Zephaniah Chapters 1-2 – John Karmelich



1.                  To explain what the short three-chapter book of Zephaniah is all about, I should start with a little perspective.  If you've been with me since I started this series on the Minor Prophets, you might have noticed a pattern that emerged since we started this series:

a)                  God's mad at His chosen people for failing to live as He expects them (and us) to live.

b)                  God's going to punish His people harshly.  The issue isn't salvation, but failing to live as He desires we live as a witnesses for Him.

c)                  God's going to punish nonbelievers eternally because the world is full of evidence that He exists, but such people ignore that evidence and only live for their own pleasure.

d)                  God then explains His future plans to rule over the world with His chosen people.  That means He won't completely wipe them out so they can exist when Jesus returns to rule.

e)                  These prophets give predictions about the near-term and long-term future to validate the fact that the God of the Universe spoke to them.  Realize we've now studied seven of the twelve minor prophets.  That style of message has been woven through all these studies so far.  My simple point is that's the pattern we've seen throughout this series to date.

f)                   My question is, isn't this getting old by now?  When will be doing something different?

i)                    Part of the answer will be the last three Old Testament prophets. God willing we'll get to them after two Zephaniah lessons.  This is the last of the books written prior to Israel being destroyed by a foreign empire. The last three were written after that returned from exile as if to say, "See, I told all of you I'm not done with My people as a unique entity and I'm sending messages through a few more prophets before the "First Coming of the Messiah" to prove that fact that what I say is true."

2.                  All of that leads me back to Zephaniah.  He's the last prophet Israel had prior to being kicked out of that land by the Babylonian Empire.  So if we get that pattern, why study this book? In other words, what's in it for me by reading a study of Zephaniah?  As always, glad you asked.

a)                  I think of Zephaniah as a great summary of the Minor Prophets to date.  If you asked me to pick one of these books that summarizes God's plans for the world, I think Zephaniah's the best summary of God's intentions.  While, it doesn't give us much new stuff that hasn't been said so far in this series, it summarizes God's game plan for mankind arguably better than any of the books we've read so far in this series.

b)                  So if I've already laid out God's big-picture plans for mankind to open this lesson with my introduction, why read further?  For starters, I'm not a prophet of God.  I just study them as one who's convinced they were sent by God.  I do my best to explain what it is they're trying to teach us.  By studying some Middle East history when they wrote, one can see the accuracy of their predictions.  More importantly, it shows us that God knows history before it occurs. That alone is a great reason to study the books of the Minor Prophets.  If God explains history before it occurs, then we can learn what is mankind's destiny before it is written.  It's like saying, "Here's our game plan, it is going to occur as God says, so we might as well be involved in the winning team's plan as it'll occur that way".  Besides that, living as God desires will bring us far more joy than any other way to choose to live let alone the motivation to be in heaven versus hell.

c)                  OK then, that's the big picture.  Assume that those of reading this are Christians and we believe that.  Why study Zephaniah to remind us of it?  Because God called him before the final destruction of Israel occurs the that God's plans for His people are not over, despite the tragedy that's about to occur.  This is a good reminder for us when life is at it's worst, that it's not over.

d)                  A wise man once said, if you walk into any house, you'll find out that the "wall's bleed".  What he meant is that every home has problems that those living there must deal with.  In the case of Zephaniah, God's trying to tell us, despite those issues, "It's not over".

3.                  When I think of Zephaniah, I think of that message, "it's not over".  Yes, that's my lesson title as I cover this book in two lessons.  Now that I've made that point, let me give explain the who's what when's and why's of this book.  By the way, I don't give these facts for you to memorize them.  If you asked me when each of the prophets was written, I'd have to look them up myself.  My point is simply that I give these background facts to help us understand the setting of the book.  It's not that God's going to quiz us on dates and meanings of bible names when we get to heaven.  God is far more interested in us using our lives as a witness for Him, then He is us knowing the history of these prophets.  Bottom line, read this stuff about Zephaniah's background, learn the setting of the story and don't worry if a week from now you can't recall some of these facts.  Here goes:

a)                  Zephaniah's name essentially means "God hides".  It's the idea that God hides facts about His plans for mankind within the pages of the bible for us to read and discover.

b)                  Zephaniah wrote about 630 BC.  We can say that fairly certainty within a few years.  He gives his family background in the first verse of his book and tells us who the Israel king was, at the time he wrote this book.  A little more background would help here.

i)                    The last two Israel kings before the date of this book (again Verse 1), were very bad.  They led the Israelites into idolatry.  The king who ruled when Zephaniah wrote started a reformation. Most scholars date this book near the start of Israel's reformation and a reason for Zephaniah's ministry may have been to encourage it.

ii)                  Still most of his message, focus on God's planned destruction of the world. So the Israelites would realize they're not exempt from it, he focuses verses on it's death as well as places around Israel. It's as if God's saying, "I'm not messing around and the world as you know it is about to come to an end.  Still, if individuals turn from the idolatry all around them, it may spare them from the upcoming destruction as well as become a good witness for God in spite of all that's occurring."

iii)                The "where" is the Southern Israel Kingdom. For my newcomers, Israel split into two kingdoms a few hundred years earlier. The "North" was called Israel and the "South" was called Judah.  The "North" came to an end about one hundred years before Zephaniah and the residents there are now part of the Assyrian Empire.  When this book was written, the Assyrian empire was dying and the Babylonians were on the rise.  They were both major empires that ruled much of the Middle East as well as parts of Europe and Asia for a long time.  Zephaniah states that he's a great grandson of King Hezekiah who ruled in the Southern Kingdom.  That's from the opening verse of this three chapter book.  Zephaniah was not a king but he does have "royal blood" so that gave him authority to speak to the leaders in that kingdom.

c)                  God gave Zephaniah this three-chapter message to preach to the Israelites living in the Southern Kingdom within a short time of its destruction.  The key point of this book is despite all the destruction that's coming, it's also unavoidable.  God's not through with His people.  That's His message as the Israelites and to us as well no matter what it is we're dealing with in our lives as well.  With that said, time for details.

4.                  Zephaniah 1, Verse 1:  The word of the LORD that came to Zephaniah son of Cushi, the son of Gedaliah, the son of Amariah, the son of Hezekiah, during the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah:

a)                  If you learn one thing from studying the prophets, is they come from many different backgrounds. I'm reminded of Amos who brags essentially "He's a no one from nowhere".  Here Zephaniah is saying he comes from "royal blood".  His great grandfather was a king in the Southern Kingdom.  Zephaniah wasn't a king, but it does make him "royal blood" and a good choice by God to predict the upcoming destruction of what's left of Israel.

b)                  The other key thing we learn here is he preached during the reign of Josiah.  He started to rule at the age of eight.  His father and grandfather were both "rotten kings" to put it very mildly.  Scholars date Zephaniah early in Josiah's reign before this good king got rolling.

5.                  Verse 2:  "I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth," declares the LORD.

a)                  As we can see, Zephaniah doesn't waste any time.  He's called to be prophet and tells us of God's plans for ultimate destruction.  What's far more important than his family line is the fact that God picked him to speak on His behalf to tell both the Israelites as well as us readers what'll happen in the short term and long term future.

b)                  Before I do that, I'd like to make a few points about the phrase  "The day of the Lord". My main point is it doesn't just refer to "the" end times.  While it often does, it also can refer to anytime God works in a major way, either good or bad.  Let's face it, if the country we live in gets destroyed with a large percentage being killed and the survivors relocated to other places in the world, that would be an example of the "Day of the Lord".  Yes, that's what happened to Israel soon after Zephaniah wrote via the Babylonian invasion. Realize it also happened many hundreds of years again to Israel when the Romans destroyed it.  I am also convinced that Israel being back in that land after 2,000 years is another example of the "Day of the Lord".  While God can work in any one of our lives at any time, He can also do grand scale things anytime He wants.  Let's face it, if He created the world, He's free to do whatever He wants with it.

c)                  With that understood, the next thing to realize is that bible prophesy is also "patterns". All that means is many bible predictions have short term and long term fulfillments.  Realize when you read passages like Zephaniah Chapter 1, there's a lot of "immediate" fulfillment as Israel was destroyed soon after Zephaniah wrote it.  There's also distant fulfillment as he's alludes to the end of the world as we know it.

d)                  Let's face it, if God's saying through Zephaniah that He will destroy everything that lives off the face of the earth, that's pretty serious stuff. Yes, it's also describing the Babylonian takeover of the world around there at that time.  I'm also positive it refers to the end of the world as we know it.

e)                  Time for the first tough question of the lesson.  So if God loves us, cares for us, and wants to spend eternity with us, why destroy the world as we know it?  If He created our world to live in, why destroy what He created?  The first answer is this world is incurably rotten by sin.  God's desire to destroy it one day is also His desire to create something better that we as humans can live in.  God's original intent with Adam and Eve was to create a world where He can have a close relationship with people.  God knew they would sin, but He wanted us (each generation) to see the long-term consequences of that choice.  Eventually it has to end, just as it had to have a beginning.  That "end" is when "THE" Day of the Lord is going to happen.  OK, enough on that, time to get back to Zephaniah.

6.                  Verse 3:  "I will sweep away both men and animals; I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. The wicked will have only heaps of rubble when I cut off man from the face of the earth," declares the LORD.

a)                  If you have any doubt God's got the "whole world in focus", I present Verse 3.  Yes, this is alluding to the upcoming Babylonian invasion (from those in Israel at that time), but if it's going to include the death of all animals and fish, it's got to be bigger in scope than that.

b)                  Time for another important question:  Those of us who are committed Christians accept the idea that God created the world and He's going to destroy it one day.  Why remind us of that fact?  After all, we have lives to live and we can't change what is His timing.  Why can't we just go on living and whenever this happens, deal with it at that time?  The point is about putting our lives into perspective.  It's about seeing our problems in perspective of God's plans for the world.  How important is our latest "project" versus the world as we know it being destroyed one day!  Yes we still have to keep our commitments to whatever needs to get done, but one should keep the big picture in mind as one goes through life.  It makes us realize what's really important and what isn't.  It's to realize that God wants us to use our lives as a witness for Him.  The fact that this world is headed for destruction should remind us of what's really important as we go through life.

7.                  Verse 4:  "I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all who live in Jerusalem. I will cut off from this place every remnant of Baal, the names of the pagan and the idolatrous priests-- 5 those who bow down on the roofs to worship the starry host, those who bow down and swear by the LORD and who also swear by Molech, 6 those who turn back from following the LORD and neither seek the LORD nor inquire of him.

a)                  Sometimes the "big picture" is too big for us to handle.  We need to hear how it affects our home-life before we can take it seriously. It's as if an Israelite reads Verses 2-3 and realizes we know He's going to destroy this world one day, what does any of that have to do with my life right now?  The fact that Zephaniah jumps from describing the earth's destruction to Israel's destruction is his way of "taking this home!"  It's his way of saying, it's not just all those nonbelievers who will suffer, but those of us who claim to be believers are going to suffer as badly!

b)                  As I said in the introduction, the last two Israelite kings were really bad news.  They were responsible for turning their country against God and allowing the worship of many other so-called gods in Israel.  Without getting into a big lecture about what was Baal or Molech let's just say it was really bad news.  Baal worship was a god of nature.  Babies were killed in order to show one's loyalty to Molech.  When the text says "worship the starry host" it's a reference to trusting in astrology to determine our future.  Yes, I can make comparisons to each of these gods and how in effect they're still worshipped today.

c)                  As the old saying goes, "The issue isn't them, but us."  These verses show that Israel won't be exempt from God's punishment.  If Zephaniah only preached Verses 2-3, the Israelites can say, "Yes the world will end one day, so what?"  By focusing the message on Israel in these verses, it's a reminder of who God's really focusing His anger upon!

d)                  Like I said at the start of this lesson, God holds believers to a higher standard.  If we know more about Him, He holds us accountable for what we know.  Yes the entire world will be destroyed as sin is an incorruptible influence with no cure.  Still, God has to be tougher on those He holds to a higher standard if for no other reason than to show He demands we're obedient and not just giving Him lip service.

8.                  Verse 7:  Be silent before the Sovereign LORD, for the day of the LORD is near. The LORD has prepared a sacrifice; he has consecrated those he has invited.  8 On the day of the LORD's sacrifice I will punish the princes and the king's sons and all those clad in foreign clothes.

a)                  OK what's Verses 7-8 all about?  Here we were in the previous verses describing how the Israelites were doomed for seeking gods that were not theirs.  So why does the latter part of Verse 7 describe a sacrifice being set up for God?

b)                  It may help to paraphrase this:  "Hey everybody watch, the great judgment day is here.  I am about to make my people be sacrificed for disobedience.  Everyone living there will be suffering, even my fellow "royal bloods".  Remember how I said in my lesson introduction how God used the Babylonians to punish the Israelites for disobedience?  That's what we are reading about here.  Remember that the expression "the day of the Lord" isn't just a reference to the world ending, it's also used to describe a great time of God's judgment.

c)                  Ok John, if that's the way it works, why did God allow the Holocaust in World War II? As I like to say, I'm not God, ask Him. The only good that came out of that is that event made it possible for the Israelites to return to their homeland.  A similar question might be, why didn't God send warnings then like He did, before the Babylonian invasion?  One can ask the same question about the Roman destruction as well. The way I view life is He expects obedience on the individual level and work as a community to make a difference for Him.  If God has some greater scheme than that, it's His business.  If we live forever, that means this short time we have here is "His theatre" to accomplish a greater good.

d)                  What I get out of these verses is another reminder that "God isn't to be messed with".  The consequences are horrid as these verses remind us.

e)                  OK time to climb out of the theological hole I just dug and get back to the text.

9.                  Verse 9:  On that day I will punish all who avoid stepping on the threshold, who fill the temple of their gods with violence and deceit.

a)                  As we can see by Verse 9, God's not done condemning Israel for their sins.  We'll get more examples in this verse as well as the next few.

b)                  Verse 9 has a strange reference that requires a quick explanation.  A next-door neighbor of the Israelites was a group called the Philistines.  They've been a "pain the Israel's side" for hundreds of years and have lived in part of what is Israel today.  Their god was "Dagon" A ritual to honor Dagon was to "step over the threshold".  It symbolizes stepping over the world to honor this false god.  Some think the marriage ritual of carrying a bride over the threshold of a house came from this verse, but that's debatable.

c)                  The real point here is the Israelites were adapting customs of foreign gods while claiming to honor the true God.  If "this doesn't sound like much of a crime", realize the Israelites at this point were turning to every god but their own and doing a ritual to a foreign god.

d)                  Verse 9 implies that the Israelites were doing these things in God's temple.  It was making a mockery of the worship of the true God.

e)                  The last part of the verse speaks of mockery and deceit. Remember that the last two kings of Israel were really bad news. They stole and cheated the people and honored many local deities but didn't honor God.  I'm reminded of an old definition of an "Agnostic Jew".  It is one who understands what the god they don't believe in requires of them!"  I say that here as it appears that the Israelites leaders understood that God demands obedience but they didn't care because they figured if "the" God got them there, He'll never destroy that place because His temple was there.  Boy, were they in for a shock, which can summarize this whole chapter about the coming destruction!  Speaking of destruction, back to the text.

10.              Verse 10:  "On that day," declares the LORD, "a cry will go up from the Fish Gate, wailing from the New Quarter, and a loud crash from the hills.  11 Wail, you who live in the market district; all your merchants will be wiped out, all who trade with silver will be ruined.

a)                  I don't know if I ever stated this, but I came from a long line of professional fisherman. All my ancestors from my grandparents on back, were fishermen.  I state that because if one's ever been to a fresh fish market or been around a big pile of fish, one can't miss the smell.

b)                  Now that I snuck in my fishy background, let me explain what's going on.  In the old city of Jerusalem, there were a number of gates into the city.  The gate facing the Sea of Galilee was where the fish were brought in.  That's why it was called the "Fish Gate" as just inside of that gate is where merchants bought and sold fish.

c)                  I believe Zephaniah is singling out that gate as an example of life as we know it coming to an end.  The City of Jerusalem has historically been divided into four quarters.  That is the way it is today as well.  The area by the "Fish Gate" was a business district.  In these verses Zephaniah is painting a picture of destruction so bad, all the things that we're accustomed to seeing will come to an end.

d)                  Before I continue with all this ancient history stuff, let's pause to remember why all of this is part of the bible.  Not to learn of the death of Israel back then.  It's a reminder that until God says "Life is over", it never is.  He expects and demands obedience of Christians.  We too can suffer a horrid price if we fail to be a witness for Him.  Doubts about that?  Think of pastor's lives who've been ruined by scandals.  Think of churches that no longer exist as they fail to be a witness for Him.  God's standard for obedience is around today as it was in this period of history as well.  OK enough guilt for these verses, let's move on.

11.              Verse 12:  At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps and punish those who are complacent, who are like wine left on its dregs, who think, `The LORD will do nothing, either good or bad.'

a)                  This is a colorful way of saying, "No one will be spared".  The reference to searching out all of Jerusalem is a reminder that God's judging all His people. Again many might think they'd be spared as they're "royal blood" or they're nonreligious to begin with.  The point's that we're accountable for what we know about Him whether we like it or not.

12.              Verse 13:  Their wealth will be plundered, their houses demolished. They will build houses but not live in them; they will plant vineyards but not drink the wine.

a)                  Zephaniah is making more effort to describe how bad the damage will be as what's left of Israel will be destroyed by the Babylonian invasion.  As I've stated in previous lessons, the way Babylonian soldiers get paid is they get to keep part of the loot they steal.  That's why we read of wealth being plundered and homes destroyed.  The reason for destroying the plants that grow is essentially to say, "we're wiping out your economy, so those who'll not die in this siege have to be taken into captivity as they'll be nothing to eat around here".

b)                  Remember why the Babylonians and the Assyrians had practiced prisoner relocation. It was to prevent rebellion.  When they break up families and scatter them all over their big empire, they're less likely to rebel as they've lost their sense of family and community.

c)                  OK John, this is horrible to think about and I'm glad I don't have to deal with this.  Since it is ancient history, why should I care?  The issue for us is God will do what He has to do in order to get our focus back on Him.  This is God saying, "If this is what it takes for people that I've called to be a witness for Me, so be it."  It's God's elaborate, "Carrot and the stick" program to use a simple analogy.  The "carrot" is the promise that our life will be joyful if we live as He desires.  Think of it this way, if we don't steal or murder, we have no reason to fear the authorities.  I don't go to church because I have to.  I go to church to honor the God who created me in the first place.  All I'm saying is there is a joyful life in the "carrot".

i)                    God won't violate our free will.  He'll use the "stick" to get our focus back on Him as the reason He created us in the first place is to have a relationship with us with us using our lives to make a difference for Him.

ii)                  The issue isn't that God "needs" us as if He needs something.  The issue is because He loves us, He wants the best for our lives.  That's why He gives us a set of laws to live under in the first place. We don't obey them to earn His love. We obey them out of gratitude for what He's done for us.

iii)                Anyway, that's the "carrot and stick" philosophy that God uses to draw us close to Him, make us dependant upon Him so that we use our lives to glorify Him. When we fail to live that way, is when the "stick comes down" as the Israelites read about here in this verse.

iv)                Now that I've scared everyone half to death, I've done my job.  Onto Verse 14.

13.              Verse 14:  "The great day of the LORD is near-- near and coming quickly. Listen! The cry on the day of the LORD will be bitter, the shouting of the warrior there.

a)                  I've already beat over our heads the point that "The day of the Lord" isn't just the world's end as we know it.  It's also about the end of our present life.  When Zephaniah wrote this the Assyrian Empire controlled a huge area that including part of the Southern Israelite kingdom as well as the whole Northern One.  The Southern one where Zephaniah lived was about to end as the Babylonians are now the "big boys on the block".  Realize it's only a short time before the Babylonian king will work his way through Israel as to make the point, "We're in charge now, deal with it.  Be killed or relocated, that's your two options!"

b)                  Part of the message is to say, "Last call, destruction is coming, get right with God as life as one knows it is about to end.  I wonder how many people actually listened to Zephaniah as he preached this "doom and gloom" message soon before things got bad.  The Israelite king at the time of the preaching did some reforms that may have delayed the inevitable.

c)                  To state what should be obvious by now, hopefully as we read this, it's a reminder for us to stick close to God as that's why we were created in the first place.

14.              Verse 15:  That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness, 16 a day of trumpet and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the corner towers.

a)                  Just when you think Zephaniah can't get any darker or gloomier than he has so far, we get more verses saying "doom and gloom" are coming as God Himself made it clear to me.

b)                  Remember why Zephaniah is trying to "scare" his audience.  They think that life will just go on like everything is normal. At this point in Middle East History, the Assyrian Empire is on the decline and the Babylonians haven't emerged yet.  I could just see most Israelites thinking, "Hey, the Assyrians are no longer a threat, the last two kings let us worship any god we felt like it and life goes on as normal.  Yes, the latest king is trying to get all of us back to worshipping God, so why preach all this doom and gloom Zephaniah?"

i)                    The answer is the Israelites have to learn the hard way, God's got a limit to what He's willing to put up with.  I don't know how to measure His patience, but I'm aware there's a limit to it, based on historical evidence.

ii)                  Remember as a Christian, there are two separate issues: Our salvation and how we act as a witness for Him.  The same applies to the Israelites back then.  God judges them based on their knowledge of Him and what they did with that knowledge. If they believe all the right things, and don't act as His witness, that's when the clock starts on His patience.  I have no idea what that time limit is, I just know pushing it is harmful to my health, so I try to use my life as a witness for Him.

iii)                So are you saying live as God desires or He'll "zap" us?  No idea.  More likely He'll let you live with the consequences of our choices. Again, the issue is that time's the most valuable thing we own.  Failure to live as God desires is hazardous to our life and living as He desires will bring us far more joy than anything else we can chose to do in this lifetime.

c)                  All that scare topic, leads me right back to these verses.  Remember that Zephaniah lived in Jerusalem as he was "royal blood".  These verses are describing Jerusalem's destruction from the homes to the city walls.  He's describing his own family's end as well as Israel's.

d)                  Specifically Zephaniah uses very dark terminology as to imply whatever's about to occur, is very bad and there won't be many survivors.  Speaking of doom and gloom, let's move on to Verse 17, as the last two chapters finishes Zephaniah's point here.

15.              Verse 17:  I will bring distress on the people and they will walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the LORD. Their blood will be poured out like dust and their entrails like filth.  18 Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the LORD's wrath. In the fire of his jealousy the whole world will be consumed, for he will make a sudden end of all who live in the earth."

a)                  I can get into the "blood and guts" details here, but I think Zephaniah does a pretty good job of it himself. The better question is why:  Notice he answers that question near the end of the first sentence:  "They have sinned against the LORD".  For the newcomers, when the word "LORD" is in all capitals, it's God's most holy name as in "Jehovah".  As I've stated in the last page or so, "God's not to be messed with" and these horrid descriptions are proof of that view.

b)                  Let me pause for a moment to address the devout Christian who's thinking, I honor God so why should I worry about all this stuff?  I know God is to be feared, so why should I be focusing on all this "doom and gloom" stuff?  I could give the no one is perfect lecture, but that misses the point. The point is we should seek Him as to ask, OK God, my time is now Your time, how do You want me to use it today?  What we accomplished for God before, may not be His will for us today.  I'm not saying we have to fear being "zapped" at every moment, but I'm saying we constantly need to remind ourselves that He's in charge, we're not and as the old English saying goes, "If not for the grace of God, there go I".

c)                  Meanwhile, I left the Israelites in big trouble.  Verse 18 makes the point that they can't buy their way out of this mess.  Everything they know will be wiped out.

d)                  The last sentence says the "whole world" will be consumed.  So is this talking about when the Babylonians destroy this place, or "the" end times?  Remember that prophecy comes in patterns.  The "short term" fulfillment is the world as the Israelites know it will all become part of this upcoming empire.  The long-term fulfillment is "the" destruction.

16.              Chapter 2, Verse 1:  Gather together, gather together, O shameful nation, 2 before the appointed time arrives and that day sweeps on like chaff, before the fierce anger of the LORD comes upon you, before the day of the LORD's wrath comes upon you.

a)                  Remember I said my lesson title is "it's not over". If I was only covering Chapter 1, I might have called this lesson "doom and gloom".  However, as my outline showed at the start of this lesson, His long-term plan involves pain for His people, worse pain for nonbelievers and then good news for the Israelites.  As I also said to start the lesson, this little chapter is as good a summary I've seen of God's long term purpose for man's existence as any other in the bible.

b)                  I start off with that speech, as we discuss the opening verses of Chapter 2.  (Every lesson is read by newcomers, so I need to quickly make this point.  The chapter and verse numbers were not added until roughly the time of the printing press around the 12th century AD. I say that so you don't take the chapter breaks super-seriously.)  Anyway, sometimes these breaks are placed at points where an author is changing topics.  That's what we have here.

c)                  OK, onto these verses.  When God says "Gather together", does that mean he wants every Israelite living in the Southern Kingdom to squeeze tight together? That's not it. This is an encouragement for the Israelites to collectively seek God as He cares for His people and wants to be in charge of their and our lives.  It's as if Zephaniah is saying, "It's almost too late.  God's got these horrid plans to destroy this place and it's a fair punishment as we have been ignoring Him in the first place.  However, God can delay that punishment if we collectively seek Him."

d)                  Let me "modernize" this for us.  The one thing none of us know is how long we'll live.  We don't get a notice at our birth saying exactly how long we get to live.  I'm not saying to put off things that need to be done or not have down time.  I'm saying the most valuable thing God gives us is our time.  For those Israelites, life as they know it is about to end.  For us, we don't know when that moment comes, so instead of worrying about what may happen let us use some of our time to make a difference for Him while we can.  How we do that is up to you and God.  Like the prayer I gave earlier, tell God you're time is in His hands.  It isn't like we're being forced to do anything.  Joy in life is finding a way to do what we like to do in a way that's making a difference for God.  That's the goal here.

e)                  Speaking of seeking Him, let's look at Verse 3:

17.              Verse 3:  Seek the LORD, all you humble of the land, you who do what he commands. Seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you will be sheltered on the day of the LORD's anger.

a)                  Remember my lesson title of "it's not too late?" Here's God saying that through Zephaniah in this verse.  What I suspect that meant is if individuals seek God despite the upcoming invasion, God will work miracles to let them live through it and still be a witness for Him.

b)                  A strange but true fact is the reward for serving God is we'll continue to be a witness for Him.  The greatest joy one can get in life is when we use it for Him by making a difference for others around us.  God will reward that joy with more joy if we choose to go that route in life.  That's why the second sentence tells us to seek Him as He's " righteousness" which simply refers to the idea of seeking God as the right way to live.  Humility is realizing He is in charge and we're not.  For the Israelites back then, acting that way would mean they could be spared from all the death, destruction, gloom and doom of Chapter 1.

c)                  For those of us who've committed our lives to serving Jesus, it never means life will be pain free.  It means we can have joy no matter what life throws at us.  It's about having the proper perspective about life and how we should use it for His glory in spite of whatever is going on around us.  That's what Zephaniah is trying to teach them as well as us.

18.              Verse 4:  Gaza will be abandoned and Ashkelon left in ruins. At midday Ashdod will be emptied and Ekron uprooted.

a)                  A logical question for the Israelites to ask at this point is, "Yes we've been bad, but what is going to happen to everyone else around here?  That's what Verse 4 gets into.

b)                  For roughly 500 years (maybe more) a "pain in the side" of the Israelites is a nation called the Philistines.  They've been living in Israel for at least that long.  God promised the land of Israel would be given to them.  The Philistines were a nation "illegally parked" within it for all that time. Here's God saying, "Hey you Israelites, worried about them? No problem as I'm going to wipe them out one and for all.  They died with the Babylonian invasion.

c)                  A quick background note for those who like bible history.  The Philistines were known in the bible for having five major cities.  It seems that the power within that group was to the leaders of each of those cities. Only four of those cities are listed in Verse 4.  Apparently at that moment, one of the "five" was not under Philistine control. Therefore, Zephaniah lists only the four remaining one's who will be destroyed.

d)                  To finish my history lesson, when the Babylonians came in that area to take anything of value and relocate the survivors, it became the official end of the Philistines as a unique group.  They were wiped out from history after that.  That's why Zephaniah accurately is telling of their destruction in Verse 4. We even get a strange little prediction which we can also assume is literal.  The Philistine city of Ashdod will be wiped out at mid-day.  If you have ever been to the Middle East, it gets hot in the middle of the day.  Armies attack first thing in the morning, as it's hard to fight in the hot heat.  Just to prove that his prediction is from God, Zephaniah throws in this bit of trivia to make that point.

e)                  OK John, this is all interesting ancient history, why should I care?  Recall my introduction, where I said God's second main point for mankind is those who don't care for God will be wiped out.  Since the Philistines were close enough to Israel to understand that their God is "the" God, they were held to a higher standard.  The point for us is when we see people who don't care about God, we should pray for them and be a good witness for Him.  That fact that God exists and they ignored it all their lives is the main reason God sends people to hell.  Sins are just evidence of how people chose to live.  Hell is in effect giving people what they want, eternity away from God's presence.

19.              Verse 5:  Woe to you who live by the sea, O Kerethite people; the word of the LORD is against you, O Canaan, land of the Philistines.  "I will destroy you, and none will be left."  6 The land by the sea, where the Kerethites dwell, will be a place for shepherds and sheep pens.

a)                  Speaking of condemnation of "everyone else in the neighborhood", Verses 5 and 6 do just that.  The short version is these were other nations living in the land where the Philistines traditionally dwelled. I'll just add that they're now long gone as God wiped them out with the Babylonian invasion.  Remember that God's unconditional promise to Abraham is that the land of Israel would be given to them.  That means all other nations living there are trespassing whether they realized it or not.  If the Israelites failed to kick them out to date, God will take care of that issue Himself through the Babylonian invasion.

b)                  I should be careful with the term "unconditional".  The Israelites can live there if they do agree to seek Him as God.  He's got every right to kick them out of there "temporarily" if they're failing to seek Him.  However, the bible promises a future day, when all Israelites will do just that as they'll all know Him in their hearts. Even with Israelites back in that land now, one cannot say they all know God, as most Israelites living there are secular today.  All I am saying is it's a future unfulfilled promised.  I bring up all that theology here simple as a reminder that God does and will wipes out those living in that land who are not His people such as we see here in these two verses.

c)                  Speaking of the land belonging to Israel, let's look at Verse 7:

20.              Verse 7:  It will belong to the remnant of the house of Judah; there they will find pasture. In the evening they will lie down in the houses of Ashkelon. The LORD their God will care for them; he will restore their fortunes.

a)                  Stop and realize that in world history, there has never been a nation that was conquered, scattered and came back to be a nation again.  The exception is Israel who did it twice.  I'm bringing it up here as Zephaniah is predicting just that in this verse.

b)                  Zephaniah uses one the Philistine cities as an example.  He's saying the Philistines will not exist as a nation soon in the future.  However God will "restore the fortunes" of His people as promised in this verse along with many other verses in the bible.

c)                  When we go through moments of doubt that the bible is God's word or He exists all we've got to do is recall Israel's history and the fact they're the only nation to pull off that trick of being scattered and becoming a country again, twice.  All of us have our moments when we go through doubts. Considering Israel's history should strengthen us when they come.

d)                  Meanwhile Zephaniah's got a few words for other neighbors of Israel:

21.              Verse 8:  "I have heard the insults of Moab and the taunts of the Ammonites, who insulted my people and made threats against their land.  9 Therefore, as surely as I live," declares the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, "surely Moab will become like Sodom, the Ammonites like Gomorrah-- a place of weeds and salt pits, a wasteland forever. The remnant of my people will plunder them; the survivors of my nation will inherit their land."

a)                  Just to the east of Israel is two nation groups called the Moabites and the Ammonites.  The land is all part the nation of Jordan today.  Those two groups were also destroyed when the Babylonians came on the scene.  The Jordanians today are not those two groups.  As I have now said a bunch of times in this lesson, when the Babylonians came and conquered an area, they'd move people "all around" to avoid gathering to rebel against them.  While there may be some people living in Jordan today from that background, those there today are not the direct descendants of those nations.

b)                  In these verses, Zephaniah is predicting that the land associated with those two groups will be wiped out as Sodom and Gomorrah were wiped out.  My personal view is that it speaks of both the end of that nation and a long-term prophesy of God destroying all of the world as we know it.  Again, prophesy is "patterns".  The short-term fulfillment was at the time of the Babylonian invasion.  The long-term fulfillment ties to the opening verses of Chapter 1 where Zephaniah describes the end of the world as we know it.

c)                  So why wipe out that land area?  Why turn it into salt pits?  The point is the people living there were close enough to realize that Israel rightly claimed their god is the true God of the entire world.  It's another example that God holds us accountable for what we realize about Him and what we've done with that information.  God held nations physically close to Israel to a higher standard as they should realize that He is the true God. By that area of land being wasted one day, it's another reminder that God isn't to be messed with.

d)                  Speaking of why that land will be wasted, let's look at Verse 10:

22.              Verse 10:  This is what they will get in return for their pride, for insulting and mocking the people of the LORD Almighty.

a)                  Do you want a good reason not to be anti-Jewish?  Verse 10 gives God's response to those who insult and mock God's chosen people.

b)                  Let me ask the important "Christian" question: Are the Israelites still God's chosen?  Yes to keep it simple.  God made unconditional promises to that nation that they'd inherit Israel as a land when the Messiah comes to rule the world from there.  It's strange to think about but the Christian church is sort of a "2,000 year and counting" interruption of God's plans for the nation of Israel.  God's been using the church to spread the word of His existence to all nations around the world.  In that sense, the Church has been doing what Israel as a nation failed to do, be a witness for Him. The bible makes all sorts of promises that God is going to once again focus on Israel one day as His primary means to work. All that means is when Jesus returns, He will rule the world through Israel as it'll exist at that time when He returns to rule the world at that time.

c)                  That little speech leads me back to the "losers" in this game:  God's going to send to hell all people who insult and mock God's chosen.  Want a reason to not be Anti-Jewish?  That's a good one here in Verse 10.  Does that mean if I mess up once or used to do that, I'm going to suffer?  Of course not.  All sins are forgivable except a lifetime denial of Jesus as God.

23.              Verse 11:  The LORD will be awesome to them when he destroys all the gods of the land. The nations on every shore will worship him, every one in its own land.

a)                  Again, this gets back to my "three-part introduction":  God's chosen will suffer when their turning from Him as their God.  God's going to punish nonbelievers eternally as they see the evidence for His existence and ignore it and part 3, God's chosen will win in the end as Jesus will rule over the world and all nations will be forced to acknowledge it as they'll worship Him whether they realize it or not.

b)                  Stop and consider Christianity versus Islam at this time in history. Islam teaches that Jesus was a prophet but not God.  It's hard to imagine all the lands around Israel seeking Jesus as the true God, one day, let alone most Israelites who've rejected Jesus as God.  How will all of this happen?  That's what all that Revelation "horror show" is all about.  Think of the end times as a big warning of what is going to happen one day whether we like it or not.

c)                  It's now been roughly 2,500 years since this was written.  It's been 2,000 years since Jesus walked the earth.  Why hasn't all this happened yet?  Stop to realize that if it occurred say 100 years ago, we wouldn't be around to witness it.  God's timing is God's timing.  There's nothing we can do to speed it up.  He's waiting as long as He has to gather to Himself all of us who choose to be with Him forever.  So why not keep the same pattern going for all of eternity?  Why does it have to end the way the bible says it does?  Because our world is incurably suffering from sin.  God promises to "right the wrong" one day by His returning to rule over this world.  Also, there is an unknown, but definite limit to God's patience.

d)                  The point is this verse and the bible itself predicts the entire world honoring the true God one day.  How and when it will start is God's business.  We get warned that it'll occur all through the bible.  That includes Chapter 1 of this book as well as Revelation.  Since we're aware this will happen one day in the future, that should be our motivation to use our life as a witness for Him as that day will definitely come one day.

e)                  OK, I hate to interrupt myself when I get on a roll like that, but we still have four verses to go in this chapter before I wrap this up.  The simple point of Verse 11 is God will destroy all the "so called" gods of the world if no other reason than to prove He is the true God.

i)                    Keep in mind idolatry was common in Israel at that time, so reminding them that life as they know it will end soon, is a reminder of His existence and that He is not to be messed with.  I beat that point to death now.  I can move on.

24.              Verse 12: "You too, O Cushites, will be slain by my sword."  13 He will stretch out his hand against the north and destroy Assyria, leaving Nineveh utterly desolate and dry as the desert.

a)                  Meanwhile, we got other people in the "neighborhood" to discuss quickly.  We'd consider the Cushites to be the Ethiopians today although it's not a perfect analogy.

b)                  Realize what Zephaniah is doing.  He's working in every direction around Israel as if he's telling us, it's not just Israel that will be destroyed, but all our neighbors as well.  Cushites was as "south" as Israel could think in those days.  Bottom line, "the south land" will fall to the Babylonians as much as the "west" (Philistine country) and the east (think Jordan).

c)                  That leaves the "north".  The "big boys on the block" as I'm fond of saying at that time, are the Assyrians.  (Part of Iraq today).  Realize that the Assyrian empire existed for centuries.  If you've ever traveled around Europe, you can see evidence of the Roman Empire to this day.  My point is those who lived for the centuries under that empire could never imagine it falling. Yet, just as Rome did fall, so the Assyrians fell as well.  In fact, it was a real short time after Zephaniah wrote this, that the city of Nineveh was so completely destroyed by the Babylonians, for millenniums, scholars doubted it really existed.  The city of Nineveh was the largest city in the world at one time.  It was so completely destroyed, the ruins of it weren't discovered until archeologists found it in the 19th century.

d)                  With that said, notice how Zephaniah is describing this big city and capital of an empire that's lasted for centuries as " utterly desolate and dry as the desert".  It literally happened as it was written here and Zephaniah wrote it shortly before it occurred.

e)                  OK John, how do we know Zephaniah didn't write it "post-mortem"?  It's not like he had a video and could watch the news of it's destruction.  Zephaniah lived during the reign of King Josiah, and the death of Nineveh didn't occur to shortly after his reign.  Either he's lying about every aspect of his life, or Zephaniah is a true prophet of God.  Nineveh was a "thousand miles away" and he couldn't know about it until long after it occurred.

f)                   One more "OK John".  If all this ancient history is true, why should we care? To remind us that as God's chosen, "It's not over until He says it's over".  God's plans for His chosen will go on into eternity.  God's plans for those who reject Him end badly when He says it will.  The idea of "it's not over", is a reminder that eternity is a whole lot longer than all the time we have to be a witness for Him here on earth.

g)                  In the meantime, I've got two more verses left to discuss:

25.              Verse 14:  Flocks and herds will lie down there, creatures of every kind. The desert owl and the screech owl will roost on her columns. Their calls will echo through the windows, rubble will be in the doorways, the beams of cedar will be exposed.

a)                  Again, we're still describing the destruction of the largest city in the world at that time.  It was considered unconquerable.  It was larger than Babylon, with massive walls that were both wide and very high.  It had a large river that ran through it and around it.  The way it literally fell, was there was a surge in that river, that caused a destruction to a city gate, and that allowed foreign soldiers to enter it.

b)                  My point is it was destroyed so thoroughly, it became a land for birds and wild animals to live with no people there.  That's what the verse is describing.  Imagine living in a big city that's been around for centuries or even millenniums.  One can think, this place will exist forever.  Yet, it died so completely, people questioned whether it was a real city.  As I said the location wasn't discovered again until the 19th century.

26.              Verse 15:  This is the carefree city that lived in safety. 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.

a)                  This final verse is almost a taunt.  It's as if the residents are saying, "This city will never be destroyed".  Remember the residents there grew rich by conquering and destroying most of the world in that greater area and bringing things to them.  That's how Rome got rich in it's heyday as well.  Yes, foreigners had a lot of anger at Assyria for what they've done to all the lands around them, and that’s what encouraged their fall. Anyway, the area of land that was Nineveh was destroyed so completely it literally became a place for wild animals to roam as this verse says.  The "shaking of the fist" refers to those who wanted to destroy it as people knew it's riches meant the poverty of the "world" in that area.

27.              Keep in mind, this isn't the end of the book but the end of the chapter.  Zephaniah ends this part of his message describing the destruction of the world around Israel as well as the destruction of Israel itself.  Let's be honest, if the book ended here, it's a very sad story indeed.  However, it's not the whole story.  The good news of God's redemption of His people will be discussed when I talk about Chapter 3 in the next lesson as well as my final three Minor Prophet studies, God willing.

a)                  My point is "It's not over" applies to this message that Zephaniah gave.  It applies to life as we know it.  I have no idea what God has planned for your future or mine. I just know He calls us to be a witness for Him to a lost and dying world.  For nonbelievers, the future is as gloomy as Nineveh's destruction, let alone all the doom and gloom of this lesson.  If we believe Jesus died for every sin we'll ever commit, then "It's not over". God cares too much for us to leave us in a world incurably corrupted by sin.  That's the good news here.  Until the real eternity begins, let me close with one final prayer.

28.              Let's pray: Heavenly Father, since we believe that You exist and You paid the price for every sin we'll ever commit, help us to use our lives in gratitude for what You've done for us.  Help us to know what is Your will today and how You want to use us today for Your glory.  Lead us today as we realize "It's not over" and use us for Your glory.  We ask this in Jesus name, Amen