The Day of the Lord: Judgment and Redemption
by Anton Chan
Zephaniah is perhaps one of the lesser known and read books in the Old Testament. Yet, its message of judgment and redemption is still relevant today. The first verse of the book gives us Zephaniah name, his pedigree, and the period when he delivered his message. Zephaniah, in Hebrew, is Sephenjab, which means “hidden” or “God has hidden him”. His pedigree was of the royal lineage of Hezekiah, the great grandfather of Josiah. It was during the days of Josiah, the son of Amon, king of Judah (640-609 BCE), that Zephaniah delivered his message.
Zephaniah was a child in a period of Judah's darkest history when the evil King Manasseh ruled for 55 years, defying God’s Law with child sacrifice and the worship of Asherah (2 Kings 21:6-7). From the meaning of his name, it might have been that Zephaniah was hidden by his mother to avoid being taken for child sacrifice. The weak King Amon took over after Manasseh's death, but he was assassinated after being only two years on the throne. Josiah, an eight-year-old boy, became king, but it was Hilkiah, the High Priest, who ruled Judah on his behalf (2 Kings 23). During this period, God sent Zephaniah, the prophet, to warn Judah that they should not sin, otherwise they would be exiled as the northern tribes of Israel had been.
The Bible scholar, J. Roberts, stated that Zephaniah 1:2 – 2:3 is about judgment against Judah/Jerusalem, Zephaniah 2:4 -15 is about judgment against nations, and Zephaniah 3:1-20 is about the judgment and deliverance for Jerusalem. Paul R. House, in his book, Zephaniah – A Prophetic Drama (1989) creatively suggested that the book is composed of three acts with multiple scenes that unfolds a drama starting from judgment on the Day of the Yahweh to a closing soliloquy with words of redemption (Zephaniah 3:18-20).
The English Standard Version Study Bible states that the theme of Zephaniah – one preached more consistently by him than by any other prophet – is about the “day of the LORD" (1;7, etc.). This approaching day shows two facets: one of judgment against those who sin against God, and one of blessing for those who follow him. In other words, God will show himself in both punishment and redemption.
A few prophets, contemporary to Zephaniah, show clearly the meaning of “the day of the Lord.”
Using an image of a devouring sword, Jer 46:10 refers to “the day of the Lord God of hosts" as the judgment of Egypt and promises the Lord's vengeance.
In Ezek 13:5; 30:3, false prophets did not prepare Israel for “the day of the LORD" (13:5) which is later portrayed as a "day of clouds" and a "time of doom" for the nations (30:3).
The image of "drinking continually" is used in Obad 15:16, to refer to the day of the LORD" as the judgment which is coming upon Edom and the nations although salvation is promised to God's people.
Finally, the prophet Malachi, in the last book of the Old Testament, refers to “the day of the Lord” as the coming of the Lord himself (Mal 4:5) as the messenger of the covenant (3:1), who brings justice, purifies worship and claims those who are his.
The Day of the Lord
In Exodus 15, Moses and the Israelites sang a song of liberation to celebrate their deliverance from Egypt. It refers to this day of the Lord when they were set free. And in remembrance of that day, Israel instituted the feast of Passover. However, as the rebellious Hebrew people continued to disobey God, the day of the Lord now refers to judgment and redemption.
Let us reflect on this message in the context of the issues in our daily life.
Are you living a life that is disobedient to the Lord like the Israelites, in idolatry, injustice, and immorality? Idolatry can refer to the worship of any other thing in the world (like wealth and power) instead of God. Do you love the world more than God? 1 John 2:15-16 reminds us:
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world.
Let us pause and reflected on our lives. Are we relentlessly pursuing the desires of the flesh to gather wealth? Are we proud of our educated minds so that we do not need God to help us? How about the passions of our hearts? The longing of many worldly things is among our heart's strongest desire, and we frequently fall into temptation, justifying our wanting physical pleasure, money and material success. In his book Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller speaks about such temptation:
The human heart takes good things like a successful career, love, material possessions, even family and turns them into ultimate things. Our hearts deify them as the center of our lives because, we think, they can give us significance and security, safety, and fulfillment, if we attain them. (Counterfeit Gods, xiv).
In the New Testament, Paul told the Corinthian church that the day of the Lord refers to the day of the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:8) in his second coming. And to the Thessalonians, Paul taught that Christ would gather his people unto him (2 Thes 2:1). Peter warned that on the appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ, the heaven will be set on fire and dissolved and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn, as we wait for the new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:12; Rev 21:1-2).
In Eph 1:7, Paul also taught: In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace.
Zephaniah's message of the day of the Lord also includes the call to repentance. Sin leads to the judgment of the Lord. But God loves us and longs to be compassionate and merciful to us when we repent – and He is always ready to redeem us.
“Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do his just commands; seek righteousness; seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the anger of the Lord. (2:3)”.
To seek the Lord means to repent from evil, having a change of heart to have godly desire. This is turning from sin and having, instead, a desire to please and obey God.
The Sunday Times of 11 Oct 2020 featured Anil David who had been in prison three times for various crimes. Yet, by the grace of God, he was redeemed and he set up Agape Conecting People, a contact center which hires ex-offenders. The business is now very successful and has won a slew of awards. Anil David testifies that it is God (Jesus Christ) from whom he gets strength, and who leads him in this pursuit. He regretted that he craved materials things like the 5Cs – cash, condo, car, credit card, and country club membership during his younger days. He made the wrong choices to get them, and they destroyed his life.
Zephaniah is a descendant of the royal house of David. He lived among the princes, the elite and the religious leaders. Therefore, his message was directed at them. He called them to repent from the evil they were committing against God and lead the Judeans back to God. Sadly, the Judeans did not (3:5b).
Despite Judah's unfaithfulness to Yahweh, the book closes with a message of redemption, a joyful call for Zion and Israel, and comfort to those who grieve (3:14-20).
The day of the Lord is also a time of deliverance and blessings to Israel and to all nations. This is the millennial reign of Christ on all the world's kingdom, when He will rule on earth (Rev 20:4-6) personally. The millennium will end with the judgement before the great white throne (Rev 20:11-15).
Let us believe in the second coming of Christ. The prophetic voice of the Risen Christ in Revelation 22:12-13; 20 echoes from two thousand years ago to the present and into eternity:
“Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
 J.J.M. Roberts, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah: A Commentary (OTL.: Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1991)