Zephaniah was a prophet of God who lived during the final years of the Southern Kingdom of Judah (640-609 BC). Unlike Habakkuk and other prophets who hid their identities, Zephaniah opens his writings by not only naming himself as the writer, but also traces his lineage back to the former king of Judah, Hezekiah (1:1). Being a descendent of royalty would have given him direct access to the Judah’s king, Josiah (1:1).
Like most prophetic books, in order to understand it correctly, it is imperative to grasp the context of the prophet. Zephaniah was a contemporary with Jeremiah, however, Zephaniah’s mission field was Judah, not Israel. For decades, Judah had failed spiritually under the reigns of Hezekiah’s son Manasseh (695–642 BC) and grandson Amon (642–640 BC). They had allowed false gods, idolatry, and debauchery to infiltrate Judah. In addition, there was a complete neglect for the Book of the Law.
In God’s providence, Hilkiah the high priest found the Book of the Law when repairing the house of the Lord (2 Kings 22:8). After reading it, King Josiah repented and sought to correct the ungodly worship that transpired throughout the kingdom (2 Kings 23). Zephaniah either prophesized before, and/or perhaps during Josiah’s reforms. Unfortunately, the wicked kings before Josiah had done too much damage and Judah was never able to recover. Worshipping false gods ingrained the people of Judah. Despite his best efforts, Josiah was unable to bring Judah back fully to the Lord and he was eventually killed on the battlefield.
Zephaniah was given words from the Lord describing all that would happen. In the Book of Zephaniah are his writings warning the king, leaders, and people of what was to come.
Most scholars agree that the book can be broken down into three main sections:
1:2-2:3 The Lord’s Judgement on the Whole Earth and Judah
2:4-3:8 Judgment on Specific Nations and Jerusalem
3:9-20 Hope for All
Title for Series 1: Many Nations Not Under God
Big Idea for Series: God Sees and Righty Responds to All Nations
A citizen of the United States of America vows his or her loyalty and commitment to the nation and its values by restating the Pledge of Allegiance. Often times, children grow up memorizing and practicing this pledge in grade school or at other community functions. This sermon series plays off the notion that it is challenging for a nation to be fully devoted to God. In other words, is any nation truly, “one nation under God?” In the years of Josiah, the king, Zephaniah prophesized to Judah and the surrounding nations, that God brings justice to nations who do not worship the Lord. However, there is hope for those that remain faithful. This sermon series can remind people that any nation who does not worship God is subject to his judgement, but also is able to receive his grace.
Title for Series 2: A Painful Kind of Love
Big Idea for Series: God Purifies His People in Love
Some believe that the God of the Old Testament is a God of judgement and the God of the New Testament is a God of love. Some may even think of God as a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. However, in this series, the listeners can learn that God purifies his people because of his intense love for them. Zephaniah contains some of the most powerful imagery of God’s wrath found throughout the Bible. However, God’s wrath is not simply to destroy, but rather to redeem and purify.
Text: Zephaniah 1:1
Title: Zephaniah: The Loyal and Royal Prophet
Exegetical Idea: God’s word comes to Zephaniah, a descendent of King Hezekiah, and prophesizes during the spiritual challenges of the kingdom of Judah under the reign of Josiah.
Big Idea 1: In tumultuous times, it is important to stay loyal to God and country.
Big Idea 2: God appoints messengers to convey his message.
Title: The Great Day of the Lord is Near
Exegetical Idea: Zephaniah describes the Lord’s judgment on all humanity, especially Judah, by using apocalyptic imagery because of the people’s worship of false gods, but gives a glimmer of hope for the remnant who seeks the Lord and repents.
Big Idea 1: When a nation turns from God, it is almost as if God turns from the nation.
Big Idea 2: Sometimes God’s justice comes before his love.
Text: Zephaniah 2:4-3:8
Title: All Will Fall
Exegetical Idea: Zephaniah continues to describe the day of the Lord and his purging of injustice on the specific nations of the Philistines, Moabites, Ammonites, Cushites, Assyrians, as well as what will become of those in Jerusalem because of their corruption, pride, and worshipping false gods.
Big Idea 1: Every ungodly nation will receive God’s justice.
Big Idea 2: All will fall to the purification of God.
Text: Zephaniah 3:9-20
Title: Hope is Powerful
Exegetical Idea: Zephaniah proclaims that the Lord’s wrath is not to destroy the nations, but rather to purify them into a unified family that rightly worships and dwells together with the one true God.
Big Idea 1: The Lord desires not simply one nation under God, but all nations under God.
Big Idea 2: After the consequences of sin comes the God’s deep, nonstop love.
Prophetical books can be some of the most challenging to interpret and apply correctly. Therefore, it is important to ask the right questions when wanting to preach from one of the prophets. For instance, it is important to ask, “What is the basic theme and purpose of each prophetic book? How does the purpose of the book fit in with the overall unifying theme of the whole Old Testament and the theme or central plan of the whole Bible? In addition, when preaching from the Book of Zephaniah it is also important to ask, “What does this book say about the person and character of God?”
Another component in recognizing how to apply the Book of Zephaniah is to have a firm grasp of the historical situation in 2 Kings 22-25. The names, places, and events in these chapters is crucial to place Zephaniah in its proper context. This will also help to understand the nature of Judah and the situation king Josiah found himself.
One error a preacher can make is trying to relay the role of the prophet as the role of the modern listener. Instead, a far more fruitful comparison can be made between the biblical audience and the contemporary audience. In other words, the wise interpreter will not ask, “How are my people like Zephaniah,” but will instead ask, “How are my people like the people to whom Zephaniah preached?” The relevance of the prophet’s words must be determined by the historical situation of the current audience.
Therefore, the Book of Zephaniah allows the preacher to address several different topics such as:
God’s justice and judgment (1:2-3)
The need to turn from false gods and worship the Lord (2:4-15)
The importance of nations to surrender to God (3:8)
God’s way of purifying and redeeming people who are far from him (2:1-3; 3:9-10)
God’s grace and love (3:11-20)
These are just a few of the many issues Zephaniah’s listeners needed to hear and areas that can be applied for the modern listener as well.
Even though the Book of Zephaniah is a short book, there are several theological themes worth noting. If not addressed, these themes may confuse the listeners and perhaps in some circumstances, may have the potential to turn people away from God if misunderstood. The following are a few major theological themes that may be identified.
The most obvious theological theme found in the Book of Zephaniah is the wrath of God on Jerusalem (1:4; 3:1-7), Judah (1:14-18), surrounding nations (2:4-15), and all of humanity (1:2-3). Zephaniah’s prophecy of the destruction and annihilation of many is troubling, if one does not have a proper theology of God.
To understand God’s wrath, it is imperative to comprehend the Lord’s utter disdain and hatred towards sin. Zephaniah is prophesying to a nation and people who have turned from God and worship false gods. Their commitments and adoration to idols brings judgement upon themselves.
The fact that God hates sin and idolatry ought to be praised. An alternate world where God tolerates or accepts sin and false worship would be a wretched and sad place. However, Yahweh intensely hates sin and therefore chooses to eradicate it from this world. As one reflects on God’s wrath, it would be in remiss to not contemplate what the Lord Jesus Christ accomplished on the Cross for all humanity. As a result of our sin, Jesus bore the full wrath of God that was meant for us in order that we might be saved (Rom. 3:25-26).
Day of the Lord
Zephaniah uses the term “Day of the Lord” frequently at the beginning of his book (1:7; 1:14). Throughout the Bible, this term is usually identifying the events that take place during the time of Christ’s return. The preacher will need to determine whether Zephaniah’s prophecies were for just the immediate future and the oncoming destruction that came at the hands of the Babylonians (605–586 BC) or if it is doubly fulfilled during the End Times.
Most of Zephaniah’s prophecy is about the imminent doom and destruction as a result of God’s judgment on a wicked world. However, amid the intense language for people who oppose God, his grace is also on display towards the remnant who still worship him. God’s grace gives hope to people in Jerusalem, as well as all nations, that he will still be their God and they will be his people and dwell among them (3:11-20).
My Encounter with the Book of Zephaniah
Zephaniah is a challenging book to preach through because of the intense language of God’s judgement and wrath. However, as I continued to interact with the book and had a clearer understanding of God’s hatred towards sin, I became more amazed and humbled by God’s grace.
The Minor Prophets, except Jonah, are most likely unknown to the modern listener. So, whenever I venture into preaching on their writings, it feels refreshing because I get to teach people something brand new.
I constantly remind myself to preach Zephaniah with caution, but when done well, it could make a lasting impact on how serious God takes sin and how much grace he showers upon us.
Kenneth L. Barker and D. Waylon Bailey, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture. Vol. 20 (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 1998).
Barker and Baily contribute to The New American Commentary, which is for both the minister and the Bible student. They focus on the NIV translation but also interact with the Hebrew text. Their work helps the reader to understand and apply the Book of Zephaniah.
Adele Berlin, Zephaniah: Anchor Yale BibleCommentaries (New Haven: Yale University Publishing, 1994).
Berlin’s use of vivid and power language helps bring Zephaniah to life for the reader. She draws vital similarities between the Book of Zephaniah and the rest of the Old Testament scriptures. She excels in helping the reader understand the political and social times of the context of Zephaniah.
O. Palmer Robertson, The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1990).
Robertson does a stellar job of comparing both theology and prophecy, adding insights to the events that surround Judah and its neighbors. Robertson exegetes each verse giving the reader a detailed understanding of every passage.
 Hassell Bullock, An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophetic Books (Chicago: Moody, 1986); D. Brent Sandy, Plowshares and Pruning Hooks (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2002); Robert Chisholm, Handbook on the Prophets (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002); Desmond Alexander, From Eden to the New Jerusalem (Grand Rapids Kregel, 2008).
Chris Rappazini serves as the Biblical Exposition Program Head at the Moody Bible Institute in Spokane, WA, is an associate teaching pastor at Southside Christian Church, and is on the Board of the Evangelical Homiletics Society.