Background to the Book of Zephaniah (Historical Background)
The three chapters which make up the Book of Zephaniah contain all the major themes of the bigger prophetic books: judgement because of apostasy (going after pagan gods) and because of unjust practices, a call to repentance, judgement of foreign nations, the Day of the Lord, indictment of the leaders, judgement against Jerusalem followed by transformation and salvation for the city and people. Rex Mason thinks it is 'one of the most politically, socially and religiously radical of the prophetic books of the Old Testament.' (Mason: 55)
The superscription (Zephaniah 1:1) sets the time in the first part of the reign of Josiah. His grandfather, Manasseh, has been vilified as a very bad king in the Scriptures and Josiah's father Amon reigned only for two years before being assassinated by the people and Josiah put on the throne. He was eight years old. The words of Zephaniah reflect the faithless practices of the people from the time of Manasseh which Josiah later in his reign tried to correct by setting up sweeping reforms. The spoken oracles could have been in the period 635-625 BCE and later they were taken up and put into present written form. (see Literary below)
The genealogy of Zephaniah goes back four generations and is unique in the amount of information given to us. The suggestion that his father was an Ethiopian (Cush is synonymous with Ethiopia) is interesting. Although his grandfather and great-great grandfather have the same names as past and future kings of Judah, scholars do not think there is any relationship to royalty.
The name Zephaniah means 'Yahweh protects'. He is focussed on Jerusalem and is concerned about what is happening in the temple.
The book breaks up into the following sections and was probably quite deliberately structured in this way at the time the oral material was written down.
- Superscription - Zephaniah 1:1
- Judgement against Judah and Jerusalem and call to seek Yahweh - Zephaniah 1:2-2:3
- Oracles against foreign nations - Zephaniah 2:4-15
- Judgement and deliverance of Jerusalem - Zephaniah 3:1-20
There are close similarities to oracles and theology in Isaiah 1-39 and Amos.
Section 3 parallels other prophetic books which have chapters clustered together on the oracles against the nations - Amos 1-2, Isaiah 13-23, Jeremiah 46-51, Ezekiel 25-32.
The central theme of the 'Day of the Lord' parallels that in Amos in which the announcement is the opposite to what the people expect. The 'Day of the Lord' meant judgement on the foreign nations but both Amos and Zephaniah proclaimed the 'Day of the Lord' meant judgement on Israel and Judah as well as the other nations. This would have startled the listeners of the time to hear the judgement was meant for them.
The whole of the book is written in poetry which uses lots of play on words which can only be appreciated when read in Hebrew. Zephaniah 1:15-16a uses repetition to good effect. In other places powerful and dramatic images are used to make the point, for example, see Zephaniah 3:3 in which corrupt officials and judges are likened to 'roaring lions' and 'evening wolves'.
The Hebrew script is well preserved and confirmed by the Dead Sea Scrolls editions of Zephaniah.
Context of Zephaniah 3 (What's Happening in the Literature around Zephaniah 3)
This reading is part of the third section of the book - judgement and deliverance of Jerusalem. Zephaniah 3:1-8 begins with the judgement because the people have neither trusted or kept in relationship with God. Each of the categories of leaders are condemned, that is, officials, judges, prophets and priests. The purpose of the judgement was to bring the people to the realisation of their behaviour and enable them to correct their wrong ways. Instead they have continued to go their own way and judgement will be on all the earth. Zephaniah 3:9-13 has a change of direction in that God will act in a different way from the judgement in v.8 and he will remove only the rebellious ones leaving a remnant. This remnant will seek the will of God and live as the people of God in close covenant relationship. The consequence is behaviour which models the righteousness and justice of God.
This movement from judgement to a faithful remnant is the precursor to the exultant proclamation of Zephaniah 3:14-20
Insights/Message of Zephaniah 3 (Text & Literary Structure)
This ninth and concluding oracle is a direct response to what God has done for the people in vv.9-13 which says that God has kept a remnant who will be loyal and humble. Verses 14-20 sing praises to God acclaiming him as their King.
The verses are structured thus:
- vv.14-15 - a call to rejoice based on what God has already done
- vv.16-17 - Yahweh's people encouraged by Yahweh's anticipated triumph
- vv.18-20 - 1st person speech of Yahweh reiterating what he has done already and what he will do
The unit is in the form of a prophetic oracle thus giving it an authority which speaks to the people for whom prophets are the vehicle of the word of God.
Some scholars see the form as part of a communal victory setting indicated by the plural imperative commands to the people of Jerusalem (v.14). Verse 15 states the reasons why they can rejoice. Others see shades of an enthronement psalm and the author may have wanted to touch into both these forms in order to highlight the content of the message. The medium enhances the message. Certain phrases trigger memories for people of other occasions when rejoicing took place in their lives and so the form raises the expectation that this message is about celebration and rejoicing also.
When Yahweh speaks in the first person singular and states what will happen there is no doubt about it. God will ensure it happens. None of what is about to happen is dependent on the people's behaviour. It is called unconditional promise unlike the conditional Mosaic covenant in which the covenant could be broken when the people broke their side of it. An unconditional covenant spoken by God cannot be broken by the people's unfaithfulness.
Verse 18 is very difficult to interpret because the Hebrew is corrupt and we are very distant from the occasion which triggered the thought. Floyd renders the verse thus: 'Those from the Assembly who were sorrowful I have removed from you; they were a burden on her, a reproach.' (Floyd: 237).
The first person singular verbs which proclaim God's acts in vv.19-20 emphasis the salvific acts which will occur: 'I will remove', 'I will deal', 'I will save', 'I will gather','I will change', 'I will bring you home', 'I will gather you together', 'I will make you renowned', I restore your fortunes'. There are no doubts about God's intentions (CF Ezekiel 36:24-30).
Message / Theology
'The city is addressed, using ritual terms of endearment, Sing aloud O daughter of Jerusalem' (Bennet: 702). God has done two things to bring about the present celebration: taken away the judgement they deserved and cast out their enemies. Interesting whether the enemies are the ones who led them astray, such as their leaders, or the oppressive foreign nations. God is their king which is a reminder of the time before the people asked for a king. God was always meant to be sufficient as their king according to the Deuteronomists. The assurance that God is 'in their midst' repeated twice is the guarantee that all will be well and the twice repeated phrase that they will 'fear no more' is a consequence of God in their midst.
The structure of vv.19-20 give an incredible hope which is based on God's unconditional love for his people. At a time when the people were feeling hopeless, maybe in the time of exile, it announces they have suffered enough and judgement is finished. God will be in their midst and all will be well. He will bring them home and they will no longer feel the shame of exile.
In the Christian context of Advent when we are celebrating the coming birth of Christ it is also a time of great rejoicing, praise and thanksgiving that God chose to enter into the world in human form and offer a new form of relationship. God is indeed in our midst and we celebrate this because we no longer have to fear and can live in the full knowledge of God's love for us. As the proclamation in Zephaniah 3 declares that God has taken away their judgements so Christians believe that God in Christ bore the sins of the world on the cross. Again as in Zephaniah, God acted not because we deserved it, but out of love chose to come into the world in a human form of a babe.
The celebratory song in Isaiah 12:2-6 complements the Zephaniah reading beautifully.
OT images/motifs used in the New Testament reading: Luke 3:7-18. The phrase 'the wrath to come' (v.7) finds its roots in the prophetic traditiion of Isa 13:9, 30:27 and Zeph 2:2 in which people who oppose God will be punished. The reference to Abraham in v.8 is one quite frequently used in the New Testament. However, the coupling of this with the reference to stones is quite unique in the Old Testament and found in Isa 51:1-2. It is intersting to see the use of stones along with the concept of fruitfulness and progeny. Luke makes the point that being an ancestor of Abraham is no longer enough and now one has to repent and belong to God. The image of the vine that does not bear good fruit and has to be cut out is one quite familiar to Old Testament readers. In this case v.9 seems to make a direct reference to Isa 10:33-34, in which oince again the axe will fall fall on those who refuse to turn back to God. Verse 16 with its reference to 'the one who comes' alludes to Mal 3:1 (last week's OT reading) and the messianic figure of Ps 118:26. The baptism which is 'with the Holy Spirit and fire' is one baptism and not two. Both fire and the spirit can be associated with judgement and so leads into the judgement statement in v.17. Luke knows Isa 30:27-28 & 32:15 which inform other Lukan passages.
Resources/Worship for Zephaniah 3 (Worship and Ways to present Zephaniah 3)
I am repeating a similar message to the previous weeks because I am disturbed when the Old Testament context is ignored.
I think it is essential to put Zephaniah 3:14 - 20 into the context in which it was intended and help congregations to understand that the message which was intended for the people of that time before moving into the Christian view. If the verses are taken out of context it is very easy to impose meaning on the text which fails to take into account its original audience. We must treat the text with integrity before asking the question: how does this speak to us in a Christian context? We are celebrating because God has come in human form and is the midst of us.
The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the Book of Zephaniah, the author is Rex Mason, 1994 (Zephaniah Habakkuk, Joel).
The New Interpreter's Bible is another very helpful resource and published in the 1996 is more up to date than some earlier works.
Achtemeier, Elizabeth. Nahum - Malachi. Interpretation. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1986.
Bennett, Robert. Zephaniah. NIB. Nashville: Abingdon Press. 1996.
Berlin, A. Zephaniah. AB. New York: doubleday, 1994.
Floyd, Michael. Minor Prophets: part 2. Grand Rapids, Micah: W.M.Eerdmans, 2000.
Roberts, J.J.M. Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah. OTL Louisville: Westminster/Kohn Knox Press, 1991.
Smith, Ralph. Micah - Malachi. WBC 32. Waco, Tex.: Word, 1984.
The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989
Web sites with helpful lectionary resources: