The prophet and his prophecy
We know little about Zephaniah (Yahweh hides), who is not referred to by name anywhere else in the Bible, other than in the opening verse of the Book: “The word of the Lord which came unto Zephaniah the son of Cushi, the son of Gedaliah, the son of Amariah, the son of Hizkiah, in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah” (1:1). What we might deduce is he was a descendant of good king Hezekiah, and of royal blood, and he came on the scene after the rapid downward spiral in the moral and religious life of Judah, and may have been the spur the next good king (Josiah), needed for his short lived reforms. Like so many of the prophets, his message was one of judgment (Yahweh is NOT to be messed with) and future (how far he knew not, Messianic) hope.
Background and context
Zephaniah may have began his prophesying around 621BC, around the time Josiah began his reforms. We know Josiah, who was king 640-609BC, came to the throne, aged 8, and before he took the deliberate decision to go along the righteousness way, with an all too sad limited impact, while still a minor who might have continued in the evil ways of his predecessors. Who knows to what extent Zephaniah was instrumental in that decision, but there was no ambiguity or mincing of his words when following the introduction, he declares: “I will utterly consume all things from off the land, saith the Lord” (1:2). While the main audience of the prophecy was Judah, there was a message too for the nations surrounding Judah on all its sides, all of which were to face judgment under, the not named by Zephaniah, God’s instrument – Babylon.
As for hope, while that realisation was for a future time, including a some of it in a still to be manifest future, there was still the prospect, even then, that if the people turned to the Lord, He would relent concerning future judgment, for that was an important part of God’s character. Tragically, what might have been following Josiah’s reforms was not to be. After, four more kings, who between them did not reign long and were in effect puppets to foreign masters, exile to Babylon was the fate in store for Judah, and would be a theme that Habakkuk would pick up some twenty years later, as well as Jeremiah who picked up the pieces of Judah not heeding Zephaniah’s warnings. Besides following similar judgement and then hope themes of other prophets, some of these, with God judging His people and then the surrounding nations before seeing in a kingdom where His rule and blessing dominates, are picked up in the Book of Revelation.
A synopsis of the Book
- Introduction (1:1–3)
- Title: The Prophet Identified (1:1)
- Prologue: Double Announcement of Total Judgment (1:2–3)
- The Day of the Lord Coming on Judah and the Nations (1:4–18)
- Judgment on the Idolaters in Judah (1:4–9)
- Wailing throughout Jerusalem (1:10–13)
- The Inescapable Day of the Lord’s Wrath (1:14–18)
- God’s Judgment on the Nations (2:1—3:8)
- Call to Judah to Repent (2:1–3)
- Judgment on Philistia (2:4–7)
- Judgment on Moab and Ammon (2:8–11)
- Judgment on Cush (2:12)
- Judgment on Assyria (2:13–15)
- Judgment on Jerusalem (3:1–5)
- Jerusalem’s Refusal to Repent (3:6–8)
- Redemption of the Remnant (3:9–20)
- Nations Purified, Remnant Restored, Jerusalem Purged (3:9–13)
- Rejoicing in the City (3:14–17)
- The Nation Restored (3:18–20)
The message of the Prophet
Chapter 1.1 – 2.3 gives dire warnings of punishment and destruction for Judah. The prophet begins with an all-embracing prophecy of destruction, possibly for the whole of mankind (1:2-3), but focuses on the people of God. “I will also stretch out mine hand upon Judah, and upon all the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and I will cut off the remnant of Baal from this place, and the name of the Chemarims with the priests” (1:4). God says He will punish them for their worship of other ‘gods’, “that are turned back from the Lord; and those that have not sought the Lord, nor enquired for him” (1:6). God’s complaint and punishment is described in graphic detail, His righteous cause and devastating effect. “And it shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with candles, and punish the men that are settled on their lees: that say in their heart, The Lord will not do good, neither will he do evil. Therefore their goods shall become a booty, and their houses a desolation: they shall also build houses, but not inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, but not drink the wine thereof. The great day of the Lord is near, it is near, and hasteth greatly, even the voice of the day of the Lord: the mighty man shall cry there bitterly” (1:12-14). In the light of this terrible prospect, God calls upon His people to and turn back to Him before it’s too late, for there is still hope: “Seek ye the Lord, all ye meek of the earth, which have wrought his judgment; seek righteousness, seek meekness: it may be ye shall be hid in the day of the Lord’s anger” (2:3).
Chapter 2.4-15: turns our attention to other nations near to Judah, in fact to all four points of the compass, for having invoked God’s simmering anger it was about to boil over, who will also be judged by the same instrument of the Lord, i.e. Babylon a rising power, as He used to bring about Judah’s downfall:
- West – Philistia (2:4-7)
- East – Moab, Ammon (2:8-11) – pride and oppressed God’s people
- South – Egypt, Ethiopia (2:12)
- North – Assyria (2:13-15) – full of pride (reminiscent of Nahum)
Chapter 3: Zephaniah returns to God’s own people. He starts with the coming judgment and accuses them of rebellion and resistance, and uses the strongest of warnings of the direst of judgements: “Woe to her that is filthy and polluted, to the oppressing city! She obeyed not the voice; she received not correction; she trusted not in the Lord; she drew not near to her God. Her princes within her are roaring lions; her judges are evening wolves; they gnaw not the bones till the morrow. Her prophets are light and treacherous persons: her priests have polluted the sanctuary, they have done violence to the law. The just Lord is in the midst thereof; he will not do iniquity: every morning doth he bring his judgment to light, he faileth not; but the unjust knoweth no shame” (3:1-5). They had exhausted God’s patience and judgment was coming to Judah and the nations, through not named Babylon in a matter of a few years but looking far into the future when all the nations will face the wrath of God (3:8).
Yet there is hope and there is a remnant: “For then will I turn to the people a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve him with one consent … I will also leave in the midst of thee an afflicted and poor people, and they shall trust in the name of the Lord” (3:9,12). Zephaniah ends with a song of encouragement and joy for the future – punishment is taken away, hope is restored, and enemies are brought to justice. God promises that He will bring His scattered people back to their land and they will be honoured by the nations of the world instead of being their victims (3:9-20). “The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing … At that time will I bring you again, even in the time that I gather you: for I will make you a name and a praise among all people of the earth, when I turn back your captivity before your eyes, saith the Lord” (3:17,20). Having started the chapter with a curse (justice), it ends with a blessing (mercy), for Israel and those from all the nations that trust in the Lord. Our job is to make known His message!