Because it’s simply too convenient on Bible Gateway, I often quote excerpts from the writing of classic Bible commentator Matthew Henry. However, because Henry alludes to the King James translation, I know that a longer piece — allowing M.H. to teach us through an entire section — can be cumbersome for some readers. Today, I want to take just the first four verses from Zephaniah 3, and offer them with parallel texts, so that you can work your way back and forth between Matthew Henry, the KJV, and the more familiar NIV.
Zephaniah 3 NIV
Woe to the city of oppressors,rebellious and defiled!
Zephaniah 3 KJV
Woe to her that is filthy and polluted, to the oppressing city!
One would wonder that Jerusalem, the holy city, where God was known, and his name was great, should be the city of which this black character is here given, that a place which enjoyed such abundance of the means of grace should become so very corrupt and vicious, and that God should permit it to be so; yet so it is, to show that the law made nothing perfect; but if this be the true character of Jerusalem, as no doubt it is (for God’s judgments will make none worse than they are), it is no wonder that the prophet begins with woe to her. For the holy God hates sin in those that are nearest to him, nay, in them he hates it most. A sinful state is, and will be, a woeful state.
I. Here is a very bad character given of the city in general.
How has the faithful city become a harlot!
- She shames herself; she is filthy and polluted (Zeph. 3:1), has made herself infamous (so some read it), the gluttonous city (so the margin), always cramming, and making provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts of it. Sin is the filthiness and pollution of persons and places, and makes them odious in the sight of the holy God.
- She wrongs her neighbours and inhabitants; she is the oppressing city. Never any place had statutes and judgments so righteous as this city had, and yet, in the administration of the government, never was more unrighteousness.
- She is very provoking to her God, and in every respect walks contrary to him, Zeph. 3:2. He had given his law, and spoken to her by his servants the prophets, telling her what was the good she should do and what the evil she should avoid; but she obeyed not his voice, nor made conscience of doing as he commanded her, in any thing. He had taken her under an excellent discipline, both of the word and of the rod; but she did not receive the instruction of the one nor the correction of the other, did not submit to God’s will nor answer his end in either. He encouraged her to depend upon him, and his power and promise, for deliverance from evil and supply with good; but she trusted not in the Lord; her confidence was placed in her alliances with the nations more than in her covenant with God. He gave her tokens of his presence, and instituted ordinances of communion for her with himself; but she drew not near to her God, did not meet him where he appointed and where he promised to meet her. She stood at a distance, and said to the Almighty, Depart.
II. Here is a very bad character of the leading men in it
…those that should by their influence suppress vice and profaneness there are the great patterns and patrons of wickedness, and those that should be her physicians are really her worst disease.
- Her princes are ravenous and barbarous as roaring lions that make a prey of all about them, and they are universally feared and hated; they use their power for destruction, and not for edification.
- Her judges, who should be the protectors of injured innocence, are evening wolves, rapacious and greedy, and their cruelty and covetousness both insatiable: They gnaw not the bones till the morrow; they take so much delight and pleasure in cruelty and oppression that when they have devoured a good man they reserve the bones, as it were, for a sweet morsel, to be gnawed the next morning, Job 31:31.
- Her prophets, who pretend to be special messengers from heaven to them, are light and treacherous persons, fanciful, and of a vain imagination, frothy and airy, and of a loose conversation, men of no consistency with themselves, in whom one can put no confidence. They were so given to bantering that it was hard to say when they were serious. Their pretended prophecies were all a sham, and they secretly laughed at those that were deluded by them.
- Her priests, who are teachers by office and have the charge of the holy things, are false to their trust and betray it. They were to preserve the purity of the sanctuary, but they did themselves pollute it, and the sacred offices of it, which they were to attend upon—such priests as Hophni and Phinehas, who by their wicked lives made the sacrifices of the Lord to be abhorred. They were to expound and apply the law, and to judge according to it; but, in their explications and applications of it, they did violence to the law; they corrupted the sense of it, and perverted it to the patronising of that which was directly contrary to it. By forced constructions, they made the law to speak what they pleased, to serve a turn, and so, in effect, made void the law.
I wonder what Zephaniah would say — having given this word from the Lord — if he were to see our 21st Century churches and religious institutions, especially where corruption or moral failure have become evident? In other words, what is God saying to us today through Zephaniah?
If you wish to go further into this chapter to see how this resolves, click here to go to Bible Gateway, then click “Show Resources,” then choose Matthew Henry for verses 1-7.