account all those that have ignored him, despised his law. Those who say, “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do ill” (12). They have been so long in their sin, so cauterized in conscience by their compromise with the world’s idols, so given to the supposed inviolability of the law of personal pleasure that any sense of the true evil of sin has gone. Now the purity and righteous wrath of God seems like a dream in a fantasy that they heard long ago. The shock of reality is about to descend.

Psalm 50 contemplates a situation very similar to this. After showing the covenant unfaithfulness of the people the great I Am rebukes, “You thought that I was one like yourself, but now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you” (Psalm 50:21).

A. God calls for silence and close observation of what he is about to do. “Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the Lord is near.” Again in Psalm 50 we feel a similar warning, “Mark this, then, you who forget God, lest I tear you apart, and there be none to deliver!” (Psalm 50:22).

B. If others ignore the worship that God has required of his people, if they do not bring the required sacrifices with hearts full of repentance and true awe in the presence of the sovereign of the universe, then he himself will show what honor is due to him. If his requirement of sacrifice is ignored, then he himself will provide the sacrifice. But it will not be a substitutionary sacrifice like that provided in stead of Isaac, but the offenders themselves will pay for their own transgressions: “the LORD has prepared a sacrifice and consecrated his guests. 

1. God will punish the officials, that is, those that are in positions of authority in the king’s government. They have not provided training in accordance with the law of God or appropriate reverence for God.

2.  He will punish “the king’s sons and all who array themselves in foreign attire.” They were fascinated with the styles of foreign and pagan nations and indulged themselves in the customs of those nations, in violation of the specific commands of God. They were dissatisfied with domestic provisions as well as with Israelite religion. They had no zeal for the holiness of God and had lost any commitment to the place of Israel as a peculiar people through whom the Messiah would come. They had no perception, as did Abraham, Moses, and David, of Israel’s purpose in the redemptive decree of Yahweh.

3. Verse 9 – “On that day I will punish everyone who leaps over the threshold, and those who fill their master’s house with violence and fraud.” Zephaniah has seen the preying of the rich and powerful on the poor, how they send their servants to enter the homes of the defenseless and take their goods. Everything that they can lay their hands on by their power in accord with the acquisitiveness of their minds they seize by violence and have no fear of retribution. This might occur through the influence they are able to buy before the judges or it might be in the form of pure physical aggressiveness. The image, however, of leaping over the threshold, violating the personal space and property of another, is vivid. But God has seen and he will defend the poor. James 5:1-6 deals with this same reality that receives a prophetic condemnation from the Lord’s brother. The rich and oppressive master and the servant that follows his unrighteous order will see the vengeance of God.


C.  The news of impending disaster will spread from one section of Jerusalem to another. Those places most vital for the food supply and the economy will suffer devastation. Those that increased their wealth by oppression will be robbed of their wealth as they have robbed others.


1. "On that day," declares the LORD, "a cry will be heard from the Fish Gate, a wail from the Second Quarter.” The gate through which the supply of fish came from several places and from a variety of vendors would be the place through which the invaders of Babylon initially broke into the city. The second quarter, or new quarter, was apparently behind another inner wall in that part of the city, so that even this extra protection did not shield them from this scourge sent by Yahweh.

2. “A loud crash from the hills.” The invaders will not need to infiltrate the city through stealth and bring it down from within, but will have such power and confidence in their forces and weapons of war that they pound the city with a loud crash. God described it in detail to Habakkuk “For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own [as apparently was one of the sins for which Judah was being judged]. They are dreaded and fearsome . . . their horses are swifter than leopards . . . their horsemen press proudly on. . . . They all come for violence, all their faces forward. . . . They laugh at every fortress, for they pile up the earth and take it.” (Habakkuk 1:6-10).

3.  Verse 11 – “Wail, O inhabitants of the Mortar! For all the traders are no more; all who weigh out silver are cut off.” The mortar was the market district, so called because it was a topographical depression resembling a giant mortar, and perhaps was a place where in both grain and ore a mortar and pestle were regularly seen. It was especially noted for the bankers that held the hard currency and made a good profit probably at an unfair rate. Did their gold and silver protect them from the invaders? No, it made them the most coveted prize of the invaders that “plundered many nations” (Habakkuk 2:8).

IV. This book follows the canonical principle of Law/Gospel. The severity of condemnation is in direct relation to the immutable holiness of God as revealed in his law with curses attached to its violation. The requirement is “Do this, and live.” The law does not promise mercy or grace, but only promises life on the basis of absolute and perfect obedience that flows from a heart of unrivalled love for God. Gospel comes from a gracious and merciful promise not even hinted at in the Law but that comes in full conformity to the Law, a full righteousness and the life attached to it by the obedience of another (Romans 3:21, 22). For an epitome of these themes see Zephaniah 1:17 and 3:15.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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