With judgment about to fall upon the world, the prophet issues an invitation to Judah to repent (2:1-3). The time for calling upon God is before the appointed time arrives, not afterwards. The humble, identified as those who do what he commands, are urged to seek Yahweh, righteousness, and humility. Here is the essence of OT faith. Seeking Yahweh begins with the turning away from boasting of one's own accomplishments. The humble trust quietly in God's work of salvation. The seeking, however, is not only an inward journey, but must be demonstrated in righteous living among the people of God. Love of God is bound up with love of others.
Oracles of judgment (2:4-15) are hurled against four other nations: Philistia to the west, Moab and Ammon to the east, Cush or Ethiopia to the south, and Assyria to the north. The cursing of enemies in the religious ceremonies of the cult usually stood in contrast to the pronouncement of blessing on God's people. Zephaniah used the form to indicate the sweeping nature of the coming storm. All will experience it, not only Judah, but also her ancient foes.
The Philistines entered Canaan from the west around 1200 B.C., shortly after the Israelites had entered from the east. The two peoples struggled for control of the land, Philistia gaining the upper hand until the time of David. According to this oracle (2:4-7), the inhabitants will be totally destroyed, a fulfillment of the Conquest, in which all inhabitants of the land were to be put to death. The remnant of the house of Judah will possess the four remaining cities of the Philistines and use them for places to shelter their flocks.
The peoples of Moab and Ammon are lumped together in the second oracle (2:8-11), which indicts them for insulting and taunting the people of God. Israel and these two peoples who were the descendants of Lot through his daughters (Ge 19:30-38) had fought often through the centuries over the territory of Gilead. God would cause the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah, from which their forefather escaped (Ge 19:23-29), to fall upon them. Moab and Ammon are indicted for the sin of pride (v. 10), and their judgment is seen as the just retribution of their arrogance. However, v. 11 limits the destruction to their gods.
Assyria also is indicated for the sin of pride (vv. 13-15) as she declares that she alone exists with none (god? city?) like her (v. 15b). Her safety or security is falsely placed in her own military prowess. This is a challenge to the sovereignty of Yahweh, and he sentences her populous cities to be reduced to habitations of wild animals.
The final sentence of doom for this book is a woe oracle that falls upon Jerusalem (3:1-8). In vv. 1-4 the sins of the city are described. Specifically indicted are the royal officials (cf. 1:8), the prophets, and the priests. These three groups, which should provide moral and spiritual guidance for the community, have instead betrayed their trust. They are arrogant, not fearing God or respecting others. Their arrogance is expressed in oppression, treachery, and the distortion of their religion. Counterbalanced against them in v. 5 is Yahweh's righteousness. He has continued to be faithful to them by daily demonstrating his care through the regular administration of the universe.
In 3:6-8 Yahweh himself addresses the city. He argues that his justice can be seen in his destruction of others. Their horrible fate was to serve as an object lesson for the people of God so that they might repent of their sins. Yet the lesson had been wasted on an unattentive pupil. She with the rest of the world will be reserved for final destruction.