Calvin, Commentary on Zephaniah, Part 6

(... continued from part 5)
Lecture One Hundred and Twenty-third. 
Zephaniah 2:9,10 
Therefore [as] I live, saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, 
Surely Moab shall be as Sodom, and the children of Ammon as 
Gomorrah, [even] the breeding of nettles, and saltpits, and a 
perpetual desolation: the residue of my people shall spoil them, and 
the remnant of my people shall possess them. 
This shall they have for their pride, because they have reproached 
and magnified [themselves] against the people of the LORD of hosts. 
    In order to cheer the miserable Jews by some consolation, God 
said, in what we considered yesterday, that the wantonness of Moab 
was known to him; he now adds, that he would visit with punishment 
the reproaches which had been mentioned. For it would have availed 
them but little that their wrongs had been observed by God, if no 
punishment had been prepared. Hence the Prophet reminds them that 
God is no idle spectator, who only observes what takes place in the 
world; but that there is a reward laid up for al the ungodly. And 
these verses are to be taken in connection, that the faithful may 
know that their wrongs are not unknown to God, and also that he will 
be their defender. But that the Jews might have a more sure 
confidence that God would be their deliverer, he interposes an oath. 
God at the same time shows that he is really touched with when he 
sees his people so cruelly and immoderately harassed, when the 
ungodly seem to think that an unbridled license is permitted them. 
God therefore shows here, that not only the salvation of his people 
is an object of his care, but that he undertakes their cause as 
though his anger was kindled; not that passions belong to him but 
such a form of speaking is adopted in order to express what the 
faithful could never otherwise conceive an idea of, that is, to 
express the unspeakable love of God towards them, and his care for 
    He then says that he "lives", as though he had sworn by his own 
life. As we have elsewhere seen that he swears by his life, so he 
speaks now. Live do I, that is, "As I am God, so will I avenge these 
wrongs by which my people are now oppressed." And for the same 
reason he calls himself Jehovah of hosts, and the God of Israel. In 
the first clause he exalts his own power, that the Jews might know 
that he was endued with power; and then he mentions his goodness, 
because he had adopted them as his people. The meaning then is that 
God swears by his own life; and that the Jews might not think that 
this was done in vain, his power is brought before them, and then 
his favor is added. 
    "Moab, he says, shall be like Sodom, and the sons of Ammon like 
Gomorrah, even for the production of the nettle and for a mire of 
salt;" that is, their lands should be reduced to a waste, or should 
become wholly barren, so that nothing was to grow there but nettles, 
as the case is with desert places. As to the expression, the mine 
(fodina) or quarry of salt, it often occurs in scripture: a salt-pit 
denotes sterility in Hebrew. And the Prophet adds, that this would 
not be for a short time only; It shall be (he says) a perpetual 
desolation. He also adds, that this would be for the advantage of 
the Church; for the residue of my people shall plunder them, and the 
remainder of my nation shall possess them. He ever speaks of the 
residue; for as it was said yesterday, it was necessary for that 
people to be cleansed from their dregs, so that a small portion only 
would remain; and we know that not many of them returned from exile. 
    The import of the whole is, that though God determined to 
diminish his Church, so that a few only survived, yet these few 
would be the heirs of the whole land, and possess the kingdom, when 
God had taken vengeance on all their enemies. 
    It hence follows, according to the Prophet, that this shall be 
to them for their pride. We see that the Prophet's object is, to 
take away whatever bitterness the Jews might feel when insolently 
slandered by their enemies. As then there was danger of desponding, 
since nothing, as it was said yesterday, is more grievous to be 
borne than reproach, God does here expressly declare, that the proud 
triumph of their neighbours over the Jews would be their own ruin; 
for, as Solomon says, 'Pride goes before destruction.' (Prov. 16: 
18.) And he again confirms what he had already referred to - that 
the Jews would not be wronged with impunity, for God had taken them 
under his guardianship, and was their protector: Because they have 
reproached, he says, and triumphed over the people of Jehovah of 
hosts. He might have said, "over my people," as in the last verse; 
but there is something implied in these words, as though the Prophet 
had said, that they carried on war not with mortals but with God 
himself, whose majesty was insulted, when the Jews were so unjustly 
oppressed. It follows - 
Zephaniah 2:11 
The LORD [will be] terrible unto them: for he will famish all the 
gods of the earth; and [men] shall worship him, every one from his 
place, [even] all the isles of the heathen. 
    He proceeds with the same subject, - that God would show his 
power in aiding his people. But he calls him a terrible God, who had 
for a time patiently endured the wantonness of his enemies, and thus 
became despised by them: for the ungodly, we know, never submit to 
God unless they are constrained by his hand; and then they are not 
bent so as willingly to submit to his authority; but when forced 
they are silent. This is what the Prophet means in these words; as 
though he had said, that the wicked now mock God, as they disregard 
his power, but that they shall find how terrible an avenger of his 
people he is, so that they would have to dread him. And then he 
compares the superstitions of the nations with true religion; as 
though he had said, that this would be to the Jews as a reward for 
their piety, inasmuch as they worshipped the only true God, and that 
all idols would be of no avail against the help of God. And this was 
a necessary admonition; for the ungodly seemed to triumph for a 
time, not only over a conquered people, but over God himself, and 
thus gloried in their superstitious and vain inventions. The 
Prophet, therefore, confirms their desponding minds; for God, he 
says, will at length consume all the gods of the nations. 
    The verb "razah" means strictly to make lean or to famish, but 
is to be taken here metaphorically, as signifying to consume. God 
then will famish all the inventions of the nations: and he alludes 
to that famine which idols had occasioned through the whole world; 
as though he had said, that God's glory would shortly appear, which 
would exterminate whatever glory the false gods had obtained among 
them, so that it would melt away like fatness. 
    He at last adds, that the remotest nations would become 
suppliants to God; for by saying, "adore him shall each from his 
place", he doubtless means, that however far off the countries might 
be, the distance would be no hindrance to God's name being 
celebrated, when his power became known to remote lands. And, for 
the same reason, he mentions the islands of the nations, that is, 
countries beyond the sea: for the Hebrews, as it has been elsewhere 
observed, call those countries islands which are far distant, and 
divided by the sea. In short, the Prophet shows, that the redemption 
of the people would be so wonderful, that the fame of it would reach 
the farthest bounds of the earth, and constrain foreign nations to 
give glory to the true God, and that it would dissipate all the 
mists of superstition, so that idols would be exposed to scorn and 
contempt. It follows - 
Zephaniah 2:12 
Ye Ethiopians also, ye [shall be] slain by my sword. 
    The Prophet extends farther the threatened vengeance, and says, 
that God would also render to the Ethiopians the reward which they 
deserved; for they had also harassed the chosen people. But if God 
punished that nation, how could Ammon and Moab hope to escape? For 
how could God spare so great a cruelty, since he would visit with 
punishment the remotest nations? For the hatred of the Moabites and 
of the Ammonites, as we have said, was less excusable, because they 
were related to the children of Abraham. They ought, on this 
account, to have mitigated their fierceness: besides, vicinity ought 
to have rendered them more humane. But as they exceeded other 
nations in cruelty, a heavier punishment awaited them. Now this 
comparison was intended for this end - that the Jews might know that 
God would be inexorable towards the Moabites, by whom they had been 
so unjustly harassed, since even the Ethiopians would be punished, 
who yet were more excusable on account of their distance. 
    As to the words, some regard the demonstrative pronoun "hemah", 
they, as referring to the Babylonians, and others, to the Moabites. 
I prefer to understand it of the Moabites, if we read, "like them," 
or "with them," as these interpreters consider it: for they regard 
the particle "et", "with," or "kaf", "like," to be understood, "Ye 
Ethiopians shall be slain by my sword like them," or with them. It 
would in this case doubtless apply to the Moabites. But it seems to 
me that the sentence is irregular, even ye Ethiopians, and then, 
they shall be slain by any sword. The Prophet begins the verse in 
the second person, summoning the Ethiopians to appear before God's 
tribunal; he afterwards adds in the third person, they shall be 
slain by my sword. 
    God calls whatever evils were impending over the Ethiopians his 
sword; for though they were destroyed by the Chaldeans yet it was 
done under the guidance of God himself. The Chaldeans made war under 
his authority, as the Assyrians did, who had been previously 
employed by him to execute his vengeance. It follows - 
Zephaniah 2:13 
And he will stretch out his hand against the north, and destroy 
Assyria; and will make Nineveh a desolation, [and] dry like a 
    The Prophet proceeds here to the Assyrians, whom we know to 
have been special enemies to the Church of God. For the Moabites and 
the Ammonites were fans only, as we have elsewhere seen, as they 
could not do much harm by their own strength. Hence they stirred up 
the Assyrians, they stirred up the Ethiopians and remote nations. 
The meaning, then, is, that no one of all the enemies of the Church 
would be left unpunished by God, as every one would receive a reward 
for his cruelty. He speaks now of God in the third person; but in 
the last verse God himself said, that the Ethiopians would be slain 
by his sword. The Prophet adds here, "He will extend his hand to the 
north"; that is, God will not complete his judgments on the 
Ethiopians; but he will go farther, even to Nineveh and to all the 
    Nineveh, we know, was the metropolis of the empire, before the 
Assyrians were conquered by the Babylonians. Thus Babylon then 
recovered the sovereignty which it had lost; and Nineveh, though not 
wholly demolished, was yet deprived of its ruling power, and 
gradually lost its name and its wealth, until it was reduced into a 
waste; for the building of Ctesiphon, as we have elsewhere seen, 
proved its ruin. But the Prophet, no doubt, proceeds here to 
administer comfort to the Jews, lest they should despair, while the 
Lord did not interfere. And the extension of the hand means as 
though he said, that his own time is known to the Lord, and that he 
would put forth his power when needful. Assyria was north as to 
Judea: hence he says, to the north will the Lord extend his hand, 
and will destroy Assyria; he will make Nineveh a desolation, that it 
may be like the desert. It follows - 
Zephaniah 2:14 
And flocks shall lie down in the midst of her, all the beasts of the 
nations: both the cormorant and the bittern shall lodge in the upper 
lintels of it; [their] voice shall sing in the windows; desolation 
[shall be] in the thresholds: for he shall uncover the cedar work. 
    The Prophet describes here the state of the city and the 
desolation of the country. He says, that the habitations of flocks 
would be in the midst of the city Nineveh. The city, we know, was 
populous; but while men were so many, there was no place for flocks, 
especially in the middle of a city so celebrated. Hence no common 
change is here described by the Prophet, when he says, that "flocks 
would lie down in the middle of Nineveh"; and he adds, "all wild 
beasts". For beasts, which seek seclusion and shun the sight of men, 
are wont to come forth, when they find a country desolate and 
deserted; and they range then at large, as it is the case after a 
slaughter in war; and when any region is emptied of its inhabitants, 
the wolves, the lions, and other wild beasts, roam here and there at 
full liberty. So the Prophet says, that wild beasts would come from 
other parts and remote places, and find a place where Nineveh once 
stood. He adds that the bitterns, or the storks or the cuckoos, and 
similar wild birds would be there. As to their various kinds, I make 
no laborious research; for it is enough to know the Prophet's 
design: besides, the Jews themselves, who boldly affirm that either 
the bittern or the stork is meant, yet adduce nothing that is 
certain. What, in short, this description means, is - that the 
place, which before a vast multitude of men inhabited, would become 
so forsaken, that wild beasts and nocturnal birds would be its only 
    But we must bear in mind what I have stated, that all these 
things were set before the Jews, that they might patiently bear 
their miseries, understanding that God would become their defender. 
For this is the only support that remains for us under very grievous 
evils, as Paul reminds us in the first chapter of the Second Epistle 
to the Thessalonians; for he says, that the time will come when the 
Lord shall give to us relief and refreshment, and that he will visit 
our adversaries with punishment. 
    The Prophet mentions especially Nineveh, that the Jews might 
know that there is nothing so great and splendid in the world which 
God does not esteem of less consequence than the salvation of his 
Church, as it is said in Isaiah, "I will give Egypt as thy ransom." 
So God threatens the wealthiest city, that he might show how much he 
loved his chosen people. And the Jews could not have attributed this 
to their own worthiness; but the cause of so great a love depended 
on their gratuitous adoption. It afterwards follows - 
Zephaniah 2:15 
This [is] the rejoicing city that dwelt carelessly, that said in her 
heart, I [am], and [there is] none beside me: how is she become a 
desolation, a place for beasts to lie down in! every one that 
passeth by her shall hiss, [and] wag his hand. 
    He seems to have added this by way of anticipation, lest the 
magnificent splendor of the city Nineveh should frighten the Jews, 
as though it were exempt from all danger. The Prophet therefore 
reminds them here, that though Nineveh was thus proud of its wealth, 
it could not yet escape the hand of God; nay, he shows that the 
greatness, on account of which Nineveh extolled itself, would be the 
cause of its ruin; for it would cast itself down by its own pride: 
as a wall, when it swells, will not long stand; so also men, when 
they inwardly swell, and vent their own boastings, burst; and though 
no one pushes them down, they fall of themselves. Such a destruction 
the Prophet denounces on the Ninevites and the Assyrians. 
    "This, he says, is the exulting city, which sat in confidence". 
Isaiah reprobates in nearly the same words the pride of Babylon: but 
what Isaiah said of Babylon our Prophet justly transfers here to 
Nineveh. But he no doubt had respect to the Jews, and exhibits 
Nineveh in its state of ruin, lest the power of that city should 
dazzle their eyes; for we are seized with wonder, when anything 
grand and splendid presents itself to us. Here then Zephaniah makes 
a representation of Nineveh and sets it before the Jews: "Behold," 
he says, "ye see this city full of exultation; ye also see that it 
rests as in a state of safety; for it is conscious of no fear; it 
regards itself exempt from the common lot of men, as though it was 
built in the clouds. This city," he says, "is above all others 
celebrated; but let not frail and evanescent splendor terrify you; 
for God will doubtless in his own time overthrow it and reduce it to 
    Let us also in the meantime observe what I have lately referred 
to, - that the cause of the ruin of Nineveh is described, which was, 
that it had promised to itself a perpetuity in the world. But let us 
remember, that in this city is presented to us an example, which 
belongs in common to all nations, - that God cannot endure the 
presumption of men, when inflated by their own greatness and power, 
they do not think themselves to be men, nor humble themselves in a 
way suitable to the condition of men, but forget themselves, as 
though they could exalt themselves above the heavens. 
    But it is necessary to examine the words: "Nineveh said in her 
heart, I, and besides me no other". By these words the Prophet 
means, that Nineveh was so blinded by its splendor that it now 
defied every change of fortune. Had Babylon spoken thus, it would 
have been no wonder, for it had taken from Nineveh its sovereignty. 
But we see that the same pride infatuates people as well as superior 
kings; for each thinks himself to be great alone, and when he 
compares himself with others, he looks on them as far below him, as 
though they were placed beneath his feet. Thus then the Prophet 
shows in few words what was the cause of the ruin of Nineveh: it 
thought that its condition on the earth was fixed and perpetual. If 
then we desire to be protected by God's hand, let us bear in mind 
what our condition is, and daily, yea, hourly prepare ourselves for 
a change, except God be pleased to sustain us. Our stability is to 
depend only on the aid of God, and from consciousness of our 
infirmity, to tremble in ourselves, lest a forgetfulness of our 
state should creep in. 
    He afterwards adds, "How has it become a desolation?" The 
Prophet accommodates his words to the capacities of men: for the 
ruin of Nineveh might have appeared incredible. Hence the Prophet by 
a question rouses the minds of the faithful, that they might not 
doubt the truth of what God declared, for he would work in an 
extraordinary manner. This "how" then intimates, that the Jews ought 
not to be incredulous, while thinking that Nineveh was on all sides 
fortified, so as to prevent the occurrence of anything disastrous: 
for God would, in a wonderful manner and beyond what is usual, 
overthrow it. How, then, has it become a desolation, a resting-place 
for beasts? 
    He then subjoins, "every one who passes by will hiss and shake 
his hand". The Prophet seems to point out the future reproach of 
Nineveh, and to confirm also by a different mode of speaking what he 
had before said, that its ruin would be wonderful; for the shaking 
of the hand and hissing are marks of reproach: "Behold Nineveh, 
which so much flattered itself! we now see only its sad ruins." The 
Prophet, I have no doubt, means here by hissing and the shaking of 
the hind, that Nineveh would become an ignominious spectacle to all 
people: and the same mode of speaking often occurs in the Prophets. 
"All shall hiss at thee;" that is, I will make thee a reproach and a 
disgrace. Then the Prophet, as I have already said, still declares 
the same truths that the ruin of Nineveh would be like a miracle; 
for all those who pass by would be amazed; as though he had said, 
"Behold, they will hiss - What is this? and then they will shake the 
hand - What can be firm in this world? We see the principal seat of 
empire demolished, and differing nothing from a desert." We now 
perceive the meaning of the Prophet. 
    As this doctrine is also necessary for us at this day, we must 
notice the circumstances to which we have referred. If, then, our 
enemies triumph now, and their haughtiness is intolerable, let us 
know, that the sooner the vengeance of God will overtake them; if 
they are become insensible in their prosperity, and secure, and 
despise all dangers, they thus provoke God's wrath, and especially 
if to their pride and hardness they add cruelty, so as basely to 
persecute the Church of God, to spoil, to plunder, and to slay his 
people, as we see them doing. Since then our enemies are so wanton, 
we may see as in a mirror their near destruction, such as is 
foretold by the Prophet: for he spoke not only of his own age, but 
designed to teach us, by the prophetic spirit, how dear to God is 
the safety of his Church; and the future lot of the ungodly till the 
end of the world will no doubt be such as Nineveh is described here 
to have been that though they swell with pride for a time, and 
promise themselves every success against the innocent, God will yet 
put a stop to their insolence and check their cruelty, when the 
proper time shall come. I shall not to-day begin the third chapter, 
for it contains a new subject. 
Grant, Almighty God, that as thou triest us in the warfare of the 
cross, and arouses most powerful enemies, whose barbarity might 
justly terrify and dishearten us, were we not depending on thine 
aid, - O grant, that we may call to mind how wonderfully thou didst 
in former times deliver thy chosen people, and how seasonably thou 
didst bring them help, when they were oppressed and entirely 
overwhelmed, so that we may learn at this day to flee to thy 
protection, and not doubt, but that when thou becomest propitious to 
us, there is in thee sufficient power to preserve us, and to lay 
prostrate our enemies, how much soever they may now exult and think 
to triumph above the heavens, so that they may at length know by 
experience that they are earthly and frail creatures, whose life and 
condition is like the mist which soon vanishes: and may we learn to 
aspire after that blessed eternity, which is laid up for us in 
heaven by Christ our Lord. Amen. 

Calvin's Commentary on Zephaniah, Part 6

(continued in part 7...)

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