Reflections on Old Testament Prophets (Zephaniah)

Heeding a prophet (Zephaniah 3:1-5, 8-9)

Published in Mennonite Weekly Review (June 25, 2007)

The prophet Zephaniah ministered in Judah probably about two generations after Isaiah and Micah. He may have been a direct descendant of King Hezekiah (1:1). However, by the time of Zephaniah, the reforms of Hezekiah had been long forgotten.

Though Zephaniah prophesies during the reign of King Josiah (1:1), he must have written early during Josiah’s time since he never discusses the positive changes Josiah later instituted.

Hezekiah’s successor, his son Manasseh, ruled Judah for 55 years. Manasseh “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord,” imitating the surrounding nations (II Kings 21:2). He even sacrificed his own son. He “shed…innocent blood, filling Jerusalem from one end to another” (21:16). Prophets during this time warned of God’s judgment: “I am bringing upon Jerusalem and Judah such evil that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle” (21:12).

Manassah’s son, King Amon, also “abandoned the Lord” (21:22) and was assassinated after only two years in power. Amon’s eight year old son, Josiah, then became king and reigned for 31 years. Josiah, after he became an adult, brought about wide-ranging reforms following the rediscovery of the law book in the Temple.

Zephaniah, though, prophesied early in Josiah’s reign, before these changes occurred. Hence, he addresses Judah at the end of a long period of profound corruption, idolatry, and injustice. These problems stemmed from the sins of those entrusted with leadership in the community.

Zephaniah is unsparing in his critique of Judah’s leaders. “The officials within [Jerusalem] are roaring lions; its judges are evening wolves that leave nothing until the morning. Its prophets are reckless, faithless persons; its priests have profaned what is sacred, they have done violence to the law” (Zeph 3:3-4).

Warnings and promises

The prophet’s words bore fruit. We are not directly told that Zephaniah influenced King Josiah. But the timing of his prophecies seem to cohere closely with Josiah’s reforms. And surely this is no coincidence.

That things did change in Judah (for a time) as a consequence of these harsh prophetic words–“my decision is to…pour out…my indignation, all the heat of my anger,” Zeph 3:8–helps us see that these words were not set-in-concrete predictions so much as exhortations to change.

Zephaniah, like his fellow prophets, engaged in social criticism in order to seek healing in Judah, not simply to condemn. We see this within the book itself. As do the other prophets we have looked at, Zephaniah follows his words of critique and dire warnings with promises of healing: “I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord” (3:9; see also 3:10-20).

Everyone’s responsibility

How much of a model is Zephaniah for us today? His focus on the failures of Judah’s leaders certainly underscores the importance of faithfulness on the part of those entrusted with power in our communities. It also highlights the risks that people with power face in being continually tempted to exploit their positions for their own gain. No one is immune from such risks.

However, the story of Judah’s fate following Josiah’s reforms warns us not to put too much weight on the importance of people in power. Josiah did respond to Zephaniah’s critique and worked to transform Judah. He died young, though, and his reforms died with him. The survival of Israel’s faith depended upon the non-elite keeping the message of Torah alive in their own lives, not upon the remote chance that someone at the top might set things right with top-down reforms.

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