Calvin, Commentary on Zephaniah, Part 7

(... continued from part 6)
Chapter 3. 
Lecture One Hundred and Twenty-fourth. 
Zephaniah 3:1,2 
Woe to her that is filthy and polluted, to the oppressing city! 
She obeyed not the voice; she received not correction; she trusted 
not in the LORD; she drew not near to her God. 
    The Prophet speaks here again against Jerusalem; for first, the 
Jews ought ever to have been severely reproved, as they were given 
to many sins; and secondly, because there was always there some seed 
which needed consolation: and this has been the way pursued, as we 
have hitherto seen, by all the Prophets. But we must also bear in 
mind, that the books now extant were made up of prophetic addresses, 
that we might understand what was the sum of the doctrine delivered. 
    The Prophet here makes this charge against the Jews, that they 
were polluted and become filthy. And he addresses Jerusalem, where 
the sanctuary was; and it might therefore seem to have been superior 
to other cities; for God had not in vain chosen that as the place 
for his worship. But the Prophet shows how empty and fallacious was 
any boasting of this kind; for the city which God had consecrated 
for himself had polluted itself with many sins. The Prophet seems to 
allude to the ancient rites of the law, which, though many, had been 
prescribed, we know, by God, that the people might observe a holy 
course of life: for the ceremonies could not of themselves wash away 
their filth; but the people were instructed by these external things 
to worship God in a holy and pure manner. As then they often washed 
themselves with water, and as they carefully observed other rites of 
outward sanctity, the Prophet derides their hypocrisy, for they did 
not regard the real design of the ceremonies. Hence he says, that 
they were polluted, though in appearance they might be deemed the 
most pure; for they were defiled as to their whole life. 
    He adds that the city was "hayonah"; some render it the city of 
dove, or, a dove; for the word has this meaning: and they take it 
metaphorically for a foolish and thoughtless city, as we find it to 
be so understood in Hos. 7: 11; where Ephraim was said to be a dove, 
because the people were void of reason and knowledge, and of their 
own accord exposed themselves to traps and snares. Some then 
consider this place to have this meaning, - that Jerusalem, which 
ought to have been wise, was yet wholly fatuitous and foolish. But 
it may be easily gathered from the context, that the Prophet means 
another thing, even this, - that Jerusalem was given to plunder and 
fraud; for the verb "yanah" signifies to defraud and to take by 
force what belongs to another; and it means also to circumvent as 
well as to plunder. He therefore means no doubt, that Jerusalem was 
a city full of every kind of iniquity, as he had before called it a 
polluted city; and then he adds an explanation. 
    The Prophet in the first verse seems to have in view the two 
tables of the law. God, we know, requires in the law that his people 
should be holy; and then he teaches the way of living justly and 
innocently. Hence when the Prophet called Jerusalem a polluted city, 
he meant briefly to show that the whole worship of God was there 
corrupted, and that no regard for true religion flourished there; 
for the Jews thought that they had performed all their duty to God, 
when they washed away their filth by water. Such was the extremely 
foolish notion which they entertained: but we know and they ought to 
have known that the worship of God is spiritual. He afterwards adds, 
that the city was rapacious, under which term he includes every kind 
of injustice. 
    It follows, "She heard not the voice, she received not 
correction". The Prophet now explains and defines what the pollution 
was of which he had spoken: for true religion begins with 
teachableness; when we submit to God and to his word, it is really 
to enter on the work of worshipping him aright. But when heavenly 
truth is despised, though men may toil much in outward rites, yet 
their impiety discovers itself by their contumacy, inasmuch as they 
suffer not themselves to be ruled by God's authority. Hence the 
Prophet shows, that whatever the Jews thought of their purity at 
Jerusalem, it was nothing but filth and pollution. He says, that 
they were unteachable, because they did not hear the Prophets sent 
to them by God. 
    This ought to be carefully noticed; for without this beginning 
many torment themselves in the work of serving God, and do nothing, 
because obedience is better than sacrifice. If, then, we wish our 
efforts to be approved by God, we must begin with faith; for except 
the word of God obtains credit with us, whatever we may offer to him 
are mere human inventions. It is, in the second place, added, that 
they did not receive correction; and this was no superfluous 
addition. For when God sees that we are not submissive, and that we 
do not willingly come to him when he calls us, he strengthens his 
instruction by chastisements. He allures us at first to himself, he 
employs kind and gentle invitations; but when he sees us delaying, 
or even going back, he begins to treat us more roughly and more 
severely: for teaching without the goads of reproof would have no 
effect. But when God teaches and reproves in vain, it then appears 
that our disposition is wicked and perverse. So the Prophet intended 
here to show the wickedness of his people as extreme, by saying, 
that they heard not the voice nor received correction; as though he 
had said, that the wickedness of his people was unhealable, for they 
not only rejected the doctrine of salvation, when offered, but also 
obstinately rejected all warnings, and would not bear any 
    But we must bear in mind, that the Prophet had to do with that 
holy people whom God had chosen as his peculiar treasure. There is 
therefore no reason why those who profess the name of Christians at 
this day should exempt themselves from this condemnation; for our 
condition is not better than the condition of that people. Jerusalem 
was in an especial manner, as we have already said, the sanctuary, 
as it were, of God: and yet we see how severely the Prophet reproves 
Jerusalem and all its inhabitants. We have no cause to flatter 
ourselves, except we willingly submit to God, and suffer ourselves 
to be ruled by his word, and except we also patiently bear 
correction, when his teaching takes no suitable effect, and when 
there is need of sharp goads to stimulate us. 
    He afterwards adds, that it "did not trust in the Lord, nor 
draw nigh to its God". The Prophet discovers here more clearly the 
spring of impiety - that Jerusalem placed not the hope of salvation 
in God alone; for from hence flowed all the mass of evils which 
prevailed; because if we inquire how it is that men burn with 
avarice, why they are insatiable, and why they wantonly defraud and 
plunder one another, we shall find the cause to be this - that they 
trust not in God. Rightly then does the Prophet mention this here, 
among other pollutions at Jerusalem, as the chief - that it did not 
put its trust in God. The same also is the cause and origin of all 
superstitions; for if men felt assured that God alone is enough for 
them, they would not follow here and there their own inventions. We 
hence see that unbelief is not only the mother of all the evil deeds 
by which men willfully wrong and injure one another, but that it is 
also the cause of all superstitions. 
    He says, in the last place, that it did not draw nigh to God. 
The Prophet no doubt charges the Jews that they willfully departed 
from God when he was nigh them; yea, that they wholly alienated 
themselves from him, while he was ready to cherish them, as it were, 
in his own bosom. This is indeed a sin common to all who seek not 
God; but Jerusalem sinned far more grievously, because she would not 
draw nigh to God, by whom she saw that she was sought. For why was 
the law given, why was adoption vouchsafed, and in short, why had 
they the various ordinances of religion, except that they might join 
themselves to God? 'And now Israel,' said Moses, 'what does the Lord 
thy God require of thee, except to cleave to him?' God thus intended 
his law to be, as it were, a sacred bond of union between him and 
the Jews. Now when they wandered here and there, that they might not 
be united to him, it was a diabolical madness. Hence the Prophet 
here does not only accuse the Jews of not seeking God, but of 
withdrawing themselves from him; and thus they were ungovernable. 
The Lord sought to tame them; but they were like wild beasts. It now 
follows - 
Zephaniah 3:3 
Her princes within her [are] roaring lions; her judges [are] evening 
wolves; they gnaw not the bones till the morrow. 
    The Prophet now explains what we have stated respecting plunder 
and fraud. He confirms that he had not without reason called 
Jerusalem "hayonah", a rapacious city, or one given to plunder; for 
the princes were like lions and the judges like wolves. And when he 
speaks of judges, he does not spare the common people; but he shows 
that all orders were then corrupt: for though no justice or equity 
is regarded by the people, there will yet remain some shame among 
the judges, so as to retain the people at least within some limits, 
that an extreme licentiousness may not prevail: but when robbery is 
practiced in the court of justice, what can be said of such a city? 
We hence see that the Prophet in these words describes an extreme 
confusion: The princes of Jerusalem, he says, are lions. And we have 
elsewhere similar declarations; for the Prophets, when it was their 
object to condemn all from the least to the greatest, did yet direct 
their discourse especially to the judges. 
    And this is worthy of being noticed, for there was then no 
Church of God, except at Jerusalem. Yet the Prophet says, that the 
judges, and prophets, and priests, were all apostates. What comfort 
could the faithful have had? But we hence see that the fear of God 
had not wholly failed in his elect, and that they firmly and with an 
invincible heart contended against all offenses and trials of this 
kind. Let us also learn to fortify ourselves at this day with the 
same courage, so that we may not faint, however much impiety may 
everywhere prevail, and all religion may seem extinct among men. 
    But we may also hence learn, how foolishly the Papists pride 
themselves in their vain titles, as though they thought that God was 
bound as it were to them, because they have bishops and pastors. But 
the Prophet shows, that even those who performed the ordinary office 
of executing the laws could yet be the wicked and perfidious 
despisers of God. He also shows, that neither prophets nor priests 
ought to be spared; for when God sets them over his Church, he gives 
them no power to tyrannize, so that they might dare to do anything 
with impunity, and not be reproved. For though the priesthood under 
the law was sacred, we yet see that it was subject to correction. So 
let no one at this day claim for himself a privilege, as though he 
was exempt from all instruction and reproof, while occupying a high 
station among the people of God. 
    He distinguishes between princes and judges; and the reason is, 
because the kingdom was as yet standing. So the courtiers, who were 
in favor and authority with the king, drew a part of the spoil to 
themselves, and the judges devoured another part. Though Scripture 
often makes no difference between these two names, yet I doubt not 
but he means by "sarim" princes, the chiefs who were courtiers; and 
he calls them "shoftim", judges, who administered justice. And he 
says that the judges were evening wolves, that is, hungry, for 
wolves become furious in the evening when they have been roaming 
about all day and have found nothing. As their want sharpens the 
savageness of wolves, so the Prophet says that the judges were 
hungry like evening wolves, whose hunger renders them furious. And 
for the same purpose he adds, that they broke not the bones in the 
morning; that is, they waited not till the dawn to break the bones 
Al for when they devoured the flesh they also employed their teeth 
in breaking the bones, because their voracity was so great. We now 
apprehend the Prophet's meaning. It afterwards follows - 
Zephaniah 3:4 
Her prophets [are] light [and] treacherous persons: her priests have 
polluted the sanctuary, they have done violence to the law. 
    The Prophet again reverts to the pollution and filth of which 
he has spoken in the first verse. He shows that he had not without 
reason cried against the polluted city; for though the Jews used 
their washings, they could not yet make themselves clean in this 
manner before God, as the whole of religion was corrupted by them. 
    He says that the Prophets were light. He alone speaks here, and 
he condemns the many. We hence see that there is no reason why the 
ungodly should allege their great number, when God by his word 
accuses them, as the Papists do at this day, who deny it to be right 
in one or two, or few men, to speak against their impiety, however 
bad the state of things may be; there must be the consent of the 
whole world, as though the Prophet was not alone, and had not to 
contend with a great many. It is indeed true that he taught at the 
same time with the Prophet Jeremiah, as we have elsewhere seen; but 
yet hardly two or three did then discharge faithfully their office 
of teaching; and from this and other places we learn that the false 
Prophets, relying on their number, were on that account bolder. But 
Zephaniah did not for this reason cease to cry against them. However 
much then the false Prophets raged against him, and terrified him by 
the show of their number, he still exercised his liberty in 
condemning them. So at this day, though the whole world should unite 
in promoting impiety, there is yet no reason why the few should be 
disheartened when observing the worship of God perverted; but they 
ought on the contrary to encourage themselves by this example, and 
strenuously to resist thousands of men if necessary; for no union 
formed by men can possibly lessen the authority of God. 
    It now follows that they were men of transgressions. What we 
render "light," others render "empty;" (vacuous;) but the word 
"pochazim" means strictly men of nought, and also the rash, and 
those who are void of judgment as well as of all moderation. In 
short, it is the same as though the Prophet had said that they were 
stupid and blind; and he says afterwards that they were fraudulent, 
than which there is nothing more inconsistent with the Prophetic 
office. But Zephaniah shows that the whole order was then so 
degenerated among the people, that the thickest darkness prevailed 
among those very leaders whose office it was to bring forth the 
light of celestial truth. And he makes a concession by calling them 
Prophets. The same we do at this day when we speak of Popish 
bishops. It is indeed certain that they are unworthy of so honorable 
a title; for they are blinder than moles, so that they are far from 
being overseers. We also know, that they are like brute beasts; for 
they are immersed in their lusts: in short, they are unworthy to be 
called men. But we concede to them this title, in order that their 
turpitude may be more apparent. The Prophet did the same, when he 
said, that the Jews did not draw nigh to their God; he conceded to 
them what they boasted; for they ever wished to be regarded as the 
holy and peculiar people of God: but their ingratitude did hence 
become more evident, because they went back and turned to another 
object, when God was ready to embrace them, as though they 
designedly meant to show that they had nothing to do with him. It is 
then the same manner of speaking, that Zephaniah adopts here, when 
he says, that the Prophets were light and men of transgressions. 
    He then adds, "The priests have polluted the holy place". The 
tribe of Levi, we know, had been chosen by God; and those who 
descended from him, were to be ministers and teachers to others: and 
for this reason the Lord in the law ordered the Levites to be 
dispersed through the whole country. He might indeed have given them 
as to the rest, a fixed habitation; but his will was, that they 
should be dispersed among the whole population, that no part of the 
land should be without good and faithful ministers. The Prophet now 
charges them, that they had polluted the holy place. By the word 
"kodesh" the Prophet means whatsoever is holy; at the same time he 
speaks of the sanctuary. Moreover, since the sanctuary was as it 
were the dwelling-place of God, when the Prophets speak of divine 
worship and religion, they include the whole under the word, Temple, 
as in this place. He says then that the sanctuary was polluted by 
the priests, and then that they took away or subverted the law. 
    We here see how boldly the Prophet charges the priests. There 
is then no reason why they who are divinely appointed over the 
Church should claim for themselves the liberty of doing what they 
please; for the priests might have boasted of this privilege, that 
without dispute everything was lawful for them. But we see that God 
not only calls them to order by his Prophets, but even blames them 
more than others, because they were less excusable. Now the Papists 
boast, that the clergy, even the very dregs collected from the 
filthiest filth, cannot err; which is extremely absurd; for they are 
not better than the successors of Aaron. But we see what the Prophet 
objects now to them, - that they subverted the law: he not only 
condemns their life, but says also, that they were perfidious 
towards God; for they strangely corrupted the whole truth of 
religion. The Papists confess, that they indeed can sin, but that 
the sin dwells only in their moral conduct. They yet seek to exempt 
themselves from all the danger of going astray. Though the Levitical 
priests were indeed chosen by the very voice of God, we yet see that 
they were apostates. But God confirms the godly, that they might not 
abandon themselves to impiety, though they saw their very leaders 
going astray, and rushing headlong into ruin. For it behaved the 
faithful to fortify themselves with constancy, when the priests not 
only by their bad conduct withdrew the people from every fear of 
God, but also perverted every sound doctrine; it behaved, I say, the 
faithful to remain then invincible. Though then at this day those 
who hold the highest dignity in the Church neglect God and even 
despise every celestial truth, and thus rush headlong into ruin, and 
though they attempt to turn God's truth into falsehood, yet let our 
faith continue firm; for John has not without reason declared, that 
it ought to be victorious against the whole world. (1 John 5: 4.) It 
follows - 
Zephaniah 3:5 
The just LORD [is] in the midst thereof; he will not do iniquity: 
every morning doth he bring his judgment to light, he faileth not; 
but the unjust knoweth no shame. 
    Here the Prophet throws back against hypocrites what they were 
wont to pretend, when they sought wickedly to reject every 
instruction and all warnings; for they said, that God dwelt in the 
midst of them, like the Papists at the present day, who raise up 
this as their shield against us, - that the Church is the pillar of 
the truth. Hence they think that all their wicked deeds are defended 
by this covering. So the Jews at that time had this boast ever on 
their lips, - "We are notwithstanding the holy people of God, and he 
dwells in the midst of us, for he is worshipped in the Temple, which 
has been built, not according to men's will, but by his command; for 
that voice proceeded not from earth, but came from heaven, 'This is 
my rest for ever, here will I dwell.'" (Ps. 132: 14.) Since then the 
Jews were inflated with this presumption, the Prophet concedes what 
they claimed, that God dwelt among them; but it was for a far 
different purpose, which was, that they might understand, that his 
hand was nigh to punish their sins. This is one thing. 
    Jehovah is in the midst of them; "Granted," he says; "I allow 
that he dwells in this city; for he has commanded a temple to be 
built for him on Mount Sion, he has ordered a holy altar for 
himself; but why does God dwell among you, and has preferred this 
habitation to all others? Surely, he says, he will not do iniquity. 
Consider now what the nature of God is; for when he purposed to 
dwell among you, he certainly did not deny himself, nor did he cease 
to be what he is. There is therefore no reason for you to imagine, 
as though God intended, for the sake of those to whom he bound 
himself, to throw aside his own justice, or intended to pollute 
himself by the defilements of men." He warns the Jews, that they 
absurdly blended these things together. God then who dwells in the 
midst of you, will not do iniquity; that is, "He will not approve of 
your evil deeds; and though he may for a time connive at them, he 
will not yet bear with them continually. Do not therefore foolishly 
flatter yourselves, as though God were the approver of your 
    Some apply this to the people, - that they ought not to have 
done iniquity; but this is a strained exposition, and altogether 
foreign to the context. Most other interpreters give this meaning, 
that God is just and will do no iniquity, for he had sufficient 
reasons for executing his vengeance on a people so wicked. They 
hence think, that the Prophet anticipates the Jews, lest they 
murmured, as though the Lord was cruel or too rigid. He will not do 
iniquity, that is, "Though the Lord may inflict on you a most 
grievous punishment, yet he cannot be arraigned by you as unjust; 
and ye in vain contend with him, for he will ever be found to be a 
righteous judge." But this also is a very frigid explanation. Let us 
bear in mind what I have already said, - that the Prophet here, by 
way of irony, concedes to the Jews, that God dwelt among them, but 
afterwards brings against them what they thought was a protection to 
them, - "God dwells in the midst of you; I allow it, he says; but is 
not he a just God? Do not then dream that he is one like yourselves, 
that he approves of your evil deeds. God will not do iniquity; ye 
cannot prevail with him to renounce himself, or to change his own 
nature. Why then does God dwell in the midst of you? In the morning, 
in the morning, he says, his judgment will he bring forth to light; 
the Lord will daily bring forth his judgment." How this is to be 
understood, we shall explain to-morrow. 
Grant, Almighty God, that inasmuch as thou hast deigned to favor us 
with an honor so invaluable, as to adopt us for a holy people to 
thee, and to separate us from the world, - O grant, that we may not 
close our eyes against the light of thy truth, by which thou showest 
to us the way of salvation; but may we with true docility follow 
where thou callest us, and never cast away the fear of thy majesty, 
nor mock thee with frivolous ceremonies, but strive sincerely to 
devote ourselves wholly to thee, and to cleanse ourselves from all 
defilements, not only of the flesh, but also of the spirit, that by 
thus seeking true holiness, we may aspire after and diligently 
labour for that heavenly perfection, from which we are as yet far 
distant; and may we in the meantime, relying on the favor of thy 
only-begotten Son, lean on thy mercy; and while depending on it, may 
we ever grow up more and more into that true and perfect union, 
reserved for us in heaven, when we shall be made partakers of thy 
glory, through Christ our Lord. Amen. 

Calvin's Commentary on Zephaniah, Part 7

(continued in part 8...)

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