KEY TEXT: Zeph 3:19-20 “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. 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.
KEY THOT: Zephaniah prophesied during the reign of King Josiah, roughly contemporaneous to Jeremiah. It was just before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonian invaders and the exile of Jews into Babylon in 586 BC. Zephaniah’s prophecy was primarily one of judgment and divine wrath, poured out against Judah historically in 586 BC. The promise of restoration of Israel had an immediate fulfilment during the return from Babylonian exile that began soon after Persian king Cyrus issued an edict to allow the Jews to return to Jerusalem. It started with Zerubbabel but was completed under Ezra-Nehemiah’s leadership. The temple was finally re-built in 516 BC, exactly 70 years after its destruction in 586 BC. This period of restoration lasted into the New Testament times, but the Jews were again scattered in AD 70--and this time the scattering was global and they remained scattered for almost 2,000 years until 14 May 1948 with the founding of modern Israel.
But not all Christians agree that modern Israel is the same one as ancient Israel--or if they are, then they are no longer God's "chosen people" since they have rejected Christ. Be that as it may, Zephaniah’s prophecy seems to refer to a global return of Jews in exile to their homeland, not quite like the one under Ezra-Nehemiah, which was primarily a return from Babylon exile: “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” (v.20). The expression “among all the peoples of the earth” suggests a time when Jews would be scattered worldwide and this was not the case during Ezra-Nehemiah’s time.
It seems that the only historical event that could correspond to such global scale of returning Jews happens after the founding of modern Israel on 14 May 1948. Ever since, Jews were returning to the homeland from the Middle-eastern countries, Europe, Russia, North America and even North Africa. Two years after the founding of Israel (1950), the total number of Jews in Israel represents only 6% of world Jewry (1.37 millions). By 2010, it represents 42% of world Jewry (7.7 millions). What this figure shows is the massive migration of Jews back to their ancient homeland. It’s hard to ignore this fact of Jewish migration back to the Holy Land in the context of Zephaniah’s prophecy.
While the fact of history is indisputable, Christians are not agreed on whether modern Israel is still to be regarded as God's "chosen people.". The belief that Israel is still God's "chosen people" is known as Christian Zionism. Majority of evangelical Christians hold to the view that God has not rejected Israel as His people based on his covenantal promise made to Abraham and David. However, there are also Christians who reject Christian Zionism and hold to the "replacement theology" view which states that the Church has now replaced the Jewish nation as God's new “chosen people” – we are the New Israel, the spiritual Jews, not the state of Israel. While I agree somewhat to the replacement theology (that the Church has replaced Israel as God's chosen people), however, I hold that this is only for a time period, known as the "times of the Gentiles" (Luke 21:24). Israel has experienced a temporary "hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in" (Rom. 11:25). So, God has not rejected Israel--He will return as the "King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst" (Zeph. 3:15).
Be that as it may, we still have to answer the historical question raised by Zephaniah’s prophecy: is the modern state of Israel a fulfillment of Zephaniah's prophecy? Personally, I don't see any other option but to take it literally if I am not to ignore the current geo-political realities. Whether we regard modern Israel as still God’s “chosen people” or not is irrelevant to the prophecy. What is important is that the restoration of Israel as a nation-state is a sign that the “day of the Lord” is coming soon.
Instead of retreating into our entrenched theological positions, we should instead be preparing the church to engage the world to prepare God’s people for the coming time of troubles.
Father, deliver us from entrenched theological positions to be open to Your Spirit’s leadership to walk in Your way. Grant us wisdom to discern truth from error in these days of deception and apostasy. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.