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Zeph, summary book of prophecy


The writer was requested some time ago to speak on the subject: "The Prophets and their Message". Upon reflection, this began to take on the dimensions of a lifetime study instead of a 45-minute talk. How does one go about condensing such a vast collection of material into manageable limits? (By actual volume, the "prophets" -- including the Apocalypse of John -- comprise 21% of the whole Bible.)

And, furthermore, in the welter of various and sometimes conflicting interpretations, just WHAT is the "message of the prophets" anyway?

The matter was considerably simplified by arbitrarily omitting 15 of the 16 Old Testament prophets, along with Revelation, and narrowing down the selection of source material to one, short, little-studied book: Zephaniah.

Why Zephaniah? For one thing, it has been called, as you may have already guessed from the title, "The summary book of all prophecy". This is because, in only three chapters, it contains ALL of the three basic elements of Bible prophecy:

And, when you think about it, what else is there, really? In all the other prophets, simply variations of these three themes.

So now we are making progress. Let us consider each element in turn:


Israel (or shall we say Judah?) was God's nation, and our example. Everything they did, and everything God brought upon them, are for our examples and admonition. So let us, who THINK we stand in God's estimation, take earnest heed to these writings -- lest we fall, as did Israel (1Co 10:11,12).

" 'I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth,' declares the LORD. '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' " (Zep 1:2,3).
"I will sweep away -- or cut off"... four distinct classes of sinners:

  1. The OPEN idolaters: "every remnant of Baal, the names of the pagan and the idolatrous priests -- those who bow down on the roofs to worship the starry host" (vv 4,5).
  2. The SECRET idolaters: "those who bow down and swear by the LORD AND who ALSO swear by Molech" (v 5).
  3. The backsliders: "those who turn back from following the LORD" (v 6).
  4. The indifferent: "those who... neither seek the LORD nor inquire of him" (v 6).
That seems to cover the field rather well! Can we imagine any sort of sinner who does not fall into at least one of these categories? Do we not sometimes find even ourselves perilously entrapped in sins of most of these types?

It all has to do with "caring": the open idolaters CARE, but they care wrongly; they have a zeal but not according to knowledge, and they bow five times a day toward Mecca or burn incense to a smiling stone image, but it profits them nothing.

The secret idolaters CARE too, but only half-heartedly; they serve God at times, but they never quite overthrow the altar of "Mammon" in their lives!

The backsliders CARED for God at one time, but they stopped caring. Perhaps the "cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches" entered their lives and choked the word of God.

And, last, there are the indifferent, who CARE not at all, who cannot be moved even with dynamite from the comfortable ruts of their sad, empty little lives.

What is the lesson for us? God sees and will judge EVERY type of iniquity: the external idolatry of false religion as well as the secret, internal idolatry of covetousness (Col 3:5), which wears a cloak of "righteousness" in order to deceive (both itself and others).

"Search us, Lord, and know our heart.
With every idol bid us part."
These exhortations are lost on us if we think only of "idols" made of wood and stone, and pride ourselves as having nothing to do with such. But the "idols" that should frighten us, from whose bondage we should pray to be delivered, are the modern "gods" of materialism, licentiousness (in books, movies, and television), and pleasure-seeking! For God WILL judge EVERY type of sin: the open indifference of atheism no more than the hidden indifference of a lax Laodicean faith which seeks its own comfort and ignores its "nakedness" in God's sight.


"The LORD has prepared a sacrifice; he has consecrated those he has invited" (Zep 1:7).
Christ is the one true sacrifice, so that in turn he may also be the bridegroom of the marriage feast. The Father has invited guests to the sacrifice -- to partake of the forgiveness of sins which Christ has made possible, and to obtain a "wedding garment" so that they will be suitably attired to attend the feast. But those guests who have not faithfully prepared themselves, when they do try to enter the great marriage feast, will be punished because they are, figuratively, "clad in foreign clothes" (v 8).


"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' " (v 12).
Is this the picture of the household of faith in the Last Days? By their attitudes (that is, in their hearts) some appear to be saying (although they would never dream of saying so openly) that God is indifferent to what man does. 'Don't remind me that He sees or cares what I do. Leave me alone to while away my satisfied, self-centered little life.'

The great causes of God are not often defeated by open frontal attack, but rather by the slow, crushing, glacier-like mass of indifferent disciples. The Truth of God cannot be destroyed by the enemy, but it can be smothered to death by the lazy "friend", who sits on it!

Let us examine ourselves. We all build "fences" around ourselves in one way or another. It is a deep-seated desire of human nature to seek protection and security, and to forget unpleasant things. But unless we are careful, we may come to seek our strength and support within ourselves, in our own possessions and accomplishments. "I will build bigger barns," we say, but God says, "You are fools. This night your lives may be required of you."

Let us not develop ingenious ways of keeping God and His demands out of our lives. Let us not be children, hiding in our "playpens", amusing ourselves with expensive and time-consuming "toys", until the urgency of the Truth has melted away in our lives.

Rather, let us "seek the LORD... righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you will be sheltered on the day of the LORD'S anger" (Zep 2:3).

For us, these can be both warning and encouragement: warning, because God is a jealous and holy God, whose longsuffering is not endless; but also encouragement, because His judgments on the nations are the prelude to the kingdom, when "the people of the world learn righteousness" (Isa 26:9).

In this section (Zep 2:4-15), four peoples or groups of peoples stand for the Gentiles in their totality:

  1. To the west of Israel were the Philistines (vv 4-7) -- modern Palestine;
  2. To the east, Moab and Ammon (vv 8-11) -- modern Jordan;
  3. To the south, Cush (Ethiopia or southern Arabia) (v 12); and
  4. To the north, Assyria or Babylon (vv 13-15) -- modern Iraq.
These nations encircle Israel, which is of course at the center of God's plan. Their "bounds" -- both as to national boundaries and limits of influence -- are set by God according to His purpose with His people Israel (Acts 17:26; Deu 32:8).

This is a comfort to those who see and understand the Divine Hand in world affairs. God has said, in effect, "This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt" (Job 38:11). Even though around us men's hearts are failing them for fear, if God be for US, then nothing will "harm" US except what HE causes or allows for our betterment.


In the last section the prophet Zephaniah looks again at the sins of Judah, but this time with a remedy. First the sins:

The sins of Jerusalem were four, and the reasons for those sins were likewise fourfold:

The sins (Zep 3:2)
The reasons (Zep 3:3,4)
1. No obedience
1. Wicked princes
2. No correction
2. Wicked judges
3. No trust
3. Wicked prophets
4. No atonement ("drawing near")
4. Wicked priests

In Zephaniah's day, all the kings and princes (except Josiah) were wicked men who could not lead a wicked nation into obedience. "Like princes, like people." The judges were accustomed to bribery and graft, and did not teach "correction" or "instruction" (AV mg). With the exceptions of Zephaniah and Jeremiah, the prophets were false and wicked men, who trusted in the arm of flesh and not God. And the priests, who "profaned" the sanctuary, could not help in the least to draw men back to God.

It was a sorry state, but there was yet hope. As the sins of the people fell under four headings, because of the failures of all four classes of national leaders, so God's remedy for His nation (and for the world) is also seen in four parts -- all involving Christ. The recurring theme through the last section is:

"The LORD -- Yahweh -- is in the midst of you!" (vv 5,12,15,17).
Christ was once, and will be yet again in greater scope, the manifestation of the LORD or Yahweh upon the earth. He will be "in the midst" of men once again, in the capacity of righteous leader, when he returns to set up his Father's Kingdom. At that time, he will be:

  1. A righteous JUDGE (vv 5-7) -- who will do no iniquity himself, but will instruct the world in righteousness.
  2. A righteous PROPHET (vv 8-13) -- who will bring to mankind "a pure lip" or language (v 9), with which they will call upon the LORD, and "the meek and humble" will "trust in the name of the LORD" (v 12).
  3. A righteous KING (vv 14-16) -- who will deliver his people from evil and lead them in the ways of obedience.
  4. A righteous PRIEST (vv 17-20) -- who will save his people, and bring them back to oneness, or atonement, with God.

This man Christ must be our study, no matter where we turn in the Scriptures. His mind must be in us (Phi 2:5), his delights must be ours, his sorrows ours too. And his perception of the "world" must be shared by us. As he walked with his disciples one day near Herod's temple, they exclaimed: "What a great building... what great stones..."

To this he replied, "Do you see all these things? I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down" (Mat 24:2).

Thereby he reminds us that nothing of what we see around us is eternal -- not the magnificent buildings, nor the noble accomplishments, nor the heaped-up wealth, nor the awesome weapons, nor the seductive "entertainment". Only character is eternal, and only then when it manifests the righteousness of God. The same prophet (yes, the greatest of all prophets!) who prophesied that every "stone" would be cast down also said:

"Seek first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness" (Mat 6:33).
Even though we cannot see it now, that "city" and that "kingdom" will be eternal; and it will be built up with "living stones" in which righteousness will dwell.

Judgments there must be first, on God's people no less than on the world. But the storm clouds will finally expend their force, and a new day will dawn -- brighter and more blessed than we have ever witnessed -- with joys unspeakable for those who have truly sought the LORD.

This is the prophets' message.
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