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Introduction to the Book of Zephaniah

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General Info

When Zephaniah, whose name means “the Lord hides” or “the Lord protects” arrived on the scene, it broke a multi-decade long drought of prophetic activity that had ceased at the conclusion of the ministries of Isaiah and Micah.  Yet, his arrival also marked the beginning of the end of Judah as a sovereign nation with her own monarchy.  Less than two decades after his ministry, Judah would be conquered and a series of three exiles began for the Jewish people.

The Book of Zephaniah, like most of the Minor Prophets, begins with an introduction to the author, and identifies him as the son of Cushi.  Yet it is unique among the prophets in that his lineage is traced back four generations to Hezekiah (1:1).  This extra genealogical info is highly unusual and has led many scholars to believe that this “Hezekiah” is likely the famous good and righteous king of Judah (2Kgs 18-20; 2Chr 29-32).  This would make Zephaniah an extended member of the royal family and a man of some importance in society.  The prophet is not to be confused with the priest that was also a contemporary of Jeremiah (Jer 21:1, 29:25) or the “Zephaniah” mentioned about a century earlier in Zechariah (Zech 6:10,14).

In the Protestant Canon, Zephaniah is grouped with the other eleven books in the section called the “Minor Prophets”.  Each of the twelve books are named for its author and main character.  In the Hebrew Bible Canon, the twelve books of the minor prophets (along with Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel) are grouped into a section called the Nevi’im Aharonim, or the “Latter Prophets”.

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Brief Survey

As the book opens, the prophet is introduced and wastes no time with pleasantries and small talk.  He immediately pronounces the coming of the Day of the Lord, a day of coming judgment.  The first words from God after decades of prophetic silence n Judah was, “I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth” (1:1).  Thus begins the oracle, using apocalyptic language (see “Interpretation Hints” chapter below), that God is about to use the Babylonian invasion to invade and exile the nation as punishment for her wickedness (1:2-2:3).  Zephaniah then relays pronouncements from God against Judah’s adversaries such as Philistia, Moab, Ammon, and Cush (2:4-12).  He also forecast the destruction of Assyria (2:13-15), the dominant world power at the time.  This occurred shortly afterward in 612 at the hand of the Babylonians.

In the final chapter three, Zephaniah delivers a concluding oracle concerning the future of Jerusalem.  Although the One True God chose them out all all the nations to be His people, they constantly rebelled, ignored His correction, and chased after the false gods of their neighbors.  The priest defiled and profaned His sanctuary and consistently defied His laws (3:1-8).  Yet, despite their constant disobedience, the Lord would eventually restore their fortunes in the future.  Many believe that this final oracle of restoration (3:9-20) is a partial description of the future millennial reign of Christ, which would include both the faithful remnants from Israel and the gentiles.

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Key Verses

The word of the LORD that came to Zephaniah son of Cushi, the son of Gedaliah, the son of Amariah, the son of Hezekiah, during the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah: “I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” declares the LORD.  “I will sweep away both men and animals; I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea.  The wicked will have only heaps of rubble when I cut off man from the face of the earth,” declares the LORD. (1:1-3)

“The great day of the LORD is near-- near and coming quickly.  Listen!  The cry on the day of the LORD will be bitter, the shouting of the warrior there...  Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the LORD’s wrath.  In the fire of his jealousy the whole world will be consumed, for he will make a sudden end of all who live in the earth.” (1:14,18)

Seek the LORD, all you humble of the land, you who do what he commands. Seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you will be sheltered on the day of the LORD’s anger. (2:3)

The LORD will be awesome to them when he destroys all the gods of the land.  The nations on every shore will worship him, every one in its own land. (2:11)

The LORD within her is righteous; he does no wrong.  Morning by morning he dispenses his justice, and every new day he does not fail, yet the unrighteous know no shame. (3:5)

Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel!  Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem!  The LORD has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy.  The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm.  On that day they will say to Jerusalem, “Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands hang limp.  The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save.  He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing...  At that time I will deal with all who oppressed you; I will rescue the lame and gather those who have been scattered.  I will give them praise and honor in every land where they were put to shame.  At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home.  I will give you honor and praise among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortunes before your very eyes,” says the LORD.  (3:14-20)

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Author and Date

Outside of the unusual lineage of Zephaniah mentioned in the “General Info” chapter above, very little else is known of the prophet.  He likely lived in the city of Jerusalem, since he exhibits a familiarity with the layout, conditions and happenings in the area.  He also utilizes priestly vocabulary on several occasions, but we have no irrefutable evidence to allow us to conclude that he was officially associated with the temple.  The book was likely completed by 620 BC.

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Historical Background and Timeline

See Historical Background of the Minor Prophets, Chronology of the Minor Prophets and Chronology of the Monarchy Timeline for additional info.

The arrival of Zephaniah marked the end of a long drought of prophetic activity in Judah.  It  had been several decades since the conclusion of the ministries of Isaiah and Micah.  Unfortunately, the ministries of Zephaniah and his contemporaries (Jeremiah and Habakkuk) also were marked by an era of increasing political upheaval in the area.  Assyria, the dominant world power at the time, was becoming weaker as the Babylonians were becoming stronger and beginning to assert their influence.  This altered balance of power initially led to increased independence for Judah and other nations.

Zephaniah was born in Judah during the fifty-five year reign of Manasseh, one of the most wicked kings in Judah’s history (see 2Kg 21:1-18 and 2Chr 33:1-20).  The repercussions of his reign was felt even after his death.  He led the people away from God and, although he repented at the end, he was succeeded by his wicked son Amon, who reinstituted Baal worship, child sacrifice to the false god Molech, and neglected the temple before he was murdered.  Judah then experienced a significant but brief time of revival under Josiah (2Chr 24-35), who started down the path of his predecessor, but instituted reforms after finding the Book of the Law in the Temple.  He also restored the Temple that had been neglected, and reinstituted the Passover celebration (2Kg 22:1-23:30; 2Chr 34:8-33).   If we compare the content of Zephaniah’s messages along with that of Josiah’s reforms, it appears that the messages had a major influence on the king.  Therefore this is further evidence that Zephaniah’s ministry probably began early in Josiah’s reign prior to the reforms.

728/715-686 BC Hezekiah King of Judah
686-642 BC Manasseh King of Judah
640-609 BC Josiah King of Judah enacts Reforms after finding the Book of the Law in the Temple; Died fighting the Egyptians at the battle of Haran in 609
635-622 BC Zephaniah Prophet of Judah
627-580 BC Jeremiah Prophet of Judah
~620-604 BC Habakkuk Prophet of Judah
612 BC The Babylonians (Chaldeans) Conquer and Destroy Nineveh (Assyrians)
605 BC Babylon Invades Judah, Exiles Daniel and many other Jews
~605-535 BC Daniel Prophet to Exiled Judah

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

Like most of the writing prophets. the overall theme of the book of Zephaniah is God’s righteous judgment, tempered with His mercy for the obedient.  Even God’s chosen people were not exempt for His covenant laws, laws that were put in place for their own good and prosperity.  God condemns the guilty, but provides for the righteous.  In Zephaniah this theme unfolds with the prophecy of the coming Babylonian invasion that is a precursor to the future Day of the Lord.  Yet, as always, God continues to offer mercy and restoration to anyone who will repent and keep His covenant law.

As with fellow prophets Joel and Amos did approximately two and one hundred years ago respectively, Zephaniah tied the Lord’s sanctioned judgments to the coming Day of the Lord.  Likewise, Zephaniah forecasts an initial event (invasion and exile of Judah) that has its ultimate fulfillment in the end times.

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

One significant challenge to the casual bible reader that is very common amongst the OT prophets is the frequent use of apocalyptic language.  To give a brief explanation, we include an excerpt from our Prophecy and Apocalyptic Literature article in our Bible Genre Analysis Section (see the article for additional information):   “Apocalyptic literature is frequently used within prophetic writings.  This type is characterized by highly symbolic forms (some real, some fantasy), dreams and visions, expressing earthly events in cosmic terms, and often contains cryptic (hidden) meanings.  It is frequently concerned with themes of judgment and salvation, good vs evil, wars in heaven and on earth, present pessimism compared with future glory, and the divine transcendence of God.  Apocalyptic literature is found primarily in Ezekiel, Daniel, many of the Minor Prophets, parts of Isaiah and Revelation.  The books of the Apocrypha are also loaded with this literary type.”  In Zephaniah we find apocalyptic language throughout, but concentrated primarily in the initial warning (1:2-3), in the oracle against Judah (1:4-13) and the first part of the proclamation of the Great Day of the Lord (1:14-18).

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The Book of Zephaniah can be divided into two section, Oracles of Judgment against Judah and the surrounding nations (1:1-3:8) and the future restoration of a united Israel and of the nations (3:9-3:20)

1:1 - 1:6 Introduction and Prophecies of Judgment
1:7 - 1:18 The Coming Day of the Lord
2:1 - 2:15 God’s Coming Judgment on the Nations
3:1 - 3:8 Judgment on Judah and the Nations
3:9 - 3:13 Future Blessings of the Nations
3:14 - 3:20 Joy of Israel at her Future Restoration

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