Sweeney’s concise Introduction to Zephaniah shows how readers of the book have constantly been torn between different understandings of the purpose of the work.
The superscription (1:1) places Zephaniah and his writing in the reign of Josiah (640 to 609 bce). The placement of the book in the Book of the Twelve is in the 9th position, after Habakkuk (dated in the Babylonian period of the late 7th century after Josiah) and before Haggai (dated in the early Persian Period).
The Hebrew Masoretic Text favors the earlier dating, before the fall of Jerusalem, by calling on the people to respond to God and avoid the judgment to come. The Greek text favors the latter view, after the fall of Jerusalem, by implying that it knows that the people will not respond and thus will be a part of the judgment to come. The New Testament follows the Greek’s interpretation and uses the book to picture a coming universal judgment which presumes that people have not repented.
Sweeney treats 2:1–3 as the as the “rhetorical center of the book” which states its “basic premise or purpose” (p. 50). This purpose is parenetic, that is, it is an appeal for the people to turn to YHWH to avoid the wrath to come. 1:2–18 reports what God has said, which 2:4–15 tells of the judgments against the nations and 3:1–20 tell of the restoration of Jerusalem after its own period of punishment. Both the elements that precede (1:2–18) and those that follow (2:4–3:20) serve the basic purpose of parenesis contained in 2:1–3 which calls on the hearers (readers) to seek YHWH to avoid the effects of the terrible Day of YHWH.
Hermeneia’s format contains an original translation of the passage, followed by notes about the text and translation, a section on Form and Setting, which contains much of the technical critical assessment of the unit, and verse-by-verse, comments. Sweeney is a master of this format.
His commentary allows the Hebrew nuances to be heard, while giving adequate attention to the trend of the Greek and the New Testament. He carefully distinguishes between the superscription’s information for the reader about the prophet, his name and his family, and the time of his ministry, in the reign of Josiah when the king was trying to take advantage of the disintegration of the Assyrian empire to expand Judah’s control of adjacent territories and reestablish Jerusalem’s religious influence through the temple located there.
The message of the prophecy in 1:2–3:20 is what he calls a “parenesis”, a call to persuade the hearers or readers to seek YHWH and to hold to his teachings. This exhortation is alternately balanced with admonitions, warning the people about the results of an opposite conduct. To achieve these results 1:2–18 announces the Day of YHWH as the time when “YHWH will take action against those who act contrary divine expectations.” (p. 51).
This is an important commentary which will undoubtedly find its place in all serious future discussion. It is very readable, relates to scholarly concerns, but explains them in a way that allows the general reader to understand.