Lesson 1 of6
In Progress

Summary of Zephaniah


The book opens with the announcement of the Day of the Lord, which is characterized as a day of massive, even total, destruction. It is a day that reverses creation; humans, animals, birds, and the whole world will be swept away (1:2-3; 17-18). Officials (1:8), people of means (1:13), and other subgroups are mentioned, but the chapter does not limit the devastation to specific groups within Judah. A possibility of being protected through the destruction is mentioned at the start of chapter 2 (2:1-3), but it is not promised. The bulk of chapter 2 contains oracles against nations and shifts to destruction outside of Judah. Chapter 3 returns to Judah. Threats against Judah and its capital city, Jerusalem, are intermingled with references to a surviving remnant (3:12-13). They will rejoice and sing in concert with God’s own rejoicing over them as restored people.


In three chapters Zephaniah ranges through the major prophetic themes of judgment and salvation. The book announces judgment in comprehensive terms matched only by the extensiveness of God’s transformation and restoration. The book prompts consideration of the communal consequences of sin and squarely focuses any future beyond judgment on God’s removal of the judgments and reconstitution of a faithful people.


Zephaniah is the 36th book in the Christian Old Testament, falling between Habakkuk and Haggai. It is the ninth of the 12 Minor Prophets. (“Minor” means “shorter,” not “less important”).


The superscription (1:1) attributes the book to Zephaniah and traces his genealogy back to Hezekiah. The Bible does mention other individuals named Zephaniah, notably a priest in Jeremiah (21:1; 29:25, 29; 37:3; 52:24), but there is no other linkage to the Zephaniah named in the superscription. It is often claimed that Zephaniah had a royal background based on his ancestry. The superscription, however, does not call Hezekiah a king. It is best to admit that besides having the name Zephaniah, we know nothing else about the author.


The superscription places Zephaniah in the reign of Josiah, whose reign extended from 640 to 609 B.C.E., but the book itself does not directly provide additional information to fix the date more specifically. Josiah’s reform and Judean expansion are not mentioned, though Zephaniah is certainly interested in far-reaching changes to Judean society. Assyria and Nineveh are mentioned, but Babylon is not. The combined effect of these factors has led most interpreters to assume the book is set in the early part of Josiah’s reign.


The book announces the destructive “Day of the Lord” (Heb: yom adonai) directed against both Judah and the nations followed by God’s transformation of the people into a faithful and rejoicing community in harmony with God.


The Book of Zephaniah employs standard styles of prophetic speech. The announcement of judgment that opens the book can only evoke repentance, though without the repentant being promised deliverance (see the “perhaps” in 2:3). As a rule, the book assumes a communal scope of guilt and judgment. A gracious future, if it is to exist at all, is on the other side of the destruction of the community and is God’s act of transforming the community into a faithful one. To read in concert with the book (that is, to be addressed by the book), contemporary readers need to step outside of an individualistic understanding of guilt, innocence, and grace, recognizing themselves as part of a larger social matrix in which the acts of each affect all. It can be tempting for Christian readers of the Old Testament to point to Christ as the answer to any difficulty in its pages, but Zephaniah has its own movement through judgment to joy and hope. This judgment is real, profound, and sweeping but it does not get the final word in life with God–joy and comfort found in God’s work to renew and restore does.