Lesson 4 of6
In Progress

Introductory Issues in Zephaniah

Oracles against the nations

Prophetic judgments announced against nations outside of Israel and Judah are common in prophetic books (for example, Isaiah 13-23; Jeremiah 46-51; Ezekiel 25-32, Amos 1-2, Nahum, and Obadiah). Zephaniah 2:4-15 is a short version of this kind of pronouncement. The function of this type of prophetic speech is debated both within the actual speaking of the prophets and within the books in their present form. Did Zephaniah actually speak these words to a flesh-and-blood audience, and, if so, what was the purpose of such speaking? 

Likely, the words were spoken only to Judeans, but the text does not name a specific occasion for doing so. All that can be said is that they are positioned after the destruction announced in 1:2-18 had taken place. In the aftermath, the oracles against the nations could be seen as the first phase of a restoration that is more fully described in chapter 3, but the text does not draw a direct connection. Perhaps the oracles against the nations were used to set up the Judean audience for the denunciation in the first part of chapter 3 as the opening chapters of Amos did for an Israelite audience a century earlier. If God can and will bring justice and judgment to those other nations, is Judah also not eligible for this treatment?

Prophetic tradition

Interpreters have recognized that Zephaniah echoes the larger prophetic tradition in its denunciation of injustice, idolatry, and religious indifference, particularly on the part of leaders (priests [1:4], royalty [1:8], judges [3:3], and prophets [3:4]). Zephaniah remains within that tradition but does not merely echo it. It is the prophetic tradition at work in a specific time and place, even though some of the particulars are no longer retrievable. The promises for the future at the end of the book have resonance with the end of the book of Amos and with Isaiah 40-55, but interpreters generally do not regard the interplay to be direct. There is resonance between them–evidence of a tradition of prophetic literature and language–even when they are not directly citing one another.

Royal descent

The four-generation genealogy in 1:1, unusual for a prophetic heading, has heightened speculation about Zephaniah’s relationship to King Hezekiah. When Zephaniah is seen as coming from royal stock, emphasis is placed on an insider’s view of the corruption. References to geographic places within Jerusalem (1:10-11) and to the practices of officials (for example, 1:8) are attributed to this supposed insider’s view. However, many, if not most, interpreters now regard a specific connection to King Hezekiah as unprovable and recognize that specific practices condemned in the book do not require specialized knowledge of the society’s inner workings. Anyone who was paying attention would have been able to diagnose the society’s ills in this way.