By Barnard C. Taylor
Parallel reading: 2 Kings 22 to 25; 2 Chronicles 33 to 36.
1. Date and Occasion
Zephaniah prophesied in the reign of Josiah, who was on the throne of Judah from 639 to 608 B. C. Manasseh, the grandfather of Josiah, ruled for fifty- five years, and his reign was the most wicked of any of Judah’s kings. He was taken captive to Babylon, and after being held for a time was allowed to return to his home. He humbled himself before Jehovah, but it does not seem that he accomplished any considerable reforms. At any rate his son Amon led the people in the worst forms of idolatry.
Josiah was one of the best kings of Judah, and he attempted to correct the evil practises of his people, but the nation had become so sunken in sin, they had so long rebelled against Jehovah, that the punishment, long before threatened against them, could not be averted by what goodness there was in Josiah’s reign. Judah’s fall was not only sure, it was near.
The exact date of Zephaniah’s prophecy cannot be determined. It was probably in the early part of Josiah’s reign. Nineveh was not yet destroyed. It would seem that the reforms of Josiah were not yet begun. The book of the law was not yet recovered from the rubbish of the temple rooms. (2 Chron. 34:15.) This prophecy would thus come after that of Nahum, and before that of Habakkuk. In purpose it is not the same as either of these two, though it was the outgrowth of the same general conditions.
2. The Chief Thought
The book of Zephaniah is brief, but it has been described as a compendium of all prophecy. There are in it threats of most severe punishment for sin, not only upon the Jews, but upon all the nations; and there is the strongest assurance of the restoration of God’s people, and of the favor of God to be shown to those of other nations who shall serve him.
The thought of punishment is centered in the declaration that God had prepared a sacrifice, meaning here death for sin. It is the “day of Jehovah,” a day of darkness, as it was described in Joel 2:2, which Zephaniah quotes. The punishment will fall upon Judah, Jerusalem being made desolate. Any that attempt to hide from the calamity will be searched out with lanterns. None of the wicked will escape, though the righteous may be hid from the anger.
But the threat includes the outside nations as well as Judah. In this part of the prophecy a distinction is made between the people of God and their enemies, but there is little of promise to Judah in this threat against the nations. Jerusalem is then severely condemned because in her intense wickedness she did not heed the warning given in the punishment of the heathen.
But the prophecy is not all threat. There is also bright promise. Even the nations shall be converted to Jehovah as a result of their chastisement, and shall serve him. But especially his chosen shall be restored from all the nations whither they shall be scattered. They shall enjoy to the full the blessing of God’s presence, and they themselves shall be a holy people. Zephaniah’s exhortation to Zion to rejoice is as earnest and as full of gladness as any that we find in Isaiah.
It is thought by some that the calamity that the prophet foretells as coming upon all the nations was the invasion of the Scythians. This view is taken mainly because these terrible hordes did sweep over this part of the world about the time of the prophecy of Zephaniah, and that he did not know of any other power that could so punish. The prophet was not, however, guessing, nor telling what any other could have told as well, he was uttering what was revealed to him by the Spirit of God.
3. The Divisions of the Book
The divisions of this prophecy are quite clear and distinct from each other. They are as follows:
Ch. 1 consists of a threat of punishment that is to come upon Judah. The whole land is to be utterly consumed, all the inhabitants removed.
Ch. 2:1 to 3:7 contains a second division of the prophecy. It begins with an exhortation to repent and escape the wrath of God, which is to be manifested against the wicked nations lying about Judah, whose destruction would be a warning to God’s people that they would incur the wrath of God themselves, since they had sinned although so much light had been given them, and they had been so favored of God.
Ch. 3:8-20. This division is in marked contrast with the preceding. The main thought is the restoration of God’s people. There is also the prediction that the heathen nations will turn to Jehovah after they have been punished. This, however, is barely touched upon. Special emphasis is put upon the glorious condition of God’s people as they are brought back from their dispersion. Jehovah will dwell among them.
4. The Course of Thought in These Divisions
In ch. 1 the thought is not difficult to follow. The threat is made that all the wicked are to be cut off from the land of Palestine. The sins committed by the people are named, and under the figure of a sacrifice the death of the sinners is foretold. The destruction is to be great, the goods of the people shall be carried off, and their houses destroyed. Here again we have the term “day of Jehovah,” and the description of it seems to be quoted from Joel. The wicked inhabitants shall not buy themselves free by their gold.
The second division begins with an exhortation to gather themselves that they may escape the awful judgment of Jehovah. This is to include all the sinful nations. Here the thought is something like that of Amos. All sinners are to be punished.
Philistia is to be destroyed, and her land occupied by the remnant of the house of Judah.
Moab shall suffer for her reproaching God’s people. Cush shall perish.
A special threat is made against Assyria. Her capital, Nineveh, shall be a place for the flocks of the nomads, and the wild birds shall lodge in her ruins.
In the first seven verses of ch. 3, which belong to this second division, Jerusalem is specially rebuked for her sinning when so favored by God. Her princes, priests, and prophets have been leaders in the people’s sin against Jehovah. Their chastisement had not turned them back to their God.
The third division, ch. 3:8-20, contains the thought of the restoration of God’s people. In the beginning, however, there is the promise of the fact that the heathen will call upon Jehovah. The thought is not dwelt on. The prophet proceeds to the description of the coming back of the scattered people from all nations. The condition of the people when thus restored is described as holy, they will be-faithful to God. He will rejoice over them, and they shall be safe from all harm. Instead of Israel being a reproach among the nations, they shall be praised.