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Old Testament: Zephaniah

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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.

So What?

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

1.    Superscription (Zephaniah 1:1)
    The book begins in classic prophetic style: the word of the Lord comes to Zephaniah.
2.    Destruction-Total Destruction! (Zephaniah 1:2-18)
No limit is placed on the judgment to come. There are named guilty parties, but all addressees are to be silent. No exit from the destruction is offered. Creation itself is reversed.
3.    Perhaps (Zephaniah 2:1-3)
The day of the Lord's wrath is coming. That cannot be stopped. Seeking the Lord is, as always, the proper thing to do, but it does not guarantee deliverance. The destruction is so extensive that anything more than a "perhaps" would be an evasion of the severity of the announced judgment.
4.    Against the Nations (Zephaniah 2:4-15)
The nations that belittle the destruction that occurs on the Day of the Lord, taunt the judged Judeans, and boast of their own strength will also face the judgment of God. The oracles against the nations function to spell out one more dimension of the comprehensive, even global, judgment announced in the first chapter and offer the first glimpses of the restoration of the judged people of God.
5.    Judgment and the Formation of a Remnant (Zephaniah 3:1-13)
Additional statements of judgment are announced and also recast as part of the purification of people. The judgment casts away the shame of rebellion and makes way for the establishment of a faithful people who constantly seek refuge in the Lord.
6.     From Redemption to Doxology (Zephaniah 3:14-20)
God enters into the midst of the restored people to remove their judgments, jettison their fear, lead their rejoicing, and finalize their restoration.

AUTHOR: Richard W. Nysse, Professor of Old Testament

The historical context assumed by the book of Zephaniah is the reign of Josiah as indicated in the title verse (1:1). Josiah's reign is described in 2 Kings 22:1-23:30 and 2 Chronicles 34:1-36:1. Starting in 640 B.C.E., it spans the latter days of Assyrian dominance. During the gap between Assyrian and Babylonian dominance in Judah, Josiah engaged in a major reform and in territorial expansion. Josiah was killed by the Babylonian army in 609 B.C.E. The destruction of Assyria and Nineveh are mentioned in the oracles against the nations in the midsection of the book (2:31), but Babylon is not specifically named. Most interpreters read the book against the early period of Josiah's reign and speculate that Zephaniah was one of the voices urging and perhaps supporting Josiah's reform efforts. Read as a whole, the book of Zephaniah depicts a society in turmoil, with particular emphasis on the failures of the political and religious leaders. Against the backdrop of moral and religious collapse, Zephaniah announces a total destruction that is also understood as a massive cleansing. The surviving remnant will be transformed into a humble and lowly people with the Lord, their God, dwelling in their midst (3:12).

AUTHOR: Richard W. Nysse, Professor of Old Testament

•    Oracles against the nations. Prophetic judgments announced against nations outside of Israel and Judah are common in prophetic books (for example, Isaiah 13-23; Jeremiah 46-51; Ezekiel 25-32). Zephaniah 2:4-15 is a short version of such pronouncements. The function of this type of prophetic speech is debated both within the actual speaking of the prophets and within the books in their present form. Did Zephaniah actually speak these words to a flesh-and-blood audience, and, if so, what was the purpose of such speaking? Likely, the words were spoken only to Judeans, but the text does not name a specific occasion for doing so. All that can be said is that they are spoken after the destruction announced in 1:2-18 had taken place. In the aftermath, the oracles against the nations could be seen as the first phase of a restoration that is more fully described in the chapter 3, but the text does not draw a direct connection. Perhaps the oracles against the nations were used to set up the Judean audience for the denunciation in the first part of chapter 3 as Amos 1-2 does for an Israelite audience a century earlier. Again, the connection, if it is the case, is not explicitly stated in the text.

•    Prophetic tradition. Interpreters have recognized that Zephaniah echoes the larger prophetic tradition in its denunciation of injustice, idolatry, and religious indifference, particularly on the part of leaders (priests [1:4], royalty [1:8], judges [3:3], and prophets [3:4]). Zephaniah remains within that tradition but does not merely echo it. It is the prophetic tradition at work in a specific time and place, even though some of the particulars are no longer retrievable. The promises for the future at the end of the book have resonance with the end of the book of Amos and with Isaiah 40-55, but interpreters generally do not regard the interplay to be direct. There is resonance between them, but not citation one of the other.

•    Royal descent. The four-generation genealogy in 1:1, unusual for a prophetic heading, has heightened speculation about Zephaniah's relationship to King Hezekiah. When Zephaniah is seen as coming from royal stock, emphasis is placed on an insider's view of the corruption. References to geographic places within Jerusalem (1:10-11) and to the practices of officials (for example, 1:8) are attributed to this supposed insider's view. However, many, if not most, interpreters now regard a specific connection to King Hezekiah as unprovable and recognize that specific practices condemned in the book do not require specialized knowledge of the society's inner workings.

AUTHOR: Richard W. Nysse, Professor of Old Testament

•    Day of the Lord. The Day of the Lord was generally celebrated as the day of the Lord's deliverance of the people of God, both in past history and in expectations for the future. Amos reversed this understanding. The Day of the Lord became the day of the Lord's judgment against the people of God for their rebellion through injustice and idolatry. Zephaniah follows Amos's reversal. However, Zephaniah, along with other prophetic traditions in Judah, works the theme in more than one direction. The Day of the Lord is against both Judah and the nations, after which it can function again as a day of the Lord's deliverance. In the latter case, the deliverance is perhaps more properly termed restoration and transformation. The people and the world (including the nations) are remade into a faithful worshiping community.

•    Remnant. While in no way minimizing the devastation of the judgment, the concept of a remnant opened the way for a future beyond the judgment. In Zephaniah, the first chapter opens and closes with worldwide destruction as the envisioned future. Beginning in the second chapter, a surviving group is discussed. This remnant is not a group that has been spared from the devastation; rather, they are survivors who have gone through the judgment. From the surviving group God reconstitutes a faithful group. The remnant is given pure speech and appropriate humility. They are promised the protection of God and are invited to join in God's own celebration of the renewed life of the remnant.

•    Seek the Lord. In Zephaniah "seeking the Lord" (and equivalent expressions) is understood as a constant posture of faith. Not to seek the Lord is understood as rebellion, whether in the form of turning away (1:6) or of indifference (1:12). Once the judgment of God sets in, seeking the Lord is no guarantee that one would be hidden from the searching of God (compare 1:12 with the "perhaps" of 2:3). Characteristics of the transformed people that God creates after the judgment will include seeking refuge in the Lord and calling on the name of the Lord. The movement is from failure to seek the Lord to the Lord's seeking out the people in judgment and then to the people seeking the Lord in post-judgment fidelity.

AUTHOR: Richard W. Nysse, Professor of Old Testament