You might be wondering if we’re ever going to get around to actually discussing the book of Zephaniah. Take heart! I know it’s unusual to spend so much time introducing and contextualizing a section of Scripture that’s only three chapters, but we won’t walk away from this series with a complete understanding of the book without this background work. Bible study requires effort, but it’s an effort that ends in blessing. Don’t check out.
Most people do not fine Zephaniah easy reading, [so] it may help you in this regard to see his careful literary structure,which take the form of a series of concentric patterns…within each of these, and sometimes interlocking between, them, there are further concentric patterns. (1)
These patterns are called chiasms, a literary device in which a series of ideas are presented and then repeated in reverse order. This creates a “mirror” effect:
We use chiasms in everyday language. For example, have you ever said, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going”? Have you ever read or heard John F. Kennedy’s quote, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”? We speak this way without realizing it. A chiasm is simply a way of comparing and contrasting.
How and Why
How do we figure out if what we’re reading is a chiasm?
The first step is often to notice two separated passages on the same subject or which use the same infrequently-occurring words, or words which are significant for the authors argument but which do not otherwise occur with frequency in the given section.
The intervening material between the two passages is then scrutinized for parallel vocabulary and/or ideas which match each other step-by-step until a [center] is reached. Generally the closer one comes to the [center] the more precise the parallelism becomes, until it is frequently a phrase-for-phrase balancing.
Having established that there is a [center], one then extends the limits until no more effective parallelism of subject and/or vocabulary is to be found. (2)
Why does this even matter?
It can help one to see the whole argument and its main point.
One side of a chiasm may shed light on the meaning on the other side or even the meaning of the [center] when either is in doubt. (3)
What’s wonderful is that you don’t have to be a literary theorist or critic to discern pattern and meaning in a book. Few if any of us sit down to read without caring to comprehend what we’re reading, even when it’s a dry assignment for school or work. We’re already looking for pattern and meaning. Knowing how a portion of the Bible is structured before reading is just one more useful tool to aid in understanding.
The large chiastic frame of Zephaniah:
A. God’s judgment of Judah, with consequent wailing (1:2-18)
B. God’s judgement of nations (2:1-3:8)
A. God’s redemption of the remnant, with consequent rejoicing (3:9-21) (4)
Don’t get hung up here. You’re not an idiot if none of this is making sense right now. Keep going. It will click.
Zephaniah also exists within the “if, then” pattern seen throughout Scripture, though it is more implied than directly stated. God makes it very clear that if His people obey, there will be blessings (not always material in nature). If His people disobey, there will be consequences. If we do this, then God will do that. If we do that, then God will do this. The warnings of the prophet logically flow from this place. His words function as gigantic, neon, flashing STOP sign. If the inhabitants of Jerusalem heeded, then God would forgive and spare them. If they refused, then God would bring punishment.
All of this is expressed in brilliant and powerful images…[and a] frequent use of hyperbole. (5)
Hyperbole is an exaggerated statement or claim that isn’t meant to be taken seriously. Again, we speak this way on a daily basis. “It took forever” doesn’t mean that a task actually stretched on into eternity and “It was like a million years ago” doesn’t mean that an event actually took place that far back on the timeline. The first indicates frustration, the second surprise or incredulity or forgetfulness. We know this without being told.
The effectiveness of the hyperbole in Zephaniah
…lies in the people’s taking seriously the extent of the tragedy that awaits them. (6)
The prophet wrote in heightened, poetic language, confronting his reader with the enormity of what was to come if there was no rush to repentance. Zephaniah wanted to shake his people out of their stupor. He needed them to see, to understand, what was going to happen. It was his job to be direct, blunt and forceful.
It was also his job to say exactly what God told him to say. God uses strong, even combative words in order to reach those He loves. He knows who will respond to a gentle whisper and who will respond to a mighty roar. He knows when His people need tenderness and He knows when they need a swift kick in the pants. By the time Zephaniah came on the scene, God had spent centuries calling, wooing, reminding. As the clock ticked toward destruction, He began to speak in a great, booming voice.
- Think of one or two examples of chiastic phrases or sentences that you use or hear often. Write them down. In what situations do you use this kind of language?
- Read Mark 2:27. Diagram the sentence using the “AB,BA” model above.
- Think of some “if, then” statements that you use or hear often. Write them down. In what situations do you use this kind of language?
- Read Deuteronomy 4:29. What are the people to do? What will God do?
- Think of one or two examples of hyperbole that you use or hear often. Write them down. In what situations do you use this kind of language?
- Read Matthew 23:23-24, focusing on verse 24. What point does Jesus make here?
- Read through Zephaniah again, this time focusing on patterns. What stands out to you?
Until next time.
(1) Gordon D. Free and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible Book by Book: A Guided Tour (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 249.
(4) Fee, 249
(5) Fee, 250.
Image: Chiastic structure
For all entries in The LORD Your God in Your Midst series, go here.