How to read Zephaniah


  • Content: oracles of coming catastrophic judgments against Jerusalem (thus Judah) and surrounding nations, plus an oracle of restoration for a remnant of Judah

  • Prophet: Zephaniah of Jerusalem, possibly of the royal lineage of Hezekiah

  • Date of prophetic activity: sometime during the reign of Josiah of Judah (640-609 B.c.)

  • Emphases: the coming day of Yahweh; judgment against Judah for her sins; Yahweh as God of all the nations; judgments against the nations; eventual salvation of a remnant of Judah


During the reign of Josiah (Judah's last good king), Zephaniah, who was possibly a member of the royal court, received a word from Yahweh, announcing that "the day of the Lord [Yahweh] is near" (1:7, 14, 18; 2:3). The burden of his prophecy is God's judgment on Judah for her idolatry and complacent wickedness (1:3b-l8a; 3:l-5). But also included are a call to repentance (2:1-3), judgments against other nations (2:4-15), and the promise of restoration for a faithful remnant (3:9-20). Thus, as you will quickly recognize, Zephaniah-the ninth of the book of the Twelve-carries through with all of the significant concerns found in the Israelite prophetic tradition.


The historical context of Zephaniah is in some ways similar to that of Habakkuk (2 Kgs 22-23; 2 Chr 34-35). In this case, however, since his prophecies are directed primarily against Jerusalem, you may also wish to read the relevant sections about syncretism in the "specific Advice" for reading Deuteronomy and Kings. Although it is not possible to determine exactly when this marvelous set of oracles was proclaimed though they would seem to precede rather than follow Josiah's reforms you will not be able to miss seeing that God's judgment is being pronounced primarily because Jerusalem continues to be a city of religion,

but not of pure Yahwism, while at the same time-also over against pure Yahwism-there is little concern for social justice.

Since most people do not find Zephaniah easy reading, it may help you in this regard to see his careful literary structure, which takes the form of a series of concentric patterns (chiasms). First there is the larger frame itself:

A God's Judgment of Judah, with Consequent Wailing (1:2- 18)

B God's Judgment of the Nations (2:1-3:8)

A* God's Redemption of the Remnant, with Consequent Rejoicing (3:9-21)

Within each of these, and sometimes interlocking between them, there are further concentric patterns. Note, for example, how 1:2-18 is framed by announcements of judgment against the whole earth (1:2-3/18b-c echoing the Flood [b-c = poetic lines in the verse]); in the same manner 1:2-3 and 3:8d frame the entire set of judgment oracles. Thus:

1:2-18 3:9-21

1:2-3 3:8d

1:2-3 1:18b-c

Similarly, the oracles against the nations are framed by a call to repentance on the part of Judah (2: 1-3) and judgment because of her refusal to do so (3:6-8; see "A Walk through Zephaniah").

Second, all of this is expressed in brilliant and powerful images. Note, for example, his deliberate placing of God's judgment on Judah and Jerusalem in images and language that echo the Flood account in Genesis

6. This is related to Zephaniah's frequent use of hyperbole (purposeful exaggeration for effect). Thus, for example, he predicts at several points that God will destroy the whole earth and all its inhabitants (1:2-

3, 18b-c; 3:8), yet also predicts a great future both for the peoples (3:9) and for Israel (3:10-19). Such overstatement is not to be taken literally (cf. a sports fan's understanding of the headline "Vancouver buries Boston" to indicate a lopsided victory, not the death and burial of a city); its effectiveness lies in the people's taking seriously the extent of the tragedy that awaits them.

On the matter of the day of Yahweh, refer to "'Specific Advice for Reading Joel". In Zephaniah "the day" (used l7x between 1:7 and 2:3!) refers to a time of decisive change on behalf of the righteous and against the wicked-and Judah is among the wicked.



The Prophet's Identity

It is important not to go too fast here; note how the prophet is placed both in his lineage (possibly a descendant of the previous reforming king, Hezekiah) and in his own time (advancing the cause of the king who became the greatest reformer, Josiah).


The Day of Yahweh is Coming (against Judah)

Don't forget as you read that this is a prophetic oracle, not a narrative, and thus written as poetry intended for oral presentation. Notice the outer frame (1:2-3b, 18b-c), where the judgment against Judah is set against the backdrop of a coming flood like catastrophe. You will see that the judgment against Judah is in three parts: (1) Verses 3c-9 voice God's coming judgment expressly against Judah and Jerusalem because of their idolatries (note that the judgment is pictured in terms of God's preparing a sacrifice); (2) verses 10- 13 describe the response to the day of Yahweh when it comes: the city wailing over its economic ruin and the laying waste of homes and estates; and (3) verses 14-18a describe the inevitable and inescapable nature of the day when it comes.


Judgment on the Nations Detailed

Observe the careful structuring of this section down to the smallest detail. It begins with a summons to Judah to repent and become like the humble righteous (2:l-3) and ends on the sad note of Jerusalem's refusal to do so (3:6-8). In between are five oracles, four against five other nations and one against Jerusalem herself, which are expressed in a perfectly balanced construction:

2:1-3 Summons to repent

2:4-7 Philistia (nine lines)-a neighbor's land will belong to Judah's remnant

2:8-11 Moab/Ammon (nine lines)-same as with Philistia

2:12 Cush (one line)

2:13- 15 Assyria (nine lines)-a dreaded enemy will be destroyed

3: 1-5 Jerusalem (nine lines)-Judah will be like her dreaded enemy

3:6-8 Refusal to repent

There are several other important matters to note as you read-that the reasons for judgment are barely given in the actual series against the other nations (Moab/Ammon for insulting God's people; Assyria for arrogance) but that reasons are amply given for Jerusalem's downfall (treachery by political and religious leaders); that 2:1 and 9 anticipate the remnant in the final oracle of the book (3:9-20); that the express reason for these oracles is to call Jerusalem to repentance (see esp' 3:6-7), although these kinds of oracles always exist in the prophets as reminders that Yahweh is also God over all the nations.


Restoration of the Remnant

As with the opening oracle of judgment, you will observe that this concluding oracle of hope is also in three parts: (1) verses 9-13 express in Deuteronomic terms the purifying of the gathered remnant,who will rest secure in Jerusalem and live humbly and righteously; (2) verses 14-17 , in contrast to the wailing in the opening oracle, describe the rejoicing (both the people,s and Yahweh's) that now rings throughout the restored city; and (3) verses 18-20 , again in Deuteronomic terms, describe the gathering of the people and their receiving praise and honor in exchange for shame.

The small book of Zephaniah speaks in powerful ways of both God's

judgment on sin and his gracious act of salvation for the humble and

undeserving, thus anticipating the gospel as expressed in the New Testament.