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11. Zephaniah

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Notes on the Book of Zephaniah

I. The Prophet Zephaniah.

The name Zephaniah means “Yahweh hides” or “protects” (צְפַנְיָה). He is unknown apart from the book that bears his name. His genealogy traces him back to Hezekiah (although a few Hebrew MSS and the Syriac read Hilkiah). It is unusual to trace a prophet’s genealogy this far back—an argument for the importance of the name Hezekiah, and, therefore, it may be that Zephaniah is a member of the royal family descended from another son of Hezekiah. He and Josiah, under whose rule he prophesied, would have been related.

II. The Time of the Prophecy.

The time of his prophecy is during the reign of Josiah who ruled from 640 B.C. to 609 B.C. Since Nineveh has not yet fallen (2:13), his prophecy must have taken place prior to 612 B.C. and was probably fairly early in Josiah’s reign. Since Jeremiah began to prophesy in 627 B.C., there may have been some overlap in their ministries.

III. The Message of the Book.

Like Jeremiah, Zephaniah condemns the idolatrous religious practice of the Jews. He speaks against Baal (1:4), idolatrous priests, those who worship the host of heaven and swear to Milcom (1:5), and have turned back from following Yahweh (1:6).

Zephaniah speaks of the day of Yahweh as a time when He will punish the princes of Judah and those who leap on the threshold and fill the house of their lord with violence and deceit (1:9). The day of Yahweh is described in similar terms to that of Joel (1:14‑16 with Joel 2:1‑2). He speaks of the day of Yahweh also in terms of judgment on the nations (2:1‑7). The last part of the book (chapter 3) speaks of God’s judgment on His people, but also of their restoration to a place of prosperity and obedience to the Lord.

IV. The Outline of the Book.

A. Zephaniah predicts a time of judgment on the earth (1:1‑18).

1. There will be a time of general judgment (1:2‑3).

Yahweh predicts that he will remove all things from the face of the earth. (The phrase “completely remove” is a translation of the Hebrew אָסף אָסֵף, (asoph aseph) meaning to “gather in” in the sense of taking away life.) Is this statement teaching that God will some day destroy all life? More likely it speaks of judgment in general—that all will be judged by God (though a remnant will be left). “The ruins along with the wicked” (1:3) is difficult. “Ruins” is a word meaning “to cause to stumble” (הַמַּכְשֵׁלוֹת hammaksheloth). The NASB has treated it as ruins that cause stumbling, but it is better understood as people that cause stumbling. The only problem with this is that the word is feminine where one would expect masculine, but this may be because it refers to religious systems run by people.)

2. There will be a time of Judgment on Judah (1:4‑6).

The idolatry of Judah will bring God’s judgment (this is the same message Jeremiah preached). People are worshipping Baal, there are idolatrous priests (a special Hebrew word) and regular priests who will be cut off, there are people worshipping the host of heaven (cf. Jeremiah’s condemnation of the same system [8:2; 19:3]. It probably refers to astral deities from Assyria). They are also worshipping Milcom (lit. Malcam, but probably a variant of the Ammonite god Milcom, and so the NASB spelled it). The crowning description is that they have turned back from following the Lord (1:6).

3. Zephaniah predicts the coming of the day of Yahweh in which He will judge His people (1:7‑13).1

The coming day is depicted in terms of a sacrificial feast (cf. 1 Samuel 16). God will (metaphorically) call His people to the feast (His sanctified ones) and will then punish the king’s sons who wear foreign garments. (This latter expression probably is metonymy for adopting foreign customs—especially religious ones.)2 Other people who will be punished will be those who have false religious practices and fill the temple with violence and deceit (1:9, cf. Jeremiah 7, the temple sermon). (Another possible meaning is that they leap over people’s thresholds to steal and thus, fill the king’s house with plunder) (1:7‑9).

The judgment of God will bring a cry from every quarter of the city. “The Mortar” refers to a declivity in the city probably in the Tyropean valley.3 The “people of Canaan” refers to merchants, i.e., these are those who are using the temple for commercial purposes, a situation still existing when Jesus came. Yahweh, in His day, will carefully search out Jerusalem and will punish those who are “stagnant in spirit.” This is literally “to thicken on their lees,” i.e., undisturbed wine. These men are “neutral” in that they say that “The Lord does neither good nor evil” (1:10‑12).

4. Zephaniah speaks of the Day of Yahweh in terrible terms (1:14‑18).

The great day of the Lord is near and coming very quickly. This is similar to the idea of imminence in the NT. It is the next great event on the horizon. The description of the Day of Yahweh is similar to the Lord’s statements in Matthew 24. How are we to understand such phrases as “all the earth will be devoured” and “he will make a complete end . . . of all the inhabitants of the earth”? It refers to a terrible judgment such as found in Revelation 6‑19. The phraseology must refer to the fact that judgment will come upon all, not a complete annihilation.

B. Zephaniah calls upon Judah to repent (2:1‑15).

1. The shameless nation is urged to seek Yahweh (2:1‑3).

Judah does not blush for shame (לאֹ נִכְסָף lo niksaph), but she is urged to prepare herself so as to avoid the day of wrath that is coming.

2. Surrounding nations will be judged (2:4‑7).

The Philistine cities (Gath is not mentioned as in Amos 1 probably because she was in Judean territory) will be judged. Yet Judah will inherit the land of the Philistines and God will care for them.

3. Moab and Ammon will be judged (2:8‑11).

This section is reminiscent of Obadiah’s prophecy against Edom. These nations have been involved in making fun of Judah in her sufferings (just when this happened is not stated). As a result they will be terribly judged by the Lord.

4. The Ethiopians and the Assyrians will be judged (2:12‑15).

The purpose of mentioning Ethiopians may be to show a north‑south axis that God will judge. On the other hand, the regime in Egypt at this time was Ethiopian. In any event, the people south will come under God’s judgment as will the mighty Assyria. Nineveh will become a desolation. This indicates that Zephaniah is prophesying prior to 612 B.C. when Nineveh was destroyed by the Babylonians and the Medes.4

C. Zephaniah speaks of Judah’s sin and restoration (3:1‑20).

1. Judah’s sin is set forth (3:1‑7).

Judah is depicted as a stubborn person who refuses any instruction. The princes, judges, prophets and priests are described as wild animals who destroy people and sanctuary. Yet, in spite of this terrible state of affairs, the righteous Yahweh is in her midst. He is the epitome of justice. He has shown His power in cutting off nations, expecting Judah to acknowledge His Lordship, but they have refused and proceeded to corrupt all their deeds.

2. Yahweh speaks of a day of world conversion (3:8‑13).

The first phase of God’s work will be judgment on the nations. After that judgment, He will give purified lips to the peoples. This seems to be a wider group than Judah. He will have worshippers from beyond Ethiopia who will serve him. The Jews will then be dealt with by God, and the proud ones will be removed, and the remnant will do no wrong.

3. Yahweh encourages Judah to rejoice (3:14‑20).

A marvelous time is coming when the King of Israel, Yahweh, will be in their midst. They will fear disaster no more. They will be regathered and their fortunes will be restored.

The question is “when will all these amazing events take place?” The judgment of the nations (referred to in Matthew 25) will take place during the tribulation. Likewise the national conversion of Israel will occur as they are undergoing intense persecution after the Antichrist has broken his covenant with them (2 Thes. 2; Revelation 11). All this will be preparatory to entrance into the kingdom or Millennium as it is known in Revelation 20.


1Excursus on the Day of the Lord:

Isa. (2:12); 13:6, (22:1ff); (34:1ff) (Jer. 46:1ff), Eze.(7:1ff) 13:5; 30:2‑4; Joel 1:15; 2:1,11; 3:14; Amos 5:18,20; Obad. 15; Zeph. 1:7,14; 2:2; Zech. 14:1,7; Mal. 4:5. [() means that the phrase does not occur (at least the precise phrase), but the idea does.]  M. Weiss, “The Origin of the ‘Day of the Lord’—Reconsidered,” HUCA 37 (1966): 29‑71 refutes von Rad’s theory that the Day of the Lord concept originated in the idea of the Holy War and is therefore pre‑prophetic. He argues (1) that while the idea of theophany is pre‑prophetic, it is Amos who coins the phrase which would have been identified by the people with the old concept of theophany, (2) the use of the “Day of the Lord” by Isaiah, Joel, etc., was influenced by Amos. He also argues that Day of the Lord can refer to past events (Isa. 22:5; Ezek. 13:5) as well as future. Therefore, it is used at times of the application of a prediction of God’s judgment on the nations. Yet, (I would say) the prophets have in mind a future Day of the Lord, unspecified in time, in which all things will be set right including the judgment of God’s people who have disobeyed Him.

2Cf Jesus’ remarks on those without proper garments (Matt 22:11-14).

3See N. Avigad (Discovering Jerusalem, Jerusalem: Shikmona Pub. Co., 1980) p. 54.

4Note the similar language to Isaiah 13 and Babylon.

Related Topics: History, Introductions, Arguments, Outlines, Prophets