Do you have a relative who is a “thorn in your side”? King Josiah did. The relative’s name was Zephaniah. He is the only prophet (except perhaps for Daniel) of royal blood – the great-great-grandson of King Hezekiah.
Josiah’s grandfather, Manasseh, the worst king in Judah’s history. His corrupt monarchy led Judah into evil worse than any of the nations around her, in her own day or before. So evil was he that the writer of Kings blames him for Judah’s misfortunes and ultimate Babylonian exile (2 Kings 23:26).
Josiah, however, was not evil. At age 26, he began a series of reforms in Judah to lead the people back to God. It was a valiant effort, but, in God’s eyes (and the eyes of Josiah’s cousin Zephaniah) it was too little too late. Judah was too far gone.
It must have been a source of great consternation to Josiah that, though he wanted his people to change their ways, his own royal house and the house of the priests was so corrupt his efforts were like putting out a forest fire with a garden hose. It must have been further discouraging to hear the negative message preached by Zephaniah.
By Zephaniah’s day, the Northern Kingdom was no more. Judah’s sins were so many that the anger of God overflowed. It’s almost as if God was on a rampage, his anger spilling out (though deservedly so) on other nations. Notice the determination of God: “I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth . . .” (1:2). “I will bring distress on the people . . . their blood will be poured out like dust and their entrails like filth” (1:17). “In the fire of his jealousy the whole world will be consumed, for he will make a sudden end of all who live on the earth . . .” (1:18). “The whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger” (3:8).
What were the sins?
Idolatry (1:4), ignoring God (1:6), becoming too much like the world around them in their dress and lifestyle (1:8-9), focusing on material wealth and a willingness to mistreat others to get it (1:11-13,18), a belief that God simply didn’t care how they acted (1:12), and a ruinous prideful unwillingness to yield to God (3:1-4).
You begin to see how angry God is when you note that He repeatedly says he is going to destroy the earth and everything and everyone, and yet, He speaks of a “remnant” who will be left. It is a classic overstatement – and that’s how the book is to be read. Overstatement or not, however, a genuine day of reckoning is coming and it will be ruinous for the guilty.
Zephaniah has four parts:
1) The coming punishment of the people of God (1:1-2:3).
2) The coming punishment of other nations (2:4-15).
3) The coming punishment of the people of God (3:1-8)
4) The restoration of the remnant of God’s people (3:9-20).
Two points must not be overlooked: First, note that both the people of God and other nations stand condemned for precisely the same sins. God does not have two standards of expected behavior. The world may not acknowledge God, but God expects them none-the-less to follow His rules. Second, though God is supremely angry in Zephaniah, He still loves his people. When the punishment is over, God will take great delight in the righteous who are left, and he will quiet them with His love and rejoice over them with singing (3:17) – the image of a parent reaffirming love for a disciplined child.