Book Of Zephaniah

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The superscription of the Book of Zephaniah attributes its authorship to “Zephaniah son of Cushi son of Gedaliah son of Amariah son of Hezekiah, in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah” (1:1, NRSV). All that is known of Zephaniah comes from the text. The superscription of the book is lengthier than most and contains two features. The name Cushi, Zephaniah’s father, means ‘Ethiopian’. In a society where genealogy was considered extremely important because of God's covenant with Abraham and his descendants, the author may have felt compelled to establish his Hebrew lineage. In fact, this lineage is traced back to Hezekiah, who was king of Judah. The author of Zephaniah does not shrink from condemning the Cushites or Ethiopians. Chapter 2:12 contains a succinct but unequivocal message: “You also, O Ethiopians, / Shall be killed by my sword.” Zephaniah’s familial connection with King Hezekiah may have also legitimized his harsh indictment of the royal city in 3:1-7.

As with many of the other prophets, there is no external evidence to directly associate composition of the book with a prophet by the name of Zephaniah. Some scholars believe that much of the material does not date from the days of King Josiah (ca. 640-609 BC), but is actually post-monarchic. Three general possibilities are that a person, possibly named Zephaniah, prophesied the words of the book of Zephaniah; the general message of a Josianic prophet is conveyed through the book of Zephaniah; or the name could have been employed, either during the monarchic or post-monarchic period, as a ‘speaking voice’, possibly for rhetorical purposes. Although it is possible that a post-monarchic author assumed the persona of a monarchic prophet to add credibility to his message, there is no evidence to support such a claim.

The prophetic book of the Bible attributed to Zephaniah occurs ninth among the twelve minor prophets, preceded by Habakkuk and followed by Haggai. Zephaniah (or Tzfanya, Sophonias, צפניה, Ẓəfanya, Ṣəp̄anyāh) means 'the Lord conceals', 'the Lord protects' or, possibly, 'God of darkness'.

When was it written?

If the superscription of the book of Zephaniah is a reliable indicator of the time that the bulk of the book was composed, then Zephaniah was a contemporary of the prophet Jeremiah (or Jeremias). King Josiah ruled over Judah from approximately 640-609 BC. Some scholars believe that the picture of Jerusalem which Zephaniah gives indicates that he was active prior to the religious reforms of King Josiah which are described in 2 Kings 23. These reforms took place in 622 BC. Scholars also cite the reference to “the officials and the king’s sons . . .” in 1:8 as evidence that the kingdom was still ruled by a regent for the Josiah. The portrait of foreign nations in chapter 2 also indicates the late seventh century.

Zephaniah was probably the first prophet following the prophecies of Isaiah and the violent reign of Manasseh. Both Zephaniah and Jeremiah urged King Josiah to enact religious reforms, which he eventually did.

Other scholars have presented evidence pointing to a post-monarchic date (as late as 200 BC) based on language and theme, although the book might still have been based on an earlier composition.

Where was it written

The author of Zephaniah describes the city of Jerusalem in considerable detail. The author of Zephaniah writes that “a cry will be heard from the Fish Gate, / a wail from the Second Quarter, / a loud crash on the hills. / The inhabitants of the Mortar wail, for all the traders have perished . . .” (1:10-11). His description of the geography and of the offenses being committed in Jerusalem indicate first-hand knowledge. Because the book most directly effects the inhabitants of Jerusalem, it is probable that this is where the book was composed.

Why was it written

There are two possible reasons for the creation of the book of Zephaniah. Either way, the primary purpose of the book’s composition was to alter the behaviour (particularly religious behaviour) of the author’s contemporary Jerusalemites.

If the book of Zephaniah was largely composed during the monarchic period, the author of the book of Zephaniah attempts to accomplish this change in behaviour through the threat of future calamity for “those who have turned back from following the Lord, / who have not sought the Lord or inquired of him” (1:6). The author conceives of a date in the future – the ‘great day of the Lord’ – when YHWH will judge all the people of the earth. This coming judgment will affect all of the nations, including the author’s own nation of Judah where YHWH is understood to reside. The threats made against Jerusalem, however, are much more specific than the oracles concerning foreign nations. This strengthened the belief that the Israelites, who understood themselves to be God’s chosen people, were even more culpable than other peoples for living up to YHWH’s statutes because they were to be a ‘light unto the nations’. The book concludes by extending a promise of deliverance to the remnant of Israel which remains. The fulfilment of this prophecy is commonly understood to have taken place when Judah was captured by the nation of Babylon and many of its inhabitants were exiled in an event known as the Babylonian captivity.

If the book gained most of its present form in post-monarchic period, then the author likely intended to draw upon an understanding of the Babylonian captivity as a punishment from YHWH, urging his own contemporaries not to repeat the mistakes of the past. It is not known whether the religious syncretism, alluded to in chapter one, was a significant issue in post-exilic Judah.

What are the themes of the book?

The book of Zephaniah consists of three chapters in the Hebrew Masoretic Text. In English versions, the book is divided into four chapters. The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible supplies headings for the book as follows:

Verse/Chapter Headings in the NRSV
Verse Reference Heading
1:1 (Superscription)
1:2-13 The Coming Judgment on Judah
1:14-18 The Great Day of the Lord
2:1-15 Judgment on Israel's Enemies
3:1-7 The Wickedness of Jerusalem
3:8-13 Punishment and Conversion of the Nations
3:14-20 Song of Joy

It is important to note that there are a number of different sub-divisions in use for the text with no clear consensus.

Despite its relatively short length, the book of Zephaniah incorporates a number of common prophetic themes. Zephaniah includes one of the most vivid descriptions in the prophetic literature of God’s wrath. Yet, it is also unequivocal in its proclamation of a restoration for those who survive the ‘Great Day of the Lord'.

The book of Zephaniah incorporates a good deal of phrases and terminology which are found in other books of the Bible. This suggests that the author of Zephaniah was familiar with and drew upon earlier Israelite religious tradition and also that later biblical writers regarded the book of Zephaniah as an authoritative (or at least respectable) work in the prophetic corpus.

The book of Zephaniah draws upon several themes from the book of Genesis and reverses them. The opening verses of the book of Zephaniah are reminiscent both of the creation and of Noah’s flood. Chapter 1:2-3 declare that “I will sweep away everything / from the face of the earth says the Lord. / I will sweep away humans and animals; I will sweep away the birds of the air / and the fish of the sea.” The order of the creatures to be destroyed in Zephaniah is the opposite of the order in which they are created in Genesis 1:20-27. It is also worth noting than in both Noah’s flood and Zephaniah’s Day of the Lord, a ‘remnant’ survives God’s wrath.

It is also not surprising that the book of Zephaniah bears marked similarities to the book of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic history. Similarities might be expected to each of these works because the Deuteronomistic history covers an overlapping period of time and because the issues which are dealt with in the book of Zephaniah go straight to the heart of the covenant which is reaffirmed in the book of Deuteronomy before Israel enters into the Promised Land of Canaan. The first 3-4 of the Ten Commandments (or Ten Words, Decalogue) contained in Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:1-22 directly concern Israel’s relationship with YHWH. It is this integral component of the covenant between YHWH and Israel which is threatened by the practices which to which the author of the book of Zephaniah refers in 1:4-6. In this manner, Zephaniah invokes one of the most common themes, not only in prophetic literature, but in the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Zephaniah also draws upon the emerging idea that YHWH is quite different from the regional or tribal gods of the surrounding nations. Rather, YHWH is beginning to be understood as the only God and the God who rules over all nations. It was an apparently unique belief in the ancient Middle East that a god could send a foreign nation to execute that god’s judgment (as the Israelites believed YHWH did with Babylon). In the book of Zephaniah, all nations are portrayed as being subject to YHWH’s divine judgment.

The book of Zephaniah also interacts with the prophetic tradition – both borrowing from and contributing to the corpus in terms of language and images.

I. The Author.

1. Name:

The name “Zephaniah” (צפניה, cephanyāh; Σοφονίας, Sophonías), which is borne by three other men mentioned in the Old Testament, means “Yah hides,” or “Yah has hidden” or “treasured.” “It suggests,” says G. A. Smith, “the prophet's birth in the killing time of Manasseh” (2 Kings 21:16).

2. Ancestry:

The ancestry of the prophet is carried back four generations (Zephaniah 1:1), which is unusual in the Old Testament (compare Isaiah 1:1; Hosea 1:1); hence, it is thought, not without reason (Eiselen, Minor Prophets, 505), that the last-mentioned ancestor, Hezekiah, must have been a prominent man - indeed, no other than King Hezekiah of Judah, the contemporary of Isaiah and Micah. If Zephaniah was of royal blood, his condemnation of the royal princes (Zephaniah 1:8) becomes of great interest. In a similar manner did Isaiah, who in all probability was of royal blood, condemn without hesitation the shortcomings and vices of the rulers and the court. An ancient tradition declares that Zephaniah was of the tribe of Simeon, which would make it impossible for him to be of royal blood; but the origin and value of this tradition are uncertain.

Zephaniah lived in Judah; that he lived in Jerusalem is made probable by the statement in Zephaniah 1:4, “I will cut off ... from this place,” as well as by his intimate knowledge of the topography of the city (Zephaniah 1:10, Zephaniah 1:11).

3. Life:

For how long he continued his prophetic activity we do not know, but it is not improbable that, as in the case of Amos, his public activity was short, and that, after delivering his message of judgment in connection with a great political crisis, he retired to private life, though his interest in reforms may have continued (2 Kings 23:2).

II. Time.

1. Date:

The title (Zephaniah 1:1) places the prophetic activity of Zephaniah somewhere within the reign of Josiah, that is, between 639 and 608 BC. Most scholars accept this statement as historically correct. The most important exception is E. Koenig (Einl, 252 ff), who places it in the decade following the death of Josiah. Koenig's arguments are altogether inconclusive, while all the internal evidence points toward the reign of Josiah as the period of Zephaniah's activity. Can the ministry of the prophet be more definitely located within the 31 years of Josiah? The latter's reign falls naturally into two parts, separated by the great reform of 621. Does the work of Zephaniah belong to the earlier or the later period?

The more important arguments in favor of the later period are:

  • (a) Deuteronomy 28:29, Deuteronomy 28:30 is quoted in Zephaniah 1:13, Zephaniah 1:15, Zephaniah 1:17, in a manner which shows that the former book was well known, but according to the modern view, the Deuteronomic Code was not known until 621, because it was lost (2 Kings 22:8).
  • (b) The “remnant of Baal” (Zephaniah 1:4) points to a period when much of the Baal-worship had been removed, which means subsequent to 621.
  • (c) The condemnation of the “king's sons” (Zephaniah 1:8) presupposes that at the time of the utterance they had reached the age of moral responsibility; this again points to the later period.

These arguments are inconclusive:

  • (a) The resemblances between Deuteronomy and Zephaniah are of such a general character that dependence of either passage on the other is improbable.
  • (b) The expression in [[Zephaniah 1:4 bears an interpretation which made its use quite appropriate before 621 (Eiselen, Minor Prophets, 508).
  • (c) “King's sons” may be equivalent to “royal princes,” referring not to Josiah's children at all. The last two objections lose all force if the Septuagint readings are accepted (Zephaniah 1:4, “names of Baal”; Zephaniah 1:8, “house of the king”).

On the other hand, there are several considerations pointing to the earlier date:

  • (a) The youth of the king would make it easy for the royal princes to go to the excesses condemned in Zephaniah 1:8, Zephaniah 1:9.
  • (b) The idolatrous practices condemned by Zephaniah ([[Zephaniah 1:3-5) are precisely those abolished in 621.
  • (c) The temper described in Zephaniah 1:12 is explicable before 621 and after the death of Josiah in 608, but not between 621 and 608, when religious enthusiasm was widespread.
  • (d) Only the earlier part of Josiah's reign furnishes a suitable occasion for the prophecy. Evidently at the time of its delivery an enemy was threatening the borders of Judah and of the surrounding nations. But the only foes of Judah during the latter part of the 7th century meeting all the conditions are the Scythians, who swept over Western Asia about 625 BC. At the time the prophecy was delivered their advance against Egypt seems to have been still in the future, but imminent (Zephaniah 1:14); hence, the prophet's activity may be placed between 630 and 625, perhaps in 626. If this date is correct, Zephaniah and Jeremiah began their ministries in the same year.

2. Political Situation:

Little can be said about the political conditions in Judah during the reign of Josiah, because the Biblical books are silent concerning them. Josiah seems to have remained loyal to his Assyrian lord to the very end, even when the latter's prestige had begun to wane, and this loyalty cost him his life (2 Kings 23:29). As already suggested, the advance of the Scythians furnished the occasion of the prophecy. Many questions concerning these Scythians remain still unanswered, but this much is clear, that they _ were a non-Semitic race of barbarians, which swept in great hordes over Western Asia during the 7th century BC (see Scythians). The prophet looked upon the Scythians as the executioners of the divine judgment upon his sinful countrymen and upon the surrounding nations; and he saw in the coming of the mysterious host the harbinger of the day of Yahweh.

3. Moral and Religious Conditions:

The Book of Zephaniah, the early discourses of Jeremiah, and 2 Kings 21 through 23 furnish a vivid picture of the social, moral, and religious conditions in Judah at the time Zephaniah prophesied. Social injustice and moral corruption were widespread (Zephaniah 3:1, Zephaniah 3:3, Zephaniah 3:7). Luxury and extravagance might be seen on every hand; fortunes were heaped up by oppressing the poor (Zephaniah 1:8, Zephaniah 1:9). The religious situation was equally bad. The reaction under Manasseh came near making an end of Yahweh-worship (2 Ki 21). Amon followed in the footsteps of his father, and the outlook was exceedingly dark when Josiah came to the throne. Fortunately the young king came under prophetic influence from the beginning, and soon undertook a religious reform, which reached its culmination in the 18th year of his reign. When Zephaniah preached, this reform was still in the future. The Baalim were still worshipped, and the high places were flourishing (Zephaniah 1:4); the hosts of heaven were adored upon the housetops (Zephaniah 1:5); a half-hearted Yahweh-worship, which in reality was idolatry, was widespread ([[Zephaniah 1:5); great multitudes had turned entirely from following Yahweh (Zephaniah 1:6). When the cruel Manasseh was allowed to sit undisturbed upon the throne for more than 50 years, many grew skeptical and questioned whether Yahweh was taking any interest in the affairs of the nation; they began to say in their hearts, “Yahweh will not do good, neither will he do evil” (Zephaniah 1:12). Conditions could hardly be otherwise, when the religious leaders had become misleaders (Zephaniah 3:4). The few who, amid the general corruption, remained faithful would be insufficient to avert the awful judgment upon the nation, though they themselves might be “hid in the day of Yahweh's anger” (Zephaniah 2:3).

III. Book.

1. Contents:

The Book of Zephaniah falls naturally into two parts of unequal length. The first part (1:2 through 3:8) contains, almost exclusively, denunciations and threats; the second (Zephaniah 3:9-20), a promise of salvation and glorification. The prophecy opens with the announcement of a world judgment (Zephaniah 1:2, Zephaniah 1:3), which will be particularly severe upon Judah and Jerusalem, because of idolatry (Zephaniah 1:4-6). The ungodly nobles will suffer most, because they are the leaders in crime (Zephaniah 1:8, Zephaniah 1:9). The judgment is imminent (Zephaniah 1:7); when it arrives there will be wailing on every hand (Zephaniah 1:10, Zephaniah 1:11). No one will escape, even the indifferent skeptics will be aroused (Zephaniah 1:12, Zephaniah 1:13). In the closing verses of chapter 1, the imminence and terribleness of the day of Yahweh are emphasized, from which there can be no escape, because Yahweh has determined to make a “terrible end of all them that dwell in the land” (Zephaniah 1:14-18). A way of escape is offered to the meek; if they seek Yahweh, they may be “hid in the day of Yahweh” (Zephaniah 2:1-3). Zephaniah 2:4-15 contains threats upon 5 nations, Philistia (Zephaniah 2:4-7), Moab and Ammon (Zephaniah 2:8-11), Ethiopia (Zephaniah 2:12), Assyria (Zephaniah 2:13-15). In Zephaniah 3:1 the prophet turns once more to Jerusalem. Leaders, both civil and religious, and people are hopelessly corrupt (Zephaniah 3:1-4), and continue so in spite of Yahweh's many attempts to win the city back to purity (Zephaniah 3:5-7); hence, the judgment which will involve all nations has become inevitable (Zephaniah 3:8). A remnant of the nations and of Judah will escape and find rest and peace in Yahweh (Zephaniah 3:9-13). The closing section (Zephaniah 3:14-20) pictures the joy and exaltation of the redeemed daughter of Zion.

2. Integrity:

The authenticity of every verse in Zephaniah 2:1-15 and 3, and of several verses in chapter 1, has been questioned by one or more scholars, but the passages rejected or questioned with greatest persistency are Zephaniah 2:1-3, Zephaniah 2:4-15 (especially Zephaniah 2:8-11); Zephaniah 3:9, Zephaniah 3:10, Zephaniah 3:14-20. The principal objection to Zephaniah 2:1-3 is the presence in Zephaniah 2:3 of the expressions “meek of the earth,” and “seek meekness.” It is claimed that “meek” and “meekness” as religious terms are post-exilic. There can be no question that the words occur more frequently in post-exilic psalms and proverbs than in preexilic writings, but it cannot be proved, or even shown to be probable, that the words might not have been used in Zephaniah's day (compare Exodus 10:3; Numbers 12:3; Isaiah 2:9 ff; Micah 6:8). A second objection is seen in the difference of tone between these verses and Zephaniah 1. The latter, from beginning to end, speaks of the terrors of judgment; Zephaniah 2:1-3 weakens this by offering a way of escape. But surely, judgment cannot have been the last word of the prophets; in their thought, judgment always serves a disciplinary purpose. They are accustomed to offer hope to a remnant. Hence, Zephaniah 2:1-3 seems to form the necessary completion of chapter 1.

The objections against Zephaniah 2:4-15 as a whole are equally inconclusive. For Zephaniah 2:13-15, a date preceding the fall of Nineveh seems most suitable. The threat against Philistia (Zephaniah 2:4-7) also is quite intelligible in the days of Zephaniah, for the Scythians passed right through the Philistine territory. If Ethiopia stands for Egypt, Zephaniah 2:12 can easily be accounted for as coming from Zephaniah, for the enemies who were going along the Mediterranean coast must inevitably reach Egypt. But if it is insisted upon that the reference is to Ethiopia proper, again no difficulty exists, for in speaking of a world judgment Zephaniah might mention Ethiopia as the representative of the far south. Against Zephaniah 2:8-11 the following objections are raised:

These five arguments are by no means conclusive:

  • (a) The prophet is announcing a world judgment. Could this be executed by the Scythians if they confined themselves to the territory along the Mediterranean Sea?
  • (b) Is it true that the “reproaches” of Zephaniah 2:8, Zephaniah 2:10 presuppose the destruction of Jerusalem?
  • (c) The promises in Zephaniah 2:7, Zephaniah 2:8-10 are only to a remnant, which presupposes a judgment such as is announced in chapter 1.
  • (d) Have we a right to demand consistency in the use of a certain meter in oratory, and, if so, may not the apparent inconsistency be due to corruption of the text, or to a later expansion of an authentic oracle?
  • (e) Zephaniah 2:8-11 can be said to interrupt the thought only if it is assumed that the prophet meant to enumerate the nations in the order in which the Scythians naturally would reach their territory. From Philistia they would naturally pass to Egypt. But is this assumption warranted? While the objections against the entire paragraph are inconclusive, it cannot be denied that Zephaniah 2:12 seems the natural continuation of Zephaniah 2:9, and since Zephaniah 2:10 and Zephaniah 2:11 differ in other respects from those preceding, suspicion of the originality of these two verses cannot be suppressed.

Zephaniah 3:1-8 is so similar to chapter 1 that its originality cannot be seriously questioned, but Zephaniah 3:1-8 carry with them Zephaniah 3:9-13, which describe the purifying effects of the judgment announced in Zephaniah 3:1-8. The present text of Zephaniah 3:10 may be corrupt, but if properly emended there remains insufficient reason for questioning Zephaniah 3:10 and Zephaniah 3:11. The authenticity of Zephaniah 3:14-20 is more doubtful than that of any other section of Zephaniah. The buoyant tone of the passage forms a marked contrast to the somber, quiet strain of Zephaniah 3:11-13; the judgments upon Judah appear to be in the past; Zephaniah 3:18-20 seem to presuppose a scattering of the people of Judah, while the purifying judgment of Zephaniah 3:11-13 falls upon the people in their own land; hence, there is much justice in Davidson's remark that “the historical situation presupposed is that of Isa 40 ff.” On the other hand, it must be borne in mind that the passage is highly poetic, that it presents an ideal picture of the future, in the drawing of which imagination must have played some part, and it may be difficult to assert that the composition of this poem was entirely beyond the power of Zephaniah's enlightened imagination. But while the bare possibility of Zephaniah's authorship may be admitted, it is not impossible that Zephaniah 3:14-20 contains a “new song from God,” added to the utterances of Zephaniah at a period subsequent to the fall of Jerusalem.

IV. Teaching.

The teaching of Zephaniah closely resembles that of the earlier prophetic books. Yahweh is the God of the universe, a God of righteousness and holiness, who expects of His worshippers a life in accord with His will. Israel are His chosen people, but on account of rebellion they must suffer severe punishment. Wholesale conversion seems out of the question, but a remnant may escape, to be exalted among the nations. He adds little, but attempts with much moral and spiritual fervor to impress upon his comtemporaries the fundamental truths of the religion of Yahweh. Only a few points deserve special mention.

1. The Day of Yahweh:

Earlier prophets had spoken of the day of Yahweh; Amos (Amos 5:18-20) had described it in language similar to that employed by Zephaniah; but the latter surpasses all his predecessors in the emphasis he places upon this terrible manifestation of Yahweh (see Eschatology Of The Old Testament). His entire teaching centers around this day; and in the Book of Zephaniah we find the germs of the apocalyptic visions which become so common in later prophecies of an eschatological character. Concerning this day he says

2. Universalism:

The vision of the book is world-wide. The terrors of the day of Yahweh will fall upon all. In the same manner from all nations converts will be won to Yahweh (Zephaniah 3:9, Zephaniah 3:10). These will not be compelled to come to Jerusalem to worship Yahweh (Isaiah 2:2; Micah 4:1); they may worship Him “every one from his place” (Zephaniah 2:11), which is a step in the direction of the utterance of Jesus in John 4:21.

3. Messianic Prophecy:

The Messianic King is not mentioned by Zephaniah. Though he draws a sublime picture of the glories of the Messianic age (Zephaniah 3:14-20), there is not a word concerning the person of the Messianic King. Whatever is done is accomplished by Yahweh Himself.


Cornms. on the Minor Prophets by Ewald, Pusey, Keil, Orelli, G. A. Smith (Expositor's Bible); Driver (New Century); Eiselen; A. B. Davidson, Commentary on Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah (Cambridge Bible); A. F. Kirkpatrick, Doctrine of the Prophets; Eiselen, Prophecy and the Prophets; F. W. Farrar, “Minor Prophets,” Men of the Bible; S. R. Driver, Driver, Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament; Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible (five volumes), article “Zephaniah, Book of”; Encyclopedia Biblica, article “Zephaniah.”

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