The Global Message of Zephaniah
The message of Zephaniah to the global church of the twenty-first century is the certainty of the coming “day of the Lord” (Zeph. 1:7). On that day, punishment will be executed on all God’s enemies from many nations (2:11; 3:8) and salvation will be granted to all God’s people, also from many nations (3:9–10).
If one of these two themes rises to the surface, however, it is the theme of global salvation. “From beyond the rivers of Cush”—that is, from beyond the known ends of the earth in the time of Zephaniah—“my worshipers, the daughter of my dispersed ones, shall bring my offering” (Zeph. 3:10). After beginning by denouncing first Judah herself (ch. 1) and then Judah’s oppressors (ch. 2), the book of Zephaniah ends on a note of triumphant restoration for God’s people because of his love, restoration that includes in its sweep peoples from the ends of the earth (3:16–18).
Zephaniah in Redemptive History
The failure of God’s people. Israel had been called out from the nations of the earth to be a blessing to those nations (Gen. 12:1–3). Yet this glorious calling had been tragically frustrated when Israel wound up exhibiting the same idolatry and selfishness that she had been sent to heal. No one, not even those called by God to be a light to the nations of the world (Isa. 42:6; 49:6), can escape the corruption and rebellion that fill the earth because of the fall (Genesis 3).
The judgment of God’s people. For this reason God needed to punish not only the wicked nations to whom he had not revealed himself but also the wicked nation, Israel, to whom he had revealed himself. Rather than influencing the world, Israel had been influenced by the world. The book of Zephaniah exists because of this dilemma. The prophecy opens by recounting Judah’s sin. The northern kingdom of Israel has already been exiled to Assyria for its sin, and Judah is following fast in the footsteps of its northern kinsmen.
God’s refusal to forsake his people. Yet because of the covenant God has made with Israel, by which he will be their God and they will be his people, he cannot forsake them, no matter how unfaithful they are. The Lord has every right to abandon them due to their spiritual adultery. Yet in his great love, his covenant mercy, he delights instead to “change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. . . . I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth” (Zeph. 3:19–20). The Lord will restore his wayward children before a global audience.
How can God do this, while remaining just? Must not sin, even the sin of his people, be punished?
Yes, indeed—and in sending his own Son to bear that punishment, God remains just and punishes sin in what is also a supreme act of covenant love. For believers, the great day of the Lord is now behind them. This is because the day of the Lord, “a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom” (Zeph. 1:15), was experienced by Jesus Christ on the cross. He endured the ultimate distress and anguish, ruin and devastation, darkness and gloom—so that those who put their trust in him need not eternally endure those things.
Universal Themes in Zephaniah
Worldwide judgment. Even though current circumstances may indicate to the contrary, all sin will be brought to justice. Rebellious human hearts and the actions that such hearts produce will not escape the punishment of God. Specifically, actions against God’s own people will not escape God’s punishment. The Lord has bound himself to his people. He will bring every wrong against them to justice.
Worldwide salvation. Alongside the whole-earth dimensions of God’s judgment stands the whole-earth extension of his mercy. Those who humble themselves enough to trust him will escape his punishment despite their sin. For God has taken them into covenant with himself and has dealt with their sin through the atoning work of his Son. “At that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord” (Zeph. 3:9).
The Global Message of Zephaniah for Today
There is no greater need in the human heart than for divine love. Beneath every other valid need is the need to be loved by the One who knows us better even than we know ourselves. And to those who look to him, to those who make the Lord their refuge, he himself says,
“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.” (Zeph. 3:16–17)
Such is the delight of God in heaven over every one of his children—children in western hemisphere or east, urban or rural, rich or poor.
And this love will be seen “among all the peoples of the earth” (3:20). The display of God’s love for his own is not a provincial or tepid or restrained display. God’s covenant love for his people will one day explode in joyous cosmic celebration as all the suffering undergone by believers is reversed and they enjoy the glory for which they were created (Rom. 8:18; Rev. 21:4).