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Notes On Zephaniah

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith

Structure and Outline Of Zephaniah

The entire book of Zephaniah is constructed as a chiasmus, the purpose of which is to emphasize the character and certainty of the judgment about to fall upon Judah and Jerusalem. Zephaniah alludes to well known historical events--the Noahic deluge, the Exodus, and the Conquest--to structure his book. The central and most emphatic portion of the book is the call for repentance (2:1-3). The promise of salvation also, breaking the chiasmic structure at the end of the book (3:9-20), has particular force.

Chiasmic Structure

Judgment like the Flood

First, we must consider the structural indicators. Biblically literate readers in Zephaniah's day would not have missed these allusions and we shouldn't either. In chapter one, after a self introduction unique for its long personal genealogy, Zephaniah begins the prophecy proper with a clear reference to Noah's flood: "I will utterly consume all things from off the land, saith the LORD. I will consume man and beast; I will consume the fowls of the heaven, and the fishes of the sea" (Zep. 1:2-3a). The language is remeniscint of Genesis 6:7, 17. There can be no mistake about the literary reference here. Nor can there be any mistake about its importance for the book as whole. Twice in these two verses Zephaniah proclaims: "the oracle of the LORD!"

Judgment like the Exodus

The next paragraph in chapter one begins with the words "I will also stretch out mine hand" (1:4), an allusion to the book of Exodus. The verb translated "stretch out" is a common verb, used over 200 times in the Old Testament and frequently in the book of Genesis. But it is not until the book of Exodus that the expression "stretch out the arm" or "stretch out the hand" is used and it is used with remarkable frequency (6:6; 7:5, 19; 8:5, 6, 16, 17; 9:22, 23; 10:12, 13, 21, 22; 14:16, 21, 26, 27; 15: 12). This expression is used, furthermore, only in the first 15 chapters dealing with the judgment on Egypt and in those chapters the Hebrew verb "stretch out" is not used in any other sense. In the book of Deuteronomy, referring back to the Exodus deliverance, Moses uses this expression again (Deu. 4:34; 5:15; 7:19; 9:29; 11:2; 26:8). In the whole of the Mosaic corpus "stretch out the hand" (arm, rod) is an expression used only with reference to the judgment on Egypt. When the same expression is used elsewhere, we may be sure that there is a literary reference to the historical judgment of Egypt and a suggested comparison to that great manifestation of God's covenant faithfulness and power to save His people by applying terrifying judgments on those who are persistently obstinate.

A similar expression is used with reference to Joshua, demonstrating that he is the true successor to Moses (Jos. 8:18, 19, 26). Solomon refers to foreigners who will seek the God of Israel when they hear of God's judgments against Egypt (1 Kings 8:42; 2 Chron. 6:32). The Psalmist also refers to the deliverance from Egypt with this almost technical expression (Psalm 136:12). Isaiah, to whom Zephaniah frequently refers, also uses this expression repeatedly to refer to God's judgment of Israel because they had forsaken His law and become proud like the pagan Pharaoh (Isa. 5:25; 9:12, 17, 21; 10:4; 14:26, 27; 23:11; 31:3). The prophet Jeremiah, who also uses this phrase to describe God's judgment of Judah (6:12; 15:6; 21:5), refers in prayer to the Exodus as the time when God delivered Israel "with a strong hand, and with a stretched out arm, and with great terror" (Jer. 32:21). Ezekiel too, who uses this expression frequently (6:14; 14:9, 13; 16:27; 20:33, 34; 25:7, 13, 16; 30:25; 35:3), is no doubt alluding to the Egyptian judgment (cf. esp. 20:33ff.).

Judgment like the Conquest

In the next paragraph (1:7-13) Zephaniah turns to another well known historical event to provide a picture of judgment. He speaks of a day of sacrifice when the city of Jerusalem is offered up to God. This is the language of the conquest of Canaan. Although Zephaniah does not use the word associated with the total destruction of the Canaanite cities (charam), the idea of the city of Jerusalem being sacrificed is clear enough (cf. Deu. 13:12-17). The link with Canaan is made even more clear by Zephaniah referring to the merchants as "Canaanites" (1:11).

The next paragraph also (1:14-18a) continues the description of judgment in terms of the conquest of Canaan. God Himself as the mighty warrior who leads the army is a typical theme of the conquest (Deu. 3:22; 20:4; Jos. 10:14, 25, 42; 23:3; cf also Exo. 14:14; Psa. 24:8; 78:65;), but this time He is leading a foreign army against His own people:

"The great day of the LORD is near,

it is near, and hasteth greatly,

even the voice of the day of the LORD:

the Mighty One shall cry there bitterly."

Zephaniah clearly means for us to understand the LORD Himself as the warrior here for he has simply restated the words of Isaiah 42:13, making the connection between the two verses clear by the use of a rare word for "cry" (used only twice in the Old Testament, Isa. 42:13 and Zep. 1:14). The Lord's cry is said to be bitter, I think, because of His jealousy (cf. Zep. 1:18; 3:8; and Num. 5:12ff.; also for bitterness associated with war 1 Sam. 15:32; 2 Sam. 17:8; cf. Amos 8:10 for bitterness associated with the day of the Lord, and Hab. 1:6 for bitterness associated with the Babylonian army).

Verse 18b returns to the theme of flood judgment (cf. Nah. 1:8-9 for the use of the same word in 1:18b "riddance"). This is indicated by a double emphasis on total judgment -- "the whole land shall be devoured by the fire of His jealousy" and "He shall make even a speedy riddance of all them that dwell in the land". Though flood-judgment language abounds in Zephaniah and is not necessarily limited to the sections which refer to the flood, the crucial phrase of 1:18, "the whole land shall be devoured by the fire of his jealousy" is repeated in 3:8, which clearly refers back to 1:2-3 by the use of the phrase "oracle of the LORD" and the verb "gather" used to mean judge.

The phrase "oracle of the LORD" is used throughout the book. In 1:2-3 it is used twice in the section dealing with flood-like judgment, In 1:10 it appears for a third time in the context of Conquest-like judgment. Then, in 2:9 it is used a fourth time, again in the context of Conquest-like judgment. Finally in 3:8 it appears in a reference to flood-like judgment.

Judgment like the Conquest Again

After the call to repentance in 2:1-3, Zephaniah takes us back through the same pictures of final judgment again. Chapter 2:4-12 have the theme of Canaanite conquest in the background, referring to Philistia as Canaan in an unusual manner: " O Canaan, the land of the Philistines" (2:5). Also, in what seems very natural, but is nevertheless not common, Zephaniah refers to Moab and Ammon as Sodom and Gomorrah (2:9). Of Ethiopia it is simply said that they will be conquered by the sword, that is, destroyed by military conquest (2:12).

Judgment like the Exodus Again

In 2:13, taking up the theme of the judgment of Assyria, Zephaniah for the second time uses the almost technical expression for the Exodus judgment of Egypt, "And He will stretch out His hand against the north, and destroy Assyria."

Judgment like the Flood Again

Finally, in the second proclamation of judgment on Judah and Jerusalem (3:1-8), Zephaniah returns to the theme of the flood: " for all the earth shall be devoured with the fire of my jealousy" (3:8).


This gives us an outline of the book like this:

Zephaniah: Final Judgment Coming to Judah And the Nations

Introduction: 1:1

Part 1: Judgment on Judah, 1:2-2:3

A. Final Judgment like the Noahic Deluge, 1:2-3

B. Final Judgment like the Exodus, 1:4-6

C. Final Judgment like the Conquest, 1:7-18a

(A. Final Judgment like the Flood, 1:18b)

D. Call to Repentance (Remnant), 2:1-3

Part 2: Judgment on the Goyim, including Judah, 2:4-3:20

C.' Final Judgment like the Conquest, 2:4-12

B.' Final Judgment like the Exodus, 2:13-15

A.' Final Judgment like the Noahic Deluge, 3:1-8

D.' Promise of Salvation (Reversal of Babel), 3:9-20

Purpose of Chiasmic Structure

The purpose of this extended chiasmus is twofold. First, it is a device for emphasizing the central theme of Zephaniah, final judgment on the nation of Judah. This theme is hinted at in the unusually long genealogy in chapter one, the point of which, I think, is to remind us of Hezekiah. In his days the Babylonians visited Judah on a friendly visit and the the king showed them all the treasures of his palace. Isaiah the prophet, to whom Zephaniah frequently alludes, rebuked the king: "Behold, the days come, that all that is in thine house, and that which thy fathers have laid up in store unto this day, shall be carried into Babylon: nothing shall be left, saith the LORD" (2 Kings 20:17).

Isaiah's prophecies of the judgment of Judah are about to be fulfilled. Judah needs to know, however, that the judgments they are about to encounter are qualitatively different from the kind of judgments they had experienced previously. This time they face a final judgment of epochal significance, like the judgment at the time of the flood. For Egypt and Canaan too, the judgments poured out by God on them were final judgments, not mere chastisement. The nature of the judgment about to be poured out on Judah is emphasized further in the constant repetition of the language of total judgment. The overall point is clear, there is no escaping God's wrath against the sin of Judah.

The second purpose of the chiasmus is to highlight the central section, 2:1-3, the call to repentance. Chiasmus structure focuses attention of the central element of the structure. The story of the flood in Genesis, for example, is an extended chiasmus with Genesis 8:1 at the center, bringing into emphasis the main point of the story: God's grace to Noah. In Zephaniah the message of final judgment has at its center a call to repentance, a final chance for at least a remnant to be saved.

The final section of the book is also emphasized by breaking the parallel structure of the chiasmus (3:9-20). The warning of judgment is not only a call to repentance for the salvation of a remnant, it is also a word of comfort for those who do believe. Though they live in a time of judgment, they are reminded that judgment in history leads to the growth of God's kingdom. The reversal of the tower of Babel suggested in the words of Zephaniah 3:9 hints at the international character of the next stage in the development of God's covenantal kingdom.

Judah and the Nations

I see the first part of the book as referring to the judgment of Judah and the second part of the book as referring to the nations. Many commentators regard the language of 1:2-3 as indicative of universal judgment. In so far as these verses allude to the flood, this view has merit. But I think that Zephaniah intends rather to associate the judgment of Judah with the judgment of the flood because he is saying that the people of God have become indistinguishable from the Gentile nations. This is indicated later in the book where Zephaniah specifically calls Judah a "goy" (2:1, 9; 3:8). In the final verse on the condemnation of Judah (3:8), the judgment is pronounced against kingdoms and nations in general, not just Judah. The point here appears to be that Judah is just one of the "goyim" and so the judgment on Judah is included with that of the "goyim."

The language of 1:2-3 is similar to the language of 3:1 in that in each case our first impression is that the reference is to the nations. 3:1, continues after the condemnation of Nineveh as if it still applies to the Assyrian capital. It is only as we continue reading--it is clear by verse 4--that we realize that Zephaniah was referring to Judah since 3:1. This same style is used in 1:2-3. The language appears at first to apply to the Gentiles, but as we read further we discover that Zephaniah is speaking of Judah.

It is interesting to notice that the promise of salvation too begins with the Gentiles with a promise to reverse the judgment of the tower of Babel (3:9) and the rest of the promise concerns "Israel." Judah disappears into the new Israel and salvation extends to the whole race.



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