What Do We Learn about the Prophet Zephaniah in the Bible?

Contributing Writer
What Do We Learn about the Prophet Zephaniah in the Bible?

Zephaniah was one of several Old Testament prophets called to minister to the southern kingdom of Judah, specifically during King Josiah’s reign. As a spokesman for God (ironically, his name means “the Lord protects”), Zephaniah called God’s people to repentance and warned about coming judgment if the nation did not turn from its idolatry and immorality.

To some, Zephaniah’s prophetic message may seem harsh. However, his prophetic writings contain the promises of God’s ultimate blessing, mercy, and restoration. Even today, Bible readers can learn much from Zephaniah’s message and prophetic ministry.

Where Is the Book of Zephaniah in the Bible?

The book of Zephaniah records the prophet’s prophetic message and can be found in the latter half of the Old Testament—just after the book of Habakkuk and right before the book of Haggai.

These later books of the Old Testament record the message and ministry of the 12 minor prophets. The books are not necessarily arranged in chronological order. Most scholars believe that Zephaniah began his ministry around 630-627 B.C., roughly 25 years before King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon invaded Judah and began taking Jewish captives back to Babylon. Habakkuk ministered to the southern kingdom of Judah around 608-598 B.C. (around when the invasion and exile happened). Haggai ministered around 520 B.C. to the Jewish exiles who had returned from captivity to rebuild Jerusalem.

Given his ministry dates, Zephaniah would have prophesied shortly before or around the same time as the prophet Jeremiah (650-582 B.C.), most of his prophetic ministry occurring during Josiah’s reign over Judah (640 – 609 B.C.). However, the sins that Zephaniah addresses in Zephaniah 1:3-13 and 3:1-7 suggest that he delivered his prophetic message shortly before Josiah initiated his two major reforms (see 2 Chronicles 34:3-7, 2 Chronicles 34:8-35:19).

At the start of his book, Zephaniah writes that he is “the son of Cushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah” (Zephaniah 1:1). While scholars debate Zephaniah’s ancestry, the prophet seems to indicate that he is descended from King Hezekiah, the sixteenth king of Judah. Unlike most kings of Judah and Israel, Hezekiah was a righteous king. Zephaniah’s royal lineage not only distinguished him from all other Old Testament prophets. It also would have gained him an audience with Josiah.

Like many of the minor prophets, Zephaniah’s ministry time was relatively short, and his message was brief. Nevertheless, the divine word he delivered was purposeful and powerful.

Why Is Zephaniah Considered a Minor Prophet?

The label may lead us to assume that Zephaniah’s message and ministry aren’t as important as the major prophets (figures like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel).

Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. Mike Leake explains that the distinction between the major and minor prophets of the Old Testament wasn’t about significance. God did not favor the major prophets more, and the minor prophets were not less successful or important.

So why the distinction?

The simplest answer has more to do with length than anything else. The major prophets have the following number of chapters:

  • Isaiah (66)
  • Jeremiah (52)
  • Lamentations (5)
  • Ezekiel (48)
  • Daniel (12)

By contrast, the minor prophets have these many chapters:

  • Hosea (14)
  • Joel (3)
  • Amos (9)
  • Obadiah (1)
  • Jonah (4)
  • Micah (7)
  • Nahum (3)
  • Habakkuk (3)
  • Zephaniah (3)
  • Haggai (2)
  • Zechariah (14)
  • Malachi (4)

In the Hebrew Bible, the 12 minor prophet books were so small that they were initially combined into a single book, while Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel’s messages were long enough to stand alone. Most Bibles containing the Old and New Testament do not follow that rule. However, when we look at the books’ lengths, we begin to understand why we still call them minor or major prophets.

What Does the Book of Zephaniah Warn about God’s Judgment?

Of course, one of the most important questions about the prophet Zephaniah is, what did he prophesy?

Not every Old Testament prophetic word foretold coming events. God commissioned the prophets to deliver specific messages. Sometimes, those messages contained warnings of judgment or visions of future things. Other times, they were messages of repentance, promises of God’s blessing, or reminders of God’s divine nature.

Zephaniah’s message combined impending judgment and promised blessing.

When Zephaniah began his ministry, the kingdom of Judah was spiritually declining, declining thanks to earlier kings encouraging idolatry and apostasy. Hezekiah was regarded as righteous in God’s eyes, but his (Manasseh) and grandson (Amon) were not. Their depravity was so great that Judah never fully recovered despite Josiah’s reforms.

Zephaniah began his ministry by describing a great day of judgment, the Day of the Lord, that would come swiftly to Judah (Zephaniah 1:4-2:3) and the nations (Zephaniah 1:2-3) if they did not repent of idolatry, pride, and wickedness. Not only did this warning point to imminent destruction at the hands of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (see Zephaniah 1:4-13). It also warned Jerusalem and all the world that “The Lord is righteous within her; He will do no injustice. Every morning He brings His justice to light; He does not fail.” (Zephaniah 3:5)

The language Zephaniah uses to paint a picture of the coming Day of the Lord is harrowing, at least for those experiencing God’s judgment. Nevertheless, the promise of God’s judgment hints at God’s undeserved mercy, His desire to restore His people to righteousness and covenant relationship.

Through judgment, God would cleanse His people of wickedness; through exile, He would deliver them from their idolatry (Zephaniah 3:9-11). “For then I will give to the peoples purified lips, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord” (Zephaniah 3:9). As Solomon wrote, “for whom the Lord loves He reproves, Even as a father corrects the son in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:11).

This is God’s heart as revealed through the prophets. In even His harshest forms of discipline and chastisement, He is at work to deliver, redeem, and bless His children (see Jeremiah 29:11).

Zephaniah’s ministry may have influenced Josiah’s reform to tear down the altars to Baal, burn the bones of the false prophets, and destroy pagan idols (see 2 Chronicles 34:3-7). It may, however, have been too little too late.

What Does Zephaniah Say about the Coming Messiah?

Zephaniah contains one more essential message that the people of Israel would eventually come to cherish.

Not only had God promised to purify His people and preserve a remnant of Israel to continue to serve the Lord (Zephaniah 3:12-13). He provided an even greater hope in the coming of the promised Messiah. The prophet proclaims, “Shout for joy, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem!” (Zephaniah 3:14)

Of course, why should anyone rejoice when staring invasion and exile in the face?

For one thing, “the Lord has taken away His judgments against you, He has cleared away your enemies” (Zephaniah 3:15). To know that the day of Israel’s judgment has passed would be a reason to celebrate. And for a nation constantly threatened with attack, invasion, and outright eradication, God’s promise of preservation was also a reason to rejoice.

However, God’s promise to Israel (and the nations) was even deeper and greater.

“The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you will fear disaster no more. In that day it will be said to Jerusalem: ‘do not be afraid, O Zion; do not let your hands fall limp. The Lord your God is in your midst, a victorious warrior. He will exalt over you with joy, He will be quiet in His love. He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy.’” (Zephaniah 3:16-17)

With the Babylonian invasion, the kings of Israel would cease to exist. The temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed. The people would be sent into exile. However, coming out of captivity, the temple would be restored, and the people would be free of idolatry. Later, Israel’s true King would return and dwell in their midst. He would be Immanuel, their Messiah, and His name would be Jesus (Matthew 1:12; Isaiah 7:14).

For the children of Israel, there would be a time of great mourning to come: their cities would be destroyed, and their people forced to live in a foreign land. Zephaniah prophesied that in captivity, God’s people would lament not being able to celebrate the appointed feasts (Zephaniah 3:18; Exodus 23:14-17). Nevertheless, in time, God would remove their sorrow and “turn their shame into praise” (Zephaniah 3:19).

At Messiah’s return, the Jews would be regathered once again. Once again, God’s people would become, through Jesus Christ, a source of blessing and joy to all the world as God had destined them to become from the beginning (see Deuteronomy 26:18; Isaiah 62:17).

Photo Credit:©GettyImages/sedmak

Joel Ryan is an author, writing professor, and contributing writer for Salem Web Network and Lifeway. When he’s not writing stories and defending biblical truth, Joel is committed to helping young men find purpose in Christ and become fearless disciples and bold leaders in their homes, in the church, and in the world.

This article is part of our People from the Bible Series featuring the most well-known historical names and figures from Scripture. We have compiled these articles to help you study those whom God chose to set before us as examples in His Word. May their lives and walks with God strengthen your faith and encourage your soul.

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