The author and his times
Zephaniah, the prophecy’s author, was of godly stock, as is shown by his name, which means ‘Yahweh has hidden or protected’. While not unique in the OT (cf. Je. 21:1; Zc. 6:10), it shows his parents’ assurance of the providence of Israel’s God even at their son’s birth. He was apparently descended from the fourteenth king of Judah, Hezekiah (716–687 bc), as described in his genealogy (1:1), the longest found in any prophetic book. The same verse dates the prophecies during the reign of Josiah, the sixteenth king of Judah (640–609 bc), himself a descendant of Hezekiah. (See the chart ‘The prophets’ in Song of Songs.)
The period between the godly kings Hezekiah and Josiah was marked by religious decay. True worship was perverted by the evil Manasseh (2 Ki. 21:1–18) and his son Amon (2 Ki. 21:19–26), Josiah’s grandfather and father respectively. Perhaps God’s preservation of a righteous family and their son during this turbulent period led to his parents giving Zephaniah his name.
When during Josiah’s reign Zephaniah’s prophecies were spoken is debated. Some suggest a date before Josiah restored Yahwism, the correct response of Israel to Yahweh, the God to whom she had sworn allegiance at Mount Sinai (Ex. 19–24). The entire life of the people, political, social and religious, was to be directed by God’s will as revealed at Sinai in the law as recorded in the Pentateuch, but they repeatedly chose to ignore it, living by their own devices. It was only under Josiah that a vision for Yahwism was recaptured (2 Ki. 22:1–23:30; 2 Ch. 34:1–35:27). A date prior to Josiah is suggested, since pagan practices still existed (1:4–9). This dates the book before 621 bc, the beginning of his reforms. The argument is not convincing, however, since national religious reform instituted by a king was not universally followed by the people, or even future rulers.
While officially banned by Josiah, pagan practices undoubtedly continued among the people, thus not ruling out a date any time during his reign. Zephaniah’s contemporary, Jeremiah, condemned some of the same practices (1:4–5; cf. Je. 2:8; 8:2; 19:5, 13; 32:35), and the need that arose at about the same period for other prophets, Nahum and Habakkuk, also suggests that Josiah’s reforms were not complete and permanent.
The striking parallels between Zephaniah and Deuteronomy (see on 1:5, 13, 18; 3:5) support a date after the beginning of Josiah’s reform which was prompted by the discovery of the ‘Book of the Law’ in the temple (2 Ki. 22:8). It is generally accepted that the document which was discovered was a form of Deuteronomy, which served as the basis for re-establishing Yahwism. The apparent references by Zephaniah to Deuteronomy leads one to suggest that he prophesied after the book’s rediscovery.
Several nations are mentioned in chs. 2–3, and the reference to Assyria (2:13–15) in particular helps determine the book’s date. Zephaniah foretold the destruction of Assyria’s capital, Nineveh (2:13). Assyria, since its defeat and deportation of Israel in 722 bc (2 Ki. 17:4–41; 18:9–12), was the major threat looming over Judah. Though appearing invincible to Judah, under God’s hand using the might of the neighbouring Babylonians, Assyria’s days were numbered. By the end of the sixth century it was rapidly fading. In 612 bc Nineveh fell to Babylon and the whole empire was taken by 605, so Zephaniah’s prophecy must precede 612 bc.
Other nations mentioned include the Philistines (2:4–7), Moab and Ammon (2:8–11) and Cush (2:12). The Philistines had been antagonists of Israel since their return from Egypt after the exodus, and were eventually subdued, though not eradicated, by David. Their five city-state league, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gaza, Ekron and Gath, was on the Mediterranean, west of the Dead Sea. Gath had apparently declined by the time of Zephaniah’s prophecy, since it is not included in his judgment oracle, which was not unique in its warnings concerning these people (cf. Is. 14:28–32; Je. 47; Am. 1:6–8; Zc. 9:5–7).
The two Transjordanian nations, Ammon and Moab, were related through their ancestors, the sons of Lot by his daughters (Gn. 19:36–38), and so (through Lot’s kinship with Abraham; Gn. 12:5) were also related to Israel. This kinship was not close, however, since there was frequent opposition between Israel and her ‘cousins’ across the Jordan (cf. Jdg. 3:12–30; 1 Sa. 11:1–11; 2 Ki. 3:4–27).
Cush, or Ethiopia, had been defeated by the Babylonians in 663 bc when they invaded Egypt, over which Cush had seized control during the twenty-fifth dynasty (c. 716–663 bc). 2:12 could be a memory of this destruction, or, more likely, Cush is being used as an alternative designation for all of Egypt (see Is. 20:4 and Ezk. 30:4–9). God’s judgment would thus not only fall on Judah’s smaller neighbours, but also on the major world powers, Egypt and Assyria, which were further away.
The book and its message
Some have questioned whether portions of the book are original, especially 3:14–20. This is on the questionable grounds that the erring nation, facing judgment and being warned to repent, would not have been given a message of hope, as is found in these verses. It is claimed that judgment was the rule before the exile, with hope only entering into the prophets’ messages after that event. This apparently logical reconstruction falls foul of the OT as a whole, which time after time places together two aspects of God’s character, holy justice and compassionate love, which are not mutually exclusive (see the mixture in Is. 1–2; Ho. 2; Am. 9). This mixture of hope and judgment should not be a surprise if one considers the nature of the covenant between God and his people. Integral to it were both blessing for obedience (e.g. Dt. 28:1–14) and cursing for disobedience (Dt. 28:15–68). Even the event of the exodus, so central to the faith of God’s people, is a combination of both: hope for those who obeyed God (Ex. 12:21–28) and punishment for his opponents (12:29–30; 14:26–28).
A theological theme which unites the book is judgment. Preaching on this theme (1:2–6) leads the prophet to the ultimate judgment, the day of Yahweh (1:7–3:20), which will be precipitated in the ‘last days’ by human actions. While Zephaniah is not unique in discussing the day (cf. Is. 2; Je. 46–51; Ezk. 7; Joel 2), nowhere else does it serve as a book’s uniting theological theme, as it does here.
Zephaniah shows the dual nature of this day as a time of both punishing judgment as well as blessed hope. The punishment will fall upon Judah for her failure to follow the covenant. Specific pagan practices are listed for condemnation (1:4–6), as are Judah’s leaders (3:3–4). Her apathy (1:12–13) and pride (2:3) are particularly condemned.
The nations are not free from judgment either (ch. 2); their corruption is like that cited in Gn. 6:5–7. Pride precipitates their downfall (2:10, 15).
Hope is offered if Israel humbles herself, reversing her foolish pride (3:12). There is immediate hope for Israel (2:3) as well as promises of future blessing for her (3:13–17) and the nations (3:9). National, social and individual hope can only flourish in the context of humility. Pride and hope cannot exist together.
J. M. Boice, The Minor Prophets, 2 vols. (Zondervan, 1983, 1986).
P. C. Craigie, Twelve Prophets, Vol. 2, DSB (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1985).
J. H. Eaton, Obadiah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, TBC (SCM, 1961).
D. W. Baker, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, TOTC (IVP, 1988).
O. P. Robertson, The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah, NICOT (Eerdmans, 1990).
J. A. Motyer, Zephaniah, in T. McComiskey (ed.), The Minor Prophets, vol. 3 (Baker Book House, 1994).
P. R. House, Zephaniah: A Prophetic Drama (Sheffield Academic Press, 1988).
c. circa, about (with dates)
TBC Torch Bible Commentaries
TOTC Tyndale Old Testament Commentary
NICOT The New International Commentary on the Old Testament
Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Sof 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.