“For then will I turn to the people a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the LORD, to serve him with one consent” (Zephaniah 3:9).
by Richard Doctor
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The opening lines of Zephaniah trace back the prophet’s paternal line over four generations and no equivalent is found in any other prophet. It is reasonable to conclude that Zephaniah was a direct descendant of King Hezekiah. This prophetic book comes from the days of good King Josiah and Zephaniah’s warnings may have urged the good Josiah to special zeal.
King Josiah’s Reforms
King Josiah began to reign when he was eight years old, and he reigned in Jerusalem 31 years (2 Chronicles 34:1-3). King Josiah did that which was right in the sight of God, for he walked in the ways of David his father. Josiah’s reforms were one of the brightest periods in Judah’s history.
In the eighth year of his reign (age 16), King Josiah began to seek after the God of David his father. We cannot emphasize enough the importance of training up a child in the way that he should go, and its wonderful fruitage (Proverbs 22:6). The problem facing Josiah was that the two-tribe kingdom of Judah and Benjamin he now ruled had continued following after false gods, even in Jerusalem.
In the twelfth year of his reign (age 20), Josiah purged Judah and Jerusalem of the high places, the groves, the carved images, and the molten images. Josiah personally oversaw this purging. The molten images were broken in pieces, and Josiah and his team made dust of them and spread this dust upon the graves of them that sacrificed unto the idols (2 Chronicles 34:4). It appears they executed any priests of Baal and burned their bones upon their altars (verse 5). Let us have no sympathy for these priests, for they were murderers and practiced the most abominable forms of child sacrifice. Until Josiah’s reform, the altars of Baal lay just outside of the walls of Jerusalem. “And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom [just beneath the walls of Zion on the southwestern corner of Jerusalem], to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my heart” (Jeremiah 7:31).
The purging of Josiah did not stop at the old borders of the ten-tribe kingdom, which now was inhabited by the Samaritans (2 Kings 17:24). Josiah continued his purge throughout the cities of Manasseh and Ephraim, extending even to the extreme northern border where Naphtali once had lived.
What a good king!
Yet, at the same time, the dire prophecies of Zephaniah served as a warning.
Repairing the Temple of Solomon
Josiah ordered the repair of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem in year 18 of his reign (age 26). Even more remarkably, “Hilkiah the priest found a book of the law of the LORD given by Moses” (2 Chronicles 34:14-16).
In the temple complex lived a prophetess named Hulda. She had charge of the wardrobe. Like Zephaniah, Hulda foretold a coming disaster. “Thus saith the LORD, Behold, I will bring evil upon this place, and upon the inhabitants thereof, even all the curses that are written in the book which they have read before the king of Judah” (2 Chronicles 34:24-25). Within this framework we read the opening of Zephaniah, “and I will cut off man from off the land, saith the LORD. … I will also stretch out mine hand upon Judah, and upon all the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (Zephaniah 1:2,4 KJV).
Josiah and his supporters were sincere in their reforms, but resistance to reform was even stronger. Hence, Zephaniah records, “and I will cut off the remnant of Baal from this place, and the name of the Chemarims [idol-priests] with the priests [nominal priests of Jehovah]; And them that worship the host of heaven upon the housetops; and them that worship and that swear by the LORD, and that swear by Malcham [an idol named “the king”]; And them that are turned back from the LORD; and those that have not sought the LORD, nor enquired for him” (Zephaniah 1:4-6).
There were some faithful Levites and people, for there is always a remnant of faithful believers, but the Lord had strong condemnation for those who were nominally serving in His name while at the same time worshiping the host of heaven. This type of mixed worship is more the rule than the exception. However, Jehovah is a jealous God, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). The Lord never says, “If you practice some other form of worship once you leave the temple, that is your business.” No, God wants our hearts fully committed to Him.
The Great Passover
Josiah faced two prophecies of national disaster, from both Zephaniah and Hulda. Josiah understood how grievously the people of Judah had departed from the covenant, and in
grief, Josiah ripped his clothes. Because of his contrition, God promised Josiah, “Behold, I will gather thee to thy fathers, and thou shalt be gathered to thy grave in peace” (2 Chronicles 34:28).
In Zephaniah there is no allusion to this extension of grace, suggesting the visions were written before Josiah’s reform efforts.
Recognizing that the Lord is gracious, Josiah not only solemnized the nation’s covenant with God, but had the people celebrate a great Passover, “And there was no Passover like to that kept in Israel from the days of Samuel the prophet” (2 Chronicles 35:17-18).
Zephaniah’s warning still applies today. “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the earth who have carried out His ordinances; seek righteousness, seek humility. Perhaps you will be hidden in the day of the Lord’s anger” (Zephaniah 2:3 NASV). Zephaniah’s prophecy provides a much bigger picture of the closing experiences of this age in the time of trouble. There is also a much bigger picture of the deliverance. Part of our message to the world is that they need to put into action Zephaniah’s words to seek righteousness and meekness.
The church is in a covenant by sacrifice and we are enfolded and protected by the Lord’s wings (Psalms 91:4). While we have a special privilege, we want to encourage the unconsecrated to recognize that Zephaniah’s words are instructions to all the earth. The Kings should “kiss the son” (Psalms 2:12). That is, they should seek closer communion and receive instruction from Jesus. However, we do not anticipate that this will happen.
Judgment East and West
The punishment promised in Zephaniah was not to fall solely on Judah. Looking to the west, Zephaniah announced judgment against Philistia. “Gaza shall be forsaken, and Ashkelon a desolation … O Canaan, the land of the Philistines, I will even destroy you” (Zephaniah 2:4-6). Turning to the east, Zephaniah announced judgment against Ammon and Moab. “Saith the LORD of hosts … Surely Moab shall be as Sodom, and the children of Ammon as Gomorrah” (Zephaniah 2:9).
Turning to the south, Zephaniah announced, “Ye Ethiopians also, ye shall be slain by my sword” (Zephaniah 2:12). But why speak of the “Ethiopians” and not the “Egyptians?” Why did Zephaniah not write, “You Egyptians also, shall be slain with my sword?”
The Greek historian Herodotus records that in Egypt’s very long history, “there were eighteen Ethiopian kings” (Histories, 2:100.1). These Nubian (“Ethiopian”) pharaohs comprised Egypt’s 25th dynasty and maintained full power during the 7th and 6th centuries BC.1
One of the “Ethiopian” pharaohs already projected enough military power to challenge Assyria in the days of Hezekiah and Isaiah (2 Kings 19:8-9, Isaiah 37:8-9). During the siege of Jerusalem by the Assyrian King Sennacharib, Tirhaka (Taharqa), one of the Nubian (“Ethiopian”) Pharaohs of Egypt, led an army in support of Hezekiah. During this invasion, God wrought a great deliverance. The angel of the Lord smote the host of the Assyrians and in one night the slain were “one hundred eightyfive thousand men.”
(1) Klaus Baer, The Libyan and Nubian Kings of Egypt: Notes on the Chronology of Dynasties XXII to XXVI, Journal of Near Eastern Studies (JNES), Volume 32, No. 1/2 (January-April, 1973), pages 4-25.
Four generations later, during the time of Zephaniah’s prophecy, the portion of Egypt south of the Nile delta (Upper Egypt) was still under the control of the Nubians who held
Thebes. By the end of Josiah’s reign, the Nubian control of Egypt proper came to an end, fulfilling the words of the prophecy and the judgment on the south.
Turning north, Zephaniah announced judgment against Assyria itself. That abominable nation was soon to fall to the emerging world power, Babylon. “And he will stretch out his hand against the north, and destroy Assyria; and will make Nineveh a desolation, and dry like a wilderness” (Zephaniah 2:13). The ruins of Nineveh, situated on the edge of modern Mosul, Iraq, demonstrate how God’s power has turned another city into desolation.
Devastation of Assyria and Josiah’s Death
This judgment on Assyria came as their army gathered at Carchemish in modern day Turkey. Marching against Assyria from the east were the Babylonians and the Medes. The Nubian Egyptian allies of Judah had been replaced by a new, native Egyptian dynasty under Necho II.
“In his [Josiah’s] days Pharaoh Necho king of Egypt went up against the king of Assyria to the river Euphrates: and King Josiah went against him; and he [Necho] slew him [Josiah]
at Megiddo” (2 Kings 23:29).
Both the tragic action by Josiah, bringing his untimely death, along with questions of why he would intervene at Megiddo, so far from the territory of Judah, have proven puzzling. Part of the confusion is linked to translating two different Hebrew words in the passage quoted as “against.” Some have suggested that Necho was marching not to fight “against” Assyria, but to assist the Assyrians: “Josiah’s motive becomes crystal-clear if we assume that he was fully aware of the vital importance of delaying the Egyptian advance.
In that case, he proceeded to Megiddo knowing only too well the risk involved but in the hope that, by forcing Necho to deploy his forces, he would have effectively sealed the doom of the Assyrian king. Thus, it seems very probable that the last of the great Jewish kings laid down his life in a truly heroic and entirely successful bid to avenge the dreadful wrongs his nation had suffered at the hands of Assyria.”2
Did Josiah do the right thing, laying down his life in a heroic action?
There is no record of Josiah enquiring of God’s will in taking this military action. 2 Chronicles 35:20-27 gives an account of Josiah’s death, giving Pharaoh Necho the last word (verses 21-22) and faulting Josiah for not heeding these words: “But he [Necho] sent ambassadors to him [Josiah], saying, What have I to do with thee, thou king of Judah? I come not against thee this day, but against the house wherewith I have war: for God commanded me to make haste: forbear thee from meddling with God, who is with me, that he destroy thee not.”
(2) M. B. Rowton, Jeremiah and the Death of Josiah, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Volume 10, No. 2 (April 1951), pages 128-130.
Josiah disguised himself, and came to fight in the valley of Megiddo, but: “the archers shot at king Josiah.” The king, mortally wounded, was taken to Jerusalem where he died.
However reasonable Josiah’s motives may have appeared to human reasoning, by not inquiring of the Lord, and by not fighting openly, this good king met his end. Subsequently, history was to prove that the Babylonians were even more powerful and determined to conquer Judah than the Assyrians. Following Josiah, Jehoiakim and Zedekiah were both weak vassal kings, each with an undistinguished rule of 11 years. As the kingship of the house of David closed, Jerusalem itself would lay charred and broken and with the temple of Solomon looted and destroyed.
Plundering the Philistines
As Babylon consolidated power, the fearsome Scythian cavalry (auxiliary troops in the service of Assyria who were barely under any control in the best of times) made a lightning raid looting and plundering along the entire Mediterranean coast from Phoenicia to Egypt. This was during the reign of Pharaoh Necho’s son. This devastation is not recorded in the Bible because it touched no portion of Judah. However, it is found in Herodotus (Histories, 1:105). At this time, the most celebrated Philistine temple in Ashkelon honoring Astarte, the “Queen of Heaven,” was plundered.
What about Zephaniah’s written judgment on Ammon and Moab? While this judgment took hundreds of more years to be accomplished, these great trading centers have not been rebuilt unto this day.
A Picture of the Kingdom
“Therefore wait ye upon me, saith the LORD, until the day that I rise up to the prey: for my determination is to gather the nations, that I may assemble the kingdoms, to pour upon them mine indignation, even all my fierce anger: for all the earth shall be devoured with the fire of my jealousy” (Zephaniah 3:8).
This judgment is not simply to bring down these nations. If we stop reading Zephaniah’s words at this point, we miss the beauty and the grace of our great Heavenly Father. The Lord promises that He will turn to the people a “pure language” that they may call upon His name to serve Him with one consent (Zephaniah 3:9). The footnote in Rotherham’s translation explains the Hebrew is literally “one shoulder”— as a group pushing against a cart to move it.
While the special promises of the closing chapter focus on the restoration of Israel, Zephaniah adds that suppliants would come from beyond the rivers of Ethiopia (Zephaniah 3:10). This depicts how widespread the blessings of the kingdom will be, for only the truth really answers to the needs of man’s heart.
Pride, arrogance, wrongdoing, and lies shall be taken away in the Kingdom (Zephaniah 3:11-13). As precious as the joyful singing of Zion and Jerusalem shall be in that day (Zephaniah 3:14), we have the assurance that the voice of Jehovah God Himself shall be raised in joyful song. “He will joy over thee with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17, Soncino 12th edition [Jewish], 1985). Zephaniah’s prophecy closes with the promise that the very names of Zion and Jerusalem will then be a praise throughout the earth. What wisdom and comprehensiveness are shown in God’s great Divine Plan of the Ages for all mankind!