Zephaniah Overview: Look Within, Look Around, and Look Ahead

9th Century Prophets 8th Century Prophets 7th Century Prophets Exilic Prophets Post-exilic Prophets


1. Name

The book is named after its prophetic author, Zephaniah, whose name means “Jehovah has hidden him.”

2. Theme

The day of desolation and the day of deliverance.

3. Purpose

To call the people of Jerusalem and Judah to repentance in the face of the Babylonian invasion and hope in a grand restoration after the time of destruction and exile.[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 1495.[/footnote]

4. Key verses

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 (Zeph. 2:3).

5. Key truths

• God used the Babylonians to bring severe judgment on Judah and many other nations for their sins.
• Humbly seeking God provides hope for protection from harm.
• The destruction of other nations would one day be to Israel’s advantage.
• God will purify Gentiles and Jews and grant them magnificent blessings after his judgment is complete.[footnote]Ibid.,1495[/footnote]


I. Author

Zephaniah is the only prophet introduced with such a long genealogy. His ancestry is traced back four generations to a person named Hezekiah (Zeph. 1:1). Although this Hezekiah is not specifically designated as the famous king by that name, it is likely that this is the reason for tracing the genealogy back this far. His royal lineage would have enabled him to gain access to royal circles and see the sins of Judah’s leaders which he decried. Against this identification of Hezekiah as the king, is the fact that no other genealogy connects these names, and also Hezekiah is not given the title “king of Judah,” although that might have been thought of as superfluous.
Although there was a priest in Jeremiah’s time of the same name (Jer. 21:1; 29:25), and although the prophet did use priestly vocabulary (Jer. 1:4-5,7-9; Jer. 3:4,18), there is no conclusive evidence that this priest was also the prophet Zephaniah.
His knowledge of Jerusalem’s topography would suggest that this was where he lived. He also refers to Jerusalem as “this place” (Zeph. 1:4).

Zephaniah has been called “the orator,” “the zealous,” and “the prophet of all nations.” Campbell Morgan dubbed him the prophet of “the severity and goodness of God.” He certainly was the “prophet of the wrath and mercy of God.”[footnote]J E Smith, The Minor Prophets (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992), Electronic Edition[/footnote]


II. Date

Zephaniah ministered during the reign of Josiah (640-609 BC). The latest possible date would be the fall of Nineveh in 612 BC, because from Zephaniah’s perspective that event was still in the future (Zeph. 2:13-15).
About 622 BC the discovery of the Law in the temple prompted widespread revival and reformation (2 Ki. 22:3-23:7). In light of his denunciations of syncretistic and Baal worship, it seems likely that Zephaniah prophesied before this period, encouraging Josiah to reform the church and nation. This would make him a contemporary of Nahum, Habakkuk and Jeremiah, and one of the last prophets to Judah before the nation fell to the Babylonians. Others argue for a later date based upon Zephaniah 1:4 which refers to the remnant of Baal worshippers. The view is that this indicates that the reforms had progressed so far that now there was only a remnant left. However, this tends to devalue the necessity of Zephaniah’s ministry.
Earliest date: 640
Latest date: 612
Most likely date: 630 BC

III. Historical Analysis

1. Chronology

Date Events
640-609 BC Josiah’s reign
622 BC Discovery of the law and national revival
612 BC Fall of Nineveh
605 BC First Babylonian invasion
586 BC Fall of Jerusalem
516 Restoration

2. Historical background

The Baal worship promoted by Manasseh and maintained by Amon had taken deep root in the lives of the people (Zeph. 1:4-5, 9; Zeph. 3:1-2,4,7).

Zephaniah is anticipating a disaster on “the Day of the Lord” that will affect the surrounding nations. He also expects the destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation of the population by a foreign enemy nation. On that day “the Lord’s sword” (Zeph. 2:12) would inflict severe destruction upon Jerusalem (Zeph. 1:4). However, he also looks forward to the survival and gathering of a remnant (Zeph. 3:10-20).

3. The invaders

The prophet clearly expects foreign invaders. But who were they? Although Assyria had vexed Judah for many years it began to decline from 630 BC onwards and Zephaniah seems to regard their power as already diminished (Zeph. 2:15). Some have argued for a Scythian invasion from the North on their way to attack Egypt. Archaeologists have found Scythian military hardware in the area. However, the Scythian military manoeuvres do not seem to match the scale of disaster that Zephaniah predicts will take place on the “Day of the Lord” (Zeph. 2:4-12).

The only realistic candidate for the source of the threat Zephaniah anticipates would be Babylon. The writer of Kings reports that the coming invasion by Babylon was already anticipated at the time of Josiah (2 Kings 22:15-20).

4. The “eleventh hour”

Just as God sent Hosea and Amos to sound a final message to Israel before Assyrian captivity, so he sent a last group of prophets (Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk and Jeremiah) to sound a last warning to Judah before the Babylonian captivity. The effects of the earlier messages of Isaiah and Micah had been swept away by the wicked reigns of Manasseh and Amon. Now, God in His grace, sends His last ambassadors.


IV. Literary Analysis

1. Comparative Outlines

Robertson Smith Dillard/Longman Pratt

(Zeph. 1:1)

Cosmic Judgment (Zeph. 1:2-18)

Call to Repentance
(Zeph. 2:1-15)

Reconstitution of God’s People
(Zeph. 3:1-20)

Looking Within: the sin of Judah
(Zeph. 1:1-2:3)

Looking Around: the sentence against the nations
(Zeph. 2:4-3:8)

Looking Ahead: the salvation of the remnant
(Zeph. 3:9-20)

Oracles Against Judah (Zeph. 1:2-2:3)

Oracles Against the Nations
(Zeph. 2:4-3:8)

Oracles of Salvation (Zeph. 3:9-20)

(Zeph. 1:1)

Divine Judgment
(Zeph. 1:2-18)

Hope of Salvation
(Zeph. 2:1-3)

Divine Judgment
(Zeph. 2:4-3:8)

Hope of Salvation
(Zeph. 3:9-20)

a. Looking within: The sin of Judah (Zeph. 1:1-2:3)

Oracle of Judgment (Zeph. 1:2-6)
Sentence: Nations and Judah will be judged.

Oracle of Judgment (Zeph. 1:7-13)
Sentence: The day of the Lord is near and punishment is coming to Jerusalem.

Oracle of Judgment (Zeph. 1:14-18)
Sentence: The day of the Lord will be terrible worldwide judgment

Call for Repentance (Zeph. 2:1-3)

The first section ends with a gracious call to repentance (Zeph. 2:1-3) in order to escape God’s wrath for their sins.

b. Looking around: The sentence against the nations (Zeph. 2:4-3:8)

Against Philistia (Zeph. 2:4-7)

Against Moab and Ammon (Zeph. 2:8-11)

Against Cush (Zeph. 2:12)

Against Assyria (Zeph. 2:13-15)

Against Jerusalem (Zeph. 3:1-5)

Against all nations (Zeph. 3:6-8)

Apart from preaching to Judah, Zephaniah also delivers a message to the heathen nations. They are held accountable to God for their sins and warned of His coming judgments.

c. Looking ahead: the salvation of the remnant (Zeph. 3:9-20)

Purification (Zeph. 3:9-20)

Rejoicing (Zeph. 3:14-17)

Restoration (Zeph. 3:18-20)

The prophet predicts a universal judgment in which only a small number of persons will be saved.

On the whole, Zephaniah is a fierce and grim book of warning about the coming day of the Lord. Desolation, darkness, and ruin will strike Judah and the nations because of the wrath of God upon sin. Zephaniah moves three times from the general to the specific: (1) from universal judgment to judgment upon Judah (Zeph. 1:1–2:3); from judgment upon surrounding nations to judgment upon Jerusalem (Zeph. 2:4-3:7); and from judgment and cleansing of all nations to the restoration of Israel (Zeph. 3:8-20). The two broad divisions of the book are the judgment in the day of the Lord (Zeph. 1:1-3:8), and the salvation in the day of the Lord (Zeph. 3:9-20).[footnote]Nelson’s complete book of Bible maps and charts (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]


V. Thematic Analysis

1. Divine judgment

The prophecy begins with an announcement of universal judgment (Zeph. 1:2-3), but quickly narrows its focus to Judah and Jerusalem (Zeph. 1:4-6). The prophet predicted that a terrible day of judgment was coming soon for Judah and the Gentile nations.

Three specific sins of Judah are denounced: idolatry (Zeph. 1:4), syncretism (Zeph. 1:5), religious indifference (Zeph. 1:6).

The theme of his message is that Jehovah is still firmly in control of all His world despite any contrary appearances, and that He will prove this in the near future by inflicting terrible chastisement upon disobedient Judah, and complete destruction upon the idolatrous Gentile nations.[footnote]G L Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Chicago: Moody Press, 1998), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

2. God’s Jealousy (Zeph. 1:18)

God’s jealousy is the fundamental reason behind His judgments. This jealousy is unlike human jealousy, in that it does not stem from insecurity, fear, or resentment. It is God’s just demand for exclusive loyalty and causes him to go to great lengths to secure an exclusive place in their hearts and lives.

3. The Day of the Lord

“The Day of the Lord” refers to any specific time when the Lord is glorious in victory – against foreign nations, or Israel herself. It may be in defeating all opposition to Israel, or it may be a day of destruction for those in Israel who have rebelled against the Lord. It is primarily in this latter sense that Zephaniah uses it. He emphasizes the imminence (Zeph. 1:2,3; Zeph. 2:4-15; Zeph. 3:8), universality (Zeph. 1:14ff) and terror of that day (Zeph. 1:17).

He describes it as “the day of the Lord’s sacrifice” (Zeph. 1:8a), “that day” (Zeph. 1:9,10; Zeph. 3:11,16), “that time” (Zeph. 1:12; Zeph. 3:19), “the great day of the Lord” (Zeph. 1:14), “the day of the Lord’s wrath” (Zeph. 1:18), “day of wrath” (Zeph. 1:15), “day of trouble and distress” (Zeph. 2:2,3) “day of destruction and desolation,” “day of darkness and gloom,” “day of clouds and thick darkness,” and “day of trumpet and battle cry” (Zeph. 1:15-16a).

Creation dissolves: the cosmos convulses and returns to the darkness of primeval chaos (Zeph. 1:2-3,15-18; Zeph. 3:6-8); the universe reverts to its lifeless and unformed state (Zeph. 1:3). Yahweh comes as a warrior (Zeph. 1:14-16) on that great day of holy war against evil. His presence is signalled by a blazing theophany (Zeph. 3:8). For Zephaniah this great Day was an imminent historical expectation. However, this historical act of divine intrusion also foreshadowed an eschatological judgment when sin would be abolished from the earth (Zeph. 1:3).[footnote]R Dillard and T Longman III, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 419.[/footnote]

Other prophets named the agent God would use to punish Judah. Zephaniah leaves the agent unnamed. However he leaves us in no doubt that the power behind the agent is God Himself (Zeph. 1:2-4,8-9,12,17; Zeph. 2:5,11,13; Zeph. 3:6,8). However, he also makes clear that just as God was the first cause behind their destruction, He was also the first cause behind the restoration of Judah and the salvation of the nations (Zeph. 3:9,12,18-20).

4. The people’s response (Zeph. 2:1-3)

Whereas Zeph. 1:2-18 emphasizes God’s actions, Zeph. 2:1-3 emphasizes the people’s actions. The first section of the book ends with a call for repentance as the way of hope for salvation from the destruction of the day of the Lord. The only hope for protection from divine judgment was to seek God in humility.

Perhaps you will be sheltered (Zeph. 2:3). The Lord’s promise of eternal salvation is certain to all who truly seek him. The prophet’s tentative words here expressed his hope that the “humble” remnant would find refuge from the imminent destruction of the Babylonians.

Repentance was the only way to avert disaster, and it was only the hinge of a door that might or might not swing open. Amos had recognized the tenuous nature of divine mercy (Amos 5:15), tenuous in the sense that there was no guarantee that repentance and mercy were like hand in glove or that one followed the other with mechanical precision. Yet that intangible “perhaps” of God’s mercy was far more preferable than the tangible effects of injustice and idolatry, which the society eagerly sought.[footnote]C H Bullock, An Introduction to the Old Testament Poetic Books (Chicago: Moody Press, 1993), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

Along with all this dire warning, there is also an appeal for repentance, addressed primarily to the remnant of Judah, rather than to the nation as a whole: “Seek ye Jehovah, all ye meek of the earth, that have kept his ordinances; seek righteousness, seek [i.e., aim at, practice] meekness [or humility]” (Zeph. 2:3). This appeal was the one to which Josiah’s sympathizers responded, even though they were unable to retain power in Judah after their hero’s untimely death in the battle of Megiddo (609 B.C.).[footnote]G L Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Chicago: Moody Press, 1998), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

The immediate purpose of the Book of Zephaniah is to warn Judah of approaching doom. The ultimate purpose is to warn all sinners and give encouragement to those who repent. While the book focuses largely on the theme of God’s wrath, it does hold out the promise of redemption and salvation for those who believe.

5. The remnant

While God’s wrath is set forth in terms of the Day of the Lord, His mercy is set forth in the preservation of a faithful remnant and the ultimate restoration of Jerusalem.

The remnant motif is found in many books of the Bible. When a group undergoes some catastrophe ordinarily brought about as punishment for sin, those who survive to become the nucleus for the continuation of the human race or the people of God are called the remnant. The future existence of the people of God focuses in this purified, holy remnant that inherits afresh the promises of God. The prophet holds open the possibility of surviving the Day of the Lord (Zeph. 2:3). The divine fury Zephaniah anticipates will purge the nation so that a sinless remnant will emerge (Zeph. 3:13); that remnant will be gathered from the nations, restored to the land and to divine favour (Zeph. 2:7; Zeph. 3:19-20). God’s purposes in choosing Israel will not be frustrated by the imminent outbreak of judgment, but will he realized in an elect remnant.[footnote]R Dillard and T Longman III, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 419.[/footnote]

As the prophet had offered the possibility of protection from Babylon upon repentance (Zeph. 2:1-3), he now turned his attention toward the promised future beyond the days of destruction. Judgment would be the prelude to restoration and purification, both in Israel and among the nations (Zeph. 2:9,12-13)

6. Jerusalem’s future restoration

Zephaniah 3 begins with a lament over Jerusalem’s guilt. The sins of the leadership in church and state are highlighted (Zeph. 3:1-5), as is failure of Jerusalem to react appropriately to past divine interventions (Zeph. 3:7).

However, though the short term future for Jerusalem is bleak the long-term future is bright Zeph. (3:9ff). The centrality of Jerusalem (Zeph. 3:10) and the humility of the inhabitants is stressed (Zeph. 3:11-12). Thoughts of the purity of Jerusalem in the future led the prophet to call for the city to rejoice in confident expectation of the fulfilment of God’s promises (Zeph. 3:14-17)

The purification and rejoicing would be followed by a full restoration of Jerusalem including abundant blessings for all its inhabitants (Zeph. 3:18-20).

The prophecy has thus moved from universal judgment to the universality of salvation in a judged world where the Abrahamic promise of a great name for his descendants has been realized in the gathered remnant, through whom the world, at large, is to be blessed.[footnote]W J Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 221-224.[/footnote]

Zephaniah closed his book with a message of hope. The day of God’s judgment would also bring God’s healing and restoration. The Lord would purify the lips of his people so they might serve him faithfully. He would remove the proud, exalt the humble, and give his people security in the midst of their land. Such blessings would normally cause God’s people to rejoice over him, but Zephaniah affirmed that God would rejoice over them! The prophet gave his people this glimpse into the future to motivate them to live lives pleasing to God.[footnote]B Arnold and B Beyer, Encountering the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 460-461.[/footnote]

7. The “I wills” of God

The book of Zephaniah closes with six beautiful ‘I wills’ of what the Lord will do for his people: (Zeph. 3:18-20).


VI. New Testament Analysis

1. Day of the Lord

Zephaniah refers to the “Day of the Lord” twenty times in three chapters. This is both a time of blessing for the faithful and a time of judgment for the unrepentant

This was partly fulfilled in the Babylonian exile and the Persian return from exile. However, these were only foretastes of a greater future “Day of the Lord” on a worldwide and eschatological scale

This was further fulfilled in Christ’s first coming. There was judgment on the Jewish nation for their rejection of the Messiah and there was blessing on the nations with the Gospel going out to the nations (Acts 2:20)

The final and complete fulfillment will be at the second coming of Christ when He will return to bless His people and punish his enemies. (Rom. 2:16; 1 Cor. 1:8; Phil. 1:6,10; Phil. 2:16; 2 Tim. 4:8). John describes the Warrior God coming with his armies to execute judgment (Rev. 19:11-16). Zephaniah had announced a terrible sacrifice that God himself would offer (Zeph. 1:7). The sacrifice here is the nation of Judah; the invited guests are the Babylonians who come as priests to cut and slay the Israelites, and the birds and beasts will feed on their carcasses (cf. Ezek. 39:17-20). John uses the same language to describe the Day of the Lord (Rev. 19:17-18).

For Zephaniah the Day of the Lord is a complex interweaving of momentous events (Zeph. 3:8-13). It is not possible to determine dogmatically which predictions relate, firstly, to the invasion by Babylon and the subsequent exile; secondly, to the return of the captives under the leadership of Zerub-babel and Ezra; thirdly, to the coming of the Messiah in his mission as the Saviour; or, fourthly, to the return of the Messiah in glory and judgement. The same complexity is evident 500 years later in the teaching of the Lord Jesus. Speaking of momentous events in the future, he interweaves the invasion of Jerusalem by the Romans, international confrontations, worldwide gospel preaching and his return ‘with power and great glory’ (Matt. 24:1- 25:46).[footnote]G Crossley, The Old Testament Explained and Applied (England: Evangelical Press, 2002), 762.[/footnote]

2. Delayed promises

The failures of the remnant who returned from Babylonian exile caused the fulfilment of the promises of Zeph. 2:7,9,11 to be delayed; it did not begin to be fulfilled until Christ’s first coming and will not come to complete fruition until Christ returns and gives dominion to his people in the new earth.

Along with other prophets Zephaniah looked to a day when all nations would acknowledge and worship the God of Israel (Zeph. 3:9-10). For the church, the new Israel composed of Jew and Gentile alike (Gal. 3:8-9,14,26-29), this is present reality. The church too lives with the hope that the world will yet acknowledge the rule of its true King (Phil. 2:9-11).[footnote]R Dillard and T Longman III, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 420.[/footnote]

3. The faithful remnant

Despite the judgment of God on the nation, a small number are kept faithful by God, a remnant according to the election of grace (Rom. 11:5).

The remnant of Israel shall not do iniquity, nor speak lies; neither shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouth: for they shall feed and lie down, and none shall make them afraid (Zeph. 3:13).

The New Testament refers to this prophecy and sees its fulfilment in the state of the redeemed in heaven.

And in their mouth was found no guile: for they are without fault before the throne of God (Rev. 14:5).

And there shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev. 21:27).

4. The wedding garment

It is possible that Christ may have been thinking of Zeph. 1:7-8 when he spoke the parable of the marriage feast (Matt. 22:1-14). A guest there was removed because he was not wearing the appropriate wedding garment. Zephaniah speaks of one being clothed with foreign apparel.


VII. The Message of Zephaniah

Original Message: Judah should fear her part in the judgment of the nations but should also rejoice in the promise of restoration and possession of the nations.
Present Message: The Church should fear her part in the judgment of the nations but should also rejoice in the promise of restoration and possession of the nations.