The word of the Lord which came to Zephaniah…
– Zephaniah 1:1 (NKJV)
Next to nothing is known of Zephaniah, whose name means “hidden of the Eternal.”
Where was he born? Was he old he began his ministry? Young? Married? Single? Did he rock a righteous beard or was it rather scraggly? Was he bald? Short? Tall? What was his favorite food? Did he prefer dogs or cats? What was his experience of God’s call? Did he hear an audible voice? Was he ushered into Heaven? How did he feel about having the prophetic mantle draped across his shoulders?
All questions with no answers.
Prophets functioned as the human means through which God declared His word. Throughout Scripture, these men and women shared several characteristics:
- A call from God. Attempting to prophesy without such a commission was a false prophecy.
- Received word from God through many means – direct declarations, visions, dreams or an appearance of God.
- Spoke the word of God. They were primarily spokespersons who called God’s people to obedience by appealing to Israel’s past and future.
- Relayed God’s message by deed as well as by word.
- Performed miracles that confirmed their message.
- Conveyed the word of God by writing.
- Ministered to God’s people. Functioned as watchmen and intercessors.
- Genuine ecstatic experiences. Prophets were sometimes allowed a glimpse into the throne room of God or to see the pre-Incarnate Christ. (1)
The job of a prophet was not just to predict the future. This was certainly part of his ministry, but primarily he focused on calling the people to repent. Over and over the Old Testament prophets draw their audience back to the covenant made before entering the Promised Land. They remind their listeners and readers of the consequences that will befall them as a result of disobeying God – consequences that they were not ignorant of.
Despite the gloom and doom, the prophetic books possess an ultimately hopeful focus. God cannot ignore the sins of the nation, but there is almost always a promise of restoration:
Thus says the LORD: “Again there shall be heard in this place—of which you say, ‘It is desolate, without man and without beast’—in the cities of Judah, in the streets of Jerusalem that are desolate, without man and without inhabitant and without beast, the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voice of those who will say:
‘Praise the Lord of hosts,
For the LORD is good,
For His mercy endures forever’—
and of those who will bring the sacrifice of praise into the house of the LORD. For I will cause the captives of the land to return as at the first,” says the LORD.
– Jeremiah 33:10-11 (NKJV)
Isn’t that a beautiful picture of who God is? He is just and righteous and so He will faithfully execute judgment. He will honor our choices by responding to them with either positive or negative consequences. Yet He doesn’t throw a party when people reject Him. His heart is instead for all to know and be in relationship with Him:
“For I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies,” says the Lord GOD. “Therefore turn and live!”
– Ezekiel 18:32 (NKJV)
God is whole. Complete. Perfect. We, in our broken, incomplete, imperfection have a hard time understanding how justice and mercy come together. We wonder how kindness can be so very firm. I have no answer beyond that this is simply who God is and how He operates. Punishment for sin is a means God uses to finally bring humans, individually both and collectively, to repentance. That’s His goal. Really, that’s wild. He could ignore us. Or blow us off the face of the earth. He doesn’t
Perhaps wilder still, in a move that makes little sense given His transcendent nature and power, in the Old Testament era God chose to use people loyal to Him to proclaim that goal.
And so the prophets spoke.
Their lives were never easy. Danger dogged every step. They were unpopular and unwelcome. They spoke and wrote harsh truths to people who longed only to be told what they wanted to hear (much like our own day). While at any given moment they may have been surrounded by people, the nature of their call was solitary. They had to be tough. Yet they were just as human as the people to whom they spoke. They struggled with despair. Their burdens were great. I don’t think that we would be out of line to imagine that there were times when they spoke or recorded the holy messages with tears stinging their eyes.
…the prophets: who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again.
Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth.
– Hebrews 11:32b-3 (NKJV)
Why did they endure?
They loved the Lord. These were the men and women God found when His eyes searched the earth for those who were loyal to Him (2 Chronicles 16:9). Whatever they had to face was worth it because of the sweetness of His presence and pleasure.
Zephaniah’s heart beat in concert with the Lord’s. I imagine that first day, that moment when he knew, beyond doubt, what he was to do. Eyes closed, head bowed, shoulders slumped. Then, as if moved by an unseen hand, he straightens, shoulders square. Lids glide across corneas and suddenly brown irises blaze with fire. He stares into the crowd. He speaks.
An apparent 50 years’ silence of prophetic inactivity is shattered by the forceful and articulate voice of Zephaniah. The long reign of Manasseh (687–642 B.C.E.) witnessed the promotion of cults of other divinities alongside Yahweh, a situation which the Hebrew prophets, with their zeal for the worship of Yahweh alone, opposed. The abuses attacked by Zephaniah in chapter 1, such as astral worship (1:4–5) and aping foreign customs (1:8–9), are largely those decried in Kings (II Kings 21:2–9; 23:4–7), which Josiah’s reform (621 B.C.E.) sought to eliminate. The external situation was even more ominous. The breakup of the mighty Assyrian empire with the attendant cataclysmic upheaval was already causing a premonition of doom to pervade the international atmosphere. Such a time was propitious for a sensitive person, steeped in the cultic and literary traditions of his people, to arrive at a deepened meaning of the swiftly approaching Day of YHWH. (2)
- What do you think Zephaniah was like? (Don’t panic. I’m not asking you to add to Scripture. This is simply a creative exercise meant to help immerse you further into the context of the book).
- Read Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1. These chapters record the initial experiences of other prophets.
- John Wesley wrote of Hebrews 11:33, “Faith overcomes all impediments; effects the greatest things; attains to the very best; and inverts, by its miraculous power the very course of nature.” (3) Pause now and pray. Confess your doubts and worries to God. Ask Him to grow your faith.
You didn’t think, did you, that just by pointing your finger at others you would distract God from seeing all your misdoings and from coming down on you hard? Or did you think that because he’s such a nice God, he’d let you off the hook? Better think this one through from the beginning. God is kind, but he’s not soft. In kindness he takes us firmly by the hand and leads us into a radical life-change.
– Romans 2:4 (MSG)
How do you respond to the idea of God’s kindness including firmness? What does this make you think? What does this make you feel?
- Read through Zephaniah again, this time from the viewpoint of the prophet. What stands out to you?
Until next time.
(1) Chad Brand, Charles Draper, and Archie England, eds., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 2003. “Prophecy, Prophets.” p. 1334.
(3) Wesley’s Explanatory Notes
For all entries in The LORD Your God in Your Midst series, go here.