1 The word of the Lord that came to Zephaniah the son of Cushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah, in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah.
2 “I will utterly sweep away everything
from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord.
3 “I will sweep away man and beast;
I will sweep away the birds of the heavens
and the fish of the sea,
and the rubble with the wicked.
I will cut off mankind
from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord.
4 “I will stretch out my hand against Judah
and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem;
and I will cut off from this place the remnant of Baal
and the name of the idolatrous priests along with the priests,
5 those who bow down on the roofs
to the host of the heavens,
those who bow down and swear to the Lord
and yet swear by Milcom,
6 those who have turned back from following the Lord,
who do not seek the Lord or inquire of him.” – Zephaniah 1:1-6 ESV
To understand a book like Zephaniah, you have to establish the historical context. Any attempt to read it without first determining the identity of his original audience, and the unique circumstances in which they lived, will leave its content obscure and its application impossible.
The book was most likely authored by the man whose name it bears: Zephaniah. There is debate over the exact meaning of his name. It has been translated as “Jehovah has treasured” and “whom Jehovah hid.” Along with the obscurity of his name, we are given little in the way of details concerning Zephaniah’s background. In the opening verse he describes himself as “the son of Cushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah.” This would make him the great-great-grandson of Hezekiah, one of Judah’s former kings. Which means he had royal blood pulsing through his veins.
Zephaniah’s royal lineage provides a unique link between Judah’s past and the present circumstances in which the prophet is living. He acts as a kind of human bridge between two different eras of the nation’s history. The very mention of King Hezekiah’s name provides a link to his reign. He is one of the few kings of Judah who, upon death, received a positive statement regarding his time on the throne. The book of 2 Chronicles states, “he did what was good and right and faithful before the Lord his God” (2 Chronicles 31:20 ESV). And it adds, “every work that he undertook in the service of the house of God and in accordance with the law and the commandments, seeking his God, he did with all his heart, and prospered” (2 Chronicles 31:21 ESV).
What makes Hezekiah’s reign especially significant is that he inherited the throne from his father, Ahaz, one of the most wicked and immoral kings in Judah’s long history. And Zephaniah, the great-great-grandson of Hezekiah provides a bridge between this godly king and the current king of Judah, Josiah.
King Hezekiah had been a godly outlier in the long line of unrighteous and disobedient kings of Judah. The book of 2 Kings provides a flattering description of this man reveals the one-of-a-kind nature of his reign.
He trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel, so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him. For he held fast to the Lord. He did not depart from following him, but kept the commandments that the Lord commanded Moses. And the Lord was with him; wherever he went out, he prospered. – 2 Kings 18:5-7 ESV
Josiah had been a reformer, spending the majority of his reign attempting to correct all the immoral excesses of his father. He had reopened the temple and reinstated the Levitical priesthood. He destroyed all the pagan altars and temples, removing all vestiges of idol worship from the land of Judah. He even reestablished Passover as a national holiday in Judah. Under his leadership, the nation experienced a spiritual renewal and revival.
But after his death, the nation would find itself headed back into apostasy. Hezekiah was succeeded by Manasseh, who ascended to the throne at the young age of 12 and promptly led the nation into another season of spiritual rebellion. Sadly, he is described in less-than-flattering terms: “he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (2 Kings 21:2 ESV). This young man undid all that his father had done, returning the people to a state of idolatry and apostasy.
“…he rebuilt the high places that Hezekiah his father had destroyed, and he erected altars for Baal and made an Asherah, as Ahab king of Israel had done, and worshiped all the host of heaven and served them.” – 2 Kings 21:3 ESV
Upon his death, Manasseh was followed by his son Amon. And this apple did not fall far from the tree. He picked up where his father had left off, leading the nation into further spiritual decline.
And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, as Manasseh his father had done. He walked in all the way in which his father walked and served the idols that his father served and worshiped them. He abandoned the Lord, the God of his fathers, and did not walk in the way of the Lord. – 2 Kings 21:20-22 ESV
But this wicked young man did not reign for long. He was assassinated by his own servants and his son Josiah was made king in his place. Amazingly, in spite of his father’s evil influence and example, Josiah proved to be a godly king. The description of his reign bears a striking resemblance to that of Hezekiah.
“And he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and walked in all the way of David his father, and he did not turn aside to the right or to the left.” – 2 Kings 22:2 ESV
Josiah reigned in Jerusalem from approximately 640 to 609 B.C. And while he was far from a perfect king, he made significant strides in restoring the nation’s spiritual state. In the 18th year of his reign, he ordered the restoration of the temple, which had fallen into a state of disrepair. In the process, the workmen discovered the Book of the Law, the Mosaic Law given by God on Mount Sinai. Hilkiah, the high priest, read the content of the book to Josiah, and “When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his clothes” (2 Kings 22:11 ESV). Convicted by what he heard, Josiah repented and called the entire nation of Judah to a time of renewal and rededication to the ways of God.
And the king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people joined in the covenant. – 2 Kings 23:3 ESV
We are not told when Zephaniah received his calling to be a messenger for God. So, it is impossible to know if he began his prophetic role before or after the reforms of Josiah. All we know is that it was “in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah.”
And the opening verses of his book seem to paint a rather bleak picture. While the reign of Josiah would be marked by radical reforms and a renewal of the covenant between God and His people, Zephaniah’s words are far from encouraging or complimentary. The news he delivers is not good. And what makes it worse is that it comes from the lips of God Himself.
“I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth…” – vs. 2
“I will sweep away man and beast…” – vs. 3
“I will sweep away the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea, and the rubble with the wicked…” – vs. 3
“ I will cut off mankind from the face of the earth…” – vs. 3
“I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem…” – vs. 4
“I will cut off from this place the remnant of Baal and the name of the idolatrous priests along with the priests…” – vs. 4
God is not happy. And it really doesn’t matter if these messages from God came before or after the reforms of Josiah. God knew the hearts of His people. He had seen reform and revival before, and He knew that, too often than not, it was short-lived. Restoring the temple, reestablishing the Passover, and renewing the covenant did not mean that the hearts of the people had been changed. God could see into the hearts of His people and He was well aware that external behavior was not always an indicator of internal change.
“These people draw near to Me with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. Their worship of Me is but rules taught by men.” – Isaiah 29:13 BSB
“What right have you to recite My statutes and to bear My covenant on your lips?” – Psalm 50:16 BSB
Hezekiah and Josiah act as bookmarks, bracketing a period of spiritual apathy and apostasy in Judah. Hezekiah began a series of reforms, but his efforts were curtailed by Manasseh and Amon. Josiah would pick up the mantel of his predecessor, but he too would find that his reforms lacked staying power. The propensity of the people to act unfaithfully was too strong. In spite of Josiah’s best attempts to restore righteousness in Judah, the people would continue to “bow down on the roofs to the host of the heavens” (Zephaniah 1:5 ESV). And their hypocrisy would be evident as they “bow down and swear to the Lord and yet swear by Milcom” (Zephaniah 1:5 ESV). Milcom was another name for Molech, the god of Ammon. So, in other words, the people of Judah were guilty of worshiping Yahweh while also bowing down to the false gods of the nations of Canaan. They were hedging their bets, attempting to maintain their relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, while supplementing His care with that of the myriad idols available to them in Canaan.
But God wanted no part of their syncretistic worship. He described it as what it truly was, their abandonment of Him, accusing them as having “turned back from following the Lord” (Zephaniah 1:6 ESV), and of no longer seeking or inquiring of Him.
These opening verses are prophetic in nature, describing a series of future events that will involve not only Judah but the world as a whole. At this point, it is impossible to tell the exact timeline God has in mind here. All of the things Zephaniah has shared lie in the future, but some will take place long before others. When will God “sweep away everything from the face of the earth”? The prophet doesn’t say. When will God “sweep away man and beast” and “cut off mankind from the face of the earth”? Again, we are given no details. But it is painfully clear that God is unhappy with the state of affairs on earth. Things are not as they should be and He is stating His intention to rectify what is wrong. When it will happen is far less important than the fact that it will happen.
God is attempting to gain the attention of the people of Judah. They have become complacent and comfortable. Some are living in obvious rebellion to God, while others feign allegiance and practice their infidelity in secret. But God sees through it all. He is well aware of the true condition of His peoples’ hearts. And He will not tolerate their unfaithfulness and unrighteousness forever. So, as He has done so many times before, God sends His prophet to warn the people about the unavoidable consequences of their actions. And He lets them know that if they continue to what they are doing, He will be forced to act. And He simply states, “I will…”
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.