If you’ve heard a sermon on Zephaniah that you can remember, likely it was on Zephaniah 3, where we are told that the Lord will “rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” We like that part. But we don’t get to this kind of hopeful assurance in the book of Zephaniah until chapter 3. So what do we do with all the judgment when we’re teaching through this book?
William Wood—assistant professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta—is currently finalizing his doctoral dissertation on the use of the Old Testament in the book of Zephaniah. Wood says the book of Zephaniah is summarized by this line: “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled; those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Wood also demonstrates how to connect the promises in the book of Zephaniah to the clothing of the priests, the story of Dagon, Pentecost, and the ultimate Day of the Lord.
Listen to this episode of Help Me Teach the Bible.
Recommended Audio Resources:
- “Those Who Humble Themselves Will Be Exalted,” a lecture on Zephaniah by William Wood
- “Cursed Are the Complacent,” a sermon by Kevin DeYoung
- The Book of Zephaniah in 15 lectures by Jason DeRouchie
Recommended Print Resources:
- ESV Expository Commentary Volume 7: Daniel–Malachi, with commentary on Zephaniah by Jason S. DeRouchie
- The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah (New International Commentary on the Old Testament) by O. Palmer Robertson
- Zephaniah, Haggai, Malachi (Reformed Expository Commentary) by Iain Duguid
- Lamentations, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah: A 12-Week Study (Knowing the Bible) by Camden Bucey
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
William Wood: One of the main thrusts of the book is Zephaniah is really a robust portrait of the day of the Lord. The day of the Lord most simply put, is the day that God comes. And so if you’re really wanting to talk about the coming of the Lord, the hope that all of us Christians have in this intense bond of union and communion with Him, that’s what Zephaniah is really all about. The coming of God. And so if your hopeful expectation is the coming of God, then we’ve got a book for you.
Nancy Guthrie: Welcome to “Help Me Teach The Bible,” I’m Nancy Guthrie. “Help Me Teach The Bible” is a production of The Gospel Coalition sponsored by Crossway, a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible Christian books and tracks. Learn more @crossway.org. I’m in Atlanta today in the office of William Wood, who ‘s assistant professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary. Will, thank you for being willing to help us teach the Bible.
Wood: Hi, Nancy, it’s good to be here. Thanks.
Guthrie: Will, you’ve been here at RTS in Atlanta for a little over a year. Tell us what you were doing before that that led to being here.
Wood:Well, before that, I guess was in 2011, moved up to Philadelphia, pursued my MDiv at Westminster Seminary there, and then stuck around to work on the PhD I was there a total of eight years and still finishing up the Ph.D. gotta, you know, put the period on that dissertation, be done here in a few months.
Guthrie: Boy, I bet you’re looking forward to that.
Wood:Very much so.
Guthrie: So what kind of classes are you teaching here in Atlanta?
Wood: Summer you can say all the Old Testament classes. At the end of the spring, I’d have taught the entire Old Testament curriculum except for the poet’s class. So all levels of Hebrew, the Pentateuch class or Genesis through Deuteronomy, prophets, class, historical books, everything.
Guthrie: Well, go back a little further for me and tell me, how did your love for God’s word and your desire to teach it, where did that come from in your life, and how did it develop?
Wood: So I became a Christian when I was 18. So I was in college, and I really started digging into the Word there. And I went up to my pastor at the time, I was like, “Hey, you know, I’ve really got some questions about what’s going on here” and he really didn’t answer many of them. So I enrolled in this class at a local community college, where a guy teaching just happened to be Reformed. And I had no idea what Reformed was, I’d never heard of it, I didn’t know anything about it.
Guthrie: Had you grown up in church?
Wood: I grew up in church, yep, but did not have you know, a good knowledge of what…
Guthrie:: A seed in faith.
Wood: …the gospel was. You know, you pray the prayer when you’re like six, but I didn’t really know the content of what the gospel is until I was much older. And it’s through that professor who introduced me to guys like Greg Beale and some others, started reading and grew to love it and he had me start teaching some at a Bible study and he goes, “Hey, maybe you should go to seminary.”
Guthrie: I gotta stop you right here because the idea that you’re a new Christian, and you start in reading Greg Beale and some of these other things, I think, wow, that must have really, very early on shaped how you understood how the Bible is put together and what its message is.
Wood: The first book I read, besides the Bible as a Christian was The Temple and the Church’s Mission by Greg Beale.
Wood: And so that kind of put a love for the Old Testament and biblical theology in my heart within six months of becoming a Christian.
Guthrie: And then you ended up at Westminster, where Greg Beale teaches.
Guthrie: And you worked with him. Correct?
Wood: Correct, yeah, I was his TA for a number of years there.
Guthrie: That is amazing. All right. So you’re working on your dissertation now…
Guthrie: …which is what drew me to come and talk with you, because I’m getting down to there only being a few books of the Bible I haven’t covered on “Help Me Teach The Bible,” but one of them is Zephaniah. And I understand you’re working on a dissertation on the book of Zephaniah.
Wood: Yes. So my dissertation topic is the use of the Old Testament in Zephaniah. So essentially what I’m doing is I’m working through the book, and I’m looking at all the possible places where the Prophet might have alluded to, or maybe even directly quoted another passage in the Old Testament.
Guthrie: That’s fascinating. I’m thinking that for many of us as teachers, we’re thinking about, “Okay, what am I gonna teach this fall, this spring?” And maybe Zephaniah doesn’t jump to the top of the stack, perhaps because we’re unfamiliar with it ourselves. Perhaps we think it doesn’t really have a message that will resonate with the people that we’re teaching today. So can you make a case for me as to why I might want to teach Zephaniah say to the women I am teaching, or for someone who is teaching an adult Sunday school class, or even a youth group, why would we want to open up and teach the book of Zephaniah?
Wood: Well, I guess the first point is just the simple statement that if all scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, then that includes Zephaniah. But maybe even beyond that, to talk a little bit about one of the main thrusts of the book. One of the main thrusts of the book is Zephaniah is really a robust portrait of the day of the Lord. The day of the Lord most simply put, is the day that God comes. And so if you’re really wanting to talk about the coming of the Lord, the hope that all of us Christians have in this intense bond of union and communion with Him, that’s what Zephaniah is really all about. The coming of God. And so if you’re hopeful expectation is the coming of God, then we’ve got a book for you.
Guthrie: Okay, this is very important because if we are gonna teach Zephaniah, we’ve really got to get a firm grip on this concept of the day of the Lord. And it seems to me that the day of the Lord can mean many things, that it has some initial meaning, some deeper meaning, some more immediate meaning and then some future meaning, but I’m not saying that very well. So help me with this, someone doesn’t understand. So when is the Day the Lord? What exactly is gonna happen on the Day of the Lord? How do you answer that?
Wood: So you’re right that there are some multifaceted aspects to it. And on the one hand, you can see the Day of the Lord as any day when the Lord approaches His people in a way of either judgment or salvation. And so, really, you can look all the way back into the garden in Genesis Chapter 3, when the Lord approaches Adam and Eve there, that’s kind of an initial day of the Lord as the Lord approaches Adam and Eve there. And similarly, in places like Genesis 15, the Lord comes to talk to Abraham, talks about his covenant of grace there. Since the Lord is coming, that’s in a sense a very small miniature version of the day the Lord.
Guthrie: And those we see He comes in both judgment and…
Wood: And salvation.
Guthrie: …salvation or mercy.
Wood: Yeah. You’ll often hear it as you know, two sides of the day of the Lord or two sides of one coin of God’s coming, where on the one hand, for those who turn against the Lord, who reject the Lord, who do not humbly submit to him by faith, He’s going to come in a day of judgment against them. And that’s, you know, most of the content of the book of Zephaniah 1 through to Chapter 3:8, really focuses in on this day of judgment. But the other side of it, which Zephaniah has an equally robust statement of in 3:9-20 is on how for those who humble themselves before the Lord, who seek Him and seek His righteousness that is a glorious day of worship and salvation for those who have faith in the Lord, especially faith in Christ.
Guthrie: When Zephaniah originally prophesied to the people, and he was talking to them about the day of the Lord, how would it have been related to the day when Babylon was going to sweep in and bring judgment? Would they have eyes to have seen a greater day of the Lord coming, or would that have been their primary understanding of what Zephaniah was talking about?
Wood: It’d definitely be a both and. The Lord’s coming even raising up the nation of Babylon against the city of Jerusalem in 586 is a clear instance of a Lord coming in judgment against the city of Jerusalem and the people of Judah for their sins. And yet in the book of Zephaniah, there’s a number of very clear instances where he’s not looking merely to what we’d see as a typological day of the Lord, but he is looking toward the end-time Day of the Lord itself, a comprehensive worldwide, world renewing, in the redemptive sense, day of the Lord. And so he kind of telescopes these two things together a little bit. And telescope, we don’t mean what you look up at the stars, from like a telescopic fishing rod, you know, where you pull it out, and there’s multiple things but then you can press it down and you might have, you know, six or seven links within the space of just one.
Guthrie: Let’s point out a couple of specific verses, where we can see those. As I was reading through it there were a couple of them I thought, “Okay, that’s clearly a greater day of the Lord than simply when Babylon sweeps in.”
Wood: Verse 2 of Chapter 1, I think is a really good instance.
Guthrie: Right at the beginning.
Wood: Right at the beginning. “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth declares the Lord.”
Guthrie: Hello. That happened with Babylon.
Wood: Yeah, it’s comprehensive, right? What we do see when Babylon comes is the Lord utterly sweeping away everything in Jerusalem. Right? And so we kind of see how that miniature localized version is a day of the Lord, but not the day of the Lord. Right? So we see it here in verse 2, that carries on into verse 3, utterly sweeping away man and beast, birds of the heavens, fish of the sea, and cutting off mankind from the face of the earth. You know, notice in verse 3, what’s that a list of? Well, that’s everything from Genesis Chapter 1, man, beast, fish, and birds. And you’ll notice there too, that’s actually inverted from the order of Genesis Chapter 1.
Guthrie: Like a de-creation, coming backwards.
Wood: It’s kind of a de-creation motif. Because of sin and the judgment the Lord, creation is undone in his judgment, that de-creation motif. But then it gets more particular from there. So in verses 2 and 3, there’s this universal proclamation of the judgment of the Lord. But look in verse 4 of Chapter 1, “I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem.”
Guthrie: There it’s specific.
Wood: Right, it gets a little bit more specific here. And we see that same dynamic through the entirety of Chapter 1, where beginning of verse 4, it focuses in on Judah, 7-9, focusing in especially on the leaders of the people of Judah, verses 10-13, particular inhabitants of the people of Jerusalem there. And then it kind of broadens back out again, beginning of verse 17, on mankind universally once again. So even here in Chapter 1, you see the Prophet kind of begins universal, he ends universal, but in the middle, it’s all about the people of Jerusalem. He telescopes these days together, right? The end-time day of the Lord, and then this local temporary day of the Lord coming in on the nation of Jerusalem or the nation of Judah.
Guthrie: That’s very helpful. Maybe we better go back to the beginning a little bit. That was really helpful for Chapter 1, but we kind of skipped the introduction that maybe when we’re teaching it, we wanna be sure that we don’t skip. And it reads “The word of the Lord that came to Zephaniah the son of Cushi…” I should be letting you read this because you can probably read these names better. I’m gonna let you read it.
Wood: All right. I’ll pick up where you left off. “Son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah in the days of Josiah the son of Amon king of Judah.”
Guthrie: Okay. So, I would sense, okay, we’re looking at a prophet to Judah. It says that he is a son of Hezekiah. That name rings a bell, so that makes me think, “Wait a minute. It sounds like Zephaniah is in the kingly line and yet he’s being presented here as a prophet in the time of Josiah.”
Wood: Yeah, so he’s definitely got a royal lineage or most likely has a royal lineage.
Guthrie: Why do you say most likely?
Wood: We don’t have have the full genealogy of all the sons of Hezekiah. But it seems like this is a clear indication of Hezekiah the King. So some scholars will split a little bit of hairs on that, so most likely this is a royal genealogy so he does have that sort of heritage.
Guthrie: That seems unusual for a prophet.
Wood: Yeah, a little bit, but you know, a prophet can be anyone from the covenant community that the Lord calls and gives them this particular task. We see that in Deuteronomy 18, the law of the prophets there, where the qualification isn’t, “Hey, he can’t be a king, but he has to be a member of the covenant community.” And so Zephaniah clearly meets that qualification of what a prophet must be. So we have one called by the Lord for a particular task and I think Zephaniah is a good candidate for this particular ministry, a royal figure, in a time when there’s another royal figure engaging in significant religious forms. You remember the time of…
Guthrie: What happened to Josiah.
Wood: Yeah, Josiah is a major king, just like Hezekiah was who engages in religious form and pursues fidelity to the Lord after long periods of infidelity, think of Manasseh.
Guthrie: Our listeners might remember the story of Josiah where it’s been centuries, and there are some people working in the temple, and they discover the scrolls, the Word of God. And I think it’s hard for us to imagine how that could get lost in the temple but they do, and Josiah has them read and he responds in tremendous humility and calls the people to repentance, and it begins a big change.
Wood: It does.
Guthrie: So when I read in the days of Josiah, at the beginning of Zephaniah, but then it is immediately talking about the judgment that’s coming, that raises the question in my mind, Is this before the scrolls were found? Is this after they were found? And Zephaniah is… This is a part of presenting the scrolls, these words of judgment or? Help me understand that.
Wood: So that’s the million-dollar question, right. So…
Guthrie: Okay. At least I had the question.
Wood: So, you know, there’s a lot of debate about this. There are numerous references in Zephaniah that look like they’re coming from Deuteronomy. So for example, in Chapter 1:13, “They’re goods shall be plundered their houses laid waste, though they built houses, they shall not inhabit them, though they plant vineyards, they shall not drink wine from them.” That’s actually an inversion of some promise, blessings from Deuteronomy, Chapter 6:11. So it looks like Zephaniah might be, you know, alluding to that passage or similarly, looking down in verse 17 of Zephaniah Chapter 1, “I will bring distress on mankind so that they shall walk like the blind because they have sinned against the Lord.” Well, that’s very similar to Deuteronomy 28, 29 and the curses of the covenant that are proclaimed against the people there. So it seems possible maybe even probable that the book would have been discovered, and Zephaniah is using the book of Deuteronomy and basing his proclamation on places like Deuteronomy 28, you know, the covenant curses that are outlined there. That’s not definitive. And I say it’s not definitive because a lot of these same things we find in other prophetic books as well. I think of the book of Isaiah has a big emphasis on sin and blindness. Or book of Joshua has the same proclamation of having houses you did not build and vineyards you did not plant. And so it’s not necessarily the case that Zephaniah would have been reading Deuteronomy, but it seems pretty probable that his prophetic message is on numerous occasions derived from places like Deuteronomy 28.
Guthrie: If we’re gonna make that assumption, okay, they found Deuteronomy and he is working from it, that this is almost part of the preaching ministry that goes about that’s calling people to repentance that we read about in the story of Josiah?
Wood: Yeah, I think so. And, you know, part of, you know, reading of the law and everything is that function, to call people to repentance before the Lord. And Zephaniah himself does that in Chapter 2:1–3 calling them to seek humility before the Lord, to repent, you know, before this day comes. And I think that’s a statement before, you know, the 586 judgment, but especially before, you know applying it to us, the end-time judgment or maybe even the end of our own lives. And so yeah, there’s this clear connection I think between the proclamation of God’s law and the need for us to repent because we’ve all breached that law and to turn to the Lord and seek Him in humble submission. Another thing that Zephaniah really cameras home is pride. You know, he has a lot of statements against the prideful. He does it in Chapter 3, we’ll get to that here in just a little bit. But the call to repentance for Zephaniah is a call to humility. And in fact, my working title right now for my dissertation comes from Christ’s statement in Matthew 24, “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, those who humble themselves will be exalted.” And this is an event primarily seen when? You know, on the day of the Lord, you know, when he comes, and those who have pridefully exalted themselves against the Lord are humbled in His judgment, but those who have humbled themselves before the Lord are exalted and brought into a place of union and communion with God forevermore.
Guthrie: So if you were going to a church, I imagine, because you’ve studied Zephaniah so much you’ve probably dragged this out into a 12-part series or something.
Guthrie: Oh, you really have taught it in 17 parts? Seriously?
Wood: I have, yes.
Guthrie: All right…
Wood: Or I am right now actually at a local church here.
Guthrie: You’re in the middle of it.
Wood: I’m in the middle of it.
Guthrie: Well, for those of us who maybe can’t stretch it out into 17, can you give us some suggestions? Maybe we’d wanna… It’s three Chapters. What did I read? It’s like 115 verses? Is that right?
Guthrie: Fifty-three, yeah. So less than 100 verses. So if we’re going to teach it, maybe we would wanna do just one message. So I want you to talk to us about maybe what our focus would be on that. Or it’s three Chapters, so maybe two, three or four messages and what you would cover in those.
Wood: I guess maybe we can talk about the wisdom of doing it in different ways first. So there’s some wisdom in the one message approach. I’ve heard a lot of pastors doing it and they’ll do something called like 12 and the 12, you know, something like that. They’ll have a 12-week series going through the 12 minor prophets. And to a tee, everyone that I’ve talked to that does that, what’s their goal? It’s to get people a broad orientation to all of the minor prophets. Which if we’re honest, it’s not the most read part of the Bible, you know. Jonah is pretty properly read, but most of the others not so much.
Guthrie: That’s certainly been the case for me most of my life. I mean, because if you don’t have a good grasp on the history of the Old Testament, and certainly the divided kingdom and the exiles and return, then you can’t make sense of the prophets. And so much of it just seems so foreign to us. It’s kind of easy to just go through a prophetical book and find little parts you like, it’s the parts that offer hope instead of judgment and just kind of focus on those and ignore the rest.
Wood: Yeah, exactly. And so there’s some wisdom to that and sort of orientating people to all the books. I wouldn’t wanna stop there because there’s also a value in trying to dig a little bit deeper. So if you’re doing that, and I said, Zephaniah, you could do it in maybe three sermons. Three good lessons would be Chapter 1, being one. I say that because the way it begins and ends with that universal declaration of judgment has a pretty clear window there that it’s a single unit. Then I would probably do Chapter 2:1 to Chapter 3:8. And the reason for that is because I think these sections are all joined together. So Zephaniah, Chapter 2, it begins with a call to repentance, which is, I think, is a really good way to start before you go into more judgment. So you have a sermon of something really focusing in on God’s righteousness, his holiness, a declaration of judgment Chapter 1, call to repentance to 2:1-3. But then it gets right back into judgment in 2:5 and following and oracles against a number of nations there. But then he shifts in Chapter 3:1-8 and adds an oracle to the city of Jerusalem.
Guthrie: When I was reading through Zephaniah, especially Chapters 2 and beginning of 3, like you’re talking about, you get a very geographical picture that he’s…
Wood: You do.
Guthrie: …drawing. I felt like he was almost standing in Jerusalem, and walking around in a circle pointing his finger at all the nations around them on whom God was gonna bring judgment, but then it comes home to right where he is.
Wood: That’s exactly right.
Guthrie: Is that a sense of what it is?
Wood: Yeah, it is. So to illustrate that in verses 5-7, it’s an oracle against the Philistines, which are the nations to the west of Jerusalem. And verses 8-11, Moab and Amon which have been to the east. Cush in verse 12, to the south. And then ultimately, you know, the big kahuna of their day, Assyria, which is the nation to the north. And so it is this sort of geographic representation, which reinforces the universal proclamation of judgment from the preceding Chapter, you know, all mankind, of the entire face of the earth. And then you’re right. What he does next, is he turns it inwards to kind of the center of the compass. And, you know, when I was preaching on this text, I kind of likened it to the waves, you know, you’d see at a baseball stadium or something like that. You know, it’s going all around and you’re hitting everybody, and you could probably hear the crowds of Jerusalem really getting excited. “Get those Philistines, get those Ammonites. Assyria, they’re going down.” And then he just turns to them, and he has more to say, against the city of Jerusalem than any of the other cities. In fact, it’s almost the extent of all of them combined, you know. It’s eight verses here, dedicated to Jerusalem and what is 11 to the other groupings altogether, even Cush just gets a single verse.
And so he really hammers home that focus on Jerusalem, illustrating that universal aspect again. And, you know a very neat thing about Zephaniah, this book is really interwoven together really well. He ends in 3:8, the very same place that he ended in 1:18. You know, 3:8, the end of this judgment against Jerusalem, so the Lord speaking he says, “In the fire of my jealousy, all the earth shall be consumed.” And then in 1:18, the universal proclamation against all mankind, “In the fire of His jealousy,” so Zephaniah is speaking of the Lord here, “All the earth shall be consumed.” An almost identical phrase.
The geographical representation of Zephaniah 2 or 3 is another illustration of the universal day of the Lord that is coming in Zephaniah Chapter 1. And so I would do 2:1 to 3:8 as a single unit. If you’ve got four sermons or four lessons to do in it, do Chapter 2 and then do 3:1-8. That’d be a good breakdown there because then you can really hone in on Jerusalem here, and then 3:9-20 is really the proclamation.
Guthrie: That’s the part you look forward to.
Wood: Yes, that’s the part everybody loves.
Guthrie: Yeah, exactly. Tell us why.
Wood: When I mention Zephaniah, most people that I talk to if they know much about it, they just run to Zephaniah 3:17.
Guthrie: Yes, exactly. That’s the only sermon or talk I can really remember and identify being from Zephaniah.
Wood: Yeah, I call it the John 3:16 of the Old Testament.
Guthrie: And you’re referring to this verse 3:17, that says, “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save. He will rejoice over you with gladness, He will quiet you by his love, He will exult over you with loud singing.” That is really good news.
Wood: It is.
Guthrie: So what’s the best way to approach Chapter 3 beginning in verse 9 through the end?
Wood: I would approach it in terms of what other passages in the Old Testament might have similar imagery. And one of them, beginning in 3:9-13 is actually a reversal of the Tower of Babel.
Guthrie: Show us what you mean.
Wood: So remember the Tower of Babel story, it happens, it’s just after the flood narrative. The Tower of Babel is when mankind assembles on the plains of Shinar, and they seek to build a city with a tower extending up into the heavens. What they’re really trying to do is ascend up into the heavenly places, secure themselves up in heaven, essentially to deify themselves. And the Lord comes down in judgment, and what He does is two things. He mixes their language, confuses their language, and He scatters them across the face of the earth. And notice what the Lord does here as an opposite of that. Right? The Lord here, He says “At that time,” so on the day of the Lord again, “I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech.” Right? Literally, it’s a unified language here, that’s what’s going on. What was diversified in language at Babel is unified in the redemptive work of God. And then notice what he does in verse 10. “From beyond the rivers of Cush,” right, just mentioned in Chapter 2:12, “My worshipers, the daughters of my dispersed ones shall bring my offering.” And so, dispersed ones when scattered across the face of the earth, what’s going on here well they’re being gathered together. Being gathered together as an offering, a pleasing aroma unto the Lord, where they worship Him with one accord, worship in, side by side here. And a great testimony of the United Church worshiping the Lord, even Jew, and Gentile together. What Zephaniah is doing is he’s reversing the imagery of the Tower of Babel here and uniting people in pure speech, joining a people of God together to worship Him with one accord, at the end of verse nine. And I would like to teach it that way, especially because of the way that same sort of imagery is used in the New Testament.
Guthrie: My next question was going to be are you and how are you going to connect this to Pentecost? Because I always think of connecting Babel with Pentecost, I’d never seen making a stop here in Zephaniah on the way, but I’m not exactly sure how I would connect them.
Wood: There’s actually two stops along the way. One is in Zephaniah, the other is in the book of Joel. Because in Acts Chapter 2 at Pentecost, Peter quotes from Joel Chapter 2, which I actually think Joel Chapter 2 quotes from Zephaniah Chapter 3. I guess in Zephaniah Chapter 3, we have this nice line, “That all of them may call upon the name of the Lord,” in verse 9, which is a phrase that is repeated in Joel Chapter 2, which is then quoted by Peter in Acts Chapter 2. So kind of two stopping points because we actually have two prophets Joel and Zephaniah that are looking forward to a reversal of the Tower of Babel, which is ultimately seen in it’s beginning fulfillment on the day of Pentecost where, you know, those tongues of fire come down, they touch them in the upper room, Peter goes out. All the people from all the nations hear them in their own tongue. And then Jew and Gentile alike are united together in faith and the church grows its faith in Christ there on the day of Pentecost. So, the initial gathering together and purification of the speech at the very foundation of the church. And what I really love about Zephaniah’s portrait of this is how he continues to illustrate this in verses 11 to 13 because he doesn’t just stop at a picture of purified speech united together, but we’re all united together on Mt. Zion. Right? Verse 11, “He removes…” who? “The pridefully exalted ones,” right, middle of verse 11 there. “So that no longer will there be anyone who is haughty on God’s holy mountain.” But notice what he does. “I leave in your midst a people humble and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord. Those who are left in Israel, they shall do injustice and speak no lies, nor shall there be found in their mouth, a deceitful tongue, for they shall graze and lie down, and none shall make them afraid.”
Now some of these phrases might sound a little bit familiar to you. And I say that because there’s only one other figure in the Old Testament that shares this distinct imagery of not having a deceitful tongue. And that particular individual is in the book of Isaiah, especially Isaiah 53:9, where the suffering servant is one who has no lies and who does not have this deceitful tongue. And so really, I think…you know, I’ve read somewhere where one scholar says Zephaniah has no Messianic prophecies, and I would say yes, he does. And here it is, where he’s, you know, uniting together, the people of God and their imagery of not having a deceitful tongue with one that does not have a deceitful tongue who no lie is found upon his mouth in the suffering servant. Now, the very same imagery is used in Revelation 14:5, where the people have gone are gathered together in this worship service at Mount Zion, they follow the Lamb wherever He goes, and they have no deceitful speech in their mouths. And, so I think this is a really good picture of really both the first and second coming of Christ. The first one, the reversal of Babel at Pentecost as kind of a T 1, an initial coming, an initial undoing of this curse of the fall at Babel. And then the second one, the gathering together to Mount Zion, where those united to Christ already have a pure speech, but then we have a glorified speech and the new heavens and the new earth. Which then verse 14, gives away to what? Exultant worship, right seeing single out shouts rejoice, exalt with all your heart, and it leads out to this exultant worship in the presence of God.
Guthrie: So beautiful. Okay, let me try something on you, Will. So we’re teaching through Zephaniah, someone raises their hand. And they’re looking here in Chapter 3 for “At that time,” and let’s say the person says, “Okay, so what time specifically is that?” So we’re gonna try to answer that. So let me take a stab at it and you can critique and improve upon it. Maybe I would answer, “Well, it’s gonna happen at the Day of the Lord.” And certainly, there was a day when God came in the flesh, and it was a day of judgment. In fact, we see a picture of this one who was under judgment in this very passage, this one who had no deceit in his mouth, even as He was experiencing our judgment, but it was also a day of salvation, even that very specific day when He was on the cross. And we see how that was accomplished because then this begins to be fulfilled at Pentecost, as there is this great change in the speech of the peoples, and they are able to give out the gospel in all of these different tongues in Jerusalem. And we trace it through the book of Acts, we see that the word of the Lord is continuing to spread and it’s going and it’s going and that’s the age we are in now. But there is yet an ultimate, and greater, and as you use the word, more glorious fulfillment of the day of the Lord to come when these things will happen in a superior, final, complete way. And we certainly see that when we see that, “They’ll graze and lie down and none shall make them afraid.” That hasn’t happened yet we know that that is somewhere in the future.
Wood: Yeah, absolutely. All of that is great. We talk about, you know, the already and the not yet, right? That’s kind of the language we use, how already now, in this age, we have these great blessings in union with Christ. And yet, we do not yet have them in there even greater fulfillment that is yet to come when He comes again, the new heavens and the new earth. And, you know, for Zephaniah all of this is future, right? And so we’re back to that telescope again, that telescopic vision again, where these things are kind of seen together. And then in the New Testament, we see them kind of spread back out till we get the full picture as we get to the New Testament times. But even here in Zephaniah, we can kind of see those things working together, can’t we? Where we see the hope spreading to all the nations, the worshipers being gathered as an offering from all the four corners of the earth, a time when they shall graze and lie down and none shall make them afraid. And yet, even as we continue reading in the final verses of the book, it hasn’t happened yet. He charges them multiple times, “Fear not let not your hands grow weak.” You know, the new heavens and new earth, you don’t need to worry about your hands growing weak. Today we need to worry about that, our hands growing weak in this age. And so the charges that he continues to give in fearing not, “Fear not O Zion,” verse 16, “Let not your hands grow weak.” Or even the promises like in verse 18 of Chapter 3, “I will gather those of you who mourn to the festival,” and we’re still in the age of mourning, right, we’re not yet in the age of the great end-time festival. And so these sorts of charges, I think, resonate very deeply for the people of God as we have these great blessings by faith, but we don’t yet have them by sight, and the new heavens and new earth, to use Paul’s kind of language there.
Guthrie: So what we’re seeing again and again in Zephaniah is some really grand reversals, isn’t it?
Wood: We do, yeah.
Guthrie: Because you mentioned the one going from creation to de-creation. Where else do we see that picture?
Wood: Creation and de-creation in Chapter 1, and then the reversal of Babel in Zephaniah 3:9 and following, those are the two big ones, right? These are the big images of reversal used in the book here, but you see kind of some smaller versions of it as well in terms of using other passages. For example, in Chapter 3:6, the Lord talks about how He had cut off nations, their battlements being in ruins and various things like this. I think that’s an image of the conquest, especially with the battle of Jericho, where battlements were laid in ruins. And then what’s the results? That they don’t repent well, that’s gonna happen to them. So the conquerors become the conquered in the judgment of the Lord here. But in terms of like kind of a redemptive reversal for using that language, rather than just reversing other passages, then I think we see it, especially in a redemptive sense in verses 19 and 20…
Guthrie: Of Chapter 3?
Wood: …of Chapter 3, yeah, or even 18 to 20, just read 18 a minute ago, “I will gather those of you who mourn to a festival.” What’s that a reversal of? “Weeping and mourning to a great feast and even a celebration, “So that you will no longer suffer reproach behold at that time” now in verse 19. “I will deal with your oppressors, I will save the lame, gather the outcast, I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time, I will bring you in, at that time when I gather you together for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.” Kind of an image of those today who are oppressed and forsaken by man, yet being restored into the presence of God in the new heavens and the new earth there.
Guthrie: It seems like a great opportunity to present the gospel from the book of Zephaniah, in terms of the anticipation of experiencing that, not getting what we deserve, but there being a great reversal. I want you to go back to something you said earlier. You talked about this theme of the proud being humbled and the humble being exalted. So first, convince me that that is a main theme from Zephaniah by showing me in the text, and then tell me what you would do with it when you’re teaching?
Wood: So the first time that we see an abundantly explicit reference to this is in Chapter 2:1-3. A call to repentance in Chapter 2, “Gather together, yes gather, O, shameless nation before the decree takes effect,” so before the day of the Lord, and then going down into verse 3, “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land to do His just commands, seek righteousness, seek humility, and perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the anger of the Lord.” And so his call to repentance here, which I think is what 2:1 is, the call to gather to gather for a shameless or undesirable nation is, “Hey, you know you need to repent and turn to the Lord.” And how does he do that? He says, “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land,” and then continues to charge them to seek righteousness and to seek humility. Then in Chapter 2:10, pride is mentioned explicitly, once again, where the nations of Moab and Amon are overturned. Why? In return for their pride, right, because of their prideful treatment of the people of Israel. And then again, in Chapter 3, pride is explicitly mentioned once again, where in verse 11 he says, “On that day, you shall not be put to shame,” these are the humble, right? “Because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against me for I will remove from your midst your proudly exultant ones, and you shall no longer be haughty in my holy mountain. But I will leave in your midst a people humble and lowly, and they shall seek their refuge in the name of the Lord.”
And so those who repent, right, you clearly see here a transition like they were once rebellious against the Lord. But those who repent and seek humility in the Lord, those are the ones who remain who call upon His name. And what does Paul say? “Those who call the name Lord will be saved.” Right? Those who call upon his name, those are the ones that remain a people humble and lowly, seeking refuge in the Lord. But the pridefully exalted ones, they are removed from the holy presence of God and His judgment. So those who sought to exalt themselves, the haughty, the prideful, those are the ones that God brings down low. And these, seen here in these explicit statements, but the humble who seek the Lord are the ones who he brings up and they’re going to be the ones…in 3:14, that rejoice and exult and have this great festival in the Lord of praise and worship.
Guthrie: So I assume, Will, that this means that when you’re teaching this, you’re gonna get to the point where you’re gonna call the people you’re teaching to humble themselves…
Guthrie: …so that they can expect a great exultation on that great day to come. Probably not in this life, maybe in this life a little, but a little now, but certainly not yet. But what does that really mean? I guess I’m thinking about myself that I would have to think as a teacher, what specific kind of humility is being talked about here and how it is pursued or welcomed or experienced?
Wood: One of the primary ways that Zephaniah is calling us to humility is to humility in our worship. And so when Zephaniah talks about the humble and the lowly, seeking refuge in the name of Lord being left in Israel, and even being in this place where they graze and lay down and they’re not afraid, the prophet immediately turns to the result of that in praising and exalting the Lord and seeking to glorify the Lord alone. And so the pride being presented in the book is really the opposite of that. It’s not seeking to glorify the Lord in all things but rather seeking your own exaltation, seeking your own glory. And we see these things in terms of worship really playing out throughout the entirety of the book where beginning in Chapter 1, as soon as Judah and Jerusalem are mentioned in particular, the issue that is presented is their worship. The remnant of Baal described there, the idolatrous priests along with the priests they bowed down on the roofs to the host of heavens, yet they bow down to the Lord. They swear to the Lord and yet swear by Milcom. They’ve turned back from following the Lord and do not seek or inquire of Him. The people are unifying idolatrous worship with the worship of the Lord, this sort of syncretism of approaching the Lord in a way that is improper before Him. And the contrast with that is approaching the Lord properly, calling upon His name, in order that we might be saved. And then, therefore, worshiping Him properly as He calls us to worship in accordance with his Word.
Guthrie: So it seems like, Will, that that’s something gonna be really important for a teacher, that this is one of those places where you read something in the Bible, and we have what we think humility looks like, and maybe it’s just that I don’t brag about the things that I’ve accomplished or proud and we think of it on those terms. But Zephaniah is talking about a unique kind of humility and a unique kind of pride. And it seems like we have to make sure we get to the heart of what he’s calling them to.
Wood: Exactly, and really emphasizing it on that worship, or asking yourself, how do we approach the Lord properly in worship? Well, the answer to that is how he calls us to worship him in his Word, and in no other way. And so coupled together with this idea of humble yet heartfelt worship, is the idea of obedience to the Word of God. In fact, I think this is what the prophet really hammers home when indicting the city of Jerusalem. He says, “She listens to no voice, she accepts no correction,” And so they’re prideful, merging together in idolatrous worship with the worship of the Lord is, in fact, them not listening to His word. And if we tie it back to the historical context of Zephaniah that we’re talking about a little bit earlier, what had just been discovered? The word of the Lord, right? The word of the Lord that have been set aside for generations, ignored, so that it’s even seen as kind of an artifact hidden away in the temple. And now here comes Zephaniah saying, “Listen up.” Right? “Listen to this word. It’s here that you find how you are to approach the Lord in worship.” And this is especially important for Josiah and his work, who was reforming the worship of the people of Israel. And so, the exultant, prideful ones here are those who are approaching the Lord improperly in worship, like Manasseh, right, which would have been, you know, Josiah’s grandfather. And so those who pursue this sort of idolatrous prideful worship are juxtaposed to those who seek the Lord, who are humble of the land, which I think is a good description of Josiah here, and worship Him in accordance with His word. And then going back to Chapter 3:2, the first lines that I read a moment ago, “Listens to no voice, they accept no correction.” And then he continues, “She, the city of Jerusalem, does not trust in the Lord and does not draw near to her God.” And so when you don’t listen to the Lord, and how He calls you to worship Him in His Word, according to the prophet, you’re not trusting in God, and you’re not drawing near to Him.
Guthrie: Well, this isn’t really an ancient issue, though, isn’t it, Will?
Guthrie: I mean, think about it…I mean, when I think about most conversations we have about…and I’ll just put in quotes, my little air quotes here “worship.” I can picture someone saying, “Well, I just couldn’t worship today, you know, I didn’t like the worship today,” that kind of thing, as if we are the arbiters of what makes good worship. So I guess I’m thinking as you’re talking about this, that in teaching through the book of Zephaniah, it presents the teacher with an opportunity to talk about the way God does want to be worshipped and almost inverting our modern mindset of, “I get to worship how I choose,” rather than was, “I pleased with the worship? Was God pleased with my worship based on the way he’s called us to worship?”
Wood: Think the last person you talked to that was looking for a church, what did they say? Almost inevitably that when, you know, they’re going around like, “Well, the worship wasn’t the way I like it,” just like you were saying. But the question they should be asking is, “Is this the worship that God prescribes in his Word?” And when they do that everything is completely reoriented because the typical mode of questioning this sort of church shopping mentality, it’s a completely self-centered mode of worship, which is not worshiping the Lord at all, that’s worshiping yourself. It’s all about what do I want? I need, this, and if you want a rock band, some sort of thing, like that. But the focus of true worship throughout the entire Bible is always Godward. It’s always seeking to glorify Him and Him alone. And this is really what Zephaniah portrays pretty clearly, you know, you rejoice, you exalt with all your heart. Well, who are you rejoicing and exalting? Well, the Lord. We’ve read verse 14 a few times, or verse 15, I think gives us three really good reasons for this worship. The first one, verse 15, the first line there, “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you.”
Guthrie: Which chapter are you in?
Wood: Chapter 3:15. So Chapter 3:14, is that shouting, exalting rejoicing in the Lord. And then I think verse 15 gives us three reasons. The first one being the Lord has taken away our judgments, right? He’s not just our Lord, He’s our Lord who saves, who redeems sinners, something you know unique to Christians that we need the salvation of the Lord. He has cleared away your enemies. The pridefully exultant ones who lead in this idolatrous worship are done away with on the day of the Lord. And then the climactic one, the king of Israel, the Lord is in your midst. Right? He redeems us, He clears away those who oppose His people, and what He gives us is Himself, and seeking to glorify and praise the Lord in this eternal communion bond that we have with Him. Which by the way, that line right there, “The king of Israel, the Lord,” is the most often cited line from the book of Zephaniah, in the New Testament, always applied to Christ.
Guthrie: What a beautiful opportunity to get to Christ in our teaching. We don’t have much time left, Will, but I wondered if you would help us with a couple of images that we see in here. We remember that you’re working on your doctorate of Old Testament used in Zephaniah, and I wonder if that helps with a couple of verses. I’m looking in Chapter 1:8-9, and it says, “On the day of the Lord sacrifice, I will punish the officials and the king sons and all who array themselves in foreign attire.” So we might immediately think, “What’s the problem with that?” And then the next verse says, “On that day, I will punish everyone who leaps over the threshold.” And once again, we kind of wonder, “What’s wrong with that?” So does maybe some of that study you’ve done in how the Old Testament is using Zephaniah help us with this?
Wood: It does because it provides the answer of what is going on here.
Wood: So I guess as we’re, you know, thinking to consider that just a little bit, the first charge would be if you’re preparing to teach Zephaniah would be to read over it repeatedly and really chew on all the various parts of it, right? Don’t give it a skim and then go do it. Don’t try to jump to some application or something like that, but really dig into the passage and maybe using a cross-reference Bible, because those can be very helpful. It won’t have everything in it, but it’ll have something and you can, you know, use those to kind of orient some of those things. And so, those are really helpful here for these, and it’s because it’s other passages in the Old Testament that answer for us what’s going on here. And so the first one, being dressed in foreign attire. Well, what that’s not about is Zephaniah saying, “Come on guys, you’re not wearing your, I guess Saturday best to worship,” back then going to worship on the Sabbath day. But really, if we think about how does clothing function in the Bible, a number of things begin to pop out at us. And if you’re reading in Exodus and Leviticus, there are a lot of laws given to the people of Israel concerning dress and especially to the office of the priesthood. And so, the priesthood are given these divine garments, these garments, by the way, that they are to wear into the procession of worship leading the people of God there and going back…
Guthrie: When we study Exodus, you know, we come up chapter after chapter about the priests’ garments, and you get the idea that God is pretty particular about what his priests wear to represent Him to the people and represent the people to Him in the temple.
Wood: Yeah. And so here instead of being dressed in the manner that God is calling His priests to be dressed, they dress themselves in the garments of foreigners, in the garments of foreign priests. And, in fact, the priests of Baal in 2 Kings, Chapter 10, are primarily identified by their garments. And so, dressing in foreign attire here, it’s not that you need to go to worship wearing a tie or else, you know, Zephaniah is gonna come and get you, but it’s really about approaching the Lord how He calls you to approach him. If you think about how clothing works even as far back as Genesis Chapter 3, you know, before the fall in Genesis Chapter 2 man is seen as naked and not ashamed. But that nakedness is really looking forward to a further clothing in righteousness if they would not have partaken from the tree of knowledge of good and evil then they would have been confirmed in the righteousness of the Lord. But as they eat from that tree, that nakedness is no longer unashamed, but in shame. And so they seek to then cover over their shame, with these garments of fig leaves, right, in Genesis Chapter 3. And then the Lord comes, He confronts Adam and Eve for their sins, and a little bit later in Genesis 3, He does something very interesting, where what the Lord does is he devests them, he takes off they’re self-clad garments of fig leaves and he reclothes them with garments of skin. And so you see, that there’s this clothing that the Lord is providing is actually an image of redemption, and bringing Adam and Eve who had just sinned back into His presence, restoring them to a bond of union with God. But here what we see is the opposite. These people are taking off the God-given garments and re-clothing themselves in foreign attire. So it’d be as though Adam and Eve took off the garments God provided and re-clothed themselves with those fig leaves. That’s what’s going on here. And then we see something similar with their worship in verse 9. “On that day, I will punish everyone who leaps over the threshold and those who fill their Lord’s house with violence and with fraud.” Well, if we’re looking at this one, I know a lot of cross-reference Bibles will have a reference here to 1 Samuel, Chapter 5. And in 1st Samuel, Chapter 5, we have the story of the ark being set and the Temple of Dagon on there.
Guthrie: It’s actually a funny story isn’t it?
Wood: It is.
Guthrie: The temple of Dagon.
Wood: So, you know, just to recap what happens there, you know, the Ark is captured in battle, it’s taken over, it’s put into the temple of Dagon. And then the kind of the climax of that narrative is the head of Dagon, the idol statue, is chopped off and it lands on the threshold of the temple before the Ark of the Lord, almost like it’s bowing down before the Ark. Well, of course, the people then quickly get the Ark out of the temple to give it back to Israel, but, in 1 Samuel 5:5, that actually sparks a trend of worship among the Dagon priesthood, where every time they enter into the temple, what do they do? They jump over the threshold that Dagon’s head had just fallen over onto, right? They don’t wanna touch the place where Dagon was. And so for here, for the priests in Israel to do the same thing what they’re doing is they are leaping over the threshold is the temple of the Lord and approaching God just like the idolatrous nation would have approached Dagon. Right? They’re filling the temple with false worship, a place that was meant to be for the purified worship of the Lord, right, worshiping the Lord in holiness and in truth. Understanding the background of these phrases, which, by and large, if you just slow down and really start thinking about what might this mean in its broader biblical context? Then what seems very foreign on your kind of initial read through it begins to make a lot of sense.
Guthrie: Well, why don’t we close this way, Will. Let’s say we have done the work, we slowed down and we listened, and we did our best to work our way through the book of Zephaniah, through dealing with a sin that’s presented, the judgment that’s promised, as well as the hope and deliverance that’s declared, especially in Chapter 3, what do we hope that the impact of having studied Zephaniah with us, but what do we hope the impact will have been on them?
Wood: I think since the book has such a robust focus on worship, that they would have a renewed vigor to exalt the Lord alone, and a renewed vigor to do it only in accordance with how He calls them to do it. So the first one is a zeal for proper worship. I think that’s really what Zephaniah is getting at here is a zeal for proper worship. And a zeal for proper worship has with it a call to obedience to the Lord in every aspect of your life, even calling upon the name of the Lord.
Guthrie: Yes, not just at the worship service on Sunday. We’re not gonna confine worship solely to that, are we?
Wood: The worshiper needs to have this life of faith. And if they’re not living that life of faith, then the worship on Sunday is a resounding gong. It impacts the entirety of your life as you’re living before the presence of God. The call to worship really impacts everything. It really orients your entire life, in a heavenward and heaven-fed focus. Where glorifying God on Sunday impacts everything you’re doing on work on Monday. you’re not going to go and slander your coworker because you know that’s not righteous before the sight of the Lord and that would taint not only your witness but also your own character and how you were to be one to testify to the things of those. So the first thing is focusing in on worship. The second thing I think it teaches us to not be bashful about judgment. Chapter 1:2 all the way to Chapter 3:8 is just judgment, judgment, judgment, judgment, judgment, judgement, judgement.
Guthrie: Everywhere you look.
Wood: And if you go into a lot of churches these days, you don’t hear a lot about judgment. You hear a lot about salvation, you hear very little about judgment. And so it calls us to treat judgment as a profound reality and therefore to treat our sins seriously. Judgment is not just some abstract thing that happens to others out there, it happens against every individual who rebelled against the Lord. And so sin needs to be treated seriously. Even sins of complacency and not caring about our spiritual growth and things like that. In fact, Zephaniah has something to say about that. “Those who are complacent in our hearts are those who are punished on this day,” in Zephaniah Chapter 1:12. And so, this presentation of judgment here, it should tell us to treat our sin seriously, and it should shock us out of our spiritual complacency. And which if we’re honest with ourselves, it’s pretty easy to get into, isn’t it?
Wood: We get into the routine, we just kind of skate on through rather than being very purposeful and living our lives before the Lord. And I also think it provides us with a heavenly-mindedness that orients every aspect of our lives. One of the main, I think, practical points of the entire Bible is that we live with a heaven-looking focus. And if we’re looking in Zephaniah Chapter 3:9-20, that’s really the focus of all of it. There are statements about, you know, benefits that we receive today, but the focus of the profit on those Chapters is the new heavens and new earth. That’s where we gain the fullness of all of our benefits that we have in Christ. That’s where those who mourn today are gathered to the festival of the Lord, even that great wedding feast with the Lamb. And so I think it teaches us to really have that heavenward, heaven-minded focus, in everything that we do today. You know, very similar to what you know, Paul says in Colossians, Chapter 3, to seek things that are above not things that are on the earth. And so it orientates us to where we seek after the Lord who is in heaven, in every aspect of our lives. One of the things that I say a lot both in preaching and in classes, there’s this phrase that has gone throughout Christianity, you know, “Don’t be so heavenly-minded, you’re no earthly good.” I think the Bible teaches the opposite, doesn’t it? You know, you must be radically heavenly-minded if you’re gonna be of any earthly good at all. Because if you’re not heavenly minded, what’s gonna happen when you’re just distraught and mourning and weeping today? You’re gonna lose the image of that day when the Lord will wipe every tear from our eyes and bring us to that festival of the Lamb. We must be heaven-fed if we are going to be any earthly good today because that’s where our hope is to be in the presence of God in the new heavens and the new earth, secured by Christ as He came as He bore these very judgments for us so that we sick sinners might be brought into the presence of Holy God and worship Him forevermore.
Guthrie: What a great place to end. Thank you so much, Will. Thank you for being willing to help us teach the Bible.
Wood: Yeah, thanks for having me, I enjoyed it.
Guthrie: You’ve been listening to “Help Me Teach the Bible” with Nancy Guthrie, a production of The Gospel Coalition sponsored by Crossway. Crossway is the not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible Christian books and tracks. Learn more about Crossways gospel-centered resources @crossway.org.