Overview of the Book of Zephaniah

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Overview of the Book of Zephaniah
Answer

Overview of the Book of Zephaniah

Author: The prophet Zephaniah.

Purpose:

To call the people of Jerusalem and Judah to repentance in the face of the Babylonian invasion and hope in a grand restoration after the time of destruction and exile.

Date: 640-621 B.C.

Key Truths:

  • God used the Babylonians to bring severe judgment on Judah and many other nations for their sins.
  • Humbly seeking God provides hope for protection from harm.
  • The destruction of other nations would one day be to Israel's advantage.
  • God will purify Gentiles and Jews and grant them magnificent blessings after his judgment is complete.

Author:

That Zephaniah's lineage was traced back to the fourth generation (Zeph. 1:1) is unique in prophetic literature. This may indicate that the Hezekiah (715-686 B.C.) mentioned in the fourth generation is the well-known king by that name. The name "Zephaniah," which means, "Yahweh [the LORD] hides," is used of a priest who was a contemporary of Jeremiah as well as of other persons in the Old Testament (Zech. 6:10, 14). Although the prophet employed priestly vocabulary at several points (Zeph. 1:4-5, 7-9; 3:4, 18), there is no conclusive evidence to indicate that he was officially associated with the Temple.

Time and Place of Writing:

Zephaniah prophesied during the reign of Josiah (640-609 B.C.), but there is some question whether his ministry preceded or followed Josiah's reform in 621 B.C. His denunciation of syncretistic and Baal worship strongly suggests a date prior to Josiah's reforms. All that can be said with certainty is that Nineveh had not yet been destroyed (Zeph. 2:13-15); therefore the prophet's message was spoken prior to its annihilation in 612 B.C. Zephaniah was a contemporary of Jeremiah (whose call came in Josiah's 13th year [627 B.C.]) as well as of Nahum (663-612 B.C.) and perhaps Habakkuk (605-597 B.C.). If Zephaniah's ministry is dated at the earlier part of Josiah's reign, then Zephaniah may have been instrumental in precipitating Josiah's reforms since the sins he attacked (Zeph. 1:4-6) were those abolished through Josiah's reforms (2 Kings 23:4; 2 Chron. 34:1-7).

Purpose and Distinctives:

Zephaniah's terminology is often similar to that of his predecessors (cf. Zeph. 1:7a with Hab 2:20; 1:14 with Joel 1:15; 1:7b with Isa. 34:6), which probably indicates that he was familiar with their prophecies. He stood in continuity with prophets before him.

The focal point of his message, however, was the day of the Lord. On that day a foreign enemy, the Lord's "sword" (Zeph. 2:12), would inflict severe destruction upon Jerusalem (Zeph. 1:4). This enemy has been variously identified as the Scythians, the Assyrians or the Babylonians. Near the end of Hezekiah's reign, Isaiah had already identified the Babylonians as those who would conquer Jerusalem (Isa. 39:5-7). So it is most likely that Zephaniah had this threat in mind.

Zephaniah's treatment of this subject forms two cycles that move from divine judgment to the hope of salvation. The first cycle speaks of "the day of the LORD" (Zeph. 1:7) - the time when God would devastate his enemies both within and outside Judah (Zeph. 1:2-18) and bring great blessings to the faithful remnant (Zeph. 3:16-17). That day was near (Zeph. 1:7) - a day in which the wrath and anger of Israel's sovereign Lord would be directed against the wicked (Zeph. 1:15, 18; 2:2-3). Following this announcement of judgment the prophet called on Judah and the nations to repent and seek the Lord (Zeph. 2:1-3). Repentance, a gift of God (2 Tim 2:24-26), was the only hope of finding salvation from the approaching Babylonian judgment.

The second cycle begins with the prophet elaborating further on the judgment to come (Zeph. 2:4-3:8). He specified that a number of other nations would be destroyed along with Judah. Then the prophet returned to the theme of the hope of salvation (Zeph. 3:9-20). He joyfully announced that following judgment God would purify his people and restore the fortunes of Jerusalem.

Christ in Zephaniah:

The book of Zephaniah contains no direct Messianic prophecies, but the prophet's focus on "the day of the Lord" as the time of judgment and blessing connects his message with the work of Christ. The New Testament on one occasion identifies the day of the Lord with the gift of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:20). Normally, however, in the New Testament the day of the Lord refers to Christ's glorious return (1 Cor. 1:8; 5:5; 2 Cor. 1:14; 1 Thess. 5:2; 2 Thess. 2:2; 2 Tim. 4:8; 2 Pet. 3:10), and describes that day as the time when Jesus will destroy all his enemies and bestow incredible blessings on his faithful followers. These connections between Zephaniah's message and New Testament teaching point in two directions.

First, Zephaniah predicted that the destruction inflicted by the Babylonians would reach far and wide. Not only were the wicked in Judah to be judged, but the evil nations of the world would also receive God's judgment. This Babylonian judgment, however, would be only a foretaste of the eternal judgment that will come when Christ returns in glory.

Second, Zephaniah predicted that the destruction by the Babylonians would not thwart the promises of God. God would purify a people for himself from among the nations and the exiled Jews, and he would bring them in joyous celebration to the wonders of a renewed Jerusalem. This prophetic vision is fulfilled in Jesus. In Christ Gentiles are united with believing Jews into one body (Eph. 2:11-16). When Christ returns redeemed men and women from every nation will bow before him in joyous praise (Rev. 7:9-10) in the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:1-3).

Notes from the NIV Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, Dr. Richard Pratt, ed. (Zondervan, 2003).

Introduction Material:

Introduction to the Prophetic Books

Copyright:

Copyright, Authors, and Theological Editors of the SORSB

Answer by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.

Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. is Co-Founder and President of Third Millennium Ministries and adjunct Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, FL.