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Zephaniah at World’s End: A Modern Misunderstanding of an Ancient Motif

Zephaniah at World’s End: A Modern Misunderstanding of an Ancient Motif [1]

 

Copyright © Robert E. Cruickshank, Jr.  (June 6, 2024)

All Rights Reserved

Jan Logsdon (Editor)

 

“‘I will completely remove all things from the face of the earth,’ declares the Lord.  ‘I will remove human and animal life; I will remove the birds of the sky and the fish of the sea, and the ruins along with the wicked; and I will eliminate mankind from the face of the earth,’ declares the Lord” (Zephaniah 1:2-3).

 

While Zephaniah is one of the minor prophets in the Bible, he’s a big deal for today’s prophecy pundits. Dr. Bob Thiel claims that Zephaniah contains “an important end-time prophecy that almost no one understands.”[2]  How important? So important that it’s quite literally the epitome of the phrase: “a disaster of Biblical proportions.”

 

For the brokers of bad news, Zephaniah “telescopes” far into the future and gives us “an image of the last event in world history, the last World War.”[3] This minor prophet’s major message encompasses “the whole wide canvas of history as God brings human history to an end. That is what Zephaniah tells us about,” according to Ray Stedman.

 

For normal people, this is nothing to get excited about. But bad news is good news for the end-times gurus. Literally.  In an article in Good News Magazine, Melvin Rhodes reminds the reader that “we should always keep in mind that the central focus of Bible prophecy is the good news,” and part of this good news is the fact mankind now has the “capability for self-annihilation.”[4]

 

In his article, “Zephaniah and the Destruction of Mankind,” Allan Johnson likewise can’t contain his elation for worldwide desolation:

 

“Zephaniah’s prophecy is very extreme; the whole world will be wiped away.  For Christians though this should be nothing new…And obviously we’re looking forward to the end because it feels closer than ever…”[5]

 

Pastor Paul Begley, host of the weekly TV series The Coming Apocalypse, sums up their hope: “The Earth will explode, according to the Bible.”[6]  No man, no beasts, no birds, and no fish in the sea. This is supposedly the message of Zephaniah 1:2-3. Then, the prophecy pundits’ dreams will come true, as Zephaniah’s words ring true, at world’s end.[7]

 

A Prophet of His Time – Not Ours

The problem is that Zephaniah was prophesying in the seventh century BC about events that were “near” in his own day and time (Zeph. 1:7, 14; 2:2). Marvin Sweeney has an excellent article on this. The title says it all: “Zephaniah: Prophet of His Time—Not the End Time!”[8]

 

As Sweeney points out, the book of Zephaniah “has been wrongly understood as a prediction of the end of time, or, in scholarly terminology, eschatology.”[9]  But from “a careful text-critical study of the text of Zephaniah,” he continues, “the prophet is calling on Israel to repent in the here and now.”[10]

 

The important thing to note here is that what was “here and now” to Zephaniah is “there and then” to us. Zephaniah’s prophecies were given there – to the people living in his own time, and those prophecies came to pass then – in the historical context of that time.

 

But the apocalyptic news anchors never report the technical (read: textual) details. Like any good news outlet, they play to their audience.  And when they need the Bible to fit the news, an otherwise obscure Old Testament prophet makes his debut. Every time events in the Middle East hit the headlines, Zephaniah becomes the headliner.

 

Zephaniah: From Ancient Sage to Front Page

In the wake of the recent Israel-Hamas crisis, self-described “Prophecy Watchers” L.A. Marzulli and Gary Stearman joyfully pontificate about all that is “going on in the Middle East right now” being “Biblical.”[11]  As such, a seldom-read Old Testament prophet (Zephaniah) now steals the show, and modern believers have a seat in the very first row. In their YouTube video entitled “A Hidden Prophecy in Zephaniah,” they inform the viewer:

 

“I haven’t read Zephaniah in, I’m going to say, at least 10 years. He’s a very minor, minor Prophet. But actually, he’s not a minor. This minor prophet has a lot to say, particularly to us today. Because he’s talking about what’s going on right now. And probably the least read prophet in the Bible is now super important…As you begin to read Zephaniah, your eyes pop. Because time after time, he’s talking about things that we’re reading in the newspaper right now. And so the least read prophet in the Bible suddenly becomes very, very important.”[12]

 

What really makes your “eyes pop,” however, is reading self-avowed Bible experts admitting that they don’t read through the Bible every year. Speaking with such confidence and certainty about something you’ve not read in “at least 10 years” doesn’t come without its problems after all. And the big problem is, once again, that Zephaniah is prophesying about the nations of his day, not the nations of our day.

 

As Dustin Burlet writes, “The prophet acutely focuses on the coming Day of the LORD, that is, Yahweh’s judgment, on the ‘nation of Judah and its ancient Near Eastern [ANE] neighbors in the late seventh century BC.’”[13]  Zephaniah 2:4 targets Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Ekron as upcoming targets of God’s wrath. As Bill Wenstrom points out, this was “all fulfilled through Nebuchadnezzar and his armies in 603 B.C.”[14]

 

In Zephaniah 2:12-13, the prophet hones in on Ethiopia and Assyria, along with Assyria’s capital city Ninevah. Ethiopia fell when “King Cambyses II of Persia defeated Egypt and Ethiopia in 525 BC and brought them into the Persian empire.”[15]  Assyria’s downfall came when Babylon led an allied attack on its capitol in 612 BC.[16]  The ruins of Ninevah “are now surrounded by modern-day Mosul, Iraq.”[17] As Britannica puts it:

 

“The city, whose heyday had come earlier in the 7th century under the leadership of King Sennacherib, was comprehensively sacked after a three-month siege, and Assyrian King Sinsharushkin was killed. Although his successors clung to power for a while, the days of Assyrian ascendancy were gone.”[18]

 

These literal fulfillments of Zechariah’s prophecy cause the prophecy pundits to cave on their own approach to prophecy. Suddenly, their literal hermeneutic gets left behind.

 

It’s Only Literal Until It’s Not Literal Anymore

With audience relevance and historical context leaving their interpretation in doubt, the sellers of sensation end up selling out. Prophecy paragon Ray Stedman sets the problem up and then tries to take it down. He writes:

 

“The interesting thing is that although all these nations are long since lost in the dust of history, the promise of this day of the Lord is in the future. How can this be? Why are these nations mentioned here when they have long been buried in antiquity? How can they yet be destroyed in a day to come? The answer is, of course, that these nations are used symbolically throughout the Scriptures as well as literally. They were destroyed in the course of history, but they are used symbolically with reference to the full and final meaning of the day of the Lord.”[19]

 

Normally advocating for extreme literalism and harshly criticizing any other approach,[20] the prophecy pundits are forced to backtrack. And this is where the rub comes in.  To make Zephaniah’s worldwide judgment language literal, they must make the nations being judged symbolic.

 

This is a major concession, but as the TV infomercials used to say: but wait, there’s more!

 

From Symbolic to Hyperbolic

Today’s eschatology executants have yet another issue to confront. If Zephaniah is prophesying human extinction, who will be around for the next act? In other words, if everyone gets killed in the Tribulation, how will the seats get filled in the Millennium?  If all mankind is annihilated, who’s left?

 

What’s a prophecy pundit to do? Calvary Chapel’s Paul LeBoutillier comes through. As it turns out, Zephaniah doesn’t mean “all” after all! Zephaniah’s “obviously” only “referring to the wicked from the earth,” says LeBoutillier, “since we know…that a remnant from Israel will survive and we know that there will even be survivors of the other nations during the great tribulation.”[21]

 

So, symbolism and hyperbole are okay when their otherwise extreme literalism gets in the way? As it turns out, symbolism and hyperbole are indeed in play in Zephaniah’s prophecy. But the prophet’s use of these rhetorical devices dashes the pundits’ dreams of worldwide destruction.

 

Zephaniah 1:2-3 in Context

After God just finished saying that He’s going to “eliminate mankind from the face of the earth” (Zeph. 1:3), He then says that He will stretch out his hand “against Judah” and “all the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (Zeph. 1:4).  As C. L. Taylor remarks, “After the total annihilation of verses 2-3, the limited destruction of verses 4-5 falls a bit flat.”[22]  The point being, the entirety of verses 1-3 is hyperbolic language for the literal judgment of verses 4-5.

 

In other words, verses 1-3 are the poetry, and verses 4-5 are the prose. First comes the symbol, and then comes the substance. Hyperbole leads, and history follows – in Zephaniah’s narrative.

 

Michael De Roche puts it this way: “Zephaniah 1:2-3 is an oracle of punishment in which Yahweh’s destruction of Israel is pictured as a reversal of creation.”[23]  The operative word here is “pictured.”  The historical destruction of verses 4-5 is “pictured” as a “reversal of creation” in verses 2-3. And this is a “picture” that the Biblical reader should be all too familiar with.

 

The De-Creation Motif

This reversal of creation motif, commonly called “de-creation,”[24] is employed extensively throughout the pages of Scripture. Genesis 1-2 is the template. And this makes perfect sense. In the original creation, God brought order out of chaos.  Sin is a return to chaos and, as such, bad things will follow. Consequently, the de-creation language is a recurring theme in the prophets.

 

A great example of another Prophet making effective use of the de-creation pattern would be Jeremiah. In Jeremiah chapter 4, he is told to make a declaration to the “men of Judah and Jerusalem” of his day (Jer. 4:3, 5).  God’s people had fallen far away from the Lord. They are described as “foolish people” and “stupid children” (Jer. 4:22a). They “have no understanding” (Jer. 4:22b). They are “shrewd to do evil” and “do not know good” (Jer. 4:22c).  In this context, Jeremiah returns to the pre-creation chaos of Genesis 1 to describe their return sin:

 

“I looked at the earth, and behold, it was formless and void;
And to the heavens, and they had no light.
 I looked on the mountains, and behold, they were quaking,
And all the hills jolted back and forth.
I looked, and behold, there was no human,
And all the birds of the sky had fled.
I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a wilderness,
And all its cities were pulled down
Before the Lord, before His fierce anger” (Jer. 4:23-26).

 

 

Notice the similarity of language with Zephaniah 1:2-3. Being contemporaries, each spoke to the same issue, i.e., the apostasy of Judah in their own day.  Jeremiah chastised “the prophets” who “prophesied by Baal” (Jer. 2:8), and Zephaniah said the purpose of the coming judgment was to “cut off the remnant of Baal” from Jerusalem (Zeph. 1:4). Both prophets shared the same time, spoke to the same situation, and made use of the same language of de-creation.

 

Zephaniah makes full use of this rhetorical device. Zephaniah purposely and precisely inverts the order of God’s creative work in Genesis 1. It goes from fish, birds, beasts, and man (Gen. 1:20-27), to man, beasts, birds, and fish (Zeph. 1:2-3).[25]  For additional “rhetorical effect” and “emphasis,” man is “again singled out” in the closing of verse 3.[26]

 

Zephaniah’s audience needed to know the gravity of the situation, so he used the strongest verbiage possible. As Burlet puts it, “…these ‘stylistic matters’ were not chosen simply for ‘decorative value’ but constitute a critical component of how the ‘substance’ of the prophet’s message is conveyed.”[27]  The substance of the prophet’s message was that sin has consequences, and those consequences are devastating – thoroughly and completely.

 

And this thorough and complete devastation is conveyed through the language of de-creation. As with all the other misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misapplied passages of the Bible, the prophecy pundits must again look elsewhere to find the end of human survival.  Because it’s not to be found in the pages of Zephaniah.

 

Zephaniah’s message was about the tragedy that sin brings through a picture of a return to chaos. And perhaps the greatest tragedy of our own time is the chaos of our own time because God’s People think these are the end times – and this is the way things ought to be. After all, the prophets foretold it…right?  Or so the soothsayers of sensation tell us.

 

Perhaps it’s time to start interpreting Scripture in light of its own time. Perhaps it’s time for the reign of today’s failed prophets to end.  Perhaps it’s time for believers to stop waiting for the Biblical prophets’ words to come to pass at world’s end.[28]

 

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[1] Many thanks to Daniel E. Harden, Brett Prieto and Brain Godawa for their valuable feedback on the early draft of this article.

[2] https://www.biblenewsprophecy.net/featured/zephaniahs-gather-together-prophecy

[3] Commentary to Zephaniah, by Rev. John Schultz, p. 9 https://www.bible-commentaries.com/source/johnschultz/BC_Zephaniah.pdf

[4] https://www.ucg.org/the-good-news/seven-prophecies-that-must-be-fulfilled-before-jesus-christs-return

[5] https://laymansbible.wordpress.com/2019/12/21/zephaniah-and-the-destruction-of-mankind/

[6] https://www.express.co.uk/news/weird/1341886/End-of-the-world-doomsday-Earth-explode-Bible-prophecy-Jesus-Christ-Second-Coming

[7] I purposely phrased this as “at world’s end” rather than “at the world’s end” because I like the title of the third installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean series!

[8] https://library.biblicalarchaeology.org/article/zephaniah-prophet-of-his-time-not-the-end-time/

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Prophecy Watchers – A Hidden Prophecy in Zephaniah https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FzfT8Hz8Ioo (0:00 – 0:12).

[12] Ibid., 0:24 – 0:52, 4:06 – 4:27.

[13] Burlet, Dustin G. ““Waddya Mean’It’s Just Hyperbole! ‘You’ve Gotta Be Kidding Me!” The Prophet Zephaniah and The Book of Genesis.” TORCH TRINITY Journal 26, no. 2 (2023): 43-80.

[14] Bill Wenstrom, Zephaniah: Zephaniah 2:4-God Announces His Intention to Judge the Philistines Cities-Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod and Ekron-Lesson # 42 (Wenstrom Bible Ministries) https://sermons.logos.com/sermons/780287-zephaniah-2.4-god%27s-announces-intention-to-judge-the-philistine-cities-gaza-ashkelon-ashdod-and-ekron?sso=false

[15] https://thebiblesays.com/commentary/zeph/zeph-2/zephaniah-212/

[16] https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-Nineveh

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] For example, see: Pastor David O’Steen, “How to refute Preterism [Q&A #127]” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TSPBc3Pw4pM . A tip of the hat to my good friend, Travis Drum, for sending me this video – where the extreme literalism really gets extreme!

[21] Paul LeBoutillier,  “Zephaniah 1-3: Prophecies of the Great Tribulation & Millennial Kingdom,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pL8wvQ2ekRM (7:43-7:55).

[22] “Zephaniah”, Interpreter’s Bible 6 (New York and Nashville, 1956), p. 1014.

[23]DeRoche, Michael. “The reversal of creation in Hosea.” Vetus Testamentum 31.4 (1981), p. 403.

[24] See: David Chilton, Paradise Restored: A Biblical Theology of Dominion (Tyler, TX: Dominion Press, 1985) pp. 99, 224. Order at: https://store.americanvision.org/products/paradise-restored-a-biblical-theology-of-dominion

[25] See: Richard D. Patterson, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah: The Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody), pp. 455-456.

[26] Burlet, Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28]  Christian’s have been predicting the end for thousands of years. Find out how they will always be wrong in this video: Tom Mills, “Is the End of the World in Your Future?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rHW_nVQ6lyI