The thirty-sixth book of the Old Testament was written by the prophet Zephaniah (not to be confused with Zechariah). Because of his message about the outpouring of Jehovah’s wrath, some have dubbed Zephaniah as “the prophet of God’s wrath.”
Historical setting: Zephaniah prophesied during the days of King Josiah of Judah (1:1), whose reign was B.C. 640-609. That means Zephaniah would have been a contemporary of the prophet Jeremiah.
The main thrust of Zephaniah’s message was to the nation of Judah, as he records these words of the Lord: “I will stretch out My hand against Judah, and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem . . .” (1:4). Per the message of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles, King Josiah carried out a number of reforms in Judah, trying to rid the nation of wickedness and bring the people back to the Lord. Zephaniah refers to some of Judah’s evil activities, but he never mentions any great reforms being carried out by Josiah. What does that indicate? Either Zephaniah prophesied before Josiah’s reforms took place or else the king’s reforms were not really accepted in the hearts and lives of the people.
Judah foretold the fall of Judah and Jerusalem, a fall that came in B.C. 587/586 at the hands of the Babylonians. Here are some key thoughts to consider:
Zephaniah predicted “the day of the LORD” for God’s people (1:7,14,18; 2:2,3). Again, that day was “at hand/near” when Zephaniah wrote his message (1:7,14). It will be a day of a terror and doom, a day of punishment for the unrighteous (1:7,8,9,12). Note that the Lord says He will be the one to bring this day on Judah (1:2-4,8,12,17).
This day of the Lord is called “a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of devastation and desolation” (1:15). Some foolishly thought this day would not come because, in their mind, God does neither good nor evil (1:12). There was only one way to escape the punishment/wrath of that day: seek the Lord, seek righteousness, and seek humility, that is, do the Lord’s will (2:3).
That which brought on the day of the Lord for Judah was her sins. God’s clear message was, “I will bring distress upon men, and they shall walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the LORD” (1:17). The Jews of Zephaniah’s day worshipped Baal, the hosts of heaven, and Malcham, also known as Milcom and Molech (1:4,5). Some of them bowed before both the Lord and idols (1:5). One wonders, had the Israelites not read the first two of the Ten Commandments?!
In addition to idolatry, violence and deceit were widespread in Judah (1:9). God’s own description of Jerusalem shows the level of its spiritual depravity.
He called it rebellious and polluted (3:1). The people of the city did not obey God’s voice and would not receive correction (3:2). Indications are that, instead of putting her trust in the Lord, the nation put her trust in idols and alliances with foreign nations (3:2). Many among Judah’s leaders were rotten with corruption, including the princes, judges, prophets, and priests (3:3,4). When you have such leadership, the followers are greatly hindered from serving God faithfully.
Material blessings cannot deliver people from the judgment of God. “But, hey, we have a lot of money and material resources.” That proves nothing about a person or nation’s spiritual standing before the God of heaven. God’s powerful proclamation through Zephaniah was, “Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them in the day of the LORD’s wrath” (1:18). Possession of material substances cannot eliminate all problems in life, and they certainly cannot remove the judgment of the Lord!
Zephaniah which supplied a message of hope to God’s faithful servants. The Lord spoke of the remnant of the house of Judah (2:7), the remnant of His people (2:9), and the remnant of Israel (3:13). In the Old Testament, the term “remnant” was used to refer to a small group of people who remained loyal to the Lord. God’s promise was to visit His people and take away their captivity (2:7; 3:20). There would be the physical return of the Jews to Judah after their seventy years of captivity in Babylon, and there also would be joy and salvation in the days of the Messiah and His kingdom. While the book of Zephaniah clearly shows God’s disgust with the conduct of His people, it closes with a message of hope (3:14-20). Here is the reminder for us: if we will stick close to “the God of hope” (Romans 15:13), there always will be hope for us, despite how bleak things might look on the surface.
Zephaniah’s message also points out a number of things about God’s traits/nature. He is a jealous God of wrath (1:18). The prophet also says, “THE LORD is righteous” (3:5). You can count on it: the Righteous One will do what is right . . . always! In fact, the very next statement in the Bible, in that very same verse, reads, “He will do no unrighteousness” (3:5). He never has and He never will.
The God of heaven is “the Mighty One” Who saves (3:17). May we learn this from Zephaniah: let us serve the Lord with all of our heart and soul so that when we face “the day of the Lord,” it will be for us a day of deliverance and not a day of doom.
— Roger D. Campbell