This post is the second half of an essay introducing Zephaniah.In this post I outline what I think are the leading theological themes in the book of Zephaniah, and give a bibliography.
4. Zephaniah’s theological message
According to most authors, the coming Day of Yahweh is the overarching theme of Zephaniah (e.g. Baker, 2012, p254). For Motyer (1998, p897), Zephaniah has ‘only one topic, and he never digresses from it’. Other authors (Dillard and Longman, 1995, p419; Boda, 2012, p905) also mention the themes of God’s faithfulness and mercy to the remnant and the universality of God’s sovereignty. However, I think these themes are best seen as Zephaniah’s particular emphases in the prophetic tradition of the Day of Yahweh as Yahweh’s holy warfare (Stuart, 1987, p231). We will identify four particular characteristics of Zephaniah’s proclamation of the coming Day of Yahweh, before concluding by pointing out an underlying theme.
1. The Day will be cosmic and universal in scope
Zephaniah loudly proclaims that the Day of Yahweh will have a world-wide impact. The book opens in §2.1 with the striking repeated statement that Yahweh will sweep away ‘all from upon the face of the earth’ (1:2). The word ’earth’ here could simply mean ‘land’, but the allusion to Gen. 1 (Berlin, 1994, p13) suggests Zephaniah is thinking of ‘a kind of undoing of creation’ (McConville, 2002, p222).
The oracles against the nations in §2.3 expand on what is meant by ‘the day of the anger of Yahweh’ (2:3). Zephaniah successively picks out representative nations to the east, west, south and north of Judah, showing that Yahweh’s day will target all the nations (Motyer, 1998, p931). But on the Day that Yahweh consumes all the earth in the fire of his jealousy, he also promises in §2.5 to ‘change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech’ (3:8-9, NIV) in a reversal of the curse of Babel (Gen. 11).
Zephaniah shows us that the Day of Yahweh will be cosmic and universal in scope, both in judgement and blessing. However, this is balanced by the second theme.
2. The Day will be centred on Judah
Amos testifies to an expectation that the Day of Yahweh would bring light for God’s people (Amos 5:18). But, in line with Amos, Zephaniah teaches that Jerusalem/Judah can expect to be at the heart of the terrifying judgement that the Day of Yahweh will bring. §2.1 begins (1:2-3) and ends (1:17-8) with an abstract outline of universal judgement, but at its centre is a fine-grained picture of the effect of the Day on Jerusalem, down to the details of different areas of the city that will be impacted. Far from being overlooked, ‘at that time’ Yahweh will ‘search Jerusalem with lamps’ (1:12, NIV).
A similar point is made in §2.3, where the oracles against the nations conclude, on Moyter’s (1998, p901) analysis, with a lament for ‘the oppressing city’, where morning by morning Yahweh shows forth his justice in the temple (3:1-5).
In §2.5, despite the universalism of the salvation, Judah remains at the centre of the Day: the haughty will be removed from Zion, and instead of fighting against her, Yahweh in her midst will be like a warrior celebrating winning the battle (3:17, NIV).
Jerusalem/Judah then will be at the heart of what Yahweh will do in the coming Day, both in judgement and salvation.
3. The Day will leave behind a remnant
The third theme Zephaniah draws our attention to is the discriminating nature of the Day. Yahweh’s anger will not sweep away everyone. This is implied in the careful searching Yahweh will do in order to find those in Jerusalem who harbour complacency in their hearts (1:12) and becomes clearer in the call to seek Yahweh (2:1-4) in order to to be ‘hidden on the day of the anger of Yahweh’ (2:4). From 2:7 onwards we see the presence of a remnant, which is most easily understood as those who have been hidden on the Day, and who are now in a position to take possession of new territory. The focus shifts fully to the remnant in §2.5, where we see that those left in Israel will be humble (3:12 c.f. 2:3) in contrast to the proud in the nations (2:10, 15) and in Jerusalem (3:11) who will be taken away. However, the remnant is not pictured as being worthy of escaping the judgement: it is Yahweh himself who removes their shame (3:11) and takes away the judgements against them (3:15).
4. The Day restores the fortunes of the remnant
The book concludes with the two sets of three promises that will take place ’at that time’ (3:19-20), a phrase earlier associated with the Day (3:9). Yahweh promises to restore the fortunes of those who mourn for the festival (the context suggests a reference to the humble remnant who seek Yahweh) by making them praised in all the earth (3:19,20). This section forms an inclusio with 3:9-13, which suggests that 3:14-17 also refers to the remnant. In the Day of Yahweh (3:16), the remnant’s shame and guilt will be taken away (3:11, 15) so that they can enjoy an unhindered and unending relationship with Yahweh, where saved Zion will sing for joy and Yahweh will sing a song of triumphant love over the people he has saved (3:14-17).
Conclusion: The underlying theme
While the Day of Yahweh is undoubtedly the controlling motif, it would be remiss to comment on Zephaniah without bringing into focus the central theme in its proclamation of the Day of Yahweh: that it is the Day particularly of Yahweh himself (Baker, 1996, p852). On that day, Yahweh will personally search out and fight against the people who have not sought him (1:6), but strikingly, rejoice over remnant Zion with ‘loud shouting’ (3:17). In the meantime, his people must seek him, and wait for the Day when Yahweh ‘rises’ (3:8). For Zephaniah, the Day of Yahweh will be an intensely personal revelation of Yahweh himself.
I’ve starred resources I found most helpful:
*Baker, D.W. (1996) ‘The Theology of Zephaniah’ in Elwell, W. (ed.) Evangelical dictionary of biblical theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Paternoster Press, pp851-852.
Baker, D.W. (2012) ‘Zephaniah’ in McConville, G. J. and Boda, M. J. (ed.) Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets: A compendium of contemporary biblical scholarship. United Kingdom: Inter-Varsity Press, pp254-255.
Berlin, A. (1994) Zephaniah: A new translation with introduction and commentary. 1st edn. New York: Anchor Bible, New York.
Boda, M.J. (2012) ‘Book of Zephaniah’ in McConville, G. J. and Boda, M. J. (ed.) Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets: A compendium of contemporary biblical scholarship. United Kingdom: Inter-Varsity Press, pp899-907.
Kselman (1992) ‘The Book of Zephaniah’ in Freedman, D. N. and Staff, A. B. (ed.) The Anchor Bible dictionary, volume 6. United States: Bantam Dell Pub Group, pp1077-1080.
Longman, T. and Dillard, R. B. (1995) An introduction to the Old Testament. Leicester: Apollos.
Mason, R. (1994) Zephaniah (Old Testament guides). Sheffield: JSOT Press.
*McConville, G. (2002) Exploring the Old Testament: V. 4: Prophets. London: SPCK Publishing.
*Motyer, J.A. (1998) ‘Zephaniah’ in Mccomiskey, T. E. (ed.) The Minor Prophets: An exegetical and expository commentary: Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi (minor prophets: An Exegetical and expository commentary). United States: Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group.
*Robertson, P. O. (1990) The books of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah. Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Stuart, D. (1987) Word biblical commentary Vol. 31, Hosea-Jonah. Waco, TX: Paternoster Press.
Sweeney, M. A. (1991). A form-critical reassessment of the Book of Zephaniah. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 53(3), 388-408.
Sweeney, M. A. (2000) The Twelve prophets (Vol. 2): Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi (Berit Olam series). United States: Liturgical Press.
Sweeney, M. A. (2003) Zephaniah: A commentary. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, Publishers.