by Rev. David A. Moffat

The prophecy of Zephaniah is a small book (three short chapters). It is the ninth in the collection known as the minor prophets: “minor” in the sense of being short, rather than unimportant, although in Zephaniah’s case nothing of what he wrote is quoted (in the way that Micah’s prophecy of the coming Messiah is – Micah 5:2) or even particularly memorable (in the way that Jonah’s story is, or Zechariah’s visions are). It is even thought of as not particularly original, quoting images and phrases from the better known prophets with whom he was a contemporary. It could easily be described as a forgotten book.

The name Zephaniah means, “The Lord hides or protects”, which reminds me of words of the Psalms that I have a particular fondness for: “Keep me as the apple of Your eye; Hide me under the shadow of Your wings, …” (Psalm 17:8, see also 36:7, 57:1, 63:7). It is a beautiful and encouraging image.

It is thought (but by no means proven) that Zephaniah was descended from Hezekiah, king of Judah (see 2 Kings 18-20). A Hezekiah is certainly mentioned in the genealogy given in the opening verse (in itself, an unusual feature of a prophecy), which may well be included to add weight to the prophet’s words, and the book is said to demonstrate a knowledge of the prevailing political scene and conventions of the court.

The prophecy addresses the Kingdom of Judah in the reign of Josiah (640-609 BC, see 2 Kings 22, 23), one of the (few) good kings of Judah. Given this, it seems strange that the prophecy is one of judgment. Perhaps it was written before Josiah’s programme of reforms, before the discovery of the book of the law in the temple, or perhaps those reforms were not completely effective. The story, as it is told in the second book of kings, certainly makes it clear that the threat of destruction is not averted, only postponed.

Zephaniah writes of judgement upon Judah and its neighbours – particularly their adherence to unauthorised religious practices – and the future restoration of a humble remnant. Chapter 1 is primarily concerned with Judah itself. Chapter 2 dwells largely on surrounding nations: the Philistines in the West, Moab and Ammon to the East, Cush to the South and Northern Assyria. Chapter 3 begins with a focus upon Jerusalem and goes on to the promised restoration.

Given its brevity, the book is easy to read in a single sitting, and the lessons it contains are important ones for gaining an appreciation of the Bible as a whole. Consider the second verse of chapter one: the New International Version (NIV) renders it: “I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” declares the LORD.

However, the King James chooses the words, “I will utterly consume all things from off the land, saith the LORD.”

Both may be considered justifiable translations of the original text, however, you will appreciate that in English, the common perceptions of the words “earth” and “land” make the difference between a local disaster and a global catastrophe. There are indeed different words for these in the Hebrew, as we shall see later, but they are often treated merely as synonyms. This in itself is a warning against arriving at quick, literal conclusions based solely upon English translations of the Word.

Whatever the case, it is impossible take this verse literally, given that the book continues to talk about any kind of restoration following this calamity. It points to the fact that much of this sort of language in Scripture is hyperbole at the very least, and more likely the home of a deep symbolism.

Swedenborg writes, “When a person has become regenerate he is no longer called the earth but the ground [or ‘land’], the reason being that celestial seeds have been planted within him. Various other statements in the Word compare him to the ground and actually call him the ground. It is the external man, that is, his affection and memory, in which the seeds of good and truth are planted, … and when these are seemingly present no longer, he is in that case an external, that is, a bodily-minded person.” (Arcana Caelestia, paragraph 268)

It’s interesting, then, that Zephaniah 1:2 speaks of the destruction of the “land”, where later verses refer to “earth” instead (see 1:18, 2:11, 3:8). It suggests that the subject of the book is in fact the far-reaching consequences of spiritual degradation – that we see the destruction of all security, comfort and hope as we recede from the love and worship of the Lord – and that the Lord Himself protects within us what is valuable to Him and ultimately restores it, when we ourselves see the depravity we have sunk to.

I’m also interested to see reference to Gaza (chapter 2, verse 4) in the light of contemporary troubles in that region, and it shows how conservative Jews might view the conflict with their Palestinian neighbours: “The coast shall be for the remnant of the house of Judah.” (verse 7) Of course, that presupposes that the current nation of Israel is that remnant: “… a meek and humble people, And they shall trust in the name of the LORD. The remnant of Israel shall do no unrighteousness And speak no lies, Nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouth; For they shall feed their flocks and lie down, And no one shall make them afraid.” (chapter 3, verses 12 & 13). Again, I draw from this a caution against literalistic interpretations, especially those that drive us to political or geographical conclusions. If this book were to be literally fulfilled we can’t choose between one or the other.

Nowhere are we instructed to draw geopolitical boundaries based upon the revealed Word of God. As Paul wrote, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (‭2 Timothy‬ ‭3‬:‭16-17‬)