Zephaniah ministered during the reign of Josiah. That pagan worship was practiced in Judah may indicate that Zephaniah prophesied just before Josiah’s more prominent reforms (Zeph 1:4-5; 2 Kgs 23:1-27). As a member of the royal family, Zephaniah enjoyed a place of prominence amongst the competing voices of the land. He and Josiah were distant cousins, both tracing their ancestry to King Hezekiah (Zeph 1:1). Zephaniah zealously exhorted God’s people to prepare for the coming Day of the Lord.
Zephaniah announced that the Day of the Lord would bring destruction upon Judah for her idolatry. The Lord said, “I will cut off from this place every vestige of Baal, the names of the pagan priests; those who bow in worship on the rooftops to the heavenly host; those who bow and pledge loyalty to the LORD but also pledge loyalty to Milcom” (Zeph 1:4b-5). Although Judah enjoyed security and prosperity at the end of Manasseh’s reign, their wealth would be nothing on the Day of the Lord. “Their silver and gold will not be able to rescue them on the day of the LORD’s wrath,” Zephaniah said (Zeph 1:18).
In the prophet’s mind, there was precious little time for the people to reform their ways before the Lord would come to judge His people. “Gather yourselves together,” Zephaniah said, “before the decree takes effect and the day passes like chaff, before the burning of the LORD’s anger overtakes you, before the day of the LORD’s anger overtakes you” (Zeph 2:1, 2). While Zephaniah exhorted the humble in Judah to seek righteousness, the prophet also confronted the Philistine nations, the Ammonites, the Moabites, and the Assyrians—urging them to repent from taunting God’s people (Zeph 2:10).
Zephaniah implored the people of Judah to turn to God and receive His kindness—even though they would be dispersed before they were restored (Zeph 3:9-11). The Lord promised to restore His people, saying, “I will remove your boastful braggarts from among you, and you will never again be haughty on My holy mountain. I will leave a meek and humble people among you, and they will trust in the name of Yahweh” (Zeph 3:11-12). On that day, the Lord promised to rejoice over His people with gladness, quiet them with His love, delight in them with joy, and restore their fortunes before their eyes (Zeph 3:17-20).
For Zephaniah, the Day of the Lord designated a time of judgment for the unfaithful in Judah and the nations, and also a day of salvation for the faithful remnant of God’s people. Like Amos in Amos 5:18-20, Zephaniah announced the coming destruction of Judah, saying, “The great Day of the LORD is near; near and rapidly approaching. Listen, the Day of the LORD—there the warrior’s cry is bitter” (Zeph 1:14). Like Isaiah (Isa 2:6-22; 24:1-23), Zephaniah declared that the Day of the Lord would also bring destruction upon the nations (Zeph 2:4ff).
When the Lord exercised His wrath on these nations, Zephaniah prophesied that the Lord would exalt Judah. In Zeph 2:9, Zephaniah spoke the Lord’s promise of a future day of Judean prominence over their enemies, saying, “The remnant of My people will plunder them; the remainder of My nation will dispossess them.” In Zeph 3:13, the prophet foretold the future salvation of “the remnant of Israel,” saying, “they will pasture and lie down, with nothing to make them afraid.” Indeed, the Lord’s nearness would be the cause of their peace and security (Zeph 3:16-17).
In the storyline of Scripture, Zephaniah’s prophesies of a future day of deliverance established a framework for understanding Christ’s first and second coming. The writers of the New Testament understood the Day of the Lord in light of Jesus. In their minds, the Day of the Lord was a time of vindication for the people of Christ and destruction for those who opposed Christ and His church (1 Thess 4:16-17; 2 Thess 1:5-10; Rev 19:11-20:14). Never did the New Testament authors describe the Day of the Lord as a time when God’s people would be on the receiving end of God’s wrath. The author of Hebrews wrote that Christ died once to bear the sins of His people, and will return “not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for Him” (Heb 9:27-28).