The book opens with the announcement of the Day of the Lord, which is characterized as a day of massive, even total, destruction. It is a day that reverses creation; humans, animals, birds, and the whole world will be swept away (1:2-3; 17-18). Officials (1:8), persons of means (1:13), and other subgroups are mentioned, but the chapter does not limit the devastation to specific groups within Judah. A possibility of being protected through the destruction is mentioned at the start of chapter 2, but it is not promised. The bulk of chapter 2 contains oracles against nations and shifts to destruction outside of Judah. Chapter 3 returns to Judah. Threats against Judah are intermingled with references to a surviving remnant that is cleansed of their deceit. They will speak purely and are enjoined to rejoice and sing in concert with God's own rejoicing over them as restored people.
In three chapters Zephaniah ranges through the major prophetic themes of judgment and salvation. The book announces judgment in comprehensive terms matched only by the extensiveness of God's transformation and restoration. The book prompts consideration of the communal consequences of sin and squarely focuses any future beyond judgment on God's removal of the judgments and reconstitution of a faithful people.
Where Do I Find It?
Zephaniah is the thirty-sixth book in the Christian Old Testament, falling between Habakkuk and Haggai. It is the ninth of the twelve Minor Prophets.
Who Wrote It?
The superscription (1:1) attributes the book to Zephaniah and traces his genealogy back to Hezekiah. The Bible does mention other persons named Zephaniah, notably a priest in Jeremiah (21:1; 29:25, 29; 37:3; 52:24), but there is no linkage to the Zephaniah named in the superscription. It is often claimed that Zephaniah had a royal background based on his ancestry. The superscription, however, does not call Hezekiah a king. It is best to admit that besides having the name Zephaniah, we know nothing else about the author.
When Was It Written?
The superscription places Zephaniah in the reign of Josiah, whose reign extended from 640 to 609 B.C.E., but the book itself does not directly provide additional information to fix the date more specifically. Josiah's reform and Judean expansion are not mentioned. Assyria and Nineveh are mentioned, but Babylon is not. The combined effect of these factors has led most interpreters to assume the book is set in the early part of Josiah's reign.
What's It About?
The book announces the destructive Day of the Lord directed against both Judah and the nations and God's subsequent transformation of the people into a faithful and rejoicing community in harmony with God.
How Do I Read It?
The book of Zephaniah employs standard styles of prophetic speech. The announcement of judgment that opens the book can only evoke repentance, though without the repentant being promised deliverance (see the "perhaps" in 2:3). The book assumes a communal context; the guilty, the less guilty, and the innocent are not differentiated in the destruction that is announced and to be experienced. A gracious future, if it is to exist at all, is on the other side of the destruction of the community and is God's act of transforming the community into a faithful community. To read in concert with the book (that is, to be addressed by the book), contemporary readers need to step outside of an individualistic understanding of guilt, innocence, and grace, recognizing themselves as part of a larger social matrix in which the acts of each affect all.
AUTHOR: Richard W. Nysse, Professor of Old Testament