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Zephaniah identifies himself better than any of the other minor prophets. Habakkuk concealed himself in silence—we know nothing about his background—but Zephaniah goes to the opposite extreme and tells us more than is ordinary. He traces his lineage back to his great–great–grandfather, Hizkiah (whom we know as Hezekiah), king of Judah. In other words, Zephaniah was of the royal line.
Zephaniah located the time of his writing just as clearly as he did his identification: “in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah” (Zeph. 1:1). It was a dark day for the nation. According to the arrangement of the Hebrew Scriptures, Zephaniah was the last of the prophets before the Captivity. He was contemporary with Jeremiah and perhaps with Micah, although I doubt that. His was the swan song of the Davidic kingdom, and he is credited with giving impetus to the revival during the reign of Josiah.
The little Book of Zephaniah will never take the place of John 3:16 and the Gospel of John as number one in Bible popularity. The contents of this book have never been familiar, and I doubt that it has been read very much. I dare say that few have ever heard a sermon on Zephaniah. One Sunday morning several years ago, as I was about to preach on this book, I asked the congregation how many had ever heard a message on Zephaniah before. Out of the 2500–3000 who were present, only two hands were raised! Such neglect is not due to the mediocrity or the inferiority of this little book. If its theme were known, I think it would be very much appreciated because it has the same theme as the Gospel of John. John is called the apostle of love; and as we study this book, we will find that Zephaniah is the prophet of love. That may be difficult for you to believe, but let me give you a verse to demonstrate my point. You are acquainted with John 3:16, but are you acquainted with 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.” This is lovely, is it not? However, Zephaniah is a little different from the Gospel of John, for this verse is just a small island which is sheltered in the midst of a storm–tossed sea. Much of this book seems rather harsh and cruel; it seems as if it is fury poured out. Chapter 3 opens in this vein: “Woe to her that is filthy and polluted, to the oppressing city!” (Zeph. 3:1). There is so much judgment in this little book; therefore, how can love be its theme? To find proof that love is the theme of this little books is like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack, but I will illustrate my point by telling you a mystery story. This may seem to be a very peculiar way to begin a study of Zephaniah, but it is going to help us understand this little book. The title of my story is—
THE DARK SIDE OF LOVE
It was late at night in a suburban area of one of our great cities in America. A child lay restless in her bed. A man, with a very severe and stern look, stealthily entered her bedroom and softly approached her bed. The moment the little girl saw him, a terrified look came over her face, and she began to scream. Her mother rushed into the room and went over to her. The trembling child threw her arms about her mother.
The man withdrew to the telephone, called someone, who was evidently an accomplice, and in a very soft voice made some sort of an arrangement. Hastily the man reentered the room, tore the child from the mother’s arms, and rushed out to a waiting car. The child was sobbing, and he attempted to stifle her cries. He drove madly down street after street until he finally pulled up before a large, sinister, and foreboding–looking building. All was quiet, the building was partially dark, but there was one room upstairs ablaze with light.
The child was hurriedly taken inside, up to the lighted room, and put into the hands of the man with whom the conversation had been held over the telephone in the hallway. In turn, the child was handed over to another accomplice—this time a woman—and these two took her into an inner room. The man who had brought her was left outside in the hallway. Inside the room, the man plunged a gleaming, sharp knife into the vitals of that little child, and she lay as if she were dead.
Your reaction at this point may be, “I certainly hope they will catch the criminal who abducted the little girl and is responsible for such an awful crime!”
However, I have not described to you the depraved and degraded action of a debased mind. I have not taken a chapter out of the life of the man in Cell 2455, Death Row. I have not related to you the sordid and sadistic crime of a psychopathic criminal. On the contrary, I have described to you a tender act of love. In fact, I can think of no more sincere demonstration of love than that which I have described to you. I am sure you are amazed when I say that. Let me fill in some of the details, and then you will understand.
You see, that little girl had awakened in the night with severe abdominal pain. She had been subject to such attacks before, and the doctor had told her parents to watch her very carefully. It was her father who had hurried into the room. When he saw the suffering of his little girl, he went to the telephone, called the family physician, and arranged to meet him at the hospital. He then rushed the little girl down to the hospital and handed her over to the family physician who took her to the operating room and performed emergency surgery.
Through it all, every move and every act of that father was of tender love, anxious care, and wise decision. I have described to you the dark side of love—but love, nevertheless. The father loved the child just as much on that dark night when he took her to the hospital and delivered her to the surgeon’s knife as he did the next week when he brought her flowers and candy. It was just as much a demonstration of deep affection when he delivered her into the hands of the surgeon as it was the next week when he brought her home and delivered her into the arms of her mother. My friend, love places the eternal security and permanent welfare of the object of love above any transitory or temporary comfort or present pleasure down here upon this earth. Love seeks the best interests of the beloved. That is what this little Book of Zephaniah is all about—the dark side of love.
In our nation we have come through a period when the love of God has been exaggerated out of all proportion to the other attributes of our God. It has been presented on the sunny side of the street with nothing of the other side ever mentioned. There is a “love” of God presented that sounds to me like the doting of grandparents rather than the vital and vigorous concern of a parent for the best interests of the child.
The liberal preacher has chanted like a parrot. He has used shopworn cliches and tired adjectives. He has said, “God is love, God is love, God is love” until he has made it saccharin sweet; yet he has not told about the dark side of the love of God. He has watered down love, making it sickening rather than stimulating, causing it to slop over on every side like a sentimental feeling rather than an abiding concern for the object of love.
However, I want you to notice that there is the dark side of the love of God. He deals with us according to our needs, my friend. The Great Physician will put His child on the operating table. He will use the surgeon’s knife when He sees a tumor of transgression or a deadly virus sapping our spiritual lives or the cancerous growth of sin. He does not hesitate to deal with us severely. We must learn this fact early: He loves us when He is subjecting us to surgery just as much as when He sends us candy and flowers and brings us into the sunshine.
Sometimes the Great Physician will operate without giving us so much as a sedative. But you can always be sure of one thing. When He does this, He will pour in the balm of Gilead. When He sees that it is best for you and for me to go down through the valley of suffering, that it will be for our eternal welfare, He will not hesitate to let us go down through that dark valley. Someone has expressed it in these lines:
Is there no other way, Oh, God,
Except through sorrow, pain and loss,
To stamp Christ’s likeness on my soul,
No other way except the cross?
And then a voice stills all my soul,
As stilled the waves of Galilee.
Can’st thou not bear the furnace,
If midst the flames I walk with thee?
I bore the cross, I know its weight;
I drank the cup I hold for thee.
Can’st thou not follow where I lead?
I’ll give thee strength, lean hard on Me!
My friend, He loves us most when He is operating on us, “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth …” (Heb. 12:6)—in other words, He child–trains, He disciplines us.
Under another figure, the Lord Jesus presented it yonder in the Upper Room to those who were His own. He said, in John 15:1–2: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth [prunes] it, that it may bring forth more fruit.” We must remember that the Father reaches into your life and mine and prunes out that which is not fruitbearing—and it hurts! But, as a Puritan divine said years ago, “The husbandman is never so close to the branch as when he is trimming it.” The Father is never more close to you, my friend, than when He is reaching in and taking out of your heart and life those things that offend.
It was Spurgeon who noticed a weather vane that a farmer had on his barn. It was an unusual weather vane, for on it the farmer had the words, GOD IS LOVE. Mr. Spurgeon asked him, “Do you mean by this that God’s love is as changeable as the wind?” The farmer shook his head. “No,” he said, “I do not mean that God’s love changes like that. I mean that whichever way the wind blows, God is love.”
Today it may be the soft wind from the south that He brings to blow across your life, for He loves you. But tomorrow He may let the cold blasts from the north blow over your life—and if He does, He still loves you.
It has been expressed in these familiar lines in a way I never could express it myself:
God hath not promised skies always blue,
Flower–strewn pathways all our lives through;
God hath not promised sun without rain,
Joy without sorrow, peace without pain.
God hath not promised we shall not know
Toil and temptation, trouble and woe;
He hath not told us we shall not bear
Many a burden, many a care.
But God hath promised strength for the day,
Rest for the laborer, light for the way,
Grace for the trials, help from above,
Unfailing sympathy, undying love.
—Annie Johnson Flint
Beloved, if you are a child of God and are in a place of suffering, be assured and know that God loves you. Regardless of how it may appear, He loves you, and you cannot ever change that fact.
Sweetness and light are associated with love on every level and rightly so, but this aspect does not exhaust the full import of love. Love expresses itself always for the good of the one who is loved. This is the reason that it is difficult to associate love with the judgment of God. The popular notion of God is that He is a super Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. One nature of His is expressed by love, and the other nature is expressed by wrath in judgment. These two appear to be contrary to the extent that there seem to be two Gods. The Book of Zephaniah is filled with the wrath and judgment of God (see Zeph. 1:15; 3:8), but there is the undertone of the love of God (see Zeph. 3:17).
Let me now tell you a true story to illustrate the dark side of love. One Mother’s Day, while I was still a pastor in downtown Los Angeles, I looked out over my congregation, and I could tell that there were many mothers present. They were dressed a little special for the day, and many of them were wearing corsages. But I also noticed one mother who did not look as happy as the others. There was a note of sorrow on her face, although she wore a beautiful orchid corsage, the biggest one I had ever seen. I knew that it came from her son in the East. He is a prominent businessman, and high up in government circles as well, but he is not a Christian. He turns a deaf ear to his mother’s pleadings. She prays for him constantly and asks others to pray for him. I recall that one Sunday morning she came to me, with tears streaming down her cheeks, and she said, “Oh, Dr. McGee, I pray that God will save my boy. I pray that He will save him even if he has to put him on a sickbed.” Then, almost fiercely, she said, “Even if He has to kill him, I pray that God will save him before it is too late!” Suppose a detective from the police department had been listening to our conversation. Would he have arrested her for making that statement? No. He could not have arrested her at all. What she said was not a threat but was actually a statement of love. Because she loved that boy, she was actually willing to give him up and to let him go down through the doorway of death if it would mean the salvation of his soul.
The little prophecy of Zephaniah presents the dark side of the love of God. He is a God of love, but He is also a God of judgment. Zephaniah opens with the rumblings of judgment, and you will not find judgment enunciated in any more harsh manner than it is in this book.
Two thoughts stand out in this brief book:
1. “The day of the LORD” occurs seven times in this little prophecy. Obadiah and Joel, the first of the writing prophets, were the first to use this expression. All of the prophets refer to it; and now Zephaniah, the last of the writing prophets, before the Captivity, brings it to our attention again. He uses it more than any of the other prophets. The actual phrase occurs seven times, but there are other references to it. This expression has particular application to the Great Tribulation period, which precedes the Kingdom; but the Day of the Lord also includes the time of the Kingdom. The Great Tribulation period is ended by the coming of Christ personally to the earth to establish the millennial Kingdom—and all that is included in the Day of the Lord. The emphasis in the Book of Zephaniah is upon judgment. Joel also opens his prophecy with a description of a great locust plague, which he likens to the Day of the Lord that is coming in the future. Joel says that the Day of the Lord is not light; it is darkness. It is on the black background of man’s sin that God writes in letters of light the wonderful gospel story for you and me.
2. “Jealousy” occurs twice in this book. God’s jealousy is on a little different plane from that of yours and mine. In our jealousy, we seek to do evil. God is jealous of those who are His own. He is jealous of mankind. He created him, and He has purchased a redemption for him, and made it possible for him to be saved. It is not His will that any should perish; He wants them saved—He is jealous for mankind. But when they don’t turn to Him, He is going to judge them. The thing which the Book of Zephaniah makes clear is that God is glorified in judging as well as He is glorified in saving. A great many people cannot understand how that is possible. Ezekiel 38–39 speaks of the time in the future when God will judge Russia. We read there, “And thou shalt come up against my people of Israel, as a cloud to cover the land; it shall be in the latter days, and I will bring thee against my land, that the heathen may know me, when I shall be sanctified in thee, O Gog, before their eyes” (Ezek. 38:16). In other words, God is saying, “I intend to judge this godless nation, and when I do, I shall be glorified in that judgment.” That is a tremendous statement for God to make, and for a great many people, it is a bitter pill to swallow. But it might be well for us to learn to think God’s thoughts after Him, realizing that our thoughts are not His thoughts and our ways are not His ways at all.
(McGee, J. Vernon. Thru the Bible Commentary, Vol. 31: Zephaniah & Haggai. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991.)