Commentary: Zephaniah 3:14-20
Zephaniah 1:1 indicates that the book was written during the reign of King Josiah of Judah, 640609 B.C. Israel, the northern kingdom, had been destroyed by the mighty Assyrian Empire a century earlier (722 B.C.). The Assyrians had marched on the southern kingdom of Judah in 701 B.C. They had laid siege to Jerusalem but failed to complete the conquest. Miraculously Judah was saved (see 2 Kings 19). Over the course of the seventh century Assyria wasted itself in a war with the rapidly rising new empire in the east, Babylonia. By the end of the century Assyria would be no more, and Babylonia would be the new threat that would eventually destroy the southern kingdom (586 B.C.). Zephaniah writes during the period between the two conquests, a period of relative security for Judah.
Zephaniah prophesies the doom and destruction of Judah in chapters 1 and 2. Not only Judah but other nations from Assyria to Ethiopia will be desolated. Zephaniah sees beyond the destruction to the restoration of a remnant of the Jews. 3:1420 marks a radical change in tone from the doom and despair of 1:2 to 3:8. It tells of a restored Jerusalem and a forgiven people gathered there with a loving God dwelling in their midst.
Elements of Structure
The passage divides into two sections. In the first, vv. 1418a, the prophet speaks in the third person calling the people to rejoice and announcing the restoration of Jerusalem. 3:18b20 shifts to the first person. Although there is no initial messenger formula ("Thus says the Lord") as in many of the other prophets, it is clear that the first person here is the Lord, with the prophet speaking the Lord's words. The final phrase, "says the Lord," is like a final punctuation mark to end the book.
Message and Exegesis
V. 14 is an exultant call for Jerusalem, the daughter of God, to rejoice. The days of her suffering are over. Zion, the principal hill upon which the city of Jerusalem was built, is often used as another name for Jerusalem.
In vv. 1516 God has revoked the judgments against the people, their punishment now complete. Now they will be safe both from their enemies and from natural disasters. God will be their king and will dwell in their midst. When that day comes Jerusalem will never need fear again.
V. 18 describes God as a great warrior who will bring victory to Zion. In this verse for the first time in Zephaniah we hear of God's love, a love that will renew God's restored remnant in Zion.
In vv. 1819 God says through the prophet that God will deal with Zion's oppressors and turn the shame of God's people into praise for them. In v. 20 God says that God will bring God's people home to Zion and restore all that they have lost in the prior destruction.
We cannot know whether Zephaniah was looking toward the fulfillment of all that he prophesied in his own time or looking toward a more indefinite future time. Within the general tenor of Hebrew prophecy the former seems more likely than the latter. Jews and Christians can interpret the fulfillment of his prophecy in at least four ways. First, Jerusalem was destroyed by Babylonia only a few decades after this prophecy. The Jews endured fifty years of Babylonian exile between the destruction (586 B.C.) and the restoration (538 B.C.), after the Persians and their more benevolent King Cyrus defeated the Babylonians.
Second, this restored Jerusalem would not, however, endure forever. It would be destroyed again by the Romans in 70 A.D., its surviving inhabitants scattered throughout the Roman Empire. The Jews would never again control the land of Palestine until 1948, and the old city of Jerusalem not until 1967. Many evangelical Christians see the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948 as the fulfillment of Zephaniah's prophecy in 3:20 and similar prophecies in Ezekiel.
A third possible interpretation is to see Zephaniah's prophecy as not yet fulfilled. Revelation 2122 speaks of a new Jerusalem, a Jerusalem to come down from heaven after the last judgment. Many would see this eschatological Jerusalem as the fulfillment of Zephaniah's prophecy.
A fourth possible interpretation is to see the restoration of remnant to the restored Zion neither as an historical event that has happened or will happen nor as an eschatological event in the future but as a symbolic event in the lives of God's people. Our sins lead us to our own self destruction, but God can redeem us and restore our fortunes, both earthly and heavenly.
In addition to these possible interpretations some Christians might want to interpret the passage messianically, to say that "the king of Israel, the Lord," that "is in your midst," (v. 15), is Jesus. This would seem to be the most tenuous of the possible interpretations, since v. 17 makes clear that "the Lord" is God and not a coming messiah.
Perhaps in the wake of the post-modernism of our day we should conclude that the passage is polyvalent, capable of many meanings, and that all of these interpretations carry their own validity.
In the lectionary this prophecy is paired with the preaching of John the Baptist in Luke 3:718. The connection is slight. John's words in Luke 3:9 and 3:17 imply harsh judgment from God, perhaps like the doom of Jerusalem in Zephaniah. In Luke 3:16 John prophesies a coming messiah who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. John seems to be thinking of the fire of judgment (see Luke 3:17). Luke will transform this to the Pentecostal fire of the spirit (see Acts 2:14). Could the church of the Holy Spirit beginning in Acts 2 be the presence of God among us that Zephaniah prophesied?
J. Christian Wilson