We know more about Zephaniah than virtually any other minor prophet because he comes with a four generation ancestry.Zephaniah, the son of Cushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah.
Straight away we do not have to speculate about when he lived – late 7th century BC during the reign of king Josiah of Jerusalem. Clearly a southern prophet operating in Jerusalem. And look at that ancestry. Now could his great great grandfather have been King Hezekiah who ruled in Judah.
That is a possibility – only a possibility…
Just a recap on King Josiah - he is perhaps one of the most interesting kings in that long line of monarchs from Solomon’s son Rehoboam to Zedekiah and one of a very few kings of Judah who was thought to be a good thing by the author of the second book of Kings.
In 2Kings 22, which describes the reign of King Josiah, a law book was found in the Temple at Jerusalem. Scholars for many years have considered that this was in fact the book of Deuteronomy. On the basis of that discovery Josiah ordered the implementation of its laws and insisted that the Feast of Passover should be celebrated, as Deuteronomy seemed to order, at the central shrine, which had come to be Jerusalem.
You will not be surprised to learn parts of the book of Zephaniah have striking similarities with the book of Deuteronomy.
Some scholars say Zephaniah was part of a reforming movement which took strength from the discovery of that book. Others say Zephaniah is simply reinforcing the message of Deuteronomy when it demands loyalty to the covenant with God. But all of that enables us to suggest that the work of the minor prophet Zephaniah can be narrowed down to sometime between the years 630BC and 610BC.
This dating also encourages us to consider that another contemporary of Zephaniah was the prophet Jeremiah. It is possible that the prophet Jeremiah was beginning his ministry about this time and we need to consider if there is any overlap between these two men?
W L Holladay produced a paper in 2001 called “Reading Zephaniah with a Concordance: Suggestions for a Redaction History” (JBL) It is a little bit detailed. I think the general conclusion is that the similarity is more evident in Hebrew than in English. He also concluded that it was not possible to determine from the sample whether Jeremiah had been influenced by Zephaniah or the other way round.
I think in principle it is very understandable that prophets writing at the same time speak in the same way and utilize similar phrases. There were no copyright laws and they were all writing with the same aim in mind – to promote true and loyal service to God.
What does Zephaniah talk about?
1:2 – 2:3 The Day of the Lord
2:4-15 Oracles against the nations
3:1-8 Accusation of Jerusalem
3:9-13 Salvation of the nations and Jerusalem
3:14-20 Yahweh’s universal reign in Jerusalem
A great deal of this book is about the coming Day of the Lord 1:2 – 2:3 – it will be a day of judgement for Judah.
“I will utterly sweep away everything
From the face of the earth says the Lord.”
Catastrophic judgement of flood-like proportions. Reminiscent of the days of Noah.
The sinfulness of the leaders of society is also reflected in the social oppression of the people.
The wrath of God will be carried out by an unnamed enemy
A day of wrath is that day
A day of distress and anguish
A day of ruin and devastation
As with many other minor prophets we have oracles spoken against foreign nations.
The Philistines are mentioned, Moab, Ammon, the Cushites and finally Assyria. (That last point –Assyria may be one of our date markers for the authorship of the book.
The Assyrian city of Nineveh fell in 612BC and this prophecy certainly reads better if we assume that the Assyrians have not been defeated when it was spoken.
In chapter 3 the accusation turns to Jerusalem itself. Jerusalem too is under judgement. While officials and judges within it are corrupt, Yahweh alone within it is just and gives true judgement.
Finally there is the promise of salvation for Jerusalem (my holy mountain) and the prophecy closes with a call to Zion to celebrate Judah’s salvation.
Like the earlier Day of the Lord passages this hymn now speaks or a future day or time when Judah’s fortunes will be restored
God himself will be present in the city as a warrior who gives victory.
We begin to see in this book an idea that develops in the exilic and post exilic prophets of a remnant who will be saved and who will come to rebuild both the city and the well-being of the people.