Zephaniah

The day of the LORD is coming: disaster will strike soon!

The book of Zephaniah contains one of the most detailed and evocative biblical descriptions of the ‘coming day of the LORD.’ It tells its readers what this day will feel like and what will follow after it.

Zephaniah is the person who, according to the superscription (1:1), received the word of the LORD (YHWH) which the book now contains. His father is called Cushi, and because of this some think Zephaniah may have come from an African background (Cush is the region just south of Egypt). His great-grandfather’s name is Hezekiah, but whether this is a reference to the famous Judean king from the end of the 8th century BCE (2 Kings 18–20) is difficult to say.

The book begins by announcing the judgment to befall Judah and Jerusalem on the ‘great day of the LORD.’ It continues with several oracles against foreign nations, before finally moving on to describe the salvation and restoration of Zion.

Date and authorship

1:1 places Zephaniah in the reign of the Judean king Josiah (640–609 BCE). There are scholars who still believe that everything in the book comes directly from Zephaniah, a prophet who supported Josiah’s religious reforms. Few would see the book as a much later anonymous literary work which simply uses the name of a known prophet from the distant past.

The majority opinion is that the oracles against Judah (1:2-18; 3:1-4) and some of the oracles against the foreign nations (2:4-6 against the Philistines; 2:13-15 against Assyria) come from Zephaniah himself. After the fall of Judah and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians (587 BCE) his oracles were brought together into a small collection which sought to explain to the survivors why the catastrophe had occurred. The oracles of salvation at the end (3:9-20) were gradually added at a later time.

Interpretation

What is the ‘day of the LORD’? When is it going to happen? What will it look like? How will it affect us?

To Zephaniah’s contemporaries the day of the LORD was probably a cultic event celebrated in the Jerusalem temple. As such, it was a joyful occasion reminding the people that YHWH, their God, was with them and on their side. Zephaniah turns this idea on its head and uses the day of the LORD to describe an imminent calamity (1:14-16). Ironically, this will indeed be a day of sacrifice, but his audience will take the place of the sacrificial victims (1:7-8). The devastation will engulf all nations of the world: large (Assyria: 2:13-15) and small (Moab and Ammon: 2:8-10), near (Philistines: 2:4-6) and far (Cush: 2:12).

However, beyond this terrible catastrophe, caused by idolatry (1:4-6), oppression (1:9; 3:3-4), and arrogance (1:12; 2:15), lies a much brighter future. Those who are humble and poor will escape the destruction (2:7; 3:11-13), then the exiles will be gathered back to their homeland (3:18-20), Zion will rejoice, free from her enemies (3:14-16), and the nations of the world will turn to serve YHWH (2:11; 3:9-10).

Within its original historical context the day of the LORD clearly refers to the rise of the Babylonian empire which brought about the downfall of Assyria (616–610 BCE), and the end of the kingdom of Judah (587 BCE). As part of the biblical canon, however, it acquires a more universal perspective, and it can be read as a description of the eschatological intervention of God in the world. As such, it promises those who seek YHWH (2:1-3) salvation beyond ‘the day of wrath.’

Reception history

Fragments of commentaries on Zephaniah have been found in Qumran and a pseudepigraphical work called //The Apocalypse of Zephaniah// was produced before 100 CE.

Zephaniah’s ‘great day of the LORD’s wrath’ is interpreted in the New Testament as pointing to the second coming of Christ (Revelation 6:17).

Zephaniah 1:14-18 is the inspiration behind the famous medieval poem Dies Irae (The Day of Wrath), which understands ‘the day’ to refer to the final judgment.

Further reading

Floyd, Michael H. Minor Prophets. FOTL 22. Cambridge, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000.
Sweeney, Marvin A. Zephaniah. Hermeneia. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2003.
Vlaardingerbroek, J. Zephaniah. HCOT. Leuven: Peeters, 1999.