Several possible meanings are held for the name Zephaniah, the root word means hidden treasure, and ‘yah’ is an abbreviation for Yahweh. So this name may mean ‘Hidden or stored for Yahweh’, ‘Hid of the Lord / Whom the Lord hides or protects’, it may also mean ‘Jehovah has treasured’.
The book of Zephaniah is only 3 chapters long and he is numbered among the Minor Prophets, however there is nothing minor or insignificant about the prophetic writings of this man. Zephaniah lived during the reign on King Josiah of Judah the Southern Kingdom, the Northern Kingdom of Israel had already been destroyed by the Assyrians, he also lived during the ministry years of the prophet Nahum and he was alive very briefly at the beginning of Jeremiah’s ministry. Zephaniah was the great-great-great-grandson of King Hezekiah and was therefore of the royal bloodline and as such it’s quite unusual that he was called to be a prophet. The only other royal king who was a prophet was king David who himself wrote some amazing prophetic psalms although he never held the office of a prophet. Of course, Zephaniah was not a king he was merely of royal descent so in truth, he is the only Biblical prophet of royal lineage.
Living during the reign of Josiah meant that he witnessed his nation during a really good time when Josiah brought about a national revival and as such Zephaniah would have been thoroughly encouraged by what he saw in his lifetime among his people. So it may very well have been a shock when God raised Zephaniah up as a prophet to his people with a message of incredible judgement. Zephaniah’s ministry focus was not so much on the present day circumstances of his people, rather, his focus was like that of the prophet Joel, he prophesied about the very distant future, a specific period of time called the Day of the Lord. Zephaniah as a prophet was aware that the apparent ‘righteous’ behaviour of his people was not only a facade, it was very temporary.
In the Southern Kingdom of Judah there had been about a 50 year period of prophetic silence after Hosea died up to the time of Zephaniah and it was during this 50 years of silence that Judah’s most wicked king ruled, king Manasseh, and he brought in the most vile pagan worship, but during Zephaniah’s lifetime, Judah was behaving well because of Josiah’s repentance and influence, but God knew that their apparent love for Him was really only their love for Josiah and as soon as he was out of the picture they would return to their wicked ways. But as stated above, the prophecies of Zephaniah actually look forward to that very distant future time of judgement that was also prophesied about by various other prophets and the Day of the Lord is referred to as the most cataclysmic time the earth will ever know.
The Day of the Lord is mentioned all throughout the book of Joel and it’s also mentioned in many other places in the Bible as well, in fact it’s mentioned 19 times by 8 different authors. (Isa 2:12; 13:6,9; Eze 13:5; 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1,11,31; 3:14; Amos 5:18[x2],20; Ob 15; Zeph 1:7,14[x2]; Zec 14:1; Mal 4:5) When the Day of the Lord is mentioned it’s always referring to a time that for all intents and purposes will occur in very last of the last days before the Lord returns to earth to finally deal with the wicked and establish His righteousness and government over all the people of the world.
Since the people of Judah during Zephaniah’s ministry years were actually serving the Lord under the reign of Josiah this message of doom had to be directed to the generations of people who would be living during this very serious day of judgement sometime in the very distant future. We do know that God’s judgement in the form of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon did come several years after Josiah died, but total annihilation of the people of Judah didn’t occur at that time. We have seen some dreadful disasters in the past few years with hundreds of thousands of people dying, yet none of them have left the world in the kind of condition that the Bible describes about the Day of the Lord. If the Day of the Lord is described as being like no other day then we can know that it has yet to take place.
Chapter 1 is really a prophecy about total destruction, especially of Jerusalem and in the entire chapter there isn’t even one word of hope, and because verse 18 of chapter 1 references the whole earth we can know this prophecy isn’t restricted just to the Jewish nation alone.
Zephaniah 1:18, ‘Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to deliver them on the day of the Lord’s wrath; and all the earth will be devoured. In the fire of His jealousy, for He will make a complete end, indeed a terrifying one, of all the inhabitants of the earth.’ This has to be talking about a final day of judgment that will affect the whole world, not just Judah as the invasion by the Babylonians had done.
Chapter 2 starts off being focused against Judah and specifically Jerusalem. When the capital of a nation is mentioned in relation to judgement it’s still talking about the whole nation, the reason the capital city is identified is because it’s the seat of government and the decisions made by that government determine the direction, attitude and behaviour of the whole nation. The main focus of chapter 2 however is against Israel’s enemies. Verse 3 is a call to all the people of the earth to humble themselves before the Lord in the hope that they will be spared God’s wrath during this day of judgement but it progresses on to specifically name certain enemies that God is going to focus His wrath on for their treatment of His people. The result will be in the form of provision for the remnant of His people Israel.
The areas mentioned by Zephaniah are Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and the specific coastal area that was historically occupied by the Philistines after they invaded from their original tribal regions in Europe. The area of Gaza is today a Hamas terrorist stronghold which has lobbed over 10,000 rockets into Israel since Israel left the Gaza Strip in 2005.
Moab and Ammon are also mentioned as being in line for judgement for their treatment of God’s people. Moab and Ammon today are in the specific region of the modern nation of Jordan. The Hashemite kingdom of Transjordan is an invented country whose borders were set after WWII by the British and the French and they appointed Emir Abdullah to be its king and then the British and French militarily prevented other Arab incursions from dethroning him. Transjordon was established in 1946, a mere 2 years before the re-establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Edom is not mentioned in Zephaniah, but it is also situated in modern day Jordan. The descendents of Ammon and Moab come from the children that were born to Lot and his 2 daughters after their incestuous encounters.(Genesis 19:30-38) The descendents of Edom come from Esau who not only married Hittite women of Canaan he also married the daughter of his uncle Ishmael and there is a lot of familial bad blood amongst these people toward Israel. (Genesis 26:34; 28:6-9)
Zephaniah didn’t know which particular people groups would be living in these regions when he gave his prophecies, he simply identified these people according to those who lived in those regions during his lifetime. Considering the unfolding of history in these specific regions today, these prophecies are very provocative, particularly when these prophecies state that these regions will ultimately be for the provision of the remnant of Israel to possess and right now the rest of the world is chanting to the drumbeat that the land Israel currently has is already too much. According to Scripture, the land they have now is much smaller than what they will eventually have.
The chapter closes out with judgement against Ethiopia and Assyria (Nineveh being the capital city of Assyria). We know who the Assyrians were and that they were situated in the region that is today Iraq. The ‘Ethiopia’ mentioned here is not the country that we know today as Ethiopia, the ancient Cushites were the Nubian people in the region today which is situated directly south of Egypt which is Sudan. To the ancient Greeks they were called Aethiopia and to the ancient Romans they were called Nubians. More info here http://microcosomofenlightenment.weebly.com/ancient-nubian-kingdom-kush.html
In chapter 3 the focus returns once again to Jerusalem and her leaders, the unspoken doubt that the people are truly reformed and committed in their heart to the Lord identifies their wilful determination not to remain faithful to Yahweh. This is historically proven to be the case because immediately after Josiah died Judah rapidly returned to paganism and idolatry.
God again reiterates that judgement and destruction is going to be poured out on the nations but once judgement has been meted out, He will then purify His people – ‘My dispersed ones’ (3:10) – ‘the remnant of Israel’ (3:13) and they will return to their land and be restored and it will be such an astounding restoration that Israel will receive renown throughout the whole world.
Zephaniah 3:19-20, ‘“Behold, I am going to deal at that time with all your oppressors, I will save the lamb and gather the outcast, and I will turn their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you in, even at the time when I gather you together; indeed I will give you renown and praise among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,” says the Lord.’
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that the seemingly harsh judgements that God meted out were fair, but God cannot be anything but fair and righteous when it comes to how He deals with wickedness. What we can see however is that even though God had to deal harshly with sin committed by both His own people and the Gentile peoples of the earth, God always promised restoration and forgiveness.
When we see that forgiveness and restoration take place should we question it, deny it or deem it fraudulent? Some say that Israel returning to the land God gave them is nothing more than coincidental and means absolutely nothing, that they are merely usurpers and have no rights to be there. But in saying this they undermine God’s Word, they contradict Him and deny God the praise and honour He deserves for the miracle He has done in bringing His promises and covenants to pass for the very people He made those covenants and promises to.
Zephaniah, prophet of God to Judah spoke the Word of the Lord regarding a future end time event called the Day of the Lord and he described it as a day of great judgement against Israel’s enemies, judgement against Israel for her sins and also the promise of forgiveness, return and restoration and ultimately His establishment of righteous governance. It will be a decidedly difficult and dreadful day but it will ultimately be a glorious day when wickedness will finally be dealt with and God’s righteous government will be established.
The fact that Israel is now back in the land promised them by God and are surrounded by enemies that are singularly committed to her annihilation leads me to believe that the Day of the Lord is quite probably very close.