If the people of Judah in particular those in Jerusalem were relieved after hearing about how God will punish their enemies, they were in for a shock as God has not finished with them yet. Verse 3 depicts what we would term as a failed state where there is a complete breakdown in the institutions of governance. Instead of governing, they became tools of oppression. In verse 4 we see that the spiritual leaders were as bad as the civil leaders. All these happens because they have rebelled against God in ignoring Him, not trusting Him and distancing themselves from Him (vv.1-2).
In contrast to the sick condition of the people of Judah, Zephaniah reveals a God who is both righteous and just (v.5). In addition, He is a God who is compassionate by warning the people through His acts in history if only they are willing to learn (vv. 6-7). Verses 6 and 7 are strikingly similar to Amos 4:6-11 where God brought about one after another natural disasters and military defeat in the hope that the people of the northern kingdom, Israel, will repent. However, all these are met with the almost heartbreaking refrain, “yet you did not return to me” making God’s judgment inevitable. It was the same in the case of Judah (v.8).
The Psalmist says “ The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps. 103:8). Yes, slow to anger but not without anger. We need to be sensitive to the Spirit’s prompting and examine ourselves daily to see if we have in any way fallen away. Make David’s prayer in Ps. 139:23-24 our daily prayer. We take comfort in having a Father who will discipline us lovingly and not capriciously. We know that we will always be forewarned if only we are open to God’s leading.
Verse 9 marks the turning point of Zephaniah. God’s marvelous grace is revealed here. Left alone, we will never repent. Repentance starts with the work of God in the people themselves. The ten “I wills” from verses 9-20 shows God’s resoluteness in restoring His people.
The prophecy of Zephaniah starts with a message of judgment and ends with a message of hope and restoration. It reveals a God who is righteous and just, who will not tolerate sin but yet at the same time full of grace and mercy. Wrath and love met at the cross of Jesus Christ. Justice and mercy became reconciled at Calvary.