Speaking God’s words in the days of King Josiah of Judah, the prophet Zephaniah says, “I will cut off the remnant of Baal from this place, and the name of the Chemarims with the priests” (KJV). The term Chemarims is a transliteration of a Hebrew word and is used only in the KJV and a few other translations such as the American Standard Version and English Revised Version. Other versions render the word Chemarim as “idolatrous priests” (NIV) or “pagan priests” (NET). The KJV translates same Hebrew word as “idolatrous priests” in 2 Kings 23:5.
The Chemarim were false priests who may have claimed to serve the LORD but in reality sacrificed to Baal, Molech, and other pagan deities. The Chemarim were the “pagan priests” whom Zephaniah pronounced judgment against. Baal-worship in Judah was put down by King Josiah, who did away with the pagan priests who had been appointed by former kings (2 Kings 23:5). In his reforms, Josiah stopped the practice of burning incense to Baal and to the sun and moon and stars. He also tore down the altars and shrines to false gods, destroyed the Asherah poles, and eliminated anything associated with pagan worship practices (verses 6–20). Josiah then reinstituted the observance of Passover (verses 21–23).
Zephaniah’s prophecy against the Chemarim is set in a larger passage of judgment against the entire world: “I will sweep away everything / from the face of the earth . . . / When I destroy all mankind / on the face of the earth, . . . / and the idols that cause the wicked to stumble” (Zephaniah 1:2–3). God promises to put an end to all idolatry some day. That universal Judgment Day was preceded by a smaller-scale “judgment day” led by King Josiah, who rid Judah of the Chemarim and their detestable practices. Not only were their altars and high places destroyed, but their very names were wiped out (verse 4).
The word Chemarim comes from a root word that means “black.” Why the Hebrews called the false priests “Chemarim” is unclear, but commentators have several theories: 1) the false priests wore black garments, as opposed to the white garments God had specified that priests wear (see Leviticus 16:23); 2) the garments of the Chemarim were usually darkened by soot from their numerous incense burnings; 3) the Chemarim branded their foreheads; or 4) the “blackness” of the Chemarim was a reference to the smoke of the fires in which they sacrificed children to Molech.
The obscurity of the word’s meaning indicates that God did indeed carry out His promise that the very names of the Chemarim, as well as the priests themselves, would be forgotten. God had spoken, and His word is as good as action.