Leading Question: What was happening in Jerusalem that made Zephaniah’s warning of the coming “Day of the Lord” so urgent?
Zephaniah’s Day. The first verse of Zephaniah identifies the reign of Josiah as the time when Zephaniah ministered to the Kingdom of Judah. Josiah was the king who initiated the great reform of 621 during which the book of the law was re-discovered in the temple.
Some 80 years before Josiah, King Hezekiah had celebrated a great Passover in Jerusalem. But now, as described in 2 Chronicles 34, the temple had been virtually abandoned and Josiah set about a great reform, part of which involved discovering the book of the law. Note the chronology:
He was 8 years old when he began to reign (34:1) but did not begin to seek the Lord until he was 16 years old (34:3).
After taking Bible studies for 4 years, he finally decides to clean out the signs of Canaanite worship in the city. He was now 20 (34:3).
After six more years when he would have been 26, he decided it was time to clean out the temple. And that’s when they found the book of the law, probably a copy of Deuteronomy. Everyone, including the king was horrified.
Question: What does all this tell us about the status of true religion in the land of Judah?
Day of the Lord. Zephaniah is part of this potentially discouraging religious scene and delivers a fiery, passionate warning about the coming “Day of the Lord.” Does Zephaniah give us any clue about the timing of the “Day of the Lord?” Note these clues:
It is described as being “very near” (1:7, 14).
It is described in universal terms: “I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth” (1:2); “when I destroy all mankind on the face of the earth” (1:3); “distress on all people” (1:17); “the whole world will be consumed (3:8).
It focuses on Judah and her contemporaries: Judah and Jerusalem (2:1-3; 3:1-8); Philistia (2:4-7); Moab and Ammon (2:8-11); Cush (2:12); Assyria (2:13-15).
The day of the Lord is followed by the restoration of Judah and Jerusalem (3:9-20).
Question: If the day of the Lord is local and focused on Jerusalem in Zephaniah’s day, how can it also refer to the end of the world when Jesus returns?
Note: The answer to that question arises a knowledge of how “Day of the Lord” is used throughout the prophetic books of the Old Testament. In short, it always refers to a local event in the very near future. And the heavenly signs that were so prominent in the book of Joel are almost always part of that “Day of the Lord” with an immediate local application.
Conclusion: These local events (judgments) prefigure a larger final judgment, but a judgment that is rarely glimpsed in the books of the Old Testament.
A Survey of the “Day of the Lord” in the Prophetic Books and in the New Testament
Key biblical passages: “Day of the Lord” (and related terms)
The view from the New Testament: In Matthew 24-25, Jesus warns us not to be focused too much on events because the coming will be a surprise. Do the passages in Zephaniah (and elsewhere in the prophets) make it sound like the “Day of the Lord” is some distant event, or is it very near?
The view from Adventist history. In the context of Adventist history, the Great Disappointment of 1844 taught Adventists the great danger of predicting the time of the Advent. In 1883, nearly forty years after the Disappointment, Ellen White, penned these striking words for those who thought the long wait was a problem:
“The angels of God in their messages to men represent time as very short. Thus it has always been presented to me. It is true that time has continued longer than we expected in the early days of this message. Our Saviour did not appear as soon as we hoped. But has the Word of the Lord failed? Never! It should be remembered that the promises and the threatenings of God are alike conditional.” – MS 4, 1883, 1SM 73 [Evangelism, 695]
C. S. Lewis, with reference to the Advent hope in the New Testament sounds a similar warning about the dangers of trying to predict just when the advent might be:
“We must never speak to simple, excitable people about ‘the day’ without emphasizing again and again the utter impossibility of prediction. We must try to show them that the impossibility is an essential part of the doctrine. If you do not believe our Lord’s words, why do you believe in his return at all? And if you do believe them must you not put away from you, utterly and forever, any hope of dating that return? His teaching on the subject quite clearly consisted of three propositions. (1) That he will certainly return. (2) That we cannot possibly find out when. (3) And that therefore we must always be ready for him.” – “The World’s Last Night” in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays,107
In the same essay, Lewis also has something to say about the role of fear in our waiting:
“Perfect love, we know casteth out fear. But so do several others things – ignorance, alcohol, passion, presumption, and stupidity. It is very desirable that we should all advance to that perfection of love in which we shall fear no longer; but it is very undesirable, until we have reached that stage, that we should allow any inferior agent to cast out our fear.” – WLN, 109
The role of “fear” motivation in our day. So what role should fear play in our preparation for the return of Jesus?