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.
Oracle Against Judah 1:1-2:3
- The word of the Lord that came to Zephaniah
- Judgment of Judah – graphic imagery
- Judgment against the world
- General thrust of passage is complete destruction
- Judgment for Judah
- Will destroy the remnants of Baal
- Will cut off the names of those who turn back from following the Lord
- Called all to silent attention before the Lord
- Day of the Lord was at hand – day of reckoning
- The Lord's sacrifice will be the people of Judah
- The Babylonians will be called to carry out the sacrifice
- Special mention was given to royal leaders who failed their responsibility
- It will be a day of reckoning and of great wailing
- Curses of the covenant will be invoked
- People will not enjoy the fruits of their labors
- The Day of the Lord
- It is nearer than people think; will be a day of terror
- Graphic descriptions of that horrible day
- It will be a day of wrath, anguish, and distress
- Battle cries and trumpets will be heard
- They will stumble along like the blind
- Neither silver nor gold will be able to save them
- They cannot buy their way out of this one
- Calls people to gather
- If they gather together, they might avert judgment
- Seek the Lord, seek righteousness…perhaps they will be sheltered
- Reason for distress: Judgment against Judah for its sins
Oracle Against the Nations 2:4-3:8
- Oracle against Philistia
- Four cities representing all of Philistia will be destroyed
- None will be left
- Seacoast of Philistia will be desolate place for shepherds
- Eventually will be enjoyed by remnant of Judah
- Oracle against Moab and Ammon
- People of these lands have taunted Judah
- God has heard their insults
- Their lands will become desolate
- Again, the remnant of Judah will inherit the land
- The Lord God will destroy the gods of that land
- Then the people will have to acknowledge Yahweh as the true God
- Oracle against Cush
- They will be slain by the sword
- Located along the upper Nile
- They will be brought to an end
- Oracle against Assyria
- Prediction of utter desolation
- City will be dry as a desert (Nineveh probably had one of the best irrigation systems in all of antiquity – another sign that God is Lord over all)
- City will become an object of contempt
- People will pass by and mock it
- Oracle against Jerusalem
- Judah was not devoid of its own social problems
- Oppressors ignored the plight of the poor
- People were outwardly meticulous about purity ceremonies
- Inwardly, they were rotten to the core
- Specific charges: Disobedient, untrusting, did not draw near to God
- Officials rulers, prophets, and priests were all blameworthy
- In contrast to leaders, the Lord is righteous
- God reminded His people re: the fate of other nations
- Pleaded with Judah to return to Him
- People were trapped in sin, and did not comply
Promise of Restoration 3:9-20
- Day of Joy
- The scattered people would be gathered
- They will learn to worship rightly
- Restoration of Judah
- The proud will be removed; the meek and humble will remain
- The meek will trust in the name of the Lord
- No more will they fear
- There will be no more lies; no more deceit
- Life will return to normal
- The remnant will rejoice
- It will be a time of great joy – messianic era
- The Lord has removed their punishment
- Daughter of Zion will sing!
- Enemies have been turned back
- The Lord is mighty to save
- "He will take great delight in you…. He will rejoice over you with singing"
- They will rest in His love
- Sorrows are over, including the memory of them
- God will take care of His instruments of judgment
- Honor and praise will replace shame
- "I will gather you…and bring you home."
- Their fortunes and their lives will be restored
Zephaniah's message ends like so many others. Judgment is coming; it is unstoppable – but a few will survive and reap great blessings. Words of judgment sounded very foreign to God's people who always assumed God would protect them. They had an irrefutable covenant with God, despite the fact that they had violated it with impunity for generations. Even the years of Assyrian domination did little to convince them to turn to the Lord. Zephaniah's prediction of the Day of the Lord probably fell upon deaf ears, but within fifty years that prediction would have been realized. Only then would people cling desperately to his message because he also predicted an end to the oppression. If he had been right about the judgment, then he was probably also right about the restoration. They had been brought to their knees.
Craigie, Peter. "Twelve Prophets." Daily Study Bible Series. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1984.
Gaebelein, Frank. "Nahum." Expositor's Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1985.
Mills, Watson and Richard Wilson. Mercer Commentary on the Bible. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1995.
Smith, Ralph. "Micah-Malachi." Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1984.