Zephaniah, Book of
ZEPHANIAH, BOOK OF
This Old Testament book summarizes in its three chapters much of the prophetic teaching on the nature of true religion. Consideration of the contents and historical background of the book in this article will serve to highlight the Prophet's enduring message.
Contents. The uniquely Israelite concept of a God who involves Himself in human history is immediately evidenced in Zephaniah by its contents: prophetic woes, oracles against the nations, and predictions of hope. The punishments are to be accomplished by the power of Yahweh, but are provoked by the free choice of men. The rapidly approaching day of the lord is the Prophet's major theme. Zephaniah's account of this day (1.2–2.16) inspired the Dies Irae (cf. 1.15–16) of the Requiem Mass. The day will bring universal devastation, especially for Juda and Jerusalem, whose condemnation is found in the book's first two oracles (1.2–2.3). Oracles against the nations (2.4–15) are followed by a third oracle against Jerusalem (3.1–8). Promises of restoration for the nations (3.9–10) and Jerusalem (3.11–20) end the book on a note of joy.
Interpretation. The inscription of the book (1.1) situates the prophecy in the reign of King Josiah (640–609 b.c.) and traces the Prophet's genealogy four generations to a certain Hezekiah, perhaps the same as King Hezekiah (both ḥizqîyâ in Hebrew). Some, rejecting this verse, have attempted to situate the prophecy in the reign of Joachim (609–598 b.c.), thus making the Chaldean destruction of 597–587 the fulfillment of the predictions of the Day of Yahweh; however, scholars, by general agreement, now place the prophecy in the early reign of Josiah before his Deuteronomic reform (c. 629 b.c.; cf. 2 Kgs ch. 22–23).
Assyria, which in the 8th century b.c. destroyed Samaria and laid waste much of Judah, maintained a world domination that reached the zenith of its power under King Assurbanipal (668–628 b.c.). Chaldea was building the kingdom that would eventually destroy Assyria (612 b.c.), but Judah lived under nearly complete subjection to Assyria through the 7th century to the years of Josiah's youth. This subjection led to religious syncretism, especially under Judah's "worst king," Manasseh, who introduced Assyrian rites into the Temple and revived Canaanite cults at the high places. The Prophet's attack on the worship of false gods (1.4–5) and condemnation of pro-Assyrian ministers at the court (1.8–9; 3.3) reflects this situation, which had continued into the early reign of Josiah.
Probably the general political complications rather than any one particular event, such as the Scythian invasion mentioned by Herodotus, led Zephaniah to recall the teaching of earlier Prophets on the Day of Yahweh and enabled him to see that the immorality, idolatry, and arrogant pride of Judah and the nations would make this a day of utter devastation. Yet mercy would be the final work of God. To a remnant of Israel composed of the "poor of the land," "a people humble and lowly" (3.12), the proclamation would resound: "Yahweh, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love, he will sing joyfully because of you as one sings at festivals" (3.17–18). Condemning the proud self-sufficiency of the rulers, Zephaniah directed his words of consolation to the poor who recognized their need of God and placed their entire hope in Yahweh alone. This message of humble trust and hope against hope the Prophet offers to any man who desires peace in the world. It is this message that Jesus Christ makes the basis of His own teaching and life: "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Lk6.20); "Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart" (Mt 11.29).
Bibliography: c. l. taylor, jr., and h. thurman, g. a. buttrick, ed., The Interpreters' Dictionary of the Bible, 4 v. (Nashville 1962) 6:1005–34. a. george, Michée, Sophonie, Nahum (Bible de Jérusalem 27; Paris 1952). g. gerleman, Zephanja (Lund 1942). a. van hoonacker, Les Douze petits prophètes (Études bibliques, Paris 1908). j. coppens, Les Douze petits prophètes (Bruges 1950). j. m. p. smith, et al., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Micah, Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Obadiah and Joel (International Critical Commentary, New York 1911). j.p. hyatt, "The Date and Background of Zephaniah," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 7 (1948) 25–29. g. von rad, "The Origin of the concept of the Day of Yahweh," Journal of Semitic Studies 4 (1959) 97–108.
[d. j. moeller]