God the Priest

From Commentary on Zephaniah (ca. 1557)

Let us see what the prophet means by the word, silence. Something has been said of this on the second chapter of Habakkuk. We said then that by silence is meant submission; and to make the thing clearer, we said that we were to notice the contrast between silence, to which men calmly submit, and contumacy, which is ever clamorous. When men seek to be wise in themselves, and acquiesce not in God’s word, it is then said, that they are not silent, for they refuse to give a hearing to his word; and when men give loose reins to their own will, they observe no bounds. Until God then obtains authority in the world, all places are full of clamor, and the whole life of men is in a state of confusion, for they run around in their wanderings; and there is no restraint where God is not heard.

It is for the same reason that the prophet now demands silence: but the expression is accommodated to the subject which he handles. To be silent at the presence of God, it is true, is to submit to God’s authority; but the connection is to be considered; for Zephaniah saw then that God’s judgment was despised and regarded as nothing; and he intimates here that God had so spoken, that the execution was nigh at hand. Hence he says, “Be silent,” that is, know that I have not spoken merely for the purpose of terrifying you. But as God is prepared to execute vengeance. Of this he now reminds you, that if there be any hope of repentance, you may in time seek to return into favor with him. If not, that you may be without excuse.


We now understand why the prophet bids them to be silent before the Lord Jehovah, and the context is a confirmation of the same view. For the reason is added, “Because the day of Jehovah is nigh. For profane men ever promise to themselves some respite, and think that they gain much by delay. The prophet, on the contrary, does now expose to scorn this self-security, and says, that the day of Jehovah was nigh at hand. It is then the same thing as though he had said, that his judgment ought to have been quickly anticipated, and even with fear and trembling.

He afterwards employs a metaphor to set forth what he taught — that God had prepared a sacrifice, yes, that he had already appointed and set apart his guests. By the word, sacrifice, the prophet reminded them, that the punishment of which he had spoken would be just, and that the glory of God would thereby shine forth.

We indeed know how ready the world is to make complaints; when it is pressed by God’s hand, it expostulates on account of too much rigor; and many in an open manner give utterance to their blasphemies. As then they own not God’s justice in his punishment, the prophet calls it a sacrifice; and sacrifices, we know, are connected to worship, and he who offers a sacrifice to God believes him to be just.

So also by this kind of speaking Zephaniah intimates that God would not act a cruel part in cutting off the city of Jerusalem and its inhabitants; for this would be a sacrifice, according to the language often employed by the prophets, and especially by Isaiah [in Isaiah 29 and 34]… where Jerusalem itself is represented as the altar; as though he had said, in all the streets, in the open places, there shall be altars to me; for I will collect together great masses of men, whom I shall slay as a sacrifice to me. For all who were not willing to render worship to God, and who did not freely offer themselves as spiritual victims to him, were to be drawn to the slaughter, and were at the same time called sacrifices.

So the executions on the gallows, when the wicked suffer, may be said to be sacrifices to God: for the Lord arms the magistrate with the sword to restrain wickedness, that the wicked may not have such liberty as to banish all equity from the world. The cities also, which, being forcibly taken, are subject to a slaughter, and the fields, where armies are slain, become altars, for God makes the rebellious a sacrifice, because they refuse willingly to offer themselves.

So also in this place the prophet says, “Jehovah has prepared for himself a sacrifice.” Where? At Jerusalem, through the whole city, as it has appeared from the quotation from Isaiah. For as they had not rightly sacrificed to God on Mount Sion, but entirely spoiled his worship, God himself declares, that he would become a priest, that he might slay, as he thought right, those beasts, who had obstinately refused his yoke.

John Calvin (1509-1564) was one of the most influential theologians of the Protestant Reformation, who served for many decades as the chief pastor of Geneva. He wrote commentaries on most books of the Bible, which were reworked from lectures he gave to theological students. He is commemorated on May 26 or May 28 on the liturgical calendars of several Anglican churches.


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