Zephaniah 3

Chapter three continues Zephaniah’s second section for the first eight verses (2:4 – 3:8). God’s attention turns from the nations back to Israel, specifically to Jerusalem personified. Not only was there general wickedness throughout the population, but Jerusalem was corrupt to the very top. Her princes, judges, prophets, and priests – those who were to represent God to the people and the people to God – abused their power and devastated God’s people (similar to the false shepherd warnings given throughout Ezekiel).

The final section (3:9-20) offers a brief picture of the promised Messianic Kingdom. It will include all world nations, placing them under Messiah’s reign as he rules from Jerusalem (3:9-10). Special blessings promised to the remnant of Israel (vs. 13) include forgiveness of sin (vs. 11), God’s personal presence (vs. 12), physical protection (vs. 15-18), and global respect (vs. 19-20). These same promises are repeated throughout the Jewish prophets, but the spiritual aspect (God’s presence and forgiveness of sin) is exemplified in the primary New Covenant passage, Jeremiah 31:31-34.

Zephaniah 2

Chapter two reveals the scope of the day of the Lord. Some have concluded that Zephaniah’s prophecy was fulfilled by the Babylonians in the years following Josiah’s death. (See Habakkuk for Babylon as God’s instrument to punish Israel.) However, as terrible as the Babylonian attacks and captivities were, they did not compare to the complete annihilation described in chapter one. Additionally, chapter two lists other nations around Israel that Babylon also did not decimate – Moab and Ammon (vs. 8-11); Ethiopia (or Cush, vs. 12); Assyria (vs. 13-15).

A special point of note is in 2:9 where Zephaniah refers to the “remnant” or “those who are left.” These will be the survivors of the great day of the Lord’s wrath. The remnant is a common term used in Old Testament judgment passages and New Testament passages related to Israel (e.g., Romans 9-11) for those individual Israelites who had genuine faith in God. Using Church-Age terminology, we would call them “saved” or “Old Testament saints.” Like Abraham, they had believed God’s promises and had faithfully obeyed his law. These will not suffer God’s wrath; instead, they will enjoy the privileges of the spoils of his war on the nations. Notice the back and forth between judgment on the wicked (vs. 4-5, 8-13) and paradise for the righteous remnant (vs. 6-7, 14-15) throughout this chapter. This balance is shown throughout the Scriptures; God judges the wicked but is gracious and merciful to all who place their faith in him.

Zephaniah 1

Although he gives his family line in the very first verse, we really know nothing about the prophet Zephaniah. Because he mentioned “Hezekiah,” it is tempting to think of Zephaniah as the great-great-grandson of godly King Hezekiah, making him a prince as well as a prophet. Although commentators often come to this conclusion (with various supporting arguments), it seems unlikely for at least two reasons – genealogy and chronology.

First with regard to the genealogy presented in Zephaniah 1:1 is the fact that it does not match any family line given elsewhere in Scripture. Although this is an argument from silence, it seems strange that a godly prophet from Hezekiah’s line would have been ignored by the writers of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles. Second, not even one of the individuals in this line is found among the named descendants of Hezekiah or anywhere outside of this single verse. Third, the word “Cushi” in the Hebrew Scriptures often means “Cushite,” a person from Ethiopia (Cush). It may be that this genealogy was meant to defend Zephaniah’s Jewish heritage, if his father was Gentile.

The chronology also argues against this Hezekiah being the godly king. Archer 1 explains that there were only 88 years between the end of Hezekiah’s reign and the end of Josiah’s. Hezekiah’s son, Manasseh, was only 12 years old at his accession (2 Kings 21:1). Even if “Amariah, son of Hezekiah” (Zephaniah 1:1) was the same age, it is nearly impossible to fit four generations into 88 years, with Zephaniah old enough to prophesy as a mature adult during Josiah’s reign. If each man was 25 when he fathered his son, Zephaniah would have been only in his late teens or early 20s when prophesying during Josiah’s reign. While this is possible, it seems unlikely. Since this Zephaniah is not mentioned outside of this book, it is best to say that we cannot be confident of his heritage.

The theme of Zephaniah’s prophecy is God’s judgment on Israel and the nations in the coming day of the Lord. The book naturally divides into three sections (not the three chapters, however): 1:1 – 2:3; 2:4 – 3:8; and 3:9-20, as the following summaries will demonstrate.

Chapter one contains God’s unequivocal promise to punish the nation of Israel. Notice the variety of “I will” claims throughout the chapter: “destroy” (vs. 2, 3), “remove/cut off” (vs. 3, 4, 5, 11), “attack” (vs. 4), “punish” (vs. 8, 9, 12), “bring distress” (vs. 17). The terrible description in 1:15-16 uses a series of parallel word pictures to portray an image of complete disaster. The promise in verse 13 is almost exactly opposite of Isaiah 65:21-22. Whereas those in the Messianic Kingdom will enjoy their wealth, homes, and vineyards, those who suffer the day of the Lord will not.

It is important to recognize the purpose of this judgment: “for they have sinned against the Lord.” (vs. 17) This section concludes in 2:1-3 with the prophet’s encouragement for the nation to repent. Although nothing can stop God’s judgment from coming upon the nation (Zephaniah was not the only prophet to announce it), individuals who turn to God will be spared.

Notes:

  1. Gleason L. Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, Revised and Expanded (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 394.