Summary and Analysis
Zephaniah, Nahum, and Habakkuk
Not all of Israel's prophets were men of great vision. Some of them apparently made little or no impression on either their contemporaries or their successors, with the result that neither their names nor their writings have been recorded. The three who are included in this section were more fortunate: We know their names, and at least part of what they had to say has been preserved in the books that bear their names. But, as in the case of the other prophets, their messages are now combined with additions and editorial comments made by the people who brought the manuscripts into their present form.
Zephaniah's ministry occurred during the reign of Josiah, king of Judah. Zephaniah was the grandson of Hezekiah, but we cannot be sure that this Hezekiah was the same Hezekiah who ruled Jerusalem during the time of Isaiah. Zephaniah was a prophet of doom in the true sense of the word: He saw no bright future for his people. He is remembered primarily for what he says concerning the coming of the Day of Yahweh: "'I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth,' declares the Lord. 'I will sweep away both men and animals.'" The immediate occasion that caused this prediction is generally assumed to be a threatened invasion of Judah by the Scythians, a barbarian horde that was invading neighboring countries with unparalleled devastation and destruction. We do know that an invasion by the Scythians occurred about this time, but whether the prophet had them in mind or the Assyrians, who had long been the oppressors of the Hebrew people, is uncertain. In either case, Zephaniah believed that events soon to take place should be interpreted as the judgment of Yahweh being visited upon Judah because of its sins. Specifically, he mentions the worship of foreign gods and the observance of ceremonies customary in connection with their worship.
Although Zephaniah was not the first prophet to predict the coming Day of Yahweh, he gave to this concept a specific meaning that was new to the people of his time. Amos proclaimed that the Day of Yahweh would come sometime in the future, but Zephaniah declares that it is already imminent: "The great day of the Lord is near — near and coming quickly. . . . That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish." He sees its coming as a great climactic event in which the forces of evil will receive their just punishment. Whether he regarded this evil day as the termination of the Judean kingdom or as a necessary prelude to something better for his people, we do not know. Some parts of the Book of Zephaniah predict the coming of a better day, but it seems quite probable that these sections were added by editors who looked at the book as a whole from the perspective of later years.
Nahum is usually classified with the minor prophets. Although we know practically nothing about Nahum as a person, we can judge from the contents of his book that he was not a prophet in the true sense of the word. He was a poet who possessed a remarkable style of writing and who described in unforgettable language the fall of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire, in 612 B.C. This event was an occasion for rejoicing on the part of the Jews, especially those in whom the spirit of nationalism was strong. Nahum's original poem is recorded in Chapters 2 and 3. The first chapter contains an acrostic poem — a poem in which the first letter of each line, taken together, forms a name or saying — that is used as an introduction to the book. Possibly the author of the main poem in the second and third chapters may have witnessed the battle that brought destruction to Nineveh, but of this we cannot be sure. The poem opens with a series of denunciations, is followed by a vivid account of the capture of the city, and concludes with a list of sarcastic remarks about a boastful power that is now laid low. For all of its remarkable qualities as an example of poetry, the poem is really a hymn of hate. For centuries, the Hebrew people suffered at the hands of the Assyrians; concerning those bitter experiences, we can see why this poem appealed to the editors who included it with the writings of the prophets.
The Book of Habakkuk reveals a spirit that sharply contrasts Nahum's. The prophet for whom the book is named does not express hatred toward foreigners, nor does he pronounce doom upon the evildoers among his own people. Instead, he is deeply disturbed about certain events and earnestly prays for guidance that will help him understand the prevailing situation. His ministry occurred during the reign of Josiah (640–609 B.C.) and that of Josiah's son King Jehoiakim (609–598 B.C.). Josiah is usually regarded as one of the better kings of Judah. During his reign, a famous law book, which included the main text of what we now call the Book of Deuteronomy, was discovered in the Temple, and its provisions were made the law of the land. Despite his good deeds, Josiah was slain in a battle at Megiddo, where he had gone to stop the advance of the Egyptians across Judean territory. His son Jehoahaz was taken captive to Egypt, and another son, Jehoiakim, was allowed to occupy the Judean throne only because he pledged loyalty to the Egyptians. Later, when the Egyptians were defeated by the Babylonians at a battle at Carchemish, Jehoiakim pledged loyalty to the Babylonians. His attitude toward the people over whom he ruled was anything but honorable.
As Habakkuk observed these happenings, he could not understand why the evil forces in the world should prosper as well as they were. He believed that Yahweh was a just god who rewarded the righteous and punished the wicked, but the events that he observed seemed to indicate just the opposite. Josiah, a good king, was killed in battle; his son who was the rightful heir to the throne was in captivity; and Jehoiakim, who now ruled in Jerusalem, was a corrupt and incompetent king. The longer Jehoiakim's reign continued, the worse the situation became. The prophet cannot understand why Yahweh does not correct these grave injustices. In desperation, Habakkuk cries out: "How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? . . . Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted." He is told that the Babylonians are an instrument that Yahweh is using to punish the evildoers in Judah, but to Habakkuk, the Babylonians are no better than the ones who are punished. Habakkuk asks Yahweh, "Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?" Although Habakkuk does not receive a direct answer to his question, he finds consolation in the assurance that ultimately the forces of righteousness will be triumphant. In the meantime, "the righteous will live by his faith."
Zephaniah's references to the coming of the Day of Yahweh anticipate in some respects the development of the eschatological and apocalyptic ideas that play such important roles in the centuries preceding the beginning of the Christian era. Because the concept of a just god who is supreme over the nations of the earth implies the giving of rewards and punishments commensurate with the deeds of the people, the question of when and how this reckoning would take place received more and more attention on the part of prophets and teachers.
The Book of Nahum, which describes in exquisite language the fall of the city of Nineveh, contains no lofty religious sentiments. Its inclusion in the Old Testament has led to various interpretations of the imagery used in the poem. When these expressions are given a symbolic rather than a literal meaning, it is possible to read into the poem whatever one wishes to find. However, interpretations of this kind are legitimate only when the context indicates that the writer intended the work to be used that way. Nahum's poem does not indicate that he is talking about anything other than the destruction of the city responsible for so many of the woes inflicted on the Hebrew people.
The problem of injustice that troubled Habakkuk became even more acute during the centuries that followed his life. The earlier prophets' teaching that the calamities that befall a nation should be regarded as punishments for its sins was questioned more and more in light of observed experiences. The strong, powerful nations were not more righteous than the ones that were subservient to them. A righteous person often suffered the most unjust treatment, while the wicked person enjoyed comforts and prosperity. No final solution to the problem was ever found, but Habakkuk's statement that "the righteous will live by his faith" has inspired some of the most important movements in religious history.