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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

- Zephaniah

by Thomas Constable



The title of the book comes from the name of its writer. "Zephaniah" means "Yahweh hides [or has hidden]," "Yahweh’s watchman," or "Yahweh treasured." The uncertainty arises over the etymology of the prophet’s name, which scholars dispute. I prefer "Yahweh hides."

Zephaniah was the great-great-grandson of Hezekiah (Zep_1:1), evidently King Hezekiah of Judah. This is not at all certain, but I believe it is likely. Only two other Hezekiahs appear on the pages of the Old Testament, and they both lived in the postexilic period. The Chronicler mentioned one of these (1Ch_3:23), and the writers of Ezra and Nehemiah mentioned the other (Ezr_2:16; Neh_7:21). If he was indeed a descendant of the king, this would make him the writing prophet with the most royal blood in his veins, except for David and Solomon. Apart from the names of his immediate forefathers we know nothing more about him for sure, though it seems fairly certain where he lived. His references to Judah and Jerusalem (Zep_1:10-11) seem to indicate that he lived in Jerusalem, which would fit a king’s descendant.


Criticism of the unity of Zephaniah has not had great influence. Zephaniah’s prediction of Nineveh’s fall (Zep_2:15; 612 B.C.) led critics who do not believe that the prophets could predict the future to date the book after that event. Differences in language and style influenced some critics to divide the book up and identify its various parts with diverse sources. Yet the unity of the message and flow of the entire book, plus ancient belief in its unity, have convinced most conservative scholars to regard Zephaniah as the product of one writer. [Note: For further discussion of the book’s unity, see Richard D. Patterson, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, pp. 290-92.]


Zephaniah ministered during the reign of King Josiah of Judah (640-609 B.C.; Zep_1:1). Scholars debate just when during his reign Zephaniah wrote, before [Note: E.g., ibid., p. 276; H. A. Hanke, "Zephaniah," in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, p. 883; David W. Baker, Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah, p. 91; Leon J. Wood, The Prophets of Israel, p. 320; Bruce K. Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, p. 839; et al.] or after [Note: E.g., John D. Hannah, "Zephaniah," in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, p. 1523; et al.] Josiah’s reforms, which began in 622 B.C. There is support for both views. [Note: See Patterson, pp. 275-6, for other scholars who held each of these views.] Zephaniah made no explicit reference to Josiah’s reforms, and the evidence is really insufficient to settle the debate. [Note: Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 472.]

Zephaniah’s reference to the future destruction of Nineveh (Zep_2:13) definitely fixed his writing before that event in 612 B.C. So the prophet ministered between 640 and 612 B.C. His contemporaries were Nahum, Habakkuk, and Jeremiah, though Jeremiah’s ministry continued beyond the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.


References to Jerusalem in Zep_1:10-11 seem to indicate that Zephaniah knew Jerusalem well. Since he ministered to the Southern Kingdom, it is likely that he lived in Judah and probably in Jerusalem.


The fact that Yahweh’s word came to Zephaniah during Josiah’s reign (640-609 B.C.) means that he could not have ministered to the Northern Kingdom because it fell in 722 B.C. Thus Zephaniah’s audience consisted of the people of Judah, the surviving Southern Kingdom. He apparently ministered primarily to the upper echelons of society rather than to the average Israelites, as evidenced by his references to the princes, judges, prophets, and priests (Zep_1:8-9; Zep_3:3-4).

The political situation in Judah during Josiah’s reign was fairly peaceful. Following Assyria’s capture of Samaria in 722 B.C., the Assyrian Empire began to decline. With its decline, Nabopolassar, the first of the Neo-Babylonian kings (626-605 B.C.), began to lead Babylonia forward. Assyria declined and Babylonia advanced until Babylonia, with the Medes and Scythians, destroyed Nineveh in 612 B.C. and a few years later replaced Assyria as the dominant power in the ancient Near East. This happened in 605 B.C. when the Babylonians defeated the Assyrians and Egyptians at Carchemish. Judah benefited during this transitional period in Near Eastern politics. Josiah was able to get rid of some Assyrian religious practices, and he extended Judah’s territory north into the tribal territory of Naphtali. Unfortunately Josiah died prematurely in 609 B.C. (cf. 2Ch_35:20-27).

Josiah’s evil predecessors, Manasseh (695-642 B.C.) and Amon (642-640 B.C.), had encouraged the people of Judah to depart from the Lord for over 50 years, so wickedness had become ingrained in them. In the eighteenth year of Josiah’s reign (622 B.C.) Hilkiah the priest discovered the Law of Moses in the temple, and when Josiah read it he instituted major reforms throughout Judah. Josiah’s reforms were good because they were official. He eliminated much of the display of idolatry in the land and revived the celebration of the Passover, among other things. See 2Ki_22:4-20 and 2Ch_34:3 to 2Ch_35:19 for lists of his extensive reforms. But unfortunately his reforms did not change the hearts of most of the people, as Jeremiah revealed in his earlier prophecies. So the people to whom Zephaniah ministered had a long history of formal religion without much real commitment to Yahweh.

God sent a prophetic word to Zephaniah because the Judeans of his day still needed to get right with Him in their hearts. The prophet announced that God was going to send judgment on Judah for her wickedness. He also assured the godly few in the nation, the remnant, that the Lord would preserve them and remain true to His promises concerning ultimate worldwide blessing for Israel in the future. Perhaps Zep_1:7 summarizes what the book is all about better than any other single verse: "Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the LORD is near."

"In a sense, the history of the times has nothing to say about Zephaniah’s message. Throughout the book there is a sense of distance from historical events. . . . Zephaniah is rooted in the flow of history . . ., but his concern is only with the goal-the eschaton-the day when calamitous human efforts to run the world will coincide in an awesome climax with the Lord’s purposes of judgment and hope." [Note: J. Alec Motyer, "Zephaniah," in The Minor Prophets, p. 899.]

". . . Zephaniah’s purpose was to announce coming judgment on Judah in the Day of the Lord. However, he said that judgment would extend to all the nations of the earth, indicating that the Day of the Lord would also bring deliverance for Israel and the Gentiles." [Note: Charles H. Dyer, in The Old Testament Explorer, p. 809.]


"Zephaniah’s style is chiefly characterized by a unity and harmony of composition plus energy of style. Rapid and effective alternations of threats and promises also characterize his style." [Note: Larry Lee Walker, "Zephaniah," in Daniel-Malachi, vol. 7 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, p. 540.]

"Zephaniah can hardly be considered great as a poet. He does not rank with Isaiah, nor even with Hosea in this particular. . . . He had an imperative message to deliver and proceeded in the most direct and forceful way to discharge his responsibility. What he lacked in grace and charm, he in some measure atoned for by the vigour and clarity of his speech. He realised [sic] the approaching terror so keenly that he was able to present it vividly and convincingly to his hearers. No prophet has made the picture of the day of Yahweh more real." [Note: J. M. P. Smith, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Zephaniah and Nahum, p. 176.]

"Literary genres used include judgment oracles (Zep_1:2-6; Zep_1:8-9, etc.), calls for response (Zep_1:7; Zep_2:1-3; Zep_3:8)-including a call to praise and a psalm of praise (Zep_3:14-17)-as well as salvation oracles (Zep_3:9-13; Zep_3:18-20)." [Note: Baker, p. 87.]


The Book of Zephaniah has been called "a compendium of the oracles of the prophets." [Note: Walker, p. 539.] This is true for two reasons. First, Zephaniah’s general message is similar to that of most of the other writing prophets. Second, he used the same terms as several of the other prophets (cf. Zep_1:7 and Hab_2:20; Hab_1:7 and Joe_1:15; Joe_1:7 and Isa_34:6; Isa_2:14 and Isa_13:21; Isa_34:11; Isa_2:15 and Isa_47:8).

"Zephaniah reintroduced the message of Joel and Obadiah; however, for him the day of the Lord was both a day of world-wide judgment and a day when Judah would be punished." [Note: Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Toward an Old Testament Theology, pp. 220-21.]

"Obadiah, Joel, Amos, and Isaiah had all spoken of this day, but Zephaniah alone emphasized more strenuously than them all the universality of its judgment while also surprisingly predicting the conversion of the nations as one of its fruits." [Note: Ibid., p. 223.]

Zephaniah contains more references to "the day of the LORD" than any other Old Testament book. This phrase sometimes refers to the past, sometimes to the near future, sometimes to the distant future, and sometimes to the far distant, eschatological future. The phrase always refers to some period of time in which God is working in the world in a recognizable way. It usually refers to a time of blasting, but sometimes it refers to a time of blessing.

Zep_1:14-18 has been called "emergent apocalyptic." [Note: Duane L. Christensen, "Zephaniah 2:4-15: A Theological Basis for Josiah’s Program of Political Expansion," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 46 (1984):682.] This pericope contains material that would one day become prominent in Jewish apocalyptic literature. [Note: For further discussion, see Patterson, pp. 285-88.]

Theologically, Zephaniah stressed the sovereign justice of Yahweh (Zep_1:2-3; Zep_1:7; Zep_1:14-18; Zep_3:8) and His willingness to receive the repentant (Zep_2:3). He also emphasized the wickedness of man (Zep_1:3-6; Zep_1:17; Zep_3:1; Zep_3:4). The theme of Yahweh’s relationship to Jerusalem is prominent in Zephaniah as well (Zep_1:4-13; Zep_3:1-7; Zep_3:11-17).

Structurally, the book is a carefully crafted collection of oracles that compose one coherent message. [Note: See Motyer, p. 902, for a diagram of the chiasms, as he saw them.]


I.    Heading Zep_1:1

II.    The day of Yahweh’s judgment Zep_1:2 to Zep_3:8

A.    Judgment on the world Zep_1:2-3

B.    Judgment on Judah Zep_1:4 to Zep_2:3

1.    The cause for Judah’s judgment Zep_1:4-6

2.    The course of Judah’s judgment Zep_1:7-13

3.    The imminence and horrors of Judah’s judgment Zep_1:14-18

4.    A call to repentance Zep_2:1-3

C.    Judgment on Israel’s neighbors Zep_2:4-15

1.    Judgment coming on Philistia Zep_2:4-7

2.    Judgment coming on Moab and Ammon Zep_2:8-11

3.    Judgment coming on Ethiopia Zep_2:12

4.    Judgment coming on Assyria Zep_2:13-15

D.    Judgment on Jerusalem Zep_3:1-7

E.    Judgment on all nations Zep_3:8

III.    The day of Yahweh’s blessing Zep_3:9-20

A.    The purification of the nations Zep_3:9

B.    The transformation of Israel Zep_3:10-20

1.    Israel’s purification Zep_3:10-13

2.    Israel’s and Yahweh’s rejoicing Zep_3:14-17

3.    Israel’s regathering Zep_3:18-20


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Bright, John. A History of Israel. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959.

Chisholm, Robert B., Jr. Handbook on the Prophets. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2002.

_____. "A Theology of the Minor Prophets." In A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, pp. 397-433. Edited by Roy B. Zuck. Chicago: Moody Press, 1991.

Christensen, Duane L. "Zep_2:4-15 : A Theological Basis for Josiah’s Program of Political Expansion." Catholic Biblical Quarterly 46 (1984):669-82.

Craigie, Peter C. Twelve Prophets. 2 vols. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985.

Dyer, Charles H., and Eugene H. Merrill. The Old Testament Explorer. Nashville: Word Publishing, 2001. Reissued as Nelson’s Old Testament Survey. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001.

Feinberg, Charles Lee. Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Malachi. The Major Messages of the Minor Prophets series. New York: American Board of Missions to the Jews, 1951.

Hanke, H. A. "Zephaniah." In The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, pp. 883-88. Edited by Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison. Chicago: Moody Press, 1962.

Hannah, John D. "Zephaniah." In The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, pp. 1523-35. Edited by John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck. Wheaton: Scripture Press Publications, Victor Books, 1985.

Henry, Mattthew. Commentary on the Whole Bible. Edited by Leslie F. Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1961.

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Motyer, J. Alec. "Zephaniah." In The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expositional Commentary, 3:897-962. 3 vols. Edited by Thomas Edward McComiskey. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1992, 1993, and 1998.

Patterson, Richard D. Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah. Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary sereis. Chicago: Moody Press, 1991.

Smith, John M. P. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Zephaniah and Nahum, International Critical Commentaries series. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1911.

Smith, George Adam. The Book of the Twelve Prophets, Commonly Called the Minor. Vol. 2. Revised ed. New York: Harper, 1928.

Walker, Larry Lee. "Zephaniah." In Daniel-Minor Prophets. Vol. 7 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. 12 vols. Edited by Frank E. Gaebelein and Richard P. Polcyn. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1985.

Waltke, Bruce K., with Charles Yu. An Old Testament Theology: an exegetical, canonical, and thematic approach. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007.

Wiersbe, Warren W. "Zephaniah." In The Bible Exposition Commentary/Prophets, pp. 425-36. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Cook Communications Ministries; and Eastbourne, England: Kingsway Communications Ltd., 2002.

Wilson, M. R. "Nineveh." In Major Cities of the Biblical World. Edited by R. K. Harrison. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1985.

Wood, Leon J. The Prophets of Israel. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979.

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