“For then I will restore to the peoples a pure language, that they all may call on the name of the LORD, to serve Him with one accord” (Zephaniah 3:9).
Is this referring to the Jewish people speaking Hebrew again, or all peoples speaking a “pure language” of praise, or even having “clean lips” as some translations say? The key is found in the context.
In context, God is speaking about the Jewish people returning to Israel. We can see whom God is speaking to in the following verses:
- The very next verse: “From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia, My worshipers, the daughter of My dispersed ones, shall bring My offering” (v. 10)
- Who else are “God’s dispersed ones” but the Jewish people? Also, it implies here that although they were far off, they will come near (to Israel) to make an offering. This is made much more clear in subsequent verses.
- Where will they be? 11 “in My holy mountain” – back in Israel
- “The remnant of Israel” – v. 13
- “Sing, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem” (v. 14)
- “In that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: ‘Do not fear; Zion, let not your hands be weak.’” (v. 16)
- Most clear in verses 19-20
- “’Behold, at that time I will deal with all who afflict you; I will save the lame, and gather those who were driven out; I will appoint them for praise and fame in every land where they were put to shame. At that time I will bring you back, even at the time I gather you; for I will give you fame and praise among all the peoples of the earth, when I return your captives before your eyes,’ says the LORD.”
Right now is the time that He’s referring to when all of this will happen – once the people of Israel return to the land of Israel.
So it’s clear God was talking about the Jewish people having a language restored to them, and that the time would be after their return from the ends of the earth. But why does it say Hebrew would be a “pure language” that is restored to the Jewish people?
Hebrew was a “pure” language because it was a “dead” language for thousands of years (in the sense that no one spoke it as their mother tongue), and was only preserved in the Hebrew Bible and a few other writings. Then, once it was revived, it was based on the Hebrew Bible itself (the most “pure” text of all), and also it wasn’t mixed with many other languages, although this occurred to every other language over the past centuries. So it was “pure” in multiple senses!
So then, why does the text say that God would restore this language “to the peoples” and not to one people?
The people of Israel were spread across the globe to so many different countries, that when they returned they had such different cultures and languages that they could hardly be called “one people.” In fact, there were so many different languages at play and it was so difficult to get everyone to function in Hebrew that it took a “language police” in order to enforce the policy of speaking in Hebrew!
In Ezekiel 37, God says that He would make us one people again on the mountains of Israel
Although in context this is speaking of Judah and Israel, it still verifies the point: there was division amongst the people after being separated from their land for such a long period, yet God would bring unity and make us truly one people once we returned to the land.
God called us “peoples” because we were so diverse and divided when we came back to the land, especially because of lack of a common language. Yet once He would restore to us a “pure language” – Hebrew – we would become one people again and could serve Him with one accord. For the rest of the chapter, He refers to us again as one people, because we are now one people again.
He has indeed been faithful to fulfill this promise, just like many others in His Word!