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by John Dummelow
1. The Prophet and his Message. Zephaniah, like his young contemporary, Jeremiah, was one of the first to break the long silence of more than half-a-century which followed the death of the great Isaiah. During the reactionary reign of Manasseh the Canaanitish Baal cults and the Assyrian star-worship and the other heathen institutions, to which the prophet alludes in his opening words, had been tolerated without rebuke in Jerusalem and Judah (2 Kings 21:3-6). King and people had repudiated the teachings of the earlier prophets and reverted to the old heathenism, or else adopted the religion and customs of their Assyrian conquerors, although they still, as a nation, continued to worship the Jehovah of their popular belief.
At last, however, the Assyrian empire, which for centuries had stood as the embodiment of heathen might, began to show unmistakable signs of weakness and disintegration. The more thoughtful in Judah also commenced to weary of the crimes and excesses which followed in the train of popular idolatry. Probably a small group of disciples had never ceased to cherish in secret the noble ideals and principles of the earlier prophets, and to work for their ultimate acceptance by the nation. When Isaiah recognised that his teachings were rejected by the princes and people, he had turned with confidence to his disciples and expressed the hope that they would treasure up his doctrine (Isaiah 8:16). This expectation was fully realised, and the eternal principle illustrated that truth, clearly and courageously proclaimed, can never be permanently put down, but will in time surely become a powerful factor in the life of mankind.
Silenced in public, the followers of the true prophets appear to have devoted themselves to revising the primitive laws of their race, incorporating the lofty principles laid down by Amos and Hosea and Isaiah, and adapting them to the new conditions presented by the reign of Manasseh. Many hold that in the book of Deuteronomy, which is a prophetic reformulation of the laws of Moses, designed to meet the needs of a new age, we have the supreme product of their activity. Later this became the basis of Josiah’s great reformation in 621 b.c.
Before there could be any effective reform, it was necessary to educate the people and to secure the support of Judah’s rulers. It is a surprising fact that Josiah, the son of Amon, and grandson of the reactionary Manasseh, should later become the leader in the great prophetic reformation. The records are silent, but there can be little doubt that the boy king, who was raised to the throne at the age of eight, early came under the influence of the prophetic party. The indications point strongly to Zephaniah as the one who was most prominent in exerting that influence, for the superscription affixed to his prophecy traces his ancestry back for four generations to Hezekiah, who was in all probability the king under whom Isaiah prophesied. If so, Zephaniah himself belonged to the royal line. This inference is confirmed by the boldness and assurance with which he proclaims the guilt of the princes and members of the royal family (Zephaniah 1:8). It is also significant that he says nothing about the sins of the king himself, but rather places all the responsibility upon his advisers (Zephaniah 1:9). The most satisfactory explanation of the omission is that Josiah was still a young man, and already known to be amenable to the counsel of true prophets like Zephaniah. If these inferences be correct, the prophet commands our interest, because he stood very near both by birth and influence to the great reformer-king, and because he was the pioneer in the religious movement which culminated in 621 b.c. Like Josiah and his prophetic colleague, Jeremiah, who calls himself a boy (Jeremiah 1:6), Zephaniah was probably still a young man when he first raised his voice in public. Youthful courage and undaunted zeal for righteousness ring through his brief prophecy. With the eye of faith he sees the speedy passing of the heathen practices, which for half-a-century had stood in the way of the general adoption of the noble ideals proclaimed by Hosea and Isaiah.
2. Occasion. The immediate occasion of his preaching appears to have been the advance of an enemy which threatened Judah and its neighbours with sudden and complete destruction. Evidently the dreaded foe is not their old masters, the Assyrians, nor their allies, the Egyptians, but the barbarous Scythians, who had already disturbed the politics of southwestern Asia: cp. Herod, i. 105, Ezekiel 38:8, Ezekiel 38:17. A detachment of these ruthless foes, who worshipped their swords and gloried only in murder and plunder, was evidently already sweeping down the eastern shore of the Mediterranean.
The prophet had his text, and his audience good reason to listen. Their old complacency was shaken. The awakened national conscience found expression on the lips of the royal prophet. Rising above the terror of the moment, he announced that these pitiless destroyers were Jehovah’s instrument of punishment, and the catastrophe that threatened His day of judgment. The horror and mystery that were inspired by the Scythians colour the prophet’s picture of that day. It explains why the mediaeval church and Thomas of Celano, in his Dies Irce, Dies Illa, drew from Zephaniah the imagery of the last great Judgment Day. It was the influence of this same powerful prophecy that doubtless led the early Jewish and Christian writers to transform the original conception of the Day of Jehovah as a gradual process, working out in the life of nations, into the dramatic picture of one definite judgment scene, projected into the distant future.
3. Teaching. Zephaniah, like all the true prophets, aimed to arouse the moral sense of his contemporaries, and thus to render unnecessary the fulfilment of his grim predictions. Unlike most of his colleagues, he soon saw the fruits of his efforts; and yet through all his utterances rings the knell of seemingly irrevocable doom. In its original form it is the most uncompromising of all the OT. prophecies. Like the passages from the Deuteronomic school of writers, who, in their version of the conquest, picture the wholesale slaughter of the heathen, it reveals the intense moral earnestness and zeal of the reformers who rallied about the young Josiah. As a chapter in the religious history of Judah, the prophecy is of great value.
Fortunately, it is also possible to date it with unusual exactness. It was probably delivered only a few days before the Scythian hordes, in 626 b.c., swept down the Mediterranean coast plain, devastating the Philistine cities. There is no evidence that they undertook the more difficult and less promising task of invading Judah itself; but a deep impression had been made upon the popular consciousness, and Zephaniah’s stern message of warning remained to remind Judahites of the doom that had impended.
4. Contents. The book of Zephaniah contains two distinct themes: the one (Zephaniah 1:2 to Zephaniah 3:13) is that of universal judgment upon guilty Judah (Zephaniah 1); upon her neighbours the Philistines, the Moabites, and the Ammonites; upon her allies, the Ethiopians, and upon her old oppressors the Assyrians (Zephaniah 2); and upon Jerusalem’s corrupt rulers (Zephaniah 3:1-13). The last judgment is represented as culminating in the purification of the surviving remnant. This introduces the second theme, which is the song of rejoicing over redeemed and restored Zion (Zephaniah 3:14-20). Thus the book in its present form is a complete literary unit with its cycle of judgment, purification, redemption, and restoration. In striking contrast to the dark thunderclouds of Jehovah’s wrath with which it opens is the brilliant sunshine of divine forgiveness and favour with which the book closes. This completeness is, however, probably due to a later prophet who appreciated both sides of the divine character. The original prophecy appears to have begun and ended with the same solemn message of warning, and to have included simply Zephaniah 1:2 to Zephaniah 2:2, Zephaniah 2:4-7, Zephaniah 2:12-15; Zephaniah 3:1-7, Zephaniah 3:11-13. The rest assumes the point of view and very different conditions of the Babylonian exile, and voices the hopes of restoration which kept alive the faith of the scattered remnants of the Jewish race. Its language and vocabulary are also those of the later age. Like many other books of the OT. the prophecy of Zephaniah reflects the exceedingly diverse and yet significant religious experiences which came to the Israelitish race at various periods in their history. Each section, studied in the light of its historical setting, reveals certain important aspects of the divine character and purpose.
In the older portion of the prophecy the influence of Isaiah’s brilliant figures of speech, as well as ideas, can frequently be recognised. Through Zephaniah the message of the great prophet again found fervent expression. The language is highly poetical. In several sections, especially those which predict the punishment and ruin of Judah, Moab, Ammon, Ethiopia, and Assyria, the lamentation metre, a line with three followed by a line with two beats, appears. Unfortunately the text of the first part of the prophecy has suffered considerably in transmission. In some cases the Gk. versions facilitate the restoration of the original.
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