Habakkuk and Zephaniah are all too often overlooked in Bible study. This is unfortunate; these books are rich in what they present to the serious student. According to rabbinical tradition, Habakkuk was of the tribe of Levi; aside from that, we know nothing of his personal history. He simply describes himself as a “prophet” (Hab. 1:1). On the other hand, Zephaniah tells his background in the opening verse. “Zephaniah son of Cushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah, in the days of Josiah son of Amon, king of Judah” (Zeph. 1:1). This stark contrast tells us that God can use anyone from any background to accomplish His will. It also shows that those from prestigious royal bloodlines can proclaim the Truth just as effectively as someone from humble beginnings. The dedication of the man God uses is the key.
Habakkuk struggled with the justice of God against evildoers, just as we are prone to do. “How long, O Lord, will I call for help, and You will not hear? I cry out to You, ‘Violence!’ Yet You do not save” (Hab. 1:2). The answer the prophet received from God was one that initially did not satisfy his human mind—yet, after further reflection, made perfect sense: “Look among the nations! Observe! Be astonished! Wonder! Because I am doing something in your days—You would not believe it if you were told” (Hab. 1:5). God told Habakkuk that Babylon was being used as His instrument of judgment against Judah, and that in turn Babylon herself would be judged. The justice of God is something that mankind still struggles with, in the midst of a sinful and unjust world; yet, God is on His throne and sees all. His mighty providential hand raises up nations and brings nations down. “But the Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth be silent before Him” (Hab. 2:20). No matter what the circumstances, God is in control. The evil of Hitler was not overlooked by God; nations rose up and eventually defeated the Nazi menace. God’s ultimate Final Judgment will wreak vengeance on all evil men and women, who do violence and practice injustice. We thus find ourselves echoing the sentiment of Habakkuk: “Though the flock should be cut off from the fold and there be no cattle in the stalls, yet I will exult in the Lord, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation” (Hab. 3:17-18).
Zephaniah’s prophetic utterances were delivered in the first part of the reign of Josiah, before the king instituted sweeping reforms in Judah. The nation was still suffering from the evil reign of Manasseh; idolatry and wickedness were prevalent in the land. “‘I will completely remove all things from the face of the earth,’ declares the Lord…So I will stretch out My hand against Judah and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (Zeph. 1:2, 4). God’s anger is not only kindled against all who practice idolatry, but also those who straddle the fence: “And I will punish the men who are stagnant in spirit, who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good or evil!’” (Zeph. 1:12) The prophet is unsparing against the nations, which include Judah; Jerusalem is called “rebellious and defiled, the tyrannical city! She heeded no voice, she accepted no instruction, she did not trust in the Lord, she did not draw near to her God” (Zeph. 3:1-2). Surely these thundering words had to have had an impact on young king Josiah; it is thus no wonder that when the high priest found the book of the Law in the temple and read it in the king’s presence, Josiah tore his clothes and cried out. Now he fully understood why Zephaniah had pronounced judgment against God’s people—they had abandoned His Law! God still looks with disfavor at those who ought to know better—who forget His Word and abandon His practices. Everyone of the spirit of Zephaniah and Josiah must rally to the Truth of God, and both do and teach it.
God always has a positive message to deliver to His people along with a warning; this is true near the end of the book of Zephaniah:
“Shout for joy, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away His judgments against you, He has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you will fear disaster no more. In that day it will be said to Jerusalem: ‘Do not be afraid, O Zion; do not let your hands fall limp. The Lord your God is in your midst, a victorious warrior. He will exult over you with joy, He will be quiet in His love, He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy” (Zeph. 3:14-17).
No matter what the circumstances, God will take care of His people. We must always look to Him and trust in His promises.
David is an Associate Professor at the V.P. Black College of Biblical Studies at Faulkner University.