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Book of Zephaniah

Book of Zephaniah
by Timothy Kenney, PhD

The ninth of the twelve Minor Prophets of the Canon of the Old Testament; preached and wrote in the second half of the seventh century BC. He was a contemporary and supporter of the great Prophet Jeremias. His name in Hebrew (Zephanja) means "the Lord conceals", or "the Lord protects." In Greek it is translated as "Sophinias." The only primary source from which we obtain our knowledge of the personality and the rhetorical and literary qualities of the Holy Prophet, is the short book of the Old Testament (containing only three chapters), which bears his name. The scene of his activity was the city of Jerusalem. His Feast Day is December 3rd.

As a prophet of Judah, Zephaniah identified himself much better than any other of the minor prophets, mentioning four generations of ancestors, back to Hezekiah, a good king who had made the people turn to Yaweh in the times of the prophet Isaiah. King Josiah, whose reforms inaugurated a period of renewal in Jerusalem, was not only a contemporary of Zephaniah, but a distant relative. Both men may have been friends and equally zealous supporters of a return to the true worship of Yaweh.

The intimate emotion that Zephaniah showed when he wrote about Jerusalem, indicates that he had grown up there and was deeply disturbed by having to prophesy its destruction. In the way that the Hebrew Scriptures are compiled, Zephaniah was the last of the prophets who wrote before the captivity. His prophecy constituted something like "the swan song" of the southern kingdom of Judah.

Along with Zephaniah, Jeremiah encouraged the revival directed by King Josiah. The Book of the Law had been found in the Temple. As a consequence, the land was purged of idolatrous practices and priests, the Temple was cleansed and thousands of sacrifices were offered to reestablish the Passover.

Few biblical prophets describe the wrath of Yaweh, or the joy of Yaweh, as vividly as Zephaniah. He sees Yaweh traveling the streets of Jerusalem with a lantern in order to find and punish the unholy (1:12); the prophecy that describes the Day of the Lord in 1:14-18 is impressive. A calling to repentance follows these passages. The first two and-a-half chapters prophesy a judgment of such dimensions that even nature is consumed (1:2,3); "in my zeal I will consume all the land (3:8)."

The repetitive use of the term "the Day of the Lord" indicates that the Book of Zephaniah contains a message about the end times. The Day of the Lord equals a determined day of time, when Yaweh will fulfill his purpose for humanity and the earth. The righteous will be rewarded with eternal blessing and the unholy will be punished with condemnation.

Amos was probably the first to utilize the term "the Day of the Lord" (Amos 5:18-20). Isaiah, Jeremiah, Obadiah and Joel referred to this as the day of judgment. In the New Testament, "the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 1:6) has the same significance.

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Brief chapter outline:

Chapter 1.

1:1-1:13 The Coming Judgment on Judah
1:14-1:18 The Great Day of the Lord

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Chapter 2.

2:1-2:15 Judgment on Israel's Enemies

Chapter 3.

3:1-3:7 The Wickedness of Jerusalem
3:8-3:13 Punishment and Conversion
3:14-3:20 A Song of Joy

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A detailed outline is below.

The book of the Prophet Zephaniah naturally contains in its three chapters only a sketch of the Prophet's fundamental ideas. The scheme of the book is as follows:

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Cahpter 1:

The threatening of the "day of the Lord", a Dies irae dies illa of the Old Testament. The judgment of the Lord will descend on Juda and Jerusalem as a punishment for the awful degeneracy in religious life (i, 4-7a); it will extend to all classes of the people (i, 7b-13), and will be attended with all the horrors of a frightful catastrophe (i, 14-18); therefore, do penance and seek the Lord (ii, 1-3).

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Chapter 2:

Not only over Jerusalem, but over the whole world (urbi et orbi), over the peoples in all the four regions of the heavens, will the hand of the Lord be stretched--westwards over the Philistines (4-7), eastwards over the Moabites and Ammonites (8-11), southwards over the Ethiopians (12), and northwards over the Assyrians and Ninivites (13-15).

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Chapter 3, 1-8:

The Prophet then turns again to Jerusalem: "Woe to the provoking, and redeemed city. . . She hath not hearkened to the voice, neither hath she received discipline"; the severest reckoning will be required of the aristocrats and the administrators of the law (as the leading classes of the civil community), and of the Prophets and priests, as the directors of public worship.

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Chapter 3, 9-20:

A consolatory prophecy, or prophetic glance at the Kingdom of God of the future, in which all the world, united in one faith and one worship, will turn to one God, and the goods of the Messianic Kingdom, whose capital is the daughter of Sion, will be enjoyed. The universality of the judgment as well as of the redemption is so forcibly expressed in Zephaniah that his book may be regarded as the "Orthodox Catholic Epistle" of the Old Testament.

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Chapter 3, also 9-20:

The last exhortation of Zephaniah also has a Messianic colouring, although not to an extent comparable with Isaias.

We now turn to the Book of Haggai in our next article.

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