K:JNWTS 29/2 (September 2014):12-18

What Should I read on Zephaniah?

James T. Dennison, Jr.

The paradigm shift in Zephaniah studies occurred in 1972. The catalyst was a Th.D. dissertation submitted to, of all places, the GTU (Graduate Theological Union) at Berkeley, California. Can any good thing come out of Berkeley? In 1972, something did and it was very good! Ivan J. Ball, Jr. was a disciple of James Muilenburg. Muilenburg had precipitated a paradigm shift in his own right when he dropped his bombshell on the playground of the higher critical (=liberal) form critics. The explosion occurred in 1968 at the annual pilgrimage of the initiates to the shrine of the critical cult-academy known as SBL (Society of Biblical Languages). Muilenberg was anointed by the devotees of this cadre to deliver the presiding “message” to the assembled flock. He delivered a block-buster entitled “Form Criticism and Beyond”.[1] Muilenberg did not resign his bona fides in the critical cult (“Not that I loved form criticism less, but I am in love with rhetorical criticism more” [with my apologies to the Bard of Avon—JTD]); instead, he suggested the loyal groupies reinvent themselves via transformation of method, i.e., rhetorical criticism arising fully formed from the head of form criticism. And voila! a new methodological fad was born. Liberalism is ever reinventing or reimaging itself in a progressive adaptation or acculturation to the contemporary philosophical fads. Hence, liberalism is never the same (save for its fundamental premises: supernaturalism is impossible; humankind is essentially good morally—it’s the environment that is evil; ‘god’ is defined as the inner geist of the elites in any culture at any time on the horizon of history); it is ever morphing itself into a mirror of the prevailing culture. And, of course, the absolute corollary of this perspective is that ‘sin’ (if the word has any meaning) is the refusal to go along with the liberal progressive agenda.

Ball’s thesis was an excellent example of the rhetorical method applied to an entire book of the Bible—the (heretofore) “wallflower” prophet of the OT, Zephaniah ben Cushi. A Rhetorical Study of Zephaniah (1972) was a tour de force.[2] Ball rescued a neglected minor prophet from the vicious scissors and paste method of traditional critical liberalism by meticulously demonstrating the literary integrity and unity of the three chapters via rhetorical analysis. “We have tried to show that each unit, whether a line, set, sub-section, section, chapter, or the book as a whole, has a definable pattern or structure and exhibits certain rhetorical features. However, each unit is also different from all the other units. Any attempt to force a uniform mold, whether of meter, parallelism, etc., upon the entire material, destroys the original integrity and beauty of the work . . . we have tried to show that at least there is a good possibility that the entire work is from the same hand, and that in its present form it exhibits a carefully constructed whole” (p. 287). Since Ball (1972), Zephaniah has been treated with more holistic respect for the artistry of its singular author (divine inspiration notwithstanding, which Ball rejects—he is, after all, still a liberal).[3] Hence, the spate of recent commentaries on this much maligned[4] and ignored book of the Bible are rediscovering a Hebrew gem thanks to the pioneering work of Ivan Ball.[5]

More Literary Studies

While we are considering literary approaches to Zephaniah, mention should be made of other contributions in this genre beginning with Arvid Kapelrud’s, The Message of Zephaniah (1975). While not a commentary, Kapelrud examines the book thematically with surprisingly conservative conclusions. He holds to the integrity of the work and suggests, in fairly radical fashion for a scholar of the critical academy, that Zephaniah is the sole author of the book. While not especially penetrating nor Christocentric, Kapelrud nonetheless provides a theological analysis of the prophetic imagery of the work. If his over-emphasis on an immanentistic eschatology for the prophet blinds him to the already/not yet, he still provides us with engaging comments for our own reflection and reaction.

Paul House wrote Zephaniah: A Prophetic Drama in 1988 when he was teaching at Taylor University in Indiana. This is a unique study of a prophetic book; in fact, it is the only study of an OT prophet which attempts to view the text as dramatic interface. House’s efforts have not been well received—more’s the pity. He has in fact extended the literary paradigm to a dramatic dialogue between the prophet and God (and thus arranges the book accordingly in three acts, with speakers interchanged at the margins, pp. 118-26). While I remain unpersuaded of his outline, I have benefitted from his insights which push the envelope towards what I label “prophetic narrative biography”.[6] If the “drama” of Zephaniah touches history, then it touches redemptive history supremely in the drama of the eschatological prophet who is anticipated by the 7th century B.C. seer, even as the light He bears (cpr. Zeph. 1:12) illuminates the world—Jewish and Gentile alike (John 8:12).

Susan Pearson has contributed Zephaniah: Plagiarist or Skilled Orator? (2011), available on the internet. This is a close reading of the prophecy using discourse analysis, while defending authorship by the historical Zephaniah, his artistry and the integrity of the work as a whole.

Finally, Ernst Wendland, who is a master of rhetorical analysis of the Hebrew OT (and the Greek NT for that matter), contributes “The drama of Zephaniah: a literary-rhetorical analysis of a proclamatory prophetic text” (in Wendland, Prophetic Rhetoric: Case Studies in Text Analysis and Translation [2009] 325-49).[7] This article contains a plethora of: inclusios, exclusios, anaphora, chiasms, etc.—all articulated form the MT (Masoretic Text) and used as structuring patterns, theological shifts and prophetic literary riches.

Each of the four works above contributes to the renewal and on-going interest in this ninth of the twelve minor prophets.


All the modern commentary series feature an exposition of Zephaniah: Abingdon (Julia O’Brien); Anchor Bible (Adele Berlin); Hermeneia (Marvin Sweeney); New International Commentary on the Old Testament (O. Palmer Robertson); New Interpreter’s Bible (Robert Bennett); Old Testament Library (J. J. M. Roberts); Tyndale (David Baker).

The most helpful commentary for evangelicals (those who hold to the inerrancy of Scripture) is J. A. Motyer’s excellent contribution to Thomas E. McComiskey, ed., The Minor Prophets (1998), 897-962. Motyer provides exegesis of the Hebrew text as well as theological reflection. His structural paradigms are more thematic (English vocabulary) than textual (Hebrew MT patterns). But his attempt to place the prophecy in the light of the NT Scriptures is commendable, especially as it may assist pastors and students in sermon preparation.

Moyter is, in this reviewer’s opinion, superior to Robertson (NICOT) which is one of the evangelical alternatives. But Robertson is disappointing because he tends to be superficial, does not deal with literary patterns and structure at all (he shows no awareness of Ball’s seminal work) and uses gratuitous NT proof-texts to raise the devotional level of his remarks.

Baker is also an evangelical work, but it suffers from the besetting weakness of the Tyndale series—brevity. Granted, the aim of the Tyndale commentaries was to be up-to-date, while handy for the busy pastor/student. But brevity has its short-comings, most apparent when Baker provides some insight worth developing in depth, but has not the space to expand it. Still, this is a good choice for a “study friendly” commentary for the interested layperson.

At this point, we should notice a French commentary (part of the series Commentaire évangélique de la Bible [CEB]) by Brian Tidiman, Nahoum, Habaquq, Sophonie (2009). Tidiman is influenced by Motyer (as his footnotes indicate). However, he adds a redemptive-historical flavor that goes beyond the British scholar. His literary remarks also engage the reader with parallels and ironies which enrich our admiration for the inspired Hebrew prophet. This is a rewarding read for those with a dictionnaire français!

Julia O’Brien’s treatment is also superficial, but from a liberal critical point of view. This includes the notion (basic to higher criticism) that the Jewish god was constantly being re-imaged according to contemporary circumstances. Hence, in Zephaniah, the god of the day of wrath (chap. 1) is not the god of the day of restoration (chap. 3). This notion of the deity has been contextualized according to socio-political circumstances. If Jerusalem is under threat of judgment, gw (god of wrath) is invented or retrieved from the hoary past. If Jerusalem is singing songs of celebration, gr (god of restoration) is projected by a post-exilic audience. The evolution of god in the minor prophets is a fabrication process—he is invented as the existential situation requires. In other words, he is a god you fit to your circumstances. Happy? the god of chapter 3; angry about ‘injustice’ and other left-wing causes? the god of chapter 1 suits.

While her 2004 commentary was basic higher critical fare (though her analysis is truncated and superficial, even inadequate at places), O’Brien has recently advanced the bizarre thesis that the minor prophets from Hosea to Zephaniah “were consciously edited as a preface to Zechariah” in the Persian period (539-333 B.C.).[8] In other words, Zephaniah was re-written to serve the post-exilic agenda of a Hebrew ‘Persian’ propagandist. This absurdity makes mush of concrete historicity, while heralding the return of redaction criticism on the minor prophet corpus with a vengeance.

Berlin’s offering on Zephaniah is brief, but thorough (albeit too expensive for 148 pages). There are some useful insights, but no Christological interest at all. In fact, Berlin takes pains to ignore the NT (which is never cited in her work). In this case, brevity is an advantage—one quickly finds what is useful in her comments without expending blocks of time to extract a potential gem. She does regard the book as a literary unity and despises the attempts to slice and dice the MT into redactional morsels. But she remains true to the critical creed when she writes: “the time of Josiah is not necessarily the time that the book was written, but it is the time in which the book is set” (p. 38, emphasis in the original).

Sweeney’s work has emerged as the current commentary of choice. To his credit, he provides a thorough analysis of the text, helpfully measuring the MT against the troves of the Dead Sea and Murabbaᶜat (both substantially vindicate the traditional received text of the Masoretes). He also carefully analyzes the words of each verse, traces their occurrence in the rest of the OT as well as their relationship with other Semitic languages. While he is aware of Ball’s work, he is not especially interested in rhetorical or literary structural matters. His preoccupation is with the view that Zephaniah’s words are crutches propping up the so-called Deuteronomic reform of Josiah’s day (621 B.C.). For the uninitiated, critical OT scholars maintain that a gaggle of priest-caste scribes gathered in the Temple at Jerusalem in the days of Josiah and invented the theology found in the book of Deuteronomy and borrowed by other OT books as well.[9] They also succeed in fabricating the myth of a 2nd millennium B.C. Jewish legislator named Moses, who emerges from the misty past as an heroic liberator as well as a Hebrew Hammurabi. Sweeney’s endorsement of this charade is not surprising. What is unique is his contention that Zephaniah’s oracles, prophecy, etc. are fulfilled in the decline of Assyria as a superpower, while Judah and Jerusalem will become “the center of nations and creation” (p. 182). In other words, Sweeney argues that Zephaniah is the seer of 7th century B.C. Jewish triumphalism in which the nation of Judah becomes the Eden of God to which all the nations will submit. No vertical eschatology here, merely the dreary horizontalism of a religio-theological fabrication bound to this world, only this world and nothing but this world. In the offing, the programme was a pitiful failure (NB: the 586 B.C. exclamation point). So what’s the point of Zephaniah to the modern reader? The book is reduced by Sweeney to a time-bound projection of hope and change which crashed and burned when Babylon succeeded Assyria. But all of that result of fraud, deceit, corruption and mythical religio-theological formulation makes never you mind to Sweeney. Visions fail all the time—so what’s new?! It’s part of human finitude and failure and so should be expected even when hypothesizing a “G-d” (Sweeney’s consistent term for the deity) who rises no higher than man himself. In other words, Zephaniah is a front-man for a religio-theological fraud.

Johannes Vlaardingerbroek’s Zephaniah (1999) is more direct about the redaction of the book. He argues at several points that “it is certainly not Zephaniah who speaks here” (p. 214). The reason for this remark is the liberal-critical fundamentalism which defines a god of wrath as projected by the historical Zephaniah, but a god of grace as inserted by a later redactor. His commentary is filled with boring lexical minutia and long quotations (not translated into English) from German and Latin sources. The work is a labored exercise in Zephaniah’s irrelevance, save to the academy justifying its own tenure. NB what he writes on p. 217 about 3:19-20: “the tone is comforting and even triumphant but not eschatological.” Vlaardingerbroek is a throw-back to classic 19th century liberalism—the OT has no eschatology, even as the theology of Zephaniah has no center or consistency. We learn a great deal about Vlaardingerbroek’s theological pluralism, as it is boldly imposed on the text of Zephaniah. If the goal is to make the Biblical prophet a theological and cultural pluralist, this is no more than Vlaardingerbroek’s own face in speculo Zephaniae.

From a slightly different liberal point of view, Robert Bennett provides a decent explanation of the text of the prophet (labeled “Commentary” in the NIB). There are passé neo-orthodox smatterings sprinkled throughout his contribution, but they are incidental. What is not incidental is that Bennett is a socio-political leftist. His ‘application’ sections (labeled “Reflections”) mirror the ideology of a subscriber to the Huffington Post, Rolling Stone, The Nation, the New Republic and other rags of that ilk. Bennett definitely thinks Zephaniah is relevant to the modern church/audience. He uses the prophecy as a springboard for justifying a left-of-center social, political, cultural and theological agenda. Thus, if you use Bennett, skip the left-wing political propaganda, i.e., save time and just turn the page when you come to “Reflections”.

The final more recent critical commentary to mention is J. J. M. Roberts in the OTL series (Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah: A Commentary, 1990). While devoted to form critical analysis (by which he isolates the separate “oracles” which make up Zephaniah), he is generally ‘conservative’ about the message of the book: it dates from the pre-Reform (621 B.C.) era of Josiah’s reign; it refers to the general international malaise indicative of Assyria’s decline; and it projects the coming Babylonian judgment. The prophet offers a two-fold message of warning and hope. But when Roberts comes to the eschatological section of chapter 3, he appears to have been exhausted by his effort (or run hurriedly up against a publisher’s deadline). That is, the final pages of his commentary on Zeph. 3:14-20 are merely two in number and contain nothing of substance save the obvious sense of the words on the Biblical page. Sadly, he has passed up an invitation and an opportunity to penetrate the riches of this glorious section of the inspired prophecy.

From the more consistent evangelical point of view, two recent contributions may be noted—though neither is penetrating or insightful beyond the obvious. Richard Patterson contributes “Zephaniah” to the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, vol. 10 (2008); and James Bruckner extracts “modern applications” in the NIV Application Commentary series (Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, 2004). Neither of these are deep studies; do not engage the drama of the Hebrew rhetorical paradigm; and leave the reader hungry for biblical-theological meat in the place of the milk provided.

Older Works

We now venture back to older works of the post-WWII neo-orthodox biblical-theological movement. One of these is a surprising gem whose author is J. H. Eaton (Obadiah, Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah: Introduction and Commentary, 1961). For example, Eaton correctly recognizes the “new Jerusalem” motif in Zeph. 3:14-17. While his eschatology is more of the classic liberal stripe (eschatology is only of this world), he nonetheless has an uncanny sense of the transcendence of Zephaniah’s imagery. Thus, he unwittingly opens the door to an eschatological eternity. In addition, his writing style is marvelous—the commentary is a pleasure to read even where one must disagree (e.g., on p. 133, where he reads Babylonian mythology into the Biblical creation narrative).

The work by John D. W. Watts (The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah, 1975) is a disappointment. His efforts to re-write the prophecy via emendations, corrections and radical theological presuppositions leaves very little of value in his treatment. Peter Craigie (Twelve Prophets, volume 2. Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, 1984) pretends to be more evangelical than liberal, but in fact is the reverse. He regards Zephaniah as a thoroughly redacted work with irritating concessions to higher criticism (e.g., on 3:14-20—“there are those that claim it must have been written by a different and later hand than that of Zephaniah; they may well be right,” p. 131). There are some insights which are useful, but on the whole, the commentary lacks penetration. The same is true of another erstwhile evangelical offering by Ralph Smith (Word Biblical Commentary: Micah-Malachi, 1984). After a commendably succinct overview of the background to the book and critical issues to date, he all too briefly reviews the text while providing virtually no Christocentric biblical theology at all. Elizabeth Achtemeier (Nahum-Malachi, 1986) offers the reader standard critical analysis and kosher neo-orthodox theology. She excels, however, with “Christian” exegesis of Zephaniah 3 making several helpful suggestions via connections to the NT. Granted, this is one on the canons of neo-orthodox biblical theology, nonetheless, it prods our creative imaginations in the service of classical, orthodox (Vosian) Reformed biblical theology. One more work deserves mention: A. Cohen, The Twelve Prophets (1948) (Soncino Books of the Bible series). Cohen has a knack of arranging the Hebrew text of Zephaniah on the page of his Jewish commentary in such a way that the student of Hebrew can “see” patterns emerging from the literary style of the prophet. Consulting Cohen for this reason is useful to rhetorical analysis.

Full Circle?

We began our review of material on Zephaniah by noting the paradigm shift launched by Ivan Ball in 1972. Tragically, the critical academy is presently turning back the clock to a previous critical methodology which viewed Zephaniah as a patch-work quilt of fabricated and redacted pieces. As Biblical and theological elitists, these scholars have been charged with dismantling (or deconstructing) and reassembling the text of our prophet according to their higher critical presuppositions. We noted above Julia O’Brien’s bizarre theory of a redactor from the Persian era editing Zephaniah as a preface to Zechariah. Moreover, redaction criticism of the “salvation” portions of the prophecy returns with the 2011 article “Survival, Conversion and Restoration: Reflections on the Redaction History of the Book of Zephaniah,” by Tchavdar Hadjieo in Vetus Testamentum 61:570-81. Reconstruction of “the authentic words of the prophet Zephaniah” through the lens of the “deuteronomistic concept” of Josiah’s reform is the task undertaken by Anselm Hagedorn (“When did Zephaniah become a supporter of Josiah’s reform?” Journal of Theological Studies 62 [2011]:435-75). His conclusion: “Just as most events reported of the reign of Josiah are the fabrication of a later historian . . . so is Zephaniah used to create . . . prophetic support for the theological concept of the Josianic Reform. The creation of the legendary Josiah starts early in the Hebrew Bible, where the final form of the Book of Zephaniah is one piece of the larger mosaic” (p. 475).

Liberal critics abhor the vacuum created by James Muilenberg’s address, Ivan Ball’s revolutionary work (in the case of Zephaniah) and the dramatic and holistic readings of the prophetic text. Instead, like a dog returning to its vomit, they resurrect dead and buried methodologies so as to impose their theories of Hebrew religion and ideology on the unsuspecting OT prophet (Zephaniah). This is not merely dishonest, it is blasphemous (accusing the inspired writers of being liars, fabricators, inventers, agenda-based ideologues, etc.). It is also useless madness.

For an attempt at a positive, penetrating and Christocentric redemptive-historical approach to the book of Zephaniah, see this author’s audio series here: http://www.nwts.edu/audio/JTD/Zephaniah.htm.

[1] Published in the Journal of Biblical Literature 88 (1969):1-18.

[2] The dissertation was published in book form by BIBAL press in 1988 (now out-of-print). The thesis remains available from UMI dissertations in a variety of formats.

[3] The worm is currently turning slightly in this regard, see below.

[4] The Dies irae (1:14-18) makes liberal do-gooders irate.

[5] Ball added to his dissertation on Zephaniah, the entry on “Zephaniah” in the Encyclopedia Judaica, 16:994-95, also published in 1972. Finally, he contributed “The Rhetorical Shape of Zephaniah” to a festschrift for Francis Andersen, ed. By E. W. Conrad and E. G. Newing—Perspectives on Language and Text (1987) 155-65. Like the full dissertation, each smaller work is suggestive, helpful and defends the unity and integrity of the whole book of the prophet.

[6] Cf. James T. Dennison, Jr., “Prophetic Narrative Biography and Biblical Theology: The Prophet Hosea,” Kerux: The Journal of Northwest Theological Seminary 22/2 (Sept. 2007):3-14; http://kerux.com/doc/2202A1.asp. Also my audio studies on Jeremiah (http://nwts.edu/audio/JTD/LifeOfJeremiah.htm), Daniel (http://nwts.edu/audio/JTD/Daniel.htm) and Zephaniah (http://nwts.edu/audio/JTD/Zephaniah.htm).

[7] This work on Zephaniah originally appeared in the Journal for Semitic Studies 16 (2007): 22-67.

[8] “Nahum-Habakkuk-Zephaniah: Reading the ‘Former Prophets’ in the Persian Period.” Interpretation 61 (2007): 168-83.

[9] Essentially, they invent the centralization of worship in the Jerusalem Temple (there were a plethora of temple-shrines in Israel before this time). The priests were power-tripping a monopoly on approved places of worship. In addition, these ‘holy ones’ invent the “law of God” and put it in Moses’ mouth.