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Zephaniah

 

Harperís Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition [book review], edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms, http://www.borders.com, or http://www.christianbook.com.

Zephaniah, the Book of, one of the books of the twelve ‘Minor Prophets’ in the ot. The prophecies of Zephaniah span the reign of King Josiah of Judah (640-609 b.c.). His is the first prophetic voice to be preserved for us in the Bible since the time of Isaiah and Micah (701 b.c.), and his prophecy forms God’s radical reaction to the idolatrous results of the reigns of Manasseh (697-642 b.c.) and Amon (642-640 b.c.) in Judah, with their mixing the worship of foreign gods with that of the true God of Israel. It is probable that Zephaniah was a member of that reform group of prophets and Levites who were responsible for Deuteronomy. Chapters 1 and 2 of his book probably date shortly after 640 b.c., while 3:1-17 may come from the period of 612-609 b.c., when it was clear that the reform measures of Deuteronomy had failed. 3:18-20 are probably an exilic, deuteronomic addition to the work.

OUTLINE OF CONTENTS

The Book of Zephaniah

I. Superscription (1:1)
II. Announcement of universal judgment in the Day of the Lord (1:2-2:4)

A. Judgment of the earth and of Judah and Jerusalem (1:2-6)
B. The coming Day proclaimed (1:7-13)
C. Description of the Day (1:14-18)

III. Picture of the judgment (2:5-3:8)

A. On foreign nations (2:5-15)

1. Philistines (west) (2:5-7)
2. Moab and Ammon (east) (2:8-11)
3. Egypt (south) (2:12)
4. Assyria (north) (2:13-14)

B. On Jerusalem (3:1-8)

IV. Promise of salvation (3:9-20)

A. For the remnant of Judah and Jerusalem (3:9-13)
B. The new people of Zion (3:14-17)
C. For the exiles in Babylonia (Deuteronomic addition; 3:18-20)

Zephaniah is the only prophet for whom four generations of ancestors are named, but it is doubtful that ‘Hezekiah’ in 1:1 refers to the Judean king of that name. We know nothing further about the prophet.

Central Message: The central message of Zephaniah is that the fire of God’s wrath is about to burn up a creation gone wrong (1:1-2; 3:9), but the announcement is directed principally to Judah and Jerusalem in the effort to call forth their repentance. The sins of the covenant people are four: their idolatry, represented by their worship of such foreign deities as the Canaanite baals (1:4), the Assyrian astral deities (1:5, 9), and the god Milcom of Ammon (1:5); their accommodation to foreign ways (1:8); their unethical action within their own society (1:9); and, above all, their indifference toward and unbelief in the God of Israel (1:12). This last is characterized as a ‘thickening upon their lees,’ a figure drawn from the process of winemaking, in which wine left too long on its sediment becomes thick and syrupy. The Judeans have become thus ruined, proclaims the prophet, because they no longer believe that God does anything in their world (1:12).

The Judeans and foreign peoples, who share their unbelief, will therefore be laid waste on the coming Day of the Lord, a concept rooted in the theology of Israel’s Holy Wars and dating from the time of the tribal federation (1220-1020 b.c.). In such theology, God was pictured as a Divine Warrior who fought on his people’s behalf to defeat their enemies. Popular theology in Israel therefore believed that the Day of the Lord would be a time when God would finally defeat all of Israel’s enemies, inaugurate his kingdom on earth, and exalt his covenant people. The prophets, beginning with Amos, however, announced that God would instead war against his covenant people for their sins against him. Zephaniah portrays this final war against Israel and all unbelievers more fully than does any other prophet.

The coming of the awful Day is described in Zeph. 1:14-16, a passage whose initial words were translated into Latin as Dies irae, developed into poetry, and then used in various Latin masses and numerous literary and musical works. The Day will open with a sacrifice, when God will consecrate his mysterious warriors (1:7), followed by the war cry of God as he wades into the fray (1:14). The battle will begin in Jerusalem’s commercial center (1:10-11) and from there spread throughout the earth. God will search out his enemies (1:12), leveling his covenant curses against his own people (1:13), and wasting the lands of foreigners to the west (2:4, 5-7), the east (2:8-11), the south (2:12), and the north (2:13-14), in short, over all the earth. No defense will be adequate against God’s war (1:16-18), and he will make a full and sudden end of all unbelievers (1:18).

Only repentance and casting oneself on the mercy of God can save Judah on that Day. Zephaniah therefore calls his compatriots to hold an assembly of fasting and repentance (2:1-3) that will evidence Judah’s humility, obedience, and righteousness or trust in the Lord (2:3). If Judah so repents, it may be saved (2:3). However, Judah and Jerusalem, symbolized by their corrupt leaders (3:3-4), refuse Zephaniah’s call, as they have always refused God’s correction through prophets and the Deuteronomic law (3:2), through military defeat (3:6), and through the evidence of God’s work in the natural world (3:5). The judgment upon God’s people is therefore inevitable. But a remnant of faithful will be preserved in Judah (2:7, 9) and will spread out over foreign lands. Within Jerusalem there will be left a humble, trusting, and righteous folk (3:9-13) who do no wrong. God will establish his kingdom over all the earth (3:14-17). Jerusalem will rejoice (3:14), and God will exult in the midst of it (3:17).

 

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