Reflections on Zephaniah

F.A. Blair

THERE is a principle of great importance clearly set out in scripture which reveals the ways of God in a deep and full manner. God acts in sovereign grace when man has failed in his responsibility. Everything which God begins on earth He entrusts to man to maintain in His appointed order. But man has failed to do this, and failed immediately he was put on trial. Tried and proved utterly incapable of fulfilling his obligations, he makes it necessary for God to judge the whole state of trial and close it up, which He has every right to do. It would be righteous for God to act in this way, but it would not reveal Him according to His nature of love, and He is love in His nature as well as holy and righteous in all that He does.

When all has failed under man, God announces Viol He will replace what is ruined by something infinitely better. By this principle of grace God makes Himself known in the goodness of His nature. It is nowhere more strikingly revealed than in the words of the prophets. God will rest only when this principle is brought into full effect and set up by His power in the activity of His love towards those whom He, in infinite grace, calls to be partakers.

Israel presents the clearest picture of the principle in the Old Testament. They were a people under trial with an elaborate ceremonial order, God-ordained, by which they could approach Him and obi am blessing. The priest hood failed in Eli and his sous. The link with God was broken when the Philistines captured the ark and it was no longer in its right place as the centre and ground of the people's relationship with God. What then was the use of the priesthood t God intervened and raised by His prophet Samuel to speak for Him, to intercede for the people, and introduce the coming king-David--the appointed head of an etire1y new order. But the new order had yet to be tried under the responsibility of man, and David served as a type of a greater still to come. The Christ, David's greater Son, is the One in whom the kingdom will be established in full and permanent blessing. Meanwhile David's family failed in the succeeding kings of Judah. God raised up prophet after prophet to pronounce His judgment on the failure of the kings and the ruin of the kingdom. The prophets who address Israel always speak of the better order and more glorious state which Jehovah will set up when the days of the everlasting Kingdom are come, and the true David reigns in righteousness. This word of hop' is the light that brightened the hearts of the faithful in the night of their waiting.

The principle is also true for the Church. The Assembly of God in the New Testament was first formed at Pentecost by the baptism of the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost came down to dwell in and with men on earth, uniting believers on earth in spiritual union to Christ in heaven, and forming them into the body of Christ down. here. Believers do not have to wait until they go to heaven to receive the Holy Spirit and so be united to Christ, for then unity would only be for heaven. The fact that the Holy Spirit has been sent down to unite believers to Christ on high, and to one another here, shows that the unity is a present thing for earth, though it will not be lost when they are in heaven. United to Christ in heaven the Church is sitting in the heavenlies in Christ its Head, that is its place and privilege. In fact, the Church is formed down here, so that its responsibilities and duties are on earth. Where should the holiness of God be seen, the activity of His love be known, and the working of His grace find its sphere ð? Surely in the Church which ought to manifest the presence of God in. love and wisdom according to the power of the Holy Spirit. The Church has failed to respond to the obligations of its exalted relationship; but God's faithfulness only proves the truth of the principle so obvious in the ease of Israel, He is able to keep His own, and to bring about all His counsels of grace.

Israel had been, by the means of its God-given laborious ceremonial system, God's centre on earth, and the way by which He preserved the knowledge of the true God amongst men when the world had fallen into the false worship of idolatry.

When Israel as a nation had departed from the worship of Jehovah, the faithful, whom God had kept, were sustained in hope by the revelation of future and better blessing in the declarations of the prophets. Their hopes lay in the promise of the coming Messiah. He came and was rejected and crucified by the world, but He rose again and was received up into heaven. The faithful godly remnant who were waiting for the promises to Israel to be fulfilled did not then realize all their hopes, but when Christ ascended they received instead the Holy Spirit sent down by the glorified Christ in whom they believed. The presence of the Holy Spirit amongst men, revealing heavenly things concerning Christ, gave those in whom He dwelt the consciousness that their blessings were no longer connected with earth but with heaven where Christ was sitting.

Israel's hopes are all connected with the Messiah on earth, but the hopes of the Church are all connected with a risen Man glorified at the right hand of God in heaven. Although the future of Israel depends on the universal power of their Messiah in resurrection, as the Old Testament clearly states, yet their blessing will be on earth in the midst of and at the head of the nations. The Church's portion as united to Christ while He is rejected by His earthly people is entirely heavenly. The Church has no place of rest on earth, nor an earthly hope to sustain it, but all the power of heaven is bent towards bringing it into the place of blessing purposed for Christ and His members before the foundation of the world.

The hope and assurance of the coming glory do not take away the responsibility of those called and marked out for such blessing, but it makes them responsible while they wait here to show to the world the heavenly character of their calling and relationship. The new and heavenly relation-ships bind them to fresh and exalted obligations, but they are set free by the presence and power of the Spirit to walk in them. They become strangers and pilgrims in a world where the very existence of God is denied, or a demon, or a man is honoured in His place. If the people of God do not represent Him aright, although He waits for them with much patience, He will remove them and change the order. When the system that rests on the responsibility of man breaks down, God comes forth to set up His own order, and finally He will bring in a state that depends on His whole wisdom and all His power to maintain. Nothing else will satisfy His love or His righteousness but to bring to pass His purposed blessings, and He will do it in a way that for ever proves His perfect goodness to the favoured objects of His love. God will do this after it has been proved conclusively that HE is the great Sustainer of all things good.

Zephaniah prophesied at a time when God gave Jerusalem a little revival in the reign of Josiah. The two previous kings had encouraged the people in the deepest idolatry, but Josiah's pious heart was deeply affected by the reading of the long-forgotten book of the law. In his days the Passover was kept as it had not been celebrated for many years. The prophet completely passes over the outward demonstration of piety. God reads the heart, and Jeremiah who prophesied at the same time, said the people did not keep the feast with a whole heart, but feignedly (Jeremiah 3:10).

Zephaniah does not even mention the revival, but begins his prophecy by pronouncing judgment on the whole state of affairs. God knew the real state of heart of the people, and the prophet was His mouthpiece. The time for pleading was over; nothing would turn the people from the pursuit of their own desires. They sought a sanction for their lusts in the worship of the gods borrowed from their neighbours. At such a time God must speak even though it be by judgment. Graciously He gives a warning which reaches the ears of the faithful. Their hearts are encouraged and their way brightened by the promise of a day to come better far than that which was passing away because of man' failure to keep in the path of God's revealed will, or return when he has departed from it.

 

CHAPTER 1

The prophet traces his ancestry back four generations to Hezekiah, evidently an important person in Jewish history, perhaps it is King Hezekiah. Then he plunges straight into the recital of the judgments about to fall upon the people for various sins. Judgments should come upon the land, upon Judah and Jerusalem cutting off the worshippers of Baal, the idolatrous priests (Chemarims), the worshippers of the host of heaven, and those who swore by Malcham (Baal) and Jehovah together. The backsliders who turned from following the LORD are remembered, and those who had not sought the LORD are not overlooked.

Who may speak when the LORD rises up to judge? Habakkuk who prophesied at the same time calls upon all the earth to keep silence, when, prophetically he sees the LORD in His holy temple (Habakkuk 2:20). Men say much when God remains silent: they will be speechless in the great day of the LORD. The guests of verse 7 are those called to carry out His judgments.

The "day of the LORD" so often referred to in scripture, is the day when the LORD will come in judgment to overthrow all the powers that rise to oppose the setting up of His kingdom, and judge all the world for its unrighteousness and rebellion against God. The "day" will extend through the thousand years of His righteous and peaceful reign, and until the last enemy is destroyed. It continues until "the heavens shall pass away with a great noise and the elements melt with a fervent heat, the earth also, and the works that are therein shall be burned-up" (2 Peter 3:10). It will be followed by the "day of God" when the new heavens and the new earth will he established (2 Peter 3:12, 13).

Zephaniah is occupied with the "day of the LORD "in which all that has borne His name, and stood as a witness for Him in the earth, is judged for its departure from the testimony as given by God. In Jerusalem no iniquity would escape (ver. 12), every corner would be searched. There were those who said the LORD was indifferent to all that was going on. It. is ever so at such times. A guilty con science fears to meet God, and Satan frightens men with the terrors of God's wrath without showing any way of escape. When judgment approaches he attempts to calm their fears by the lie that it is far off. It is never such a calmness as trust in the Lord brings into the heart. Often he accomplishes his end by playing on an old truth, falsely applied at a wrong moment, when circumstances are changed. We see the lie at work in Judaised or legal Christianity, making Christianity a matter of form instead of a living active faith in the truth as it is in Jesus. Truth is never truth in the hands of the devil but a distortion of truth, a superstition, and he finds many ready instruments for his use; they are mostly fair in outward appearance and pleasing to nature.

A typical fulfilment of the great day of the LORD was near, and none of those who said, The LORD will not do good, neither will he do evil," would escape the judgment. Jerusalem would be pounded as in a mortar, (Maktesh means "mortar," or "hollow place").

The text is a plain statement of judgment and not difficult to understand. It is important for us to see that what happened in the past did not completely fulfil the whole scope of the prophecy. The great day of the LORD is yet to come in all its awful solemnity on all the earth, iii special judgment on the prophetic earth, and on Palestine in particular.

The principle at work is evident. God judges even that which He Himself establishes when its use has been so per verted that He will no longer accept its order as the way by which men may approach Him. He closes up the system when it ceases to be å means of blessing to those to whom it has been given, and no longer glorifies God.

 

CHAPTER 2

In the day of judgment the LORD remembers mercy. Before the day of wrath He gives a warning and a call to gather together. Though all might hear, all do not obey. Those who hear and seek the LORD are not the prominent and self-seeking, but the meek who tremble at His word. The righteous are they who count on His mercy. What else have they to count upon? Those who trust to grace because they have no other resource knowing that they are fit for nothing but to be subjects of His grace, find the righteousness of God which is by faith. The faithful who seek the LORD for refuge from the storm are distinguished from the mass of the ungodly.

The whole land comes under judgment; it is seen to be for the most part in the hands of strangers. This is the present state of Palestine. The effect of judgment on the land will be to clear it of strangers, and make it free for the quiet possession of Israel, for the LORD will again visit His people and bring back its captives, a remnant of Israel, to possess it. While the prophecy speaks of a present judgment the promise of restoration has never been fulfilled as spoken of by the prophet. The partial return of the Jews at the time of Ezra did not produce the results foretold here.

A number of the nations that had to do with Israel in Canaan are mentioned; some of them were the mighty of the day. These people and nations were used by God for the chastening of Israel, but they were overzealous in their work, and rejoiced in the downfall of Israel. God had shown them great patience, but they would be judged for their hatred of God's people.

The Spirit of God points out very clearly in Romans chapter 11 that Israel has been cut off from the tree of promise because of unbelief, and the Gentiles who are wild branches as they never had any such promises as those made to Israel, have been grafted into the tree of promise in their place. He anticipates the time when the Gentiles will be cut off because they continue not in the mercy and goodness of God, and the branches natural to the tree, made repentant, will he restored by God. This is the Holy Spirit's own confirmation of the great subject of prophecy when the natural branches of Israel ceased to trust in the LORD, the rejection of Israel and their final merciful restoration.

Judgment falls on the nations mentioned because of their hatred of the people of God. Assyria is specially marked out, and its capital Nineveh is named as coming in for particular judgment. Assyria was the scourge of Israeli in the past, and in prophecy it is spoken of as the last enemy of Israel. (See Isa. dis. viii, ix, x). The power which controls the land of Assyria at the time when the tribes of Israel are once again gathered will come down on Palestine, and will be broken on the mountains of Israel. The great power behind geographical Assyria, and taking its place in the last days, will be Russia. (See Ezekiel 38:21; 39:4).

The Chaldeans were the first instruments for the over throw of Jerusalem, the Assyrian and allied people will be the last. Historically Assyria fell before Babylon, in prophecy Babylon falls before Assyria.

Daniel is the prophet of the Old Testament who tells of the rise and fall of the Imperial system. Babylon the capital of Chaldea was a mighty city-state and God made it the head of the nations. On the fall of the Babylonian Empire the Imperial system continued in the successive empires. Babylon alone received divine authority to govern the world. The Imperial system was tried and it failed in its first head (Daniel 5:25-28). The other empires followed providentially under the hand of God. Each was set up with a show of strength, but when it became defiant of God and even of His natural laws He took away its strength and gave the kingdom to another. The last of the four empires-Rome -held sway over the civilized world when Christ was upon earth. The Jews and the Empire joined hands to put Him to death. The fourth empire was to exist under various forms, and the last form is yet to come. (See Daniel and Revelation). The Roman Empire will revive miraculously in a new form, and oppress the godly remnant of God's people and all those who receive the gospel of the coming Kingdom. It will use all its power to resist the setting up of the Kingdom of the Son of Man.

Zephaniah does not prophesy of the Babylonian Empire and succeeding kingdoms, but he speaks of Israel and not merely of the tribe of Judah. When Israel is the subject of the prophecy the Gentile empire is not the burden of the prophet; the Assyrian is before the mind of the prophet as the foe and oppressor.

At the time of the end the Jews who have returned to the land will be allied with and under the control of confederate Western Europe. The Lord Himself coming from heaven will break the apostate Western Confederacy which will oppose His right to reign. The Gentile empire was given its power and authority by the God of heaven to stabilize government in the world when His throne ceased to be at Jerusalem, and only God can subdue a power to which He assigned authority on earth. The Lord from heaven will destroy the impious and defiant Imperial power which will have become thoroughly apostate. Canaan is Immanuel's land (Isaiah 8:8), and when Israel is regathered, the ancient enemy of God's people, not knowing that the presence of the LORD is there, will come up against Immanuel's land to take a spoil of the seemingly unprotected people dwelling in quietness. The LORD will fight for Israel in that day (Zechariah 14:3). The nation that holds sway over the lands in the Near East in which prophecy is interested at the close of the dispensation is Russia. Destined to be master in these Asiatic countries Russia pursues her policy to that end. The West will contest the right and power of Russia to control the countries north and east of Palestine and this will bring them into conflict. The LORD will not be owned by either so He will destroy them both.

 

CHAPTER 3

Judgment begins at Jerusalem, for God acts in government in the midst of His people. Her princes, judges, and priests are reproved, and we learn their real character in the sight of God. The just LORD had been there: "Every morning doth he bring his judgment to light, he faileth not, but the unjust knoweth no shame." (ver. 5).

Israel had seen how the LORD had cut off nations, surely they would be instructed. Their own chastening should have been a warning, but they corrupted all their doings. Unless the heart is reached by grace no warning is of any avail. Where faith is awakened by grace the soul learns to wait on the LORD in times of stress and is encouraged in hope.

It is the determination of the LORD to gather the nations in and around Palestine, for there He will plead with the nations and people who do not know Him, then they will j learn that He is the God of His people, and that day is fast approaching. Israel sank down to the level of the nations who did not know the LORD and became itself the object of judgment.

The call of verse 8 finds a response in the hearts of a feeble remnant, who must now wait on the LORD alone-; there was no hope anywhere else, and nothing could be done until His judgment was past. The remnant would have no part in the judgment, although it was by that judgment alone they could be saved. The Christian believer does not look for judgment to deliver him from the power of evil, he expects to be taken out of the world in a moment in the twinkling of an eye and so to escape the coming trial (Revelation 3:10). The Lord Himself will come for His Church and keep it out of the day of wrath; but the believing remnant of Israel in that day must hope on to the end and look for divine protection.

When the fierce anger of the LORD is spent the nations will learn to speak a pure language, that is, they will call upon the LORD and will all serve Him, and no more turn to idolatry.

The dispersed of Israel will be gathered from all the countries in which they now wander. Jerusalem will forget her shame and her past will be forgotten. In the midst of a pretentious and godless nation a few afflicted and poor people will be found trusting in the LORD. Humbled and broken in spirit they will find their refuge in Jehovah. Uprightness of walk and truthfulness in conversation will characterize them, and peace shall be their portion. This is always the true character of those beloved of God while Satan rules in the affairs of men and the ungodly prosper. These are not the days when the godly may take their ease, nor count their spiritual blessedness in terms of material wealth. The LORD does not despise a broken and contrite heart. The poor in spirit and despised in the world have God, and only God. He draws them to Himself through their necessities, and when at peace with Him He makes their hearts taste the sweetness of His grace in communion with Himself. The power of His grace in their hearts enables them to withstand and overcome the deceptions and open attacks of the enemy while they wa.it with all assurance the coming day of glory.

The remnant of Israel anticipate the day of deliverance for Jehovah is their King, and they may sing as they con template the day of liberty when the LORD GOD is in their midst (ver. 15). He will not rest until the resources of divine love are manifested in goodness to Jerusalem for full earthly blessing, and He will dwell with joy in the praises of His people.

Who will have a part in these blessings? Who will know the mind of God and enter into the spirit of the prophecy All those who grieve for the reproach of Zion, who feel the burden of her sorrow, and sigh for the solemn assemblies. -The LORD will gather them together. They will know the counsels of the LORD and wait on His name (ver. 18). They will have fame where they were once despised, and all nations will praise them.

The prophet does not speak of the Messiah as such, but as Jehovah the King the hope of Israel, and not of Jews under the Gentile power awaiting the Messiah.

The Gentile empire and the future of the Jews are the subject of Daniel's prophecy. Zephaniah has Israel and the nations or "peoples" in mind, not Jew and Gentile.

Jehovah expresses in the tenderest terms His delight in the remnant who are wholly cast on Him. The presence of the LORD is their comfort, and the expectation of entering into His rest -when He rests in His love gives them patience to endure in tribulation.

Israel had enjoyed the privileges of the most favoured of nations, but nothing is plainer than the fact that they abused every advantage, and through their unbelief forfeited every right to the promises God had made to them. They first entered into the promised land under a covenant in which they were responsible to fulfil their part. Their utter failure brought them into captivity, though in long-suffering kind ness God waited while He tried them under every advantage. They were partially restored to have their Messiah presented to them, but they settled down to make themselves comfortable and slackened in the work of building the house of the LORD until aroused afresh by the prophet Haggai. In the days of Malachi the LORD could no longer endure their solemn feasts, and could not accept their offerings. When the Messiah came they did not know Him. "He carne unto his own, and his own received him not" (John 1:11). We must remember this applies to the Jews rather than to the ten tribes of Israel. Still it was the last trial of the nation, and they filled up the history of their failure by refusing their Messiah and giving Him over to the Gentiles to be crucified.

But "the gifts and calling of God are without repentance" (Romans 11:29). God will fulfil His promises in a way more glorious than Israel has ever known, founded on His grace and faithfulness.

On the failure of Israel, the Church became the repository of the truth and the witness for God to the world. The revelation of the Church revealed to the apostle Paul was the richest display of the grace of God. All had failed on earth in time, therefore God made manifest His eternal purpose of grace which He had purposed in Christ Jesus before the world was, that by the Church, the body of Christ, should be known the fullness of His grace and the perfection of His wisdom.

The Church will be seen in all its loveliness in its heavenly surroundings when manifested with Christ its Head at His appearing. Meanwhile it is added to and grows by the preaching of the grace of God and the ministry of the heavenly revelation. But as the Church is still here on earth it is responsible according to its relationship to maintain its heavenly character. In this it has failed and is outwardly in ruins. (See 2 Timothy and Revelation 2 & 3). Again God will act in faithfulness according to His revealed nature and purpose. He will take the true members of Christ out of a state ripe for judgment, and bring them into the place of His purposed blessing where the Church will be seen as life knows it in His eternal purpose.

It will have been proved in the responsible life of the Church as in Israel that all blessing lies in the grace and power of God. This is a needed and most salutary lesson for the believer. Israel has proved that it has no right to the promises on the ground of fulfilled responsibility, but it receives them through mercy alone. The Church is proving that on the ground of responsibility it has no right to the purposes of God, but it receives all in the sovereign grace of God and by the exercise of His mighty power. This is a truth of great practical importance.

It is while the Christian is proving these principles of God that he feels the moral effect in his heart. If he realizes before God what the testimony of the Church should be, the burden of the reproach of its failure will rest on his heart and he will sigh for the solemn assemblies. In the days of Haggai, when the hearts of the returned remnant from the captivity were failing, the LORD reminded them that His Spirit remained with Israel as when they came out of Egypt, so they were not to be disheartened, The Church is still the house of God by the Spirit, and believers may enter into the privileges that belong to the Assembly of God in so far as they find grace to give Christ His true place as the Centre, around whom they gather, and have no confidence in the flesh.

As long as there remains a public testimony for God on earth He withholds His judgment. When the vessel of His testimony fails to represent Him in as much as He has revealed Himself, He judges and sets aside what has become useless for the purpose and acts in His sovereign right and begins anew. Finally, after all trial is over, God will establish on an eternal basis a state in which He will be ALL in ALL. Nothing in that day will depend on creature responsibility.

During the four thousand years of Old Testament history man was under trial, but when the world crucified Christ its trial was over. In what other way could it be further tried? The world did not want Him whom God sent in love, the Son of God, it did not want God, and now it stands condemned in the death of Christ. When the Holy Spirit came down at Pentecost and testified to a risen and glorified Christ the world resisted Him. Stephen, the vessel of the Spirit's testimony, was stoned to death and sent after Christ into heaven with the message, "We will not have this Man to reign over us". There only remains to come the world's last act of rebellion when man is exalted to the place of God in the temple of God and is worshipped as God. The judgment which has waited long will fall. Then God will set up in the Man of His purpose-Christ-His purposes of blessing for man.

There is no power for good that is independent of God. An eternal state of blessing for man must rest on the revelation and the proof that all good is in God and that He is all that is good. All trial leads to the knowledge that the creature is nothing in himself and that he has no independent power to achieve an end or retain a state pleasing to God unless kept by the power of God.

It is in this world the believer learns the power of God; he will not need to learn it in heaven where he will know the blessed result of power in bringing him into the glory. But while Satan is the prince of this world, and evil swamps the good, the believer needs power to go against the current and overcome evil. The power of God is not a mere addition to human strength. It is learned when all natural strength fails, leaving room for the power of God to come in. But God would have us know Himself in His nature of love and not by the simple expression of His power. He combines the two when man under trial has experienced his utter weakness and inability to maintain the truth; then it is God comes forth in fullness of grace to establish by His power ah that in which man has failed. The fall of the first man-Adam-brought the world into ruin and under the power of death. God, in the power of resurrection, has set man in Christ raised from among the dead in His own glory in perfect righteousness.

The cross of Christ is the eternal witness to man's complete alienation from God when under trial, but it is also God's perfect answer in grace to save man from the consequences of his folly, for God gave His Only-begotten Son to be the Saviour of all those who come to Him through the Son.

 

Frederick Alexander Blair: Published 1946 (1891 - 1974)
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