Sophonias, the ninth of the twelve Minor Prophets of the Canon of the Old Testament, preached and wrote in the second half of the seventh century B.C. He was a contemporary and supporter of the great Prophet Jeremiah. His name (Heb. Zephanja, that is “the Lord conceals”, “the Lord protects”) might, on the analogy of Gottfried, be most briefly translated by the words God protect. The only primary source from which we obtain our scanty knowledge of the personality and the rhetorical and literary qualities of Sophonias, is the short book of the Old Testament (containing only three chapters), which bears his name. The scene of his activity was the city of Jerusalem (i, 4-10; iii, 1 sqq.; 14 sqq.).
DATE.—The date of the Prophet’s activity fell in the reign of King Josias (641-11). Sophonias is one of the few Prophets whose chronology is fixed by a precise date in the introductory verse of the book. Under the two preceding kings, Amon and Manasse, idolatry had been introduced in the most shameful forms (especially the cult of Baal and Astarte) into the Holy City, and with this foreign cult came a foreign culture and a great corruption of morals. Josias, the king with the anointed scepter, wished to put an end to the horrible devastation in the holy places. One of the most zealous champions and advisers of this reform was Sophonias, and his writing remains one of the most important documents for the understanding of the era of Josias. The Prophet laid the axe at the root of the religious and moral corruption, when, in view of the idolatry which had penetrated even into the sanctuary, he threatened to “destroy out of this place the remnant of Baal, and the names of the… priests” (i, 4), and pleaded for a return to the simplicity of their fathers instead of the luxurious foreign clothing which was worn especially in aristocratic circles (i, 8). The age of Sophonias was also a most serious and decisive period, because the lands of Anterior Asia were overrun by foreigners owing to the migration of the Scythians in the last decades of the seventh century, and because Jerusalem, the city of the Prophets, was only a few decades before its downfall (586). The far-seeing watchman on Sion‘s battlements saw this catastrophe draw near: “for the day of the Lord is near” is the burden of his preaching (i, 7). “The great day of the Lord is near, it is near and exceeding swift: …That day is a day of wrath, a day of tribulation and distress, a day of calamity and misery, a day of darkness and obscurity, a day of clouds and whirlwinds” (i, 14-15).
CONTENTS.—The book of the Prophet naturally contains in its three chapters only a sketch of the fundamental ideas of the preaching of Sophonias. The scheme of the book in its present form is as follows: i, 2-ii, 3.—The threatening of the “day of the Lord”, a Dies irae; dies illa of the Old Testament. The judgment of the Lord will descend on Juda and Jerusalem as a punishment for the awful degeneracy in religious life (i, 4-7a); it will extend to all classes of the people (i, 7b-13), and will be attended with all the horrors of a frightful catastrophe (i, 14-18); therefore, do penance and seek the Lord (ii, 1-3).
ii, 4-15.—Not only over Jerusalem, but over the whole world (urbi et orbi), over the peoples in all the four regions of the heavens, will the hand of the Lord be stretched—westwards over the Philistines (4-7), eastwards over the Moabites and Ammonites (8-11), southwards over the Ethiopians (12), and northwards over the Assyrians and Ninivites (13-15). With a special threat (iii, 1-8), the Prophet then turns again to Jerusalem: “Woe to the provoking, and redeemed city…. She hath not hearkened to the voice, neither hath she received discipline”; the severest reckoning will be required of the aristocrats and the administrators of the law (as the leading classes of the civil community), and of the Prophets and priests, as the directors of public worship.
iii, 9-20.—A consolatory prophecy, or prophetic glance at the Kingdom of God of the future, in which all the world, united in one faith and one worship, will turn to one God, and the goods of the Messianic Kingdom, whose capital is the daughter of Sion, will be enjoyed. The universality of the judgment as well as of the redemption is so forcibly expressed in Sophonias that his book may be regarded as the “Catholic Epistle” of the Old Testament.
The last exhortation of Sophonias (iii, 9-20) also has a Messianic coloring, although not to an extent comparable with Isaiah.
CHARACTER OF THE PROPHET.—Sophonias’ prophecy is not strongly differentiated from other prophecies like that of Amos or Habacuc, it is confined to the range of thought common to all prophetic exhortations: threats of judgment, exhortation to penance, promise of Messianic salvation. For this reason Sophonias might be regarded as the type of Hebrew Prophets and as the final example of the prophetic terminology. He does not seek the glory of an original writer, but borrows freely both ideas and style from the older Prophets (especially Isaiah and Jeremiah). The resemblances to the Book of Deuteronomy may be explained by the fact that this book, found in the Josian reform, was then the center of religious interest. The language of Sophonias is vigorous and earnest, as became the seriousness of the period, but is free from the gloomy elegiac tone of Jeremiah. In some passages it becomes pathetic and poetic, without however attaining the classical diction or poetical flight of a Nahum or Deutero-Isaiah. There is something solemn in the manner in which the Lord is so frequently introduced as the speaker, and the sentence of judgment falls on the silent earth (i, 7). Apart from the few plays on words (cf. especially ii, 4), Sophonias eschews all rhetorical and poetical ornamentation of language. As to the logical and rhythmical build of the various exhortations, he has two strophes of the first sketch (i, 7 and 14) with the same opening (“the day of the Lord is near”), and closes the second sketch with a hymn (ii, 15)—a favorite practice of his prototype, Jeremiah. A graduated development of the sentiment to a climax in the scheme is expressed by the fact that the last sketch contains an animated and longer lyrical hymn to Jerusalem (iii, 14 sqq.). In Christian painting Sophonias is represented in two ways; either with the lantern (referring to i, 12: “I will search Jerusalem with lamps”) or clad in a toga and bearing a scroll bearing as text the beginning of the hymn “Give praise, O daughter of Sion” (iii 14).
CRITICAL PROBLEMS OFFERED BY SOPHONIAS.—The question
of authorship is authoritatively answered by the introductory verse of the book. Even radical higher critics like Marti acknowledge that no reason exists for doubting that the author of this prophecy is the Sophonias (Zephaniah) mentioned in the title (“Das Dodekapropheton”, Tubingen, 1904, 359). The fact that this Prophet’s name is mentioned nowhere else in the Old Testament does not affect the conclusive force of the first verse of the prophecy. Sophonias is the only Prophet whose genealogy is traced back into the fourth generation. From this has been inferred that the fourth and last ancestor mentioned Ezechias (Hizkiah) is identical with the king of the same name (727-698). In this case, however, the explanatory phrase “King of Judah” would undoubtedly have been put in apposition to the name, Consequently the statement concerning the author of the book in the first part of the introductory verse appears entirely worthy of belief, because the statement concerning the chronology of the book given in the second half of the same verse is confirmed by internal criteria. The descriptions of customs, especially in the first chapter, showing the state of religion and morals at Jerusalem are, in point of fact, a true presentation of conditions during the first years of the reign of King Josias. The worship of the stars upon the flat roofs, mentioned in i, 5, an imitation of the Babylonian worship of the heavens that had become the fashion in Palestine from the reign of Manasses is also mentioned by the contemporary Prophet, Jeremiah (xix, 13; xxxii, 29), as a religious disorder of the Josianic era. All this confirms the credibility of the witness of i, 1, concerning the authorship of Sophonias.
Critical investigations, as to where the original texts in the Book of Sophonias end and the glosses, revisions of the text, and still later revisions begin, have resulted in a unanimous declaration that the first chapter of the book is the work of Sophonias; the second chapter is regarded as not so genuine, and the third still less so. In separating what are called the secondary layers of the second chapter nearly all the higher critics have come to different conclusions,—quot capita, tot sensus. Each individual verse cannot be investigated here as in the detailed analysis of a commentator. However, it may be pointed out in general that the technical plan in the literary construction of the speeches, especially the symmetrical arrangement of the speeches mentioned in section II, and the responses spoken of in section III, forbid any large excisions. The artistic form used in the construction of the prophetic addresses is recognized more and more as an aid to literary criticism.
The passage most frequently considered an addition of a later date is iii, 14-20, because the tone of a herald of salvation here adopted does not agree with that of the prophecies of the threatening judgment of the two earlier chapters. It is, however, the custom of the Prophets after a terrifying warning of the judgments of Jahve to close with a glimpse of the brilliant future of the Kingdom of God, to permit, as it were, the rainbow to follow the thunderstorm. Joel first utters prophetic denunciations which are followed by prophetic consolations (Joel in Vulgate, i—ii, 17; ii, 18—iii); Isaiah in ch. i calls Jerusalem a city like Sodom and directly afterwards a city of justice, and Micheas, whose similarity to Sophonias is remarked upon by critics, also allows his threats of judgment to die away in an announcement of salvation. One of the guiding eschatological thoughts of all the Prophets is this: The judgment is only the way of transition to salvation and the consummation of the history of the world will be the salvation of what is left of the seed. For this reason, therefore, Sophonias, iii, 14-20 cannot be rejected. The entire plan of the book seems to be indicated in a small scale in the first address, which closes ii, 1-3, with an exhortation to seek the Lord that is with a consolatory theme directly after the terrible proclamation of the Day of the Lord.
The queries raised by the textual criticism of the Book of Sophonias are far simpler and nearer solution than those connected with the higher criticism. The condition of the text, with exception of a few doubtful passages, is good and there are few books of the Biblical canon which offer so few points of attack to Biblical hypercriticism as the Book of Sophonias.