Bible Overview is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in Bible study. Each month we feature a book of the Bible (in order) by Bible scholar and lecturer, Mary Jane Chaignot.
This month has three entries, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah, whose writings are found among the Minor Prophets. It is generally assumed that these three were contemporaries and all shared in the belief that God was sovereign, just, and able to deliver the righteous. They each, however, had a different method of conveying that message. Nahum showed God’s sovereignty by prophesying against Nineveh. Habakkuk struggled with God’s answer that he would use the Chaldeans to chastise Judah. And Zephaniah declared his message to the world – that all needed a course adjustment. But after judgment, a remnant would arise and God would restore His people to a life of blessings. If you want to read some of the history previous to this selection, you can find the earlier books in our archives.
The Bible Time-Line is another quick reference for locating individuals or specific books. We encourage readers to share their Bible Study success stories on this site. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to be included on next month's site.
Zephaniah might possibly be one of the least known prophets of the seventh century. This is quite remarkable considering he is the only one whose ancestry goes back four generations. It appears that he is the great, great grandson of someone called Hezekiah. This could possibly be a reference to Hezekiah, king of Judah (715-686 BCE). In that case, Zephaniah would have been of royal status. But some scholars are doubtful of that, thinking if that had been the case, it would have been written to make the link absolutely clear: Hezekiah, king of Judah. Needless to say, this is something that cannot be known with certainty. The name, Zephaniah, is found several times in the Old Testament, but it is generally thought to refer to other persons. We have no additional information about Zephaniah, nor are scholars certain about the meaning of his name. It could either mean “to hide” or “to watch,” and has been variously rendered, “Yahweh has hidden,” or “watchman for the Lord.”
As it is, Zephaniah identifies himself as prophesying during the reign of Josiah, (640-609 BCE.) Most scholars think he worked during the earlier part of Josiah’s reign, possibly before he began his reforms in 622 BCE. That would put his ministry around 630 BCE. He would have been a contemporary of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Jeremiah, though none of these prophets refer to each other.
Like the prophets before him, he was called to minister to a nation that had been under Assyrian control. Historians agree that Assyria had allowed the kings of Judah to reign because it was of great benefit to them. Josiah’s predecessor, Manasseh, has become the symbol of the embodiment of evil, but his main goal in office was to appease the Assyrians. In doing so, he incorporated many of their customs and probably worshiped several of their gods as well. This would have been a conscious decision on his part, and one for which the nation would pay a high price. He, no doubt, eliminated or silenced those who opposed his pro-Assyrian policies, including the worship of other gods. So it was that prophecy was silent for several generations before Nahum took up the mantle, followed shortly by Zephaniah and others.
When Josiah came to the throne, he was only eight years old. Scholars think he was raised by Deuteronomists who did everything in their power to instill in him a sense of piety and uprightness. It is also possible that the work of Zephaniah contributed to his desire to turn the nation back towards the Lord. With the discovery of the book of Deuteronomy in 621, Josiah moved quickly to enforce its provisions, removing many of the high places and restoring people’s worship to God alone. It didn’t hurt that a few years earlier Ashurbanipal (669-626 BCE) had died, leaving Assyria in a weakened state. His successors were unable to maintain Assyria’s empire and soon the Babylonians began carving it up.
Zephaniah’s ministry, then, was directed to Judah just before these major changes came about. Indeed, his main message was regarding “the day of the Lord.” It was a day that would come against Judah for all her sins, but he also acknowledged that some had remained faithful and they would be spared. Much of what Zephaniah wrote had already been written by other prophets. There is little original material in his oracles. His message, then, repeats the twin topics of judgment and hope. In this case, judgment would be launched against the whole world – first Judah, then the nations. But it would be balanced with a vision of a remnant that would survive. Judgment would never be God’s final word; God’s mercy would always end the day. So although his words were not new, the fact that he was willing to say them after a long period of prophetic silence is noteworthy.
The book is generally divided into three sections. The first is an oracle against Judah, 1:1-2:3. The second is an oracle against the nations, 2:4-3:8, and the third is a promise of restoration for the remnant, 3:9-20.