According to the genealogy that is stated in 1:1, Zephaniah was in the lineage of the Davidic kings. He was a prophet to Judah, ministering sometime during the restoration of King Josiah (690 – 640 B.C.). He was a prophet of love and judgment, and thus describes the judgment of the great day of the Lord that would eventually come to the southern kingdom of Israel. However, in the context of a dim future, Zephaniah gives hope for the future glory of the people of God.
A. Historical/social background:
Judah’s sister to the north had already been taken into Assyrian captivity in 722/21 B.C. The Assyrian Empire grew until it reached its zenith under the reign of Assurbanipal. However, when he died in 626 B.C., the empire began a rapid decline. At the same time in history, and under the kingship of Nabopolassar, the Babylonian Empire was rising to the south of Assyria. A major battle between the Assyrians and Babylonians eventually took place in 612 B.C., which battle marked the beginning of the end of the Assyrian Empire. After the battle, a remnant of Assyrians fled to the city of Carchemish in order to join forces with the Egyptians. However, the Babylonians pursued them, and at the battle of Carchemish in 605 B.C., the Assyrians were finally subjected to the rule of the Babylonians and the Egyptians defeated. The Babylonians were now the prominent empire of the Middle East, which empire God would later use to bring judgment on Judah.
It was during these years when the Assyrian Empire was coming to a close that Josiah became the king of Judah (2 Kg 22). He was the young king of restoration. After a copy of the book of the law was found during some reconstruction work on the temple, Josiah set his course to eradicate Judah of foreign gods and idols, and restore the offerings according to the law of God. In order to do this, he had to destroy everything that was associated with idol worship.
And they broke down the altars of the Baals in his [Josiah’s] presence. And the images that were on high above them, he cut down. And the wooden images and the carved images and the molten images, he broke in pieces. And he made powder of them and scattered it on the graves of those who had sacrificed to them. And he burned the bones of the priests on their altars and cleansed Judah and Jerusalem (2 Ch 34:4,5).
Josiah initiated a great restoration to the authority of the law of God throughout Judah. And because of his zeal to restore Judah, God promised that he would go to his grave in peace, meaning that no one would usurp his authority as king. Neither would Jerusalem suffer the invasion of the Babylonians during his lifetime (2 Ch 34:28).
Being a young and zealous person, however, Josiah met his death in battle with Pharaoh Necho who came up from Egypt to help the Assyrians in their war against the Babylonians. In 609 B.C., and in his efforts to stop Necho from joining the forces with a remnant of Assyrians, Josiah was killed in battle (2 Ch 34:20-25). His legacy of restoration, nevertheless, was recorded in 2 Chronicles 34:33:
Then Josiah took away all the abominations out of all the country that belonged to the children of Israel. And he made all who were present in Israel to serve, even to serve the Lord their God. And all his days they did not depart from following the Lord, the God of their fathers.
Josiah’s restoration was too brief to change the religious culture of the people. Only in his days did the people serve the Lord. When he died, Judah’s spiritual and moral behavior plummeted. It was only twenty-three years after his death that God terminated the theocratic nation of Israel in Palestine. In 586 B.C. the Babylonians besieged and conquered Jerusalem, and the last captives of Israel were taken into captivity. This date ended forever the independent theocratic state of Israel in Palestine. Though a remnant of faithful Israelites would return to the land after the Babylonian captivity, Palestine would after 586 B.C. always be an occupied land governed by foreign powers. Zephaniah’s message of judgment and hope was proclaimed possibly during the latter years of Josiah’s reign, for he prophesied of the great day of the Lord that was coming in only a few years.
Zephaniah stood up and proclaimed, “The great day of the Lord is near! It is near, and coming very quickly. Listen! The cry of the day of the Lord” (Zp 1:14). The day of the Lord was a day of judgment. And since it was only a little over twenty years in the future, it was near. Zephaniah was speaking of judgment in time. And for biblical interpreters, he defines the “day of the Lord” to be the judgment of God in time.
In his message to the people, Judah was charged with digression into sin (See Zp 1 – 2:3). She would be judged for her rebellion against God. However, Zephaniah also speaks against the surrounding nations who inflicted suffering on the people of God (Zp 2:4-15). Once God had judged all the nations that brought suffering on His people, He would restore a remnant of His people to their land. While all the surrounding nations would be terminated from history, Israel would survive (Zp 3).
[Don’t miss Zephaniah’s preaching tomorrow.]