Captives of the Philistines

Now we see Zephaniah turn to address the nations around Judah. As we seek to diagnose the times through the warnings given by the prophet we begin to realize how similar things are today in our day as they were then for Judah and the surrounding nations. This was and this is a very pluralistic time. Then, every region, every tribe, every nation had their own gods, their own religion, and many blended their religion with the religion of others creating new false religions. And even Israel and Judah put idols up in the Temple of God, thinking they could take a little from this religion and a little from that religion and mix it all together. As if there are many paths to God and not just One, narrow Way.

Here we see from the nations that people were not just involved in false religion but they were mixing and melding and influencing even the worship of the true God through their idolatry. They wanted to worship whichever God or gods that could give them what they wanted at that specific moment in time. In truth, that means they were ultimately worshipping themselves. At the altar of “My Wants” we find idolatry that starts with a capital I.

Edward Gibbon in his book Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, wrote this, “All religions were regarded by the people as equally true, by the philosophers as equally false, and by the magistrates as equally useful.”

 The people believed that they could believe whatever they wanted to believe – and their belief is their truth, their reality, their religion. The philosophers said it was all nonsense and you didn’t need to believe any of it. The government said believe whatever you want and then worked to use that belief to the advantage of the state. Hence why when Rome conquered a new territory they simply assimilated and blended the religion and customs of that religion into the collective. Rome – the first Borg hive!

Now, although none of these 5 nations we are about to examine claim to be worshippers of the true God, they are pluralistic. God makes some rather striking statements against and about them, and we will see that whether or not they worship God, He is the Lord of the nations! Here we see where Zephaniah borrows the Lord’s Words from Amos from 100 years before. He begins with the Philistines, those in Philistia, to the southwest of Jerusalem. They attacked and antagonized the Jews as often as they had opportunity. In verses 4-7 here is the Word of the Lord to the Philistines, “For Gaza shall be forsaken, and Ashkelon desolate; They shall drive out Ashdod at noonday, And Ekron shall be uprooted. 5 Woe to the inhabitants of the seacoast, The nation of the Cherethites! The word of the Lord is against you, O Canaan, land of the Philistines: “I will destroy you; So there shall be no inhabitant.” 6 The seacoast shall be pastures, With shelters for shepherds and folds for flocks. 7 The coast shall be for the remnant of the house of Judah; They shall feed their flocks there; In the houses of Ashkelon they shall lie down at evening. For the Lord their God will intervene for them, And return their captives.”

God speaks to the Philistines and it is not good news. He calls by name 4 of their 5 largest cities. Gaza was the largest city and it is going to be forsaken, abandoned, deserted, and empty. Ashkelon will be desolate, literally “wasted.” Ashdod will sees its population driven out, expelled in the middle of the day. Ekron will be pulled up by the roots and “hamstrung” (a term that refers to cutting the tendons in order to cripple and disable an animal before killing and butchering it).

These are the strongholds of the Philistines, some of the most feared warriors in history. We know their most famous warrior, the giant Goliath, who stood 9 feet 9 inches tall. And from these cities, these strongholds, people will be driven out and devastated to the point that anyone, without planning, without strategy, and without tactics for battle will be able to walk into the city in broad daylight and claim it for themselves.

How frightening to hear God say to any nation, “I will destroy you.” We need to ask then, why is God going to judge the Philistines like this? Zephaniah does not tell us, but I think that Zephaniah believes that the people are familiar with the prophecy of Amos, because Amos tells us exactly why this is going to happen. In Amos 1:6-8 we read, “Thus says the Lord: “For three transgressions of Gaza, and for four, I will not turn away its punishment, Because they took captive the whole captivity To deliver them up to Edom. 7 But I will send a fire upon the wall of Gaza, Which shall devour its palaces. 8 I will cut off the inhabitant from Ashdod, And the one who holds the scepter from Ashkelon; I will turn My hand against Ekron, And the remnant of the Philistines shall perish,” Says the Lord God.”

The Philistines would go and conquer a territory and a people and they would enslave the enemy soldiers who survived the battle. This was a common practice and an expectation that defeated nations faced in this time. They were not taken as prisoners of war, but as slaves to serve the victors. The Philistines took it one step further than this generally accepted practice for taking soldiers – they took the whole city as slaves. Soldiers, men, women, children…everyone. At one point in history as a result of this kind of enslavement there were so many slaves living in the land that the Philistines did not want any more slaves. Someone, we are not sure who but we know this happened, someone had an idea. They approached Edom, one of the largest and richest nations, off to the East. Edom bargained and bought the “excess” slaves off the Philistines. Then the Edomites would sell those slaves to nations all over the known world. This was a driving factor in their economy – they made a business of the slave trade.

So who were these Edomites? Where did the people of Edom come from? Bible trivia. Anyone know? They descended from Esau, Jacob’s brother, son of Isaac. And just as Jacob and Esau did not get along that well, their descendants were the same. The Edomites were constantly harassing Israel. And here the Edomites are buying whole cities of people from the Philistines. They are oppressing the poor and Amos says that the rich are taking the poor and using them to increase their wealth.

Where did the Edomites live? Where was their land that would be abandoned and uprooted? If you are a movie buff and have seen the third Indiana Jones movie, the temple carved into the mountain into the pink sandstone was featured in the movie – it is a real place, Petra, called the Rose City in modern day Jordan. When God judged the Edomites they were told that no one would inhabit their cities. The city was not even rediscovered until the 1800s. And you know who lives in Petra today? No one. Tourists and archeologists visit but it is still to this day uninhabited. What we know of the area is revealed in about 15% of the city, as 85% of the ruins are still undiscovered and undisturbed carved back into the mountains.

And just as the Philistines have done to other nations, now God is going to do to them. He is going to pull their cities up by the roots like a weed. God says, “I will destroy you.” The coast lands where you have had fortifications and ports for shipping people off into slavery will be pastures. Empty fields. There will be none of them left in the land.