The book of Zephaniah begins with a judgment oracle threatening universal destruction of all the earth's inhabitants (vv. 2-3). The oracle draws upon the imagery of the flood story, particularly when it employs the phrase “from the face of the earth” (see Ge 6:7; 7:4; 8:21). The destruction is, however, more inclusive than the Flood, involving even the fish.
Judgment begins with the people of God, Judah and Jerusalem. The covenant had become not a shield to protect them from the wrath of God, but the basis for indicting them. The curses of the covenant would come upon them.
Three sins are specified in vv. 4-6, the first of which is idolatry. During the rule of Manasseh (687-642 b.c.) the indigenous Canaanite cults of Baal worship received royal patronage, the worship of Asherah was represented in the temple, and foreign cults were encouraged. The king became so spiritually bankrupt that he practiced child sacrifice, participated in sorcery and divination, and inquired of mediums and spiritualists (2Ki 21:6). The Assyrian cult, with its worship of the stars as representatives of deities, was also officially incorporated into the temple worship. It evidently found popular support as the people would go out at night on the flat roofs of their houses to enjoy the cooling evening breezes and participate in a family-altar style of worshiping the stars.
The second sin of the Judeans was religious syncretism. The polytheistic world saw no problem with worship of other gods, Yahweh being accepted as just one of the many. The Judeans, while taking oaths in the name of Yahweh, also took oaths in the name of Molech, a god of the Ammonites (1Ki 11:5). But Yahwistic faith had always been an uncompromising religion, unwilling to share a worshiper's loyalty with any other deity. Worship of Yahweh might be all right with Molech, but Yahweh would not tolerate worship of Molech or any other god.
Finally, some of the Judeans rejected the religion of Yahweh altogether. The words seek and inquire are technical terms that refer to the practice of securing directions from Yahweh. Zephaniah indicts the people for rejecting altogether the worship of Yahweh. The progression of the sins of Judah seems to be first the toleration or acceptance or the worship of other gods, followed by the incorporation of their practices within the worship of Yahweh, and finally the rejection of the worship of Yahweh. The claim to be the people of Yahweh brings with it the obligation of complete commitment to the exclusive worship of and faithful obedience to this one God.
V. 7 opens with a command to be silent, for the Day of Yahweh has drawn near. The concept of the Day of Yahweh arose out of the tribal league theology when “holy wars” were conducted under the leadership of the Divine Warrior who fought for Israel against her foes. Israel came to regard the Day of Yahweh as a time of victory over her enemies. Zephaniah, however, like Amos before him (Am 5:18), broadened the concept into a time of judgment upon all of Yahweh's enemies, even his chosen but disobedient people.
The Day of Yahweh begins with the sacrifice of those whom he has called and consecrated. This idea has cultural parallels. The Canaanite goddess Anath slaughtered the guests she had invited to a feast. Jehu also invited worshipers of Baal to a sacrifice that became a massacre (2Ki 10:18-25).
The first group to experience Yahweh's punishment or visitation was to be the princes or king's sons. The latter designation includes all the royal household, not just the direct descendants of the king. In v. 9 judgment falls on those who leap upon the threshold in an act of violence and then give part of their booty to their gods (lit. “their lords”). The worship of other gods had brought a different moral code for the leaders. Polytheism, with its many gods, does not offer a consistent moral basis of action since it does not have a single source of authority. Thus, when the people of God embraced other deities, they also incorporated other standards of conduct. Yahweh indicts them for two breeches of the covenant, idolatry and immorality.
Judgment begins with the city of God, Jerusalem (vv. 10-13). The various locations named by Zephaniah—the Fish Gate, New Quarter, the hills, and the market district—were to the north side of the city, the section most vulnerable to attack. “Merchants” translates the phrase “all the people of Canaan.” “Canaanite” refers to those who were engaged in trading. Thus the last part of v. 11 is directed against the merchant class of the city.
God commanded Jeremiah, Zephaniah's contemporary, to search the city for a single honest person (Jer 5:1). In v. 12 Yahweh himself will search the city for the religiously complacent. They are compared to juice, which if not separated at the appropriate time from the pulp of the grape, becomes too thick to be made into good wine. These rich and powerful leaders of society ought to have been leaders in righteousness, trusting in Yahweh to guide the nation. Instead, they were skeptical that the God who had given them the land would not even notice whether they survived or perished. Their trust lay in weapons and political negotiations. God was irrelevant. Yahweh's sentence was that the Conquest would be reversed. The houses and vineyards Yahweh had given them (Jos 24:13) would now be taken away.
No biblical description of judgment surpasses that of vv. 14-18 for intensity of feeling of horror. The Divine Warrior shouts as the Day of Yahweh hastens to come. He will fight against them as he had fought for them in the Conquest. Then the former inhabitants of the land were totally destroyed. Now the present inhabitants will experience that same sentence of judgment. No hope for deliverance is expressed. This Warrior cannot be bribed with silver and gold. His people have sinned, and they will be annihilated.
The poet binds up this entire chapter, making it a unit when in the last half of v. 18 he returns to the theme of 1:2-3, the whole world will experience this divine fury. The world will return to the primeval chaos when Yahweh brings judgment, but the first to experience his wrath will be his own chosen people who have rejected him.