Zephaniah is the next book we are studying in our chronological walkthrough of the Old Testament writing prophets. With Zephaniah, we again encounter a prophet who is not mentioned outside of the book that bears his name. Nevertheless, what we read about this prophet suggests that he had more of an impact on the history of God’s people than might be discerned at first glance.
In verse 1 of today’s passage, Zephaniah traces his ancestry to Hezekiah. While there is not presently enough evidence to be sure of Hezekiah’s identity, many commentators believe that it is none other than King Hezekiah of Judah, whose righteousness exceeded most of Judah’s other rulers (2 Kings 18:1–8). This conclusion is due to the fact that while the common people of Judah are not entirely outside of Zephaniah’s concern, he refers most directly to the ruling class of Judah—princes, court officials, priests, and kings (Zeph. 1:8–9; 3:3–4). One commentator even suggests the intriguing possibility that if Zephaniah had a connection to the royal court of Judah because he was Hezekiah’s descendant, he may have been a shaping influence on young Josiah. That would help explain Josiah’s piety once he ascended Judah’s throne (2 Kings 22:1–23:20).
Josiah reigned from about 640–609 BC, which gives us an approximate time frame for Zephaniah’s ministry, since he prophesied “in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah” (Zeph. 1:1). Because the prophet mentions evident idolatry and other wickedness (vv. 4–5, 8–9), it is more likely that he ministered during the early part of Josiah’s reign, before the king’s religious reforms began in earnest. However, interpreting Zephaniah’s oracles rightly does not depend on locating his preaching with chronological precision. He proclaimed the day of the Lord without reference to a specific historical event (vv. 14–16), indicating that his main concern was the final day of judgment and not the historical anticipation of it that occurred when Babylon conquered Jerusalem.
Although Zephaniah lived in an era of religious reformation, his announcement of the day of the Lord indicates that even the most thorough societal reforms are useless without heart change. From our perspective, reform may delay the day of the Lord (though God has fixed that day in His eternal decree; Mark 13:32–37), but humanity’s wickedness means that God must act to vindicate His justice and purify creation.