One of Banu’s observations (and complaints) about movies that take place in the future, especially those of an alleged post-apocalyptic nature, is that they tend to be too dark. They’re too dark—not only in theme, but sometimes literally too dark. There’s not enough light to see what’s going on!
Hollywood would have fun with Zephaniah. Talk about dark! There’s enough gloom and graphic violence to make Alien and Predator look like Beauty and the Beast! Of course, the Hollywood definition of “apocalypse” seems to always focus on terror and torment, as opposed to the actual biblical sense, which is “revealing” or “uncovering.”
With the prophet Zephaniah, we have a man who, in many ways, might seem to fit the misunderstanding of apocalypse as death and destruction. There is good reason for that to be the case: his almost single-minded focus on the day of Yahweh, the day of the Lord. He doesn’t invent the idea—it goes back centuries, maybe as far back as the so-called holy wars of Joshua.
The day of the Lord came to be seen as the moment when God would intervene on behalf of Israel, defeating all their enemies. As the centuries went on, and bigger boys like the Assyrians and Babylonians started throwing their weight around, this was a day more and more people yearned for.
A century before Zephaniah, in a case of “be careful what you wish for,” the prophet Amos warns those “who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light” (5:18). Don’t be so smug, Amos says. Don’t assume that day will only be bad news for your enemies. As corrupt as you are, do you think you’ll escape unscathed?
Eventually, the day of the Lord became infused with messianic expectation. That’s one big reason why so many became disillusioned with Jesus. They thought he would lead them in getting rid of the biggest boys yet, the Romans.
Zephaniah says some things that, to our ears, probably sound quite strange. For example, in verse 8, the prophet criticizes government officials “and all who dress themselves in foreign attire,” “clothed with foreign apparel.” [I guess he wouldn’t be impressed by Versace.]
Zephaniah doesn’t intend that to be a fashion statement. He isn’t imitating the “Best and Worst Dressed” at the Oscars! Elizabeth Achtemeier points out that “as a vassal [a puppet state] of Assyria, the leaders of Judah have accommodated their ways to those of a foreign culture… Assyria’s ways have become Judah’s ways, and Assyria’s customs hers.”
Verse 9 has something that sounds equally bizarre. There is a promise to “punish all who leap over the threshold.” Again, Zephaniah isn’t interested in auditions for “Dancing with the Stars.” It’s about superstition concerning evil spirits who dwell in doorways and must be avoided.
Anyway, with these comments, the prophet isn’t criticizing foreign ways simply because they are foreign. The problem is that—as it seems every generation must learn—serving God isn’t just about following certain procedures in worship.
Zephaniah reminds the people that their God is an ethical God. That is, serving their God requires that they chose between right and wrong, that how they treat each other makes all the difference. That’s why he gets on their case about all the “violence and fraud” (v. 9).
One of these days, says the prophet, it’s all going to catch up with you. It’s later than you think! Verse 14 says: “The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast.” In verses 15 to 18, he reels off a laundry list of gruesome things on the way. Verse 17 is especially lovely. For those who “have sinned against the Lord, their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like refuse” (NKJV). That last word is literally translated as “dung.”
Nobody can accuse him of trying to sugar coat his message!
Still, as with other prophets, Zephaniah isn’t all doom and gloom. The bad news is followed by good news. The discipline of the Lord means a lead to restoration. We hear in chapter 2: “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do his commands; seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the Lord’s wrath” (v. 3).
There’s a common misperception about what’s called the wrath of God. It’s not some “arbitrary outburst, like the unpredictable anger of a parent who lashes out at his children.” Far from it, says Dan Clendenin. “Divine judgment is equitable and even merciful in that, like a loving parent, it demonstrates that God has not given up on me, that [God] is not done with me.”
With the day of the Lord, Zephaniah and the other prophets are doing something revolutionary. Klaus Koch says, “For the first time [ever], human beings dared to make hope the foundation of their…theology. The prophets therefore brought a futuristic turn into the thinking of following centuries.” People started to believe that God’s actions are by necessity pointing toward the future.
“My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”
And that fits perfectly into the Easter season. We have gone from Good Friday, the crucifixion (when all hope is lost) to the resurrection (when hope against hope is reborn). We have gone from dark to light. It comes in the most unusual of ways.
In Terry Hershey’s book, Sanctuary: Creating a Space for Grace in Your Life, he tells a story of going to Atlanta for a meeting of Spiritual Directors International.
Having some spare time, he goes to get a haircut. He engages in small talk with Sharon, the hairdresser. It progresses a little further, and he talks about his father, who survived cancer. She tells him that, like his father, she also is a cancer survivor.
Hershey says he told her “I’m sorry.” He asked, “‘When did you learn about the cancer, and what kind of treatment did you go through?’ ‘I had the whole nine yards.’ She laughs. ‘Surgery. And then more surgery and then chemo.’ We are quiet, except for the sound of scissors. ‘It’s the best thing that ever happened to me,’ she adds…
“‘It has made me softer,’ she tells me. ‘And now, I love different.’”
He concludes, “After the conference someone asked me, ‘What did you do there?’ Well, I got a haircut. And I felt my heart soften just a little.”
I imagine some of you have had similar experiences. I mentioned during the discussion of the book that, with my own experience of cancer, I (humorously) divided my life into BC and AD: “before cancer” and “after diagnosis.” And I think I can agree with Sharon to some extent. It’s probably not the best thing that’s ever happened to me, but it is right up there. It opened to me a new world of understanding about people with physical, mental, and emotional ailments.
It is indeed a question of going from the dark into the light. Perhaps it’s having hope shape the future.
We’re so used to the idea of hope—be it hope fulfilled or hope denied—that we don’t understand what a leap in the evolution of human thought it is. With the day of the Lord, and the messianic dream it inspired, people began to believe that the world itself could be transformed into something new. And not only the world, but people themselves could be transformed.
Is it possible we’ve forgotten how to have that hope—or possibly to recognize it when it knocks on our door? How much are we like those poor souls Zephaniah speaks of? You know, the confident and self-satisfied ones, “those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm’” (v. 12).
In The Message, Eugene Peterson put his own spin on verse 12. On the day of the Lord, there’s a promise to “punish those who are sitting it out, fat and lazy, amusing themselves and taking it easy, Who think, ‘God doesn’t do anything, good or bad. He isn’t involved, so neither are we.’”
Is there anything that we, in fact, might be too confident about? What might the day of the Lord be calling us to?
Perhaps we all have our “day of wrath”… our “day of clouds and thick darkness”… our “day of trumpet blast and battle cry” (vv. 15-16). Still, the day of the Lord calls us to not abandon hope. Hope is calling our name and leading us on. Though we travel through darkness and gloom, the glory of the sun will yet break forth. Zephaniah ends his book on, well, a lighter note!
“On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (3:16-17).
The darkness of that day gives way to light.
 Elizabeth Achtemeier, Nahum-Malachi (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1986), 68.
 גּּלֶל (gelel)
 Klaus Koch, The Prophets: The Assyrian Period (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), 163.
 Terry Hershey, Sanctuary: Creating a Space for Grace in Your Life (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2015), Kindle edition, Chapter 2, section 3, paragraph 7.
 Hershey, 2.3.10
 Hershey, 2.3.18