Today, the popular evangelical view of the end times points toward a great tribulation period and the final apostasy of the church with a remnant escaping via a rapture either before the tribulation or during it. Gone are the great men of the past who pointed to a time when the gospel would triumph in the world and that all the nations would come to Christ. That was the vision of the pioneer missionaries such as William Carey and others. From India, Carey wrote, “We only want men and money to fill this country with the knowledge of Christ. We are neither working at uncertainty nor afraid for the result…He must reign, till Satan has not an inch of territory.” (Puritan Hope, p. 141) Is that not what Jesus called the church to do, to make disciples of all the nations? Does not the scripture say that Christ shall reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet? (1 Corinthians 15:25) Did not Jesus say that Satan and all his forces would not be able to prevail against the church? (Matthew 16:18) Will the church really end up in defeat as so many modern evangelical prophets tell us today? Will things get so bad that the Lord will have to snatch up the church and let Satan have his day? That’s exactly what the modern day teaching on the rapture tells us. It seems to me that there is a better interpretation of the scriptures that point to a day when the gospel will prevail in the world. The church will not go down in defeat but on the contrary will shine in its glory in the latter days on this earth.
In this article, we will consider Zephaniah 3:9-10 which says, “Then will I purify the lips of the peoples, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him shoulder to shoulder. From beyond the rivers of Cush my worshippers, my scattered people, will bring me offerings.” This passage points to the conversion of the Gentiles (the peoples) on a very large scale. It is not just some of these peoples who will call on the name of the Lord but all of them and they will serve the Lord together (shoulder to shoulder) indicating that the whole mass of Gentiles will serve the Lord. The second verse points to people far off coming to worship the Lord. This could either be interpreted as the coming of people from the farthest parts of the world to serve and worship the Lord or it could also point to the conversion of the Jews as the scattered Jewish people from the farthest countries come back to the Lord. Although the latter interpretation will certainly come about as the conversion of the Jews is foretold in other places in scripture, it is most probable that the former interpretation of verse 10 is the best in this context. This verse seems to be a further expansion of verse 9 which points to a conversion of people (both Jew and Gentile) from all over the world even from the farthest nations.
This passage in Zephaniah is very similar to the passage in Isaiah 19:18-25 which also points to a conversion of the Gentile nations. There is much rich symbolism in those verses such as verse 18 which says, “In that day five cities in Egypt will speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the Lord Almighty…” Is this talking about Egyptians learning and speaking Hebrew or is this talking about the Egyptians becoming the people of God as well as the Hebrews? It would seem that the latter is the case if we consider the rest of the verses in that passage. We read in verses 19-22, “In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the heart of Egypt, and a monument to the Lord at its border. It will be a sign and witness to the Lord Almighty in the land of Egypt. When they cry out to the Lord because of their oppressors, he will send them a savior and defender, and he will rescue them. So the Lord will make himself known to the Egyptians, and in that day they will acknowledge the Lord. They will worship with sacrifices and grain offerings; they will make vows to the Lord and keep them. The Lord will strike Egypt with a plague; he will strike them and heal them. They will turn to the Lord, and he will respond to their pleas and heal them.” The least we can say of this passage is that it looks forward to a day when the country of Egypt will turn to the Lord. If we read the rest of the passage, it seems to point to a time when not only Egypt but many nations will turn to the Lord.
We read in verses 23-25 – “In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. The Lord Almighty will bless them, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.’” Now, what is the Prophet Isaiah talking about? Is he just talking about these two nations of Egypt and Assyria or is talking about them in a representative way? It would seem that he is looking forward to a day when the Gentile nations along with Israel will all know the Lord. Israel will no longer be exclusively the people of God but nations from all over the world will come into the people of God. This would be in the time of the Messiah or the gospel age and particularly toward the latter part of that age.
It seems then that Zephaniah 3:9-10 is a similar prophecy pointing to a time when nations from all over the world including Israel will know the Lord and serve Him. John Gill refers to Psalm 68:31 which says, “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.” Gill comments, “…that is, in prayer, and these are the sons and daughters of the Almighty; who are scattered abroad in the several parts of the world….. but as they are gathered together by Christ in redemption, so they are found out and reached by efficacious grace in calling whether Jews or Gentiles.” (Commentary on Zephaniah www.biblestudytools.com )
Verse 10 talks of purifying the lips of the peoples that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him shoulder to shoulder. Keil and Delitzsch comment, “God turns to the nations a pure lip, by purifying their sinful lips, i.e. He converts them, that they may be able to call upon Him with pure lips. Lip does not stand for language, but is mentioned as the organ of speech, by which a man expresses the thoughts of his heart, so that purity of the lips involves or presupposes the purification of the heart….To serve with one shoulder, is to serve together or with unanimity. The metaphor is taken from bearers who carry a burden with even shoulders.” (Commentary on Zephaniah, p. 156) A similar expression is found in Jeremiah 32:39 which says, “I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me for their own good and the good of their children after them.” Though that particular verse is talking about the people of Israel, the words in Zephaniah 3:9 refer to the nations having singleness of heart and action in serving the Lord.
These two verses in Zephaniah point to a time when there will be a great revival among the peoples of the world when they will turn to the Lord and even from the farthest nations people will come to worship the Lord, both Jew and Gentile. Of course, this whole process began at Pentecost and has continued throughout the gospel age even unto today. Yet, the passage seems to point to something even greater than we have seen thus far. It points to a time when all the nations will unitedly turn to the Lord and serve Him. It was this kind of vision of all nations eventually turning to the Lord that those pioneer missionaries like William Carey had. They went to dark places like India and Africa and sowed the seed of the gospel because they believed that the gospel would eventually prevail in those nations and they could see all of India and all of Africa coming to the Lord in the future.
This idea of winning the whole world to Christ through the preaching of the gospel was not something new but had been actually the prevalent view of the church for many years. Iain Murray points out that this view was in full swing in the 1740’s and was inherited from Christians who had believed the same in earlier generations since the Reformation. Murray writes, “The remarkable unanimity of prophetic views to be found among the multiplied ranks of evangelicals after the 1740’s throughout the English-speaking nations is itself indicative of the formative influence of the Puritan school. Everywhere the belief held sway that through the work of the Holy Spirit in fulfillment of scripture promises, Christ would yet possess the earth. A bright day would come when, in Jonathan Edwards’ words, ‘the work of conversion will go on in a wonderful manner and spread more and more’. Sometime in that same future period the Jews would be called and the world enjoy a ‘latter day glory’ or ‘millennium’, as the same period now became more commonly called.” (The Puritan Hope, p. 150-151) This idea of a millennium or latter day glory was not the same idea of a millennium as taught be so many evangelicals today. The modern idea of a millennium comes only after the failure of the church to win the world to Christ and only after Jesus returns to reign in person. The old idea of the millennium or latter day glory was a period that would eventually come after the church had been victorious in preaching the gospel all over the world. Jesus would be reigning spiritually through the proclamation of the gospel by the church and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in mighty power throughout the world.
James A. De Jong in his book As the Waters Cover the Sea points out the prevalence of a view of the church in the future held by the majority of evangelicals in the years 1640 to the beginning of the modern missionary era. It was this view of the church and its mission in the world that spurred on missions in the beginning of the 19th century. De Jong writes, “Often a strong desire to realize the promised age of glory for the church motivated mission work. Chronological theories and signs of the times sometimes established a timetable for missions. Speculation on the character of that period often defined the objectives of the mission program. But basically it was the belief in the approach of an era when the gospel would be universally proclaimed which motivated the formation of missionary societies and revitalized existing missions.” (p. 2-3)
De Jong termed the outlook of these evangelicals from shortly after the Reformation on into the 19th century as “millennial expectations.” He then goes on to say, “…by which we understand Scripturally-based hopes regarding the latter days or the times near the end of world history. These expectations include such anticipations as the conversion of the Gentile nations, the conversion of the Jews……..and an era of glory for the church when the gospel will triumph among the nations.” (p. 2) It was this optimistic outlook that drove missionaries like William Carey to give their lives to reaching the unreached with the gospel. They believed that their efforts would not be in vain and foresaw a day when the church would have a latter-day glory on the earth in this age. Their outlook was far different than much of modern day evangelical teaching on the last days. Rather than the church going down in defeat and apostasy, the church would be victorious in this age.
We can only quote the Psalmist who wrote, “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, for dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations.” (Psalm 22:27-28) We look for a day when all the nations will come to the Lord and serve Him as Zephaniah prophesied long ago when he said, “Then will I purify the lips of the peoples, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him shoulder to shoulder.” (Zephaniah 3:9)
All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version (1978) unless indicated otherwise.
.DeJong, James A. As the Waters Cover the Sea, Audubon Press, Laurel, MS, 2006.
Gill, John. Commentary on Zephaniah, www.biblestudytools.com .
Kiel, C. F. and Delitzsch, F. Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes, Volume 10, Minor Prophets, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, no date given.
Murray, Iain. The Puritan Hope, The Banner of Truth Trust, London, 1971.