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Pett's Commentary on the Bible Pett's Commentary
by Peter Pett
Commentary on the Book of Zephaniah
by Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons:London) DD
Zephaniah prophesied during the reign of Josiah, one of the best of the kings of Judah. He reigned from 640 BC to 609BC. His reference to the future destruction of Nineveh (Zephaniah 2:13), which took place in 612 BC, fixes his writing before that event So the prophet ministered somewhere between 640 and 612 BC. His contemporaries were Nahum, Habakkuk, and the young Jeremiah. Jeremiah's ministry continued beyond the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC.
In view of his references to Baalism, and the lack of reference to Josiah’s reform, most would place his writing before that reform which took place on discovery of the book of the Law in the temple (around 622 BC), although some level of reform had probably already taken place in the first place in order for the book to be discovered.
The political situation in Judah during Josiah's reign was fairly peaceful. Following Assyria's capture of Samaria in 722 BC, the Assyrian Empire first advanced to new heights until it had overstretched itself, and then began to decline, and around one hundred years later Nabopolassar, the first of the Neo-Babylonian kings, (626-605 BC), began his campaign to free Babylonia from their grasp, in alliance with the Medes and Scythians. They were successful and finally destroyed Nineveh in 612 BC (see our commentary on Nahum), by which time the Assyrian empire was on its last legs.
In 605 BC it met its final end at Carchemish in alliance with its old enemy Egypt who feared the rise of Babylonian power. Josiah in fact met his end seeking to prevent the Egyptians from joining the Assyrians.
But the fact that Zephaniah does not target the Babylonians (or the Medes) as the instruments of God’s judgment suggests an early date for the prophecy, before they came to prominence.
Josiah, who came to the throne at the age of eight, guided by the godly Hilkiah, followed the evil king Manasseh who in his long reign had strongly encouraged the worship of the Assyrian gods, and Josiah was able eventually to get rid of much of the Assyrian religious practises, partly due to Assyria’s growing weakness. (Conquerors usually insisted that their gods were prominently worshipped by subject nations along woth their own). He extended Judah's territory north into Naphtali.
But while the Assyrian gods strongly affected temple worship, it was Baal, the Canaanite god, and Melek (Moloch), the Ammonite god (who demanded human sacrifice), who gripped the idolatrous hearts of the people outside Jerusalem, something which the kings had never been able successfully to combat.
It was in the eighteenth year of Josiah's reign (622 B.C.) that Hilkiah the priest discovered the Law of Moses in the temple, (probably Deuteronomy at least), and when Josiah read it he instituted major reforms throughout Judah. Josiah's reforms were good. He eliminated much of the idolatry in the land and revived the celebration of the Passover, but unfortunately his reforms could not change the hearts of all the people, and when he died they slipped back to their idolatry, as Jeremiah reveals in his earlier prophecies.
So the people to whom Zephaniah ministered had a long history of formal and syncretistic religion behind them without much real commitment to YHWH. And God brought home to his heart that because of their formal religion and their negligence with regard to God’s Law, and their willingness to compromise with idolatry, God would have to chastise and punish them in order to produce a remnant for the furthering of His purposes.
While we may see in what follows a pattern of the judgment to come in the final days, we must take note that Zephaniah specifically relates it to Jerusalem and Judah and the surrounding nations. It is not honouring to the word of God to make it say more than it does in order to support a theory.
Finally we should note that Zephaniah was a member of the royal house. He had influence where others could not reach, and was directly related to those whose misdeeds and misgovernment would bring about what he prophesied. He is, however, not called ‘the prophet’ (compare Habakkuk 1:1; Haggai 1:1; Zechariah 1:1), and was thus probably not an official prophet.