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Bible Commentaries
Zephaniah 1

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary

Verse 1

1. The title.

The word of Jehovah which came See on Hosea 1:1. For the genealogy of the prophet see p. 505; for the date of his ministry, pp. 506ff.

Verses 2-3

The world judgment, Zephaniah 1:2-3.

In these verses Jehovah himself is introduced as speaker.

All things All living things, man and beast, are to be swept from the face of the earth.

From off the land R.V., more accurately, “from off the face of the ground.” Meant is not only the land of Judah, but the whole earth. Micah also introduces his message of judgment upon Israel and Judah with a description of Jehovah’s coming for the purpose of executing a universal judgment (Micah 1:2-4).

“All” is expanded in Zephaniah 1:3.

Man and beast Man alone is guilty, but beasts, fowls, and fishes will share his doom. “The sphere of man’s life, the realm of his rule, is involved with him in a common destruction” (compare Hosea 4:3; Ezekiel 38:20; Romans 8:20-22). The prophet may have in mind the story of the flood (Genesis 6:7). The rest of Zephaniah 1:3 introduces a thought which seems foreign to the immediate context, hence most recent commentators consider it a later addition for the purpose of limiting the judgment to the wicked.

The stumbling-blocks with the wicked The meaning of the first noun is uncertain. It occurs again in Isaiah 3:6, in the sense of ruin; a similar word is used in the sense of idol in Ezekiel 14:3-4; Ezekiel 14:7, and from the latter passage is derived the translation “stumbling-blocks” = idols (compare σκανδαλα in the New Testament). LXX. reads, “and the wicked shall be made to stumble”; that is, instead of the noun it reads a verb form. The passive construction may be due to an attempt on the part of the translator to remove God as the cause of the destruction, but some form of the verb is to be preferred, perhaps, “I will cause to stumble the wicked.”

Cut off man LXX., “wicked men”; and since the destruction of man in general is announced in the beginning of the verse and LXX. gives better parallelism, the latter is undoubtedly to be preferred.

Verses 2-18


The prophecy of Zephaniah opens with the announcement of a world judgment (Zephaniah 1:2-3); the heaviest blow will fall upon Judah and Jerusalem for their deeds of violence and their religious apostasy (Zephaniah 1:4-9). The prophet pictures the execution of judgment (Zephaniah 1:10-11), and chapter 1 closes with a vivid picture of the terrible day of Jehovah, which “is near and hasteth greatly” (Zephaniah 1:14-18). Only an immediate return to Jehovah can save from the worst (Zephaniah 2:1-3).

Verse 4

4. Stretch out mine hand To smite (Isaiah 5:25; Isaiah 9:12 ff.). Equivalent to “turn my hand against” (see on Amos 1:8).

Judah,… Jerusalem Zephaniah prophesies concerning the southern kingdom; the northern kingdom was destroyed a century before his day.

Remnant of Baal Literally, remnant of the Baal. The translators of LXX. have been influenced by Hosea 2:17, “the names of the Baalim”; at any rate, there seems insufficient reason for doubting the originality of the present Hebrew text. The Baal is not the Tyrian Baal, but the Canaanitish Baal, or rather Baals (see on Hosea 2:5), for the noun is used here collectively. Zephaniah may use the term in an even wider sense, as including all forms of illegitimate worship, all of which were due very largely to Canaanitish influence. The expression remnant does not presuppose necessarily the reform of 621 B.C., as if the prophet desired to say that all that was left from that reform would be destroyed in a judgment to come; it means, rather, “every vestige of Baal worship,” that is, all there is of it (compare Isaiah 14:22). The expression does not presuppose even a preliminary attempt at purifying the worship of Jehovah (see p. 508).

From this place Jerusalem. If Zephaniah prophesied in the capital this expression is perfectly intelligible even before the concentration of worship in Jerusalem.

The name of the Chemarims with the priests LXX. simply, “the names of the priests,” which reading implies the omission of either “Chemarims” or “priests,” and the omission of one of these words is favored by most recent commentators, including the cautious Davidson. Both nouns mean priests; the second is the common Old Testament term, the other is used only three times. Its etymology is uncertain, but the usage in the other passages (Hosea 10:5; 2 Kings 23:5) shows that it is applied to the priests at the local sanctuaries, officiating at the counterfeit Jehovah worship practiced there. If both words are original, the second refers to priests practicing out-and-out idolatry. Against this interpretation Davidson raises the objection that “in such a case the term priest would have been more fully defined.” But such definition is not needed, because the context leaves no doubt as to the persons in the prophet’s mind. At any rate, the arguments against the originality of the present Hebrew text are by no means conclusive. May not the omission of LXX. be due to the failure of the translators to grasp fully the thought of the prophet and the distinction he desired to make? In Zephaniah 1:5 he distinguishes between two classes of worshipers; why might he not also make a distinction between two classes of priests? Counterfeit Jehovah priests as well as out-and-out idol priests are to be cut off, so that even their names shall be heard no more. If one name is omitted, the remaining one must include both classes.

Verses 4-9

Judgment upon Judah and Jerusalem, Zephaniah 1:4-9.

The judgment will be particularly severe upon Judah and Jerusalem (4), because they “have not sought Jehovah nor inquired after him”; instead, they have practiced idolatrous rites of various kinds (Zephaniah 1:4-6). In Jerusalem the ungodly nobles will suffer the most, because they are arrogant and have practiced oppression, violence, and deceit (Zephaniah 1:7-9).

Verses 5-6

Zephaniah 1:5-6 name different classes of worshipers that will be swept away.

Worship the host of heaven The sun, moon, and stars. This form of idolatry, which was quite common in Judah during the latter part of the seventh century B.C. (Jeremiah 8:2; Jeremiah 19:13), was introduced from Assyria. The alliance consummated by Ahaz (2 Kings 16:7-9) opened the way for its introduction, and further provision was made for it by Manasseh (2 Kings 21:3; 2 Kings 21:5; compare 2 Kings 23:12). Josiah sought to abolish it (2 Kings 23:4-5; 2 Kings 23:12), but he did not succeed completely (Ezekiel 8:16; compare Job 31:26).

Upon the housetops An indication that the worship was rendered directly to the heavenly bodies when they were visible, and not to representations of them. The construction of the rest of Zephaniah 1:5 offers some difficulties. The text may have suffered, but the ancient versions offer no relief. If the present text is original a better rendering would be, “those who bow themselves, who devote themselves to Jehovah but swear by their king.” The first “swear” of A.V. is certainly an erroneous translation, for the construction is not the same as in the last clause; the expression means rather “to devote oneself by oath to the service of another,” and that fits admirably. The people prostrate themselves before Jehovah and vow loyalty to him; then they go and swear by some other deity, an indication that, in reality, their affection does not belong to Jehovah. While in this wise acceptable sense can be gotten from the present text, the latter is undoubtedly awkward and is greatly improved if the first “and that swear by” is omitted. It might easily have crept in from the following clause. With this omission 5b will read, “Those who bow themselves before Jehovah but swear by their king”; that is, nominally they worship Jehovah, in reality they have transferred their affection to other deities. If this is the correct interpretation, Zephaniah 1:5 condemns two classes of worshipers, the out-and-out idolaters and the hypocritical Jehovah worshipers (compare Ezekiel 23:39).

Malcham Margin R.V., “their king.” The god whom they recognize as their chief deity, whoever he might be. When many gods are worshiped the individual worshipers have their favorites among them. Peshitto and some manuscripts of LXX. read “Milcom” or “Moloch,” the name of the chief deity of the Ammonites. This presupposes the same consonants but different vowel points in Hebrew; in Jeremiah 49:1; Jeremiah 49:3, the same vowel points are retained. That Milcom was worshiped in Judah in Zephaniah’s days is shown by 2 Kings 23:13.

A third class of sinners is condemned in Zephaniah 1:6, those who have renounced entirely Jehovah and his religion.

Turned back from Jehovah R.V., “turned back from following Jehovah.” They began as worshipers of Jehovah, but have apostatized.

And those that have not sought This translation implies that 6b condemns another class of sinners; it is better, however, to consider the words a characterization of the people condemned in 6a and translate, “And them who have turned from following Jehovah, and who do not seek Jehovah nor inquire for him.” The word rendered here “inquire” is translated in Amos 5:4; Amos 5:6, “seek” (see there); the other word is translated “seek” in Hosea 5:6, and has practically the same meaning. These apostates have no longer any concern for Jehovah (Zephaniah 1:12).

Verse 7

7. The judgment is imminent, Jehovah has made all preparation for its execution, and the people are summoned to wait, in awful silence, the approach of the judge.

Hold thy peace at the presence Only one word in Hebrew hush! (see on Habakkuk 2:20; Zechariah 2:13).

Day of Jehovah See on Joel 1:15. For the crisis which Zephaniah considered the harbinger (see p. 161) of the day of Jehovah see Introduction, p. 511.

Hath prepared a sacrifice The judgment is pictured as a great sacrificial feast (see on Amos 5:23) prepared by Jehovah himself; the sacrificial animals are the sinners condemned in Zephaniah 1:4-6 (compare Isaiah 25:6; Jeremiah 46:10).

Hath bid his guests R.V., “hath consecrated,” or sanctified. Only those who were clean could participate in a sacrificial meal. In this case the guests were the Scythians, who were foreigners, and therefore unclean; but Jehovah has purified them so that they can participate in the feast without fear that the wrath of Jehovah will smite them. There is a slight inconsistency in the figure, for the invaders are not content to eat the sacrifice already prepared; they themselves slay and thus help to prepare the feast.

Verses 8-9

8, 9. In agreement with the other pre-exilic prophets Zephaniah names the nobles and princes as special objects of the divine wrath, because they have sinned most persistently against the divine will.

Princes See on Hosea 3:4.

The king’s children LXX., “the king’s house.” The latter is accepted as original by some because the other is thought to create a chronological difficulty. The condemnation presupposes that the children had reached the age of responsibility, but if the prophecy is dated before 621 B.C. the children of King Josiah must have been very young at the time of its delivery (compare 2 Kings 23:31; 2 Kings 23:36). “Children” and “house” are sometimes interchanged in the Old Testament, but such interchange need not be assumed here, for why restrict the term to the sons of Josiah? It may be intended to include the sons of the deceased kings, Amon and Manasseh, and may be equivalent to “royal princes.” What the prophet means to say is that not even the royal family will escape the judgment. It is worthy of notice that there is no condemnation of the king. At the time of Zephaniah’s preaching, Josiah was too young to commit very serious offenses; besides, it is not improbable that even during the early years of his reign he was under prophetic influence, which would prevent him from committing the crimes of his predecessors.

Such as are clothed with strange apparel R.V., “foreign apparel.” An evidence of indulgence and of disregard of the simplicity characteristic of the ancient Hebrews. Only the court and the nobles could afford these costly garments (compare Matthew 11:8), and they secured the means with which to purchase them by oppression and violence (compare Isaiah 2:6-7; Deuteronomy 22:11; Leviticus 19:19). It has been suggested to place 9b after 8a and 8b after 9a, but this rearrangement is no improvement over the present text. Zephaniah 1:9 condemns other forms of wrongdoing.

Those that leap on the threshold Better, R.V., “over the threshold.” Since this expression occurs only here, commentators differ widely in their interpretations. Some think that it refers to a superstitious rite of the idol worshipers (compare 1 Samuel 5:5), but the second part of the verse does not favor this view. There is no conjunction between the two parts, which indicates that no new transgression is condemned; the filling of the house with violence and deceit is closely connected with the leaping over the threshold. Hence Ewald is probably right when he says that even 9a refers to “dishonest servants of the royal court who seek to serve their lord well by exacting treasures from his subjects by force and fraud.” It may be a sort of proverbial phrase for breaking into other people’s houses for purposes of robbery.

Their masters’ houses R.V., “their master’s house.” Not the house of Jehovah, but the house of the chief to whom they render unscrupulous service.

With violence and deceit With treasures and possessions secured through violence and fraud. Similar condemnations may be read in all the pre-exilic prophets (compare Amos 3:10; Micah 3:1-3; Ezekiel 22:25-29). Jehovah must punish these outrages.

Verse 10

10. Noise of a cry A loud cry, of anguish and despair.

Fish gate Mentioned again in 2 Chronicles 33:14; Nehemiah 3:3; Nehemiah 12:39. It is generally thought that it was in the north wall of the city, not far from the northwest angle of the same. Through this gate the fishmongers from Tyre are supposed to have come (Nehemiah 13:16); if so, the fish market may have been located near it. Since the north was exposed more than the other sides of the city, hostile attacks might be expected to come from that direction. For this reason the prophet names localities in the northern section of the city as the places from which the cries of despair will be heard.

The second R.V., “the second quarter”; Hebrews mishneh, which might be translated “new town.” It may be the name of a recent addition to the city proper. Its exact location is not known, but it is generally thought to have been situated on the hill Acra. According to 2 Kings 22:14; 2 Chronicles 34:22, the prophetess Huldah lived there.

Crashing Or, noise. Since the word stands in parallelism with “cry” and “howling” in the preceding clauses, it should be understood not of the crash of falling buildings, but of the noise made by the terror-stricken inhabitants.

The hills Upon which the city was built, but the prophet is thinking especially of the hills in the northern section of the city.

Verses 10-13

The terrors of the judgment, 10-13.

Zephaniah is so certain that the impending doom cannot be averted that he depicts in these verses the wailing that will ascend from all parts of the city in the day of judgment.

Verse 11

11. Maktesh This must be another portion of the city. The context suggests that it was the quarter of the merchants, but its location is uncertain; it is not improbable, however, that it also should be looked for in the northern part of Jerusalem. Targum reads “in the ravines of the Kidron,” but that is purely a guess. The noun means “depression” (Judges 15:19) or “mortar” (Proverbs 27:22); hence it is probable that some valley or depression in the city is referred to. Most writers think of the northern end of the Tyropoeon valley. The name may have been selected because of its suggestiveness; the inhabitants are to be crushed as in a mortar.

The merchant people Literally, the people of Canaan; but the interpretation embodied in the translation of A.V. is correct (see on Hosea 12:7).

They that bear silver R.V., “they that were laden with silver,” that is, possessed silver in large quantities. The reference is to the rich merchants.

Verse 12

12. No one will escape, for Jehovah will penetrate the darkest recesses and bring out the guilty to deliver them to the destroyer.

With candles Better, R.V., “with lamps,” or lanterns, such as watchmen carry when they look for criminals.

The men that are settled on their lees Or, as margin R.V., “thickened on their lees.” The figure is taken from wine that has been left undisturbed until it has thickened; it describes the apathy, the spiritual insensibility, of the rich (compare Jeremiah 48:11-12).

Say in their hearts Think within themselves.

Will not do good, neither… evil They refuse to believe that Jehovah has anything to do with the affairs of this world (compare Isaiah 5:18-19; Malachi 2:17). “Those referred to are men who have lived at ease, without trouble or vicissitude in life, and who have therefore sunk down into unfeeling indifference or even into incredulity regarding any interference of a higher power in the affairs of mankind.”

Verse 13

13. These indifferent and skeptical persons Jehovah will startle from their spiritual slumber when he manifests himself as judge and ruler of the world.

Therefore Their disregard of Jehovah compels him to vindicate his power and supremacy.

Their goods shall become a booty The prophet expects the judgment to take the form of a hostile invasion; the enemy will capture the city and carry off as booty the possessions of the inhabitants.

Their houses a desolation Nothing but ruins and desolation will be left behind. 13b seems to be a sort of proverbial saying announcing that the godless will not be permitted to enjoy the results of their labors (see on Amos 5:11; compare Micah 6:15). The originality of 13b has been questioned, and not without reason. It is certainly strange that the prophet should announce the judgment as imminent (Zephaniah 1:7; compare Zephaniah 1:14), and then, almost in the same breath, should give the inhabitants enough time to build houses and plant vineyards before the judgment falls.

Verses 14-18

The terrors of the day of Jehovah, Zephaniah 1:14-18.

In Zephaniah 1:14 Zephaniah calls attention once more to the nearness of the day of Jehovah (compare Zephaniah 1:7); in the succeeding verses he describes in detail its terrors. In it Jehovah will make an end, yea, a terrible end, of all them that dwell in the land. Earlier prophets had spoken of the darkness and despair of that day, but Zephaniah surpasses them all in vividness and awful grandeur.

The great day… is near See on Zephaniah 1:7; Joel 1:15; Joel 2:11; Joel 2:31. The imminence of the day of Jehovah and its terrible character are dwelt upon again and again in the prophetic writings. In this verse its nearness is emphasized; therefore, “is near” is repeated and strengthened by “hasteth greatly.” Bachmann says of 14b, “This sentence impresses one as being in absolutely hopeless confusion.” If one looks for smoothness of expression he will be disappointed; but if one takes into consideration the intensely emotional character of Hebrew prophecy, especially of the utterances announcing the doom of the nation, if one bears in mind that these words were spoken by men whose hearts were well-nigh breaking as they contemplated the approaching destruction, he will not be surprised when he discovers evidences of emotion even in the form of expression, an abrupt nervous style. If 14b is studied from this point of view the difficulties lose their terror. G.A. Smith, with his keen insight into the spirit of Hebrew prophecy, translates, “Hark! the day of Jehovah. A strong man there! crying bitterly!” The vision of the prophet beholds the agony and despair of the great day, he hears the cry of pain and distress from those who under ordinary circumstances are men of courage and might; as soon as he beholds the awful picture, he breaks forth in the agonizing cry of 14b.

Hark For this meaning of the word ordinarily translated “voice” see G.-K., 146b.

There On the field of battle where the terrible struggle rages.

Cry… bitterly Because he cannot save himself and must go down before the terrible foe (compare Isaiah 13:7-8; Jeremiah 30:5; Jeremiah 30:7). In order to restore parallelism with 14a Marti changes the text of 14b so as to read, “Near is the bitter day of Jehovah; even the mighty man crieth bitterly.”

Verses 15-16

15, 16. “In order to depict more fully the terrible character of this day, Zephaniah crowds together in Zephaniah 1:15-16 all the words supplied by the language to describe the terror of the judgment.”

Day of wrath A day on which the wrath of Jehovah will manifest itself against everything that is impure and sinful (see on Nahum 1:2). The effects of this manifestation are described in the rest of the verse (compare Isaiah 22:5).

1. Trouble and distress Men will not know what to do (Job 15:24).

2. Wasteness and desolation The land will be wasted and thus share in the judgment (Job 38:27).

3. Darkness… gloominess,… clouds… thick darkness If meant to be understood literally, the words express the thought that nature also will be affected by the terrible judgment (see on Joel 2:2; Joel 2:30-31); they might, however, be used figuratively (see on Amos 5:18). Zephaniah 1:16 shows that war will be the means of executing the judgment.

Trumpet Better, horn (see on Hosea 5:8).

Alarm The same word is translated “shouting” in Amos 1:14; Amos 2:2 (see there). The shouting of the attacking soldiers and the sound of the signal horns will be heard everywhere.

Fenced cities Of Judah (compare Isaiah 2:15; Micah 5:11).

High towers R.V., “battlements.” The corners and battlements of the walls surrounding the cities (2 Chronicles 26:15).

Verse 17

17. The awfulness and suddenness of the calamity will throw the inhabitants into helpless confusion.

Distress Anxiety, terror, perplexity.

Walk like blind men They will look for a way out of the tribulation, but in their perplexity they grope around like blind men, unable to find one (compare Deuteronomy 28:29).

Because they have sinned The judgment is the result of the sins described in Zephaniah 1:4-13.

Their blood shall be poured out as dust The point of comparison is worthlessness. Human blood will be considered of no more value than the dust trodden under foot; hence it will be poured out wantonly. The last clause expresses a similar thought.

Their flesh as the dung The word translated “flesh” occurs again only in Job 20:23; its meaning is not certain, but the ancient versions favor the English translation. Some have suggested the translation “intestines” or “bowels,” which would be very appropriate here, but that translation has little support. Others render it “sap” (blood), in parallelism with “blood” in the preceding clause, while some change the Hebrew word to get this meaning. A very ingenious emendation is that of Bachmann, who reads the last clause, “and they shall lick water like camels.” In the absence of conclusive evidence to the contrary, it may be best to retain the meaning given to the word by the English translators, which gives acceptable sense. The bodies of the slain will be cast forth like dung (compare Amos 8:3).

Verse 18

18. Ordinarily liberty and safety might be purchased from an invader by the payment of a heavy tribute, and thus the Egyptians are said to have purchased their freedom from the Scythians (see p. 511), but in this case gold and silver will not tempt the divinely appointed executioner (Isaiah 13:17; Ezekiel 7:19; compare Proverbs 11:4).

The whole land Judah; not “the whole earth,” for in Zephaniah 1:4-18 the prophet confines himself to Judah and Jerusalem (not so in Zephaniah 3:8).

The fire of his jealousy See on Joel 2:18. In this case, however, the divine resentment is aroused not against those who have dishonored his people, but against his people for dishonoring Jehovah (compare Zephaniah 1:17). While the devastation is wrought by a hostile army, back of it is Jehovah, who has made the enemy “the rod of his anger, the staff of his indignation” (Isaiah 10:5).

He shall make even a speedy riddance Literally, for an end, even a terrible destruction he shall make. The destruction will be complete (compare Nahum 1:8).

Them that dwell in the land As before, the land of Judah.

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Zephaniah 1". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/zephaniah-1.html. 1874-1909.
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