Zephaniah served the Lord during a time of spiritual recovery led by a pious king. Yet the reforms that he supervised did not remove all forms of sin from Judah. The failure to reform is made worse by the refusal of the people to learn from the fate of their kinsmen in the northern kingdom of Israel who had already been taken into exile by the Assyrians.
The message begins with a solemn warning from God in which he threatens to send comprehensive judgement on Judah for its sins of idolatry. He speaks in apocalyptic terminology in that even the animals in the sea and the birds in the sky will be removed from the earth. If we interpret the threat literally, we will miss the point. The Lord is using the most graphic physical judgement to depict the degree of spiritual disintegration that will come on the people of Judah (vv. 2-5).
Zephaniah then depicts the Lord as arranging a sacrificial meal. Ironically those who participated in the idolatrous practices would become the sacrifices. The wealthy will find that their riches, which they had obtained fraudulently, would disappear in an economic crisis that would affect the whole country (vv. 6-11). None will escape. The complacent, those who imagined that the Lord was ambivalent about their behaviour, would discover that he knew where to find them in order to punish them (vv. 12-13). Their prosperity and comfortable living would be taken away.
A terrible description is given of the effects of the Lord's judgements (vv. 14-18). As far as Judah and the surrounding nations were concerned, it was fulfilled in the devastation connected to the invasion by Babylon and the subsequent exile, which occurred a few years after the death of Josiah. We can look back at it and wrongly regard it merely as an historical period. Here we are told it was divine judgement.
This chapter should not be easy reading for us. We could read it in five minutes, and take even less to forget what it says. The fact is, the Lord does judge nations. While no nation today has the same privileged position enjoyed by Judah, nevertheless each nation will be judged according to the extent of divine privileges that it enjoyed. And we have been given more than most.