Zephaniah was an approximate contemporary of Jeremiah, prophesying not long before Judah was exiled to Babylon, but in many ways his book has similarities with Amos. it is about the univ3ersal judgement of god, not just on those who are his ‘chosen people’, but on all the nations. The Philistines (2:4-7), Moab and Ammon (2:8-11), Egypt (2:12) and Assyria, who had overrun the Northern Kingdom of Israel (2:13-15) are all to get their come-uppance from God as he executes his judgement on people. Some of the nations’ crimes are spelled out: Moab and Ammon have insulted God’s people, always a dangerous thing to do, and Assyria have been presumptuous and complacent. We’re not told what Egypt or Philistia have done, although we know that they have both at different times oppressed God’s people.
But the plot thickens: in 3:6 we are told that God has already wreaked destruction on other nations. He expected that Judah would see this and make the connection with her own sin. Seeing the anger of God expressed on others ought to have led her to repentance herself. But no, and therefore she too will be subject to his judgement. But there is still time: if people can only read the signs of the times, watch what God is doing to other nations, make the links and come in penitence to him there is the possibility of forgiveness and redemption. That ‘perhaps’ motif, which we encountered in Joel 2:14, is present here too.
So the book is, like Amos, a corrective to people who think that because they are God’s chosen people they are immune from punishment and can do exactly what they like. Instead they should gather – this is more corporate than individual – seek God, humility and righteousness. If they do that, perhaps God will spare them when he judges everyone else.
The book ends, though, as so many of the prophetic books do, with a promise of redemption. History tells us that this promise did not prevent exile and punishment, but it did heal it. The language is not of rescue but rather of restoration. Scattered people will be gathered, purified and re-created as a truthful, honest and fearless nation. In the one verse which anyone knows from this book, we have the beautiful picture in 3:17 of God rejoicing and singing with delight over his people. The Mighty Warrior has almost been overcome with delight and compassion. The shame and contempt which the nation has received, not just from Moab and Ammon but also from many other nations will be removed, to be replaced with honour and praise from all who see them.
It is very tempting to read OT books like these individualistically: Jesus has saved me and so all this stuff applies to me as one of his people. It is good to remember that the Bible thinks ‘corporate’ far more than it thinks ‘individual’. If we read this book against the current world scene, and think national rather than personal, it provides some severe warnings about presumption, oppression and national penitence.