Background

Zephaniah’s name, derived from the Hebrew verb tsaphan would mean “The Lord has hidden” or “The Lord has treasured or protected.” Some think the significance is that the prophet reveals what the Lord has hidden about his remaining in control despite appearances to the contrary. Others prefer to see it as a reminder that God has a message for those he treasures and protects, to comfort them as they must endure to a degree his day of judgment upon the unfaithful in all nations. Three other men revealed in the Old Testament had the same name: See 1 Chronicles 6:36-38, Jeremiah 21:1, Zechariah 6:10.1The introductory information on this page is adapted from Professor Emeritus Forrest Bivens’ course notes for Senior Old Testament Isagogics at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. Used with permission.

The time of the prophet’s ministry and message would be about right for him to be of royal blood, for this book can reasonably be placed in the decade of 630-620 BC, prior to the major reforms of Josiah (see Zeph 1:4-6, 8-9, 12, 3:1-3, 7) and prior to the fall of Nineveh (see Zeph 2:13). So Zephaniah’s ministry began about the same time as Jeremiah began his, with Nahum as another contemporary. Many also express the opinion that the language used to describe approaching enemies was descriptive of a Scythian invasion usually dated about that same time and mentioned by Herodotus. The Scythians are said to have passed down the Philistine coast to the borders of Egypt as they plagued western Asia at that time.

See also the Chronology of the Old Testament Kings, the Chronology of the Prophets, and the Chronology of Latter Prophets and Intertestamental Period.

Authorship

Zephaniah’s ancestry is provided in Zephaniah 1:1, something most unusual for a prophet. He is the great-great grandson of “Hezekiah.” It is debated whether or not this is the famous king of Judah, with some offering limited information to the contrary and others arguing for the idea, again without conclusive evidence. The family tree with these names is mentioned nowhere else in Scripture.

Purpose and Content

The theme or thrust of the book is clear enough: The Day of the Lord, the Day of Wrath is approaching – but there is also equal assurance of ultimate safety for the remnant of all nations. John Raven (p. 238) gives these fitting words: “His description of the day of wrath which occasioned the great medieval hymn, Dies Irae, is as terrible as any in the Old Testament. On the other hand his closing passage regarding the blessings of restored Jerusalem is unsurpassed for gentleness and beauty (note especially Zeph 3:16-17).” The implied or explicit calls to repentance should also be noted throughout.

Hill & Walton provide this good reminder: “Besides Amos, Zephaniah is the only book among the minor prophets to feature a series of oracles against the nations. In Amos they pronounced judgment on Israel and Judah; in Zephaniah they served as examples of the Lord’s intention to judge all the nations. In this way the judgment that was declared against Judah was not viewed in isolation, but as part of Yahweh’s overall agenda articulated in the concept of the day of the Lord.”2Hill, Andrew E. and Walton, John H. A Survey of the Old Testament. 523. Nations singled out for judgment oracles here are Philistia, Moab and Ammon, Ethiopia and Assyria.

This insight into the prophetic “Day of the Lord” and its relation to Judah specifically merits reading: “The people of Judah and Israel had always anticipated that the day of the Lord would be a time of rejoicing for them. They expected that their enemies would be destroyed and their nation would be exalted to become the chief of the nations, with a Davidic king ruling over a vast empire. Early on, prophets like Amos doused such optimism by insisting that the Israelites would be counted among God’s enemies who were ripe for punishment (Amos 5:18-20). Only after punishment and purging would the hoped-for benefits be realized. Thus the day of the Lord became widely proclaimed by the prophets to convey God’s approaching judgment on Israel and Judah, though the related aftermath oracles conveyed that God’s eventual new order was to feature a politically restored and theologically purified people.”3Hill, Andrew E. and Walton, John H. A Survey of the Old Testament. 524. There is ample evidence in the New Testament that the Jewish leaders still did not adequately understand this concept. The New Testament book of Acts and the epistles of the apostles clarify the nature of this “new order,” namely, the New Testament Church.

Christ Connection

As with the other prophets of the Old Testament, Zephaniah’s message is dominated by God’s righteous judgment upon sin, not just for Israel but for the whole world (Zeph 3:8). However, his message is not only about judgment. He also proclaimed a gracious message of comfort for God’s people. This not only gave the nation of Israel hope before they returned from exile, but it also gives hope to all believers who are now a part of spiritual Israel. God fulfilled his gracious promises to the people of Israel so that he could fulfill his gracious promise of bringing a Savior through them for all people. That is certainly a message that we, too, can sing and be glad about (Zeph 3:14-17).

Notable Passages

  • Zephaniah 1:7,14-15
  • Zephaniah 2:3
  • Zephaniah 2:11
  • Zephaniah 3:5
  • Zephaniah 3:9-13
  • Zephaniah 3:14-20

Outline

  1. The Day of the Lord means Judgment (Zephaniah 1:1-3:7)
  2. The Day of Salvation means Restoration (Zephaniah 3:9-20)

or

  1. The Day of the Lord is Coming on Judah and the Nations (Zephaniah 1)
  2. Divine Judgment is Pronounced on Nations and Judah (Zephaniah 2:1-3:8)
  3. Restoration is Promised to the Remnant (Zephaniah 3:9-20)

References   [ + ]

1. The introductory information on this page is adapted from Professor Emeritus Forrest Bivens’ course notes for Senior Old Testament Isagogics at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. Used with permission.
2. Hill, Andrew E. and Walton, John H. A Survey of the Old Testament. 523.
3. Hill, Andrew E. and Walton, John H. A Survey of the Old Testament. 524.