“Keep Yourselves in Expectation of Me”
“‘Therefore keep yourselves in expectation of me,’ is the utterance of Jehovah.”—ZEPHANIAH 3:8.
1. What warning was given by the prophet Zephaniah, and of what interest is this to people living today?
“THE great day of Jehovah is near.” This warning cry was uttered by the prophet Zephaniah in the middle of the seventh century B.C.E. (Zephaniah 1:14) Within 40 or 50 years, the prophecy was fulfilled when the day of executing Jehovah’s judgments came upon Jerusalem and upon those nations that had defied Jehovah’s sovereignty by mistreating his people. Why is this of interest to people living at the close of the 20th century? We are living at the time when Jehovah’s final “great day” is fast approaching. Just as in Zephaniah’s time, Jehovah’s “burning anger” is about to blaze against the modern-day equivalent of Jerusalem—Christendom—and all the nations that mistreat Jehovah’s people and defy his universal sovereignty.—Zephaniah 1:4; 2:4, 8, 12, 13; 3:8; 2 Peter 3:12, 13.
Zephaniah—A Courageous Witness
2, 3. (a) What do we know about Zephaniah, and what indicates that he was a courageous witness of Jehovah? (b) What facts enable us to locate the time and place of Zephaniah’s prophesying?
2 Little is known of the prophet Zephaniah, whose name (Hebrew, Tsephan·yahʹ) means “Jehovah Has Concealed (Treasured Up).” In contrast with other prophets, however, Zephaniah provided his genealogy to the fourth generation, back to “Hezekiah.” (Zephaniah 1:1; compare Isaiah 1:1; Jeremiah 1:1; Ezekiel 1:3.) This is so unusual that most commentators identify his great-great-grandfather as faithful King Hezekiah. If he was, then Zephaniah was of royal descent, and this would have added weight to his harsh condemnation of the princes of Judah and have shown that he was a courageous witness and prophet of Jehovah. His intimate knowledge of the topography of Jerusalem and of what was going on in the royal court suggests that he may have proclaimed Jehovah’s judgments in the capital itself.—See Zephaniah 1:8-11, footnotes.
3 Noteworthy is the fact that, while Zephaniah proclaimed divine judgments against the civil “princes” of Judah (nobles, or tribal chiefs) and “the sons of the king,” he never mentioned the king himself in his criticism.a (Zephaniah 1:8; 3:3) This suggests that young King Josiah had already shown a propensity for pure worship, although, in view of the situation decried by Zephaniah, obviously he had not yet started his religious reforms. All of this suggests that Zephaniah prophesied in Judah during the early years of Josiah, who reigned from 659 to 629 B.C.E. The energetic prophesying of Zephaniah undoubtedly heightened young Josiah’s awareness of the idolatry, violence, and corruption that prevailed in Judah at that time and encouraged his later campaign against idolatry.—2 Chronicles 34:1-3.
Reasons for Jehovah’s Burning Anger
4. In what words did Jehovah express his anger against Judah and Jerusalem?
4 Jehovah had good reason to feel anger toward the leaders and inhabitants of Judah and its capital city Jerusalem. Through his prophet Zephaniah, he stated: “I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and I will cut off from this place the remaining ones of the Baal, the name of the foreign-god priests along with the priests, and those who are bowing down upon the roofs to the army of the heavens, and those who are bowing down, making sworn oaths to Jehovah and making sworn oaths by Malcam.”—Zephaniah 1:4, 5.
5, 6. (a) What was the religious situation in Judah at the time of Zephaniah? (b) What was the condition of Judah’s civil leaders and their subordinates?
5 Judah was sullied with the degrading fertility rites of Baal worship, demonic astrology, and the worship of the pagan god Malcam. If Malcam is the same as Molech, as some suggest, then Judah’s false worship included the abominable sacrificing of children. Such religious practices were disgusting in Jehovah’s eyes. (1 Kings 11:5, 7; 14:23, 24; 2 Kings 17:16, 17) They incurred his wrath all the more so since the idolaters still made oaths in Jehovah’s name. He would no longer tolerate such religious uncleanness and would cut off pagan and apostate priests alike.
6 Moreover, Judah’s civil leaders were corrupt. Her princes were like rapacious “roaring lions,” and her judges were comparable to ravenous “wolves.” (Zephaniah 3:3) Their subordinates were accused of “filling the house of their masters with violence and deception.” (Zephaniah 1:9) Materialism was rife. Many were taking advantage of the situation to amass wealth.—Zephaniah 1:13.
Doubts About Jehovah’s Day
7. How long before “the great day of Jehovah” did Zephaniah prophesy, and what was the spiritual condition of many Jews?
7 As we have already seen, the disastrous religious situation that prevailed in Zephaniah’s day indicates that he carried out his work as witness and prophet before King Josiah began his campaign against idolatry, about 648 B.C.E. (2 Chronicles 34:4, 5) Likely, then, Zephaniah prophesied at least 40 years before “the great day of Jehovah” came upon the kingdom of Judah. In the interval, many Jews entertained doubts and ‘drew back’ from serving Jehovah, becoming indifferent. Zephaniah speaks of those who “have not sought Jehovah and have not inquired of him.” (Zephaniah 1:6) Evidently, individuals in Judah were apathetic, not troubling themselves about God.
8, 9. (a) Why would Jehovah inspect “men who are congealing upon their dregs”? (b) In what ways would Jehovah give attention to the inhabitants of Judah and their civil and religious leaders?
8 Jehovah made known his purpose to inspect those claiming to be his people. Among his professed worshipers, he would seek out those who in their hearts harbored doubts as to his ability or intention to intervene in human affairs. He stated: “It must occur at that time that I shall carefully search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will give attention to the men who are congealing upon their dregs and who are saying in their heart, ‘Jehovah will not do good, and he will not do bad.’” (Zephaniah 1:12) The expression “men who are congealing upon their dregs” (a reference to wine making) refers to those who have settled down, like dregs at the bottom of a vat, and who do not want to be disturbed by any proclamation of imminent divine intervention in the affairs of mankind.
9 Jehovah would give attention to the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem and to their priests who had mixed his worship with paganism. If they felt secure, as if under the cover of night within the walls of Jerusalem, he would seek them out as with bright lamps that would penetrate the spiritual darkness wherein they had taken refuge. He would shake them out of their religious apathy, first by awesome messages of judgment, then by executing those judgments.
“The Great Day of Jehovah Is Near”
10. How did Zephaniah describe “the great day of Jehovah”?
10 Jehovah inspired Zephaniah to proclaim: “The great day of Jehovah is near. It is near, and there is a hurrying of it very much. The sound of the day of Jehovah is bitter.” (Zephaniah 1:14) Bitter days indeed were ahead for everyone—priests, princes, and the people—who refused to heed the warning and return to pure worship. Describing that day of executing judgment, the prophecy continues: “That day is a day of fury, a day of distress and of anguish, a day of storm and of desolation, a day of darkness and of gloominess, a day of clouds and of thick gloom, a day of horn and of alarm signal, against the fortified cities and against the high corner towers.”—Zephaniah 1:15, 16.
11, 12. (a) What judgment message was pronounced against Jerusalem? (b) Would material prosperity save the Jews?
11 Within a few short decades, the armies of Babylon would invade Judah. Jerusalem would not escape. Its residential and business sections would be devastated. “‘There must occur on that day,’ is the utterance of Jehovah, ‘the sound of an outcry from the Fish Gate, and a howling from the second quarter, and a great crashing from the hills. Howl, you inhabitants of Maktesh [a section of Jerusalem], for all the people who are tradesmen have been silenced; all those weighing out silver have been cut off.’”—Zephaniah 1:10, 11, footnote.
12 Refusing to believe that Jehovah’s day was near, many Jews were deeply involved in lucrative business ventures. But through his faithful prophet Zephaniah, Jehovah foretold that their wealth would be “for pillage and their houses for a desolate waste.” They would not drink the wine they produced, and “neither their silver nor their gold [would] be able to deliver them in the day of Jehovah’s fury.”—Zephaniah 1:13, 18.
Other Nations Judged
13. What judgment message did Zephaniah pronounce against Moab, Ammon, and Assyria?
13 By means of his prophet Zephaniah, Jehovah also expressed his anger against nations that had mistreated his people. He declared: “‘I have heard the reproach by Moab and the abusive words of the sons of Ammon, with which they have reproached my people and kept putting on great airs against their territory. Therefore, as I am alive,’ is the utterance of Jehovah of armies, the God of Israel, ‘Moab herself will become just like Sodom, and the sons of Ammon like Gomorrah, a place possessed by nettles, and a salt pit, and a desolate waste, even to time indefinite. . . . And he will stretch out his hand toward the north, and he will destroy Assyria. And he will make Nineveh a desolate waste, a waterless region like the wilderness.’”—Zephaniah 2:8, 9, 13.
14. What evidence is there that foreign nations ‘put on great airs’ against the Israelites and their God, Jehovah?
14 Moab and Ammon were Israel’s traditional enemies. (Compare Judges 3:12-14.) The Moabite Stone, in the Louvre Museum in Paris, bears an inscription containing a boastful statement by Moabite King Mesha. He proudly relates his taking several Israelite cities with the help of his god Chemosh. (2 Kings 1:1) Jeremiah, a contemporary of Zephaniah, spoke of the Ammonites’ occupying the Israelite territory of Gad in the name of their god Malcam. (Jeremiah 49:1) As for Assyria, King Shalmaneser V had besieged and taken Samaria about a century before Zephaniah’s day. (2 Kings 17:1-6) A little later, King Sennacherib attacked Judah, took many of its fortified cities, and even threatened Jerusalem. (Isaiah 36:1, 2) The Assyrian king’s spokesman did indeed put on great airs against Jehovah when demanding Jerusalem’s surrender.—Isaiah 36:4-20.
15. How would Jehovah humiliate the gods of nations who had put on great airs against his people?
15 Psalm 83 mentions a number of nations, including Moab, Ammon, and Assyria, who put on great airs against Israel, and braggingly stated: “Come and let us efface them from being a nation, that the name of Israel may be remembered no more.” (Psalm 83:4) The prophet Zephaniah courageously announced that all these haughty nations and their gods would be humiliated by Jehovah of armies. “This is what they will have instead of their pride, because they reproached and kept putting on great airs against the people of Jehovah of armies. Jehovah will be fear-inspiring against them; for he will certainly emaciate all the gods of the earth, and people will bow down to him, each one from his place, all the islands of the nations.”—Zephaniah 2:10, 11.
“Keep Yourselves in Expectation”
16. (a) For whom was the approach of Jehovah’s day a source of joy, and why? (b) What rousing call went forth to this faithful remnant?
16 While spiritual lethargy, skepticism, idolatry, corruption, and materialism prevailed among the leaders and many of the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem, apparently some faithful Jews listened to Zephaniah’s warning prophecies. They were saddened by the abominable practices of Judah’s princes, judges, and priests. Zephaniah’s pronouncements were a source of comfort to these loyal ones. Far from being a cause for anguish, the approach of Jehovah’s day was a source of joy for them, because it would bring a halt to such detestable practices. This faithful remnant heeded Jehovah’s rousing call: “‘Therefore keep yourselves in expectation of me,’ is the utterance of Jehovah, ‘till the day of my rising up to the booty, for my judicial decision is to gather nations, for me to collect together kingdoms, in order to pour out upon them my denunciation, all my burning anger.’”—Zephaniah 3:8.
17. When and how did Zephaniah’s messages of judgment begin to be fulfilled upon the nations?
17 Those who heeded that warning were not taken by surprise. Many lived to see the fulfillment of Zephaniah’s prophecy. In 632 B.C.E., Nineveh was taken and destroyed by a coalition of Babylonians, Medes, and hordes from the north, probably Scythians. Historian Will Durant relates: “An army of Babylonians under Nabopolassar united with an army of Medes under Cyaxares and a horde of Scythians from the Caucasus, and with amazing ease and swiftness captured the citadels of the north. . . . At one blow Assyria disappeared from history.” This was exactly what Zephaniah had prophesied.—Zephaniah 2:13-15.
18. (a) How was divine judgment executed on Jerusalem, and why? (b) How was Zephaniah’s prophecy concerning Moab and Ammon fulfilled?
18 Many Jews who kept themselves in expectation of Jehovah also lived to see his judgments executed upon Judah and Jerusalem. Concerning Jerusalem, Zephaniah had prophesied: “Woe to her that is rebelling and polluting herself, the oppressive city! She did not listen to a voice; she did not accept discipline. In Jehovah she did not trust. To her God she did not draw near.” (Zephaniah 3:1, 2) Because of her unfaithfulness, Jerusalem was twice besieged by the Babylonians and finally taken and destroyed in 607 B.C.E. (2 Chronicles 36:5, 6, 11-21) As for Moab and Ammon, according to Jewish historian Josephus, in the fifth year after the fall of Jerusalem, the Babylonians waged war on them and conquered them. They subsequently ceased to exist, as prophesied.
19, 20. (a) How did Jehovah reward those who kept themselves in expectation of him? (b) Why do these events concern us, and what will be considered in the following article?
19 The fulfillment of these and other details of Zephaniah’s prophecy was a faith-strengthening experience for Jews and non-Jews who kept themselves in expectation of Jehovah. Among those who survived the destruction that befell Judah and Jerusalem were Jeremiah, the Ethiopian Ebed-melech, and the house of Jehonadab, the Rechabite. (Jeremiah 35:18, 19; 39:11, 12, 16-18) The faithful Jews in exile and their offspring, who continued to wait on Jehovah, became a part of the happy remnant who were delivered from Babylon in 537 B.C.E. and returned to Judah to reestablish pure worship.—Ezra 2:1; Zephaniah 3:14, 15, 20.
20 What does all of this mean for our time? In many ways the situation in Zephaniah’s day corresponds to the detestable things occurring today in Christendom. Moreover, the various attitudes of the Jews in those times bear a resemblance to attitudes that can be found today, sometimes even among Jehovah’s people. These are matters that will be taken up in the following article.
a It would appear that the expression “sons of the king” refers to all the royal princes, since Josiah’s own sons were very young at the time.
By Way of Review
◻ What was the religious situation in Judah in Zephaniah’s day?
◻ What conditions prevailed among the civil leaders, and what was the attitude of many of the people?
◻ How did nations put on great airs against Jehovah’s people?
◻ What warning did Zephaniah give to Judah and other nations?
◻ How were those who kept themselves in expectation of Jehovah rewarded?
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The Moabite Stone confirms that Moab’s King Mesha spoke reproachful words against ancient Israel
Moabite Stone: Musée du Louvre, Paris
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Supporting Zephaniah’s prophecy, this cuneiform tablet of the Babylonian Chronicle records Nineveh’s destruction by a coalition of armies
Cuneiform tablet: Courtesy of The British Museum