Saturday, June 17, 2023

Mining the Minors: Zephaniah (1)

Top-down, imposed reform doesn’t work. Not long term at least.

Canada is a mess right now, and if you look at the problem at only the surface level, you might imagine a change of government would go a long way to resolving our many issues. But that’s the surface level. I am out and about with average Canadians shooting off their mouths after a few drinks enough to convince me that if Justin Trudeau resigned tomorrow, the Liberal Party would almost surely replace him with someone worse, and next election would produce the closest carbon copy of Trudeau’s globalist progressivism the Canadian electorate could possibly come up with.

Not even a good leader can save corrupt people from themselves. Ten years of Stephen Harper on political steroids couldn’t help this country even if he were empowered to rewrite the Canadian legal and political system with Old Testament theocracy as his template.

If you want proof from scripture that top-down reform doesn’t work, you could simply look at the millennial reign of Christ. Perfect government for 1,000 years will not stamp out wickedness in the hearts of some men. However, the reign of Josiah in Judah is also a fine illustration of the inadequacy of top-down reform. One of the godliest monarchs Judah ever had, Josiah’s reforms extended outside his own country’s borders and were radical in both scope and urgency. And the very moment he was in his grave, Judah plunged right back into the cesspool. It’s hard to see how any but the most faithful of the remnant in Judah were not perfectly fine with that.

The prophet Zephaniah received the word of the Lord during the reign of Josiah.

Zephaniah 1:1 — Introduction

“The word of the Lord that came to Zephaniah the son of Cushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah, in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah.”

Zephaniah the Royal Prophet?

There are numerous references to people named Zephaniah in the Old Testament. Given that millions of Israelite men lived over multiple generations in OT times, we should not be surprised to find so many with the same names. As far as I can tell, there are no historical references to Zephaniah the prophet outside of this book. There is a “Zephaniah the second priest” in Jeremiah (whose ministry overlapped with our Zephaniah), but there is no compelling reason to imagine these are the same person. This latter Zephaniah was killed by the king of Babylon at Riblah in the land of Hamath along with others of his ilk.

The reference to “Hezekiah” in this first verse leads some to believe Zephaniah was the great great grandson of one of the godlier kings of Judah. So was he royalty?

On the “nay” side, there is no good reason to imagine Hezekiah’s name was unique to him any more than Zephaniah’s was. Great great grampa could easily have been a different Hezekiah. Also, Josiah is called the “king of Judah” in this same introductory sentence, and if it were important to note that Zephaniah was related to an earlier king, you might think Hezekiah would also be so designated.

On the “yea” side, the 128 references to “Hezekiah” in the Old Testament all appear to be to the same man. Further, outside of genealogies, listing four generations of ancestors in scripture is a relative rarity. No other prophet does. The point of this mini-genealogy seems to be to lead back to Hezekiah, after which it stops. Also, the timeline fits generationally. It could be the same man.

However, there is no evidence external to the book of Zephaniah of such a relationship.

In the Days of Josiah

Speaking of King Josiah, he reigned over Judah from 640-608BC. Efforts to pin down the dates of Zephaniah’s prophecy more narrowly within that range of years turn on a couple of internal clues: (1) he speaks of Assyria and Nineveh as viable political entities; and (2) he speaks of Judah as idolatrous. Nineveh fell in 612BC, so Zephaniah prophesied prior to that.

Josiah came to the throne as an eight-year-old, the son of Amon and grandson of Manasseh, one of Judah’s more wicked and idolatrous kings, so there was surely a period after his coronation during which he had little to do with governance directly or personally. The boy king would have been a mere figurehead, though a godly young man, and probably deferred to the statesmen around him until he came of age.

At age 16, Josiah began to root out idolatry in Judah. Around age 24, Josiah commenced restoring the temple. His restorations uncovered the Book of the Law, which the king had read to him. Josiah tore his clothes and said, “Great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us.” From that time on, he became Judah’s greatest reformer. Prior to that moment, though seeking God all his days, he really had no idea the extent to which his nation had departed from the word of God. That year was 623BC, give or take. Josiah continued to reform Judah from the top down for the rest of his reign, certainly past the fall of Nineveh.

Accordingly, many commentators feel Zephaniah’s prophecy had to come sometime between 640 and 632BC when the first of Josiah’s reforms began, probably earlier rather than later. Much of it would remain relevant even if given in a reformed Judah, but the idea of a “remnant of Baal” and priests who “swear to the Lord and yet swear by Milcom” existing in the open during the years from 630-608BC, when Josiah was killed in battle, seems to them implausible.

Still, Josiah’s top-down reforms didn’t last past his untimely demise, and we could read chapter 1:4-6 of Zephaniah as looking forward to the conditions that would obtain in Judah after Josiah’s death rather than during Josiah’s reign. If chapter 1 were the only reference to Judah’s perfidy, any date between 640BC and 612BC would be theoretically possible, but the accusations of chapter 3:1-5 make this less likely.

All in all, I think the consensus of the commentators is probably correct.

The Form of the Revelation

In many cases, the word of God came to prophets at different times and places. This may be the case with Zephaniah too, though it reads as a single revelation rather than a series of “Thus saith the Lord”-style statements like Ezekiel or Jeremiah. We also do not know the form in which it was received. Unlike his contemporary Habakkuk, who had a dialogue with God and a vision, Zephaniah’s prophecy consists largely of verbal pronouncements directly from God, punctuated with twenty-one “I wills”, the vast majority of which have to do with God’s purposes for Judah. There is no reference to oracles or visions, as in Habakkuk.

Habakkuk also speaks of dire conditions in Judah during the same period, but directs his prophecy primarily toward the fate of Babylon. Zephaniah’s is much more far-reaching and less specific to its own era. As much as portions of Zephaniah could be legitimately applied to the Babylonian invasion of Judah and other surrounding nations, other aspects of its teaching clearly look much farther ahead in time.

The Day of the Lord

The expression “the day of the Lord” and variants on it are more common in Zephaniah than in any other prophet. That day is mentioned nineteen times in three chapters in various forms, none of them encouraging for the enemies of God. In order of most mentions, we get “that day” (5), “the day of the Lord” (2), “the day of the anger of the Lord” (2), “the day of the Lord’s sacrifice” (1), “the great day of the Lord” (1), “a day of wrath” (1), “a day of distress and anguish” (1), “a day of ruin and devastation” (1), “a day of darkness and gloom” (1), “a day of clouds and thick darkness” (1), “a day of trumpet blast and battle cry” (1), “the day of the wrath of the Lord” (1), and even “the day when I rise up to seize the prey” (1).

It is evident the expression “the day of the Lord” refers to more than one period of history, and to an era rather than a 24-hour period. The earlier mentions in Zephaniah almost surely refer primarily to the coming Babylonian conquest only a few decades away, though they may also anticipate the wrath of the great tribulation thousands of years down the road. In this first case, “the day of the Lord” ought to terrify Judah. However, the later usages explicitly anticipate a time yet to come when God will deal with all Israel’s oppressors once and for all, a time when the nation will no longer be put to shame, and Israel’s king will return and stand in the midst of his people. It is also notable that while these earlier references to the devastation of Jerusalem are to “Judah” (since Israel had ceased to exist nationally at the time of the Babylonian conquest), the last five, including the devastation of other nations and the restoration of Jerusalem, are all to “Israel” rather than Judah.

So then, two different periods are in view, but the expression “day of the Lord” is used of both devastation and restoration. In Zephaniah at least, “the day of the Lord” is less a reference to a specific period in history than it is to a set of conditions in which God is directly active in judgment.

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