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the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

- Zephaniah

by Charles John Ellicott






The Author.—Zephaniah traces his pedigree back through four generations to Hezekiah (Authorised Version Hizkiah). Many of the modern commentators have followed Jerome and Aben Ezra in identifying this ancestor with the king of Judah of that name. It favours this view that Zephaniah traces his pedigree back as far as Hezekiah and no farther. The emphasis thus attached to the name argues that it was that of a well-known individual. It is no objection that his royal title is not actually mentioned. Just in the same way Zechariah names as his grandfather the well- known Iddo, without the addition “the priest” (Zechariah 1:1). Neither is it material that between Hezekiah and Josiah (in whose reign Zephaniah prophesied), there are only two kings—Manasseh and Amon—to set off against Zephaniah’s three ancestors. The fact that Manasseh’s reign was unusually long—extending over no less a period than fifty-five years—fully accounts for the disparity. It is quite possible therefore that Zephaniah in Zephaniah 1:1 lays claim to descent from the royal family of Judah. Of the prophet’s life nothing is known. The name “Zephaniah” means Jehovah hides or protects (from root tsâphan), not as Jerome explains it, watchman of Jehovah (from root tsâphâh). But the etymology has no bearing on the present composition, for there is no reason to regard the name as a ministerial title.


Occasion of writing.—According to Zephaniah 1:1, Zephaniah prophesied in the reign of Josiah. This reign lasted from B.C. 641 to B.C. 610. For the purpose of our present investigation it may conveniently be divided into three periods. (a.) That preceding the abolition of idolatry, 641-630. (b.) The reformation period. This culminated, in 624-3, in a restoration of the Temple, a renewal of the covenant, and the celebration of the great Passover. (100) The period following this reformation, 623-610. To which of these three periods does the prophecy of Zephaniah belong? Primâ facie we feel inclined to connect it with the first period. The prophecy was provoked by the general prevalence of idolatry (Zephaniah 1:4-6), oppression and corruption (Zephaniah 3:1-7). It is only natural to suppose that it was composed before Josiah was old enough to begin his reformation: i.e., between the years 641-630. The arguments alleged in favour of a later date are insufficient to invalidate this conclusion. These arguments may be tabulated thus:—(1.) The expression “I will cut off the remnant of Baal” (Zephaniah 1:4) has been treated as implying that some steps had already been taken to abolish Baal-worship: i.e., that Zephaniah wrote after the inauguration of Josiah’s reforms. This interpretation is, of course, possible. But it certainly is not absolutely necessary. (See note on Zephaniah 1:4.) (2.) The guilt of the “king’s sons” is denounced (Zephaniah 1:8). But Jehoiakim, the eldest son of Josiah, was not more than six years old at the close of the first period, and only twelve at the close of the second. The denunciation is therefore supposed to prove that Zephaniah wrote about the middle of the third period, when the characters of the two elder princes, Jehoiakim and Jehoahaz, would be sufficiently formed to indicate their irreligious propensities. This argument appears at first sight convincing. But its force disappears entirely when we recollect that this expression need not refer to Josiah’s sons at all. Other princes of the blood royal may be meant, sons of Amon or grandsons of Manasseh. (See Zephaniah 1:8, note.) (3.) Phrases from the law, and more particularly from the Book of Deuteronomy, are of frequent occurrence in this prophecy. (Comp. Zephaniah 1:13; Zephaniah 1:15; Zephaniah 1:17; Zephaniah 2:5; Zephaniah 2:7; Zephaniah 2:11; Zephaniah 3:5; Zephaniah 3:19-20.) It is argued that the explanation of these numerous citations lies in Hilkiah’s discovery of “the book of the law” in 624 or 623, and its subsequent public recital. (See 2 Kings 22:8; 2 Kings 23:2.) But this inference has little force save for those who unwarrantably connect these events with the composition of the Book of Deuteronomy. That a discovery of an ancient copy of the law caused a sensation in Jerusalem, and aided Josiah’s work of religious reform, appears to us sufficiently natural. It need not commit us to the conclusions that before the year in question the law was quite forgotten or the Book of Deuteronomy nonexistent. Those who have jumped at the latter conclusion cannot fairly account for the apparent indebtedness of earlier prophets—e.g., Hosea and Amos—to the Book of Deuteronomy.

That Jerusalem is distinctly represented as in a state of religious and moral decadence sufficiently shows, we think, that the book of Zephaniah preceded the memorable year of iconoclasm B.C. 630. In accordance with this theory of date is the prophet’s allusion to the future fate of Nineveh in Zephaniah 2:13-15. We do not claim this passage as an original prediction, for it is obviously based on an earlier prophecy—that of Nahum. But we infer from the use of the future tense that what Nahum had predicted had not yet been fulfilled: i.e., that Zephaniah wrote, at all events, before the capture of Nineveh in 625. The allusion harmonises with the other argument, which impels us to place Zephaniah’s composition in the period 641-630.

Zephaniah’s mission was one of mingled reproof and consolation. In the foreground of the prophetic portraiture stands the Chaldean invasion, with its fearful consequences—the sack of Jerusalem and deportation of God’s chosen people. This disastrous epoch is obviously “the day of wrath” so vividly depicted in Zephaniah 1:0. Zephaniah, however, does not specify the nation which God has appointed as His instrument of chastisement. This identification is reserved for Habakkuk, writing somewhat later (Habakkuk 1:6). Far back in the perspective of the picture is that glorious vision of extended religious privileges, which is elsewhere connected with the Messianic Promise, and which certainly finds its historical counterpart only in the advent of the Saviour. Between the foreground and this bright horizon we have a delineation of those political catastrophes in which Jehovah whelms Israel’s enemies—the overthrow of the Philistine strongholds and extinction of the Philistine race; the utter desolation of the lands of Moab and Ammon; carnage and bloodshed in Ethiopia; last, because most important, that overthrow of Nineveh which had been already foretold by Nahum, and which in point of time preceded the Chaldean invasion.

Against Jerusalem, therefore, Zephaniah invokes a “day of wrath,” which is to purge her of her idolatry and lawlessness. To the remnant of faithful worshippers on the other hand he promises that the period of affliction shall pave the way for the glorification of God’s people and the extension of His kingdom to the Gentiles. In effecting this purpose, God shall bring low the powers of this world (Zephaniah 3:8). The nations which have afflicted His people in time past shall be effaced (Zephaniah 2:4-15). Judah’s captivity shall be turned, Jerusalem shall become the honoured source of religious enlightenment to the lands which once put her to shame (Zephaniah 3:19-20).

An extensive vista is thus opened to our view. Unlike some of his predecessors, Zephaniah does not fix his attention on one historical episode. His prophetic gaze ranges from the sack of Jerusalem, not fifty years after the date of his composition, to the extension of God’s kingdom, effected 600 years later. Historically there is no connected course of events discernible. Continuity is brought into the prophecy only by regarding Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion, the captivity and the restoration, and the fluctuating fortunes of the surrounding nations as all subsidiary to one divine purpose—that of bringing Israel through suffering to glory. The details of this prophecy are thus incapable of a comprehensive treatment. Their relation to the actual course of history must be treated of in the commentary rather than in the general introduction.
Those who have taken a different view of Zephaniah’s prophecy have usually endeavoured to focus the prophet’s gaze on some one historical episode in which lie the germs of all the political changes foretold. Two such episodes have found special favour. (1.) The Scythian invasion of Northern Asia, which we have mentioned in our Introduction to Nahum (II.) (2.) The upgrowth of the Babylonian empire. We close this section with an examination of these two theories of “occasion.”

(1.) The Scythian invasion has been favoured by those who assume that the prophets had no inspired power of prediction. It is supposed that a Scythian incursion into Media and Assyria, which took place about the time of Zephaniah, was extended southwards, menacing Jerusalem itself, and inflicting desolation on the nationalities mentioned in Zephaniah 2:0. This catastrophe is made the basis of Zephaniah’s composition, which thus falls from the level of prophecy to that of a political brochure. The entire groundwork of this theory may be included in a few lines.

Herodotus describes (most inaccurately) an irruption of the Scythians into Media, about this time. He says that they established an empire in Upper Asia, to which he ascribes a duration of twenty-eight years (!). (see Herod. i. 103-106). Herodotus also mentions the march of an isolated Scythian force in the direction of Egypt. Psammetichus, the Egyptian king, arrested this incursion “in Palestine-Syria . . . by gifts and entreaties.” The only mischief recorded is the plundering of a temple of Venus in Ascalon by “some few” of the Scythians “who were left behind” (Herod. i. 105). This is literally the only record of any Scythian incursions in the south. How far this innocuous march through Philistia illustrates the prophet’s account of a depopulation of Jerusalem, a permanent desolation of Philistia, Moab, and Ammon, and a destruction of the Ethiopians, we leave to the judgment of the intelligent student.

(2.) The theory which concentrates the prophet’s attention exclusively on the period of the Chaldean ascendancy appears at first sight more plausible. The overthrow of Nineveh, the execution of the Divine sentence on Jerusalem, and the captivity of the tribe of Judah (Zephaniah 2:13-15; Zephaniah 1:7-18; Zephaniah 2:7), may all be associated with this subject. So, too, may the promises of Jerusalem’s glorification (Zephaniah 3:14, et seq.), since the completion of the punishment, and the return from Babylon, are regarded elsewhere in Scripture as a kind of proem to the reign of Messiah. But it appears impossible to refer the judgments on Philistia, Moab, and Ammon (Zephaniah 2:4-9) to Chaldean agencies. There is no evidence that Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion brought siege and destruction to the four Philistine cities. Moab and Ammon actually aided Nebuchadnezzar in punishing Jerusalem. It is true these two tribes were themselves chastised five years later for the murder of the Chaldean governor, Gedaliah, but no permanent desolation was effected, such as is described in Zephaniah 2:9. Nor is it certain that the Ethiopians suffered at the hands of the new world - power. This theory, therefore, must be considered as untenable as the other. The Chaldean invasion has an important place in the prophecy. But Zephaniah’s political forecasts cannot be associated exclusively with the rise and progress of the Chaldean empire.

III. Division of Contents.—Only one distinct break occurs in this composition—that between chapters 2 and 3. Transitions of a less marked kind divide the book into six distinct sections, varying considerably in length, (a) The prophet’s exordium announces a far-searching judgment on Judah and Jerusalem, and sets forth the reason of its infliction—viz., the prevalence of idolatry and religious apostacy (Zephaniah 1:1-6). (b) The judgment is then described in reference to the various classes on whom it shall light (Zephaniah 1:7-13), and its terribly destructive character (Zephaniah 1:14-18). (c) The exhortation to repent in time (Zephaniah 2:1-3). (d) As an encouragement to those who “seek the Lord” the oppressive nationalities are depicted as succumbing on all sides to the might of Jehovah, whose worship is established in all the coasts of the heathen (Zephaniah 2:4-15). (e) Reverting to his own country, the prophet denounces Jerusalem as full of corruption, and as hopelessly obdurate (Zephaniah 3:1-7). (f) From this immediate present he passes again to the final issue: God’s wrathful visitations shall result in the extension of His kingdom to the Gentiles (Zephaniah 3:8-10), and the promotion of the purified remnant of Israel to a position of great honour (Zephaniah 3:10-20).

IV. Character and Style.—The theological character of Zephaniah’s composition is somewhat remarkable. None of the minor prophets takes such a comprehensive view of the Divine administration of human fortunes. In some prophets we have a revelation of Jehovah’s retributive judgments on heathen powers; in others, we meet with the announcement of the purifying judgments which are to visit the sacred nation. Here, however, both these themes are combined as phases in one orderly dispensation. A wide extension of Jehovah’s kingdom is the final issue of this dispensation. The nations are to worship the one true God, and Jerusalem is to be honoured of all men as the fountain-head of religious knowledge. It is a result which is predicted in other prophetical passages, and usually it is associated with the reign of Messiah. Here, however, the Messianic promise is not once mentioned. But for this notable omission, Zephaniah’s composition might be regarded as a very epitome of all prophetic theology. Next to this comprehensiveness of view, the most striking trait in the book is the importance attached to worship as an indication of the spiritual condition. The crying sin of Jerusalem is her neglect or perversion of the duty of worship (Zephaniah 1:4-6). The result of the chastisement of the Gentile tribes is to be the extension of pure worship (Zephaniah 2:11; Zephaniah 3:9), so that from the remotest lands the minchàh, or bloodless sacrifice, is offered to Jehovah (Zephaniah 3:10). The restoration of Israel is represented as re-establishing those sacred festivals which formed so important a part of the national worship (Zephaniah 3:18). Other noticeable traits are the representation of Israel’s spiritual ascendancy, by the figure of an extended territory—see Zephaniah 2:7; Zephaniah 2:9; the remarkable deprecation of the sin of spiritual pride in Zephaniah 3:11; the association of affliction and sanctification in Zephaniah 3:12; the conception of the Gentiles worshipping Jehovah, not only at Jerusalem, but also at home—“every one from his place” (Zephaniah 2:11).

The literary style of Zephaniah is apparently deteriorated by the extensive range of his theme. It lacks the precision and sententious vigour which characterise those prophets whose attention is riveted on issues immediately impending. The whole composition is deficient, we feel, as regards symmetry and orderly sequence. One of the most striking sections in the book, the sentence against the foreign nationalities (Zephaniah 2:4-15), seems to come in half parenthetically, so that we are reminded of that Pauline trait which has been styled “going off at a word.” Similarly, at Zephaniah 3:8, the writer passes, without regard to continuity, from Jerusalem’s iniquities to her restoration from captivity. This lack of arrangement extends to minor details. The language is impassioned, but it has not that eloquence which is imparted by sustained rhythm. It is diffuse, but that artistic parallelism which in the higher types of Hebrew poetry makes diffuseness and even tautology palatable, is altogether absent. The diction suggests a memory laden with older Scriptural passages, rather than any creative capacity. The works on which the prophet is more especially dependent are the Pentateuch, and the prophecies of Micah and Isaiah. Peculiarities of construction, such as are common in more original writers, are of rare occurrence in Zephaniah; the book is therefore easy to read. We feel that it is semi-historical, rather than poetical. Unlike more vigorous compositions, such as Nahum’s and Habakkuk’s, it loses little in an English translation.

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