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by Joseph Exell
§ 1. SUBJECT OF THE BOOK.
THE prophecy of Zephaniah has been called by Kieinert the Dies irae of the Old Testament; and there is much truth in this designation. It is, indeed, replete with announcements of judgment to come; it is wholly occupied with this subject and its consequences, and exhortations founded thereon; not that this is the final object of the prophecy, but it is introduced uniformly as being the means of establishing righteousness in the earth, making God's power known, purging out the evil, and developing the good. The prophet is inspired with the idea of the universal judgment which shall affect the whole world; he sees this anticipated by particular visitations on certain heathen nations; he sees heathendom generally overthrown; he warns his own countrymen of the punishment that awaits them; and he looks forward to the salvation of Israel when all these things have come to pass. The book is one continuous prophecy divided into three parts; it contains, perhaps, many utterances condensed into one systematic whole, which comprises the threat of judgment, the exhortation to repentance, and the promise of salvation.
The prophet begins abruptly with announcing the judgment upon the whole world, upon idolaters, and specially upon Judah for its iniquity; he describes the terrible character of this judgment, and upon whom it shall fall, viz. the chieftains who affect Gentile habits and oppress others, upon the traders who exact usury, upon the faithless who have no belief in Divine providence (ch. 1.). Having depicted the day of the Lord, he exhorts the people to repentance, and urges the righteous to persevere that they may be protected in the time of distress. He gives a reason for this exhortation by a more extended announcement of the Divine judgment which shall fall upon nations far and near — Philistines, Moabites, Ammonites, Ethiopians, Assyrians, yea, and upon Jerusalem herself, whose princes, judges, and prophets shall be justly punished. This display of vengeance shall lead to a reverential awe of the Name of the Lord, and prepare the way for the pure worship of God (Zephaniah 2:1-3:8). This introduces the announcement of Messianic hopes. The nations shall serve the Lord with one accord; Israel shall return from its dispersion, purified and humbled, the evil being purged away; it shall be safe under God's special care, and shall rejoice in happiness undisturbed; the oppressor shall be destroyed, and the holy nation shall be "a name and a praise among all people of the earth" (Zephaniah 3:9-20).
The prophecy of Zephaniah is in some respects supplementary to that of Habakkuk. The latter had foretold the punishment of Judah through the Chaldeans; the former shows how the judgment will affect, not the Jews only, but pagan nations also, yea, the whole earth; but he does not name nor accurately describe the instruments of this vengeance. This reticence has given occasion to much speculation on the part of critics. Those who believe in the predictive element of prophecy, and acknowledge the inspiration of Divine foreknowledge in the utterances of the prophets, have no difficulty in seeing the fulfilment of the announced judgment in the action of the Chaldeans, whom Zephaniah, in agreement with the general and comprehensive character of his oracle, does not specifically name. But Hitzig and those who reject all definite prophecy take much pains to discover an enemy to whom the prophet could allude without resorting to supernatural knowledge. They find this convenient invader in the horde of Scythians who, as Herodotus relates, burst into Media, went thence towards Egypt, were bought off by Psammetichus, and on their return a few stragglers plundered a temple at Ascalon. This inroad is reported to have happened about the time that the prophecy was uttered. But Herodotus's account of the Scythians, when carefully examined, is proved to be full of inaccuracies; and even this gives no support to the figment of their attack on the Jews, of whose existence they were probably unaware, nor to any destruction of the nations mentioned by Zephaniah effectual by them. Whether it was revealed to the prophet that the Chaldeans were to be the executors of the Divine vengeance, or whether the exact instruments were not identified in his view (the law of moral government being present to his mind rather than any definite circumstances), the fact remains that he announces certain events which we know were not fulfilled by any proceedings of Scythians, but were exactly accomplished by the Chaldeans (see note on Zephaniah 1:7).
The peculiarity in Zephaniah's prophecy is the extension of his view to all lands and nations, their spiritual concerns, their future condition. While cursorily announcing the fate of Jerusalem, he dwells chiefly upon the exercise of God's power upon the exterior kingdoms of the world, and how they are ordained to work out his great purposes.
§ 2. AUTHOR.
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 Gedaliah, 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 certainly.
The name of the prophet is variously explained, as "The Lord hath hid," or "The Lord hath guarded," or "The Lord's Watchtower." Keil is generally followed in interpreting it as "He whom Jehovah hides, or shelters." The LXX. writes it Σοφονι῎ἀ: Vulgate, Sophoniah. There were others who bore this name (see 2 Kings 25:18; 1 Chronicles 6:36; Zechariah 6:10, Zechariah 6:14). The devils given by Pseudo-Dorotheus and Pseudo-Epiphanius ('De Vit. Proph.,' 19.), among which is the assertion that he was a member of the tribe of Simeon, have no historical basis.
§ 3. DATE.
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 B.C. 640 to B.C. 609. 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 effected, 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 a 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, Zephaniah 3:5), and this side by side with that of Baal and with many idolatrous practices (Zephaniah 1:4, Zephaniah 1:5); 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, Zephaniah 3:20), 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 be 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.
§ 4. GENERAL CHARACTER.
Some critics have spoken disparagingly of the style of Zephaniah's prophecy, as being prosaic and bearing no comparison with any of the other Hebrew poets. There is some truth in this criticism; but the censure is exaggerated and unjust. Of the remarkable purity of his language there can be no doubt; and if his rhythm is at times faulty, judged by the standard of the highest models, and sinks into prose; if he is wanting in sublimity and elegance; it must be allowed that he is always easy and full of life, often vehement, fiery, and severe, and that the force and conciseness of his utterances leave a definite impression on the mind which needs no rhetorical artifice to make it permanent. Like other prophets, he connects himself with his predecessors by employing their language, not from poverty of idea, not from "declension in the originality of prophets of this date," but because he designs to give, in a compendious form, "the fundamental thoughts of judgment and salvation which are common to all the prophets" (Keil). He predicts judgment; the particular instrument he leaves unfold. The destruction, not the destroyer, is the subject of his oracle. His future is vague, and extends even to the end of time; particular period or special agent is beyond his scope to name. He culls isolated expressions and striking words from his predecessors, Isaiah, Joel, Amos, and Habakkuk; he avails himself of their language with respect to judgment to come, and God's love for the righteous among the people, and applies it to his own purpose. The peculiar nature of this prophecy, its comprehensiveness and universality, has been well intimated by Bucer, who says, "Si quis desiderat secreta vatum oracula brevi dari compendio, brevem hunc Zaphanjam perlegat."
§ 5. LITERATURE.
Of special commentaries on Zephaniah the most noteworthy are the following: M. Bucer, 'Sophon. Proph.'; Laren, 'Tuba Zephaniah'; Jansen., 'Analecta in Sophon.;' Tarnovius, 'Comment.'; Nolten, 'Dissert. Exeget.'; 'Comment.'; Cramer, 'Scyth. Denkmaler'; Von Coeln, 'Spieilegium'; P. Ewald, 'Zephaniah ubersetzt'; Strauss, 'Vaticin. Zephaniah Comment. Illustr.'; Reinke, 'Der Proph. Zephaniah'.
§ 6. ARRANGEMENT ON SECTIONS.
The book is divided into three parts.
Part I. The judgment upon all the world, and upon Judah in particular.
§ 1. (Zephaniah 1:1.) Title and inscription.
§ 2. (Zephaniah 1:2, Zephaniah 1:3.) The prelude, announcing the judgment upon the whole world.
§ 3. (Zephaniah 1:4-6.) This judgment will fall specially upon Judah and Jerusalem for their idolatry.
§ 4. (Zephaniah 1:7-13.) The judgment is described as regards its objects, viz. the princes, the traders, the irreligious and profligate.
§ 5. (Zephaniah 1:14-18.) The near approach and terrible nature of this judgment.
Part II. (Zephaniah 2:1-3:8.) Exhortation to repentance and to perseverance.
§ 1. (Zephaniah 2:1-3.) Let all examine their ways before the day of the Lord comes, and let the righteous specially seek the Lord more earnestly, that they may be safe in the judgment.
§ 2. (Zephaniah 2:4-7.) The exhortation is supported by the announcement of the punishment on various nations, which shall prepare the way for the acceptance of true religion; and first the punishment shall fall on the Philistines.
§ 3. (Zephaniah 2:8-10.) Then upon the Moabites and Ammonites.
§ 4. (Zephaniah 2:11.) Jehovah destroys idolatry, that pure religion may reign over all the earth.
§ 5. (Zephaniah 2:12-15.) The judgment shall fall on the Ethiopians and Assyrian.
§ 6. (Zephaniah 3:1-5.) If God punishes the heathen, he will not spare the hardened sinners in Judah.
§ 7. (Ch. 3:6-8.) This is the only way loft to secure salvation for Israel and the whole world.
Part III. (Ch. 3:9-20.) Promise of the conversion of the world and the happiness of Israel.
§ 1. (Ch. 3:9, 10.) The heathen shall be converted, and shall help in the restoration of Israel.
2. (Ch. 3:11-13.) Israel restored to God's favour shall be cleansed and sanctified.
3. (Ch. 3:14-20.) She shall be comforted and largely blessed by the presence of Jehovah, and exalted to honour in the eyes of all the world.
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29