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An Introduction to the Book of Zephaniah

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I. TITLE:

A. Hebrew: In Hebrew the book is titled hynpx meaning “Yahweh hides” perhaps reflecting the terror of the days of Manasseh when Zephaniah was born, or meaning “Watchman for the Lord,” or even “Zaphon [a Canaanite deity] is Yahweh”1
This was a common name in the Hebrew Scriptures (cf. a Levite, 1 Chron 6:36-38; a second priest under the high priest 2 Ki 25:18-21; cf. Jer 52:24--27; the father of Josiah--a returning exile, Zech 6:10, 14)

B. Greek: In Greek the book is titled SOFONIAS, a transliteration of the prophet’s name in Hebrew

II. AUTHOR:

A. The author, Zephaniah, traces his ancestry back four generations; this is unique among the prophets:2 1:1

1. Son of Cushi

2. Son of Gedaliah

3. Son of Amariah

4. Son of Hezekiah, (possibly the famous Judean king [c. 716-687 B.C.])

B. The author places himself during the reign of Josiah, son of Amon, king of Judah (c. 641-609 B.C.)

III. DATE: between 641 and 612 B.C. (possibly 641 and 621 B.C.)

A. The superscription places the prophet during the time of king Josiah of Judah (c. 641-609 B.C.) 1:1

B. The prophecy anticipated, but preceded the fall of Nineveh in 612 B.C. (Zeph 2:13-15)

C. Many would date the book prior to Josiah’s reforms (622-621 B.C.) which dealt with much of the nation’s idolatry (cf. 2 Ki 22--23) since there are implications of idolatry in Zephaniah’s Judah (cf. 1:4-6, 11-12; 3:1-4)3

D. Conclusion: The book was written some time between 641 and 612 B.C. and possibly between 641 and 622 B.C.

There may have been some overlap with Jeremiah since he began to prophecy in 627 B.C. Zephaniah would have been the first prophet to Judah in the 60 years since Isaiah (Nahum was about Assyria)

IV. AUDIENCE: To the people of Judah and the nations around her

V. HISTORICAL SETTING:4

A. Manasseh’s and Amon’s reigns were dark times in Judah’s history:

1. Manasseh rebuilt the high places that his father, Hezekiah, tore down

2. Manasseh was eclectic making altars to Ashtoreth (Canaanite), Chemosh (Moabite), Milcom (Ammonite), and Baal (Canaanite)

3. Manasseh restored child sacrifice (2 Ki 21) even sacrificing two of his own sons in the Valley of Hinnom

4. Worship of the heavens (stars, sun, moon, astral bodies) was common

5. Amon was named after an Egyptian god unlike most kings who were named after Yahweh

B. Manasseh paid tribute to Esarhaddon to keep Assyria from invading Judah

C. Josiah brought about the final spiritual revival for Judah when during the eighteenth year of his rule in 622 B.C. (2 Ki 22-23)

D. The Assyrian Empire Fell

1. The Assyrian power rose with Ashurnasirpal II (884-859 B.C.) and Shalmaneser II (859-824 B.C.)

2. Tiglath-pileser III (Pul in the Scriptures) began a group of conquerors who took Syria and Palestine including Shalmaneser V (727-722 B.C. who began the deportation of Samaria), Sargon II (722-705 B.C. who completed the deportation of Samaria), Sennacherib (704-581 B.C. who attacked king of Judah, Hezekiah [Josiah’s father]), and Esarhaddon (681-669 B.C. who led campaigns against Egypt)

3. Esarhaddon’s son, Ashurbanipal (669-631) ruled much of the upper Egyptian city of Thebes, but his decline and that of Assyria’s soon followed

4. Nineveh, the capital, was destroyed in 612 B.C.

VI. MAJOR THEME--THE DAY OF THE LORD:

The Day of the Lord is a major theme in Zephaniah occurring 23 times in this short book (as well as in Obadiah, Joel, and Ezekiel). It describes a time when Yahweh will come to His people and necessarily destroy evil as a means to delivering them. While Zephaniah and Joel obviously had “local” aspects in view of this coming Day of Yahweh’s presence among them (with the judgment of Assyria and Babylon), those judgments/deliverances only mirrored, or foreshadowed, the ultimate deliverance (and thus necessary judgment) which would come in the eschaton.

VII. PURPOSE:

A. To proclaim judgment on the entire world

B. To proclaim the Day of the Lord as a time when Yahweh will come to judge the wicked (including the wicked of Judah) and deliver His own5

C. To proclaim judgment on the nations which surrounded Judah (Philistia, Moab, Ammon, Assyria, Ethiopians/Egyptians

D. To proclaim hope for the remnant of Judah

E. To expose the unfaithfulness of Judah’s rulers

F. To encourage Judah to accept correction by hearing of the judgment on her neighbors

G. To expose Judah’s unwillingness to accept correction from Yahweh

H. To describe the ultimate changes which Yahweh will bring about as the nations become worshippers of Him and He becomes Judah’s King/Defender


1 For a more developed explanation see Ralph L. Smith, Micah-Malachi, Word Biblical Commentary, XXXII:120; Larry Lee Walker, Zephaniah, The Expositor's Bible Commentary, VII:537.

2 Chisholm comments, When genealogical information is provided, usually only the prophet's father is identified (cf. Isa. 1:1; Jer. 1:1; Ezek. 1:3; Hos. 1:1; Joel 1:1), although in the case of Zechariah (Zech 1:1), two generations are included. Some have identified Zephaniah's great-great-grandfather Hezekiah with the famous king who ruled over Judah from 715 to 686 B.C. This connection would provide a reasonable explanation for the expanded heading, its purpose being to demonstrate Zephaniah's royal descent (Robert B. Chisholm, Jr., Interpreting the Minor Prophets, 201).

3 If Zephaniah preached after Josiah's reforms, it is extremely evident that the reforms were not all that successful (cf. 1:4-5, 8-9; 3:1, 3, 7).

4 Some of what follows was developed from John A Martin, An Outline of Zephaniah, unpublished class notes in 304 preexilic and exilic prophets, (Dallas Theological Seminary, Fall 1983), 1.

5 Chisholm writes, The 'Day of the Lord is the focal point of Zephaniah's prophecy. On this day, the nearness and severity of which are emphasized, the Lord would come as a mighty and just warrior-judge to punish the whole world, including Judah. Though this purifying judgment the nations would become genuine worshippers of the one true God. The judgment of the Lord's Day would also purge God's covenant people and their capital city, Jerusalem. A faithful remnant, the nucleus of the purified city and rejoice in the Lord's deliverance and protections (Robert B. Chisholm, Jr., Interpreting the Minor Prophets, 215).

Related Topics: Introductions, Arguments, Outlines