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The time and two subjects of the prophecy
Zephaniah sets before us the judgment of the Spirit of God with respect to the condition of the testimony rendered to the name of God in this world, at a moment when there was some outward restoration by means of a king who feared God.
God has granted this favour more than once to His people, even as He has endured with longsuffering their rebellion and revolt; and in both cases He would have us see the true moral condition of that which bore His name — the judgment which a spiritual heart would form, which His Spirit formed, with respect to that condition: a judgment which should be authenticated by that which God would execute upon His people and upon the Gentiles, when longsuffering should no longer be of any avail.
These two subjects constitute the two principal divisions of the prophecy: the announcement of God's purposes with respect to the judgment that He would execute, and the display of that condition which led to the judgment. This, as always, is accompanied by the revelation of His counsels in grace, and of the coming of the Messiah, in order to encourage and sustain the faith of the believing remnant of His people.
The judgment of the nations involved in that of Israel
Israel having been appointed the witness for God, when the nations had given themselves up to iniquity and idolatry, the general judgment of the world could be delayed, so long as (that testimony being maintained) the true character of God was presented; for God is slow to anger. Accordingly He raised up prophets, beginning with Samuel, to remedy the wanderings and unfaithfulness of His people, when they themselves had failed. So long as this extraordinary testimony of grace, and the warnings and chastenings that accompanied it, served to maintain some glimmerings of truth and righteousness on the earth, Jehovah withheld His hand ready to destroy that which dishonoured God and oppressed man. We have seen elsewhere, in the transfer of sovereignty to the empire of the Gentiles, the introduction of a new system, as we find in the New Testament the establishment of the assembly. I do not dwell upon it here. As to the government of the world, in view of the testimony rendered to the name of Jehovah, when Israel — who maintained this testimony amid the nations that were apostate and rebellious against God — had so failed that there was no more remedy, then those nations also had to undergo the judgment they had long deserved. They will bring this judgment upon themselves by filling up the measure of their iniquity and rebellion against God, and by manifesting hatred to God's people, in the joy with which they come forward to accomplish the chastisements which that people had deserved: for God is longsuffering unto them also. He even sends the gospel — whether that of full grace, which we enjoy, or the announcement of His coming judgments — in order that all who have ears to hear may escape these judgments. But, in principle, the definitive failure of Israel's testimony left the nations exposed to the judgment their sinful state deserved, this judgment having been suspended, because a true testimony was rendered to God. This is the reason why we have constantly found in the prophets the definitive judgment of Israel. The establishment of the Gentile empire, represented by the image and the beasts, the introduction of Christianity, the apostasy which breaks out in its bosom, bring in other objects of the judgment of God, but do not alter the judgment to be executed upon the nations apart from these objects.
The apostasy and the Gentile empire judged from heaven; the nations from Zion
The judgment of the apostasy and of the Gentile empire comes immediately from heaven, whence flowed the authority of that empire, and the blessing of those who are become apostate; and against which they are in rebellion. The judgment of the nations, as such, has Zion for its starting-point — Zion, now under the judgment, but then delivered through the judgment executed upon the beast that oppressed her (see Psalm 110). The events spoken of in Daniel, the New Testament prophecies, and, in part, Zechariah, are omitted by those of the prophets who have for their subject the proper relations of the earthly people with God in Zion; and the judgment of Jerusalem and the Jews is connected in their prophecies with that of the nations — the judgment of the latter being involved in that of the people, who no longer rendered any testimony to Jehovah, but caused His name to be blasphemed. This judgment commenced, in regard to the Jews, with Nebuchadnezzar himself. Afterwards, on the decline (at the end of the age) of the empire which commenced originally with him as golden head, the nations, resuming their strength, use it against Israel, then connected with, and subject to, the apostate empire; a yet more terrible judgment. Thus all the nations will be gathered against Jerusalem, and filling up both the judgment of the people and their own iniquity, will occasion the intervention of the God of mercy in favour of His people, according to His promises and purposes of grace — the deliverance of Israel being accomplished in the judgment executed upon those who come up against them, and who, in coming against them, are against Jehovah and His Christ also. This will be the judgment that shall go forth from Zion, while the beast will have been destroyed by Him who came forth out of heaven.
The times of the prophets
The dates attached to the books of the prophets are connected with the different characters of this series of events. Isaiah and Micah, as well as Hosea and Amos (although the latter two less directly), are occupied with the revelation of the Son of David, the Deliverer and Defender of His people in Jerusalem. Hezekiah, raised up after the miserable reign of Ahaz gave occasion for these revelations, which taught the faithful (while unveiling the iniquity and the real condition of the people), that they must look forward and rest only in God's thoughts, who had raised up this pious king for the temporary restoration of His people, and who would grant them a complete and eternal deliverance by the true Emmanuel. Isaiah (in the first three, as well as in the last, chapters of his prophecy) dwells on the connection, of which we have spoken, between the judgment of Israel and that of the nations. Josiah did not present in the same manner the coming Redeemer. Spared the sight of the ruin of Jerusalem on account of his piety, he falls himself by the hand of strangers. The glory and peace, the hope of Jerusalem for the time being, disappear with him, and its judgment succeeds.
The time and circumstances of Zephaniah's prophecy
Zephaniah prophesied under his reign. The prophet takes no notice of the temporary piety of the people, who (see Jer. 3) at heart were not changed. He takes the general ground of Israel's condition and consequent judgment, in connection with its effect on the nations. We have seen that Nebuchadnezzar is the first who executes this judgment; although both the judgment and the prophecy that speaks of it go much farther.