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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Zephaniah

- Zephaniah

by Various Authors

THE BOOK OF ZEPHANIAH

INTRODUCTION

The Prophet and His Times

Zephaniah is the first identifiable prophet to bring the word of the Lord to Judah after Isaiah’s latest utterances in connection with the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib in 701 B.C. During the reign of King Manasseh (687-642 B.C.) the only reported word from God is a judgment on that reign, which "the Lord said by his servants the prophets" (2 Kings 21:10). No other prophetic word is reported during the reigns of Manasseh and Amon ( 642-640 B.C.).

According to the title of the Book of Zephaniah the word of the Lord came to this prophet "in the days of Josiah the son of Amon," which indicates a possible date from 640 B.C. to 609 B.C. The title also indicates the ancestry of the prophet back to the fourth generation, to a person named Hezekiah. Whether Zephaniah’s ancestor was the Hezekiah who was king of Judah in Isaiah’s time cannot be determined. The editor of the book does not indicate that the Hezekiah mentioned was the king, but nowhere else is a prophet’s ancestry listed back for four generations.

Looking back from the period of Josiah’s reign, a Judean could reflect on the unwholesome reign of King Manasseh, many of the evils of which no doubt persisted in Josiah’s reign. He could also reflect on the extent to which Assyrian influence had affected Judean life, particularly with relation to the introduction of the worship of sun, moon, and stars, referred to in 2 Kings 21:3, and the introduction of foreign clothing, referred to in Zephaniah 1:8. A prophet of the period would no doubt have been aware of a growing weakness on the Assyrian throne after the death of Ashurbanipal (about 633 B.C.), and he may well have sensed that the end of the Assyrian Empire was approaching.

Coincident with the weakness of the Assyrian throne, stirrings of revolt and of independence developed rapidly in the two ends of the Near Eastern world : under the energetic Twenty-sixth Dynasty Egypt became free of Assyrian control and in the latter part of Josiah’s reign began to push into Syria; in the east the Medes, under the leadership of Cyaxares, made an unsuccessful attack on Nineveh about 625 B.C., and about the same time Babylon declared its independence from Assyria,

Another power was on the horizon during the last half of the seventh century before Christ. To what extent Zephaniah was concerned with the nomadic Scythians has been debated without a clear conclusion. It is known that the Scythians first reached the northern borders of Assyria during the latter part of the eighth century, and that they continued to exert pressure alternately upon Assyria and Media and later upon Persia. In 612 B.C. they joined with the Medes and Babylonians in the final attack upon Nineveh. Herodotus, the historian, reports what appears to have been an earlier nomadic raid against Egypt and the destruction of a temple at the Philistine town of Ashkelon during the reign of Psammeticus (I or II?) of Egypt. Although the date of this raid is uncertain, some students have believed that it is reflected in the earliest prophecies of Jeremiah and in the prophecy of Zephaniah. Actually, neither prophet names the Scythians, and many recent students do not see any evidence of the Scythians in either Jeremiah or Zephaniah. Certainly the evidence is not clear enough to date Zephaniah’s work by the Scythian raid.

The work of Zephaniah cannot be dated any more accurately by referring to his messages directed against the foreign nations (Zephaniah 2:4-15). The reference to Nineveh (Zephaniah 2:13-15) suggests that the prophecy preceded the fall of that city in 612 B.C., and the reference to the Philistine cities (Zephaniah 2:4-7) has often been used in connection with Herodotus’ brief word concerning a Scythian raid to the borders of Egypt to indicate the period around 625 B.C. All of the references to foreign nations in the second chapter, however, look forward to complete destruction of the peoples involved, and therefore cannot be linked with any particular attacks or invasions even if these were clearly identifiable.

Josiah’s reign over Judah is remembered in the Old Testament for his religious reforms (described in 2 Kings 22-23), including the renovation of the Temple and his efforts to purify the worship of God in and around Jerusalem. Insofar as he deals with Judah, Zephaniah (Zephaniah 1:2-18) is concerned with some of the same evils as Josiah, though his language is not limited to the religious abuses referred to in II Kings (see the comment on Zephaniah 1:7-9). Though it is clear that Zephaniah was concerned with abuses which Josiah tried to end, apparently he did not preach in direct support of the reform movement. Rather, he seems either to have preached a few years prior to the reforms of 621 B.C. or during the time of Jehoiakim, when many of the abuses seem to have been resumed (compare Jeremiah 32:29-35). Thus Zephaniah’s work was probably carried on during the period just prior to the reforms of Josiah, about 625 B.C., but it is not impossible that he labored in Jehoiakim’s time (609-598 B.C.) and was wrongly assigned by an editor to Josiah’s reign.

The Message of Zephaniah

Zephaniah’s message is very largely concerned with "the day of the Lord," which he sees as a day of the destructive outpouring of God’s wrath upon all men, involving particularly the evildoers of Judah and Jerusalem, but also the proud and boastful foreign nations which oppressed Judah at various times.

The expression "the day of the Lord" perhaps originated in a battle cry as a part of the general conception of the holy war waged by the early Israelites, and as such it probably includes elements of the ancient story of the victory of God over the chaos at the time of the creation. As a day of victory it was associated before the time of Amos with expectations of peace and prosperity, but after his preaching (Amos 5:18-20) it came to have threatening aspects for Israel and Judah. In any case the Day of the Lord always refers to the time when his will is accomplished, and this will includes the destruction of the workers of evil.

In Zephaniah "the day of the Lord" recalls the setting of battle, with the destruction of life and property which belongs to military conflict, and promises distress and terror as well as the destruction of battle for the people of Judah, for the foreign nations mentioned, and for all flesh. Zephaniah does not emphasize the earthquakes and other physical phenomena sometimes connected with the Day of the Lord (Joel 2:10-11). On the Day of the Lord, as Zephaniah sees it, evildoers will be cut off from their positions of power and luxury and their cities will be destroyed. Only a few expressions may be considered to refer to the outpouring of God’s wrath on the realm of nature, as, for example, Zephaniah 1:2-3.

With Zephaniah the reason for the wrath of God is clear whether its application is toward Judah or toward foreign nations. In either case the fundamental fault is false worship — the worship of false gods and the rebellious refusal to seek the Lord. Zephaniah’s message is not primarily directed toward the relationships between men as the messages of Amos and of Micah are. Instead he is concerned because men have acted in pride rather than in humility; they have boastfully oppressed their neighboring states or have sat thickening upon their lees, thinking, "The Lord will not do good, nor will he do ill" (Zephaniah 1:12). Against such practical irreligion is heard the word of God through Zephaniah, "I will overthrow the wicked" (Zephaniah 1:3). Such a word from God is relevant in every age when men do not find a warning in the destruction of cities and do not "accept correction" from God.

The book, however, presents a hopeful aspect, whether it is the work of Zephaniah himself or of an editor. In the last chapter the book turns from threats to promises and invites the humble and lowly to look forward to a day of victory and restoration after the day of wrath. Thus the true mission of the prophet is preserved: to warn of impending evil and to urge people to turn from evil ways, and to offer prospect of blessing if they respond to the call of God.

OUTLINE

Title. (Zephaniah 1:1)

The Day of the Lord. (Zephaniah 1:2 to Zephaniah 3:20)

Concerning Judah and Jerusalem (Zephaniah 1:2-13)

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

Concerning Foreign Nations (Zephaniah 2:4-15)

The Indignation of the Lord (Zephaniah 3:1-8)

The Victory of the Lord (Zephaniah 3:9-20)