Zephaniah is the only prophetic book with a genealogy of such depth – “The word of YHWH that came to Zephaniah the son of Cushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah…” (Zephaniah 1:1). Hezekiah is not identified as the king of Judah, but that is certainly what the author is implying. The prophet was a descendant of King Hezekiah and as such had easier access to speak to power. And the subtitle continues, “in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah.”
The book of Zephaniah borrows many phrases from Deuteronomy and also shares many other common themes. Therefore, O. Palmer Robertson’s commentary on the book suggests that the prophet wrote after the rediscovery of the Torah in the Temple during Josiah’s reign. Thus the design of the book is to promote the teachings of Deuteronomy applied to their present day. He is a prophet working in concert with the king’s reform agenda. It is worth remembering that the nation of Israel is no longer in existence at this point and only Judah is left.
A general outline of the book of Zephaniah is actually quite familiar – it is the outline of several prophetic books:
I. Oracles against Judah,
II. Oracles against (foreign) nations,
III. Oracles of salvation.
Zephaniah’s prophecy begins, “’I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth,’ a declaration of YHWH. ‘I will sweep away man and beast; I will sweep away the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea, and the stumbling-blocks with the wicked. I will cut off mankind from the face of the earth,’ a declaration of YHWH” (Zeph 1:2). The universal judgment will remove all idolatry and all living things from the face of the earth – especially people.
Note the structural similarity of the two parts of these verses – both say “I will [utterly] sweep away…” and “from the face of the earth” and end: “a declaration of YHWH.” To “sweep away” Zephaniah advances to “cut off” in the parallelism. The passage mentions the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea suggesting that we are not just talking about the Promised Land but indeed the whole earth, which must be said because sometimes by the word translated “earth” all that really is in view is the Promised Land.
The oracle against Judah continues by specifically mentioning Judah and Jerusalem: “I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and I will cut off from this place the remnant of Baal and the name of the idolatrous priests along with the priests, those who bow down on the roofs to the host of the heavens, those who bow down and swear to YHWH and yet swear by Milcom, those who have turned back from following YHWH, who do not seek YHWH or inquire of Him” (Zeph 1:4-6).
Thus the idea is that the universal judgment on the land (perhaps even the whole earth) and how that will destroy the stumbling-blocks of the wicked is what we will see locally in Judah and Jerusalem.
Three categories of idolatry are specifically mentioned in the text. The first is the worship of Baal. Baal is the false god of the Canaanites. The second is the worship of the sun, moon and stars (“the host of the heavens”) (cf. 2 Kings 23:5, 12). And the third is the worship of Milcom. Milcolm was the national false god of the Ammonites. The name is spelled various ways in Scripture, the root of the word related to ‘king,’ Molech and Milcolm are the most common ways we find the name in English (in Zeph 1:5 it is actually spelled Malcham). Molech worship is often associated in Scripture with child-sacrifice.
Linking Zeph 1:2-3 and 4-6 is the theme of cutting off – cutting off from the face of the earth all humanity that is engaged in idol worship (Baal), astral worship, syncretism (swear to YHWH and by Milcolm), and backsliding (Zeph 1:6).
Zephaniah is describing the day of YHWH, a major theme throughout The Twelve and really the only theme of Zephaniah. Zeph 1:7-9 says, “Be silent before the Lord YHWH! For the day of YHWH is near; YHWH has prepared a sacrifice and consecrated His guests. And on the day of YHWH’s sacrifice–‘I will punish the officials and the king’s sons and all who array themselves in foreign attire. On that day I will punish everyone who leaps over the threshold, and those who fill their master’s house with violence and fraud.’” Thus Zephaniah describes the day of YHWH as a great sacrifice.
Zephaniah’s prophecy is particularly addressed to those in power and those in the upper part of society in the city rather than to the everyday Judean living in the country. Thus here and elsewhere he addresses the officials and the king’s sons.
Motyer suggests that we should see this oracle concerning the day of YHWH as continuing through Zeph 1:14a. The first oracle then begins (Zeph 1:7) and ends with “the [great] day of YHWH is near.”
The oracle continues, “’On that day,’ a declaration of YHWH, ‘a cry will be heard from the Fish Gate, a wail from the Second Quarter, a loud crash from the hills. Wail, O inhabitants of the Mortar! For all the traders are no more; all who weigh out silver are cut off’” (Zeph 1:10-11). Note the repetition of this “cutting off” idea and the various places mentioned suggest that lamentation will be heard from every quarter (so to speak) of the city. This loud wailing is in contrast to the opening of the oracle “Be silent before the Lord YHWH.”
And the oracle continues, “At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the men who are complacent (Hebrew: “thickening on the dregs [of their wine]” according to the ESV footnote), those who say in their hearts, ‘YHWH will not do good, nor will He do ill.’ Their goods shall be plundered, and their houses laid waste. Though they build houses, they shall not inhabit them; though they plant vineyards, they shall not drink wine from them” (Zeph 1:12-13). Motyer says they are guilty of “complacent practical atheism.” Good and “ill” are a merism such that YHWH will not do anything at all.
Listen to Motyer’s comments on Zeph 1:13, “The practical atheist (1:12) is typically the person of property with a bank balance (wealth), real estate (house), and business (vineyard). The day of the Lord will expose the transience of ownership (“their wealth shall become loot”), the insubstantiality of property (“their houses desolation”) , and the uncertainty that materialism will bring its promised fulfillments (“build houses but not live [in them], / and plant vineyards but not drink their wine”). All this is clearly reminiscent of the “vengeance of the covenant” (Lev. 26:25) with its futility curses (Deut. 28:30).””
The first oracle then closes, “The great day of YHWH is near, near and hastening fast” (Zeph 1:14a). This puts a bit of urgency behind the message. O. Palmer Robertson also sees this as going with the previous section.
The next oracle concerning the day of YHWH begins, “The sound of the day of YHWH is bitter; the mighty man cries aloud there. A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements” (Zeph 1:14b-16). Note the repetition of day and the five couplets that begin “a day”: “a day of distress and anguish,” for example. Robertson notes that the couplets also use paranomasia in Hebrew – that is, they use similar sounds for emphasis.
Robertson also adds that we should recall similar language in Joel 2:1-2 and Amos 5:18-20. These three books are all dependent upon the Torah of Moses (Deuteronomy) and its description of the Sinai event for their description of the coming day of YHWH. The difference, as he points out, is that this time there is no mediator to intercede for Israel and protect them from YHWH.
Motyer cites Baker as seeing the six references to “a day” in Zeph 1:15-16 as reversals of the six days of creation. This is less convincing but plausible.
The oracle continues, “I will bring distress on mankind, so that they shall walk like the blind, because they have sinned against YHWH; their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung. Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them on the day of the wrath of YHWH. In the fire of His jealousy, all the earth shall be consumed; for a full and sudden end He will make of all the inhabitants of the earth” (Zeph 1:17-18). Note that no specific sin is mentioned – instead the day of YHWH comes “because they have sinned against YHWH.”
And we can understand Zeph 2:1-3 as continuing this oracle: “Gather together, yes, gather, O shameless nation, before the decree takes effect—before the day passes away like chaff—before there comes upon you the burning anger of YHWH, before there comes upon you the day of the anger of YHWH. Seek YHWH, all you humble of the land, who do His just commands; seek righteousness; seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the anger of YHWH.” Thus the oracle ends with a glimpse of possible hope for the humble on the day of the anger of YHWH.
The rest of chapter two consist of oracles against foreign nations. First we see mention of Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, Cherethites, and “Canaan, land of the Philistines.” This is an oracle against Philistia. It ends on a note of hope for Judah: “The seacoast shall become the possession of the remnant of the house of Judah, on which they shall graze, and in the houses of Ashkelon they shall lie down at evening. For YHWH their God will be mindful of them and restore their fortunes (idiomatic for return from exile)” (Zeph 2:7).
Second we see an oracle against Moab and Ammon, the sons/grandsons of Lot. Listen to the parallelism of these two nations and the note of hope for Judah: “I have heard the taunts of Moab and the revilings of the Ammonites, how they have taunted my people and made boasts against their territory. Therefore, as I live,” [an oath] declares YHWH of hosts, the God of Israel, ‘Moab shall become like Sodom, and the Ammonites like Gomorrah, a land possessed by nettles and salt pits, and a waste forever. The remnant of my people shall plunder them, and the survivors of my nation shall possess them” (Zeph 2:8-9).
The oracle against Moab and Ammon includes a further verse about their sin of taunting and boasting against the people of YHWH of Hosts returning upon them. Their sin is identified as pride. This leads then to a more general statement: “YHWH will be awesome against them, for He will famish all the gods of the earth, and to Him shall bow down, each in its place, all the lands of the nations” (Zeph 2:11). The third oracle is a one-liner: “You also, O Cushites, shall be slain by my sword” (Zeph 2:12).
Zeph 2:13 begins an oracle against Assyria that also mentions the capital city of Nineveh by name. The Hebrew says that beasts of every nation shall lie down in her midst. The idea here is that unclean animals represent the unclean nations and all of these animals will then occupy Assyria in general and Nineveh particularly. We do not know the identity of the animals mentioned in the verse more than just to know that one is an unclean bird of some kind. Each of these oracles against these foreign nations except the third are well-structured alternating patterns or chiasms according to Motyer’s analysis.
The reason for the addition of the one verse on Cush is to complete the geographical picture that Zephaniah is painting in every direction – north, south, east, and west. The order in the text is west (Philistia), east (Moab/Amon), south (Cush), and north (Assyria).
But the oracles against nations do not end with the foreign nations, Zeph 3 then turns to Jerusalem/Judah, with a woe oracle, opening, “Woe to her who is rebellious and defiled, the oppressing city! She listens to no voice; she accepts no correction. She does not trust in YHWH; she does not draw near to her God” (Zeph 3:1-2). Like we have seen with other prophetic books the effect is to get the reader to be cheering at the day of YHWH coming to the nations only to find that it comes to their nation too.
Motyer argues that this is a chiasm with Zeph 3:1-2 answered by Zeph 3:5 and the climax of the chiasm being the condemnation of the city’s officials in Zeph 3:3-4. More specifically:
Thus the idea that she listens to no voice, accepts no correction, trusts not in YHWH, and does not draw near to her God is answered (even in reverse order) by: “YHWH within her is righteous; He does no injustice; every morning He shows forth His justice; each dawn He does not fail.” And the summons is answered by the comment: “But the unjust knows no shame.”
Motyer also notes that a similar relationship exists between the officials and God. Zeph 3:3-4 says, “Her officials within her are roaring lions; her judges are evening wolves that leave nothing till the morning; her prophets are fickle, treacherous men; her priests profane what is holy, they do violence to the Torah.” Thus by contrast to the officials YHWH does not fail, to the judges each morning shows forth His justice, to the prophets does no injustice, and to the priests is the standard of righteousness.
The woe oracle continues for another three verses that begin with “I have cut off nations,” continues with, “I said, ‘Surely you will fear me; you will accept correction. Then her dwelling would not be cut off…but all the more they were eager to make all their deeds corrupt”, and concludes, “’Therefore wait for me,’ a declaration of YHWH, ‘for the day when I rise up to seize the prey. For my decision is to gather nations, to assemble kingdoms, to pour out upon them my indignation, all my burning anger; for in the fire of my jealousy all the earth shall be consumed” (Zeph 3:6-8).
Thus now that the woe oracle has ended with the universal note, the salvation oracles that follow begin with universal worship. We see some of that universal worship now as the gospel has gone out to the nations in the New Testament. “For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of YHWH and serve Him with one accord” (Zeph 3:9). We have seen this idea earlier in The Twelve, an idea that the New Testament applies to the name of Jesus: all that call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.
The universal worship note continues: “From beyond the rivers of Cush my worshipers, the daughter of my dispersed ones, shall bring my offering” (Zeph 3:10). Motyer sees vv.9-10 as the reversal of Babel and the opening of an oracle continuing: “On that day you shall not be put to shame because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against me; for then I will remove from your midst your proudly exultant ones, and you shall no longer be haughty in my holy mountain. But I will leave in your midst a people humble and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name of YHWH, those who are left in Israel…”
“…they shall do no injustice and speak no lies, nor shall there be found in their mouth a deceitful tongue [in contrast to the false prophets and priests], for they shall graze and lie down, and none shall make them afraid [in contrast to the officials and judges of Jerusalem]” (Zeph 3:11-13).
The second salvation oracle is Zeph 3:14-17. “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! YHWH has taken away the judgments against you; He has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, YHWH, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: ‘Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. YHWH your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness; He will quiet you by His love; He will exult over you with loud singing.”
Motyer shows that this is a chiasm as follows:
The third salvation oracle is the final three verses of the book: “’I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival, so that you will no longer suffer reproach. Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you in, at the time when I gather you together; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes [idiomatic for return from captivity] before your eyes,’ says YHWH” (Zeph 3:18-20).
Motyer argues that this consists of three alternating sections where in the first the people are purified and vindicated (18-19a), in the second the people are recovered and transformed (19b-f), and the in the third the people are regathered and acknowledged (20). The first then ends with the end of humiliation, the second with the end of disrepute, and the third with the end of captivity. This helps explain the repetition of the idea of making the people renowned and praised.
Zephaniah does not present a radically different message than the other prophets. Instead, he presents a passage that fits perfectly with the teaching of all the true prophets of God we have examined. It is one final message in The Twelve, written by a descendant of good King Hezekiah and set during the reign of good King Josiah before the elite were taken off into captivity. The next three prophets, all speaking to Jerusalem, we will discover are writing from a very different context. Thus The Twelve, parallel in the prophets to Kings, also shows us the nations of Israel and now of Judah going into exile.