Introduction to Zephaniah—the Days of Josiah
The prophet Zephaniah prophesied during the days of King Josiah. We have no knowledge of his background except for what is given in verse 1 regarding his lineage. He was a fourth-generation descendant of Hezekiah. Most sources believe this refers to Hezekiah the king, which would make him a cousin of Josiah, though others correctly maintain that we can't know for sure. In favor, however, is the fact that his lineage is traced back four generations. Commentator Charles Feinberg remarks, "No other prophet has his pedigree carried back so far" (The Minor Prophets,1990, p. 221). Thus, the Hezekiah mentioned would seem to be someone of distinction.
Zephaniah's theme is the Day of the Lord, the time of God's intervention and punishment on the nations. "He uses the expression more than any other prophet of the Old Testament" (p. 221).
Zephaniah prophesied for a few years, beginning some say in the same year as Jeremiah, who began to prophesy in 627 or 626 B.C. Others place Zephaniah at a later date. Because there is no hint of Josiah's reformation in his writings, most scholars believe Zephaniah prophesied before the reforms began, though some believe the reformation was already underway. The words of the prophet in Zephaniah 1:2-6 do seem to indicate that he prophesied prior to any significant repentance by the nation of Judah—though this could be because the prophecy was meant primarily for the end time, the time of the Day of the Lord.
Indeed, Zephaniah's utterances have dual application. The Day of the Lord was a warning to seventh-century-B.C. Judah that God would punish them when their sins came to a climax—but, more directly, the words of the prophet mainly allude to the coming great Day of the Lord that is in the future. The language of Zephaniah 1:15 is identical to the description of the Day of the Lord as described in Joel 2:2: "A day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness." The prophet Ezekiel will later use language similar to Zephaniah 1:18, describing the time of the end when a man will deem his wealth (silver and gold) as totally worthless because it provides no shield against the terrible wrath of God (Ezekiel 7:19).
The message of doom apparently brought Judah to a degree of repentance, along with the warnings of Jeremiah and the leadership of King Josiah. Their great reform is described in 2 Kings 22:3-23:25. The repentance was short-lived though, lasting only through the lifetime of Josiah. After this, the people of Judah fell back into grievous sin, and the warnings of the prophets came to pass in some measure through the horrendous invasion by the Babylonians.
Idolatry Then and Now
God states that He will "utterly consume all things from the face of the land" (verse 2), including the "stumbling blocks" (verse 3)—"figurative of idols" (NKJV margin). A large reason for God's anger is Baal worship (verse 4) and because the people "swear by Milcom" (verse 5), an Ammonite god known elsewhere as Molech (see "Milcom," Smith's Bible Dictionary). The worship of Milcom or Molech was reprehensible to God. It included gruesome acts of infant sacrifice (2 Kings 23:10; Jeremiah 32:35).
Of course, this did fit the situation in the wake of the evil reigns of Manasseh and Amon over Judah. Yet Zephaniah's prophecy, it must be remembered, is primarily for the end time, as it concerns the coming Day of the Lord. How, then, does the prophecy apply in these last days? Notice that God is going to stretch out His hand "against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem" (verse 4). Jerusalem today is a city of Jews, Muslims and various Christian denominations. Can these groups be labeled as idolatrous? Indeed, they can. As surprising as it may seem, many of their doctrines and practices are derived from paganism.
Judaism was eventually corrupted by Babylonian and Greek religion. Mainstream Christianity adopted many of the same concepts and, to gain preeminence over the Roman Empire, embraced still more and more from paganism. Islam arose out of a blend of Jewish and false Christian concepts and Arab mythology. Notice that the people are guilty of syncretism—worshiping God but with pagan concepts and practices, which is viewed by God as their worshiping false deities (compare verse 5).
Consider that Molech is "probably to be equated with…the Roman god Saturn or Mithra" (Jan Knappert, Encyclopaedia of Middle Eastern Mythology and Religion, 1993, p. 206, "Molech"). Mithra has been identified with Baal, the sun god. His birthday was celebrated in ancient times on December 25. The modern holiday of Christmas derives from this ancient celebration and the Roman Saturnalia—in honor of Saturn, essentially the same god—which immediately preceded it. (To learn more, download or request our free booklet Holidays or Holy Days: Does It Matter Which Days We Keep?)
In verse 4, the phrase "idolatrous priests" is left untranslated in the King James Version. It is the Hebrew chemarim. "The Hebrew root means 'black' (from the black garments which they wore or the marks which they branded on their foreheads)" (Jamieson, Fausset & Brown's Commentary,note on verse 4). As we will soon read, Josiah removed the chemarim of his day (see 2 Kings 23:5). Yet it is interesting to consider that such "black-robed priests" could designate various groups today—from Catholic priests to Greek Orthodox presbyters to orthodox Jewish rabbis to many Muslim imams. This may be the "foreign apparel" of verse 8—in that case denoting gentile religious garb—although the subject of verse 8 could also be people who exploit others to become wealthy, enabling them to purchase exotic foreign clothing.
In Zephaniah 1:9, God says He will punish "all those who leap over the threshold." The Nelson Study Bible says this "may refer to a pagan practice like one mentioned in 1 Samuel 5:5. The priests of Dagon would not step on the doorway of the temple to Dagon because the hands and the head of Dagon had fallen there." Are there modern participants of Dagonism? Surprisingly, a case can be made that "the two-horned mitre, which the Pope wears, when he sits on the high altar at Rome and receives the adoration of the Cardinals, is the very mitre worn by Dagon, the fish-god of the Philistines and Babylonians" (Alexander Hislop, The Two Babylons, 1916, 1959, p. 215).
The "Fish Gate" of verse 10 "received its name from the fish market which was near it. Through it passed those who used to bring fish from the lake of Tiberias and Jordan" (JFB Commentary,note on verse 10). Perhaps this is actually a figurative reference here to those by whom the fish-god Dagon, alluded to in the previous verse, has come into Jerusalem. In the same context we are told of punishment to befall the "merchant people"—"lit[erally], the 'Canaanite people': irony: all the merchant people of Jerusalem are very Canaanites in greed for gain and in idolatries" (note on verse 11).
Yet for all this, far too many sit complacently, believing "the Lord will not do good, nor will He do evil" (verse 12)—meaning He won't do anything. The apostle Peter referred to such people as "scoffers…in the last days" who say, "Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation" (2 Peter 3:3-4). Yet, as the book of Zephaniah makes clear, the scoffers are sorely mistaken. Those sacrificing to false gods (participating in false worship) will themselves become a sacrifice of God if they fail to repent (verses 7-8; compare Isaiah 34:6; Revelation 19:21), slain for the sake of all mankind