How are we supposed to make sense of a prophecy that starts with God killing all life on earth and ends with God singing for joy in Jerusalem?
Who knew God sang?
So far, this is sounding like a joke, with God singing for joy because people are finally making him happy.
Aren’t they all dead?
It seems not.
They’re alive. That’s what’s confusing.
How did they survive after God vowed,
“I’m going to kill everything… I’ll erase them from the face of the earth” (Zephaniah 1:1, 3).
One of the big challenges of Zephaniah’s prophecy is figuring out who he’s talking about. Who’s doomed? And who’s singing with God in Jerusalem at the end of the story?
Are we doomed?
Many students of the Bible say Zephaniah is talking about the future and the end of humanity followed by life in heaven, with a new Jerusalem.
It’s an idea that New Testament writers later picked up:
“I saw the city devoted to God, New Jerusalem” (Revelation 21:2).
Or were they doomed?
There are other contenders for doom and damnation.
Zephaniah criticizes the sins of the Jewish nation of Judah, and its capital city of Jerusalem.
He criticizes Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire that wiped out the northern Jewish nation about 70 years earlier.
He targets Moab, Judah’s neighbor to the east.
And he talks about Philistines, Judah’s neighbor to the west.
But in the third and last chapter of Zephaniah’s message, he dooms an unidentified “rebellious and sinful city” (3:1).
Though he doesn’t name the city, many scholars say the clues and context point to Judah, the nation Babylon would erase a generation later.
Perhaps the doom was hyperbole, exaggeration to emphasize how life-changing God’s punishment would feel. If so, then the message of joy and hope in the closing verses may have described what Jews experienced when Persians defeated Babylon and freed the Jews to go home and rebuild Jerusalem and Judah’s other cities.
Many Bible scholars, perhaps most, seem to lean in that direction. But even many of them say they get a sense of the apocalyptic in the message as well—as though the prophecy was intended to work on two timelines: Zephaniah’s, and again on some other Judgment Day in the future.
Zephaniah is the only prophet to climb four generations up his family tree. He may have done this to name-drop his most famous relative: King Hezekiah.
“Zephaniah was the son of Cushi, grandson of Gedaliah, great-grandson of Amariah, and great-great-grandson of Hezekiah” (Zephaniah 1:1).
If this Hezekiah was King Hezekiah, then Zephaniah was also related to the current king, Josiah. All kings of Judah descended from King David.
But other scholars say if Zephaniah wanted to name-drop his great-great grandpa King Hezekiah, he would have made it clear which Hezekiah he was talking about because Hezekiah was a common name.
Zephaniah prophesied during the last generation of Israelites in Judah before Babylonian invaders, in 586 BC, erased it from the world map and deported many survivors to what is now Iraq. Zephaniah ministered during the reign of King Josiah (ruled 640-609 BC.) Josiah was a religious reformer. He tore down shrines and worship centers devoted to other gods. But his effort seemed too little, too late. It didn’t stop the Babylonians, which the prophets described as God’s punishment of Judah.
Zephaniah lived and ministered in the southern Jewish nation of Judah, headquartered out of Jerusalem. The northern Jewish nation of Israel had been gone for about 70 years, wiped off the map by Assyrian invaders from what is now northern Iraq in 722 BC.
This short prophecy of 53 verses is a “last chance to repent” message for Judah—a nation stubborn and independent toward God and anyone else who told them what to do.
Israelite ancestors of today’s Jewish people developed the reputation for rebelliousness among empires that tried to control them. They rebelled when Assyria, Babylon, and Persian put the squeeze on them for tax money like a bully steals lunch money. Israelites didn’t like bullies.
They didn’t seem to care much for God’s rules, either.
Too bad, Zephaniah essentially says. If they don’t fall in line, they’re going fall in the dirt. He quotes God saying,
“I’m going to kill everything.
I’m going to sweep the earth clean.
I’ll kill all the people and animals,
birds of the sky, and fish of the sea” (Zephaniah 1:2-3).
That’s the reverse of Creation. People and animals die in the reverse order that Genesis says God created them (Genesis 1:20, 24, 27).