Zephaniah prophesied during the reign of Josiah, king of Judah. He encouraged the people to return to God, honor the vows they made to God under their covenant with Him, and avoid the penalties associated with violating their vows. The message of Zephaniah complements that of the prophet Jeremiah. Both seek to encourage Judah to repent and return to their Suzerain (Ruler) God, and honor their covenant with Him, thus avoiding His day of wrath.
King Josiah reigned in Judah from 640 to 609 BC. The Babylonians placed Judah under servitude shortly after his death, in 605 BC, taking its then king Jehoiachin captive, and carrying off the treasures from the temple, along with many officials and soldiers. Judah rebelled again. In 586 BC, Jerusalem was destroyed and all but the poorest of the people were exiled.
Zephaniah’s prophecy has not only an immediate application to Judah, and the looming invasion by Babylon, but also pictures the ultimate judgment Jesus will inflict upon the earth, cleansing it of evil, exploitation, and violence, and restoring it to its original, perfect design.
In this short book, Zephaniah calls to repentance, and prophesies judgement upon Judah, its neighboring nations, and the nations of the earth. The book can be viewed as a study in the moral cause-effect relationships God built into His creation.
God built into the moral universe what might be considered a moral law of reciprocity. The second greatest commandment is to love others as we love ourselves. If we set aside selfish interests and serve others, we actually discover our greatest fulfillment. Since (because of the Fall of Man) this is not our natural instinct, the first and greatest commandment is an essential precursor to follow this moral reality: to love God and obey Him with all our being. If we trust that God has our best interest at heart, that leads to a perspective that allows us to live into this great moral law.
The moral mirror of this “love-your-neighbor” principle might be called the “exploit-before-you-are-exploited” principle. There is a natural death, and (ironic) self-destruction God built into His creation for those who follow this exploit-your-neighbor principle. We can see this many places in scripture, including Zephaniah 2:8-11. In the New Testament, we see God’s wrath described as giving people over to their own passions, where (to use modern terminology) they become addicts, then lose their mental health (Romans 1:24, 26, 28).
Zephaniah can help the modern reader understand that the laws of cause-effect in God’s moral universe are just as certain, and just as inevitable as the physical laws. We can decide not to believe in gravity, but we will still hit the ground.
Zephaniah 2 begins with an urgent call to Judah to repent to escape the LORD’s judgment. After the call, the prophet pronounces judgment upon several foreign nations, such as Philistia in the west, Moab and Ammon in the east, Ethiopia in the south, and Assyria in the north. These nations represent pagan people who are both near and far away from the land of Judah. The LORD will destroy them to demonstrate that He alone is the all-powerful God and that there is no one besides Him. The outline of the passage is as follows: