The ninth book of the Minor Prophets proclaims the coming day of the Lord, with its judgment on Israel and the nations, to be the best hope for salvation.
The prophet's name means “Yah(weh) protects”; in an earlier form it may have been a confession, “Zaphon is Yahweh,” Zaphon being the deified Canaanite mountain who is thus identified with Israel's Yahweh. The superscription goes to unusual lengths in giving the prophet's ancestry, which is traced back to Hezekiah, the great Judean king.
The prophecy is dated to the reign of King Josiah (640–609 BCE), who was responsible for major reforms in Judah's worship (2 Kings 22–23; 2 Chron. 34–35). Josiah was the “son of Ammon,” who was murdered by revolutionaries (2 Kings 21.23). But a group called “the people of the land” rose up to quell the revolution and put his son Josiah on the throne. This group supported Josiah in his reforms and Jeremiah in his preaching. Zephaniah seems to be very close to their goals and aims.
Zephaniah fought against foreign influences and against the worship of other gods. His message is close to that of the great eighth‐century prophets, especially Isaiah. He taught that pride was the major sin of humankind, and that it leads to rebellion against divine authority. He understood God's judgment to be universal. Hope for him lay beyond the great day of judgment. The book serves as a bridge between the eighth‐century prophets of judgment such as Hosea and Amos, and the prophets after the exile, such as Haggai and Zechariah, who proclaimed a coming salvation of God.
The book is composed as a dramatic dialogue between Yahweh and someone else, possibly the prophet. Each of the seven parts of the book includes a speech by Yahweh and one by the prophet, except the last, which has only Yahweh's speech.
- 1. Yahweh's speech (1.2–6) announces a total judgment over all creation. People have stopped serving the Lord and worship other gods. The prophet calls for silence (1.7) and puts a name on the judgment: “the day of the Lord.”
- 2. Yahweh's anger still is hot (1.8–13) as he condemns everyone in Israel, from the rulers to the skeptics. Then the prophet develops his picture of the day of the Lord (1.14–16), verses that serve as the starting point for the medieval hymn Dies irae.
- 3. Yahweh's third speech is more calm (1.17) but still insists that sin will make the people become “dust” and “dung.” The prophet's speech is longer (1.18–2.7). He introduces two new themes: that there is a possible way to escape the judgment, and that other nations are to be condemned. The “humble of the land” (2.3) may escape the devastation.
- 4. Yahweh fills out the prophet's message (2.8–10) by announcing judgment on Ammon and Moab for their pride and promising that the surviving remnant of Israel will plunder their enemies. The prophet continues by noting that the nations are judged because of their idols (2.11). This pair of speeches is a kind of pause in the action.
- 5. Yahweh speaks out to include Ethiopia in the judgment (2.12). His dialogue partner compares Israel with Assyria (2.13–3.5), which will be completely devastated; Israel is also wicked and will be destroyed.
- 6. Yahweh's speech begins to resolve the problem (3.6–13). After judgment and destruction comes God's mercy. All the nations are offered the opportunity to “call on the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord” (3.9). Then the Lord will purify their speech; he will remove Israel's shame and forgive her sin (3.13). The prophet calls on Israel to rejoice in God's presence (3.14–17).
- 7. Yahweh's final speech (3.18–20) summarizes the salvation that he promises Israel, dealing with her oppressors, saving those who are lame, and restoring those in the dispersion.
The book has developed a plot that seems to promise only doom for all creation, including Israel. Such a fate is thoroughly deserved. Then a slight hope is raised for some to survive when specifically identified peoples are marked for the judgment; some hope for the “humble of the land” is disclosed. Finally the Lord's mercy offers a way of escape for the nations and for Israel.
Zephaniah makes a strong contribution to the understanding of the day of the Lord. In the Minor Prophets, this day is understood as a decisive turning point in which the Lord's judgment falls upon Israel and the nations for their idolatry and pride. The events that lead up to Jerusalem's final destruction in 587/586 BCE are clearly in mind. Zephaniah shows that this terrible moment can bring the opportunity for a new beginning, for both Israel and the nations. The true opportunity is for those who are “humble and lowly” (3.12). The book opens the door to the messages that the following three books of the collection will bring. In Haggai and Zechariah, God leads in rebuilding the Temple a full century after Zephaniah's time, and the final chapters of Zechariah as well as Malachi look to the opportunities and responsibilities of the people of God in the postexilic age.
John D. W. Watts