Zephaniah lived at the same time as Jeremiah, in the early part of King Josiah's reign, supporting his reforms and perhaps initiating them. Zephaniah foretells the destruction of the Jews (and others) by the Chaldeans for their sins. The northern kingdom of Israel had already been captured by Assyria; the southern kingdom of Judah would soon be captured by Babylon but perhaps this revival postponed it for a while.
(Zephaniah 1:1) The word of the LORD which came unto Zephaniah the son of Cushi, the son of Gedaliah, the son of Amariah, the son of Hizkiah, in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah.
Zephaniah feels the need to establish his pedigree. We don't really know about his ancestors but there is much speculation especially about whether or not his great great grandfather Hezehiah is King Hezekiah or some other Hezehiah.
(Zephaniah 1:2) I will utterly consume all things from off the land, saith the LORD.
Invading armies stripped the land bare with fires and with the number of horses and infantry trampling on everything.
(Zephaniah 1:3) I will consume man and beast; I will consume the fowls of the heaven, and the fishes of the sea, and the stumbling blocks [idols] with the wicked: and I will cut off man from off the land, saith the LORD.
Invading armies take all the food and livestock in addition to killing people or taking them away into slavery. They even destroy or take the altars and idols which are the things causing God to judge the people in the first place.
(Zephaniah 1:4) I will also stretch out mine hand upon Judah, and upon all the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and I will cut off the remnant of Baal from this place, and the name of the Chemarims [pre-teen idol priests] with the priests;
Even the rightful priests were involved in idolatry.
(Zephaniah 1:5) And them that worship the [starry] host of heaven upon the housetops; and them that worship and that swear by the LORD, and that swear by Malcham [Molek];
Lot's of variety in their idolatrous worship including even gruesomely killing their babies to the god Molek.
(Zephaniah 1:6) And them that are turned back from the LORD; and those that have not sought the LORD, nor inquired for him.
Apostates and those uninterested in God and moral purity.
(Zephaniah 1:7) Hold thy peace at the presence of the Lord GOD: for the day of the LORD is at hand: for the LORD hath prepared a sacrifice, he hath bid his guests.
Just as the Israelites performed sacrifices to deal with their sin and to get right with God, so also God performs sacrifices to deal with sin. In God's case, he is not the one who sinned so the object of the sacrifice is the sinners. God's purpose is to purify his people, to refine them by fire. Since God can't atone for their sin since they are in disobedience to God, they must atone for their own sin. A scary thought to have to atone for one's own sin! Of course, no one can earn redemption by atoning for their sins, but they can help pay for the effects of their sins on others. Protestants typically don't think we need to do this and think, rather, that because Christ atoned for our sins we are off the hook completely, that we have no responsibility whatsoever to those we have wronged.
The guests to this sacrifice are those who will destroy Judah and carry many away captive.
(Zephaniah 1:8) And it shall come to pass in the day of the LORD's sacrifice, that I will punish the princes, and the king's children, and all such as are clothed with strange apparel [foreign clothes].
No one is exempt from God's judgment; even the rich and powerful will be judged along with the common people.
Various reasons they might have worn foreign-made clothes.
(Zephaniah 1:9) In the same day also will I punish all those that leap on the threshold, which fill their masters' houses with violence and deceit.
(Zephaniah 1:10) And it shall come to pass in that day, saith the LORD, that there shall be the noise of a cry from the fish gate, and an howling from the second, and a great crashing from the hills.
The fish gate was near the fish market for fish brought in from the Mediterranean Sea or the Sea of Galilee. The word "second" probably refers to a wall inside the city and the hills are either in the city or the nearby hills.
(Zephaniah 1:11) Howl, ye inhabitants of Maktesh [a district of Jerusalem], for all the merchant people are cut down [killed]; all they that bear [weigh or trade] silver are cut off [killed].
(Zephaniah 1:12) And it shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with candles, and punish the men that are settled on their lees: that say in their heart, The LORD will not do good, neither will he do evil.
The word "lee" refers to the sediment (dregs) that settles to the bottom of a liquid, the least desirable portion. You are supposed to pour off the good part once the dregs settle to the bottom. If you don't do this the liquid become foul.
God's light will search out everyone in Jerusalem to find those who don't think they need to be concerned with God's judgment because, if he even exists, he certainly doesn't care what people do and he certainly doesn't judge anyone. They are complacent because of their beliefs. If they thought God was actively engaged in finding out who is sinning and judging them, perhaps they would be more motivated to live holy lives.
This is also the danger of believing the false doctrine of once-saved-always-saved. The New Testament is clear that God judges us for our sins and that we can lose our salvation. But those who have no concerns about this will have less motivation to avoid sin, and some may fall from grace as a result.
(Zephaniah 1:13) Therefore their goods shall become a booty [plunder], and their houses a desolation: they shall also build houses, but not inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, but not drink the wine thereof.
(Zephaniah 1:14) The great day of the LORD is near, it is near, and hasteth greatly, even the voice of the day of the LORD: the mighty man shall cry there bitterly.
The phrase "day of the Lord" is used to refer to judgment upon a people for their sins.
(Zephaniah 1:15) That day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of wasteness and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness,
In order to be true to my method of strictly literal interpretation I must interpret the phrase "clouds and thick darkness" (fog) literally. It is not the physical clouds that make us gloomy but, rather, a spiritual condition (since the soul lives in the spiritual realm, physical objects have no power over its mood). Therefore, whatever the gloomy mood caused by clouds is, it is spiritual, they are spiritual clouds corresponding to the physical clouds. In like manner, the day of the Lord results in the same kind of spiritual clouds affecting the soul.
(Zephaniah 1:16) A day of the trumpet and alarm against the fenced [fortified] cities, and against the high towers.
(Zephaniah 1:17) And I will bring distress upon men, that they shall walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the LORD: and their blood shall be poured out as dust, and their flesh as the dung.
They are judged for their many sins, for rejecting God.
(Zephaniah 1:18) Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them in the day of the LORD's wrath; but the whole land shall be devoured by the fire of his jealousy: for he shall make even a speedy riddance of all them that dwell in the land.
They were used to buying their way out of difficulties, but this doesn't work with God — God can't be bribed. God's wrath is in actuality his removing of his protective grace from those who sin. Since God can't look upon sin, he can't protect people from its natural consequences either; this includes his covenant people, Israel. The same is true of Christians; those who commit mortal sin fall out of God's protective grace.
Notice that once the judgment starts it takes over like a wildfire. Israel's long-term disobedience is the ultimate cause of their destruction. They fragmented into multiple nations thereby diluting their military power. The general moral decay resulted in their not taking seriously their need to always be ready to defend themselves. When the political circumstances were right in the nations around them it was all over. Yet God warned them of this and told them what they needed to do to survive as a nation in such a dangerous location of the world.
I interpret the phrase "fire of his jealousy" strictly literally. In the spiritual realm symbols are real. Just as living souls have various attributes such as will, intellect, passion, anger, etc., so also various symbols can be attached to these attributes. So jealousy can have fire associated with it when it takes on the characteristics of fire. Words have subtle nuances of meaning because in the spiritual realm they become associated with various symbols. Thus, passion and jealousy are like fire.
The "day of the Lord's wrath" is not the great tribulation because it's not a sudden end of all who live on the earth but rather, a very slow end (3–1/2 or 7 years).
(Zephaniah 2:1) Gather yourselves together, yea, gather together, O nation not desired [without shame];
Zephaniah calls on the people to assemble together in their places of worship and fast and pray under the leadership of the priests. I wonder why he thinks the people will respond to his call since they are so steeped in sinful lifestyles? Notice that Zephaniah doesn't call for people to have an individual conversion but, rather, to do it as a group, in religious community.
(Zephaniah 2:2) Before the decree bring forth [begins], before the day pass as the chaff, before the fierce anger of the LORD come upon you, before the day of the LORD's anger come upon you.
When God judges he is described as being angry, but this is not the same kind of emotion as human anger stirred up by the passions, not like tribal warfare of people killing others out of ethnic hatred.
The unhappy effect of people's sin is as if God is angry. The motive of those who unjustly conquer others with no good reason (as Alexander the Great did), this is the anger of God. In expressing his divine will, God choreographs events in human history and works through the emotions and passions of humans.
Really the anger of God is that which operates outside of God's will; his true nature is a God of love. Just as anger and bitterness result when those who once professed love for one another betray each other, so also, the effects of anger result when people betray God. But all the while God is a God of love.
(Zephaniah 2:3) Seek ye the LORD, all ye meek of the earth, which have wrought [worked] his judgment [commands]; seek righteousness, seek meekness: it may be ye shall be hid in the day of the LORD's anger.
Perhaps those who are true to God will survive the coming cataclysm; perhaps if enough people repent it will be averted altogether. This is not much of a consolation especially for those true to God who are caught up in the harsh effects society's depravity. But nevertheless, Zephaniah exhorts them to remain holy.
(Zephaniah 2:4) For Gaza shall be forsaken, and Ashkelon a desolation: they shall drive out Ashdod at the noon day, and Ekron shall be rooted up.
Back to the theme of declaring impending judgment after a brief reprise of a hopeful call to repentance.
(Zephaniah 2:5) Woe unto the inhabitants of the sea coast, the nation of the Cherethites! the word of the LORD is against you; O Canaan, the land of the Philistines, I will even destroy thee, that there shall be no inhabitant.
(Zephaniah 2:6) And the sea coast shall be dwellings and cottages for shepherds, and folds for flocks.
The coastal region used to have cities but afterward would have only shepherds.
(Zephaniah 2:7) And the coast shall be for the remnant of the house of Judah; they shall feed thereupon: in the houses of Ashkelon shall they lie down in the evening: for the LORD their God shall visit them, and turn away [bring them back from] their captivity.
The remnant are those of two groups, those who...
Presumably, those of both groups were righteous and kept their faith in the Lord but certainly many righteous and faithful people were swept away in the captivity.
Few if any of the people taken captive returned to the land since it lasted 70 years.
(Zephaniah 2:8) I have heard the reproach of Moab, and the revilings of the children of Ammon, whereby they have reproached my people, and magnified themselves against their border.
(Zephaniah 2:9) Therefore as I live, saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, Surely Moab shall be as Sodom, and the children of Ammon as Gomorrah, even the breeding of nettles, and saltpits, and a perpetual desolation: the residue of my people shall spoil them, and the remnant of my people shall possess them.
(Zephaniah 2:10) This shall they have for their pride, because they have reproached and magnified themselves against the people of the LORD of hosts.
(Zephaniah 2:11) The LORD will be terrible unto them: for he will famish all the gods of the earth; and men shall worship him, every one from his place, even all the isles of the heathen.
(Zephaniah 2:12) Ye Ethiopians also, ye shall be slain by my sword.
(Zephaniah 2:13) And he will stretch out his hand against the north, and destroy Assyria; and will make Nineveh a desolation, and dry like a wilderness.
(Zephaniah 2:14) And flocks shall lie down in the midst of her, all the beasts of the nations: both the cormorant and the bittern shall lodge in the upper lintels of it; their voice shall sing in the windows; desolation shall be in the thresholds: for he shall uncover the cedar work.
(Zephaniah 2:15) This is the rejoicing city that dwelt carelessly, that said in her heart, I am, and there is none beside me: how is she become a desolation, a place for beasts to lie down in! every one that passeth by her shall hiss, and wag his hand.
(Zephaniah 3:1) Woe to her that is filthy and polluted, to the oppressing city!
(Zephaniah 3:2) She obeyed not the voice; she received not correction; she trusted not in the LORD; she drew not near to her God.
(Zephaniah 3:3) Her princes within her are roaring lions; her judges are evening wolves; they gnaw not the bones till the morrow.
(Zephaniah 3:4) Her prophets are light and treacherous persons: her priests have polluted the sanctuary, they have done violence to the law.
(Zephaniah 3:5) The just LORD is in the midst thereof; he will not do iniquity: every morning doth he bring his judgment to light, he faileth not; but the unjust knoweth no shame.
(Zephaniah 3:6) I have cut off the nations: their towers are desolate; I made their streets waste, that none passeth by: their cities are destroyed, so that there is no man, that there is none inhabitant.
(Zephaniah 3:7) I said, Surely thou wilt fear me, thou wilt receive instruction; so their dwelling should not be cut off, howsoever I punished them: but they rose early, and corrupted all their doings.
(Zephaniah 3:8) Therefore wait ye upon me, saith the LORD, until the day that I rise up to the prey: for my determination is to gather the nations, that I may assemble the kingdoms, to pour upon them mine indignation, even all my fierce anger: for all the earth shall be devoured with the fire of my jealousy.
God will one day judge every nation and every person of every nation just as he judged Israel. God's judgment will not exclude anybody; anybody who sinned and did not repent will be judged. This occurs at the end of the world, at the great white throne judgment. After this, sin and death are destroyed and the only people who inhabit the new heavens and new earth are the redeemed who can no longer sin. Just as God judged Israel for its sin in order to purify their covenant land, so also will God judge all the sin of the whole world to purify the land for the redeemed to enjoy in holiness forever.
God wishes for the nation of Israel to remain free from sin until the end, to wait upon the Lord until the end.
(Zephaniah 3:9) For then will I turn to the people a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the LORD, to serve him with one consent.
(Zephaniah 3:10) From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia my suppliants, even the daughter of my dispersed, shall bring mine offering.
(Zephaniah 3:11) In that day shalt thou not be ashamed for all thy doings, wherein thou hast transgressed against me: for then I will take away out of the midst of thee them that rejoice in thy pride, and thou shalt no more be haughty because of my holy mountain.
(Zephaniah 3:12) I will also leave in the midst of thee an afflicted and poor people, and they shall trust in the name of the LORD.
(Zephaniah 3:13) The remnant of Israel shall not do iniquity, nor speak lies; neither shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouth: for they shall feed and lie down, and none shall make them afraid.
(Zephaniah 3:14) Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem.
(Zephaniah 3:15) The LORD hath taken away thy judgments, he hath cast out thine enemy: the king of Israel, even the LORD, is in the midst of thee: thou shalt not see evil any more.
Part of the reason God judged them and removed them from the land was that he was sick of watching them sin; he wanted to love them, but he instead he had to look away in disgust (I am not claiming God actually gets sick or disgusted). When God looked away, when he turned his face away, their sin resulted in judgment. We don't want God to turn his face away from us; this is bad news.
But in judging them temporarily as he did, they returned as a holy and righteous nation which he could once again look upon and love. Sadly, it sometimes takes severe hardship to motivate people to repent of their sin. Some will never repent, no matter how miserable they become. In hell, these will continue rejecting God's love and suffering forever.
This verse is speaking to the people of Israel and telling them four things: (1) that the Lord has removed their judgments, (2) that he has cast their enemies out of their land, (3) that the Lord is again in their midst, and (4) that they won't see hardship anymore — at least, not until they fall into sin again.
(Zephaniah 3:16) In that day it shall be said to Jerusalem, Fear thou not: and to Zion, Let not thine hands be slack.
(Zephaniah 3:17) The LORD thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing.
(Zephaniah 3:18) I will gather them that are sorrowful for the solemn assembly, who are of thee, to whom the reproach of it was a burden.
(Zephaniah 3:19) Behold, at that time I will undo all that afflict thee: and I will save her that halteth, and gather her that was driven out; and I will get them praise and fame in every land where they have been put to shame.
(Zephaniah 3:20) At that time will I bring you again, even in the time that I gather you: for I will make you a name and a praise among all people of the earth, when I turn back your captivity before your eyes, saith the LORD.
King James Version