The people of Judah persisted in idolatry. Even though disaster had overtaken their Israelite brethren to the north, they imagined they would be spared on account of the Temple. Nevertheless, judgment was coming. Many prophets were sent to warn Judah about what would soon take place; one such prophet, often neglected, was Zephaniah the son of Cushi.
All we know about Zephaniah comes from the book that bears his name. He prophesied in the days of King Josiah (Zephaniah 1:1; 640-609 BCE); the portrayal of Assyria as relatively prosperous might suggest a message declared in the earlier days of Josiah (cf. Zephaniah 2:13-15). “Zephaniah” means “YHWH hides” in Hebrew. “Cushi” could simply be a first name, or it could denote a place of origin: a Cushite, from Cush, modern day Sudan in Egypt; the continuation of the lineage with Gedaliah, Amarah, and Hezekiah suggests the former is more likely than the latter. Some have suggested that the Hezekiah who is Zephaniah’s great-great-grandfather is King Hezekiah of Judah, but this is also unlikely. Zephaniah’s indictments portray a Judah still saturated in idolatry and immorality, in strong contrast with the general presentation of the faithfulness of Josiah (cf. 2 Kings 22:1-23:30): perhaps Zephaniah prophesied before Josiah’s reforms took hold in the land, or perhaps Josiah’s reforms went unheeded by many within the land.
Zephaniah focused on the imminent day of YHWH coming for Judah (Zephaniah 1:2-18). YHWH would consume everything: man and beast, birds and fish, the stumbling-block and the wicked, and man would be cut off from the face of the ground (Zephaniah 1:2-3). Such should not be taken to its extreme; it suggests a complete devastation of the land of the people of God on account of the idolatry they have committed, as Zephaniah would explain: YHWH would stretch out His hand against Judah and Jerusalem to remove Baal, the priests installed to serve the idolatrous images of YHWH (the real meaning of chemarim; cf. 2 Kings 23:5, Hosea 10:5), those who prostrated themselves before the host of heaven on their roofs, those who swore by Milcom (also known as Molech), those who had turned back from following YHWH, and those who did not seek YHWH or inquire of Him (Zephaniah 1:4-6). Many of the Judahites had become like all of the nations around them, serving all sorts of gods; even those who may not have served other gods, yet did not seek YHWH and His purposes, would share in the same condemnation.
Zephaniah then envisioned the upcoming Day of YHWH against Judah as the day of YHWH’s sacrifice (Zephaniah 1:7-11). All were summoned to hold their peace, for the Day of YHWH had come, and He was about to make His sacrifice, and His guests were consecrated (Zephaniah 1:7). YHWH’s sacrifice would be His people and land! Punishment would come to the authorities who had grown fat and rich and imbibed foreign customs (princes, king’s sons, those wearing foreign clothing; Zechariah 1:8). Punishment was also decreed for those who “leap over the threshold”; some suggest Zephaniah spoke of the service of Dagon among the Philistines (cf. 1 Samuel 5:5), but it seems out of place here; he most likely referred to those who would enter into the property of others to steal, filling the houses of their employers with violence and deceit (Zephaniah 1:9). The Day of YHWH would lead to great lamentation: the cry of lamentation would be heard throughout the city of Jerusalem, at the Fish Gate, in the Second Quarter, in the hills, at the Mortar (the meaning of maktesh), for many would have died, and the traders would have been cut off (understanding ‘am canaan here not as “Canaanites” but as traders, specifically Judahite traders; Zephaniah 1:10-11).
YHWH’s judgment would search out those who proved complacent, those convinced that YHWH would do neither good nor ill: their houses would be plundered and laid waste, and thus even if they would build a house, they would not live in it, and if they would plant vineyards, they would not drink wine from them (Zephaniah 1:12-13). Some Judahites therefore lived as if YHWH or His purposes had little do with their lives, and presumed that all would continue as it always had, and depended on it. They would soon learn the gravity of their error.
Zephaniah would then recapitulate and emphasize what had been decreed (Zephaniah 1:13-18). The Day of YHWH was near, and coming soon: a bitter day, a day of wrath, distress, anguish, devastation, gloom, clouds, thick darkness, the blast of trumpets, and war (Zephaniah 1:13-16). The people would suffer great distress and would go about as blind people, disoriented in darkness, for they had sinned against YHWH, and their blood would be poured out on the dust and their flesh made like refuse; all visceral imagery describing the folly of Judah and its horrific consequences (Zephaniah 1:17). They might believe their wealth could save them, but neither silver nor gold would deliver them from the day of YHWH’s wrath, for the earth would be consumed in the fire of His jealousy, and an end for its inhabitants is decreed (Zephaniah 1:18). We should not get distracted by a maximized interpretation of Zephaniah 1:18, for the Day of YHWH came against Judah and Jerusalem, and yet the earth remains. To the people of Judah and Jerusalem it would certainly have seemed like the entire earth was being destroyed; their judgment would be like that of Sodom and Gomorrah, and their end was nigh.
Zephaniah’s message was not pretty or likely appreciated, yet pointed and quite necessary. Zephaniah, as many other prophets before and after him, condemned the idolatry of the people and warned about the imminent judgment of God. Yet Zephaniah’s imagery is compelling: YHWH is about to make a sacrifice of His people, for they have transgressed and rebelled, and refuse to repent. Judgment is not just coming for the idolaters; those who have become wealthy and cosmopolitan at the expense of others and those who do not seek YHWH or His purposes, having become complacent in the status quo, would suffer just as terribly.
Within a generation the Day of YHWH had come for Judah, and all of Zephaniah’s frightful portrayals became reality. As Christians we do well to learn from the past experience of the people of God. Many today persist in idolatry in some form or another, giving the service due the Creator to some of the things He has made (cf. Romans 1:18-25); many others do not seek God or His purposes, and do not inquire of His will. Many prove complacent, living their lives as if there is no God, confident He will do neither good nor ill for them. All of these delusions can be sustained for a time until they no longer work. We do well to repent and seek God and His purposes in Christ, lest we experience wrath on the final Day of YHWH!
Ethan R. Longhenry