Calvin, Commentary on Zephaniah, Part 1

(... continued from part A)
Commentaries on the Prophet Zephaniah 
Chapter 1. 
Lecture One Hundred and Eighteenth 
Zephaniah 1:1 
The word of the LORD which came unto Zephaniah the son of Cushi, the 
son of Gedaliah, the son of Amariah, the son of Hizkiah, in the days 
of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah 
    Zephaniah first mentions the time in which he prophesied; it 
was under the king Josiah. The reason why he puts down the name of 
his father Amon does not appear to me. The Prophet would not, as a 
mark of honor, have made public a descent that was disgraceful and 
infamous. Amon was the son of Manasseh, an impious and wicked king; 
and he was nothing better than his father. We hence see that his 
name is recorded, not for the sake of honor, but rather of reproach; 
and it may have been that the Prophet meant to intimate, what was 
then well known to all, that the people had become so obdurate in 
their superstitions, that it was no easy matter to restore them to a 
sound mind. But we cannot bring forward anything but conjecture; I 
therefore leave the matter without pretending to decide it. 
    With regard to the pedigree of the Prophet, I have mentioned 
elsewhere what the Jews affirm - that when the Prophets put down the 
names of their fathers, they themselves had descended from Prophets. 
But Zephaniah mentions not only his father and grandfather, but also 
his great-grandfather and his great-great-grandfather; and it is 
hardly credible that they were all Prophets, and there is not a word 
respecting them in Scripture. I do not think, as I have said 
elsewhere, that such a rule is well-founded; but the Jews in this 
case, according to their manner, deal in trifles; for in things 
unknown they hesitate not to assert what comes to their minds, 
though it may not have the least appearance of truth. It is possible 
that the father, grandfather, the great-grandfather, and the 
great-great-grandfather of the Prophet, were persons who excelled in 
piety; but this also is uncertain. What is especially worthy of 
being noticed is - that he begins by saying that he brought nothing 
of his own, but faithfully, and, as it were, by the hand, delivered 
what he had received from God. 
    With regard, then, to his pedigree, it is a matter of no great 
moment; but it is of great importance to know that God was the 
author of his doctrine, and that Zephaniah was his faithful 
minister, who introduced not his own devices, but was only the 
announcer of celestial truth. Let us now proceed to the contents - 
Zephaniah 1:2,3 
I will utterly consume all [things] from off the land, saith the 
I will consume man and beast; I will consume the fowls of the 
heaven, and the fishes of the sea, and the stumblingblocks with the 
wicked; and I will cut off man from off the land, saith the LORD 
    It might seem at the first view that the Prophet dealt too 
severely in thus fulminating against his own nation; for he ought to 
have begun with doctrine, as this appears to be the just order of 
things. But the Prophet denounces ruin, and shows at the same time 
why God was so grievously displeased with the people. We must 
however remember, that the Prophet, living at the same period with 
Jeremiah, had regard to the stubbornness of the people, who had been 
already with more than sufficient evidence proved to have been 
guilty. Hence he darts forth as of a sudden and denounces the 
wickedness of the people, which had been already exposed; so there 
was to be no more contention on the subject, for their iniquity had 
become quite ripe. And no doubt it was ever the object of the 
Prophets to unite their endeavors so as to assist one another: and 
this united effort ought ever to be among all the servants of God, 
that no one may do anything apart, but with joined efforts they may 
promote the same object, and at the same time strive mutually to 
confirm the common truth. This is what our Prophet is now doing. 
    He knew that God would have used various means to restore them, 
had not the corruption of the people become now past recovery. 
Having observed that all others had spent their labour in vain, he 
directly attacks the wicked men who had, as it were designedly, cast 
aside every fear of God, and shook off every shame. Since, then, it 
was openly evident that with determined rebellion they resisted God, 
it was no wonder that the Prophet began with so much severity. 
    But here a difficulty meets us. He said in the first verse, 
that he thus spoke under Josiah; but we know that the land was then 
cleansed from its superstitions. For we learn, that when that pious 
king attained manhood, he labored most strenuously to restore the 
pure worship of God; and when all places were full of wicked 
superstitions, he not only constrained the tribe of Judah to adopt 
the true worship of God, but he also stimulated his neighbors who 
had remained and were dispersed through the land of Israel. Since, 
then, the pious king had strenuously and courageously promoted the 
interest of true religion, it seems a wonder that God was still so 
much displeased. But we must remember, that though Josiah sincerely 
worshipped God, yet the people were not really changed; for it has 
often happened, that God roused the chief men and leaders, while 
few, or hardly any, followed them, but only yielded a feigned 
obedience. This was no doubt the case in the time of Josiah; the 
hearts of the people were alienated from God and true religion, so 
that they chose rather to rot in their filth than to return to the 
true worship of God. And that this was the case soon appeared by the 
event; for Josiah did not reign long after he had cleansed the land 
from its defilements, and Jehoahaz succeeded him; and then the 
people immediately relapsed into their idolatry; and though for 
three months only his successor reigned, yet true religion was in 
that short time abolished. It is hence an obvious conclusion, that 
the people had ever been wedded to impiety, and that its roots were 
hidden in their hearts; though they apparently pretended to worship 
God, and, in order to please the king, embraced the worship divinely 
prescribed in their law; yet the event proved that it was a mere act 
of dissimulation, yea, of perfidy. Then after Jehoahaz followed 
Jehoiakim, and no better was their condition down to the time of 
Zedekiah; in short, no remedy could be found for their unhealable 
    It hence plainly appears, that though Josiah made use of all 
means to revive the true and unadulterated worship of God in Judea, 
he did not yet gain his object. And we hence clearly learn how hard 
were the trials he sustained, seeing that he effected nothing, 
though at great hazard he attempted to restore the worship of God. 
When he found that he labored in vain, he no doubt had to contend 
with great difficulties; and this we know by our own experience. 
When hope of success shines on us, we easily overcome all troubles, 
however arduous our work may be; but when we see that we strive in 
vain, we become dejected: and when we see that our labour succeeds 
only for a few years, our spirit grows faint. Josiah surmounted 
these two difficulties; for the perverseness of the people was 
sufficiently evident, and he was also reminded by two Prophets, 
Jeremiah and Zephaniah, that the people would still cherish their 
impious perverseness. When, therefore, he plainly saw that his 
labour was almost in vain, he might have fainted in the middle of 
his course, or, as they say, at the starting-place. And since the 
benefit was so small during his reign, what could he have hoped 
after his death? 
    This example ought at this day to be carefully observed: for 
though God now appears to the world in full light, yet very few 
there are who submit themselves to his word; and of this small 
number fewer still there are who sincerely and without any 
dissimulation embrace sound doctrine. We indeed see how great is 
their inconstancy and indifference. For they who pretend great zeal 
for a time very soon vanish and fall away. Since then the perversity 
of the world is so great, sufficient to deject the minds of God's 
servants a hundred times, let us learn to look to Josiah, who in his 
own time left undone nothing, which might serve to establish the 
true worship of God; and when he saw that he effected but little and 
next to nothing, he still persevered, and with firm and invincible 
greatness of mind proceeded in his course. 
    We may also derive hence an admonition no less useful not to 
regard ours as the golden age, because some portion of men profess 
the pure worship of God: for many, by no means wicked men, think, 
that almost all mortals are like angels, as soon as they testify in 
words their approbation of the gospel: and the sacred name of 
Reformation is at this day profaned, when any one who shows as it 
were by a nod only that he is not wholly an enemy to the gospel, is 
immediately lauded as a person of extraordinary piety. Though then 
many show some regard for religion, let us yet know that among so 
large a number there are many hypocrites, and that there is much 
chaff mixed with the wheat: and that our senses may not deceive us, 
we may see here, as in a mirror, how difficult it is to restore the 
world to the obedience of God, and utterly to root up all 
corruptions, though idols may be taken away and superstitions be 
abolished. No doubt Josiah had regard to everything calculated to 
cleanse the Church, and had recourse to the advice of Jeremiah and 
also of Zephaniah; we yet see that he did not attain the object he 
wished, for God now became more grievously displeased with his 
people than under Manasseh, or under Amon. These wicked kings had 
attempted to extinguish all true religion; they had cruelly raged 
against all God's servants, so that Jerusalem became almost drenched 
with innocent blood: and yet God seems here to have manifested 
greater displeasure under Josiah than during the previous cruelty 
and so many impieties. But as I have already said, there is no 
reason why we should despond, though the world by its ingratitude 
may close up the way against us; and however much may Satan also by 
this artifice strive to discourage us, let us still perseveringly go 
on according to the duties of our calling. 
    But it may be now asked, why God denounces his vengeance on the 
beasts of the field, the birds of heaven, and the fishes of the sea; 
for how much soever the Jews may have provoked him by their sins, 
innocent animals ought to have been spared. If a son is not to be 
punished for the fault of his father, (Ezek. 18: 4,) but that the 
soul that has sinned is to die, why did God turn his wrath against 
fishes and other animals? This seems to have been a hasty and 
unreasonable infliction. But let this rule be first borne in mind - 
that it is preposterous in us to estimate God's doings according to 
our judgment, as froward and proud men do in our day; for they are 
disposed to judge of God's works with such presumption, that 
whatever they do not approve, they think it right wholly to condemn. 
But it behaves us to judge modestly and soberly, and to confess that 
God's judgments are a deep abyss: and when a reason for them does 
not appear, we ought reverently and with due humility to hook for 
the day of their full revelation. This is one thing. Then it is meet 
at the same time to remember, that as animals were created for man's 
use, they must undergo a lot in common with him: for God made 
subservient to man both the birds of heaven, and the fishes of the 
sea, and all other animals. It is then no matter of wonder, that the 
condemnation of him, who enjoys a sovereignty over the whole earth, 
should reach to animals. And we know that the world was not made 
subject to corruption willingly - that is, naturally; but because 
the contagion from Adam's fall diffused itself through heaven and 
earth. Hence the sun and the moon, and all the stars, and also all 
the animals, the earth itself, and the whole world, bear marks of 
God's wrath, not because they have provoked it through their own 
fault, but because the whole world is involved in man's curse. The 
reason then is, because all things were created for the sake of man. 
Hence there is no ground to conclude, that God acts with too much 
severity when he executes his vengeance on innocent animals, for he 
can justly involve in the same ruin with man whatever he has created 
for his use. 
    But the reason also is sufficiently plain, why the Prophet 
speaks here of the beasts of the earth, the fishes of the sea, and 
the birds of heaven: for we find that men grow torpid, or rather 
stupid in their own indifference, except they are forcibly roused. 
It was, therefore, necessary for the Prophet, when he saw the people 
so hardened in their wickedness, and that he had to do with men past 
recovery, to set clearly before them these judgments of God, as 
though he had said - "Ye lie down securely, and indulge yourselves, 
when God is coming forth prepared for vengeance: but his wrath shall 
not only proceed against you, but will also lay hold on the harmless 
animals; for ye shall see a horrible judgment executed on your oxen 
and asses, on the birds and the fishes. What will become of you when 
God's wrath shall be thus kindled against the unhappy creatures who 
have committed no sins? Shall ye indeed escape unpunished?" We now 
understand why the Prophet does not speak here of men only, but 
collects with them the beasts of the earth, the fishes of the sea, 
and the birds of the air. 
    He says first, "By removing I will remove all things from the 
face of the land"; he afterwards enumerates particulars: but 
immediately after he clearly shows, that God would not act rashly 
and inconsiderately while executing his vengeance, for his sole 
purpose was to punish the wicked, "There shall be, he says, 
stumblingblocks to the ungodly"; it is the same as though he said - 
"When I cite to God's tribunal both the fishes of the sea and the 
birds of heaven, think not that God's controversy is with these 
creatures which are void of reason, but they are to sustain a part 
of God's vengeance, which ye have through your sins deserved." The 
Prophet then does here briefly show, that what he had before 
threatened brute creatures with, would come upon them on men's 
account; for God's design was to execute vengeance on the wicked; 
and as he saw that they were extremely torpid, he tried to awaken 
them by manifest tokens, so that they might see God the avenger as 
it were in a striking picture. And at the same time he also adds, "I 
will remove man from the face of the land". He does not speak now of 
fishes or of other animals, but refers to men only. Hence appears 
more clearly what I have said - that the Prophet was under the 
necessity of speaking as he did, owing to the insensibility of the 
people. He now adds - 
Zephaniah 1:4 
I will also stretch out mine hand upon Judah, and upon all the 
inhabitants of Jerusalem; and I will cut off the remnant of Baal 
from this place, [and] the name of the Chemarims with the priests; 
    The Prophet explains still more clearly why he directed his 
discourse in the last verse against the beasts of the earth and the 
birds of heaven, even for this end - that the Jews might understand 
that God was angry with them. I will stretch forth, he says, my hand 
on Judah and on Jerusalem. God, then, by executing his vengeance on 
animals, intended to exhibit to the Jews, as in a picture, the 
dreadfulness of his wrath, which yet they despised and regarded as 
nothing. The stretching forth of God's hand I have elsewhere 
explained; and it means even this - that he stretches forth his hand 
when he acts in an unusual manner, and employs means beyond what is 
common. We indeed know that God has no hands, and we also know that 
he performs all things by his command alone: but as everything seen 
in the world is called the work of his hands, so he is said to 
stretch forth his hand when he mentions a work that is remarkable 
and worthy of being remembered. In a like manner, when I intend to 
do some slight work, I only move my hand; but when I have some 
difficult work to do, I prepare myself more carefully, and also 
stretch forth my arms. This metaphor, then, is intended only for 
this purpose, to render men more attentive to God's works, when he 
is set forth as stretching forth his hand. 
    But he says, "on Judah and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem". 
The kingdom of Israel had now been abolished, and the ten tribes had 
been led into exile; and a few only of the lowest and the poorest 
remained. The Jews thought themselves safe for ever, because they 
had escaped that calamity. This is the reason why the Prophet 
declares that God's judgment was impending not only over the kingdom 
of Judah, but also over the holy city, which thought itself exempt 
from all such evil, because there were the sacrifices performed, and 
there was the royal city, and, in short, because God had testified 
that his habitation was to be there for ever. Since, then, by this 
vain confidence the inhabitants of Jerusalem deceived themselves and 
others, Zephaniah specifically addresses them. And as he had before 
spoken of the wicked, he intended here, no doubt, sharply to reprove 
the Jews, as though he said by way of anticipation, "There is no 
reason for you to enquire who are the wicked; for ye yourselves are 
they, even ye who are the holy people of God and God's chosen 
inheritance, ye who are the race of Abraham, who flatter yourselves 
so much on account of your excellency; ye are the wicked, who have 
not hitherto ceased to provoke the vengeance of God." And at the 
same time he shows, as it were by the finger, some of their sins, 
though he mentions others afterwards: but he speaks now of their 
    "I will cut off, he says, the remnants of Baal and the name of 
Chamerim". The severity of the Prophet may seem here again to be 
excessive, for being so incensed against superstitions which had 
been abolished by the great zeal and singular diligence of the king; 
but, as we have already intimated, he regarded not so much the king 
as the people. For though they dared not openly to adulterate God's 
worship, they yet cherished those corruptions at home to which they 
had before been accustomed, as we see to be done at this day. For 
when it is not allowed to worship idols, many mutter their prayers 
in secret and invoke their idols: and, in short, they are restrained 
only by the fear of men from manifesting their own impiety; and in 
the meantime, they retain before God the same abominations. So it 
was in the time of Josiah; the people were wedded to their 
corruptions, and this we may easily conclude from the words of 
Zephaniah: for the remnants of Baal were not seen in the temple, nor 
in the streets, nor in their chapels, nor in the high places; but 
their hidden impiety is here discovered by the Spirit of God; and no 
doubt their sin was the more heinous and less excusable, because the 
people refused to follow their pious leader. It was indeed the most 
abominable ingratitude; for when they saw that the right worship was 
restored to them, they preferred to remain fixed in their own filth, 
rather than to return to God, even when they had liberty to do so, 
and also when that pious king extended his hand to them. 
    As to the word "kemarim", it designated either the worshipers 
of Baal or some such men as our monks at this day: and they are 
supposed by some to have been thus called, because they were clothed 
in black vestments; while others think that they derived this name 
from their fervor, because they were madly devoted to their 
superstitions, or because they had marks on their foreheads, or 
because they imposed, as is commonly the case, on the simple by the 
ardor of their zeal. The name is also found in 2 Kings 23 in the 
account given of Josiah: for it is said there, that the "kemarim" 
were taken away, together with other abominations of superstition. 
But as Zephaniah connects priests with them, it is probable that 
they were a kind of people like the monks, who did not themselves 
offer sacrifices, but were a sort of attendants, who undertook vows 
and offered prayers in the name of the whole people. For what some 
think, that they were thus called because they burnt incense, 
appears not to me probable; for then they must have been priests. 
They were then inferior to the sacrificers, and occupying a station 
between them and the people, like the monks and hermits of this day, 
who deceive foolish men by their sanctity. Such, then, were the 
    But as Josiah could not attain his object, so as immediately to 
cleanse the land from these pollutions, we need not wonder that at 
this day we are not able immediately to remove superstitions from 
the world: but let us in the meantime ever proceed in our course. 
Let those endued with authority, who bear the sword, that is, all 
magistrates, perform their office with greater diligence, inasmuch 
as they see how difficult and protracted is the contest with the 
ministers of idolatry. Let also the ministers of the gospel 
earnestly cry against idolatry, and all ungodly ceremonies, and not 
desist. Though they may not effect as much as they wish, yet let 
them follow the example of Josiah. If God should in the meantime 
thunder from heaven, let them not be discouraged, but, on the 
contrary, know that their labour is approved by him, and never doubt 
of their own safety; for though all were destroyed, their godly 
efforts would not be in vain, nor fail of a reward before God. Thus, 
then, ought all God's servants to animate themselves, each in his 
particular sphere and vocation, whenever they have to contend with 
superstitions, and with such corruptions as vitiate and adulterate 
the pure worship of God. 
Grant, Almighty God, that as we are so prone to corruptions, and so 
easily turn from the right course after having commenced it, and so 
easily degenerate from the truth once known, - O grant, that, being 
strengthened by thy Spirit, we may persevere to the end in the right 
way which thou showest to us in thy word, and that we may also 
labour to restore the many who abandon themselves to various errors; 
and though we may effect nothing, let us not yet be led away after 
them, but remain firm in the obedience of faith, until having at 
length finished all these contests, we shall be gathered into that 
blessed rest which is prepared for us in heaven, through Christ our 
Lord. Amen. 

Calvin's Commentary on Zephaniah, Part 1

(continued in part 2...)

file: /pub/resources/text/ipb-e/epl-06: cvzep-01.txt