So far as we know, Zephaniah was the first prophet to appear in Judah since Isaiah and Micah, whose work had come to an end seventy years earlier.
His preaching marked the beginning of a new era of prophetic activity in Judah, but it was an era that was to end in the destruction of Jerusalem. Among the prophets who followed him were Jeremiah, Nahum and Habakkuk.
Background to the book
For much of the seventy years before Zephaniah, the wicked Manasseh had reigned. After his reign the spiritual condition of Judah was worse than that for which God had destroyed the Canaanites in the time of Joshua. The destruction of Judah appeared to be inevitable (2 Kings 21:1-16). The new era was marked not only by the preaching of Zephaniah, but also by the religious reforms of the new king, Josiah (who had come to the throne in 640 BC). It seems that Zephaniah and Josiah were related (Zeph 1:1). Josiah’s reforms, which lasted many years, were aimed at removing idolatry and restoring the true worship of God in Jerusalem. (For details of the reforms see 2 Kings 22:3-23:25; 2 Chron 34:1-35:27.) Zephaniah saw that the improvements in the external forms of religion, though commendable, were no substitute for true reform in heart and life. The wrong attitudes promoted by Manasseh were so deeply rooted that Josiah’s reforms could not remove them (2 Kings 23:26-27). As Zephaniah announced God’s judgment on the nation, he urged people to repent of their wrongdoing and come to a true knowledge of God.
Contents of the book
The preaching of Zephaniah was concerned largely with the certainty of God’s judgment on sinners. The violence, cheating and false religion of Manasseh’s time were still widespread in Jerusalem (1:1-18). But there was hope for those who humbly turned from their sin to the Lord (2:1-3). Examples from the surrounding nations impressed upon the people that evildoers could not escape God’s judgment (2:4-15). Jerusalem’s sin guaranteed a terrible judgment for the city (3:1-8), though when all the sinners had been destroyed, those who had truly repented would enjoy God’s blessing (3:9-20).