According to the first verse of this short book, Zephaniah prophesied while Josiah, the “boy-king” of Judah, was renewing the nation’s spiritual life following the horrors of Manasseh’s reign. Judah’s spiritual revival would be cut short, however, when the king died in battle (2 Chronicles 35:20ff). Zephaniah denounced his people’s corruption and wickedness, but also emphasized God’s merciful plan to restore them after the captivity and exile in Babylon was finished. The expression “the day of the Lord” forms the theme of his prophecies; in that day, (the nation’s) sin would be punished, true justice would prevail, and a faithful remnant would be preserved. Zephaniah’s main focus is on his own nation, but in chapter 1:18 he shows that God’s judgement will include “all the inhabitants of the earth” as well.
Zephaniah makes three basic points with his prophecies; first, that God had judged and was about to “execute sentence” on His own people, Judah (and no one in Judah would be “exempt”); second, that He would also not overlook the evils of the surrounding nations; and third, that after justice was served, God would fulfill His long-standing promise by preserving a remnant of His people.
In the 53 short verses of this book, God’s jealousy and wrath stand out in a vibrant way. Most modern readers will unconsciously view these as “bad” qualities, but we should understand that these words do not present God as some sort of “insane control freak,” but as the One Who loved, nurtured, protected, and provided for Judah despite the fact that they repeatedly betrayed their covenant with Him. Part of their “agreement” with God –which reached back to Mt. Sinai, Exodus 19:8, where their ancestors had promised “All that the Lord has spoken we will do”) –had acknowledged His rulership over them and His right to punish them for violating His law (Leviticus 26). When Zephaniah writes of God’s “jealousy” his reference point lies in Exodus 20:2-3, and the fact that Judah (under Manasseh) had turned aside to other “gods.” God’s “jealousy” over Judah did not stem from insecurity, but from His love; He gave them His absolute devotion, and expected no less of them: When they betrayed His trust, His great anger (“wrath”) was justified.
Notice next that Zephaniah shows two purposes for God’s judgement of Judah’s sins: The first was punishment, the “paying of a penalty” for what they had done wrong (1:4-6), and the second was to purge the nation of sin –to remove the influence it had exerted (this was the purpose of the Babylonian conquest and exile). These twin purposes comprise chastisement, which the Hebrews writer describes as proof of God’s love for His people (Hebrews 12:5-6). In chapter 3:8-9, Zephaniah lays out the Lord’s entire purpose, which is to bring His people back into a purified relationship with Him. His prophecy reaches its peak in 3:11 as Zephaniah pictures his nation’s condition after they have been cleansed of their sins; they shall no longer be put to shame. The arrogance and pride which led them astray will have been removed, leaving a people who would prize humility and could therefore rejoice in the presence of the Lord among them.