The Day of the Lord in Zephaniah
Bibliotheca Sacra 152 (January-March 1995): 16-32
Greg A. King
Recent scholarship has suggested that the time is ripe for a reassessment of the day of the Lord, a concept that is prominent in the prophetic books. Several factors invite this reassessment. First, to this writer’s knowledge no major systematic study of the day of the Lord texts has been made in recent years.Second, some previous attempts to elucidate what the prophets wrote about this significant concept incorrectly restricted their investigation to the precise phrase, ’the day of the Lord.’ Scholars now recognize that many similar phrases, especially the phrase ’on that day,’ also refer to the day of the Lord and must be considered if this concept is to be understood fully. Third, some past studies have tended to minimize the blessing or salvific aspect of the day of the Lord and have understood the day simply as the Lord’s holy war against His enemies. This is unfortunate because many occurrences of ’the day of the Lord’ and related expressions refer to a future time of blessing and salvation.
This article on Zephaniah’s proclamation of the day of the Lord is one contribution toward a reassessment of this concept. Zephaniah is a worthwhile book on which to focus because this frequently ignored book makes an important contribution to this topic in Old Testament theology. As von Rad states, ’Zephaniah’s prophecy concerning the day of Yahweh is certainly one of the most important sources of material at our disposal for the various concepts connected with this subject.’
This delineation is based on the exegesis and theological assessment of the entire Book of Zephaniah. This methodology is in harmony with what was mentioned above about the recent recognition of the importance of considering the full range of what could be called day of the Lord terminology. Though the exact expression ’the day of the Lord’ (hw`hy=
The Day of Yahweh’s Intervention
Zephaniah’s teaching on the day of the Lord features a number of aspects. One aspect that is strongly emphasized is that the day of the Lord brings Yahweh’s intervention into human affairs. In other words God will intrude into the human realm. There will be a divine-human ’collision.’
Zephaniah expressed this divine intervention and the divine-human encounter in a variety of ways. First, the command, ’Be silent before Lord Yahweh’ (1:7), is clear evidence of the nearness of deity. Humans are called to be mute in light of the approaching encounter with Yahweh on His day. In fact the word sh^ (’Be silent’) itself seems to denote the presence of Yahweh in this instance. As one writer observes, ’This solemn summons to silence by the prophet implies the imminence of the Lord himself. Standing before his awesome majesty on his great day inspires the most humble and reverent demeanor.’
A second way Zephaniah portrayed divine intervention into human affairs is through the repeated use of the verb dq^P* by Yahweh in the first person singular. Three times in chapter 1 Yahweh declared yT!d=q^P* (vv. 8-9, 12). This word is usually translated ’I will punish’ in these three instances, and ’punish’ probably conveys the sense of what is intended here as well as any other single word. However, this translation may mask the personal intrusion of Yahweh connoted by this Hebrew verb. The meaning of the root word is ’to visit or inspect in order to take appropriate action.’ Keller captures something of the personal involvement by Yahweh implied by this word, when he states that dq^P* ’signifies simply to inspect, to control and if need be, to intervene in one manner or another in order to reestablish the order.’ In other words the personal intervention of Yahweh is accentuated by the use of this particular verb.
In light of this broader meaning, Yahweh announced that He will pay a personal visit to inspect the government officials (v. 8), those wearing foreign garments (v. 8), those participating in pagan rituals (v. 9), and other miscreants. Indeed, all who are spiritually stagnant in Jerusalem are scheduled for an encounter with Yahweh (v. 12).
A third way Zephaniah highlighted this divine intrusion is with Yahweh’s avowal in 1:12, ’I will search Jerusalem with lamps.’ This portrayal, one of the best known from Zephaniah, is a stunning picture of Yahweh. The Lord is not described as directing executioners to conduct the investigation as in Ezekiel 9:1-6, nor as allowing His living word to seek out the wrongdoers as in Zechariah 5:1-4. No, Yahweh Himself will handle the matter. Yahweh declared His intention to probe the dark corners of Jerusalem Himself. These two clauses, ’I will punish’ (1:8-9, 12) and ’I will search’ (1:12), combine to trumpet the message, ’Get ready for a personal encounter with Yahweh on His day.’
Zephaniah expressed this divine intervention in several other places. Repeatedly Yahweh is quoted as using first-person verbs in declaring His plans to intrude into human affairs. Zephaniah contains a host of such announcements: ’I will destroy’ (1:2-3), ’I will cut off’ (v. 3), ’I will stretch out My hand’ (v. 4), ’I will gather’ (3:18), ’I will give them praise and renown’ (vv. 19-20), and ’I will bring you in’ (v. 20). Moreover, some third-person verbs, such as ’He will stretch out His hand’ (2:13), ’He will destroy’ (2:13), and ’He will rejoice’ (3:17), also signify Yahweh’s intervention in human affairs. He is the actor in the drama that will occur on His day, and the arena of His activity is the human realm.
This divine involvement in human affairs is probably the most salient feature of Zephaniah’s proclamation of the day of the Lord. This is not surprising in light of a careful examination of the phrase ’the day of Yahweh.’ As many scholars have noted, the emphasis in this phrase is not on a specific time period. On the contrary, the emphasis in the phrase hw`hy=
Perhaps the reason Zephaniah articulated this aspect of the day of the Lord so forcefully is to contradict the belief of some Jerusalemites that Yahweh is uninvolved in human affairs. Their heartfelt sentiment was, ’Yahweh will not do good, nor will He do evil’ (1:12). Achtemeier calls this verse the central indictment of the entire book. Evidently a significant group of people in Jerusalem could be called deists or even practical atheists, because their sentiment was tantamount to believing that Yahweh will do nothing at all.
What a surprise is in store for these practical atheists! Yahweh, whom they held to be dormant and passively detached from the earth, will intervene in a decisive way. Far from being inactive and static, Yahweh is depicted ’as being personally involved in his judgment, which will be devastating in its totality.’ His actions on the day of the Lord will give the lie to those who accuse Him of passivity and detachment. According to Zephaniah, the day of the Lord is a time of divine intervention.
The Day of Yahweh’s Universal Sovereignty and Superiority
Another aspect of the day of the Lord expressed by Zephaniah is that this day demonstrates Yahweh’s universal sovereignty and unrivaled superiority. Though Yahweh is the King of Israel (3:15), He is much more than that. His dominion knows no boundaries. His hegemony extends to all nations. Moreover, He can brook no rivals and will tolerate no pretenders or other claimants to the throne, since He is superior to all of them. On the day of the Lord He is shown to be without peer.
Emphasis on Yahweh’s universal sovereignty comes to the fore quickly in the Book of Zephaniah. Immediately after the superscription, Yahweh announced, ’I will completely destroy everything upon the face of the earth’ (1:2). This macrocosmic judgment, which will overwhelm all animate life, implies the extent of Yahweh’s dominion and sovereignty. He is Lord over all the world. Universal judgment indicating Yahweh’s worldwide sovereignty is proclaimed again in 1:18, which reiterates the warning that Yahweh will suddenly and completely destroy all the inhabitants of the earth.
Chapter 2 proclaims this same aspect of the day of the Lord but expresses it differently. The Philistines, Moabites, Ammonites, Cushites, and Assyrians are all slated for punishment. Of interest here is the fact that these nations represent the four points of the compass. Yahweh’s dominion is not limited to Judah, nor does it extend from there in only one direction. Rather, it stretches westward (to Philistia), eastward (to Moab and Ammon), southward (to Cush), and northward (to Assyria). On His day Yahweh is shown to be no localized deity, restricted or hampered by political or geographic boundaries.
The third chapter of Zephaniah also heralds Yahweh’s universal sovereignty. Yahweh announced His purpose to assemble the nations on the day of the Lord and then to execute judgment on all the earth (3:8). In fact this is probably the clearest statement in Zephaniah of the universal dominion of Yahweh. A few commentators say 1:2 and 18 may refer to a localized destruction of Judah instead of a universal destruction. While it is true that hm*d*a& (v. 2) and Jr#a# (v. 18) can both mean land (i.e., of Judah) and not necessarily the entire earth, Zephaniah clarified the extent of the judgment on the day of the Lord in chapter 3. As a prelude to destroying the earth (Jr#a#), Yahweh will assemble ’nations’ (
Happily, Yahweh’s worldwide hegemony is revealed not only through His acts of judgment. His redemptive acts also serve to demonstrate His sovereignty. More will be said about these redemptive acts later, but suffice it to state here that peoples from the most distant places the mind can conceive (2:11; 3:9-10) will experience salvation and will worship Yahweh on His day. He is the redemptive King not only of the Judahites, but also of people from many nations.
Zephaniah developed this concept of the Lord’s universal sovereignty by proclaiming that the day of the Lord will also reveal His unrivaled superiority. Yahweh has no equals. He shares His throne with no one. This fact is especially prominent in chapter 2, in which Yahweh is portrayed as eliminating two types of false claimants to deity.
First, 2:11 states that Yahweh will ’starve’ or ’weaken’ the other gods. If Yahweh has the ability to starve or weaken these other gods, then He is unquestionably superior to them. Also He is peerless around the globe, for ’all the gods of the earth’ will meet their demise at His hands.
Yahweh’s superiority over the second pretender to deity is expressed in 2:13-15. Whereas in verse 11 Yahweh is said to deal with the false gods of the nations, here He will deal with a nation that thinks itself to be god. Nineveh, capital of the most powerful nation on the earth at that time, thought it dwelt ’securely’ (v. 15). The Hebrew root word here is jfB, the verbal form of which is often translated ’to trust.’ Nineveh was simply trusting in itself, apparently unaware that trust reposed in any object other than God will end in shame (Pss. 115:3-11; 118:5-9; 146:3-5).
But this was not Nineveh’s worst sin. Personified, Nineveh said in its heart, ’I am, and there is none besides me’ (Zeph. 2:15). It posited itself as the ultimate reality. This blasphemous claim was equivalent to saying, ’I am the lord, and there is no other’ (Isa. 45:5, 14, 18, 21). As Achtemeier notes, ’No God who is really God can let such a claim go unchallenged.’ And indeed He did not. Nineveh, with its overweening attitude, inflated by its own greatness, thinking itself to be without equal, was destined for a collision on the day of the Lord with the only One who is truly without peer. Nineveh, the flower of civilization, would become a heap of ruins and an object of derision.
Evidently Nineveh did not realize what the day of the Lord would clearly reveal. There is only one Sovereign and His dominion has no boundaries. His preeminence is without question.
The Day of Yahweh’s Judgment
Yet another aspect of the day of the Lord, related to the previous one, is that it brings the outpouring of Yahweh’s judgment. This is both a universal judgment and a localized or specific judgment. In other words it has both macrocosmic and microcosmic elements.
The phrase ’from the face of the earth,’ which is strategically placed as an inclusio in 1:2-3, underscores the theme of universal judgment at the outset of the book. Ball has observed that this ’exact phrase is found thirteen times in the MT, all but one involving punishment.’ Twice it is used in the Flood narrative when Yahweh declared His intentions to blot out humans and animals ’from the face of the earth’ (Gen. 6:7; 7:4). By using this phrase in the context of judgment, Zephaniah raised the specter of a destruction along the lines of the Flood, but he added that judgment on the day of the Lord will surpass even the Flood in its totality. According to Zephaniah 1:3, no living creature will be spared punishment, whether human, animal, fish, or fowl. This presents a contrast with the Flood for in that event fish were not destroyed (Gen. 7:21-23). Thus the judgment on the day of the Lord will be the most complete ever experienced.
The full extent of this judgment is understood only when it is realized that it is the undoing or ’reversal of creation.’ The original order of creation was fish, birds, animals, and humans (Gen. 1:20-24, 27). This order is almost completely reversed in Zephaniah. Zephaniah was stressing that just as Yahweh was active in the creation of animate life, so on His day He will be active in its ’decreation,’ its removal from the earth. Yahweh’s destruction ’will be just as bleak as his creating was abundant.’
Though Zephaniah declared that the day of the Lord will bring about destruction on all animate life, he emphasized in several ways its judgment on people, who are the primary recipients of Yahweh’s punishment. First, in Zephaniah 1:3 humans are twice specified as the object of God’s punishment, while the other creatures are referred to only once. Moreover, in verse 3 the verb ’to cut off’ (tr^K*), which denotes the judgment on human beings, is a strong term ’used at times in the technical sense of carrying out the death penalty (cf. Ex. 31:14; Lv. 20:3-6).’ Also the succeeding verses and chapters elaborate on the judgment on humans, applying it to specific groups of people.
The microcosmic dimensions of judgment are demonstrated with the singling out of the nation of Judah in Zephaniah 1:4-13 and some of the surrounding nations in chapter 2.
But why this judgment on the day of the Lord? The statement, ’because they have sinned against Yahweh’ (1:17), does double duty, supplying the general reason for the coming judgment and also indicating that Yahweh is not capricious or arbitrary in sending it. Rather, this punishment is a result of and in response to human choices.
Zephaniah mentioned several sins that invite judgment on the day of the Lord. One such sin is the lack of social justice. This mistreatment of others, a prominent theme in the prophetic books, is mentioned several times by Zephaniah. Some people were said to ’fill the house of their lord with violence and treachery’ (1:9). It is uncertain whether this ’house’ is the temple of Yahweh, a pagan temple, or the king’s palace. But wherever it is, some heinous conduct was transpiring there for, as Haag notes, ’violence’ (sm*j*) signifies primarily the oppression of the poor and humble. More specifically, it connotes ’cold-blooded and unscrupulous infringement of the personal rights of others, motivated by greed and hate and often making use of violence and brutality.’
In 3:1 Jerusalem is labeled as a ’defiled’ and ’oppressing’ city. ’Defiled’ (hl*a*g=n!) is used in Isaiah 59:3 of hands stained with blood because of social injustice. Oppressing (hn`oy) is a participle implying mistreatment of the poor and needy (Ezek. 18:12). When these words are used in tandem to describe Jerusalem, they suggest that tyrannical and unjust abuses of power were being practiced. The citizens of Jerusalem were defiant of Yahweh (Zeph. 3:2) and despotic to humanity.
That the poor were being mistreated comes as no surprise because the judges, who should have been defending the rights of the oppressed, were instead joining in the despotism. The judges were like ’evening wolves, who have no strength in the morning’ (3:3). Writers disagree on the meaning of this metaphor. A plausible explanation is that these judges were exhausting all their energies by preying on those whose rights they were supposed to protect, and they were doing it so thoroughly that they had no strength left for the morning, when justice should have been dispensed (3:5; Jer. 21:12).
Not surprisingly, these actions garnered the censure of Yahweh, for He does no injustice at all (Zeph. 3:5). In fact He works to counter the actions of wicked judges by bringing His justice to light every morning (v. 5). Perhaps these corrupt judges had forgotten that Yahweh is the Defender of the rights of the poor and needy (Ps. 109:31). Such a dearth of social justice prompts a severe judgment on the day of the Lord.
Another sin inviting Yahweh’s judgments on His day is self-aggrandizement, attempting to magnify oneself at the expense of Yahweh or His people. The Moabites and Ammonites reproached Judah and made boasts against it (2:8). Unfortunately for Moab and Ammon, the people whom they taunted and boasted over in an attempt to shame and disgrace them are no ordinary people. They are Yahweh’s people who enjoy a special relationship with Him. Interestingly, before 2:8, the prophet did not use a possessive pronoun or divine title to indicate any special relationship between Yahweh and His people, but now he did so with relish. Five times in three verses Zephaniah underscored this special relationship (’My people,’ vv. 8-9; ’Yahweh of hosts, the God of Israel,’ v. 9; ’my nation,’ v. 9; ’the people of Yahweh of hosts,’ v. 10).
This special relationship makes Moab and Ammon’s taunting remarks and boastful attitude particularly abhorrent. They reviled the people of Yahweh, and by extension, Yahweh Himself. Zephaniah so closely identified Israel with Yahweh that a sin against the former was an offense against the latter. As Szeles observes, ’Since Yahweh entitles himself ’God of Israel,’ he reveals that when hurt touches his people, it touches him too.’ Because Moab and Ammon attempted to disgrace Yahweh’s people, the Lord in turn will disgrace them on His day.
Nineveh’s self-aggrandizement was discussed in the preceding section. Its claim to lordship incited the punishment of Yahweh. Its pompous, blasphemous pronouncement, ’I am, and there is none besides me’ (2:15), will result in its becoming a spectacular ruin on Yahweh’s day.
This judgmental aspect of the day of the Lord emphasizes that it is a time of universal accountability. As 3:8 indicates, Yahweh will summon all the nations of the world to a grand assize where He will sit as the arbiter. Everyone will be held accountable for his or her actions. On His day Yahweh will execute judgment on those who have violated His principles of justice and those who have magnified themselves against Him.
Zephaniah stressed that this judgment will expose the inadequacy of any earthly protection or security on the day of the Lord. The powerful warrior (1:14) will not be able to withstand the judgment of that day. The mighty soldier may have shown exemplary courage in the past. Perhaps he has never been frightened in his life. But on that day he will cry out bitterly in view of his impotence and his imminent defeat.
The fortified cities are perhaps thought invincible by their inhabitants, and the corner towers are the most impregnable parts of these fortresses (1:16). Yet these two objects are singled out as targets for judgment on the day of the Lord. What is most defensible from a human point of view is rendered defenseless before the onslaught of Yahweh’s wrath.
People might think their silver and gold (1:18) will render them immune from misfortune. Even if they face an enemy army, their wealth could be used to pay tribute, thus buying off the enemy. But Zephaniah wrote that silver and gold will be totally powerless to bring about deliverance on that day. Human strength, human structures, and human resources will all prove futile to shield anyone from Yahweh’s judgment on His day. This fact suggests that if anyone is to be delivered or saved, it will be by divine intervention, an act of Yahweh’s mercy and grace.
No one will be able to avoid the judgment bar of Yahweh on His day. If some might think they can hide from the judgment, Yahweh announced, ’I will search’ (1:12). And if any think the darkness will enshroud them, thereby enabling them to avoid the search, Yahweh expressed His intention to use lamps. Indeed the day of Yahweh is a day of inescapable, universal judgment.
The Day of Covenant Implementation
An additional aspect of the day of the Lord proclaimed in Zephaniah is that it will implement the terms of the covenant between Yahweh and Israel. In other words the events that await Israel on the day of the Lord comport closely to curses and blessings delineated in the Mosaic Covenant, and the sins that prompted the onset of these curses parallel sins condemned therein. This is especially evident when some of the terminology and concepts contained in Zephaniah are compared with the terminology and concepts of Deuteronomy, a book that some scholars consider the quintessential covenant document. According to Zephaniah, Yahweh, who has viewed the violation of His covenant, will implement its terms, first for woe and then for weal.
This linkage between the day of the Lord and the covenant is not unique to Zephaniah. In fact Fensham has posited that the whole concept of the day of the Lord in the Old Testament should be understood against the background of covenant curses. He holds that the day of the Lord is the time when Yahweh comes to invoke the treaty curses against the violation of His covenant.
Robertson adds in a related vein:
The day of Yahweh therefore may be seen as the day of his Covenant. On this day, he establishes his sovereign lordship over men. Either by instituting the covenant or by enforcing the provisions of the covenant, Yahweh manifests his lordship on that day. No other day may be so fittingly designated as belonging to him than the day of covenant establishment and enforcement.
While it may be an overstatement to equate the day of Yahweh with the day of Yahweh’s covenant as the preceding quotation seems to do, several of the prophetic books do imply a strong connection between the day of the Lord and the covenant, and certainly the Book of Zephaniah does.
This linkage between the covenant and the day of the Lord is apparent in several places in Zephaniah. First, in 1:15 the wording, ’a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness,’ resembles that of Deuteronomy’s description of Yahweh’s appearance at Sinai when He made covenant with Israel. Three of the words in 1:15 come from Hebrew roots (ûvj, /nu, and lpru) that appear together twice in Deuteronomy’s portrayal of the Sinai theophany (Deut. 4:11; 5:22-23). Besides these three references in Zephaniah and Deuteronomy, these three words are used together in only one other place in the entire Old Testament. Yahweh, whose appearance when He instituted the covenant was marked by supernatural phenomena in the skies, will appear again on His day, accompanied by the same phenomena. However, there is a different purpose for this second appearance. On the day of the Lord ’the curses of the covenant will be inflicted, not merely inscribed. Now covenant enforcement replaces covenant inauguration.’
Second, the covenant aspect of the day of the Lord is demonstrated by the nature of the indictment against the covenant people. Though certainly not their only sin, perhaps the sin that most readily provoked the covenant curses was their idolatrous worship practices. These deviant worship practices are especially prominent in Zephaniah 1:4-6 (cf. vv. 8-9). According to these verses, some of the people were devoted to Baal, the god whose worship held allurement for many in Israel over several centuries. Evidently also a group of non-Yahwistic priests were plying their trade. Moreover, some were incorporating obeisance to the astral bodies in their worship, a practice explicitly forbidden in the covenant (Deut. 17:3). Additionally, some were invoking another name in addition to that of Yahweh in their oaths. Commanded in the covenant to swear by Yahweh’s name and to worship Him alone (Deut. 6:13-14), these people were invoking the name of another deity as well.
The people of Israel were engaging in a wide range of idolatrous worship practices. This is ominous in light of the strong emphasis in the covenant on worshiping Yahweh and Him alone (Deut. 6:4-9). In fact it is possible that the main theme of Deuteronomy is that of opposition to idolatry. According to Zephaniah, such a blatant violation of the covenant invites Yahweh’s judgments on His day.
Third, the nature of the judgment on the day of the Lord indicates that it is a time of covenant implementation. As predicted in Zephaniah 1:13, ’Their property will become booty, and their houses a waste. They will build houses, but not inhabit them; they will plant vineyards, but not drink the wine from them.’ God also said, ’I will bring distress on the human race, so that they shall walk about like the blind’ (1:17). These verses have close parallels in the catalog of covenant curses in Deuteronomy (cf. Deut. 28:30, 39 for the former and 28:28-29 for the latter). According to Zephaniah there will be tragic consequences for the people’s violations of the covenant. Their wealth will be pillaged, they will enjoy neither the comforts of the homes they built nor the wine from the vineyards they planted, and they will grope about blindly, unable to rectify the situation. The day of the Lord is clearly a day of execution of covenant curses.
Interestingly, Israel is not the only recipient of judgments that correspond to covenant curses. Moab and Ammon are headed for judgment as devastating as that which overwhelmed Sodom and Gomorrah (2:9), those two perennial archetypes of wickedness. This warning is reminiscent of Deuteronomy 29:23, which describes punishment for violating the covenant, punishment along the lines of what engulfed Sodom and Gomorrah.
But the execution of the covenant curses is not the final word on the matter. The fact that Zephaniah announced a restoration beyond punishment, a new life after judgment, is a fourth indication that the day of the Lord is a time of covenant implementation. After the smoke of punishment from the covenant curses has cleared away, Zephaniah promised, ’Yahweh their God will visit them and restore their fortune’ (Zeph. 2:7; cf. 3:20). This closely resembles the terminology and message of Deuteronomy 30:3, which pledges that after the fulfillment of the covenant curses, ’Then the Lord your God will restore your fortune.’
With this promise Zephaniah was signaling the onset of covenant restoration blessings on the day of the Lord. Several features of this restoration agree closely with the covenant restoration blessings in Deuteronomy. Yahweh promised to gather the banished and return them to their own land (Zeph. 3:19-20), a promise that resembles that of Deuteronomy 30:4. Moreover, the assurance that Yahweh will rejoice over His people with a joyful cheer (Zeph. 3:17) is reminiscent of the promise found in Deuteronomy 30:9. Also Yahweh’s pledge to grant His people praise and renown among all the peoples of the earth (Zeph. 3:19-20) compares closely with the same pledge in Deuteronomy 26:19. Besides Zephaniah 3:19-20 only one other verse in the Old Testament--Jeremiah 13:11--includes these words ’praise’ (hL*h!T=) and ’renown’ (
The theophanic imagery of the day of the Lord, the rationale and description of the judgment to be meted out at that time, and the portrayal of the restoration to be granted, combine in Zephaniah to indicate that the day of the Lord is a day of covenant implementation.
The Day of Salvation
Another aspect of the day of the Lord expressed in Zephaniah is that it results in salvation for some groups of people. In other words it is not only a time of cataclysmic, destructive, overwhelming judgment as already described. It is also a time of salvation so thrilling and wonderful that Yahweh Himself will burst into songs of rejoicing (3:17).
At first glance this salvific aspect of the day of the Lord may seem incongruous with Zephaniah’s emphasis on judgment in that day. However, analysis reveals the close nexus between these two aspects and that neither is complete without the other. As Patterson states, ’Judgment and hope, then, rather than being irreconcilable themes, are two aspects of one divine perspective. Both are designed and intertwined to accomplish God’s purposes.’ According to Zephaniah there is a cause-and-effect relationship between these two aspects, because it is only through the judgment of evil that the salvation of God’s people can be accomplished.
This salvific aspect of the day of the Lord is expressed in several ways in Zephaniah. One of the most important ways is through Zephaniah’s delineation of the remnant concept. Zephaniah’s development of the remnant concept is important in its own right. The word ’remnant’ denotes survivors, specifically those Israelites who survive the judgments sent by Yahweh on His day. The term in itself underscores the salvific aspect of the day of the Lord because it stresses the fact that some people remain alive. Though the judgment threatens to wipe out all living creatures on the earth (1:2, 18), especially God’s covenant people (v. 4), Zephaniah promised that Yahweh will deliver a remnant (3:12).
In 3:11-13, Zephaniah developed this concept of the remnant, describing their ethics and the future reward to be granted to them. In brief, since their ethics are like those of Yahweh (cf. v. 13 with v. 5) and since they find their security in trusting Yahweh (v. 12), He will provide lasting security for them. The description of this remnant, delivered and restored and blessed by Yahweh, demonstrates that the day of the Lord is a day of salvation.
Zephaniah also expressed the salvific aspect of the day of the Lord through his portrayal of the universal worship of Yahweh. On two occasions (2:11; 3:9-10) Zephaniah depicted worship of Yahweh taking place on a worldwide basis by those who are delivered from the judgment. Neither the judgment on the false gods (2:11) nor the judgment on the nations (3:8) is an end in itself. Rather, both of these judgments are immediately followed by their intended result, namely, the people of the world declaring their allegiance to Yahweh. And this is not worship by only a few isolated people. On the contrary there will be so many that they will stand shoulder to shoulder, serving Yahweh unitedly (3:9). The fact that Yahweh will deliver these people from the midst of the conflagration that will consume the earth testifies that this is a day of salvation.
Perhaps the foremost indicator of the salvific aspect of the day of the Lord is the structure of the Book of Zephaniah. The book is arranged so that the climax, the concluding note, trumpets the message of salvation. The book builds to a crescendo with the proclamation of salvation in the final verses. Moreover, the phrases ’on that day’ (3:16) and ’at that time’ (3:19-20) certify that these verses announcing salvation speak of the same epoch earlier portrayed as a time of devastating judgment (cf. 1:9-10 in which ’on that day’ appears in the context of judgment).
The joyful cheers of Yahweh (3:17) and His people (v. 14) replace the bitter cry of the warrior (1:14). Yahweh promised to deal with the enemies of His people, to gather His people home, and to exalt them in an international setting. With their judgments past and their enemies eliminated, the covenant people will celebrate the Lord’s presence in their midst and He will reign over them (3:15, 17). The last image of the book is that of the covenant people, saved, restored, and exalted.
In light of this climax in the book it is difficult to overstate the importance of the salvific aspect of the day of the Lord. Yahweh clearly relishes His work of salvation. This is apparent when He sings elatedly on restoring His people. This is the only place in the entire Old Testament that refers to a jubilant Yahweh singing over the people He loves. Zephaniah’s implication seems to be that Yahweh’s ultimate purpose in all the events that will occur on His day is to bring salvation to as many as possible. This is only fitting, for the day of the Lord is a day of salvation.
Is the Day of Yahweh Historical or Eschatological?
When will or did the day of the Lord occur? According to Zephaniah, is it a historical event, that is, one which happens within history, or is it eschatological, the event that will bring down the curtain on this age and usher in the next one? Since evidence supports both positions in Zephaniah, it is best to see it as both historical and eschatological, as occurring in history and also as part of the final drama of history.
Though the Lord’s acts of judgment take place throughout the history of redemption, each act foreshadows the final judgment when all the doers of evil, corruption, and sin will be absolutely and radically judged and removed from the earth (1:3). Each judgment in history is an intrusion of the eschatological judgment, whether on Israel, Judah, or the nations.
Though this interpenetration of the historical and the eschatological in Zephaniah’s presentation of the day of the Lord may seem confusing, it should not be surprising. As Merrill notes, ’The line between historical and eschatological fulfillment is often a very fine one and difficult to discern. Here in Zephaniah, as in all the prophets, that demarcation is blurry.’
Perhaps this historical and eschatological interpenetration aids in understanding Zephaniah’s insistence on the imminence of the day of the Lord. The fact that Yahweh might intervene at any time in history (and has already done so on many occasions) warns that His final intrusion might take place soon. Three times Zephaniah used the adverb ’near’ to describe the closeness of that day (1:7, 14). Though he did not proclaim an exact time frame, his insistence on the nearness of the day suggests that it loomed so large on the horizon that little else was visible. Under such menacing circumstances, what else could the prophet proclaim but that the day is near?
Goals of the Day of the Lord
Zephaniah had both present goals and future goals in mind in writing of the day of the Lord. The present goal was simply to motivate the people of Israel to engage in wholehearted worship of Yahweh and to carry out righteous ethical practices. Regarding the worship of Yahweh, Zephaniah 1:4-6 implies that only exclusive, devoted, wholehearted worship of Yahweh is acceptable. Nothing else will suffice. Those totally given over to idolatry along with the syncretists are heading for severe judgment. Yahweh wants His people to seek Him and Him alone. Regarding ethical practices, the exhortation of 2:3 to seek righteousness and the descriptions of the wicked in 3:1-4 and the righteous remnant in 3:12-13 point up the importance of righteous conduct in treatment of others. Only those who act in the same manner as Yahweh (3:5) can aspire to be part of the remnant.
Regarding the future goal of the day of the Lord, Zephaniah pointed toward the establishment of Yahweh’s kingdom on the earth. This day signifies the time of ’vindication, glorification, and full redemption of the godly (3:14-20).’ This will occur when Yahweh is exalted as King in the midst of His people and will reign over them forever. This is the final goal for which the day of the Lord still awaits.
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