Calvin, Commentary on Zephaniah, Part 3

(... continued from part 2)
Lecture One Hundred and Twentieth 
    We stated yesterday why God compares the slaughter of the 
wicked to a sacrifice, - because in punishing the ungodly, he shows 
himself to be the judge of the world: and this slaying is a 
sacrifice of sweet odour, because it makes known this glory. And he 
immediately adds, that he had prepared his guests. The word he uses 
is "kadash", which means to sanctify, but is often to be taken in a 
different sense. It may be explained as meaning, that God had 
prepared his guests: but as there is an express mention made of 
sacrifice, Zephaniah, I have no doubt, continues the same metaphor. 
The meaning then is, that the Chaldeans, who were ministers of God's 
vengeance, were already not only chosen for the purpose of executing 
it, but were divinely consecrated for that end: and this unwelcome 
saying was uttered by the Prophet, that he might more sharply touch 
the feelings of his own nation. The Jews ought indeed to have 
acknowledged God's judgment even when executed by heathens; but this 
they would not have done, had they not understood, that these were, 
in exercising their cruelty, as it were, the priests of God; for the 
royal priesthood at Jerusalem had been profaned. We now then see why 
the Prophet says, that those were sanctified by the Lord who had 
been invited to feed on the flesh of the chosen people, as they were 
wont to eat of the remainder of their sacrifices on festal days. Let 
us now proceed. 
    I yesterday repeated this verse, "And it shall be, on the day 
of the sacrifice of Jehovah, that I will then visit the princes, and 
the sons of the king, and those who are clothed with strange 
apparel". The Prophet shows, that he not only threatened the common 
people, but also the chief leaders, so that he spared not even the 
king's sons. He attacks then here the principal men among the 
people; for they were justly led to punishment in the first place, 
as they had been to others the cause of their errors. We indeed 
know, that they who excel in dignity give a much greater offense 
when they abuse their power in promoting what is sinful. Hence it 
was, that God seemed often to have sent his Prophets to them only. 
For though the low and the humble in the community were not exempt 
from punishment, yet it was but reasonable that God should more 
severely punish their leaders. Hence the Prophet now says, that God 
would "visit the princes and the king's sons". He did not indeed 
intend here to flatter obscure men, as though God meant to overlook 
them: but as the king and his counselors had more grievously sinned, 
the more angry was God with them. We also know, that kings and 
others, who exercise power, are not easily moved, for the splendor 
of their fortune blinds them; and they think that they are in a 
manner exempt from laws, because they occupy a higher station. We 
now then see why the Prophet speaks especially of the princes and 
the king's sons. 
    He also adds, "And those who wear foreign apparel". Some refer 
this to the worshipers of Baal, or his priests; but the context does 
not allow us to apply it to any but to courtiers, whose great 
delight was in apparel: for what Christ says is proved by the 
experience of all ages to be too true, - that they who wear soft 
clothing are in king's courts. (Matt. 11: 8.) And it is probable, 
that courtiers, through a foolish affectation, often changed their 
clothes; as it is the case with men who seek to appear great, they 
devise daily some new way for spending money; and though they may be 
more splendidly clothed than needful, yet they think it almost too 
sordid to wear the same apparel for a whole month; and that their 
prodigality may be more evident, they change also the forms of their 
dress. This affectation prevails far too much at this day in the 
world. But even then in the age of the Prophet, as it appears, the 
courtiers and those who had power among the people, often changed 
their dress, that they might the more display their pomp and attract 
the admiration of the simple and poor people. And it was not simple 
ambition, but it brought with it a contempt for others; for the rich 
in this way upbraided the poor, that they themselves were alone 
worthy of this superfluity and opulence. It was not enough for them, 
that they were clothed for their own comfort, and also that ornament 
and splendor were added; but they would have willingly made bare all 
others: and as it was a shame to do this, they yet showed, as far as 
they could, by their superfluous abundance, that they were alone 
worthy of such display. It was then no wonder that the Lord 
threatened them with so much severity. 
    As this vice in course of time had greatly increased, this 
passage of the Prophet deserves particular notice. And the more 
luxurious men become and the more they indulge in such varieties, 
and thus manifest their pride, the more carefully we ought to learn 
to restrain the desires of our flesh, that they may not leap over 
the bounds of moderation; and let those who abound in wealth be 
contented with what is modest and becoming; and let them especially 
abstain from that absurd affectation, which the Prophet evidently 
condemns here. It may however have been, that the Jews then sought 
new and unusual fashions as to their clothes from remote countries, 
like the French at this day, who delight in the Turkish habit; for 
they have too much intercourse with Turkey. So also at that time a 
foolish desire had possessed the hearts of the people, so as to wish 
to ingratiate themselves with the Chaldeans, and to make friends of 
them by a likeness in dress. And we may learn this from a passage in 
Ezekiel, where he compares them to harlots or to foolish lovers 
(Ezek. 23: 2, &c.:) for as lovers paint harlots on walls, and 
whoremongers and adulterers do the same; so Ezekiel accuses the 
Jews, that they were so inflamed with a mad desire of making a 
covenant with the Chaldean nation, that they had their images 
painted in their chambers. They also no doubt imitated their dress, 
in order to show that they regarded it a great happiness, if they 
became their friends and confederates. 
    Now follows what I repeated also yesterday, "I will visit every 
one who danceth on the threshold". Some explain this of the 
worshipers of Baal, but improperly; for as I have already said, the 
context will not allow us to understand this except of the servants 
of princes, who cruelly harassed the people and deprived helpless 
men of their property, who were not able to resist them. The Prophet 
then, after having spoken of the chief governors of the kingdom and 
of the king's sons, now comes to their servants, who, like hunting 
dogs, were ready to seize everywhere on the prey. They who 
understand this to be said of the sacrifices of Baal, adduce a 
passage from sacred history, - that since the image of Dagon had 
been found on the threshold of the temple, they dared not to tread 
on the threshold, but leaped over it: but this is too far-fetched. 
Others also bring expositions of a different kind; but the Prophet, 
I have no doubt, refers here to the liberty they took in plundering, 
when he says, that they danced on the threshold, as persons 
triumphing; for he afterwards adds, that they filled, by rapine and 
fraud, the houses of the princes. To leap or dance then on the 
threshold is no other thing than to take possession of the houses of 
other people, and insolently to triumph over them, as it is usually 
done by conquerors. For he who takes possession of what belongs to 
another, does not quietly rest there as in his own habitation, but 
boasts and exults. So also here, the Prophet paints to the life that 
wantonness, which the servants of princes showed, when they entered 
into the houses of others. He therefore says, that they danced, and 
said, "This is my house; and who will dare to say a word to the 
contrary?" Since then the servants of princes took so much liberty, 
the Prophet here denounces on them the vengeance of God. 
    He then adds, that they filled their masters' houses by rapine 
and fraud. By rapine and fraud he means the prey gathered, partly by 
armed force, and partly by deceit and craft; for courtiers have 
their nets by which they lay in wait for helpless men. But if they 
cannot obtain by fraud what they hope for, they leave recourse to 
armed force. However this may be, they enrich themselves, sometimes 
by plundering, and sometimes by fraud. Hence the Prophet mentions 
both here. It follows - 
Zephaniah 1:10 
And it shall come to pass in that day, saith the LORD, [that there 
shall be] the noise of a cry from the fish gate, and an howling from 
the second, and a great crashing from the hills. 
    He confirms here the same truth, and amplifies and illustrates 
it by a striking description; for we know how much a lively 
representation avails to touch the feelings, when the event itself 
is not only narrated, but placed as it were before our eyes. So the 
Prophet is not content with plain words, but presents a scene, that 
the future destruction of Jerusalem might appear in a clearer light. 
But as I have elsewhere explained this mode of speaking, I shall not 
dwell on the subject now. 
    He says, that there would be "the voice of crying from the gate 
of the fishes". He names here three places in Jerusalem, and 
afterwards he adds a fourth. But as we do not understand the 
situation of the city, sufficient for us is this probable 
conjecture, - that he refers to parts opposite to one another; as 
though he had said, that no corner of the city would be in a quiet 
state, when the Lord roused up war. Let us then suppose it to be 
triangular, and let the gate of the fishes be one side, and let the 
second gate or the school be on the other; and let the part nigh the 
hills form the third side. What some say, that the hills mean 
palaces, I do not approve of; nor is it consistent with the context: 
but we ought to bear in mind what I have already stated, that the 
Prophet here denounces ruin on every part of the city, so that the 
Jews would in vain seek refuges for themselves; for by running here 
and there, they would find all places full of crying and howling. 
There shall be then the voice of crying from the gate of the fishes. 
Why the Prophet calls it the gate of the fishes we cannot for 
certainty say, except that it is a probable conjecture, that either 
some fish-pond was near it, or that the fish-market was nigh. 
    As to the word "mishneh", the majority of interpreters think 
that it means the place where the priests explained the law and 
devoted themselves to the study of it; and they adduce a passage 
from 2 Kings 22: 14, where it seems, as there is mention made of 
priests, the word is taken in this sense. But as gates are spoken of 
here, and as the Hebrews often call whatever is second in order by 
this word, as the second part in buildings and also in towns and in 
other places, is thus called, we may take it here in this sense, 
that is, as meaning that gate which was next to the first in general 
esteem. But as the subject has little to do with the main point, I 
dismiss it. 
    He says in the last place, that there "would be a great breach 
in the hills". He refers, I have no doubt, to that part of the city 
which was contiguous to the mountains. However this may be, it was 
the Prophet's object to include here the whole city, that he might 
shake off from the Jews all vain confidence, and show that there 
would be no escape, when the Lord stretched forth his hand to punish 
their sins. It now follows - 
Zephaniah 1:11 
Howl, ye inhabitants of Maktesh, for all the merchant people are cut 
down; all they that bear silver are cut off. 
    The Prophet addresses the merchants here who inhabited the 
middle part of the city, and hence thought themselves farther off 
from all danger and trouble. As then they were concealed as it were 
in their hiding-places, they thought that no danger was nigh them; 
and thus security blinded them the more. After having spoken of the 
king's palace and of the princes and their servants, Zephaniah now 
turns his discourse to the merchants. 
    And he calls them the inhabitants of the hollow place, 
"machtesh". The verb "katash" means to be hollow; hence the Hebrews 
call a hollow place "machtesh". So Solomon calls a mortar by this 
name, because it is hollow: and we learn also from other parts of 
scripture that the word means sometimes either a cavern or some low 
place. But we know that merchants have for the most part their 
streets on level ground, and it is for their advantage, as they have 
goods to carry. It may then have been, that at Jerusalem there was a 
large company of merchants in that part of the city, which was in 
its situation low. But they who regard it as a proper name, bring 
nothing either of reason or probability to confirm their opinion: 
and it is also evident from the context that merchants are here 
addressed, for cut off, he says, is the mercantile people. The word 
"kena'an" means a merchant. Some think that the Jews are here, as 
often elsewhere, called Canaan, because they were become degenerate, 
and more like the Canaanites than the holy fathers, from whom they 
descended. But the Prophet speaks here no doubt of merchants, for an 
explanation immediately follows, all who are laden with money. And 
he says that merchants were laden with money, because they would not 
transact business without making payments and counting money, and 
also, because merchants for the most part engrossed by their gainful 
arts a great portion of the wealth of the world. 
    We now then understand what the Prophet means: He threatens 
howling to the merchants, who were concealed in their hidden places, 
for they occupied that part of the city, as I have already said, 
which was below the hills; and he then makes use of the word 
"kena'an", a trafficker; and lastly he speaks of their wealth, as it 
is probable that they became rich through frauds and most dishonest 
means, and shows that their money would be useless to them, for they 
would find in it no defense, when the Lord extended his hand to 
punish them. It now follows - 
Zephaniah 1:12 
And it shall come to pass at that time, [that] I will search 
Jerusalem with candles, and punish the men that are settled on their 
lees: that say in their heart, The LORD will not do good, neither 
will he do evil. 
    The Prophet addresses here generally the despisers of God, who 
were become hardened in their wickedness. But before he openly names 
them, he says that the visitation would be such, that God would 
search every corner, so that no place would remain unexplored. For 
to visit with candles, or to search with candles, is so to examine 
all hidden places or coverts, that nothing may escape. When one 
intends to plunder a city, he first enters into the houses, and 
takes away whatever he finds; but when he thinks that there are some 
hidden treasures, he descends into the secret cells; and then if 
there be no light there, he lights a candle, and carefully looks 
here and there, that he may not overlook anything. By this 
comparison then God intimates, that Jerusalem would be so plundered, 
that nothing whatever would remain. Hence he says, "I will search it 
with candles". We indeed know that nothing is hid from God; but it 
is evident, that he is constrained to borrow comparisons from the 
common practice of men, because he could not otherwise express what 
is necessary for us to know. The world indeed deal with God as men 
do with one another; for they think that he can be deceived by their 
craftiness. He therefore laughs to scorn this folly, and says, that 
he would have candles to search out whatever was concealed. 
    Now, as impiety had possessed the minds of almost all the 
people, he says, I will visit the men, who on their lees are 
congealed. This may indeed be only understood of the rich, who 
flattered themselves in their prosperity, and feared nothing, and 
were thus congealed on their lees: but Zephaniah shows in the words 
which follow, that he had in view something more atrocious, that is, 
that they said that neither good nor evil proceeded from God. At the 
same time, these two things may be suitably joined together - that 
he reproves here their self-security, produced by wealth - and that 
he also accuses the careless Jews of that gross contempt of God 
which is afterwards mentioned. And I am disposed to take this view, 
that is, that the Jews, inebriated with prosperity, became hardened, 
as men contract hardness often by labour - and that they so 
collected lees through too much quietness and abundance of things, 
that they became wholly stupid, and could be touched by no truth 
made known to them. Hence in the first place the Prophet says, that 
God would visit with punishment a carelessness so extreme, when men 
not only slumbered in their prosperity, but also became congealed in 
their own stupidity, so as to be almost void of sense and 
understanding. When one addresses a dead mass, he can effect 
nothing: and so the Prophet compares careless men to a dead and 
congealed mass; for stupidity had so bound up all their senses, that 
they could not be either allured by the goodness of God, or 
terrified by his threatenings. Congealing then is nothing else but 
that hardness or contumacy, which is contracted by self-indulgences, 
and particularly when the minds of men become almost stupefied. And 
by lees he means sinful indulgences, which so infatuate all the 
senses of men, that no light nor sincerity remains. 
    He then mentions what they said in their hearts. He expresses 
here what that carelessness which he condemned brings with it - even 
that wicked men fearlessly mock God. What it is to speak in the 
heart, is evident from many parts of Scripture; it means to 
determine anything within: for though the ungodly do not openly 
proclaim what they determine in their minds, they yet reason within 
themselves, and settle this point - that either there is no God, or 
that he rests idly in heaven. 'Said has the ungodly in his heart, No 
God is.' Why in the heart? Because shame or fear prevents men from 
openly avowing their impiety; yet they cherish such thoughts in the 
heart and assent to them. Now here is described by the Prophet the 
height of impiety, when he says, that men drunk with pleasures 
robbed God of his office as a judge, saying, that he does neither 
good nor evil. And it is probable that there were then many at 
Jerusalem and throughout Judea who thus insolently despised God as a 
judge. But Zephaniah especially speaks of the chief men; for such 
above all others deride God, as the giants did, and look down as 
from on high on his judgments. There is indeed much insensibility 
among the common people; but there is more madness in the pride of 
great men, who, trusting in their power, think themselves exempt 
from the authority of God. 
    But what I have just said must be borne in mind, that an 
unhealable impiety is described by the Prophet, when he accuses the 
Jews, that they did not think God to be the author either of good or 
of evil; because God is thus deprived of his dignity; for except he 
is owned as the judge of the world, what becomes of his dignity? The 
majesty, or the authority, or the glory of God does not consist in 
some imaginary brightness, but in those works which so necessarily 
belong to him, that they cannot be separated from his very essence. 
It is what peculiarly belongs to God, to govern the world, and to 
exercise care over mankind, and also to make a difference between 
good and evil, to help the miserable, to punish all wickedness, to 
check injustice and violence. When any one takes away these things 
from God, he leaves him an idol only. Since, then, the glory of God 
consists in his justice, wisdom, judgment, power, and other 
attributes, all who deny God to be the governor of the world 
entirely extinguish, as much as they can, his glory. Even so do 
heathen writers accuse Epicures; for as he dared not to deny the 
existence of some god, like Diagoras and some others, he confessed 
that there are some gods, but shut them up in heaven, that they 
might enjoy there their leisure and delights. But this is to imagine 
a god, who is not a god. It is then no wonder that the Prophet 
condemns with so much sharpness the stupidity of the Jews, as they 
thought that neither good nor evil proceeded from God. But there was 
also a greater reason why God should be so indignant at such 
senselessness: for whence was it that men entertained such an 
opinion or such a delirious thought, as to deny that God did either 
good or evil, except that they attempted to drive God far away from 
them, that they might not be subject to his judgment. They therefore 
who seek to extinguish the distinction between right and wrong in 
their consciences, invent for themselves the delirious notion, that 
God concerns not himself with human affairs, that he is contented 
with his own celestial felicity, and descends not to us, and that 
adversity as well as prosperity happens to men by chance. 
    We hence see how men seek willfully and designedly to indulge 
the notion, that neither good nor evil comes from God: they do this, 
that they may stupefy their own consciences, and thus precipitate 
themselves with greater liberty into sin, as though they were free 
to do anything with impunity, and as though there was no judge to 
whom an account is to be rendered. 
    And hence I have said, that it is the very summit of impiety 
when men strengthen themselves in this error, that God rests in 
heaven, and that whatever miseries they endure in this world happen 
through fortunes and that whatever good things they have are to be 
ascribed either to their own industry or to chance. And so the 
Prophet briefly shows in this passage that the Jews were past 
recovery, that no one might feel surprised, that God should punish 
with so much severity a people who had been his friends, and whom he 
had adopted in preference to the whole world: for he had set apart 
the race of Abraham, as it is well known, as his chosen and holy 
people. God's vengeance on the children of Abraham might have 
appeared cruel or extremely rigid, had it not been expressly 
declared that they had advanced so far in impiety as to seek to 
exclude God from the government of the world, and to deprive him of 
his own peculiar office, even that of punishing sin, of defending 
his own people, of delivering them from all evils, of relieving all 
their miseries. Since, then, they thus shut up God in heaven, and 
gave the governing power on earth to fortune, it was an intolerable 
stupidity, nay, wholly diabolical. It was therefore no wonder that 
God was so severely indignant, and stretched forth his hand to 
punish their sin, as their disease had become now incurable. 
Grant, Almighty God, that as almost the whole world breaks out into 
such excesses, that there is no moderation, no reason, - O grant, 
that we may learn not only to confine ourselves within those limits 
which thou dost approve and command, but also to delight and glory 
in the smallness of our portion, inasmuch as the wealth, and honors, 
and pleasures of the world so fascinate the hearts and minds of all, 
that they elevate themselves into heaven, and carry on war, as it 
were, avowedly with thee. Grant also to us, that in our limited 
portion we may be in such a way humbled under thy powerful hand, as 
never to doubt but that thou wilt be our deliverer even in our 
greatest miseries; and that ascribing to thee the power over life 
and death, we may feel fully assured, that whatever afflictions 
happen to us, proceed from thy just judgment, so that we may be led 
to repentance, and daily exercise ourselves in it, until we shall at 
length come to that blessed rest which is laid up for us in heaven, 
through Christ our Lord. Amen. 

Calvin's Commentary on Zephaniah, Part 3

(continued in part 4...)

file: /pub/resources/text/ipb-e/epl-06: cvzep-03.txt