And He will stretch out His hand against the north,
And make Nineveh a desolation,
As dry as the wilderness.
– Zephaniah 2:4-9, 12-13 (NKJV)
I’ve grouped these verses together because they address the same thing: Judgment on Gentile (non-Jewish) people, specifically for their failure to support and embrace the people of God.
The nations named may represent all the Gentiles, since these nations correspond to the four points of the compass: Assyria (north), Cush (south), Moab and Ammon (east) and Phillistia (west). (1)
It feels a like narrative whiplash. The prophet has been chronicling Judah’s sins, their need for repentance and the judgment that will fall on them if they refuse. It’s almost as if God laid His hand on the man’s head and suddenly turned his neck in the opposite direction, forcing him to take in a new scene. Why?
…indicate(s) the sweeping nature of the coming storm. All will experience it, not only Judah, but also her ancient foes. (2)
We’ve moved from one layer of prophecy to another. Jumped from a narrow view to a wider view. No person who has ever existed has managed the escape the eyes of God. He sees all. Knows all.
Will judge all.
The Philistines entered Canaan from the west around 1200 B.C.,shortly after the Israelites had entered from the east. The two peoples struggled for control of the land, Philistia gaining the upper hand until the time of David. According to this oracle (2:4-7), the inhabitants will be totally destroyed… (3)
Who were these Philistines? The prevailing (but disputed) theory is that they originated somewhere in the Aegean Islands off the coast of Greece, with some pointing to Crete as the most likely springboard. According to Joshua 13:3 and 1 Samuel 6:17, their territory consisted of five cities (Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, Gath and Gaza), referred to as a pentapolis. Archaeological evidence, though not definitive, links them to the Mycenaeans, though whether they were the direct descendants of those who walked the halls of Knossos or were connected to and influenced by the “first Greeks” through trade is unknown. The discovery of a burial site near Ashkelon in July 2016 will shed further light on the shadowy origins of these most famous of Old Testament foes. (4)
We all know the name of one Philistine: Goliath, the giant, brought down by the faith (and the stone) of David, a teenaged shepherd who would go on to be Israel’s warrior-poet King. The books of 1 and 2 Samuel record additional struggles and interactions between the people of the coast and the people of the Promised Land. The funniest of these is found in 1 Samuel 5. In summary, the Philistines capture the Ark of the Covenant and mayhem breaks loose. (Just pause now and read it. Highly entertaining).
The Philistines remained a thorn in Israel’s side for so long because of the incomplete nature of the Conquest (the book of Joshua covers this period; the people were to utterly destroy every people group then occupying the Promised Land. It’s uncomfortable reading, both when they do as God commands and when they don’t. We have to remember that God’s ways aren’t our ways [Isaiah 55:9]. We don’t see things the way He does). They actively harassed God’s people, stealing their goods and livestock and oppressing them however they could.
They fall under judgment for their treatment of the Israelites, but also for their rejection of God. The Philistines lived around and among people who knew the truth for centuries. There is no doubt that they (in general) had to make an active, conscious decision about who they would worship and how they would live.
The conflict continues to play out today. We hear about it every time something happens in the Gaza Strip.
Moab and Ammon
Regarding these nations, the oracle
…indicts them for insulting and taunting the people of God. Israel and these two peoples who were the descendants of Lot through his daughters (Ge 19:30-38) had fought often through the centuries over the territory of Gilead. (5)
Nearly everything about Lot’s life as recorded in Genesis flies past the PG-13 mark. It’s hard to have sympathy for him. First, he’s greedy, taking the best of the land when given a choice by his uncle, the patriarch Abraham (Genesis 13). He then proceeds to get captured (Genesis 14) because he wasn’t exactly smart in choosing where to settle (Genesis 19). Lot gets a few points for recognizing God’s angels when they come to enact judgment upon Sodom (Genesis 19:1-2), but then he loses them when a crowd of men wants to rape the angels and he goes, “Nah, take my daughters instead.”
After fleeing Sodom (at which point his wife turns into a pillar of salt because she wasn’t exactly a paragon of awesomeness, either), he proceeds to get rip-roaring drunk and have sex with those same daughters. Now, I ask you: How drunk and stupid does a man have to be to have sex with his daughters?! They had kids by him, so the chances are good that this happened more than once. (And yes, the daughters are equally icky for initiating the whole thing).
Blame nature, blame nurture, blame whatever, but with a beginning like this, it’s not hugely surprising that the nations that developed from the men named Moab and Ben-Ammi were the way they were. I don’t doubt that their hatred for their Israelite cousins can be traced right to this spot. It’s not hard for me to imagine Lot sputtering and spitting about his more fortunate relative, poisoning future generations with bitterness. (This is, of course, conjecture and generalized. I could be very wrong).
The bright spot in Moab/Israel relations is recorded in the book of Ruth. That’s a story we ladies can cheer over and it doesn’t have anything to do with Boaz and romance. God used an unlikely woman from an unlikely place. She had a son named Obed, who had a son named Jesse, who had a son named David. Ruth, the peasant woman from Moab, is part of the lineage of Jesus Christ.
This nation was located in the upper Nile region. Some students think the references includes Egypt, another long-time enemy. (6)
Warren Weirsbe’s is not off-base in his assessment here. There are scant biblical references to actual interaction between Ethiopia (sometimes rendered Cush) and Israel, while Egypt’s animosity toward their former slaves is evident. There were times when one kingdom dominated the other; the struggle went back and forth for centuries. However, it is possible that this reference has something to do with Zephaniah’s ancestry.
We discussed previously that there is little known about the prophet himself. The reference to Hezekiah 1:1 could imply his belonging to the royal house. However, Zephaniah was “the son of Cushi” and
…there are at least four plausible reasons for naming someone Cushi: the individual was actually a Cushite from Cush; the individual had a Cushite mother, father or grandparent, and therefore looked like a Cushite; the individual had Judahite parents, but was born in Cush; or in the individual was named in honor of the Cushites, since they were a powerful military ally in the struggle against the Assyrians. (7)
Intriguing possibilities here. I am inclined to agree with those who believe that Zephaniah was a descendant of King Hezekiah, because it makes little sense that he would mention some random guy in the opening of his book. I think he was establishing credibility. But what if he had to establish that credibility because he was the result of forbidden intermarriage somewhere along the line? Or what if he was the son of traders or even ambassadors and was born afar off? There’s no way to know, but the idea that he had connections to this other, doomed nation makes the weight of his job even heavier somehow.
Assyria also is indicated for the sin of pride (vv. 13-15) as she declares that she alone exists with none (god? city?) like her (v. 15b). Her safety or security is falsely placed in her own military prowess. This is a challenge to the sovereignty of Yahweh, and he sentences her populous cities to be reduced to habitations of wild animals. (8)
The powerhouse of the region, Assyria had destroyed Judah’s kinsmen, the people of the kingdom of Israel. They killed as many as they could, deporting and marrying whoever was left. (This intermarriage would eventually bring about the Samaritan people who pop up so often during the life of Jesus).
Assyria was the region in the Near East which, under the Neo-Assyrian Empire, reached from Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) through Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and down through Egypt. (9)
The big kahunas. The bullies. The folks who produced Tiglath-Pileser, one of the greatest and simultaneously most brutal kings of ancient history. (Incidentally, Tiglath-Pileser would be an awesome name for a dog, if only it didn’t mean “my trust is in the son of Esharra/Ishara.” All these cool-sounding ancient names and their connections to false gods…). Jonah ran away and spent time inside a big fish rather than go to Nineveh and preach to these folks. That’s how bad they were and how deep the hatred was for what they did.
Around to Now
Each of these nations treated God’s people poorly. He brought each one to a crashing, never-to-recover-from end. Yes, people still live in those areas, but never again have they risen to dominance. They chose to reject God. They chose to harm His people. He responded.
How do the Gentile nations of 2016 treat the people of Israel?
What I’m about to write will offend some of you, so prepare yourselves: There are deep and lasting consequences for refusing to support Israel. The Palestinians do not have a right to rule that land. Islamic nations and peoples do not have the right to murder Jews. This does not mean that the Palestinians should be homeless or that Muslims should be exterminated. Far from it. What this does mean is that God is a covenant-keeper. He gave that slice of earth to Abraham and his descendants. The literal children of Abraham own the Promised Land. They have no forfeited their right to it because of their (general and, I believe, temporary) rejection of Messiah. The covenant is completely dependent upon God. (True story – read Genesis 15. Abraham slept through the whole thing). The spiritual children of Abraham must rally around them. The nations of the earth would do well to champion the little nation that could.
I abhor war and violence. My support for Israel does not mean that I agree with every stance and action of the government. I believe that any Palestinian who wishes to live peacefully and chooses to submit to Israeli leadership should be left in peace. Really, I think that’s probably what the average Jewish citizen of Israel, tired of bombs and guns and fear, wants as well.
In Acts 7, Stephen is stoned to death, becoming the first Christian martyr. A man named Saul witnessed the event, approving of it, holding people’s coats so they could throw better. In Acts 9, this same Saul is struck blind, falling from his mount to the hard ground below. He hears,
“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”
– 4b (NKJV)
It is God Himself speaking. He takes the troubles of His children personally. I don’t believe that God has given up on the Jewish people. I don’t believe that He has abandoned them. Surely He feels their troubles as keenly as He does those of the Gentile Christian. And surely this is a fiercesome thing indeed.
I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go into the house of the LORD.”
Our feet have been standing
Within your gates, O Jerusalem!
Jerusalem is built
As a city that is compact together,
Where the tribes go up,
The tribes of the LORD,
To the Testimony of Israel,
To give thanks to the name of the LORD.
For thrones are set there for judgment,
The thrones of the house of David.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
Prosperity within your palaces.”
For the sake of my brethren and companions,
I will now say, “Peace be within you.”
Because of the house of the LORD our God
I will seek your good.
– Psalm 122 (NKJV)
- Why do you think there is such a long history of the world, in general, hating the Jewish people? Where and how have you seen this hatred expressed? (The Holocaust is of course a glaring and horrifying example, but try to think more broadly).
- Is God right to judge nations for how they treat Israel? Don’t head for the Sunday school answer of “yes.” What do you really think?
- Read Romans 9-11. Contrary to some teaching, these chapters are not about the Church, and they are about far more than the doctrine of election. There is one road of salvation, and it is plainly paved with the blood of Christ, but has God given up on Israel? Has He turned His back on her?
- What is your stance on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? If you’ve never really thought about it before, take some time now and do some reading. Then do as the psalmist says and pray for the peace of Jerusalem.
- Read Zephaniah 2. What stands out to you?
(1) Warren Weirsbe. Be Concerned: Minor Prophets. (David C. Cook: Colorado Springs, 1996), 150.
(2) Asbury Bible Commentary
(4) Discovery of Philistine Cemetery May Solve Biblical Mystery
(5) Asbury Bible Commentary
(6) Weirsbe, 151.
(7) From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race
(8) Asbury Bible Commentary
(9) Ancient Assyria
For all entries in The LORD Your God in Your Midst series, go here.