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Introduction to the Book of Zephaniah

Julian Spriggs M.A.

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Zephaniah the prophet

Zephaniah’s name means 'he whom Yahweh hides' or 'Yahweh has hidden him'. He may have been given this name because he was 'hidden', or protected during the terrible years of Manasseh. He is the son of Cushi, perhaps meaning his father was a man from Cush (Ethiopia).

Uniquely in this book, four generations are given, back to his great-great grandfather Hezekiah (Zeph 1:1), who might have been King Hezekiah of Judah. If this refers to King Hezekiah, then Zephaniah was his great-great grandson, and a member of the royal family. This would suggest that Zephaniah was only a young man, probably in his early twenties, as Hezekiah died in 686 BC.

Zechariah was a prophet to the southern kingdom (Judah) during the reign of King Josiah (640 - 609), the last good king of Judah. He was clearly familiar with Jerusalem, referring to specific landmarks of the city (1:4, 1:10-12). The contemporary prophets were Jeremiah and Nahum.

Historical background and date (see 2 Kg 21 - 23:30, 2 Chr 33 - 35)

Zephaniah grew up seeing the dreadful moral and religious conditions in Jerusalem characteristic of the reigns of Manasseh (687 - 642), the worst king of Judah, and his son Amon (642 - 640). These who had re-introduced idolatry, child sacrifice and immorality, described in 2 Chr 33:1-9, 21-25 (see 1:4-5).

During the reign of these evil kings, there had remained a faithful remnant who would not compromise their trust in Yahweh. They had been persecuted by Manasseh, "Manasseh shed very much innocent blood, until he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another" (2 Kg 21:16). These people enthusiastically supported King Josiah and the prophet Zephaniah. However, Josiah's reformation was mostly superficial, reforming worship practices, but not changing the hearts of the people. Hezekiah's reforms (715 - 687) had been reversed by these two evil kings, and Manasseh's late act of repentance (2 Chr 33:10-16) could not undo the harm he had done.

Josiah introduced a great reformation of the nation, re-discovering the book of the law in 622 BC and re-instituting the Passover. There is a debate over whether Zephaniah prophesied before or after the discovery of the Book of the law in 622 BC. If before 622 BC, then he would have contributed towards, and encouraged Josiah’s earlier reforms (2 Chr 34:3ff). If his prophecy came at the start of Josiah’s reign, then his words could have urged Josiah to start his reforms, and return to the covenant with Yahweh. If after 622 BC, then Zephaniah’s words would expose the limitations of Josiah’s reforms, as being superficial, not really changing the hearts of the people.

The word to “cut off from this place (the Jerusalem temple) every remnant of Baal" (1:4) has been used in the debate over the date, but is inconclusive. It could refer to some previous purging, indicating a late date, or that God will completely remove and eradicate Baal worship, leaving the option of an early date. The removal of “those who bow down on the roofs to the host of heavens” (1:5) could suggest a date before Josiah’s reforms.

However, there are a number of phrases in Zephaniah which parallel phrases from Deuteronomy, which is often suggested to be the Book of the Law discovered in the temple. Liberal scholars claim from these that the words of Zephaniah affected the writing of Deuteronomy, which they claim was written in 622 BC, thus denying authorship of Moses. In return, conservative scholars would say that Zephaniah was deliberately quoting passages from the Book of the Law that had recently been discovered. If Zephaniah was the great-great grandson of King Hezekiah, then he would unlikely to be old enough to start his ministry as a prophet until later in the reign of Josiah.

There was an invasion by the Scythians in 632 BC. These people were a tribe of horse-riding nomads from western Siberia, between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, who broke through the Caucasus mountains and invaded Media, Assyria and Syria, leading a trail of devastation behind them, as if a swarm of locusts had ravaged the land. They were about to invade Egypt, when Psammitichus I bought them off with rich gifts. However, they did not attack Judah during this time. Their attack had weakened Assyria, which enabled Josiah to carry out his reforms without reprisals from Assyria. Babylon also took this opportunity to invade Assyria during his weakness.

Zephaniah saw the carnage and devastation caused by the Scythians to some neighbouring nations as a prophetic picture of what would happen to rebellious Judah in the approaching day of the Lord.

Content of the book

There is a dire warning of what would happen to Judah if the nation persisted in its waywardness. This is followed by a prophetic word of judgement on the surrounding nations: Philistia, Moab, Ammon, Ethiopia and Assyria (2:4-15). Then comes an appeal for repentance (2:3):
"Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land,
who do his commands;
Seek righteousness, seek humility;
Perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the wrath of the Lord.
This appeal is addressed only to the humble and obedient, NOT to the whole nation of Judah. God always had a remnant, even during the reigns of the evil kings Manasseh and Amon. The faithful remnant were there when Josiah came to the throne, and were longing for God to restore a purified religion to the nation. Zephaniah addressed this appeal to them. They were ready to hear it and to follow their king in his religious reforms. Unfortunately, there were not able to retain power after Josiah's tragic death at the battle of Megiddo in 609 BC.

The predictions of the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem by Babylon were seen as a foreshadowing of the eschatological Day of the Lord. There is still a note of hope, both "those who are left in Israel" (3:13) and the nations (3:9-10) will be blessed in the coming day of the Lord.

Structure of the book

A. Heading (1:1)

B. Judgement: world to Jerusalem (1:2-6)

C. The Day of the Lord (1:7 - 3:20)

  I. The day announced (1:7)

  II. A day of ... JUDGEMENT (1:8 - 3:8)
    1) Wrath on idolatry and sin (1:8-18)
      a) On God's people (1:8-13)
      b) On the whole world (1:14-18)
    2) Plea to repent before it is too late (2:1-3)
    3) Nations to be judged - as example (2:4 - 3:7)
      a) Philistia - seacoast (W) (2:4-7)
      b) Moab & Ammon (E) (2:8-11)
      c) Ethiopia (S) (2:12)
      d) Assyria (N) (2:13-15)
      e) Jerusalem - like other nations (3:1-7)
    4) Climax - wrath on whole earth (3:8)

  III. A day of ... HOPE (3:9-20)
    1) Purification of Judah and nations (3:9-10)
    2) Cleansing to leave faithful remnant (3:11-13)
    3) Call to rejoice, Yahweh is king of his people (3:14-18a)
    4) Blessings promised by God (3:18b-20)

The Day of the Lord

The most characteristic theme of Zechariah is the Day of the Lord. A prophetic theme he developed more than other prophets. The day of the Lord has two contrasting aspects: It is both a day of judgement, as well as a day of deliverance and hope.

A day of judgement on the whole world

It describes the intrusion, or breaking in, of Yahweh into human affairs. His coming, or theophany, is described by various images, including the Warrior, the Judge, and the Great King.

The Day of the Lord brings judgement on all creation (1:2-3). It is like the Noah’s flood, but even more extensive. Nothing will escape the coming judgement, which will affect humans, animals, birds, and even the fish of the sea. Judgement in the flood came through water, this time it will come with fire (as 2 Pet 3). “In the fire of my passion all the earth shall be consumed” (3:8). In his judgement, his wrath and jealousy is expressed against everything, before he establishes his everlasting kingdom.

The Day of the Lord is both historical and eschatological. God’s acts of judgement take place within history, but these foreshadow the final judgement. This is when all evil, corruption and sin will be absolutely removed from the earth (1:3). Every judgement within history, whether on Israel, Judah or pagan nations, is the final judgement breaking into history.

On the Day of the Lord all of creation must submit to God’s sovereignty, whether willingly or not (cf Phil 2:10 - every knee will bow). All aspects of creation are called to be silent. “Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the lord is at hand, the Lord has prepared a sacrifice he has consecrated his guests.” (1:7). To be silent is to recognise the Yahweh is the judge, and a call to change behaviour as preparation for his judgement. Because the day of the Lord within history always points to the final judgement, it is always near. “The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast ...” (1:14).

On the Day of the Lord there is no distinction between people, whether rich or poor, powerful or weak, religious or not. The only distinction is between the wicked and the humble. No aspect of human civilisation will be able to save them, “Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath ...” (1:18). The humble are those who trust in God alone, have abandoned themselves to him, those who seek him, and his kingdom. The humble consist of Jews, Gentiles, all who place their hope in the Lord. “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land ..." (2:3). The day of the Lord will bring a separation between the righteous, who will possess the kingdom, and the wicked, who will not.

The day of the Lord is the day of vindication, glorification, and the full redemption of the godly (3:14-20). They will enjoy God’s presence, “The king of Israel is in your midst, you shall fear disaster no more” (3:15), “The Lord, your God, is in your midst ... He will rejoice over you ...” (3:17).

A day of hope and deliverance

The day of the Lord is a day of hope for the faithful remnant. Even though the day is fixed, and cannot be altered, there is a glimmer of hope for the faithful - the humble of the land. God calls people to repentance:
“Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do his commands; seek righteousness,
seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the Lord’s wrath.”

The remnant are the people of the future, who will inherit the promised kingdom. The remnant are the true worshippers of God. This new worshipping community becomes universal, to include both Jews and Gentiles. In the prophecy against Moab, “to him shall bow down, each in his place, all the coasts and islands of the nations” (2:11). The new community will be cleansed and their hearts will be transformed, “At that time I will change the speech of the peoples (nations) to a pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord, and serve him with one accord. From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia my suppliants, my scattered ones, shall bring my offering.” (3:9-10).

God will remove those with proud and rebellious hearts, leaving a humble and lowly people (3:11). They will seek refuge in the name of the Lord (3:12), and enjoy the blessings of the promised kingdom. The new community are called to rejoice and enjoy God’s salvation, because the judgements have been taken away (3:15), and God is in their midst, rejoicing over them (3:16-17). In response, his people are called to rejoice and sing praise to their Lord, the divine warrior (3:14).

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