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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Zephaniah 1

Verse 1


Zephaniah 1:1

In common with most of the prophetic books, Zephaniah begins with a title which defines the prophet’s ancestry and the time of his ministry and which also characterizes his work. Since we cannot be certain that the Hezekiah mentioned was the Judean king of the end of the eighth century before Christ, the genealogical data are tantalizing rather than helpful. The question of the date of the prophet’s work has been discussed above (see Introduction). The book is characterized simply as "the word of the Lord," indicating probably an oral delivery of the principal messages during the time of Josiah.

Verses 2-6


Zephaniah 1:2 to Zephaniah 3:20

Concerning Judah and Jerusalem (1:2-13)

The Sweeping of the Lord (1:2-6)

The initial section of Zephaniah’s prophecy does not use the expression "day of the Lord" or any other expressions often associated with it, such as "that day." Nevertheless, its content clearly unites it with the rest of the chapter in which the prophet refers specifically to his central theme. In a vigorous series of declarations the Lord himself announces his plans with regard to a "cleaning up" operation which will affect the whole earth and particularly Judah and Jerusalem.

The operation is described as a sweeping away of everything — man, beast, birds, and fish (which were not destroyed by the Flood). All nature is affected, though God’s particular concern is "the wicked," or "the stumbling blocks" as the word appears in the Hebrew. The human race will be cut off by the action of the Lord.

Turning directly to Judah and Jerusalem, the Lord threatens to cut off "from this place the remnant of Baal and the name of the idolatrous priests" (Zephaniah 1:4), together with three groups of false worshipers among the inhabitants of Jerusalem.

Canaanite Baal worship was evidently practiced in and around Jerusalem during the time of Manasseh and Amon (2 Kings 21:3; 2 Kings 21:21) and was not finally eradicated by the reforms of Josiah (see Jeremiah 32:29). "Idolatrous priests" in the Old Testament always minister to foreign gods or offer worship unacceptable to the Lord (compare 2 Kings 23:5). Worship of the sun, moon, and stars from the tops of the roofs of various buildings as late as the time of Zedekiah is attested by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 19:13; Jeremiah 32:29). The high place near Jerusalem dedicated to the Ammonite deity, Milcom, was destroyed by Josiah (2 Kings 23:13) along with high places dedicated to other gods of neighboring peoples, but it is likely that Jehoiakim permitted the worship of these deities to be re-established (2 Kings 23:37).

The determination of the Lord to sweep everything away from the face of the earth meant the cutting off of false worship from Judah and Jerusalem in particular. Thus the simple, blunt message of Zephaniah begins.

Verses 7-9

The Lord’s Sacrificial Feast (1:7-9)

In a second poetic oracle, still expressing the word of the Lord himself, there comes a call to a sacrificial meal in which the language of the ancient ritual receives a telling new content.

The stanza begins with a single word — similar to the English word "Hush!" — perhaps used in quieting the noise of worshipers before the beginning of a ritual. (See its use in Habakkuk 2:20 and Zechariah 2:13, where prophetically the Gentile world is called to silence before the Lord.) The prophet announces that the moment for the ritual is at hand, here described as "the day of the Lord." In keeping with the archaic character of Zephaniah’s figurative language, the expression "the day of the Lord" has here the sense of expected good for God’s Chosen People, a sense which Amos repudiated (Zephaniah 5:18-20).

Graciously the Lord has prepared his sacrifice and consecrated his guests, as Samuel prepared for a sacrifice in Bethlehem before anointing young David to be king (1 Samuel 16:2-5). Such an occasion was perhaps not infrequently a time when guests were recognized, as David was honored and as Saul had been honored with a special portion earlier (1 Samuel 9:22-24).

But abruptly, after again mentioning "the Lord’s sacrifice," the prophet introduces a jarring note: the Lord himself announces punishment upon the guests, arrayed as they are in fine — but foreign — attire. The punishment will fall upon officials and the king’s sons, and upon "every one who leaps over the threshold, and those who fill their master’s house with violence and fraud." The leaping over the threshold may refer to a superstitious ritual of stepping across the threshold of a temple, such as that described in 1 Samuel 5:5 in connection with the priests of the Philistine god Dagon, or it may be a ritual of worship on a podium upon which an idol was placed. In either case, the act represents the performance of a pagan or superstitious ritual indicating a lack of genuine faith in God. With the terms "violence and fraud" Zephaniah turns from the area of ritual to the more familiar ethical ground of the prophets.

Verses 10-13

"That Day" in Jerusalem (1:10-13)

The next stanza of the prophet’s message is a descriptive passage, in which the sounds and sights of a day of catastrophe are successively given brief attention. Between the sounds and the sights are two words from the Lord, addressed to the people of the city.

The sounds are cries from various parts of the city: the "Fish Gate" (also mentioned in Nehemiah 3:3; Nehemiah 12:39) was apparently at a point on the northern edge of the city; the "Second Quarter" is identified only as the area in which the prophetess Huldah had her dwelling (2 Kings 22:14), perhaps in the recently developed section of the city enclosed by Manasseh (2 Chronicles 33:14). Should "the hills" be considered another sectional name, or were they simply the hills upon which the city was built? The "Mortar" may be the Tyropoeon Valley in the middle of Jerusalem, perhaps used as a market place in the time of Zephaniah. God’s address is particularly to the inhabitants of the Mortar, where trade will apparently be interrupted when invasion from the north arrives.

God himself promises to "search Jerusalem with lamps" — like Diogenes — and to punish the men who have thought to themselves, "The Lord will not do good, nor will he do ill." Such men are like wine that has been left to stand too long and which has become thickened with sediment. Their accumulations of houses and vineyards will be laid waste. "That day" will be a day of devastation and disruption of the ordinary business of the city.

Verses 14-18

The Great Day of the Wrath of the Lord (1:14-2:3)

The Distressing End of Humanity (1:14-18)

The remaining section of chapter 1 surveys the "day of the Lord" more broadly, characterizing it in several descriptive phrases and declaring the Lord’s determination to bring a distressing end upon the inhabitants of the earth. In this passage "the day of the Lord" reverts to the world-wide concerns of 1:2-3 as distinguished from the specific concern with Judah and Jerusalem displayed in 1:4-13.

The prophet first declares that the Day of the Lord is near and hastening fast, emphasizing the suddenness with which destruction could come and the imminence of the divine intervention in human affairs.

A series of descriptive phrases characterizes the bitterness, distress, and devastation of the day, noting the shouts of anguish of the mighty man, the clouds and darkness (of smoke from burning buildings or of volcanic eruption?), and the trumpet blasts which strike terror to the hearts of all participants in battle. It is through the purpose of God that such distress comes to men. They walk without direction like the blind, because they have sinned against the Lord.

In the conflict blood is poured out; flesh is exposed and left to rot upon the ground; the earth will be consumed in the fire of God’s wrath, and no possessions of silver or gold will provide deliverance. The inhabitants of the earth will come to a "full, yea, sudden end."

Above all else it must be noted that the day of wrath, distress, destruction, and death is the Lord’s day. It is his doing; his anger has been aroused because of sin committed against himself. The false worship, violence, and fraud of Jerusalem and Judah have provided illustrations of the sins responsible for God’s wrath against his people; sins of other nations will be mentioned in chapter 2. In Paul’s words, "all have sinned" (Romans 3:23), and hence all will be punished. To Zephaniah the end of the whole human race appears imminent.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Zephaniah 1". "Layman's Bible Commentary".