What does Zephaniah 3:9 mean to us today?
Grim details of coming judgment fill the little book of Zephaniah. Mixed in, however, with images of fiery destruction and of places being laid waste comes Zephaniah 3:9 with words about redemptive transformation available to all peoples (or all ethnolinguistic groups).
Through Zephaniah, God declares His readiness to cleanse all people everywhere of defilement. He wants to do that in order that all may fully embrace Him. The purifying of lips is described in a few other places in the Bible. That image symbolizes a cleansing made necessary because, as Hosea 2:17 and Psalm 16:4 note, people's prayers to false gods have defiled them.
The possibility raised by Zephaniah that Gentile people groups everywhere will turn to Yahweh may have jarred at least some Jews of the 7th century B.C. Nonetheless, "peoples" seems purposefully plural. Indeed, God further emphasizes the global implications of the word by saying, "All of them."
That "all of them" phrase builds on older verses like Genesis 12:3 where God tells Abraham, "Through you all peoples will be blessed." The phrase also looks forward in anticipation of Jesus' "whoever believes" declaration in John 3:16. In the words of Zephaniah 3:9 God may have had in mind the response to Peter's sermon on the Day of Pentecost when people of cultural groups from around the Mediterranean called on the name of the Lord. Zephaniah 3:9 also announces the door is open for the conversion of Gentiles like an Ethiopian government official (Acts 8), a Roman Centurion (Acts 10-11), and a jailer and his family in Philippi (Acts 16).
Four times in his three chapters, Zephaniah mentioned "the Day of the Lord." That phrase, used as well by other biblical authors, refers to End Times. Here, in an Old Testament prophet's words, is an affirmation that the blessings of the Day of the Lord are intended to be for all peoples. Isn't the image in Revelation 7:9 of worshipers "from every nation, tribe, people and language" describing a fulfillment of Zephaniah 3:9?
Tragically, about one-third of the world's population has yet to hear of the One on whom Zephaniah says they must call for salvation. To the Romans, the Apostle Paul asked: "How shall they call on Him in whom they have not heard" (Romans 10:14). As Paul was writing those words, was Zephaniah's phrase "all of them may call on the name of the Lord" on his heart?
God stands ready. Indeed, He seems anxious that all peoples everywhere call on Him. The sad thing is that many entire people groups still have not heard. Paul's solution to that dilemma is that we must go to them and tell them. If Zephaniah were here today, wouldn't that be what he would encourage us to do?
-- Howard Culbertson,
This mini-essay on a world missions Bible passage is one of more than three dozen articles in the "Heart of God" series published in Engage, a monthly online magazine. That series explores what the Bible says about world missions.