From the information given in the biblical records, it seems that Zephaniah was the first prophet to appear in Judah since the conclusion of Isaiah and Micah’s ministry seventy years earlier. His preaching marked the beginning of a new era of prophetic activity in Judah, but it was an era that also saw the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the kingdom of Judah.
A prophet in Jerusalem
For much of the seventy years before Zephaniah, the king over Judah was the wicked Manasseh.
After his fifty-five years on the throne, Judah was in a worse spiritual condition than the original Canaanites, whom God had destroyed. His reign was marked by cruelty, bloodshed, immorality and foreign religious practices of every kind. The damage he did to Judah could not be fully corrected by any king who came after him, and it resulted in the destruction of Judah (2 Kings 21:1-9,16; 23:26-27).
Manasseh’s son Amon followed his father’s policies, but after a reign of only two years he was murdered. The leaders of Judah were by now tired of political and social violence, so they executed Amon’s murderers and put Amon’s eight year old son Josiah on the throne (640 BC). In this way they could act as advisers to the king and so develop a national policy that would restore justice and stability to the nation (2 Kings 21:19-22:2).
By the time he was twenty years of age, Josiah had developed his own national policy and had begun religious reforms that lasted many years (2 Chron 34:3-4). (For details see 2 Kings 22:3-23:25; 2 Chron 34:1-35:27.) The ministry of the prophet Zephaniah may have had some part in prompting the king to introduce his reforms. Zephaniah was a young man probably not much older than Josiah and appears to have been related to him (both being descended from Hezekiah; see Zeph 1:1; cf. 2 Kings 20:21; 21:18,24).
Zephaniah lived in Jerusalem, where he saw and denounced the same evils as Isaiah and Micah denounced almost a century earlier. His preaching no doubt prompted many of the people to change their ways and cooperate in Josiah’s reforms. It may also have helped produce the renewed prophetic ministry in Judah. Other prophets of Zephaniah’s time were Jeremiah, Nahum and Habakkuk, and these were followed after the destruction of Jerusalem by Obadiah and Ezekiel.