Calvin, Commentary on Zephaniah, Part 2

(... continued from part 1)
Lecture One Hundred and Nineteenth 
Zephaniah 1:5 
And them that worship the host of heaven upon the housetops; and 
them that worship [and] that swear by the LORD, and that swear by 
    Zephaniah pursues the subject contained in the verse I 
explained yesterday. For as the majority of the people still adhered 
to their superstitions, though the pure worship of the law had been 
restored by Josiah, the Prophet threatens here, that God would 
punish such ingratitude. As then he had spoken in the last verse of 
the worshipers of Baal and their sacrifices, so now he proceeds 
farther - that the Lord would execute vengeance on the whole people, 
who prayed to the host of heaven, or bowed themselves down before 
the host of heaven. It is well known that those stars are thus 
called in Scripture to which the gentiles ascribed, on account of 
their superior lustre, some sort of divinity. Hence it was, that 
they worshipped the sun as God, called the moon the queen of heaven, 
and also paid adoration to the stars. The people, then, did not only 
sin in worshipping Baal, but were also addicted to many 
superstitions, as we see to be the case whenever men degenerate from 
the genuine doctrine of true religion; they then seek out various 
inventions on all sides, so that they observe no limits and keep 
within no boundaries. 
    But he says, that they worshipped the stars on their roofs. It 
is probable that they chose this higher place, as interpreters 
remind us, because they thought that they were more seen by the 
stars the nearer they were to them. For as men are gross in their 
ideas they never think God propitious to them except he exhibits 
some proof or sign of a bodily presence; in short, they always seek 
God according to their own earthly notions. Since, then, the Jews 
thought that there were so many Gods as there are stars in heaven, 
it is no wonder that they ascended to the roofs of their houses, 
that they might be, as it were, in the sight of their gods, and thus 
not lose their labour; for the superstitious never think that their 
devotion is observed by God, unless they have before their eyes, as 
we have just said, some sign of his presence. 
    We now then see how this verse stands connected with the last. 
God declares that he would punish all idolaters; but as the Jews 
worshipped Baal, the Prophet first condemned that strange religion; 
and now he adds other devices, to which the Jews perversely devoted 
themselves; for they worshipped also all the stars, ascribing to 
them some sort of divinity. Then he mentions all those who 
worshipped and swore by their own king, and swore by Jehovah. 
    By these last words the Prophet intimates, that the Jews had 
not so repudiated the law of God but that they boasted that they 
still worshipped the God who had adopted them, and by whom they had 
been redeemed, who had commanded the temple to be built for him, and 
an altar on mount Sion. They then did not openly reject the worship 
of the true God, but formed such a mixture for themselves, that they 
joined to the true God their own idols, as we see to be the state of 
things at this day under the Papacy. It seems a sufficient excuse to 
foolish men that they retain the name of God; and they confidently 
boast that the true God is worshipped by them; and yet we see that 
they mix together with this worship many of the delusions of Satan; 
for under the Papacy there is no end to their inventions. When any 
devise some peculiar mode of worship, it is then connected with the 
rest; and thus they form such a mixture, that from one God, divided 
into many parts, they bring forth a vast troop of deities. As then 
at this day the Papists worship God and idols too, so Zephaniah had 
to condemn the same wickedness among the Jews. 
    We here learn that God's name was not then wholly obliterated, 
as though the world had openly fallen away from God; for though they 
worshipped Jupiter, Mercury, Apollo, and other fictitious gods, they 
yet professed to worship the only true and eternal God, the Creator 
of heaven and earth. What then was it that the Prophet condemned 
that they were not content with what the law simply and plainly 
prescribed, but that they devised for themselves various and strange 
modes of worship; for when men take to themselves such a liberty as 
this, they no longer worship the true God, how much soever they may 
pretend to do so, inasmuch as God repudiates all spurious modes of 
worship, as he testifies especially in Ezek. 20 - "Go ye," he says, 
"worship your idols." He shows that all kinds of worship are 
abominable to him whenever men depart in any measure from his pure 
word. For we must hold this as the main principle - that obedience 
is more valued by God than all sacrifices. Whenever men run after 
their own inventions they depart from the true God; for they refuse 
to render to him what he principally requires, even obedience. 
    But our Prophet speaks according to the common notions of men; 
for they pretended to be the true worshipers of God, while they 
still adhered to their own inventions. They did not, indeed, 
properly speaking, worship the true God; but as they thought, and 
openly professed to do this, Zephaniah, making this concession, says 
- "God will not suffer his own worship to be thus profaned: ye seek 
to blend it with that of your idols; this he will not endure. Ye 
worship the true God, and ye worship your idols; but he would have 
himself to be worshipped alone; and this he deserves. But the 
partition which ye make is nothing else than the mangling of true 
worship; and God will not have himself to be thus in part 
worshipped." We now understand what the Prophet means here; for the 
Jews covered their abominations with the pretext that their purpose 
was to worship the God of Abraham: the Prophet does not simply deny 
this to be done by them, but declares that this worship was useless 
and disapproved by God; nay, he proceeds farther, and says that this 
worship, made up of various inventions, was an abominable corruption 
which God would punish; for he can by no means bear that there 
should be such an alliance - that idols should be substituted in his 
place, and that a part of his glory should be transferred to the 
inventions of men. This is the true meaning. 
    We hence learn how greatly deceived the Papists are, who think 
it enough, provided they depart not wholly from the worship of the 
only true God; for God allows and approves of no worship except when 
we attend to his voice, and turn not aside either to the left hand 
or to the right, but acquiesce only in what he has prescribed. 
    It is nothing strange that he connects swearing with worship, 
for it is a kind of divine worship. Hence the Scripture, stating a 
part for the whole, often mentions swearing in this sense, as 
including the service due to God. But the Prophet pronounces here 
generally a curse on all the superstitious, who worshipped 
fictitious gods; and then he adds one kind of worship, and that is 
swearing. I shall not here speak at large, nor is it - necessary, on 
the subject of swearing. We know that the use of an oath is lawful 
when God is appealed to as a witness and a judge, on important 
occasions; for God's name may be interposed when a matter requires 
proof, and when it is important; but God's name is not to be 
introduced thoughtlessly. Hence two things are especially required 
in an oath - that all who swear by his name should present 
themselves with reverence before his tribunal, and acknowledge him 
to be the avenger if they take his name falsely or inconsiderately 
This is one thing. Then the matter itself, on account of which we 
swear, must be considered; for if men allow themselves to swear by 
God's name respecting things which are trifling and frivolous, it is 
a shameful profanation, and by no means to be borne. For it is a 
singular favor on the part of God, that he allows us to take his 
name when there is any controversy among us, and when a confirmation 
is necessary. As then we thus receive through kindness the name of 
God, it is surely a great favor; for how great is the sanctity of 
that name, though it serves even earthly concerns? God then does so 
far accommodate himself to us, that it is lawful for us to swear by 
his name. Hence a greater seriousness ought to be observed by us in 
oaths, so that no one should dare to interpose an oath except when 
necessity requires; and we should also especially take heed lest God 
be called a witness to what is false. For how great a sacrilege it 
is to cover a falsehood with his name, who is the eternal and 
immutable truth! They then who swear falsely by his name change God, 
as far as they can, into what he is not. We now sufficiently 
understand how swearing is a kind of divine worship, because his 
honor is thereby given to God; for his majesty is, as it were, 
brought before us, and as it is his peculiar office to know and to 
discover hidden things, and also to maintain the truth, this his own 
work is ascribed to him. Now when any one swears by a mortal, or by 
the sun, or by the moon, or by creatures, he deprives God in part of 
his own honor. 
    We hence see that in superstitious oaths there was a clear 
proof of idolatry. This is the reason why the Prophet here condemns 
those who did swear by Jehovah and by Malkom; that is, who joined 
their idols with the true and eternal God when they swore. For it is 
a clear precept of God's law, 'By the name of thy God shalt thou 
swear.' (Deut. 6: 13.) And when the Prophets speak of the renovation 
of the Church, they use this form - 'Ye shall swear by the name of 
God;' 'To me shall bend every knee;' 'Every tongue shall swear to 
me.' What does all this mean? "The whole world shall acknowledge me 
as the true God; and as every knee shall bow to me, so every one 
will submit himself to my judgment." We may hence doubtlessly 
conclude, that God is deprived of his right, whenever we swear by 
the sun, or by the moon, or by the dead, or by any creatures. 
    This evil has been common in all ages; and it prevails still at 
this day under the Papacy. They swear by the Virgin, by angels, and 
by the dead. They do not think that they thus take away anything 
from the sovereignty of the only true God; but we see what he 
declares respecting them. The Papists therefore foolishly excuse 
themselves, when they swear by their saints: for they cannot elude 
the charge of sacrilege, which the Holy Spirit has stamped with 
perpetual infamy, since he has said, that all those are abominable 
in the sight of God who swear by any other name than his own: and 
the reason is evident, for the sun, moon, and stars, and also dead 
or living men, are honored with the name of God, when they are set 
up as judges. For they who swear by the sun, do the same as though 
they said - "The sun is my witness and judge;" that is, "The sun is 
my God." They who swear by the name of a king, or as profane men 
swore formerly, "By the genius of their king," ascribe to a mortal 
what is peculiar to the true God alone. But when any one swears by 
heaven or the temple, and does not think that there is any divinity 
in the heavens or in the temple, it is the same as though he swore 
by God himself, as it appears from Matt. 23: 20-22; and Christ, when 
he forbade us to swear by heaven or by the earth, did not condemn 
such modes of swearing as inconsistent with his word, but as only 
useless and vain. At the same time he showed that God's name is 
profaned by such expressions: 'They who swear by heaven, swear also 
by him who inhabits heaven; they who swear by the temple, swear also 
by him who is worshipped in the temple, and to whom sacrifices are 
offered.' When one swears by his head or by his life, it is a 
protestation, as though he said - "As my life is dear to me." But 
they who swear by the saints, either living or dead, ascribe to 
mortals what is due to God. They who swear by the sun, place a dead 
created thing on the throne of God himself. 
    As to the term "malkam", it may be properly rendered, their 
king; for "melech", as it is well known, means a king; but it is 
here put in construction, "malkam", their king; they swear by their 
own, king. The Prophet, I doubt not, alludes to the word "Moloch", 
which is derived from the verb, to reign: for though that word was 
commonly used by all as a proper name, it is yet certain that that 
false god was so called, as though he was a king: and the Prophet 
increases the indignity by saying - They swear by Malkom. He might 
have simply said, "They swear by Moloch;" but he says, They swear by 
Malkom; that is, "They forget that I am their king, and transfer my 
sovereignty to a dead and empty image." God then does here, by an 
implied contrast, exaggerate the sin of the Jews, as they sought 
another king for themselves, when they knew that under his 
protection they always enjoyed a sure and real safety. Let us now 
proceed - 
Zephaniah 1:6 
And them that are turned back from the LORD; and [those] that have 
not sought the LORD, nor enquired for him. 
    The Prophet seems here to include, as it were, in one bundle, 
the proud despisers of God, as well as those idolaters of whom he 
had spoken. It may yet be, that he describes the same persons in 
different words, and that he means that they were addicted to their 
own superstitions, because they were unwilling to serve God 
sincerely and from the heart, and even shunned everything that might 
lead their attention to true religion. And this view I mostly 
approve; for what some imagine, that their gross contempt of God is 
here pointed out, is not sufficiently supported. I therefore rather 
think that the idolaters are here reproved, that they might not 
suppose that they could by subterfuges wash away their guilt; for 
they were wont to cover themselves with the shield of ignorance, 
when they were overcome, and their impiety was fully proved: "I did 
not think so; but, on the contrary, my purpose was to worship God." 
Since, then, the superstitious are wont to hide themselves under the 
covering of ignorance, the Prophet here defines the idolatry of the 
people, and briefly shows that it was connected with obstinacy and 
    They did "not seek Jehovah"; but, on the contrary, they turned 
willfully away from him, and sought, as it were designedly, to 
extinguish true religion. Nor was it to be wondered at, that so 
grievous and severe a sentence was pronounced on them; for they had 
been taught by the law how God was to be served. How was it, then, 
that errors so gross had crept in? Doubtless, God had kindled the 
light of celestial truth, which clearly showed the way of true 
religion; but as men ever seek to perform some frivolous trifles, 
the Israelites and the Jews, when they felt ashamed openly and 
manifestly to reject the true God, labored at the same time to add 
many ceremonies, that their impiety might be thus concealed. This is 
the reason why the Prophet says that they turned back; that is, that 
they could not be excused on the ground of ignorance, but that they 
were perfidious and apostates, who had preferred their own idols to 
the true God; though they knew that he could not be rightly 
worshipped, but according to the rule prescribed in the law, they 
yet neglected this, and heaped together many superstitions. 
    And, doubtless, we shall find that the fountain of all false 
worship is this - that men are unwilling truly and from the heart to 
serve God; and, at the same time, they wish to retain some 
appearance of religion. For there is nothing omitted in the law that 
is needful for the perfect worship of God: but as God requires in 
the law a spiritual worship, hence it is that men seek 
hiding-places, and devise for themselves many ceremonies, that they 
may turn back from God, and yet pretend that they come to him. While 
they sedulously labour in their own ceremonies, it is indeed true 
that the worship of God and religion are continually on their lips: 
but, as I have said, it is all hypocrisy and deception; for they 
accumulate ceremonies, that there might be something intervening 
between God and them. It is not, therefore, without reason that the 
Prophet here accuses the Jews that they "turned back from Jehovah, 
and that they sought him not". How so? For there was no need of a 
long, or of a difficult, or of a perplexed enquiry; for the Lord had 
freely offered himself to them. How, then, was it that they were 
blind in the midst of light, except that they knowingly and 
willfully followed their own inventions? 
    The same is the case at this day with the Papists: for though 
they may glamour a hundred times that they seek to worship God, it 
is quite evident that they willfully go astray; inasmuch as they so 
delight themselves with their own inventions, that they do not 
purely and from the heart devote and consecrate themselves to God. 
    We now, then, see that this verse was added, as an explanation, 
by the Prophet, that he might deprive the Jews of their false plea 
of ignorance, and show that they sinned willfully; for they would 
have been sufficiently taught by the law, had they not adopted their 
own inventions, which dazzled their eyes and all their senses. It 
follows - 
Zephaniah 1:7-9 
7 Hold thy peace at the presence of the Lord GOD: for the day of the 
LORD [is] at hand: for the LORD hath prepared a sacrifice, he hath 
bid his guests. 
8 And it shall come to pass in the day of the LORD's sacrifice, that 
I will punish the princes, and the king's children, and all such as 
are clothed with strange apparel. 
9 In the same day also will I punish all those that leap on the 
threshold, which fill their masters' houses with violence and 
    The Prophet confirms here what he has previously taught, when 
he bids all to be silent before God; for this mode of speaking is 
the same as though he had said, that he did not terrify the Jews in 
vain, but seriously set before them God's judgment, which they would 
find by experience to be even more than terrible. He also records 
some of their sins, that the Jews might know that he did not 
threaten them for nothing, but that there were just causes why God 
declared that he would punish them. This is the substance of the 
    Let us first see what the Prophet means by the word, silence. 
Something has been said of this on the second chapter of Habakkuk. 
We said then that by silence is meant submission; and to make the 
thing more clear, we said that we were to notice the contrast 
between the silence to which men calmly submit, and the contumacy, 
which is ever clamorous: for when men seek to be wise of themselves, 
and acquiesce not in God's word, it is then said, that they are not 
silent, for they refuse to give a hearing to his word; and when men 
give loose reins to their own will, they observe no bounds. Until 
God then obtains authority in the world, all places are full of 
clamour, and the whole life of men is in a state of confusion, for 
they run to and fro in their wanderings; and there is no restraint 
where God is not heard. It is for the same reason that the Prophet 
now demands silence: but the expression is accommodated to the 
subject which he handles. To be silent at the presence of God, it is 
true, is to submit to God's authority; but the connection is to be 
considered; for Zephaniah saw then that God's judgment was despised 
and regarded as nothing; and he intimates here that God had so 
spoken, that the execution was nigh at hand. Hence he says, "Be 
silent", that is, "Know ye, that I have not spoken merely for the 
purpose of terrifying you; but as God is prepared to execute 
vengeance, of this he now reminds you, that if there be any hope of 
repentance, ye may in time seek to return into favor with him; if 
not, that ye may be without excuse." 
    We now then understand why the Prophet bids them to be silent 
before the Lord Jehovah: and the context is a confirmation of the 
same view; for the reason is added, Because the day of Jehovah is 
nigh. For profane men ever promise to themselves some respite, and 
think that they gain much by delay: the Prophet, on the contrary, 
does now expose to scorn this self-security, and says, that the day 
of Jehovah was nigh at hand. It is then the same thing as though he 
had said, that his judgment ought to have been quickly anticipated, 
and even with fear and trembling. 
    He afterwards employs a metaphor to set forth what he taught, - 
that God had prepared a sacrifice, yea, that he had already 
appointed and set apart his guests. By the word, sacrifice, the 
Prophet reminded them, that the punishment of which he had spoken 
would be just, and that the glory of God would thereby shine forth. 
We indeed know how ready the world is to make complaints; when it is 
pressed by God's hand, it expostulates on account of too much rigor; 
and many in an open manner give utterance to their blasphemies. As 
then they own not God's justice in his punishment, the Prophet calls 
it a sacrifice; and sacrifices, we know, are evidences of divine 
worship, and he who offers a sacrifice to God, owns him to be just. 
So also by this kind of speaking Zephaniah intimates that God would 
not act a cruel part in cutting off the city Jerusalem and its 
inhabitants; for this would be a sacrifice, according to the 
language often employed by the Prophets, and especially by Isaiah, 
who says of Bozrah, 'A sacrifice is prepared in Bozrah,' (Is. 34: 
6;) and who says also of Jerusalem itself, 'Oh! Ariel! Ariel! ' (Is. 
29: 1.) where Jerusalem itself is represented as the altar; as 
though he had said, "In all the streets, in the open places, there 
shall be altars to me; for I will collect together great masses of 
men, whom I shall slay as a sacrifice to me." For all who were not 
willing to render worship to God, and who did not freely offer 
themselves as spiritual victims to him, were to be drawn to the 
slaughter, and were at the same time called sacrifices. So the 
executions on the gallows, when the wicked suffer, may be said to be 
sacrifices to God: for the Lord arms the magistrate with the sword 
to restrain wickedness, that the wicked may not have such liberty as 
to banish all equity from the world. The cities also, which, being 
forcibly taken, are subject to a slaughter, and the fields, where 
armies are slain, become altars, for God makes the rebellious a 
sacrifice, because they refuse willingly to offer themselves. 
    So also in this place the Prophet says, "Jehovah has prepared 
for himself a sacrifice", - Where? At Jerusalem, through the whole 
city, as it has appeared from the quotation from Isaiah; for as they 
had not rightly sacrificed to God on Mount Sion, but vitiated his 
whole worship, God himself declares, that he would become a priest, 
that he might slay, as he thought right, those beasts, who had 
obstinately refused his yoke: And he has prepared his guests. But I 
cannot finish to-day. 
Grant, Almighty God, that as we continue in so many ways to provoke 
against us thy wrath, we may patiently bear the punishment, by which 
thou wouldest correct our faults, and also anticipate thy judgment: 
and since thou art pleased to recall us in due time to thyself, let 
us not turn deaf ears to thy counsels, but so obey and submit 
ourselves to thee, that we may become partakers of that mercy, which 
thou offerest to us, provided we seek to be reconciled to thee, and 
so proceed in thy service, that under the government of Christ thy 
Son, whom thou hast appointed to be our supreme and only king, we 
may so strive to be wholly devoted to thee that thou mayest be 
glorified through our whole life, until we become at length 
partakers of that celestial glory, which has been procured for us by 
the blood of thy only-begotten Son. Amen 

Calvin's Commentary on Zephaniah, Part 2

(continued in part 3...)

file: /pub/resources/text/ipb-e/epl-06: cvzep-02.txt