This man is no Amos: the shepherd prophet with no notable lineage or profession. Imagine, instead, a regal figure from royal blood, most likely of African descent, standing before the nation’s leaders and religious advisors (1).
The anonymous army promised by Amos had come to the Northern Kingdom. Assyria had obliterated Israel. Perhaps the kingdom to the south thought the real problem had been dealt with. True, they weren’t perfect. But they were the part of the country serious about following God.
Something miraculous had happened after Micah prophesied against the Southern Kingdom. The king (Hezekiah) had listened. “Micah’s powerful voice changed Hezekiah’s heart, reshaped Judah’s policies and so saved the nation from immediate catastrophe (cf. Jer. 26:17–19)” (2). Of course, the next king offended God more than ever. But now, the current king, Josiah, had implemented several aggressive reforms to again steer the nation back to God.
Again, miraculously, someone had found a scroll of Moses’ words from Deuteronomy in the temple as they were renovating it. The young king asked them to read him the words written on the scroll. And as the blessings and curses (Duet 27-28), and the foreboding song of Moses (Duet 32), rolled off their lips, King Josiah’s heart grew heavier and heavier. Finally, he tore his clothes, barking out orders, “Go, inquire of Yahweh for me and for the people and for all of Judah concerning the words of this scroll that was found. For the wrath of Yahweh that is kindled against us is great because our ancestors did not listen to the words of this scroll to do according to all that is written concerning us!” (2 Kings 22:13).
Here stands Zephaniah, a devout believer and elite member of society in the middle of a reform movement, most likely bringing some helpful insight for turning the place around. Maybe they nodded in satisfaction as one of their own railed against the cultures and countries surrounding them (2:4-15), as God threatened to turn the unassailable world power, Assyria, into a spooky abandoned house infested with animals (2:15). But their smiles turn upside down when he turns on them. They are ravenous lions and wolves, he says (3:3-4), as he blasts every level of leadership. He warns, God wasn’t going fix things (2:12). God was still going to work every morning, never failing to bring justice (3:5), and yet there was no level to which they would not stoop to do their own work instead of His! And now God’s about to wipe the slate clean with fire (1:2-3; 3:8). This man may have delivered the first “turn or burn” sermon (literally!).
Though other prophets spoke of the “Day of the Lord,” it is front and center for Zephaniah. The Day of the Lord is Yahweh’s Day, when He would unleash the consequences of people’s decisions, and their collective cultural impact. Since Moses, God had promised Israel blessings and curses depending on whether they listened to Him or not. Zephaniah now feels the tremors growing closer as a foreign army marches to invade, bringing chaos with them, bringing the exile Moses promised. They had already watched this promise come to pass in the northern kingdom. Now, it was their turn.
Zephaniah, whose name means “Yahweh has hidden,” echoes the words of the pagan king of Nineveh from the story of Jonah, when he says “Seek Yahweh, all you humble of the land, you who do what he commands. Seek righteousness, seek humility. Perhaps you will be hidden in the day of the Lord’s anger” (Zeph 2:3). With God’s cleansing inferno of justice also comes His purifying love. Just as always, God will use calamity to remove humanity’s impurities. As three young men–Daniel’s friends–will later discover when that foreign army finally arrives, the safest place to be when the fire comes is at the blazing center, talking with the one who himself is light (Dan 3), “no one to make them afraid” (Zeph 3:13). The southern kingdom would feel the blaze of that cleansing, holy, convicting fire . . . Would they still trust God, even after the painful purification? Or would they allow it to consume them? What about us?
- J. Daniel Hays, From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race, Series Ed. D. A. Carson, New Studies in Biblical Theology – 14, (Downers Grove, IL: Apollos, InterVarsity Press, 2003), 123.
- Bruce Waltke, “Micah,” from , Obadiah, Jonah and Micah: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 26, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 150.
Watch: Bible Project video on Zephaniah; Bible Project video on The Day of the Lord
Listen: Zephaniah 1-3