Bible Book Number 36—Zephaniah
Place Written: Judah
Writing Completed: Before 648 B.C.E.
1. (a) Why was Zephaniah’s message appropriate to his time? (b) How did the meaning of his name fit the situation?
EARLY in the reign of King Josiah of Judah (659-629 B.C.E.), at a time when Baal worship was running rampant and “the foreign-god priests” were taking a lead in this unclean worship, the people of Jerusalem must have been startled by the message proclaimed by the prophet Zephaniah. Though he was possibly a descendant of King Hezekiah of the royal house of Judah, Zephaniah was highly critical of conditions in the nation. (Zeph. 1:1, 4) His message was one of doom. God’s people had become disobedient, and only Jehovah could restore them to pure worship and bless them so that they might serve as “a name and a praise among all the peoples of the earth.” (3:20) Zephaniah pointed out that only by divine intervention might one “be concealed in the day of Jehovah’s anger.” (2:3) How appropriate his name Tsephan·yahʹ (Hebrew), meaning “Jehovah Has Concealed (Treasured Up)”!
2. How did Zephaniah’s efforts bear fruit, but why was this only temporary?
2 Zephaniah’s efforts bore fruit. King Josiah, who had ascended the throne at the age of eight, started in the 12th year of his reign “to cleanse Judah and Jerusalem.” He rooted out false worship, repaired “the house of Jehovah,” and reinstituted the celebration of the Passover. (2 Chron., chaps. 34, 35) King Josiah’s reforms were only temporary, however, for he was succeeded by three of his sons and one of his grandsons, all of whom did “bad in the eyes of Jehovah.” (2 Chron. 36:1-12) This was all in fulfillment of Zephaniah’s words: “I will give attention to the princes, and to the sons of the king, and to . . . those who are filling the house of their masters with violence and deception.”—Zeph. 1:8, 9.
3. When and where did Zephaniah prophesy, and what twofold message does the book contain?
3 From the above it appears that “the word of Jehovah . . . occurred to Zephaniah” sometime before 648 B.C.E., the 12th year of Josiah. Not only does the first verse identify him as speaking in Judah but the detailed knowledge he shows of the localities and customs of Jerusalem argue for his residence in Judah. The message contained in the book is twofold, being both threatening and consoling. For the most part, it centers around the day of Jehovah, a day of terror that is imminent, but at the same time, it foretells that Jehovah will restore a humble people that “actually take refuge in the name of Jehovah.”—1:1, 7-18; 3:12.
4. What proves the book of Zephaniah to be authentic and inspired of God?
4 The authenticity of this book of prophecy cannot be successfully disputed. Jerusalem was destroyed in 607 B.C.E., more than 40 years after Zephaniah had foretold it. Not only do we have secular history’s word for this but the Bible itself contains internal proof that this happened exactly as Zephaniah had prophesied. Shortly after Jerusalem’s destruction, Jeremiah wrote the book of Lamentations, describing the horrors he had witnessed, while they were still vivid in his mind. A comparison of several passages bears out that Zephaniah’s message is indeed “inspired of God.” Zephaniah warns of the need for repentance “before there comes upon you people the burning anger of Jehovah,” whereas Jeremiah refers to something that has already happened when he says, “Jehovah . . . has poured out his burning anger.” (Zeph. 2:2; Lam. 4:11) Zephaniah foretells that Jehovah “will cause distress to mankind, and they will certainly walk like blind men . . . And their blood will actually be poured out like dust.” (Zeph. 1:17) Jeremiah speaks of this as an accomplished fact: “They have wandered about as blind in the streets. They have become polluted with blood.”—Lam. 4:14; compare also Zephaniah 1:13—Lamentations 5:2; Zephaniah 2:8, 10—Lamentations 1:9, 16 and La 3:61.
5. How does history show that the prophecy of Zephaniah was accurately fulfilled?
5 History likewise reports the destruction of the heathen nations, Moab and Ammon as well as Assyria, including its capital Nineveh, just as Zephaniah had foretold at God’s direction. Even as the prophet Nahum foretold Nineveh’s destruction (Nah. 1:1; 2:10), so Zephaniah declared that Jehovah “will make Nineveh a desolate waste, a waterless region like the wilderness.” (Zeph. 2:13) This destruction was so complete that scarcely 200 years later, the historian Herodotus wrote of the Tigris as “the river upon which the town of Nineveh formerly stood.”a About 150 C.E. the Greek writer Lucian wrote that “there is not a trace of it left now.”b The New Westminster Dictionary of the Bible (1970), page 669, states that the invading armies “were greatly aided by a sudden rise of the Tigris, which carried away a great part of the city wall and rendered the place indefensible. . . . So complete was the desolation that in Greek and Roman times Nineveh became almost like a myth. Yet all the while part of the city lay buried under mounds of apparent rubbish.” On page 627 the same volume shows that Moab was also destroyed as was prophesied: “Nebuchadnezzar subjugated the Moabites.” Josephus also reports the subjugation of Ammon.c Both the Moabites and the Ammonites eventually ceased to exist as a people.
6. Why, then, does Zephaniah take a rightful place in the Bible canon?
6 The Jews have always given Zephaniah its rightful place in the canon of inspired Scriptures. Its declarations uttered in Jehovah’s name have been notably fulfilled, to Jehovah’s vindication.
CONTENTS OF ZEPHANIAH
7. What will the great day of Jehovah mean for his enemies?
7 Day of Jehovah at hand (1:1-18). The book opens on a note of doom. “‘I shall without fail finish everything off the surface of the ground,’ is the utterance of Jehovah.” (1:2) Nothing will escape, of man or of beast. Baal worshipers, foreign-god priests, rooftop worshipers of the heavens, those who mix Jehovah’s worship with Malcam’s, those drawing back from Jehovah, and those not interested in seeking him—all must perish. The prophet commands: “Keep silence before the Sovereign Lord Jehovah; for the day of Jehovah is near.” (1:7) Jehovah himself has prepared a sacrifice. Princes, violent ones, deceivers, and the indifferent at heart—all will be sought out. Their wealth and possessions will be brought to nothing. The great day of Jehovah is near! It is “a day of fury, a day of distress and of anguish, a day of storm and of desolation, a day of darkness and of gloominess, a day of clouds and of thick gloom.” The blood of those sinning against Jehovah will be poured out like dust. “Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to deliver them in the day of Jehovah’s fury.” The fire of his zeal will devour the whole earth.—1:15, 18.
8. (a) How may protection be found? (b) What woes are pronounced against the nations?
8 Seek Jehovah; nations to be destroyed (2:1-15). Before that day passes like the chaff, let the meek “seek Jehovah . . . Seek righteousness, seek meekness,” and it may be you will be “concealed in the day of Jehovah’s anger.” (2:3) The utterance of Jehovah continues, pronouncing woe on the land of the Philistines, which is later to become “a region for the remaining ones of the house of Judah.” Proud Moab and Ammon will be desolated like Sodom and Gomorrah “because they reproached and kept putting on great airs against the people of Jehovah of armies.” Their gods will perish with them. (2:7, 10) Jehovah’s “sword” will also slay the Ethiopians. What of Assyria, with its capital of Nineveh, to the north? It will become a barren wilderness and a dwelling for wild animals, yes, “an object of astonishment,” so that “everyone passing along by her will whistle” in amazement.—2:12, 15.
9. (a) Why is it woe to Jerusalem, and what is Jehovah’s judicial decision upon the nations? (b) On what joyful note does the prophecy end?
9 Rebellious Jerusalem called to account; humble remnant blessed (3:1-20). It is woe, also, to Jerusalem, the rebellious and oppressive city! Her princes, “roaring lions,” and her prophets, “men of treachery,” have not trusted in her God, Jehovah. He will call for a full accounting. Will her inhabitants fear Jehovah and accept discipline? No, for they act “promptly in making all their dealings ruinous.” (3:3, 4, 7) It is Jehovah’s judicial decision to gather the nations and pour out upon them all his burning anger, and all the earth will be devoured by the fire of his zeal. But, there is a wonderful promise! Jehovah will “give to peoples the change to a pure language, in order for them all to call upon the name of Jehovah, in order to serve him shoulder to shoulder.” (3:9) The haughtily exultant ones will be removed, and a humble remnant that does righteousness will find refuge in Jehovah’s name. Joyful cries, cheers, rejoicing, and exultation break out in Zion, for Jehovah the King of Israel is in their midst. This is no time to be afraid or to let hands drop down, for Jehovah will save and exult over them in his love and joy. “‘For I shall make you people to be a name and a praise among all the peoples of the earth, when I gather back your captive ones before your eyes,’ Jehovah has said.”—3:20.
10. Of what benefit was the prophecy of Zephaniah in King Josiah’s days?
10 King Josiah, for one, heeded Zephaniah’s warning message and benefited from it greatly. He embarked on a great campaign of religious reform. This also brought to light the book of the Law, which had been lost when the house of Jehovah fell into disrepair. Josiah was grief-stricken at hearing the consequences for disobedience read to him from this book, which confirmed at the mouth of another witness, Moses, what Zephaniah had been prophesying all along. Josiah now humbled himself before God, with the result that Jehovah promised him that the foretold destruction would not come in his day. (Deut., chaps. 28-30; 2 Ki. 22:8-20) The land had been spared disaster! But not for long, for Josiah’s sons failed to follow the good example he set. However, for Josiah and his people, their paying attention to “the word of Jehovah that occurred to Zephaniah” proved highly beneficial indeed.—Zeph. 1:1.
11. (a) How does Zephaniah tie in with the Sermon on the Mount and with Paul’s letter to the Hebrews in giving sound admonition? (b) Why does Zephaniah say “probably you may be concealed”?
11 In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Christ Jesus, God’s greatest prophet, supported Zephaniah as a true prophet of God by speaking words that are strikingly similar to Zephaniah’s counsel at chapter 2, verse 3: “Seek Jehovah, all you meek ones of the earth . . . Seek righteousness, seek meekness.” Jesus’ admonition was: “Keep on, then, seeking first the kingdom and his righteousness.” (Matt. 6:33) Those who seek first God’s Kingdom must guard against the indifference that Zephaniah warned about when he spoke of “those who are drawing back from following Jehovah and who have not sought Jehovah and have not inquired of him” and “who are saying in their heart, ‘Jehovah will not do good, and he will not do bad.’” (Zeph. 1:6, 12) In his letter to the Hebrews, Paul likewise tells of a coming day of judgment and warns against shrinking back. He adds: “Now we are not the sort that shrink back to destruction, but the sort that have faith to the preserving alive of the soul.” (Heb. 10:30, 37-39) It is not to the quitters or to the unappreciative ones but to those who meekly and earnestly seek Jehovah in faith that the prophet says: “Probably you may be concealed in the day of Jehovah’s anger.” Why “probably”? Because final salvation depends on the course of the individual. (Matt. 24:13) It is also a reminder that we cannot presume on God’s mercy. Zephaniah’s prophecy leaves no question as to the suddenness with which that day will break upon the unsuspecting.—Zeph. 2:3; 1:14, 15; 3:8.
12. What basis for courage does Zephaniah give for those who “seek Jehovah”?
12 Here, then, is a message foreboding destruction for those who sin against Jehovah but providing bright foregleams of blessings for those who repentantly “seek Jehovah.” These repentant ones may take courage, for, says Zephaniah, “the king of Israel, Jehovah, is in the midst of you.” It is no time for Zion to be afraid or to let hands drop down in inactivity. It is a time to trust in Jehovah. “As a mighty One, he will save. He will exult over you with rejoicing. He will become silent in his love. He will be joyful over you with happy cries.” Happy also are those who ‘seek first his kingdom,’ in anticipation of his loving protection and eternal blessing!—3:15-17.
a McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopedia, 1981 Reprint, Vol. VII, page 112.
b Lucian, translated by A. M. Harmon, 1968, Vol. II, p. 443.
c Jewish Antiquities, X, 181, 182 (ix, 7).