by Rev. David A. Moffat

The prophecy of Zephaniah is a small book (three short chapters). It is the ninth in the collection known as the minor prophets: “minor” in the sense of being short, rather than unimportant, although in Zephaniah’s case nothing of what he wrote is quoted (in the way that Micah’s prophecy of the coming Messiah is – Micah 5:2) or even particularly memorable (in the way that Jonah’s story is, or Zechariah’s visions are). It is even thought of as not particularly original, quoting images and phrases from the better known prophets with whom he was a contemporary. It could easily be described as a forgotten book.

The name Zephaniah means, “The Lord hides or protects”, which reminds me of words of the Psalms that I have a particular fondness for: “Keep me as the apple of Your eye; Hide me under the shadow of Your wings, …” (Psalm 17:8, see also 36:7, 57:1, 63:7). It is a beautiful and encouraging image.

It is thought (but by no means proven) that Zephaniah was descended from Hezekiah, king of Judah (see 2 Kings 18-20). A Hezekiah is certainly mentioned in the genealogy given in the opening verse (in itself, an unusual feature of a prophecy), which may well be included to add weight to the prophet’s words, and the book is said to demonstrate a knowledge of the prevailing political scene and conventions of the court.

The prophecy addresses the Kingdom of Judah in the reign of Josiah (640-609 BC, see 2 Kings 22, 23), one of the (few) good kings of Judah. Given this, it seems strange that the prophecy is one of judgment. Perhaps it was written before Josiah’s programme of reforms, before the discovery of the book of the law in the temple, or perhaps those reforms were not completely effective. The story, as it is told in the second book of kings, certainly makes it clear that the threat of destruction is not averted, only postponed.

Zephaniah writes of judgement upon Judah and its neighbours – particularly their adherence to unauthorised religious practices – and the future restoration of a humble remnant. Chapter 1 is primarily concerned with Judah itself. Chapter 2 dwells largely on surrounding nations: the Philistines in the West, Moab and Ammon to the East, Cush to the South and Northern Assyria. Chapter 3 begins with a focus upon Jerusalem and goes on to the promised restoration.

Given its brevity, the book is easy to read in a single sitting, and the lessons it contains are important ones for gaining an appreciation of the Bible as a whole. Consider the second verse of chapter one: the New International Version (NIV) renders it: “I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” declares the LORD.

However, the King James chooses the words, “I will utterly consume all things from off the land, saith the LORD.”

Both may be considered justifiable translations of the original text, however, you will appreciate that in English, the common perceptions of the words “earth” and “land” make the difference between a local disaster and a global catastrophe. There are indeed different words for these in the Hebrew, as we shall see later, but they are often treated merely as synonyms. This in itself is a warning against arriving at quick, literal conclusions based solely upon English translations of the Word.

Whatever the case, it is impossible take this verse literally, given that the book continues to talk about any kind of restoration following this calamity. It points to the fact that much of this sort of language in Scripture is hyperbole at the very least, and more likely the home of a deep symbolism.

Swedenborg writes, “When a person has become regenerate he is no longer called the earth but the ground [or ‘land’], the reason being that celestial seeds have been planted within him. Various other statements in the Word compare him to the ground and actually call him the ground. It is the external man, that is, his affection and memory, in which the seeds of good and truth are planted, … and when these are seemingly present no longer, he is in that case an external, that is, a bodily-minded person.” (Arcana Caelestia, paragraph 268)

It’s interesting, then, that Zephaniah 1:2 speaks of the destruction of the “land”, where later verses refer to “earth” instead (see 1:18, 2:11, 3:8). It suggests that the subject of the book is in fact the far-reaching consequences of spiritual degradation – that we see the destruction of all security, comfort and hope as we recede from the love and worship of the Lord – and that the Lord Himself protects within us what is valuable to Him and ultimately restores it, when we ourselves see the depravity we have sunk to.

I’m also interested to see reference to Gaza (chapter 2, verse 4) in the light of contemporary troubles in that region, and it shows how conservative Jews might view the conflict with their Palestinian neighbours: “The coast shall be for the remnant of the house of Judah.” (verse 7) Of course, that presupposes that the current nation of Israel is that remnant: “… a meek and humble people, And they shall trust in the name of the LORD. The remnant of Israel shall do no unrighteousness And speak no lies, Nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouth; For they shall feed their flocks and lie down, And no one shall make them afraid.” (chapter 3, verses 12 & 13). Again, I draw from this a caution against literalistic interpretations, especially those that drive us to political or geographical conclusions. If this book were to be literally fulfilled we can’t choose between one or the other.

Nowhere are we instructed to draw geopolitical boundaries based upon the revealed Word of God. As Paul wrote, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (‭2 Timothy‬ ‭3‬:‭16-17‬)

“With what shall I come before the LORD, And bow myself before the High God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, With calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, Ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:6-8)

2:15 complacency akin to 1:12

3:9 “to serve him with one shoulder”

3:12 promised future state of the people.

AC 117 – Cush [Ethiopia]
AC 1565 – flocks
AR 624 – deceitful tongue
AC 2712 – dwelling
AC 991 – fish of the sea

AC 268. That ‘the ground’ means the external man becomes clear from what has been stated already about earth, ground, and field. When a person has become regenerate he is no longer called the earth (776) but the ground (125), the reason being that celestial seeds have been planted within him. Various other statements in the Word compare him to the ground and actually call him the ground. It is the external man, that is, his affection and memory, in which the seeds of good and truth are planted, not his internal man, for the internal does not have within it anything that is man’s own, but only the external. Within the internal there are goods and truths, and when these are seemingly present no longer, he is in that case an external, that is, a bodily-minded person. In actual fact they have been stored away by the Lord within the internal man without his knowing it; for they do not emerge until the external man so to speak dies, which normally happens in times of temptation, misfortune, sickness, and the hour of death. The rational too belongs to the external man, see 118, and in itself is a kind of go-between for the internal man and the external, for the internal man operates by way of the rational into the bodily external. But once the rational concedes, it separates the external man from the internal, so that neither the existence of the internal man is known any longer, nor consequently what intelligence and wisdom are, which belong to the internal man.

AC 90. ‘Earth’ [776 “erets”] is the external man while he was spiritual; ‘ground’ [125 “adamah”], and ‘field’ as well, is his external man when he is becoming celestial.

“The happiest life is from love to the Lord and to the neighbour, because the Divine Itself flows into it … The most unhappy life is from the love of self and of the world because hell flows into it.” (AC 3539.4)

AC 3539.2-6
The end in view of regeneration is that a person may be made new as regards his internal man, and so as regards the soul or spirit. But he is unable to be made new or be regenerated as regards that internal man without also being made new as regards the external man. For although a person becomes a spirit after death he nevertheless takes with him into the next life those things that belong to his external man, namely natural affections, also matters of doctrine, as well as factual knowledge; in short he takes with him everything belonging to the exterior or natural memory, see 2475-2483. Indeed these things form the groundwork on which his interiors ultimately rest. The disposition of those exterior things therefore determines what the interior become when these latter enter into the former, for within those exterior things they undergo modification. From this it is evident that a person has to be regenerated or made new not only as regards the internal or rational man but also as regards the external or natural man. Except for this there would not be any correspondence. Regarding the correspondence that exists between the internal man and the spiritual things belonging to the internal man with the external man and the natural things belonging to the external man, see 2987, 2989-2991, 3002, 3493.

[3] The state of man’s regeneration is described in the representative sense in this chapter as Esau and Jacob. At this point the nature of the first stage of that state is described, that is to say, when a person is being regenerated or before he has become regenerated. In fact this state is the complete reverse of the state in which a person has become regenerate. Indeed in the former state, that is to say, when a person is being regenerated or before he has become regenerated, things of the understanding, which are those of truth, seemingly take the lead; but once he has become regenerate those of the will, which are those of good, do so. The fact that things of the understanding or of truth seemingly take the lead in the first state was represented by Jacob claiming for himself Esau’s birthright – see 3325, 3336 – and then claiming his blessing, the subject under discussion here. And the fact that the state is the complete reverse of the regenerate state is represented by Jacob’s impersonating Esau, that is to say, being dressed in Esau’s clothes and with the skins of the kids of the she-goats. Indeed in this state rational truth has not yet been so joined to rational good, or what amounts to the same, the understanding has not been so joined to the will, as to flow and act into the natural and set in order the things that are so reversed there.

[4] This also becomes clear from much experience, in particular from this. A person is able to discern in his understanding, and from this the natural is able to know many things that are good and true, but the will is unable as yet to act in accordance with those things. Take for example the truth that love and charity are the essential thing with a human being. He is able to see and confirm this in his understanding, but until he has been regenerated he is unable to acknowledge it in his will. There are also people totally lacking in love to the Lord and in charity towards the neighbour who can well grasp this truth. The same applies to the truth that love is the very life of man, and that the nature of his life is determined by that of his love; also the truth that all delight and all pleasantness stem from love, as do all gladness and all happiness, where again the nature of the love determines that of the gladness and the happiness. A person is also able to grasp in his understanding, even though the will disagrees with it or even opposes it, the truth that the happiest life originates in love to the Lord and love towards the neighbour because the Divine itself is flowing into that life, and conversely that the unhappiest life originates in self-love and love of the world because hell is flowing into that life.

[5] Consequently the understanding, but not the will, is able to perceive the truth that love to the Lord is the life of heaven, and that mutual love is the soul from that life. In the measure therefore that a person does not think from the life of his [unregenerate] will, and does not reflect on his own life from there, he perceives that truth in his understanding; but in the measure that he does think from the life of his [unregenerate] will he does not perceive it, indeed he refuses to believe it. It may also be perfectly clear to a person in his understanding that it is into humility, if it exists in him, that the Divine is able to enter, because in that state of humility self-love and love of the world, and therefore hellish things which stand in the way, are removed. But as long as his will is not a new will, and his understanding is not united to this, no humility of heart can exist in a person. Indeed, in the measure that a person leads an evil life, that is, in the measure that his will is bent on evil, such humility cannot be there in him, and also the truth spoken of above is unclear to him and he refuses to believe it. Therefore a person may also be able to perceive in his understanding that when humility is present in someone it is not there for the sake of a love of glory in the Lord but for the sake of Divine Love, in which case the Lord is able to enter in with goodness and truth and bring blessing and happiness to that person. But to the extent that the will is consulted, this truth is obscured. And the same is so with very many other circumstances.

[6] This ability of being able to understand what good and truth is even though he does not will it has been conferred on man to enable him to be reformed and regenerated. For this reason this ability exists with evil and good alike; indeed the ability is sometimes keener with the evil. But there is this difference – with the evil no affection for truth exists for the sake of life, that is, for the sake of the good of life which originates in truth, and so they are not capable of being reformed. But with the good there does exist the affection for truth for the sake of life, that is, for the sake of the good of life, and so they are capable of being reformed. The first state in the reformation of the latter however is a state in which truth taught by doctrine seems to them to be primary, and the good of life secondary, since truth is the source of their good actions. But their second state is a state in which the good of life is primary and truth taught by doctrine secondary, since good, that is, the will for good, is the source of their good actions. And when this is the case, because the will is joined to the understanding as in a marriage, the person is regenerate. These two states are the subject in the internal sense in these incidents involving Esau and Jacob.

TCR 694 – [WHOLE PARA IS WORTH READING] … “Eternal rest,” he said, “is not idleness, for idleness produces languor, sluggishness, numbness and drowsiness of the mind, and consequently of the whole body; and these are death, not life, much less the eternal life which the angels of heaven enjoy. Eternal rest, therefore, is a rest that dispels these states and enables a man to live; and it is only this that elevates the mind. It consists therefore in some pursuit or occupation by which the mind is aroused, quickened and delighted; and this follows according to the use from which, in which and for which the work is performed. Thus the whole heaven is viewed by the Lord as a sphere of uses, and every angel is an angel according to his use. The delight of use bears him along as a favorable current does a ship, causing him to be in eternal peace, and in the rest of peace. This is the meaning of eternal rest from labors. …”

AC 5949.2 – Man should care for the soul (only) for the sake of the uses it must perform in both worlds…!

AC 3645 – the Lord’s kingdom is a kingdom of uses. (HH 112; HH 387; DP 26 [over both heaven and hell]; CL 7.3; The Spiritual World is …AC 9828)

Jesus said to him,” ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)