The opening verse says, “The word of the Lord that came to Zephaniah the son of Cushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah, in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah.” Zephaniah came from a long line of leaders in Judah. His father was Cushi. This name is usually used as an ethnic label referring to a person from Cush, which today makes up modern Sudan and Ethiopia. Clark says this means, “Zephaniah’s father was an African, and Zephaniah himself was a black man. This possibility gains some support from the fact that in his short prophecy Zephaniah twice mentions the land or people of Cush. A Cushite dynasty had ruled Egypt 715–663 b.c., and this no doubt led to increased familiarity with Cushites in Judah, and perhaps to some intermarriage with them.”[1] Zephaniah’s grandfather, Gedaliah, is even more interesting. A seal impression was discovered near Lachish carrying Gedaliah’s name as the head of a household. Thus, in his early career, Gedaliah appears to have held a high position in the Judahite royal court. There’s also a reference in the Septuagint that Gedaliah was one of the men that protested the burning of one of Jeremiah’s scrolls. He’s found in 2 Kings and Jeremiah as a head of a household that supported Josiah’s reform and the prophet Jeremiah. He was also placed in charge of the remnant of the Jews left behind in Judah when most were transported to Babylon. According to one website, “Gedaliah established his administration in Mitzpah, north of Jerusalem, and initially, his control over Judah was strong enough to induce refugees who had fled east of the Jordan River to Ammon, Moab, and Edom, to return to Judah.”[2] His grandfather Amariah could have been the high priest who participated in the reforms Jehoshaphat initiated.

Hezekiah was his grandfather. “In the ranking of the kings of Judah, Hezekiah ranks as one of the good ones. He has a heart devoted to the Lord. Yet when he is given an extra 15 years of life, he shows off to the leaders of Babylon his ‘blessings.’ He is then told that Judah will eventually go into exile, but not in his lifetime. Such a prophecy doesn’t bother him because it won’t happen in his lifetime. That’s not the response of a strong leader. Strong leaders look to legacy, they look to the long-term health of their church, their company, or their country.”[3] Hezekiah is followed by his son Manasseh who was the worst king of Judah. According to Swindoll, “This all means that Zephaniah grew up under the reign of Josiah’s predecessors: Josiah’s grandfather, the evil king Manasseh, and Manasseh’s son, the young and evil Amon. As a young man, the prophet-to-be would have been surrounded by the trappings of idolatry, child sacrifice, and unjust killings—strong influences on a young mind. But Zephaniah grew into a man of God, able to stand before the people and proclaim God’s message of judgment and hope to a people that had gone astray.”[4]

Zephaniah warns everyone of the dangers of turning from God to idols. He confronts his own people who have made a mockery of worship. I wonder if we, too, don’t do that sometimes by making our religion a set of rituals to observe rather than cultivating a relationship with God. We sometimes think that just being part of a church or serving in some capacity will exempt us from a genuine connection with God. The good news for those in Judah during Zephaniah’s day and for us today is seen in Chapter three, where we find God is always a God of forgiveness, restoration, and hope.

[1] Clark, David J., and Howard A. Hatton. 1989. A Translator’s Handbook on the Book of Zephaniah. UBS Handbook Series. New York: United Bible Societies.