5 Min Read

Zephaniah is a remarkably sophisticated book full of intricate reversals, wonderful poetry, profound promises, and stern warnings. Prophesying toward the end of the Southern Kingdom, Zephaniah’s message is largely one of judgment that the Lord will work first on Judah through the exile (Zeph. 1:4–6) but also universally on the last day against all mankind (Zeph. 1:2–3), making up the majority of the book (Zeph. 1:2–3:8). And yet, while Zephaniah has a focus on judgment, he ultimately takes the reader to hope in the promises of God to redeem His people (Zeph. 3:9–20). Three things help us gain more understanding of the way Zephaniah portrays his prophetic message of judgment and hope.

1. Zephaniah is saturated with allusions to earlier Old Testament books.

If you want to understand Zephaniah, the best advice I can give is to know your Bible well. Zephaniah’s prophetic ministry is replete with allusions to earlier Old Testament passages that provide the key to understanding his message. A few examples illustrate this point:

  • In Zephaniah 1:2–3, we see an inversion of Genesis 1, wherein Zephaniah references creation in reverse order as an image of judgment and destruction. While Genesis 1 records the origins of all things in God’s creative work, Zephaniah prophesies a universal “sweeping away” of all things in judgment. While alluding to Genesis 1, the prophet also builds upon it in the final reference concerning the sweeping away of “the stumbling blocks (i.e., idols) with the wicked.” It is man in his wicked idolatry that precipitates judgment.
  • In Zephaniah 1:9, there is reference to God’s punishing those who “leap over the threshold.” Here, Zephaniah draws from Philistine worship in the temple of Dagon (1 Sam. 5:5) and describes the people of God worshiping Him in a similar fashion, joining the worship of the one true God with pagan practices. This allusion not only informs the syncretistic worship of Israel as a reason for God’s judgment, but also identifies the following mention of the “master’s house” as the temple that is filled with “violence and fraud” through false worship.
  • In Zephaniah 2:15, Assyria says, “I am, and there is no one else,” which comes from a refrain in Isaiah 40–48 where God is the One who “is” and “there is no other” (see Isa. 44:6; 45:5, 6, 14, 18, 21; 46:9). Assyria’s sin is arrogant and blasphemous self-exaltation in which they identify themselves as God.
  • In Zephaniah 2:4–15, a good portion of Zephaniah’s “oracle against the nations” draws from the table of nations in Genesis 10.
  • In Zephaniah 3:9–12, redemption is a reversal of Babel (Gen. 11:1–9).

These allusions, along with many more, show that Zephaniah is saturated with other Old Testament passages.

2. The day of the Lord is one of judgment and restoration.

One of the most important themes in Zephaniah is the “day of the Lord,” a phrase which occurs sixteen times in the Old Testament, three of which are in Zephaniah (Zeph. 1:7, 14). Other phrases also take the reader back to the exact language of the “day of the Lord,” such as references to the “day” (twenty references), “at that time” (four references), or simply with “then” (two references), making a total of twenty-nine explicit references to the day of the Lord. Scholars have long puzzled over what the day of the Lord is, with primary theories being that it is a day of religious ritual, holy war, theophany, covenant, or some combination thereof.

Zephaniah contributes to this discussion by giving us a more basic idea of this “day.” While each of those features from scholarly theories are present in Zephaniah, he depicts the concept as the more basic reality of God’s coming. The day of the Lord in Zephaniah is the day that the God of heaven rouses Himself from His heavenly temple using religious motifs (Zeph. 1:7, 9), comes as the divine warrior at the head of His heavenly hosts (Zeph. 1:7, 14, 16), applies covenant curses and blessings (Zeph. 1:13, 18; 3:19–20), and approaches in theophanic glory (Zeph. 1:15). The day of the Lord is, most basically, the day of His coming. It is the blessed hope for those who have faith as they are brought up the mountain of God (Zeph. 3:11) where they dwell secure eternally (Zeph. 3:9–20), but the dreaded day of wrath for the wicked (Zeph. 1:2–18, 2:4–3:8).

3. Humility and pride are key themes.

Finally, the day of the Lord motif in Zephaniah is joined to his key theological idea of an inversion of destinies for the proud and the humble. Proud self-exaltation is the main reason for judgment on the day of the Lord. After laying out curses against Moab in response to their boastful taunts against God’s people, Zephaniah explicitly states:

This shall be their lot in return for their pride,
because they taunted and boasted
against the people of the Lord of hosts. (Zeph. 2:10)

The proud are those who will be “removed” from the Lord’s holy hill (Zeph. 3:11). Not only are the proud self-exalting, but their pride has a corresponding blasphemous and boastful self-exultation. The nation of Assyria is described as an “exultant city” who takes for themselves the refrain mentioned above from Isaiah 40–48 about who God is—the “one who is and there is no other” (Zeph. 2:15). Proud self-exaltation manifests itself in blasphemous self-praise. But on the day of the Lord, those who exalt themselves and exult in themselves will be brought low.

Redemption in Zephaniah, however, is the exaltation of the humble who exult in the Lord. The change from judgment to salvation in Zephaniah 3:9 is in a gathering of worshipers from all nations, whom Zephaniah depicts as “a people humble and lowly” (Zeph. 3:12). They do not exalt themselves, but “call upon the name of the Lord” for their salvation (Zeph. 3:9). The humble do not exult in themselves but worship the Lord and exult in Him (Zeph. 3:14). Moreover, in a picture of the wonder of God’s love and exaltation of the humble, the Lord exults over the humble in Zephaniah 3:17!

While for a time the people of God may be described as the “lame” or the “outcasts” (Zeph. 3:19) whom the nations boast against (Zeph. 2:8) and shame (Zeph. 3:19), the promise of God is that He will exalt the humble and make them “renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth” (Zeph. 3:19, 20). Indeed, the key exhortation comes in 2:3 where Zephaniah calls us to “seek righteousness; seek humility,” which is programmatically a call to “seek the Lord.”

In summary, we can say that the theological message of Zephaniah, portrayed through manifold connections to other Old Testament texts, is that on the day of the Lord, “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matt. 23:12).

This article is part of the Every Book of the Bible: 3 Things to Know collection.