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by Joseph Exell
Author of the book
Of Zephaniah we know absolutely nothing but what he himself mentions in the superscription of his Book. No information can be gathered from the contents of the prophecy, where the writer’s personal history is wholly unnoticed. He calls himself “the son of Cushi, the son of Gedahah, the son of Amariah, the son of Hizkiah.” As it is usual to mention only the name of the father, it has been inferred that the genealogy is carried up to the fourth generation, because Hizkiah, i.e. Hezekiah, was a celebrated personage, and most probably the famous King of Judah. But the inference is not undoubted. Hizkiah is not called “ King of Judah” in the genealogy, which would naturally have been done had he been the ancestor intended, as in Proverbs 25:1; Isaiah 38:9. There is room enough, indeed, between Hezekiah and Josiah for the four specified descents, though only three are named in the case of Josiah himself; but the name Hezekiah was not unknown among the Jews, and we cannot assume without further support that the person here mentioned is the king. It is fair to argue that the insertion of the genealogical details shows that the prophet was of distinguished birth; but further it is impossible to go with any certainty. The name of the prophet is variously explained as “The Lord hath hid,” or “The Lord hath guarded,” or “The Lord’s Watch-tower.” Keil is generally followed in interpreting it as “He whom Jehovah hides, or shelters.” The LXX writes it σοφονίας‚: Vulgate Sophoniah. There were others who bore this name (see 2 Kings 25:18; 1 Chronicles 6:36; Zechariah 6:10; Zechariah 6:14).
Date of the book
Zephaniah, in the inscription of his Book, states that he prophesied “in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, King of Judah”; and this assertion has never been seriously disputed. The only question is in what part of that king’s reign did he exercise his office. Josiah reigned thirty-one years, according to the usually received dates--from 640 b.c to 609 b.c.. The destruction of Nineveh, which Zephaniah foretold, took place quite at the end of Josiah’s reign, and his prophecy must have been uttered some time before this event. No other data for determining the question exist save what may be gathered from internal evidences. And these are most uncertain, depending chiefly upon inferences drawn from the great reformation effected by the good king. Did he prophesy before this reformation was begun, or after it was affected, that is to say, in the first or second half of Josiah’s reign? A third alternative may be added--Was it during the progress of this religious amelioration? Those who assign the prophecy to the earlier period, before the king’s eighteenth year, when his vigorous measures produced their happy results, rely upon the fact that the prophet speaks as though idolatry and the disorders which Josiah repressed were still rampant, even the members of the royal family being implicated in the general iniquity. It is inconceivable, they say, that Zephaniah should have taken this gloomy view, and have entirely omitted all mention of the young prince’s noble efforts to effect & change for the better, had this attempt already been commenced. All this points to a time when Josiah was still a minor, and before he had begun to assert himself in the direction of affairs. On the other hand, it is contended that certain statements in the body of the work prove that the reformation was being carried on at the time when it was composed: the public worship of Jehovah existed (Zephaniah 3:4-5), and this side by side with that of Baal and with many idolatrous practices (Zephaniah 1:4-5); there were priests of Jehovah as well as priests of false gods at the same time. Nor can we reason from Zephaniah’s silence concerning reforms that none had been essayed; for Jeremiah, who began to prophesy in the thirteenth year of Josiah, is quite as strong as Zephaniah in his denunciations of idolatry, the fact being that, though it was publicly abolished, it was still practised extensively in secret. Others, again, claim a still later date for the prophecy, because it speaks of the extermination of the remnant of Baal (Zephaniah 1:4), which implies that the purification had already been effected, and that only isolated instances still existed; the prophet also speaks of and refers to the Mosaic books as well known to his hearers (comp. Zephaniah 1:13; Zephaniah 1:15; Zephaniah 1:17; Zephaniah 2:2; Zephaniah 2:5; Zephaniah 2:7; Zephaniah 2:11; Zephaniah 3:5; Zephaniah 3:19-20), which could only have been after the discovery of the “Book of the Law,” in Josiah’s eighteenth year (2 Kings 22:8). It must be noted that on this occasion reference was made to the Prophetess Huldah, not to Zephaniah (2 Kings 22:14). Hence some suppose that he was dead at this time. From this brief recapitulation of arguments it will be seen that each of the three theories mentioned above has much to be said in its favour; and that the only safe conclusion to adopt is this--that although the present book, as now displayed in the sacred canon, forms one connected whole, it is composed of prophecies uttered at various times and gathered by their author into a volume and arranged on a definite plan. Its place in the canon is the same both in the Hebrew and Greek, and coincides with the chronological order to which it is assigned. (W. J. Deane, M. A.)
The temper of Zephaniah
For so young a man the vision of Zephaniah may seem strangely dark and final. Yet not otherwise was Isaiah’s inaugural vision, and as a role it is the young and not the old whose indignation is ardent and unsparing. Zephaniah carries this temper to the extreme. There is no great hope in his Book, hardly any tenderness, and never a glimpse of beauty. A townsman, Zephaniah has no eye for nature; not only is no fair prospect described by him, he has not even a single metaphor drawn from nature’s loveliness or peace. He is pitilessly true to his great keynotes: “I will sweep, sweep from the face of the ground; He will burn, burn up everything.” No hotter book lies in all the Old Testament. Neither dew nor grass nor any tree nor any blossom lives in it, but it is everywhere fire, smoke, and darkness, drifting chaff, ruins, nettles, salt-pits, and owls and ravens looking from the windows of desolate palaces. Nor does Zephaniah foretell the restoration of nature in the end of the days. There is no prospect of a redeemed and fruitful land, but only of a group of battered and hardly saved characters; a few meek and righteous are hidden from the fire and creep forth when it is over. Israel is left “a poor and humble folk.” No prophet is more true to the doctrine of the remnant, or more resolutely refuses to modify it. Perhaps he died young. The full truth, however, is that Zephaniah, though he found his material in the events of his own day, tears himself loose from history altogether. To Zephaniah the day of the Lord begins to assume what we call the “supernatural.” Though the first of apocalyptic writers, Zephaniah does not allow himself the licence of apocalypse. (Geo. Adam Snith, D. D.)
the Sixth Week after Easter