Zephaniah: the Man
Zephaniah was an ancient prophet to the Kingdom of Judah. He specifically prophesied to the inhabitants of the capital city of Judah, Jerusalem. He authored one of the books of the Minor Prophets, known as the Book of Zephaniah in our modern day Old Testament or Hebrew Bible.
Zephaniah is also known as Tzfanya in modern Hebrew. When translated from the Latin Vulgate or Greek Septuagint, Zephaniah is often written as Sophonias. It is appropriate that Zephaniah means “the Lord hides” because Zephaniah 2:3 says, “Seek ye the LORD, all ye meek of the earth, which have wrought his judgment; seek righteousness, seek meekness: it may be ye shall be hid in the day of the LORD’s anger.”
Zephaniah's Jewish Lineage
Zephaniah was the great-great grandson of King Hezekiah, the ruler of the Kingdom of Judah between 715 and 687 BC. His father’s name was Cushi, which means Ethiopian. Zephaniah may have included a longer personal history, compared to some of the other minor prophets, at the beginning of his book to prove that he was of Jewish descent.
Zephaniah Prophesied Just Before the Babylonian Exile
Zephaniah: the 4 Biblical Characters with the Same Name
There are 4 Zephaniahs in the Bible.
- The prophet and author of the Book of Zephaniah.
- An ancestor of the prophet Samuel (1 Chronicles 6:36)
- The father of the priest living in Jerusalem when King Darius declared the temple should be rebuilt. (Zechariah 6:10)
- The second priest in the reign of Zedekiah; the son of Maaseiah who was put to death by the king of Babylon with some of the other captive Jews. (2 Kings 25:21; Jeremiah 21; Jeremiah 29; Jeremiah 37; Jeremiah 52)
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A Russian Icon of Zephaniah
The Time in Which Zephaniah Preached
Zephaniah preached to the people of Judah during the reign of King Josiah, who reigned between 640 and 609 BC. This means his prophecy was published a relatively short time before the first deportation of the Jewish people into exile in Babylonia, which occurred in 597 BC. Jerusalem was destroyed entirely 10 short years later, in 587 BC. He was a contemporary of the prophets Jeremiah and Nahum.
The Religious Culture Zephaniah Addressed
There were two kings between Zephaniah’s great-great grandfather, King Hezekiah, and the king under whom Zephaniah prophesied, King Josiah: King Manasseh (687-642 BC) and King Amon (642-640 BC). During King Amon and King Manasseh’s reigns, the cult worship of Baal, Astarte, Milcom and other deities had begun in Jerusalem.
- Baal was the Phoenician God of thunder and fertility.
- Astarte, also known as Ishtarte, was the Babylonian and Assyrian Goddess of love and war.
- Milcom, also known as Molech, was the fire God of the Ammonites. He was worshiped by “passing children through the fire,” or offering human children as burnt offerings.
The worship of these Gods had even been brought into the temple sanctuary in Jerusalem, the most sacred space in the Kingdom.
King Josiah's Religious Reforms
One of the most important parts of Jewish religious law is the 10 commandments. The first commandment being: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Thus, a loyal believer of the Jewish religion would consider worshiping Baal, Astarte idolatry and desecrating to their temple.
King Josiah, a devout Jew, sought to bring about religious reforms. According to 2 Kings 21, he began the process of bringing the temple into full repair in 630 BC. As these repairs were made, Hilkiah, the High Priest, found a lost copy of the Book of the Law. This lead King Josiah to fear that God was about to pour His wrath upon his people for their idol worship. He sent his priests to pray and seek their standing before God. Hilkiah and several others sought the prophetess, Huldah. Huldah prophesied destruction on the Kingdom of Jerusalem because of their idolatry, but told the priest to return and tell the King that the Lord had promised that because the King had repented and humbled himself, he would die before the destruction of Jerusalem occurred.
King Josiah then read the book of the law to the people and they established a covenant, a treaty between the people and God, that they would obey the law. King Josiah then commanded all the vessels that had been made for Baal, the grove that was for worshiping Astarte and for all other images and Gods to be burned. He had Topheth, where people sacrificed their children to Molech, destroyed. He had the altars dedicated to other Gods throughout the kingdom destroyed. He also had all idolatrous priests who had burned incense to Baal, the sun, the moon, the planets, or any other Gods killed.
In 622 BC, he commanded the people to keep the Passover and tried to get his people to keep the covenant they had made with God to follow what was written in the book of the law. This is the best guess for the time that Zephaniah wrote his prophecy. Zephaniah was a great champion of Josiah’s reforms. His writings sought to convince the people to do as King Josiah wanted and to reform, repent and turn back to Yahweh or Jehovah from their idolatry.
The end of Chapter 23 in Kings explains that because the people wouldn’t repent and turn away from their idolatry entirely, despite the best efforts of Josiah and Zephaniah, Jerusalem would be destroyed. Zephaniah’s writings contain a similar message.
Zephaniah Chapter 1 starts with the Lord telling Zephaniah that He is going to utterly destroy the wicked. He is going to destroy man and beast, fowls of the heavens, fishes of the sea, and the idols of the wicked. He is going to strike Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and cut off Baal and the idolatrous priests in Jerusalem. The Lord says He will smite those who worship idols on altars on their rooftops, those who pass their children through the fire to Molech and those who have not sought Him.
In verse 7 the Lord tells Zephaniah to hold his peace, for the day of the Lord, the time of destruction, is at hand. He then continues listing groups that He will destroy, including: those who walk proud in fine apparel and allow the needy to go without, those who plunder and pillage. He foretells wailings and cries that will come up from various parts of Jerusalem as the destruction occurs.
In verse 12 we learn that not only are the idolaters in danger, but those who are complacent in their religious observances to God are as well. The first chapter ends by saying the day of destruction is near, time to repent and clear your standing before God is running out. And, when time runs out, there will be nothing that can save those who have not repented. Destruction is sure.
Chapter 2 begins with 3 verses begging the people of Jerusalem to repent. The Jews are counseled to gather together before the time given them to repent is past and worth nothing more than chaff in the wind. They are told to gather and become meek and righteous before the day of the Lord’s anger and destruction arrives and their time to seek His mercy is up.
The rest of the chapter 2 declares that the destruction isn’t just limited to Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah. Warnings are given to Philistia and the inhabitants of the coast. Moab and Ammon are told they will share the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. They are also told that they will be occupied by weeds and salt pits and become a perpetual desolation for their pride. The Ethiopians are told they will be slain by the Lord’s sword. Nineveh and Assyria will be destroyed and become a desolation and a dry wilderness. This prophecy is echoed by Nahum in the Book of Nahum, which was probably written no more than 10 years after the Book of Zephaniah.
Map of Israel and Surrounding Countries in Biblical Times (600-700 BC)
Chapter 3 shows that the destruction of Jerusalem that has been foretold in Chapters 1 and 2 is a type of the destruction that will come at the last days. Those who are filthy, fail to obey God, don’t receive correction, trust not in the Lord, and draw not near to God will be destroyed. We learn that when the princes are lions and the judges are wolves, and the prophets are wanton and the priests have polluted the sanctuary destruction is imminent, in any day. The Lord does no iniquity, but the wicked have no shame.
In verse 8 we learn that at the last day the Lord will gather Israel, which has already been scattered, and the Jews, which are about to be scattered. This gathering will be preparatory to the destruction of the wicked which will occur in the final days.
Verse 9 tells us that the curse resulting from the tower of Babel (Genesis 11) will be reversed by the gift of a pure language after the gathering at the last day. The remainder of the chapter tells the future Jews to rejoice because they will be gathered together and brought home again and the righteous will be spared the destruction at the final days.