In one of the least known books of the Bible, Zephaniah, we find one of the most amazing prophecies. Writing during the reign of King Josiah (640–609 BC), Zephaniah speaks of the coming day of the Lord (Zeph. 1:7): “Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the Lord is near; the Lord has prepared a sacrifice and consecrated his guests.” This is that day on which the Lord will reward those who have obeyed Him, as well as mete out judgment upon those who have sinned against Him.
After speaking of the future conversion of the Gentiles in 3:8–20 — a reference to the messianic age and the spread of the gospel — in the closing verses of his prophecy Zephaniah focuses upon a period of great joy for Jerusalem (3:14–20). The prophet sees the city cleansed and rejoicing, even though Israel’s exile in Babylon is yet future. This can only mean that the prophet is foretelling of two fulfillments: one after Israel’s exile in Babylon, and one associated with the messianic age and those wonderful blessings to be earned for us by Jesus.
In verse 14, Zephaniah informs us that the people of Jerusalem will rejoice: “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem!” The phrase “daughter of Zion” refers to Jerusalem and its inhabitants. In John 12:15, Jesus uses this phrase in reference to Jerusalem’s rejoicing on Palm Sunday when Jesus enters His royal city as Israel’s Messiah — a time of rejoicing. But in Luke 23:27–31, the same phrase is used by Jesus in a different way when Jesus tells the daughters of Jerusalem to weep, even as He is being led to the cross. Jesus knows that He must suffer and die, and will then conquer death and the grave — the reason why God’s people will rejoice in the end.
In verse 15, the prophet speaks of a remarkable blessing yet to come: “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King Living in Exile of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil.” Something will happen that takes away God’s judgment against His people, ensuring their victory over their enemies. This points ahead to both the return from exile and to the cross, where God’s wrath and anger is turned aside. It also points to the empty tomb, when death itself, our greatest enemy, is defeated. Indeed, on that day, the Lord Himself will be in the midst of Jerusalem, a reference to Jesus’ messianic mission and His return at the end of the age.
Zephaniah repeats these themes in verses 16–17: “On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: ‘Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.’” Jerusalem will rejoice when Jesus enters the city because of what Jesus does while there (His death and resurrection), which ultimately brings about the promised blessings.
In verses 18–19, the prophet again speaks of those events associated with the return from exile and the coming of Jesus: “I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival, so that you will no longer suffer reproach. Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.” Those who mourn will no longer suffer. Sin, our greatest oppressor, will be vanquished. Our shame will turn to praise because God will deliver us.
In verse 20, Zephaniah sums all of this up: “‘At that time I will bring you in, at the time when I gather you together; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,’ says the Lord .” This refers to Israel’s return to Jerusalem after their time of exile in Babylon when Jerusalem’s fortunes will be restored. While Zephaniah’s immediate focus is upon Israel’s future captivity and the postexilic restoration of the city’s glory when the temple will be rebuilt during the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, the prophecy has a broader focus as well. God will extend His kingdom. He will convert the Gentile nations and cause His people (Jerusalem) to rejoice when He removes their shame and restores them to His favor.
This is why the author of Hebrews can write, “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb. 12:22–24). The church of Jesus Christ is the true Jerusalem, and it is ultimately and finally restored through the shed blood of Jesus.