Scholars are in agreement that Zephaniah exercised his ministry in Jerusalem prior of the reforms of Josiah. The editorial introduction to the book says that Zephaniah was active during the reign of King Josiah, the son of Amon, and the grandson of Manasseh. Josiah was eight years old when he began to reign in 640 B.C. and he died in Megiddo in 609 B.C. in a battle against Neco, the king of Egypt (2 Kings 23:29).
It is clear from Zephaniah’s oracles that his message provided the impetus for Josiah’s reform in 622 B.C. (on Josiah’s reform, here and here). Zephaniah’s influence on Josiah’s reform will be the focus of my next post. In this study, I want to consider the historical context of Zephaniah’s ministry.
When Zephaniah began his prophetic ministry, Judah was a vassal of Assyria. At the end of the eighth century B.C., Hezekiah made an effort to gain independence from Assyrian domination. When the seventh century dawned on Judah, Hezekiah was still in power, and still a vassal of Assyria. Hezekiah’s attempt at independence and freedom from Assyrian control failed and he was unable to break the yoke of oppression.
During the reign of Sennacherib, king of Assyria, the Assyrian empire was the dominant power in the Ancient Near East. After the Assyrian army was decimated by a plague in the days of Isaiah, it is possible that Sennacherib invaded Judah for a second time and only Hezekiah’s death saved him from severe retribution at the hands of Assyria (on Sennacherib’s invasion, here).
After the death of Hezekiah in 687 B.C., his son Manasseh (687-642) ascended to the throne of Judah. Manasseh was twelve years old when he became king. At the time Manasseh became king, he had two choices about the future of his kingdom. He could rebel against Assyria and refuse to pay the annual tribute or he could continue as a vassal of Assyria and guarantee the stability of his kingdom and receive protection from Assyria. Because of the dominance of the Assyrian empire in the Ancient Near East and the strength of its army, Manasseh had no other choice but to desist from any attempt to gain independence from Assyria. Manasseh accepted Assyrian sovereignty and declared Judah to be a loyal vassal.
Because of his voluntary subjugation to Assyria, Manasseh was highly criticized by the writers of the book of Kings and he was declared to be an evil king: “He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, following the abominable practices of the nations that the LORD drove out before the people of Israel” (2 Kings 21:2).
Since Manasseh chose to become a loyal vassal of Assyria, he abandoned the religious reforms of his father Hezekiah. During Manasseh’s reign, Assyria controlled the economic, religious, and political life of Judah with a strong hand.
Manasseh’s policy of submission greatly affected the religious life of Judah. Manasseh promoted the Assyrian worship of the “host of heavens” (2 Kings 21:3). These deities were Asshur, Ishtar, the Queen of Heaven, and the worship of the sun. Manasseh promoted Canaanite religious practices in Judah: the worship of Baal and Asherah (2 Kings 21:3). He also promoted other pagan practices: child sacrifice, fertility religion, magic, and divination (2 Kings 21:6). In addition, Manasseh persecuted the followers of Yahweh, driving them underground (2 Kings 21:16).
During the long reign of Manasseh, Assyria continued to dominate Mesopotamia. Assyrian power reached its zenith with Esarhaddon (680-669), who was the commander of the Assyrian army when his father Sennacherib died. After reestablishing Assyrian power in Babylon, Esarhaddon renewed the Assyrian policy of total conquest established by his predecessors by campaigning throughout his vast empire to confront rebellious vassals. In the chronicles of his kingdom, Esarhaddon boasted of conquering rebellious vassals in Palestine and deporting them to other regions of the empire.
Esarhaddon invaded Egypt, conquered Memphis, captured the royal family, and looted the treasures of Egypt. The prophet Nahum (Nahum 3:8) mentioned the conquest of Thebes by Esarhaddon in 663 B.C.
Manasseh reigned for 55 years, longer than any other king of Judah. During his reign Manasseh reversed the policies of his father. Hezekiah’s commitment to God did not influence the religious life of of his son. Manasseh’s evil deeds surpassed even the evil reign of Ahaz, his grandfather.
After Manasseh died, his son Amon became king of Judah and continued the political and religious policies of his father. After two years on the throne, some of Amon’s officials conspired against him and assassinated him in his palace. But, a group of landed Judeans, known as “the people of the land,” killed all those who had conspired against King Amon, and then made Josiah, Amon’s son, the new king of Judah.
Josiah (640-609) reigned for thirty-one years in Jerusalem. Josiah was considered one of Judah’s greatest kings: “Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him” (2 Kings 23:25).
When Josiah became the king of Judah, the Assyrian empire was on the verge of collapse due to internal strife in the struggle for the throne of Assyria. In the midst of the political struggle in Assyria, the Babylonians, led by the Chaldean prince Nabopolassar (626-605), gained independence from Assyria by defeating them outside Babylon in 626. Nabopolassar became the founder of the neo-Babylonian empire, an empire that lasted until its demise and fall in 539 at the hands of Cyrus the Great, the king of Persia.
It is within this political maelstrom that the prophet Zephaniah proclaimed the Word of the Lord. His ministry and his criticism of the religious practices of Judah served as a wake-up call to people who were against the religious innovations introduced by Manasseh.
The struggle between Assyria and Babylon provided a window of opportunity for Judah to embark on serious religious reforms. The preaching of Zephaniah set the stage for a radical transformation of the religious life of the people. The Lord called and sent Zephaniah to the people of Jerusalem to proclaim that the terrible Day of the Lord was at hand. This is the reason Zephaniah was compelled to proclaim the word of the Lord.
Other Studies on Zephaniah:
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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