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Zephaniah



I am back from a wonderful trip to California and ready to jump back into blogging through the Bible. While on my trip, someone asked me, “So what have you learned while blogging through the Bible this year?”

My answer was, “That the Bible is one book with many voices.” I would add to that the fact that if the Bible is one book with many voices, perhaps then there is room in the Church of Jesus Christ for many different voices—including my voice, and your voice.

The book of Zephaniah reminds us of the diversity represented in the books of the Bible no less than the other 65 books contained therein. Here is Lawrence Boadt’s introduction to this prophetic book….

About the time of Josiah’s crowning, the Book of Zephaniah records for us the voice of reaction against the false worship idolatry of Manasseh’s years. Zephaniah was a fiery preacher whose wrath against pagan practices and hatred of Assyria were matched only by his devotion to Yahweh. The book under his name contains a number of oracles delivered at unknown times and places but which fit best the period of Josiah’s early years from 640 to 625. Quite possibly, Zephaniah thundered his words all in a short period of a few weeks or months. In any case, the complete collection is only three chapters long and may not represent everything that he had to say. Many experts think that Zephaniah was a prophet who spoke during the temple liturgy on some spcial occasion. Unlike Amos or Hosea or Isaiah in the earlier times, who were remarkably free from the interests of temple or priesthood, Zephaniah, together with the slightly later Nahum and Habakkuk, may well represent cultic prophets who were in some way attached to the temple and its liturgical rites, especially on feast days.

The Book of Zephaniah can be divided into three sections…

All of these sections revolve around a single major theme: the coming day of the Lord. As Amos had first proclaimed (Am 5:18-20) and Isaiah had repeated (Is 2:6-22), the day of divine judgment against sinners would come in destruction if the people did not repent. Zephaniah has a worldwide vision. He opens chapter 1 by stressing that the good order of God’s creation recounted in Genesis has been reversed and that instead chaos rules. But Yahweh will sweep away all who have perverted his goodness, especially the worshipers of false gods wherever they live. So Zephaniah warns the people of Judah first…

God will “search Jerusalem with lamps” (Zep 1:12) to find the guilty and punish them drastically, “their blood poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung” (Zep 1:17).

But the prophet preaches just as boldly against foreign nations, predicting that the same terror and destruction shall fall upon them. Zephaniah names the traditional enemies of Judah—Philistines, Moabites, Ammonites and Egyptians—and ends with a dramatic announcement of the destruction of the superpower itself, Assyria…

Assyria takes the place of honor—or, better, infamy—at the end of the list because its pride and arrogance against Yahweh far exceeds any other nation’s. With great irony, Zephaniah quotes Nineveh’s claim: “This is the exultant city that sits in safety and says to herself, ‘I am and there is no other!’” (Zep 2:15)

He returns in chapter 3 to list all the corruption at every level of society, and declares that the whole earth shall be consumed by fire for its evil (Zep 3:8). But immediately, he includes a promise of hope that God will purify Israel, restore all who have been sent into exile, and give peace to the land. It will be a time of rejoicing and not fear…

The entire message of the prophet ends as it had begun, with praise for God who rules the entire universe. Perhaps the whole series of oracles were delivered during a week of celebration of the kingship of Yahweh, a feast for which we have no exact information but many hints in the Old Testament. It would have taken place in the fall, connected to the New Year’s festival, and would be a fitting occasion for proclaiming both God’s punishment of all sin everywhere in the world and his victory over Assyria sometime ahead.

Zephaniah’s message has the power of a great orator speaking with passion. Most of his themes are very traditional, and the crowds of Israelites who heard him would have applauded his thought as one with their own. His central concern with the day of the Lord borrows heavily from Isaiah, some eighty years earlier….

Zephaniah represents the best of Israel’s values brought together in a time of great difficulty. He has sensitivity to evil among his own people, trust in Yahweh to protect the nation, and a conviction that necessary as punishment may be, there will always be a new time of God’s favor for the people of the covenant.

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