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Zephaniah, Theology of

Zephaniah, Theology of

Zephaniah, whose name, translated "Yahweh has hidden/protected, " indicating his parents' personal faith, was himself a faithful messenger to God's people. He prophesied during the reign of Josiah ( 1:1 ; 640-609 b.c.), the sixteenth king of Judah and one of its few good rulers. Zephaniah's faithfulness to God was challenged as he matured during or after the corrupt reigns of Josiah's grandfather, Manasseh, and his father, Amon. His conscientious Yahwism is clear from his clarion call of judgment. The book perhaps also underscores Zephaniah's piety by showing his genealogy of four generations going back to Hezekiah ( 1:1 ), another godly king of Judah, who was also an ancestor of Josiah. Zephaniah's association with these good kings could imply that he shares their godly qualities.

It is unclear when in Josiah's reign Zephaniah prophesied. Since pagan practices are condemned ( 1:4-9 ), many suggest a date prior to 621 b.c., the start of Josiah's religious reforms, calling the people back to a true worship of God. This is not necessarily the case, however, since calling for spiritual renewal and its actualization are two different and not necessarily contemporaneous things. These prophecies could come from later in Josiah's reign, calling the people to obey the same call to godliness to which their king had already responded.

There is theological significance in noting the practices condemned by the prophet. In the religious sphere these include apostasy ( 1:4-5 ), the worship of foreign gods, and abandoning the only true God. He also bemoans a lack of integrity on the part of civil and religious leaders, who exploit positions of trust for personal gain ( 3:3-4 ).

Even more invidious is the apathy of so many. As wine resting on its dregs stagnates ( 1:12 ), so many of God's people are lethargic in their faith. They do not in words deny God's existence, but rather deny his power in their actions, claiming him powerless, or at least inactive, in the history of Israel and in their personal lives. This is a supreme insult to the God who formed them as a nation and acted throughout Israel's history to preserve them. Even the angry questioning of God by Habakkuk and Job is preferable to this glacierlike, grinding boredom. As many marriages are ruined by loss of interest, often leading to infidelity, so these two manifestations of trouble are present in the life of the nation that was betrothed to God.

Because of these wrongs, and more, God turns against his people in judgment. Like a cuckold who finally reacts to continued perfidy, so Yahweh reacts against Israel. This time of reaction in judgment, called "the day of the Lord" or "that day, " is a theme that unites the prophetic collection (see, e.g., Zephaniah 1:7 Zephaniah 1:14 ; Zephaniah 3:11 Zephaniah 3:16 ). The "day" is not monolithic, but rather multifaceted. An early conception of it by Israel was as a time of blessing and well-being for them as God's people. God's enemies would be destroyed and those true to him treated well (see Amos 5:18 ). They soon found that this concept was simultaneously right and wrong. It was correct in that followers of God would be blessed but wrong since just because Israel had entered into a covenant relationhip with God at Sinai, their position as blessed people was not henceforth inviolable. While God was true to his covenant, there were also responsibilities for Israel which, if violated, resulted in judgment and loss of covenant blessing. Blessing was bound to obedience, not to a historical relationship. As Israel's history reminded her, and as we need to preach today, there is no second-generation child of God. Faithful ancestors do not assure including the next generation in the covenant. Only fidelity to the covenant can do that.

The day is not only one of judgment, however, but also and simultaneously a day of hope and blessing. Israel was right. Fortune will follow fidelity, so if the latter were restored, the former would follow. Therefore, in addition to Zephaniah's severe warnings of judgment (1:2-3:8), there are also promises of hope ( 3:9-20 ). God is both a God of justice and holiness, exacting judgment upon those who oppose him, and also a God of love and compassion, showing these to his faithful followers. Judah is called to abandon her practices as opponents to benefit from his compassion. Instead of abandoning God, Judah is to return to him ( 2:3 ), abandoning apathy and syncretism for humility and right living.

The day of the Lord is also shown as international and not just parochial, since judgment will descend on other nations also (Philistines, 2:4-7 ; Transjordanian Moabites and Ammonites, 2:8-11 ; Ethiopians or Egyptians, 2:12 ; or Assyrians, 2:13-15 ; cf. more generally, 3:6-8 ). All powers, great or small, are under the power and authority of God. This is in stark and ironic contrast to the denial of this same God by his own people of any power or interest in the world ( 1:12 ).

Even more encompassing than the day of the Lord in the structure of Zephaniah is "the Lord" Yahweh himself. His name is not only in the book's opening phrase; it is also its final word, forming an envelope providing the parameters within which Zephaniah's whole message must be viewed. Zephaniah's prophecies in particular, and indeed all of Scripture, are theocentric.

The divine name "Yahweh, " used often in Zephaniah, is theologically significant. Anachronistically translated "Lord" in most English versions, it is God's personal, covenant name revealed to his own people ( Exod 6:2-3 ). Not the universal, impersonal "God, " it connotes intimacy, being restricted to those closely related to God. This is doubly significant in these prophecies of judgment and hope. Judgment follows transgressing the intimate relationship into which the people and their ancestors had voluntarily entered. Their judge is not an impersonal unknown, but one with whom they were intimate and had personally wronged. In spite of the wrong, and the punishment God must dispense, he still reveals himself to Judah as Yahweh, their loving covenant God even though he must punish Israel because she has abandoned him. He cannot abandon them or break his covenant. If the people would only hear, the very name by which he presents himself to them in this judgment is an offer of continued love and hope.

David W. Baker

See also Day of the Lord, God, Christ; God; Israel; Prophet, Prophetess, Prophecy

Bibliography. E. Achtemeier, Nahum-Malachi; D. W. Baker, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah; J. J. M. Roberts, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Zephaniah, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.