Background of Zephaniah
The historical context assumed by the book of Zephaniah is the reign of Josiah as indicated in the title verse (1:1). Josiah’s reign is described in 2 Kings 22:1-23:30 and 2 Chronicles 34:1-36:1. Starting in 640 B.C.E., it spans the latter days of Assyrian dominance. During the gap between Assyrian and Babylonian dominance in Judah, when the kingdom enjoyed a measure of relative autonomy, Judean king noted for his reforms of Israel's worship in the time of Jeremiah More engaged in a major reform and in territorial expansion. These efforts also tested the limitations of Judah’s vassal relationship with the Assyrian empire. The destruction of Assyria and Nineveh are mentioned in the oracles against the nations in the midsection of the book (2:13), but Babylon is not specifically named. Because of this, most interpreters read the book against the early period of Josiah’s reign and speculate that Zephaniah was one of the voices urging and perhaps supporting Josiah’s reform efforts.
Read as a whole, the book of Zephaniah depicts a society in turmoil, with particular emphasis on the failures of the political and religious leaders. Against the backdrop of moral and religious collapse, Zephaniah announces a total destruction that is understood as a massive cleansing. The surviving remnant will be transformed into a humble people experiencing comfort and joy in the Lord, their God, who is dwelling in their midst (3:12).