10.1 The Date (of the prophet’s ministry and work)
Most commentators set the date of Zephaniah’s book during the reign of Josiah (640-609 B.C.) sometime before 622 B.C. The reason for such dating is that the book does not contain any clear references to the religious reforms implemented by the king upon the discovery of the law book in the temple (2 Kgs. 22-23) in 622/621 B.C. Van Gemeren summarizes the arguments for dating Zephaniah’s ministry to shortly before Josiah’s reforms.
First, the royal princes still practiced the excesses (Zeph. 1:8-9). Second, the idolatrous practices of 1:3-5 were already being abolished (“every remnant of Baal,” v. 4). Zephaniah’s preaching may well have encouraged young King Josiah to develop a reform program and to align himself with God’s program.
However, some have argued that Josiah’s reforms as recorded in Kings and Chronicles are not subject to a precise dating. They assert that Kings tracks the reforms in concentric circles originating in Jerusalem, while Chronicles uses a chronological timeline to describe the reforms. Furthermore, Dillard and Longman wonder if
we need to maintain a distinction between the official reforming activities of the king and the abuses among the wealthy and the general populace, such that the sins decried in the book cannot be used with confidence to determine whether Zephaniah was active before or after Josiah’s reform. While the reform would almost certainly have affected the character of popular religious expression, it is unrealistic to think that it eliminated all commercial and religious transgression. In the final analysis it is probably not possible to determine a more precise setting for Zephaniah’s ministry.
Robertson dates the book after the discovery of the law book because “it hardly seems likely that Zephaniah would have anticipated this discovery by many phrases identical to the language of Deuteronomy.” Perhaps Zephaniah served as the Lord’s anointed messenger to support and lend divine approval to Josiah’s radical reforms. “Zephaniah thus based his message on the law of the Lord as it had been revealed to Moses and rediscovered by Josiah.”
Although there is much disagreement over the precise dating of the prophecy, all evangelical scholars affirm that it must have been written prior to Nineveh’s destruction 612 B.C. since it speaks prophetically of this event as still future. Finally, to provide historical reference, Zephaniah’s ministry may be taken to roughly correspond to that of the prophet Nahum.
10.2 Background History (historical setting of the prophet)
Zephaniah’s work occurred in the same historical context as the ministries of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Jeremiah. These four prophets of the Lord called upon Judah one last time to repent under threat of impending judgment and exile. Although Judah heeded their warnings for a time (in the form of King Josiah’s reforms), national contrition was short-lived as the people and monarchy soon lapsed into wickedness under the reigns of Jehoiakim and Zedekiah. Zephaniah’s passionate prophetic plea to God’s people was ultimately unheeded and inevitably brought about the predicted punishment.
10.3 Work and Person (character and ministry of the prophet)
The superscript (1:1) provides a four-generation genealogy of Zephaniah. Such a lengthy record of the author’s relatives is unique to this book. Wood argues it is likely that the genealogical terminus (Hizkiah, listed as Zephaniah’s great-great-grandfather) is King Hezekiah of Israel, and that the length of time since the king lived fits Zephaniah’s age in the seventh century. If this is the case, then Zephaniah was of royal lineage and a second cousin of Josiah (and therefore a third cousin of Josiah’s reigning sons Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, and Zedekiah).
If this relationship did exist, Zephaniah had an access into the royal court not available to other prophets. He may have been able to contact and have influence with Josiah to a greater degree than either Nahum or Jeremiah.
In the early part of his ministry, using the probably easy access to the royal court noted, he no doubt visited Josiah numerous times and urged the institution of reforms. Sometime during those years he wrote his book.
Zephaniah possessed a keen knowledge of the international scene surrounding Judah, and in 2:4-15 he prophesied judgment on nations in four directions from Judah: Philistia (west), Moab and Ammon (east), Ethiopia (southwest), and Assyria (northeast).
Some have attempted to link Zephaniah with other men of the same name in the Old Testament. The name is used of a priest during Jeremiah’s time (Jer. 21:1; 29:25) and of other persons (Zech. 6:10, 14). “Although the prophet employed priestly vocabulary at several points (1:4-5, 7-9; 3:4, 18), there is no conclusive evidence to indicate that he was officially associated with the temple.”
10.4 The Book (abbreviated outline and brief summary)
I. Heading (1:1)
II. Judgment (1:2-6)
III. The day as judgment (1:7-3:8)
A. Judah (1:7-13)
B. The day of the Lord (1:14-2:3)
C. Individual nations (2:4-3:8)
IV. The day as hope (3:9-20)
Zephaniah is preoccupied with judgment, particularly in the development of the day of the Lord theme. The theme of this specific “day” of judgment was introduced in the prophetic literature centuries earlier (Amos 5:18-20; 8:9-14; Isa. 2; 13; 24; Joel 2) and continued later (Jer. 46-51; Ezek. 7), but is nowhere central to a prophet’s message as in Zephaniah. Baker explains that the meaning of the day of the Lord is fraught with dualities. It is a day of weal for Yahweh’s faithful remnant and a day of woe for transgressors of covenant law. It is a day of imminent, swift judgment and a day of far-off judgment in the distant eschaton. It is a day of blessing for the faithful covenant people and also a day of blessing for those foreign to the covenant who are penitent. Despite Zephaniah’s testimony, Israel did not comprehend the dualities in the nature of the day of the Lord.
Israel misunderstood the Day; they thought that as they were God’s “chosen people,” it must be a day of blessing and light for them. However, because they had broken the covenant, it would rather be a time of darkness and judgment. Birth into the family of Israel is no guarantee of future blessing, since Judah, as well as the pagan nations around it, is subject to judgment (Zeph. 1:2-6, 8-18; 2:4-3:8).
Israel’s chauvinism is subverted also with respect to blessing from God. This blessing is not reserved for Israel alone; all peoples and nations who repent of their paganism can become God’s children and benefit from that relationship (3:9-10; Isa. 2:1-5; Amos 9:7; Micah 4:1-5). Since Judah’s neglect of the first covenant commandment against having other gods than Yahweh makes them de facto pagan, they also need to repent (3:11-13), rather than arrogantly presuming of God’s blessing (2:3).
The theology and background of the day of the Lord is developed in a distinctively covenantal framework. The Noahic, Abrahamic, and Mosaic covenants are each recalled reminding the people that the nature of the threatened judgments is wholly covenantal. Robertson insightfully links these references in chapter 1 to covenant curses.
Using the language associated with Noah’s covenant, God declares that he will sweep away everything on the face of the earth, including men, animals, birds, and fish (Zeph 1:2-3; Gen. 6:7). Employing imagery that compares closely with the description of the covenant-making ceremony in Abraham’s day, the prophet indicates that the Lord has prepared a sacrifice in the form of victims who must undergo his judgment, have consecrated his guests for the coming banquet (Zeph. 1:7; Gen. 15:9-11). Echoing the circumstances surrounding the inauguration of the Mosaic covenant at Sinai, Zephaniah declares that the coming day of judgment will be a day of darkness and thick darkness, of cloud and thick cloud, of trumpet and battle cry (Zeph. 1:15-16; Exod 20:21)…So in Zephaniah the Day of the Lord may be equated with the day of covenantal inauguration or enforcement. The day of the covenant is in a unique sense the “Lord’s day,” the day in which the Lord displays his sovereignty among the people of this world through the establishment and enforcement of his covenant.
Zephaniah confronts the nation’s pride by calling them to humility. The hope of blessing is offered on the day of the Lord if Judah humbly repents of its foolish pride (3:12). The dual time frames of the day of the Lord come into play as God offers immediate and future blessing to the chosen nation and the rest of the nations. “National, social and individual hope can only flourish in the context of humility.” This restoration is not merely hypothetical; on the contrary, the Lord will providentially bring restoration to pass for not only the remnant of Judah, but also for the nations.
God’s purifying work in relation to Jerusalem his holy hill will go forward (3:11, 14). He will gather those who have been scattered and bring them home from every land where they have been put to shame (3:19-20). Restoration to the land clearly plays a significant role in Zephaniah’s anticipation of the future, but the dimensions of this restoration have been extended to embrace all humanity.
114. Van Gemeren, Interpreting the Prophetic Word, p. 173.
115. Dillard and Longman, Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 416.
116. Robertson, Christ of the Prophets, p. 264.
118. Wood, Prophets of Israel, p. 321.
119. Ibid., p. 322.
120. “Zephaniah,” in Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, p. 1495.
121. David W. Baker, “Zephaniah,” in New Bible Commentary, p. 849.
122. David W. Baker, “Zephaniah,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, p. 254.
123. Ibid., p. 255.
125. Robertson, Christ of the Prophets, p. 265.
126. Baker, “Zephaniah,” in New Bible Commentary, p. 849.
127. Robertson, Christ of the Prophets, p. 266.