The books that make up the Bible were not written in a vacuum. Though it is true that all Scripture is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16), it also true that each of the human authors had specific agendas when writing. They had certain audiences they wanted to reach. They arranged their material in such a way so as to accomplish clearly-defined goals.
While we must not overemphasize the human element of the Bible, thus losing the Divine, nor should we de-emphasize it, thus losing all context. Scripture is a beautiful, sacred dance. Its writing was initiated and led to flourishing finish by the Lord in the closing of the canon with the hope-filled words, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen” (Revelation 22:21), but He did not take pen to page Himself. Instead, He invited people He loved to share His mind and heart with others. We understand that we are called by Jesus to spread the Gospel (Matthew 28:16-20) so it should not surprise us that God would partner with the authors in this unique way.
Every page of every book is littered with meaning, and that meaning is more readily understood when we carefully place those pages and that book into the historical timeline. A surface-level reading of any part of the Bible isn’t always bad; the Holy Spirit enables His people to glean timeless spiritual truths from the words and implants them in our hearts (1 Corinthians 2:14-16). However, surface-level reading makes wide the space available for cherry-picking and twisting and misusing passages, even if unintentionally. So we can read casually, for comfort, but we must be sure to balance that reading with meditative, in-depth study of the texts.
So as the hosts of one of my favorite podcasts would say, “Let’s drop Zephaniah into history.”
A Very Short Tour
Place your seats in the upright and locked position. We begin our tour with Genesis 12.
There was a guy named Abraham who dropped all of his stuff, packed up his family and wandered around because God told him to. When he was 100 and his wife, Sarah, was 90, they had a kid named Isaac. (Abraham also had another kid, Ishamel, with a maid, Hagar, roughly 15 years earlier. It was his wife’s suggestion). Sarah died, Abraham did the second marriage thing and by the time Isaac had a bunch of half-siblings running around, he was all, “I need me a wife.” A dude on a camel traveled to another town and picked up a gal named Rebekah. They had two sons who fought with each other even in their mother’s womb. Esau, the older, sold his inheritance for a bowl of stew that Jacob, the younger, cooker up. Jacob then tricked Esau and ran away and ended up working for 14 years for a guy named Laban, ending up with two wives, two concubines and twelve sons.
The next-to-youngest son, Joseph, was kind of mouthy. He had all the dreams of greatness. His brothers got fed up with him, chucked him into a well and hung out, eating their picnic lunch, until some slave traders came by. They dumped Joseph with them. A journey to Egypt, a famine, some time in prison and a marriage later, Joseph reconnects with his brothers. There’s suspicion and a “stolen” cup and big emotional scene. They go home, get their families and move into Joseph’s pad.
Four hundred years later, the Israelites (as they came to be known) were slaves in Egypt. Moses killed a man and ran away to the desert, where he encountered God in a bush that burned but didn’t burn. After some hemming, hawing and haggling, he strapped on his sandals, took up his staff and had his brother Aaron say, “Let my people go.” Some horrific plagues and a parted sea later, they were gone, camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai, where God gave them the Law.
And then they grumbled and rebelled because they were afraid and so that generation died in the desert. Finally, at long last, the kids of those complainers set about conquering the Promised Land. They would have no king, because God was their king. Except that, at the end of the time of Judges, they decided they wanted a king because that’s what all the cool kids were doing. So this big dude named Saul became the king and did a really bad job. He was pretty ho-hum about following the Lord and proceeded to go nuts when his successor, a teenage shepherd named David, was revealed.
Saul and David chased each other around until Saul and all of his sons tragically died. David took up the crown. He had a few too many wives but wasn’t real satisfied so he took another man’s wife and then killed him when the wife discovered she was pregnant. God took that child because of their sin. David and Bathsheba (her name) had another baby, named Solomon.
David was the “man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22) but Solomon was the wisest and richest king Israel ever had. His reign was a time of peace and prosperity. Except that Solomon inherited his dad’s player ways and filled up a harem with a hard-to-comprehend 300 wives and 700 concubines (1 Kings 11:3). One of his kids, Rehoboam, became king next but was basically universally hated. Ten of the tribes were all, “We’re out,” and formed their own kingdom, keeping the old family name of Israel. Two tribes, Benjamin and Judah, stayed loyal to David’s house and since Judah was bigger, that’s what they went by.
Israel never had a good king. In 722 B.C. Shalmaneser V, ruler of the Assyrians, took up the task of besieging the capitol, Samaria. He died before the job was done but Sargon II made sure to complete the devastation. He deported a huge mass of people to various parts unknown and that was that.
Judah managed to avoid being taken by the next Assyrian king, Sennacherib. Here we end, roughly 3/4 of the way through the Kings and Chronicles narratives (which cover the same ground from different vantage points).
And you thought the Old Testament was boring.
The word of the LORD that came to Zephaniah son of Cushi, the son of Gedaliah, the son of Amariah, the son of Hezekiah, during the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah:
– 1:1 (NKJV)
Josiah ruled in Judah from 640-609 B.C. (all dates approximate because there wasn’t had standard universal calendar), a little less than 100 years after the fall of Samaria. Judah and Benjamin alone remained of the people descended from the 12 sons of Jacob. (Sort of. Some of the people of the Northern Kingdom were left behind. They intermarried with outsiders – big no-no -and reappear in the New Testament as the Samaritans).
“Politically, the times were in ferment. Assyria was losing its power, the Scythians were invading from the north and Babylon has become the leading empire.” (1)
The entire region was unstable. Manasseh, Josiah’s grandfather, had ruled for five long decades, leading his people ever-deeper into spiritual idolatry. We will discuss the kings that impacted Zephaniah next time. For now know that Josiah was the last gasp of greatness before the fall.
Zephaniah does not provide a specific date for his book. This leads to interesting speculation: Did he write before the finding of the Book of the Law in 622 B.C. (2 Kings 22) and thus help spur on the reforms of Josiah, or did he write after, pointing to the incomplete nature of those reforms? (Again, we will discuss Josiah at length; at the moment it is only important to understand that the nation was experiencing upheaval in the midst of regional tension). Scholars are divided in their answers, but I find the following plausible:
“It is possible that because 1:4 refers to the remnant of Baal, the prophecy is best placed between the two [reform movements] and was meant to encourage Josiah to encourage the good work he had begun. A date about [627/626] would also fit well with the events that were taking place in the political arena. Ashurbanipal, the last of the great Assyrian kinds, died in 627 and the Babylonians declared their independence from Assyria the next year. These would server as a fine setting for the pronouncement of the doom of Nineveh in 2:13-15. … [This] is also when the prophetic career of Jeremiah was inaugurated.” (2)
Of note in this opening verse is that Zephaniah was careful to trace his lineage to a Hezekiah – but was this the great King Hezekiah (1 Kings 18-20, Isaiah 36-39, 2 Chronicles 29-32), making Zephaniah a member of the royal family? It is impossible to state for certain, though it would make little sense for him to share his genealogy if he was not in fact descended from the king. His audience wouldn’t have cared if he was the twice great-grandson of a shepherd or farmer. Tentatively, then, we can rightly think of Zephaniah as having easy access to Josiah as they were related.
Zephaniah’s book consists entirely of messages, with no narrative action. We know that he ministered in Judah, but we don’t know where. It is highly probably that his activity was centered in and around Jerusalem, the capitol. The city, situated on a hill, was surrounded by a series of walls. Solomon’s Temple stood tall. The noise of the daily sacrifices competed with the sounds of the marketplace. Neighbors greeted each other while children played.
Ancient Judah was a largely agrarian society. Grain (barley, wheat), grapes, figs, olives, lentils, chick-peas, onions, cucumbers, melons, dates, pomegranate, almonds and spices were all common crops. Sheep, goats and cows could be seen grazing throughout the country. (3) Bartering was far more common than forms of currency. (4)
At this point in their history, Judah and Benjamin had succumbed to the temptation of idolatry. A remnant faithful to God remained, but the general thinking was that of Yahweh being a god, not the God. Ba’al (thought to be the Canaanite deity Hadad) was popular, as was Asherah. The people had defiled the Temple repeatedly by practicing the worship of these and other gods within its precincts. Particularly odious was the use of ritualized prostitution and the sacrificing of children.
It is onto this stage that Zephaniah steps.
I realize that this was a lot of information all at once. Don’t worry. We’ll explore these concepts in greater detail as we get into the meat of the book. (But I promise to attempt to make those entries much shorter). I simply want you, however familiar you are with the Bible, to have a sense of where Zephaniah fits into the history of the ancient People of God. They were real, flesh-and-blood. They had problems. Big ones.
They weren’t all that different from you and me.
To close us out today, I have a few general questions and suggestions:
- How comfortable are you with Bible study? Do you worry that you won’t be able to understand? Take a moment to pray. Share your concerns with the Lord. Ask Him to help you make sense of what you are reading. Tell Him that you want to hear and obey, but that you need Him to open your mind and heart to do so.
- Do you care about the Old Testament? Many Christians are very unfamiliar with this first portion of the Bible, shunning it as “not applicable.” The truth is that it is just as much God’s word to us as the New Testament. If you need to, ask God to change your attitude and help you tune in.
- What do you want to get out of this study? What do you want to learn?
- What stood out most to you in today’s background study? What confused you? What would you like to know more about? (Old Testament Gateway is a great place to start).
- Read through Zephaniah. It won’t take you long. Note repeated words and phrases. Jot down anything that seems important to you.
A Special Note
If you’re not a Christian and you’ve read all the way through this excessively long post – welcome. I’m glad you’re here. More importantly, God is glad you’re here too.
Until next time.
(1) Warren Weirsbe, Be Concerned: Minor Prophets (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 1996), 143.
(2) Andrew Hill and John Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 670-71.
Map: Wikimedia Commons
For all entries in The LORD Your God in Your Midst series, go here.