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Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at

Zephaniah Introduction


zep 0:0



Person of the Prophet. - Zephaniah's family is traced back in the heading to his book through four members, namely, to his great-great-grandfather Hezekiah; from which it has been justly inferred, that inasmuch as the father only is mentioned as a general rule, Hezekiah must have been a celebrated man, and that in all probability the king of that name is intended. For the only other person of such a name mentioned in the earlier history is an Ephraimite called Yehizkiyâh in Ch2 28:12, and he can hardly be the person intended. The circumstance that Hezekiah is not described as the king of that name by the predicate hammelekh or melekh Yehūdâh, furnishes no decided argument against this assumption, but may probably be explained on the ground that the predicate "king of Judah" follows immediately afterwards in connection with Josiah's name. There is still less force in the objection, that in the genealogy of the kings only two generations occur between Hezekiah and Josiah, inasmuch as Manasseh reigned for fifty-five years, that is to say, for nearly two generations. The name Zephaniah (Tsephanyâh), i.e., he whom Jehovah hides or shelters, not "speculator et arcanorum Dei cognitor," as Jerome explains it according to an erroneous derivation from tsâphâh instead of tsâphân, occurs again as the name of a priest (Jer 21:1; Jer 29:25, etc.), as well as of other persons (cf. Zac 6:10, Zac 6:14; Ch1 6:21). The lxx write it Σοφονίας, Sophonias, according to their usual custom of expressing צ by σ, and the Sheva by a short vowel which is regulated by the full vowel that follows; they have also changed the a into o, as in the case of Γοδολίου for Gedalyâh in Zep 1:1. Nothing further is known concerning the prophet's life. The statement in Ps. Doroth. and Ps. Epiph., that he sprang "from the tribe of Simeon, from the mountain of Sarabath" (al. Baratha or Sabartharam), is quite worthless. The date at which he lived is determined by the statement in the heading to his book, to the effect that he prophesied under king Josiah the son of Amos, who reigned from 641 to 610 b.c. This agrees both with the place assigned to his book in the series of the minor prophets, namely, between Habakkuk and Haggai, and also by the contents of his prophecies. According to Zep 2:13., where he predicts the destruction of the kingdom of Asshur and the city of Nineveh, the Assyrian empire was still in existence in his time, and Nineveh was not yet conquered, which took place, according to our discussions on Nahum (pp. 380ff.), at the earliest, in the closing years of Josiah's reign, and possibly not till after his death. Moreover, his description of the moral depravity which prevailed in Jerusalem coincided in many respects with that of Jeremiah, whose labours as a prophet commenced in the thirteenth year of Josiah. Along with the worship of Jehovah (Zep 1:5; cf. Jer 6:20), he speaks of idolatry (Zep 1:4-5; cf. Jer 7:17-18), of false swearing by Jehovah, and swearing by the idols (Zep 1:5; Jer 5:2; Jer 7:9, and Jer 5:7; Jer 12:16), of the wicked treatment of the thorâh (Zep 3:4; Jer 8:8-9), of the fruitlessness of all the admonitions that have hitherto been addressed to Judah (Zep 3:2; Jer 2:30; Jer 7:28), and of the deep moral corruption that has pervaded all ranks - the royal family, the princes, the prophets, and the priests (Zep 1:4, Zep 1:8-9; Zep 3:3-4; cf. Jer 2:8, Jer 2:26). He describes the nation as a shameless one (Zep 2:1; Zep 3:5; cf. Jer 3:3; Jer 6:15; Jer 8:12), and Jerusalem as a rebellious city (מוראה, Zep 3:1; cf. Jer 6:17; Jer 5:23), as stained with blood and the abominations of idolatry (Zep 3:1; cf. Jer 2:22-23, Jer 2:34), and as oppressive towards widows and orphans, and with its houses full of unrighteous possessions (Zep 3:1 and Zep 1:9; cf. Jer 5:27-28; Jer 6:6).

The only point open to dispute is whether Zephaniah's prophecy belonged to the first or the second half of the thirty-first year of Josiah's reign. Whilst Ewald supposes that Zephaniah wrote at a time when "not even any preparation had yet been made in Jerusalem for that important and thorough reformation of religion which king Josiah attempted with such energetic decision and such good results in the second half of his reign" (2 Kings 22-23), most of the other commentators infer from Zep 1:4, where the extermination of the remnant of Baal is predicted, and with greater propriety, that Josiah's reformation of religion had already commenced, and that the outward predominance of idolatry was already broken down when Zephaniah uttered his prophecies. For the prophet could not well speak of a remnant of Baal before the abolition of the idolatry introduced into the kingdom by Manasseh and Amon had really commenced. But Ewald and Hvernick reply to this, that the prophet announces that even the remnant and the name of idolatry are to disappear, so that nothing at all will remain, and that this presupposes that in the time of the prophet not only the remnant of the worship of Baal was in existence, but the Baal-worship itself. But however correct the former remark may be, there is no ground for the conclusion drawn from it. The destruction of Baal, even to the very remnant and name, does not warrant the assumption that the worship of Baal still existed in undiminished power and extent at the time when the threat was uttered, but could be fully explained if there were only remnants of it left to which the expression "remnant of Baal" primarily refers. If nothing had been hitherto done for the abolition of idolatry, Zephaniah would certainly have spoken differently and more strongly than he does in Zep 1:4-5, concerning the abomination of it. If, for example, according to Zep 1:5, sacrifices were still offered upon the roofs to the army of heaven, the existence of the Jehovah-worship is also presupposed in the reproof in Zep 3:4, "the priests pollute the sanctuary;" and in the words "them that swear by Jehovah, and swear by their king" (Zep 1:5), Jehovah-worship and idolatry are mentioned as existing side by side. We cannot therefore regard the opinion, that "throughout the whole of the prophecy there is no trace of any allusion to Josiah's reformation," as a well-founded one. According to the more precise account given in the Chronicles, Josiah commenced the reformation of worship in the twelfth year of his reign (Ch2 34:3-7), and in the eighteenth year he had the temple repaired. It was then that the book of he law was discovered, the reading of which affected the king so much, that he not only appointed a solemn passover, but after the feast was over had all the remaining traces of idolatry in Jerusalem and Judah completely obliterated (Kg2 23:24). Now, as Zephaniah's prophecy presupposes the maintenance of the temple-worship, it can only have been uttered after the purification of the temple from the abominations of idolatry that were practised in its courts, and in all probability was not uttered till after the completion of the repairs of the temple, and the celebration of the solemn passover in the eighteenth year of Josiah's reign. The time cannot be determined more exactly.

The threat in Zep 1:8, that the judgment shall fall upon the princes, and even upon the king's sons, does not warrant us in concluding that the sons of Josiah had reached a sufficient age to have occasioned the announcement of punishment, by sinful acts for which they themselves were accountable, which would not apply to the twelfth year of the king's reign, when Jehoiakim was six years old, Jehoahaz four years, and when Zedekiah was not yet born, but only to the eighteenth year, when Jehoiakim had reached his twelfth year and Jehoahaz his tenth. For "the king's sons" are not necessarily the sons of the reigning sovereign only, but may also include the sons of the deceased kings, Manasseh and Amon; and this general threat of judgment announced against all ranks may be understood without hesitation as relating to all princes or persons of royal blood. The character of the prophecy as a whole also furnishes no decisive points bearing upon the question, whether it was uttered or composed before or after the eighteenth year of Josiah's reign. For the tendency to promote the work of religious reformation which had already commenced, by means of strong prophetic encouragements, in order that it might lead to a division, and therefore to decision for the Lord (Zep 2:1-3, which Hvernick and several other commentators claim for our prophecy, can no more be proved to exist in the writing before us, than the conjecture expressed by Delitzsch in Herzog's Cyclopaedia, that the prophet did not come forward with his threat till the efforts of the pious king to exterminate utterly the worship of Baal had reached their highest point, without securing their end; inasmuch as it is in accordance with the position of things and the character of prophecy, that when human efforts have done their utmost without securing the desired result, Jehovah interposes and threatens what still remains of Baal with His outstretched arm of punishment. For however correct the remark (of Delitzsch) may be, that in the form in which the prophecy lies before us it contains no trace of any intention to promote the work taken in hand by the king, and that the state of the nation as reflected therein is not a progressive one in process of reformation, but appears rather to be a finished one and ripe for judgment; the latter only applies to the mass of the nation, who were incorrigible, and therefore ripe for judgment, and does not preclude the existence of a better kernel, to which the prophet could still preach repentance, and cry, "Seek ye the Lord, seek humility; perhaps ye may be hidden in the day of Jehovah" (Zep 2:3). But the nation was in this state not only after the eighteenth year of Josiah's reign, but also before it; and the efforts of the pious king to exterminate idolatry, and to raise and revive the worship of Jehovah, could effect no further alteration in this, than that individuals out of the corrupt mass were converted, and were saved from destruction. The measure of the sin, which was inevitable followed by the destruction of the kingdom of Judah, had been already filled by Manasseh, and Josiah's reformation could only effect a postponement, and not avert the threatened judgment (compare Kg2 12:10-16 with Kg2 23:26-27).

2. The Book of Zephaniah does not contain two or three prophetic addresses, but the quintessence of the oral proclamations of the prophet condensed into one lengthened prophecy, commencing with the threat of judgment (ch. 1), proceeding to an exhortation to repentance (ch. 2-3:8), and concluding with a promise of the salvation which would flourish for the remnant of Israel after the termination of the judgment (Zep 3:9-20). This is arranged in three sections. The first section consists of the first chapter; the second reaches from Zep 2:1 to Zep 3:8; and the third comprises Zep 3:9-20. This division is indicated by both the contents and the form of the announcement: by the contents, since the first two parts threaten the judgment and assign the reason, whilst the third follows with the promise; by the form, inasmuch as the thought in Zep 1:18, "All the earth shall be devoured by the fire of His jealousy," is repeated as a refrain in Zep 3:8, and the hōi in Zep 2:5 answers to the hōi in Zep 3:1, the former announcing the judgment upon the nations, the latter the judgment upon Jerusalem, which assigns the motive for the summons to repentance in Zep 2:1-4. Zephaniah proclaims the judgment upon the whole earth, upon all the heathen nations, and upon Judah and Jerusalem, in the following order: In the first part of his prophecy he threatens the near approach of the judgment upon the whole earth (Zep 1:2-7) and upon Judah (Zep 1:8-13), and depicts its terrible character (Zep 1:14-18); and in the second part (ch. 2-3:8) he exhorts the people to repent, and the righteous to persevere (Zep 2:1-3), and assigns a reason for this exhortation, by announcing that the Lord will judge the heathen nations both near and at hand and far off for the reproach which they have cast upon His people, and by destroying their power lead them to reverence His name (Zep 2:4-15), and will also bring His righteousness to light in Jerusalem and Judah by the destruction of the ungodly (Zep 3:1-8). Then (the announcement of salvation commences thus in Zep 3:9-10) will the nations serve Jehovah with one accord, and lead His scattered people to Him. The remnant of Israel will be made into a humble nation of God by the destruction of the wicked one out of the midst of it; and being sheltered by its God, it will rejoice in undisturbed happiness, and be exalted to "a name and praise" among all the nations of the earth (Zep 3:11-20).

Zephaniah's prophecy has a more general character, embracing both judgment and salvation in their totality, so as to form one complete picture. It not only commences with the announcement of a universal judgment upon the whole world, out of which the judgment rises that will fall upon Judah on account of its sins, and upon the world of nations on account of its hostility to the people of Jehovah; but it treats throughout of the great and terrible day of Jehovah, on which the fire of the wrath of God consumes the whole earth (Zep 1:14-18; Zep 2:2; Zep 3:8). But the judgment, as a revelation of the wrath of God on account of the general corruption of the world, does not form the centre of gravity or the sole object of the whole of the predictions of our prophet. The end and goal at which they aim are rather the establishment of divine righteousness in the earth, and the judgment is simply the means and the way by which this the aim of all the development of the world's history is to be realized. This comes clearly out in the second and third sections. Jehovah will manifest Himself terribly to the nations, to destroy all the gods of the earth, that all the islands of the nations may worship Him (Zep 2:11). By pouring out His wrath upon nations and kingdoms, He will turn to the peoples a pure lip, so that they will call upon His name and serve Him with one shoulder (Zep 3:8-9). The idolaters, the wicked, and the despisers of God will be destroyed out of Judah and Jerusalem, that the righteousness of Jehovah may come to the day (Zep 3:1-7). The humble, who do God's righteousness, are to seek Jehovah, to strive after righteousness and humility, and to wait for the Lord, for the day when He will arise, to procure for Himself worshippers of His name among the nations through the medium of the judgment, and to gather together His dispersed people, and make the remnant of Israel into a sanctified and blessed people of God (Zep 3:11-20).

It is in this comprehensive character of his prophecy that we find the reason why Zephaniah neither names, nor minutely describes, the executors of the judgment upon Judah, and even in the description of the judgment to be inflicted upon the heathen nations (Zep 2:4-15) simply individualizes the idea of "all the nations of the earth," by naming the nearer and more remote nations to the west and east, the south and north of Judah. He does not predict either this or that particular judgment, but extends and completes in comprehensive generality the judgment, by which God maintains His kingdom on the earth. This peculiarity in Zephaniah's prophecy has been correctly pointed out by Bucer (in his commentary, 1528), when he says of the book before us: "If any one wishes all the secret oracles of the prophets to be given in a brief compendium, let him read through this brief Zephaniah." There are many respects in which Zephaniah links his prophecy to those of the earlier prophets, both in subject-matter and expression; not, however, by resuming those prophecies of theirs which had not been fulfilled, or were not exhausted, during the period of the Assyrian judgment upon the nations, and announcing a fresh and more perfect fulfilment of them by the Chaldaeans, but by reproducing in a compendious form the fundamental thoughts of judgment and salvation which are common to all the prophets, that his contemporaries may lay them to heart; in doing which he frequently appropriates striking words and pregnant expression taken from his predecessors, and applies them to his own purpose. Thus, for example, the expression in Zep 1:7 is compiled from earlier prophetic words: "Be silent before the Lord Jehovah (from Hab 2:20), for the day of Jehovah is at hand (Joe 1:15 and others); for Jehovah has prepared a sacrificial slaughter (Isa 34:6), has consecrated His invited ones (Isa 13:3)." (For further remarks on this point, see my Lehrbuch der Einleitung, p. 307). In this respect Zephaniah opens the series of the less original prophets of the Chaldaean age of judgment, who rest more upon the earlier types; whilst in more material respects his predecessor Habakkuk acted as pioneer to the prophets of this period.

Ewald's view bears evidence of a strong misapprehension of the nature of the prophecy generally, and of the special peculiarities of the prophecy before us. "The book of Zephaniah," he says, "must have originated in a great commotion among the nations, which threw all the kingdoms round about Judah far and wide into a state of alarm, and also threatened to be very dangerous to Jerusalem," - namely, on account of the invasion of Upper and Hither Asia by the Scythians, which is mentioned by Herodotus in i. 15, 103-6, iv. 10ff. For there is not a trace discoverable in the whole book of any great commotion among the nations. The few allusions to the fact that a hostile army will execute the judgment upon Jerusalem and Judah (in Zep 1:12-13, Zep 1:16, and Zep 3:15) do not presuppose anything of the kind; and in the threatening of the judgment upon Philistia, Moab and Ammon, Cush, and Asshur with Nineveh, Jehovah only is named as executing it (Zep 2:4-15). Moreover, neither Herodotus nor the historical books of the Old Testament mention any conquest of Jerusalem by the Scythians; whilst, even according to the account given by Herodotus, the Scythian hordes neither destroyed Nineveh nor made war upon the Cushites (Aethiopians), as would be predicted by Zephaniah (Zep 2:12-15), if he had the Scythians in his eye; and lastly, Jeremiah, upon whose prophecies Ewald, Hitzig, and Bertheau have principally based their Scythian hypothesis, knows nothing of the Scythians, but simply expects and announces that the judgment upon Judah and Jerusalem will come from the Chaldaeans. Zephaniah found the historical occasion for his prophecy in the moral depravity of Judah and Jerusalem, in the depth to which his people had fallen in idolatry, and in their obstinate resistance to all the efforts made by the prophets and the pious king Josiah to stem the corruption, and thus avert from Judah the judgment threatened even by Moses and the earlier prophets, of the dispersion of the whole nation among the heathen. On the ground of the condition of his people, and the prophetic testimonies of his predecessors, Zephaniah, under the impulse of the Spirit of God, predicted the near approach of the great and terrible day of Jehovah, which came upon Judah and the heathen nations far and wide through the instrumentality of the Chaldaeans. For Nebuchadnezzar laid the foundation of the empire which devastated Judah, destroyed Jerusalem with its temple, and led the degenerate covenant nation into exile. This empire was perpetuated in the empires of the Persians, the Macedonians, and the Romans, which arose after it and took its place, and in whose power Judah continued, even after the return of one portion of the exiles to the land of their fathers, and after the restoration of the temple and the city of Jerusalem during the Persian rule; so that the city of God was trodden down by the heathen even to the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, whereby the desolation of the holy land, which continues to the present day, was produced, and the dispersion of the Jews to all quarters of the globe accomplished, and both land and people were laid under the ban, from which Israel can only be liberated by its conversion to Jesus Christ, the Saviour of all nations, and from which it will assuredly be redeemed by virtue of the promise of the faithful covenant God. For the exegetical literature, see my Lehrbuch der Einleitung, pp. 305-6.

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