Zephaniah preached in the reign of Josiah in Judah (639-609 BC). This was a heady time of promise and threat. Judah was experiencing a brief moment of relative freedom as the Assyrian Empire was in its final decline. In this situation, Josiah presided over a radical reform of religion. All artefacts associated with idolatry were removed from the Temple and destroyed, the offering of sacrifices in places other then the Jerusalem Temple was abolished, the shrines destroyed and the priests removed. A ceremony was held in which Josiah led the people in a covenant to obey the laws of God, and a reformed Passover was celebrated. Josiah is recorded in the histories as an outstandingly godly king.However, the sense of a new beginning was short-lived. By that time the days of Judah as a kingdom were numbered. About ten years after these reforms, Josiah was killed by the King of Egypt while trying to prevent him from going to the assistance of Assyria against Babylon. This attempt to help Babylon did Judah no good in the long run. Twelve years later the Babylonians took control of Judah and deposed Josiah’s son, and after another eleven years they destroyed Jerusalem and deported most of its leading citizens to Babylon.
As Zephaniah looks out over the devastations being wrought by the Assyrians and then by the Babylonians, his book begins:
“I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the LORD.
I will sweep away humans and animals;
I will sweep away the birds of the air
and the fish of the sea…..”
However, this does not apparently include the kingdom of Judah. God’s purpose there is to cut off all remnants of the worship of Baal and other gods, and to seek out and punish all those who have participated in these practices. Other nations, meanwhile – the Philistines, the Moabites, the Ammonites, the Assyrians and even the faraway Ethiopians – will be utterly destroyed.
Along with this will come a humbling and purification of the “remnant of Israel”. The proud leaders will be removed, leaving behind “a people humble and lowly” who will seek refuge in the true God of Israel and live in his ways.
Like most of the prophets, Zephaniah projects his fears and hopes for Israel and surrounding nations onto a cosmic screen. This is part of the style of prophetic hyperbole, a feature still found in poetry today. But looking from the point of view of our own time there is perhaps a new relevance in Zephaniah’s language. Today, with nuclear weapons and climate change, the inability of human beings to act justly, to curb their inordinate greed and ambition and to live together in peace is posing a threat to the whole global environment. There is now a real possibility that not only human life but even “the birds of the air and the fish of the sea” could be swept off the face of the earth. Or, if that does not happen, there could remain a depleted human race, “a people humble and lowly” to start the hard task of rebuilding civilisation on sounder principles. That rather obscure and grim prophet who lived 2,600 years ago is still able to furnish a “wake up” call to humanity in the twenty-first century.