Historical Context and Dating

Throughout most of the 7th century B.C. Judah was in religious and physical poverty. Assyria was the rising power that had control of several areas by the time of Zephaniah. By 721 B.C., Assyria had taken control of the northern kingdom. At the height of its power they had gained temporal control of Egypt (Nahum). Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, were both dominated by Assyria’s foreign policy and Manasseh’s reign was as marked by wickedness and worship of Baals and Ammonite gods (2 Kings 21). Manasseh was considered to be the worst king and even more evil than the nations that were before Israel. His reign was followed by his son, Amon, who was just as evil his father; he reigned for two years. Then came Josiah, in which was the same time period that Zephaniah prophesied (Zeph. 1:1). Well into Josiah’s reign the Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, died and the power of Assyria began to decline. During this time, there was great hope of international freedom and political and religious reforms, all of which did not last.
Not much said about Josiah’s early reign, but he could have been guided by godly advisors. As Assyrian influence declined (death of Ashurbanipal, Assyrian king, in 627), Josiah began to make policy changes (2 Chron. 34:3-7) both spiritual and physical. He extended his reign up to Naphtali so as to look more like the Davidic kingdom, and spiritual reformations began to rid Judah of its casual acceptance of Assyrian gods. With spiritual reformation came political reformation (the two were intertwined) and political prosperity. Therefore, the decline of Assyrian power drastically changed the outlook for Judah. Berlin says it in such a way, “One would naturally expect that the demise of its overlord and the rearrangement of the world’s largest power structure had momentous import for Judah in terms of its internal political and religious policies, its alliances with foreign policy, and perhaps its territorial aspirations.”[1] The rediscovery of the Law in 622 B.C was also a huge turning point. It led to stronger push on Josiah’s part for reforms and spiritual revivals. Unfortunately, the reforms, although nationwide, were not from the heart (Jer.3:10); they were merely outward and external. There was a righteous remnant (Zeph. 2:3), but the majority of the nation had continued in their wickedness. Zephaniah was written in this time: after the rediscovery of the law in 622 and before the fall of Nineveh in 612 B.C. Though there was a seemingly mass spiritual revival, the nation did not love Yahweh. Therefore, Judah deserved judgment and they deserved the exile; the people were ripe for judgment.[2]

General Arguments in Zephaniah

The basic argument of the book is a general announcement of judgment upon the earth, Judah, and the nations that surround Judah, followed by announcements of salvation for the earth, the nations, and Judah. Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel all have a similar flow of argument. In each, the emphasis is on the Lord’s dealings with Judah in His judgment upon them and His acts of restoring them afterward. Ben Zvi says “One may say that in these books Israel moves from a status of sinners about to be punished to a future ideal status.”[3] Zvi also points out the logic in recognizing the two situations of Israel as contrary to each other, and to get from one situation to the next Israel will have to complete the first stage of being punished in order to move on to the next. However, he also notes that just because Israel completes their first stage does not mean that they immediately obtain their “future ideal status.”[4] Expanding upon Zvi’s point reveals that something must happen to get Israel to that ideal status: the Lord must intervene. The idea of God purifying His people for their reception of promised blessings is a common theme seen throughout the Old Testament prophetic books, and, in Zephaniah, it is revealed that God punishes His people in order that they may be purified; He purifies them by punishing them. So, it is God who brings Israel along toward their final ideal state. No longer will it depend upon Israel to bring themselves to their ideal state, for they had already set their course toward their destruction, but it will depend solely upon the will of God. He uses their will to act sinfully and the consequential punishment of their sin as a platform for which to purify them. His love for Israel is seen through His purifying judgment upon them. Since it is the will of God to save them it is therefore impossible for Israel to fall back from the ideal state once the Lord brings them there.
Though the Lord’s dealing with Israel may be a main focus of these prophetic books, large portions of the books are also devoted to judgment upon the nations and also their restoration. This reveals that there are commonalities between Israel and the rest of the nations. Although there is a distinct difference between Israel and the nations in their relation to YHWH, and that Israel receives special favor from Him, the Lord still reserves blessings for the nations and has a purpose for them in His larger scheme of salvation. Both Israel and the nations are to be punished, but the reasons for their punishment differ. Israel is to be punished because of her unfaithfulness in her special relationship with God, and the nations are punished because they have not recognized the Lord as YHWH. In both cases, their judgments will lead to purification. But, Israel receives special blessings because of her relationship to YHWH. All of these running themes are present throughout the Zephaniah.

Day of the Lord in Zephaniah

The Day of the Lord is an important aspect to the book of Zephaniah. All of what is prophesied in the book hinges upon this “Day”. Therefore, it is important to have a correct interpretation of what the Day of the Lord consists of. There are aspects concerning the Day of the Lord that need to be addressed for will relate back to its use as seen in Zephaniah.
First of all, a general definition of the Day of the Lord is an eschatological time period where the Lord will physically judge Israel and the nations, then restore and bless them. God’s specific and direct divine intervention is one major aspect of this Day. Greg King demonstrates this intervention on the Day of the Lord by outlining Zephaniah in this way. First, the nearness of the Lord is implied (1:7). The prophet is calling the people to be silent before Him as His day approaches, suggesting not only the nearness of the Day, but also the nearness of the Lord Himself; the imminence of His presence. Second, the repeated use of the phrase “I will punish” conveys a sense of personal involvement. The root of the Hebrew word reveals this personal involvement. Keller says that the word "signifies simply to inspect, to control and if need be, to intervene in one manner or another in order to reestablish the order."[5] Therefore, the intervention of God is depicted through the use of the phrase “I will punish.” Third, Zeph. 1:12 gives a vivid picture of God’s intervention in the Day of the Lord. God Himself is the one who is doing the searching out.[6] The Lord does not use executioners as in Ezekiel 9:1-6, nor does He use His living Word as in Zechariah 5:1-4, but Yahweh Himself will accomplish the task. Fourthly, the series of “I will’s” in Zephaniah clearly reveals the intervening involvement of the Lord on His Day. YHWH is the one who brings to pass everything on that Day; He is the initiator and accomplisher. This direct involvement of the Lord trumps any belief that any of the Jews held about YHWH being passive or unconcerned toward the events of His world. Those who think that “the Lord will not do good, nor will He do ill” (Zeph. 1:12) will be greatly surprised.
Another aspect of the Day of the Lord is His sovereignty over all the affairs. His sovereignty extends not only to Judah, but also to all the nations and all of creation. From the beginning of the book, the Lord’s sovereignty is shown in his ability to sweep away everything from the earth, and His complete control over Judah and the nations to judge them because of their disobedience to Him. Again this judgment upon the nations, Judah, and the world is restated followed by God’s decision to purify and restore, not because of the good of man, since they were set in their destination for destruction, but because it was in the Lord’s will to save them. The Lord slovenly in His Day is expressed through the entirety of the book. Also, YWHW superiority is also stressed throughout the book. 2:11 reveals that He shares glory with no one, therefore He will “famish all the gods” so that the nations will not worship these gods, instead they will only worship Him. In 2:13-15, the Lord deals with a people who believe themselves to be gods. Nineveh dwelt securely; it trusted in its self. King precisely points out that “trust reposed in any object other than God will end in shame (Pss. 115:3-11; 118:5-9; 146:3-5).”[7] They thought of themselves as the ultimate superior v.15, which would be equivalent to calling one’s self God. Therefore, Nineveh was destined for destruction for they challenged the superiority of Lord.
A third main aspect to the Day of the Lord as seen in Zephaniah is twofold, namely, universal/ specific judgment and restoration or salvation. These two events together compose the whole of the Day of the Lord; either there is judgment upon the Judah or the nations, or there is restoration for Judah or the nations. This is clearly seen in Zephaniah. The basic outline of the book is as following: judgment upon the world, judgment upon Judah, Judgment upon the nations, judgment upon Jerusalem, judgment upon the world, restoration of the world/nations, restoration of Judah. Judgment and restoration are distinct from each other, yet there are unified in their purpose to fulfill God’s will.
A fourth aspect to the Day of the Lord is the covenantal interplay. The Mosaic covenant, specifically Deuteronomy 28 and 30, is fleshed out in the Day of the Lord. This covenant between Israel and God gives way for curses for the disobedience of Israel and blessings for obedience, and restoration for Israel when they repent. Zephaniah closely links this relation of the covenant to the Day of the Lord. King quotes Zeph. 1:15 and uses the words “darkness”, “clouds”, and “thick darkness” to resemble YWHW’s appearance on Sinai when He gave the covenant (Deut. 4:11; 5:22-23).[8] Only one other place in the bible are these same words used together in such a way: Joel. And even Joel uses these words to describe the Day of the Lord, which suggests that he also had the covenant in mind. Another point that supports the interplay of the mosaic covenant is the emphasis on idolatrous worship. Practices such as worship of the stars, which was common in Zephaniah’s day (Zeph. 1:5), were explicitly forbidden (Deut. 17:3). The people were following other gods (Zeph. 4-5) when they were only suppose to seek after YWHW (Deut. 6:13-14). Also, there is parallelism between Zephaniah 1:13, 17 and Deuteronomy 28:30, 39; 28-29, which is concerned with the curses that come upon Israel for their disobedience. Along with Israel, the nations receive curses for their disobedience, too (Zeph. 2:4-15; Deut. 29:23). Then restoration of Israel after judgment (Zeph. 3:9-20) is related directly back to Deuteronomy 30:3, 4, 9. King also notes that “Yahweh's pledge to grant His people praise and renown among all the peoples of the earth (Zeph. 3:19-20) compares closely with the same pledge in Deuteronomy 26:19.”[9] Jeremiah 13:11 is the only other passage that includes these words “praise” and “renown”.

[1]Adele Berlin, Zephaniah: a New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. (New York: Doubleday, 1994). 64

[2] Charles Feinberg, The Minor Prophets. (Chicago: Moody), 1978.

[3] Ben Zvi, "Understanding the Message of the Tripartite Prophetic Books." (University of Alberta. ATLA Serials). 96

[4] Ibid.

[5] Carl Α Keller, “Zephaniah”. Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah,

[6] Greg A. King, "The Day of the Lord in Zephaniah."

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.