Tales of the Nevi'im - Zephaniah
Tales of the Nevi'im
The Tales of the Nevi’im are the Stories of the Prophets. In Hebrew navi (nah-vee') means prophet and the plural, prophets, is nevi'im (neh-vee-eem'). Israel had many prophets, some of whom we know from the Old Testament, others are lost to us in history. Many of Israel's prophets spoke to the people but didn't write anything down, likely because their message was meant for a specific people and time. Others proclaimed a message meant to instruct us as well. God spoke his word through these men for all people for all times, and we read them today as the books of the prophets in our Bibles. This series will explore their stories and message.
The Story of Zephaniah
Zephaniah prophesied during the 7th century BC, likely about 630 BC. To understand his times, we have to recap a little of the history of the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. You may recall that in 725 BC the Assyrian army descended on the northern kingdom of Israel, besieged the capital city of Samaria for three years, and in 722 destroyed it and lead many Israelites away to exile. The northern kingdom completely lost its identity as a nation of Israelites. Later, in 701 BC, the Assyrians also tried to destroy Judah and its capital Jerusalem. King Hezekiah was besieged and surrounded in Jerusalem but by God’s miraculous deliverance, Judah escaped destruction by the Assyrian king Sennacherib. In fact, archaeology yields evidence supporting the basic Biblical account of this incident.
King Sennacherib left annals, or records, carved in clay tablets of his conquests. One of these, known as Taylor’s prism, lists the various nations and cities he destroyed, but when it came to Jerusalem all he could say was, “As for the king of Judah, Hezekiah, who had not submitted to my authority, I besieged and captured forty-six of his fortified cities, along with many smaller towns, taken in battle with my battering rams. ... I took as plunder 200,150 people, both small and great, male and female, along with a great number of animals including horses, mules, donkeys, camels, oxen, and sheep. As for Hezekiah, I shut him up like a caged bird in his royal city of Jerusalem.” The record conspicuously does not include that he conquered Jerusalem.
After the failed attempt to conquer Jerusalem, Judah remained a vassal state to Assyria, paying tribute and taxes. From this point on in history and often in the Bible (including Zephaniah) the word Israel is used to describe the remaining Israelites in Judah. The word switched from being a descriptor of a specific kingdom back to describing the Israelite people as a whole.
After the reign of Hezekiah (715-687 BC), his son Manasseh took the throne at age 12 and ruled for 10 years jointly with his father. Manasseh was the longest-ruling king of Judah, reigning from 697 to 642, an astonishing 55 years! The Bible has nothing good to say about Manasseh. In the book of Kings we read,
“He did evil in the eyes of the Lord, following the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites. He rebuilt the high places his father Hezekiah had destroyed; he also erected altars to Baal and made an Asherah pole, as Ahab king of Israel had done. He bowed down to all the starry hosts and worshiped them. He built altars in the temple of the Lord, of which the Lord had said, “In Jerusalem I will put my Name.” In both courts of the temple of the Lord, he built altars to all the starry hosts. He sacrificed his own son in the fire, practiced sorcery and divination, and consulted mediums and spiritists. He did much evil in the eyes of the Lord, provoking him to anger.” (2 Kings 21:2-6)
This is definitely not how you want to be remembered! In fact, the account goes on to say, “But the people did not listen. Manasseh led them astray, so that they did more evil than the nations the Lord had destroyed before the Israelites.” (2 Kings 21:9) It’s bad enough to turn away from God, but it’s an amazing accusation that the Israelites had become even more evil than their pagan neighbors.
This lead to God’s promise of judgment on the land in one of the most graphic and chilling verses of the Bible, “Therefore this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I am going to bring such disaster on Jerusalem and Judah that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. I will stretch out over Jerusalem the measuring line used against Samaria and the plumb line used against the house of Ahab. I will wipe out Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down.” (2 Kings 21:12-13) You won’t find this verse on a coffee cup at Mardel’s!
After Manasseh’s death, his son Amon ruled for a brief 2 years (642-640 BC). He was assassinated by a group of Jews who were anti-Assyrian; they thought it was time to stop cooperating with Assyria. However, the conspirators themselves were rounded up and killed and Amon’s young son Josiah took the throne at age 8. He reigned from 640-609 BC. Josiah is remembered as a king who turned back to God. During this period the Assyrian empire was weakening and would be destroyed by Babylonians shortly after Josiah’s death. Josiah used this time to rededicate the people to observing the Law of God and keeping his commandments. He tore down the altars and idols that had been set up in the land. It’s during this brief period of revival that Zephaniah brings God’s word of judgment, along with hope, to Israel and her neighbors.
By now we are realizing that most of the minor prophets labored in historical anonymity. We know little about them as people but are crystal clear about their message from God! The first verse of the book of Zephaniah gives us at least a couple of clues about the man, “The word of the Lord that came to Zephaniah, the son of Cushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah, in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah.” Several of the names in this genealogy were kings of Judah, leading to the likely conclusion that Zephaniah was born into the extended royal family. We know he prophesied during Josiah’s reign from 640-609 BC and tend to date him early in the reign, say 630 BC, as there is no mention of Josiah’s reforms.
Zephaniah talks more than perhaps any other prophet about the “day of the Lord,” the day of judgment and accountability before God. In verse 7, he gets Israel’s attention, saying; “Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the Lord is near; the Lord has prepared a sacrifice and consecrated his guests.” In case you were wondering, God is not talking about throwing a party for Israel! The day of the Lord is cast as a great feast – good news for some, terrible for others. The New Testament also uses this image for God’s judgment – Jesus talks about the ‘wedding feast’ of his return to judge the world. But Zephaniah extends the idea of the day of the Lord to include not just a punishment for Israel at the hands of her enemies. He also speaks of it in ‘apocalyptic’ or ‘end of the world’ terms: “’I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth’, declares the Lord. ‘I will sweep away man and beast; I will sweep away the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea, and the rubble with the wicked. I will cut off mankind from the face of the earth,’ declared the Lord.” (1:2-3) We see Israel as playing our her destiny, but also foreshadowing a greater story of God’s judgment on humanity.
Zephaniah lists the nations who will give an account to God for their actions: Judah (1:4), the Philistines (2:4), Moab and Ammon (2:8), Egypt (2:12), and Assyria (2:13). He declares, “’Therefore wait for me,’ declares the Lord, ‘for the day when I rise up to seize the prey. For my decision is to gather nations, to assemble kingdoms, to pour out on them my indignation, all my burning anger; for in the fire of my jealousy all the earth shall be consumed.’” (3:8) God’s statements about idolatry and rebellion are reminiscent of the New Testament declaration that all humanity knows something of God but rejects him (Romans 1-3). It’s only by God’s mercy and our repentance that anyone can be saved.
Zephaniah closes with a note of hope for those who turn to God. It seems that God’s plan includes not just judgment, but the preservation of those who are faithful; “But I will leave in your midst a people humble and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord, whose who are left in Israel, they shall do no injustice and speak no lies, nor shall there be found in their mouth a deceitful tongue. For they shall graze and lie down and none shall make them afraid.” (3:12-13) He even hints at a coming savior, “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save’ he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will quiet you by his love, he will exult over you with loud singing.” (3:17)
Lessons and Themes
The Day of the Lord is a time for all people to give an account before God. Zephaniah makes it clear that all the nations, including Israel, will be held accountable for their faithfulness, or lack thereof. Zephaniah refers to the day as an eminent event in Israel’s future as well as the larger, more cosmic, reality that God will hold all mankind accountable. The day of the Lord will be judgment for rebels and blessing for those found faithful. This is precisely Jesus’ message in Matthew 25 when he talks of judgment as separating the sheep and goats.
There is a faithful remnant in the midst of a rebellious generation. Zephaniah recognizes that even in the midst of Israel’s long history of idolatry and faithlessness to God, there are those who have remained faithful to God’s word. This idea of a faithful remnant resonates in our world as well. The church is often characterized as the faithful enclave in the midst of a world ruled by Satan.
There is hope for all nations and all people. Zephaniah gives a message of hope for all, not just chosen Israel. In chapter 2 he writes, “Seek the Lord all you humble of the land, who do his just commands; seek righteousness; seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the anger of the Lord.” By the way, Zephaniah’s name means ‘the Lord has hidden, or protected’. His message is that all who turn to God may be protected from judgment and made righteous in his sight.
Questions for Further Reflection/Discussion:
‘The day of the Lord’ is a phrase used in the New Testament as well as the Old. Read 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11. What similarities do you see between the day of the Lord in Zephaniah and Thessalonians?
In the midst of a gloomy forecast for Israel’s future, Zephaniah shares a glimmer of hope. Read Zephaniah 3:14-17. How can you see these passages fulfilled in Jesus?
Israel’s ‘judgment’ would come, after decades of warning by a number of prophets, in the form of Babylonian conquerors about 40 years after Zephaniah’s time. Who are those in our times charged with warning the world of its accountability to God? How is our warning to the world different than Zephaniah’s?
Terry Feix is the Executive Pastor at Crossings Community Church in Oklahoma City and a regular writer at So We Speak. Follow him @TerryFeix on Twitter.
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