Zephaniah became a prophet about the same time Josiah (see 1:1), the boy-king of Judah, took the throne (see 2 Chronicles 34). It was a dark time for God’s chosen people and the capital city of Jerusalem. The wickedness of the people had all but extinguished the light of God’s presence, leaving the “shining city on a hill” with nothing more than a dim flicker of righteousness. Zephaniah described Jerusalem with words like “rebellious”, “defiled”, and “haughty” (v.1, 11). The leaders of the city were all corrupt (v.3-4): the officials led (if you can even call what they did leadership) by fear and intimidation, the judges who should have protected the people like shepherds were wolves in sheep’s clothing, the prophets were not preaching truth anymore, and the priests — the men who were supposed to serve in the Temple — were defiling the Temple.
Into this dark scene came a bright young king who understood the times in which he lived. At only 20 years old, he began to turn the nation back to the Lord. When he ordered the Temple to be reopened and cleaned, the Book of the Law was found and read to him. The first time Josiah heard the Scripture he responded in obedience, enacting serious reforms and sparking national revival. It was during this time that Zephaniah prophesied. The relationship between the prophet and the young king is unknown, but we know they served simultaneously and must have had some interaction. My theory is that it was significant. I think God had Zephaniah in place as a man of God (definitely in the minority among the “fickle” prophets, v.4), a preacher who could help Josiah to fan the flame of spiritual renewal. Zephaniah did not sugar-coat the situation in Judah. He shared his king’s passion for radical repentance (see 2 Kings 23).
I am sure it disappointed King Josiah to hear his prophet friend predict that the revival they were leading would be short-lived — but the prediction was true. Just four years after Josiah’s reign the people were again so wicked that God allowed them to be invaded and carried away as captive exiles. Zephaniah delivered this chilling message for the Lord: “I will stretch out My hand against Judah and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem…I will cut off those who have turned back from following the Lord” (see 1:4-6). But Zephaniah also brought a message of hope, and that is the focus of our chapter today.
Although God was going to judge the people through the coming captivity in Babylon, it was going to be a time of purification for the nation. They would emerge as a humbled, holy people (v.11-13). After the Lord punished them as their Judge, He would bless them as their Savior. God promised that there was coming a day when He would “save the lame, gather the outcast, and change their shame into praise” (v.19). He would gather His people together to “rejoice over” them, to gather them together, and to restore their fortunes (v.17-20). I am certain that these words brought hope to the people once they were taken captive in Babylon. I imagine fathers reciting this section of Zephaniah’s prophecy to their families, keeping hope alive during difficult times.
As with the other prophets, Zephaniah’s message had a far-reaching meaning that includes all believers of all times. In the last days, God will judge the world, forever wiping out evil and sin. Then He will gather us all together, somehow unifying our language so that we can celebrate and worship Him with one voice (v.9). During the Millennial Reign of Christ the confusion of languages that began at Babel will be reversed (see Genesis 11, Revelation 20:2-4). Just imagine the praises and the songs as we worship together in true unity, unbothered and unhindered by sin, in the very presence of Jesus! And we will not be the only ones singing — God will be singing, too, and loudly (v.17)! What does God’s singing voice sound like? How awesome is it? I don’t know yet, but I will someday. Until then, I can only imagine!
(Note: Randy Alcorn’s article about v.17 is very moving and inspiring. I recommend that you read it here.)