Voices: Not-so-Minor Prophets: Zephaniah

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The people of Judah thought the day of the Lord was for celebrating. Zephaniah sought to disabuse them of that idea, telling them the day of the Lord was just the opposite. It is a day of terrible judgment before there can be celebration.

When Zephaniah prophesied

The prophet Zephaniah ministered around 630 B.C., during the reign of Josiah, the son of Amon and the grandson of Manasseh. The opening verse lists a Hezekiah among his ancestors, but there is no persuasive evidence this Hezekiah was the earlier king of Judah.

Zephaniah’s time of ministry overlaps with the early ministry of Jeremiah. The themes in Zephaniah echo themes found in the writings of Isaiah and Micah roughly a century earlier.

One difficulty we have relating the book of Zephaniah to the reign of Josiah (see 2 Kings 22-23 and 2 Chronicles 34-35) is Josiah is well known for instituting a series of reforms based on a “book of the Law” found while workers restored the temple.

Two options are available: Either Zephaniah preaches in the period before Josiah’s reforms, or his work takes place during or after the reforms. If the latter is true, it might suggest Josiah’s reform movement was not as effective or long-lasting as was hoped.

The day of the LORD

The book is arranged around the primary theme of the “Day of Yahweh,” or the “Day of the LORD” as found in some translations. The popular belief was this would be a time when God would punish the enemies of his people as the first step toward a golden age when the people would be led by a Davidic-like ruler.

In the eyes of the people, the day of Yahweh was an entirely positive event they looked forward to. It will take the work of prophets like Amos, Isaiah and Zephaniah to correct this misconception.

The day of Yahweh is described in the opening chapter as a day of disaster, in which the entire world is swept clear of all humanity, of every kind of idolatry, and of those who have forsaken their covenant God.

The day of celebration and sacrifice instead will be a day when Judah’s political and religious leaders will be punished.

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Before turning to the specific sins for which judgment is coming, we should see the judgment of the world’s nations is sandwiched between descriptions of God’s judgment falling on Judah and Jerusalem. It is as if the world has to be swept clean and purged, because Judah’s sins have spread and infected the entire planet.

Reason for judgment

What evokes such a planetary judgment? One might expect condemnation of the idolatries and other sins of Assyria, Moab, Ammon and Philistia. What has infected Judah and Jerusalem to bring about such catastrophe?

Beginning with the opening chapter we read of Baal worship, worship of the stars, the worship of foreign gods—all of which are examples of the syncretism that plagued Israel and Judah for most of their respective histories.

Zephaniah points to violence, deceit and a complacent indifference that holds God will not intervene one way or another. He describes a people who have turned away from following God and no longer bother even to seek God. Consequently, the entire earth will be devoured.

Zephaniah does not focus as much on the specifics but on the certainty of God’s judgment.

Is there any hope?

Is there any hope in Zephaniah? Only a slim one exists. The prophet doesn’t seem to offer hope to the princes and priests, but an opening is left for the lowly ones, those willing to humble themselves.

“Seek the LORD, all you humble of the earth, who have carried out his ordinances. Seek righteousness, seek humility. Perhaps you will be hidden in the day of the LORD’s anger” (Zephaniah 2:3).

It is only on the other side of calamity that the possibility of restoration is extended to the humble remnant of God’s people. Then, the people will be given purified lips to serve and call on God. Then, the remnant of the people will do no wrong and tell no lies, with no one to make them tremble in fear.

This new situation calls for celebration, because God’s judgments have been taken away as God lives among his people like a victorious warrior ready to love and comfort the remnant as he deals with any remaining oppressors. The lame will be saved, and the outcasts gathered as their shame is removed and their fortunes restored by their covenant-keeping God.

Four teaching and preaching points

For those of us with the task of teaching or preaching the book of Zephaniah, where should we focus our attention? What do our hearers need to receive from us?

1. The way God’s people live has an impact upon the entire world, for good and for evil. Judah’s sin infects the world, and we should not forget Peter’s warning that judgment begins in the house of God or Paul warning the Romans that the name of God has been blasphemed among the “Gentiles” because of you (believers).

2. The certainty of God’s judgment—even in a syncretistic, pluralistic age—remains a reality to face. Note God’s concern for the way Judah tried to blend their covenant faith with the beliefs and practices of the world and religions around them. What was intended to reveal the Creator-Redeemer God had become a foul cloud obscuring God from their vision.

3. Note how pride, arrogance and complacency are singled out as targets of God’s concern and judgment. Consider the call to humility and righteousness, both then and in our time when we tend toward triumphalism rather than humility.

4. For all our focus on large growth and numbers, the reality of the remnant has much to teach us. Restoration after judgment is reserved for the humble remnant, not to the high and mighty or proud and self-assured.

For further reading

Commentaries on Zephaniah usually combine treatments of Zephaniah with one or more other Minor Prophet. But teachers and preachers should consider the sections on Zephaniah in the following series:

• O. Palmer Robertson’s study in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament series.
• Kenneth Barker and Waylon Bailey study in the New American Commentary series.
• James Bruckner’s commentary in the NIV Application Commentary series.
• John Goldingay’s study in the Understanding the Bible series.

Steven Spivey is an adjunct professor in the religion department of Wayland Baptist University, San Antonio, and serves as an interim pastor. The views expressed are those of the author.

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