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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on Zephaniah

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( 1:1 ) Editorial Superscription

See A1, 2.

( 1:2–18 ) The Day of YHWH's Judgement against Judah and Jerusalem

The main indictments of the Judean community and warnings of YHWH's judgement appear in vv. 4–16 . These are now set in a framework, vv. 2–3 and 17–18 , which extends God's judgement against Judah and Jerusalem on to a universal, more cosmic stage. vv. 2–3 , what is announced is a complete reversal of the act of creation as described in Gen. ch. 1 . All the main aspects of the created order will be swept away. To drive the point home, the word rendered in NRSV as ‘humans’ and ‘humanity’ is ᾽ādām (as in Gen. 1:26–7 ), and there is the same paronomasia with the word ‘earth’, ᾽ădāmā, as in Gen. 2:5, 6, 7, 9 . In a general reversion to chaos from created order human beings will lose their divinely given rule of the earth (see de Roche 1980 ). vv. 4–6 , for the phrase ‘remnant of Baal’ see A.2. The word rendered in NRSV as ‘idolatrous priests’ is rare and relates only to those who serve other gods (2 Kings 23:5; Hos 10:5 ). This may have led a glossator to add an explanatory ‘with the priests’ showing that, in his view, God would judge his own priests as well. v. 5 links this with astral worship (see 2 Kings 23:4–5 for an account of how this cult was overthrown in Josiah's reform). ‘Milcom’, NRSV, is a version of the name of the Ammonite god (1 Kings 11:5 etc.). The Hebrew is pointed to read ‘their king’ (malkām), which might refer to Baal worship. The point is that Judeans combine worship of YHWH with that of other deities. Either these are contrasted with yet others (v. 6 ) who have simply abandoned the worship of YHWH without embracing that of any other god, or religious syncretism is seen as in fact abandoning YHWH anyway.

vv. 7–9 , the day of YHWH: the call ‘Be silent’ was used in the cult to announce the theophany (Hab 2:20; Zech 2:13 ) but here YHWH's appearance among his people is not for salvation but for judgement. There will be a festal sacrifice but the people of Judah will find no substitutionary victim, they themselves will be the victims (whoever the ‘guests’ may be). But just as the priests were singled out for attack in v. 4 so here the royal establishment is held responsible. The failure to specify the king might be because Josiah was still a minor (so several, e.g. Roberts 1991: 178), but the phrase ‘the king's sons’ may be a generic term like ‘sons of the prophets’, here signifying the whole royal establishment. Sabottka's (1972 ) idea that ‘the king’ is Baal and the reference is to his priests whose ‘foreign attire’ is their officiating robes is unlikely. Their fault seems to be that they are a foppish and effete wealthy class, whose wealth is obtained (v. 9 ) by robbery and violence. Whether they leap out of their own doors on unsuspecting passers-by or leap into the houses of their victims is not clear. vv. 10–12 , it seems to be the city of Jerusalem which will bear the brunt of YHWH's judgement ‘on that day’. Priests, royals, and now wealthy merchants and traders are singled out (v. 11 ). Various places in the city are specified, and its inhabitants are addressed as those who live in ‘mortar’, i.e. buildings within a walled city. God will search out the complacent and indifferent who are virtual (if not theoretical) atheists. God may exist but they do not think they need take him into the reckoning of practical life and politics. They are like wine which deteriorates if it is never disturbed (Jer. 48:11 ). They will reap no long-term profit from their oppression (v. 13 ). vv. 14–16 , the day of wrath: this passage, the basis of the medieval hymn ‘Dies Irae’, stands in the tradition of the teaching of Amos and Isaiah about the day of YHWH as a day of darkness, a day which sees invasion and defeat. It may already mark a widening of the original attacks on Jerusalem by its threat to ‘cities’ in the plural. Its description of them emphasizes them as places of strong fortifications and security. All human might is helpless before God's power, however. vv. 17–18 , the threats here have become quite general, against ‘humanity’, the same word ᾽ādām as in v. 3 , NRSV masking the ‘framework’ effect of this with its translation, ‘people’. Now no specific crimes are mentioned, they have ‘sinned against the LORD’. Again, it seems to be those who confide in human resources—here their wealth—who are singled out, but the threat is now universal, to ‘all the inhabitants of the earth’. The effect of vv. 2–3 and 17–18 is therefore to make the threats of vv. 4–16 against the people of Jerusalem for specific sins applicable to all people of all times.

( 2:1–3 ) A Call to Penitence

There have been those who see this oracle as belonging with the oracles against the nations which follow (J. M. P. Smith 1911: 211). This would be more likely if v. 3 were the late addition many have argued (Taylor 1956: 1022; Elliger 1964: 69; Seybold 1991: 103). However, although a call to penitence might seem illogical to us coming after such threats of total disaster, it is quite normal in the prophetic books (e.g. Am 5:4–5 ). The book of Jonah is concerned to show that penitence can avert even a prophetic prediction of disaster. Further, Zephaniah may articulate something which may well be implicit elsewhere in the prophetic canon. While the ‘organized state’ will disappear there is hope for ‘the humble’ if they seek YHWH. v. 1 , the verb rendered ‘Gather together’ is related to the word for gathering stubble. The adjective ‘shameless’ seems to be from a verbal root meaning ‘to desire’ and so mean ‘undesired’. In God's eyes the nation and its establishment have become as worthless, and little wanted, as stubble in a harvested field. v. 3 , note that the prophet's call is to the ‘poor’ or ‘humble’ as opposed to the priests, the royal establishment and the wealthy merchants and traders. The word ‘humble’ is almost a technical term in the psalms for the downtrodden and oppressed, those who have no hope of help from any but God. The ‘perhaps’ suggests that his mercy is sovereign.

( 2:4–15 ) Oracles against the Nations (OAN)

Many commentators have spent a lot of time trying to ferret out the historical context of these oracles. The reason for their widely differing conclusions is that references are of the most general kind. This renders dubious the claim of those such as Christensen (1984 ) that they all fit neatly into the year 628 BCE. Even the apparent allusion to the fall of Nineveh (v. 13 ) must be treated with caution (see below). The nations represent Israel's enemies at the four points of the compass. In the ancient Near East new kings had to earn by their victories the right to call themselves ‘Lord of the Four Quarters of the Earth’ (Liverani 1981 ). One function of these oracles may therefore be to establish YHWH's claim to be Lord of the whole world. (For a detailed study see Ryou 1995 .) vv. 4–7 , no special crime of Philistia is mentioned. Perhaps it symbolizes ‘the uncircumcised’ par excellence. v. 7 introduces the idea of the ‘remnant’, one way of easing the tension between threats of judgement against the nation of Israel and yet of God's purpose for future salvation. vv. 8–11 , note that the crime of Moab and Ammon is human pride and enmity against God's people. God's judgement against all human pretensions is a familiar prophetic theme, and it may well be the function of this oracle to express this truth rather than recall some specific historical occasion. v. 12 , the brief mention of the Ethiopians is a mystery. Perhaps it is a fragment of a longer oracle. vv. 13–15 , Nineveh fell in 612 BCE and it might be that this oracle, or some form of it, was once uttered by the prophet Zephaniah in the early period of Josiah's reign. But note again it is her pride and confidence in her own power (v. 14 ) which is the reason for her downfall. In later times Nineveh could, and did, become a symbol of all that is opposed to God, as in Jonah.

( 3:1–8 ) Further Indictments against the Jerusalem Community

The switch to Jerusalem in v. 1 is so abrupt, with only the introductory ‘Woe’ of the judgement oracle in the form of a lamentation (Westermann 1967: 189–94), that some have taken it as a continuation of the threat against Nineveh. But the paralleling may well be deliberate (Renaud 1987: 235–6). Jerusalem is no better than these ‘pagan’ nations. This would echo Amos's use of OAN (Barton 1980: 3–15). It further strengthens the view that the ‘nations’ now typify that kind of sin which God will judge, wherever he finds it. vv. 3–4 , note again the attack on the figures of the establishment, both civil and religious. v. 5 , the contrast is between YHWH who gives real justice ‘in the morning’ (when the king heard legal appeals, Jer 21:12 ) and the corrupt exercise of power by those who claim his authority. The statement ‘The LORD within it is righteous’ may well parody the claims of the Jerusalem cultus, ‘God is in the midst of her’ and ‘The LORD of hosts is with us’ (Ps 46:5, 7, 11 , HB vv. 6, 8, 12 ). vv. 6–7 , YHWH's actions against other nations should have shown Israel his power and his demands for righteousness (again, the function of the OAN in ch. 2 ), but they refused to pay any heed. v. 8 is a totally unexpected denouement. One would expect vv. 1–7 to culminate in the announcement of God's judgement against Jerusalem for all her sins, but instead, v. 8 appears to switch to the theme of the announcement of his judgement against the nations. If originally it was his intention to gather nations to act as his agents of judgement (a familiar prophetic theme, e.g. Ob 1, Zech 14:2 ) we would expect the verse to read ‘to pour out upon you’, an emendation some have suggested (e.g. Renaud 1987: 243). Roberts (1991: 215) suggests that the verse is addressed to ‘the faithful’ and the ‘them’ on whom YHWH is to pour out his wrath are the faithless, corrupt officials of vv. 3–4 ).

( 3:9–13 ) Salvation for Judah and the Nations

v. 9 , this is unexpected and seems far removed from the threat in v. 8 of judgement against the nations, which suggests that v. 8 was read, at least by some, in one of the ways suggested above. The idea that the nations will be given a ‘change of speech’ (cf. Isa 6:5–7; 19:18 ) so that they call on YHWH suggests a somewhat late universalism. Its position here probably shows an editor's view that the salvation of Israel will have universal consequences. vv. 11–13 return to the strong contrast drawn throughout this book between the ‘proud’, and the ‘humble’ and ‘lowly’, or ‘poor’, another term from the Psalms. Note the complete reversal of the state of such people from that described in 1:4–13 and 3:1–4 .

( 3:14–20 ) YHWH's Reign as King in Jerusalem

Again in familiar cultic terms the faithful are called upon to rejoice already in YHWH's victorious kingship (cf. Isa 12:6; Zech 2:10; 9:9 etc.). Now judgements are taken away and YHWH really is in their ‘midst’ (v. 15 , cf. the irony of 3:5 ). Many have pointed to the strong parallels between this whole passage and the ‘Psalms of YHWH's Enthronement’ (e.g. Ps 47, 93, 96–9 ). He alone will be king—there is no mention of any renewed experiments with human kings—and it is again stressed that it is the ‘lame’ and the ‘outcast’ whom he will bring in as his subjects, having ousted their ‘oppressors’ (v. 19 ). Zephaniah is a thoroughly radical prophetic book—a charter for the ‘little people’ of all corrupt societies. v. 20 is probably a later addition whose purpose is to extend to Jews living in all kinds of difficulty the assurance that God will bring them back from their own particular ‘Babylon’.

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