Introduction to Zephaniah
The book of Zephaniah contains both dark pictures of impending doom on Judah and also bright glimpses of a glorious distant future under the reign of Messiah. It is a beautifully written study in contrasts, with both severe warnings and glorious promises.
Zephaniah himself prophesied during the reign of Josiah, and thus was a contemporary of Jeremiah. It seems likely that his warnings may have contributed to the revival that took place under Josiah, and thus were written during the early years of his reign. Jeremiah then came on the scene during the later years of both Josiah and Zephaniah.
Zephaniah’s name means “Jehovah has treasured.” Zephaniah was, according to his introductory verse (Zephaniah 1:1), a great, great grandson of good king Hezekiah, and so was in Judah’s royal family. He presumably lived and prophesied in Jerusalem.
In addition to prophesying of Judah’s coming judgment because of her own wickedness, Zephaniah foretold imminent judgments on other nations that were even more wicked—including Philistia (Zephaniah 2:4-7), Moab and Ammon (Zephaniah 2:8-11), Ethiopia (Zephaniah 2:12) and especially Assyria (Zephaniah 2:13-15). Nevertheless his book closes with a wonderful prophecy concerning the future Messianic kingdom when all nations will serve the Lord, and restored Israel will finally be “a name and a praise among all people of the earth” (Zephaniah 3:20).
1:1 Zephaniah. Zephaniah lists more of his ancestry than any other prophet. Apparently his great great grandfather was good king Hezekiah (same as Hizkiah); he himself ministered in the days of good king Josiah, and thus was an older contemporary of the prophet Jeremiah. His preaching may even have prepared the way for the brief revival under Josiah (II Chronicles 34:3-7).
1:2 utterly consume. The burden of Zephaniah’s prophecy is the coming destruction of Judah and Jerusalem by the armies of Babylon. However, as is often the case with the prophets, near and far fulfillments are blended together, and one must be careful in distinguishing them. Much of his prophecy, especially Zephaniah 3:9-20, deals with the future glories of the kingdom age following the great tribulation.
1:7 day of the LORD. The term “day of the LORD” normally refers to the future period of God’s judgments against the earth because of man’s sin. It may also, as here, refer to a precursive fulfillment on a local scale. The ultimate fulfillment seems to be at Armageddon, when the angel of God will invite all the birds of the air as His guests to “the supper of the great God” (Revelation 19:17). He will also invite the birds to “my sacrifice” at the defeat of Gog’s army (Ezekiel 39:17-20).
1:12 lees. That is, “dregs” or “residue.”
1:14 near. The nearness of the day of the Lord must be understood in a relative sense. Even the precursive fulfillment of this prophecy by the Babylonian subjugation was still some fifty years in the future when Zephaniah wrote these words. The ultimate fulfillment in the end-times is actually the main focus here, with destructiveness and terror far worse even than the Babylonians imposed.
1:14 cry there bitterly. This assertion, “the mighty man shall cry there bitterly,” can (according to some Hebrew scholars) be modified by certain slight changes in the Hebrew text to read: “The mighty man is the Nazarene!” The despised village of Nazareth (John 1:46) was non-existent at the time of Zephaniah, so such a prophecy would have seemed meaningless to the people of his day; thus it is understandable that ancient copyists might have altered it slightly into its present form. If this supposition is correct, then the enigmatic statement of Matthew 2:23 “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene” is clarified (but see note on Matthew 2:23).
1:15 day of wrath. This verse and those immediately following must relate primarily to the ultimate “day of the LORD” still in the future. Note also Joel 2:1-2,30-31; Amos 5:18-20; etc. The coming invasion of Nebuchadnezzar would be a terrible holocaust to those experiencing it, but the future “time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jeremiah 30:7) would be so severe that “none is like it,” except as a precursive type.