Excerpted from Meet the Prophets: A Beginner’s Guide to the Books of the Biblical Prophets. Used with the permission of Paulist Press.
After the Assyrian invasion of 701 (BCE), Judah‑Jerusalem became a client state of the now firmly established Assyrian empire. This fact is graphically reflected in the religious policies that seemingly prevailed there at this time during the long 45-year reign of Manasseh (687‑642). In this period, according to 2 Kings 21, not only were various Assyrian astral deities worshiped in the courtyard of the Temple there, but in the Temple itself was placed an image of the Canaanite mother goddess Asherah (2 Kings 21:7).
Purists in a Dark Age
Those in Judah who remained loyal to God alone during these Judean Dark Ages — those, for example, who would have treasured the messages of the prophets we have just studied (including Isaiah ben Amoz) — must have been greatly perplexed by this turn of events.
We must imagine that many of the prophets of the next decades and centuries were also engaged with questions of this nature, in one way or another. I do want to at least summarize the messages of several minor prophets who spoke during the opening phase of what might be called the “second wave” of prophecy in Israel, during the seventh century (BCE). These are Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk and Obadiah.
We know virtually nothing about them as individuals except their names and where they lived. All appear to have been prophets of Jerusalem, sharing in the general theological outlook of that city. In the following comments I will focus primarily on their messages as these relate to their historical circumstances and to the legacy of hopes and prophecies of their eighth century prophetic predecessors.
Zephaniah and the Assyrian Dark Ages
The prophecies of Zephaniah reflect the apostate conditions in Jerusalem that prevailed there during the long reign of Manasseh (see the references to the worship of pagan deities in Jerusalem, in 2 Kings 21 and Zephaniah 1:4‑5), even though the editors of his book dated it to the reign of Josiah, Manasseh’s successor in Jerusalem. According to 2 Chronicles 34:3, Josiah began purging Jerusalem of its alien deities in his twelfth regnal year. Hence, Zephaniah’s prophetic activity must have occurred prior to this, although it is not impossible that he was one of those who prepared the way for these reforms.