Bible: From corruption to reform
June 5 — Zephaniah 1:4-6, 14-16, 2:3
The prophet Zephaniah ministered in Judah about two generations after Isaiah and Micah. He may have been a direct descendant of King Hezekiah (1:1). However, by his time, Judah’s leaders had long forgotten Hezekiah’s reforms. 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 instituted.
King Hezekiah’s son Manasseh ruled Judah for 55 years. Manasseh “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (2 Kings 21:2). He even sacrificed his son to Baal. He “shed . . . innocent blood, filling Jerusalem from one end to another” (21:16). Manasseh’s son, King Amon, also “abandoned the Lord” (2 Kings 21:22) and was assassinated after only two years in power. Amon’s 8-year-old son, Josiah, in time, brought about wide-ranging reforms after the rediscovery of the law book in the Temple.
Zephaniah, though, prophesied early in Josiah’s reign, before those changes occurred. He addressed Judah at the end of a long period of profound corruption, idolatry and injustice that stemmed from the sins of those entrusted with leadership.
The book is short but significant. We get a two-pronged prophetic critique — internally aimed at the people of the kingdom of Judah, especially their leaders, and externally aimed at the unjust “great” nations of the world. Then comes a powerful vision of hope and healing.
In this way, Zephaniah follows the pattern established by earlier prophetic books. A sharp critique — often a strong statement of certain judgment — leads to a vision of salvation that concludes the book.
How should we hold these two emphases together? Does God both punish and heal?
Zephaniah links the two greatest kings of ancient Israel and Judah: Hezekiah, his great-great-grandfather; and Josiah, the boy king who was in the early years of his reign when Zephaniah prophesied.
Of all the kings mentioned in 1 and 2 Kings, only these two meet with unqualified praise. Zephaniah may have had a major impact in moving Josiah to his reforms — and he may also have influenced the ministry of his younger contemporary, the great prophet Jeremiah.
Zephaniah offers a threefold critique of: 1) Idolatry, giving loyalty to Canaanite fertility gods rather than the God of Israel; 2) Syncretism, mixing the worship of God with worship of other gods; and 3) Indifference toward God, thinking that God no longer cares.
The impending doom of Israel, Zephaniah suggests, actually shows God does care. This point will be a crucial part of Jeremiah’s message, which helps God’s people sustain their sense of identity when doom comes at the hands of Babylon. God had insisted at the beginning that if the people turned toward injustice and idolatry they would be “spit out” of the promised land.
These prophets insist that God’s warning is being sustained — and that there is a future, should they turn back. This turning back is summarized with great brevity in Zeph. 2:3 (echoing Micah 6:8): seek the Lord, do justice, be humble.
This mighty little book continues to challenge its readers. Do we also face impending doom? Consider the possibilities: climate change, growing militarism, profound inequality, the extinctions of countless species. The model of Zephaniah, Josiah and Jeremiah calls for untiring efforts to reform the unsustainable status quo — but to do so in a way that provides spiritual resources for at least a remnant to carry on in redemptive ways.
Ted Grimsrud is professor of theology and peace studies at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.
Mennonite World Review invites readers’ comments on articles. To promote constructive dialogue, editors select the comments that appear, just as we do with letters to the editor in print. These decisions are final. Writers must sign their first and last names; anonymous comments are not accepted. Comments do not appear until approved and are posted during business hours. Comments may be reproduced in print, and may be edited if selected for print.