Zephaniah 1

1 Hezekiah had been a good king in Judah, but his son and grandson who succeeded him reigned for over 50 years doing evil. When Josiah, Hezekiah's great-grandson, assumed the throne around 640 B.C. at the age of eight, he did not know God, but at age 16 he began to seek God and make reforms in the country. These reforms, while good, apparently only pushed the cultic practices underground. God appointed Zephaniah, a great great grandson of Hezekiah to warn Judah that God was about to judge them and the surrounding nations for their evil ways. This helped stir up Josiah to enact deeper reforms around 621 B.C. There was revival in the nation, but sadly, the hearts of Judah again strayed from God after Josiah's reign ended.
2 God begins with what appears to be a pronouncement of the end times. While verse 4 begins to focus on local areas, the removal of man, beast, bird, and fish indicated here points to a universal judgment and purging of the earth. This is probably meant to remind people that God does have a plan to judge the entire earth. He executes smaller judgments in the mean time, but even in the New Testament we are encouraged to keep the Last Day in mind as if it were immanent, even though we are not told how long we will have to wait for it to happen.
3 The reference to the wicked here is a clear indication that judgment will come about because of the sinfulness of people. When Adam and Eve separated themselves from God (which is sin), they doomed their descendants to be born separated from Him. People who are separated from Him look to themselves, superstitious forces, false gods, or rituals for guidance. In many cases, these things will hurt other people, but in all cases, they keep them away from a good relationship with God, which is what He designed us for. In the end, God will punish all those who refused to either see Him in nature or respond to the clear pronouncement of His word. Man's sin contaminated all of creation, so everything suffers its affects now, and will be subject to purification through judgment in the future.
4 Before the eternal consequences for sin are executed, God occasionally finds it necessary to enact smaller judgments. They are meant to correct serious problems before they become unfixable and serve as examples to others.

The first place that God pronounces judgment against is Judah, which is represented by its capital city, Jerusalem. There were some people who worshiped the Canaanite fertility god, Baal. God had repeatedly warned the people not to give the worship due Him to an idol. It is an affront to God to honor a created thing or man-made idea above Him. This kind of activity separates people from Him, resulting in behaviors that are harmful to themselves, those around them, and their relationship to God. Ultimately, those who continue to remain separated from Him will be forever separated from everything good and loving when they are sent to hell. The short-term solution is for God to kill those who encourage the worship of idols to prevent the deadly practice from growing further.

5 It is common in pagan religions to worship the Sun as the source of life, but God is the only true source of life, and He will not tolerate the credit being given to an inanimate object He created. There are also those who worship the stars, and seek to gain favor from them. There are some places in Scripture that imply that the stars might represent angels, but even so, angels only do God's bidding, not peoples', and they are not to be worshiped. Astrology is a related practice that seeks to learn the future from the positions of the stars and planets in the sky. God, however, demands faith and trust in His plans and timing. He reveals all that is necessary for us to know about the future with both promises and warnings. We are to heed them, not the words of fortunetellers.

Milcom is another name for the god Molech. One of the hideous practices in the worship of this god was to offer children as burnt sacrifices in order to gain favor. The worship of an idol combined with murder is a compounded sin that God finds exceedingly repugnant. There were those who would worship both God and Molech. However, God demands undivided worship, and does not consider those who have split allegiance to worship Him at all. There is no hedging of bets with God - either one completely believes and trusts Him or not.

6 Finally, there are those who did not concern themselves with spiritual matters at all. Most would have been taught about God as youngsters, but they never believed or practiced their faith. There were also atheists among the people who did not worship to any god. Ignoring God does not make Him any less real, make Him go away, nor prevent the consequences from being separated from Him.
7 The people had reached the point of no return in their sin. They had separated themselves from God for so long that He would not longer hear any appeal, so it would be futile to speak. God had prepared an army (His "guests") to destroy Judah (the "sacrifice"). The word "consecrate" means "set aside," indicating that God had specially designated an army to purify Judah by purging it of evil people.

The "Day of the Lord" generally refers to end times, but here it takes on a dual meaning indicating that a significant judgement would happen in the near future. This prophecy uses provocative language to shock and frighten people to make them aware of the seriousness of the situation.

8 The upper classes in Judah had become completely corrupted. Josiah was one of the good kings, but evil kings would follow him who would bear the brunt of the punishment God would send their way. Those who wore "foreign" garments were likely rich people who could afford to buy imported goods. They chose to wear these fashions and gave up their traditional apparel, which was to remind them of God and His commandments (Num 15:39-40). The destruction of Jerusalem is described in 2 Ki 24-25.
9 Some have thought that this verse refers to the Philistines who would not step on a threshold because of the events recorded in 1 Sam 5:1-5 when their idol was humbled before the ark of God. However, the word "temple" is not in the original language. Furthermore, most translations render this verse with the phrase "leap on," with only the NIV apparently taking the most liberty with this verse by adding the negative word "avoid," and further rendering the word for "master" with "gods." Thus, it appears that much manipulation is needed to tie this verse with the Philistine superstition.

Others have suggested that this refers to servants of rich masters who went into people's homes to steal. The victims may have been tenants of the master, and the servants were sent to collect more than their proper dues, using lies and violence to enforce their demands against the helpless people. The servants are considered just as guilty as the master, perhaps because they relished the activity or even did these things on their own in order to impress their masters.

10 The Fish Gate was located in the northeastern part of the wall surrounding Jerusalem. It is likely that fish were brought through that gate from the Sea of Galilee and Joppa to a market area. The Second City was the newer additions to the east of the original area that David captured and the Temple area. There would be loud sounds of destruction coming from the hills surrounding Jerusalem, and there would be cries of fear and sadness throughout the city.
11 "The Mortar" was probably a depression in the valley within the city where merchants obviously conducted business. Literally translated "people of Canaan," the phrase used here was probably slang for "merchants," who had a reputation of being dishonest. This can also be surmised since they are specifically implicated in this prophecy. During the siege both merchandise and money would be cut off. There would be nothing to sell and no money to buy with.
12 There will be no place to hide from God. If would be as someone who took a lamp and carefully searched every dark corner of the city. It is not just those who were overtly evil who would be punished. Even those who felt that God would not do anything would be punished. "On their lees (dregs)" refers to how their spirits had become stagnant like wines that had been left to sit too long. Such wine is unfit to drink, and the effort put into them was wasted. In the same way, those who become selfish and complacent become spiritually unsuitable for a relationship with God.
13 God was warning them, but since they felt that God would not do anything, they went ahead and catered to their own desires. The implication is that they did not seek to please God or help other people. Their only thoughts were to their own comfort. They would build houses and plant vineyards, but God's punishment would come upon them before they could finish building or harvest a crop. They would store up riches, but their possessions would be taken away as plunder.
14 Zephaniah emphasizes how quickly the people will experience judgment by warning them twice. Jerusalem would fall to Nebuchadnezzar about 40 years after this prophecy was given. Even the soldiers would be crying out, probably both on the battlefield as they died and in the terror of the day.
15 The people would feel the wrath of God. They would be helpless to withstand the slaughter. Many would hide or flee to no avail. Those who survived would have seen those they loved killed. The city would be looted and destroyed, and the sky would be darkened with the smoke of burning.
16 They would be surrounded by the terrifying trumpet calls of the enemy army. The fortified walls would not keep out the sound of the trumpets or the army that was behind them.
17 The people would be so distressed that they would have no idea what they should do to survive. They would be like blind people in unfamiliar surroundings, stumbling around and desperately trying to figure out how to escape.

The invading army would consider the inhabitants as having no value. They would spill blood as casually as one shakes out a dust cloth, and would toss out the bodies as if they were detestable refuse.

18 The victim's wealth would not be able to save them. They would not be able to placate God with their money, of course, but they also would not be able to buy off the invading army. It stands to reason that if an army deduced that it was bound to win a battle it would feel little need to negotiate with a few individuals to spare their lives. The wealthy used their riches to live full lives, but they would find out too late that it would not preserve them.

This chapter has focused on the immediate destruction of Jerusalem. In the last verse, as in the first, Zephaniah alludes to Judgment Day, when all the earth will be judged and destroyed. While the immediate prophecy is a separate event from the Last Day, there are clearly similarities. The judgment that was to befall Jerusalem is a picture of the terrors that await all non-believers on Judgment Day.