Saturday, June 24, 2023

Mining the Minors: Zephaniah (2)

In studying the Minor Prophets we run into one difficult question repeatedly. The answer to it significantly affects our understanding of the intended scope of a particular prophecy. Wherever we come across Hebrew words that describe geography ['ăḏāmâ, 'ereṣ or ], there is considerable ambiguity about what they are intended to denote. Scholars tell us both 'ăḏāmâ and 'ereṣ may legitimately be translated as either “earth” or “land”. Further, the word may refer to an actual island, or to a larger region far away that is approached (naturally) from the coast. Where “land” is the better translation, the intent is usually (but not universally) to refer to the land of Israel.

So then, a prophet may be predicting something that will affect the entire planet or something that will affect only Israel. Global or local, and context is the only way to determine which is which. Sometimes there simply isn’t enough information in the context to know with certainty.

In Zephaniah, this problem rears its head repeatedly. In the ESV, the word “earth” appears eight times and the word “land” four. In the KJV, it’s four and six, respectively, with an “isles” thrown in for good measure. Different translation teams make different interpretive decisions, and the amount of time they have available to make any given decision about word meaning is necessarily limited by the size of the task at hand.

With this in mind, the attentive reader of Zephaniah may want to examine the contextual evidence for any given word choice himself.

Zephaniah 1:2-3 — The New Broom

“ ‘I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth,’ declares the Lord. ‘I will sweep away man and beast; I will sweep away the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea, and the rubble with the wicked. I will cut off mankind from the face of the earth,’ declares the Lord.”

The Scope of 1:2-3

So what then is the intended scope of the Lord’s words in Zephaniah 1:2-6? Is the prophecy global or local? The ESV has God sweeping away everything from the face of the earth, and cutting off mankind from it. The KJV has God sweeping away everything from the face of the land (Judah) and cutting off mankind (at least Judean mankind) from access to the land of promise.

I tend to think the KJV’s translation team was right on this one. If it is not intended as hyperbole, cutting off mankind from the face of the earth would be a Flood-level event. Even the apocalyptic prophecies of the Bible’s end times do not go that far. “For the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.” Mankind will not be completely cut off even in the worst days of the great tribulation period.

Face of the Earth/Land

Concerning the expression “face of the earth/land”, John Gill writes, “That is, from the land of Judah, by means of the Chaldeans or Babylonians: this is a general denunciation of the judgments of God, the particulars follow.” I believe he is correct. God is also going to do a lot of other “sweeping” in Zephaniah. His judgments will also affect Cush, Philistia, Moab, Ammon and Assyria. In chapter 3, his judgments will clearly affect the entire planet, as the scope of the prophecy expands into the end times. In this context, however, I believe he is talking about the then-impending Babylonian exile of Judah.

The Babylonian army took Jerusalem and Judah with a pair of sieges over an eleven year period. The final siege was 30 months in duration. A 30-month siege by an invading army would definitely strip Judah bare: birds, fish and beasts consumed, Judean civilization ended, Jerusalem burnt to the ground, its temple destroyed. The nation of Judah would cease to exist.

God would do the sweeping, but Nebuchadnezzar II would be his broom.

Zephaniah 1:4-6 — A Priesthood Under Judgment

“ ‘I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and I will cut off from this place the remnant of Baal and the name of the idolatrous priests along with the priests, those who bow down on the roofs to the host of the heavens, those who bow down and swear to the Lord and yet swear by Milcom, those who have turned back from following the Lord, who do not seek the Lord or inquire of him.’ ”

The Remnant of Baal

If we were to read verses 2 and 3 in isolation, we might be tempted to interpret them globally rather than locally. But from verse 4 on there is no doubt about the particular judgment in view or its historical fulfillment in 586BC. The Lord mentions Judah and Jerusalem by name, and singles out the priesthood as his first target. This is appropriate. Judgment begins with the house of God.

The phrase “remnant of Baal” is probably a reference to Josiah’s failed reforms. He did a great job of suppressing open worship of idols, but he could not change the hearts of the people or their religious leaders. Even though Baal worship was outlawed under Josiah, and its sacred places defiled and made unfit for use, some of the priests obviously continued in idolatry covertly. There was a “remnant of Baal” waiting in the shadows to take its place in the temple once Josiah was no longer on the throne. These priests may not have bowed down to the host of the heavens in the temple anymore, but they continued to do so on the rooftops. They would swear outwardly by the Lord and privately by Milcom. They pretended to follow the Lord, but they did not actually seek him or inquire of him. Their true devotion was to other gods.

Idolatry in the Priesthood

There is a similarly compromised spirit in Christendom today. The institutional church names the name of Christ, but in practice bows the knee to feminism, depraved lifestyles, money and power. If a man cannot serve two masters, neither can an institution simultaneously serve Christ and the spirit of the present age. Some long overdue Josiah-type reform is underway among the Southern Baptists, who are expelling churches with female pastors from the denomination, but such top-down reforms are unlikely to do much in the long-term. Churches that have promoted female pastors are appealing their expulsions. (Spoiler alert: the appeals are currently losing, including the one from Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church.)

Throughout this first chapter, God would have more to say about the wickedness in Judean society, but he starts with the priests. Priests formed a comparatively small segment of Judah’s population. In contrast, the church is 100% priests. If judgment begins with the priesthood, then judgment of the church will begin with us.

May we be found faithful priests, not those who “do not seek the Lord or inquire of him”.

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