How to Read Zephaniah

The Book of Zephaniah

Planting a garden requires the right tools. And so does interpreting the Bible. But instead of shovels, rakes, and weeders, we use observation, interpretation, contextualization, and application.  

The poetry in the book of Zephaniah holds together God’s justice and love, painting a picture of how God will heal and transform rebellious nations into one unified family. This video from The Bible Project provides an overview of the book. The goal of this post is not to replace your personal study of the Bible. Rather, it is to help you navigate the story of Zephaniah, discover what it teaches, dive into how it fits into the rest of the Bible, and look at how it applies to your life. Use the questions below as a guide as you watch this video. 

Now that you have an overview of Zephaniah in mind, you can apply what you know to interpret specific passages in Zephaniah. Read about the conversion of the nations in Zephaniah 3:9–13. Utilize observation, interpretation, contextualization, and application to dissect the meaning of this passage. Use the ideas from the videos to inform your answers to the following questions about Zephaniah 3:9–13. 

Zephaniah 3:9-13 (ESV)

The Conversion of the Nations

9“For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples

to a pure speech,

that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord

and serve him with one accord.

10 From beyond the rivers of Cush

my worshipers, the daughter of my dispersed ones,

shall bring my offering.

11 “On that day you shall not be put to shame

because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against me;

for then I will remove from your midst

your proudly exultant ones,

and you shall no longer be haughty

in my holy mountain.

12But I will leave in your midst

a people humble and lowly.

They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord,

13 those who are left in Israel;

they shall do no injustice

and speak no lies,

nor shall there be found in their mouth

a deceitful tongue.

For they shall graze and lie down,

and none shall make them afraid.”

Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Observation asks the basic question: who, what, where, and when. It examines the passage at a surface level—the characters, events, themes, culture, and genre. Observations may seem obvious at first, but they open the door to the meaning of any part of the Bible. Be careful to not jump ahead to interpreting the observations, or assigning them meaning. Just list them. 

Example: God will cause all nations to call upon His name.

Observe: As you read the passage, what observations did you make about Zephaniah 3:9–13? (Consider the major characters, plot points, locations, cities, landmarks, time period, background information, cultural aspects, genre, themes, and actions of the characters. Also, take note of any information offered in the video.)
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Where an observation determines what the passage says, interpretation takes the next step to find out what the passage means. We’ve asked what the passage says about God and humanity, and now we ask what that means. Look at the themes and ask what they mean as well.

Example: (Observation) God will cause all nations to call upon His name. (Interpretation) God promised Abraham that through His family, all the nations of the earth would be blessed. God is forming a new family from the people of every nation. 

Interpret: What is significant about each of the observations you made above? What is the main message of Zephaniah 3:9–13? How does its message connect with the main message of all of Zephaniah? (Think about what this book teaches about God and humanity and what that teaching means, as well as the meaning of the themes. Consider insights from the video as well.)
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Contextualization looks at how the passage fits into the rest of the book and into the story of the Bible. It connects the themes that pop up throughout the story of Scripture and sees how the book fits into the biblical narrative. 

Example: God promises to one day restore all creation to perfection through a coming rescuer. God makes a covenant with Abraham, promising that every nation on earth will be blessed through Abraham’s family. Israel is sent into exile for their wickedness. God pours out his judgment on evil and violent nations. Jesus comes into the world as the promised rescuer. Jesus’s atoning death covers sin. The Holy Spirit is poured out and begins to draw people from every tribe, tongue, and nation into the family of God. The Kingdom of God will one day come in full. All nations are part of this new Kingdom. Flourishing and restoration abound. 

Contextualize: What themes does Zephaniah 3:9–13 seem to establish? How do those themes connect with the rest of the story of Zephaniah? What themes would you say have potential to carry forward into other books of the Bible? What themes connect back to the earlier books of the Bible?
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Application asks, “So what?” It considers how the meaning of this passage applies to our day-to-day lives. The point of reading Scripture isn’t to become puffed up with knowledge, but to be transformed. Ask God to show you how you can specifically put the truths from this book into practice. Brainstorm ways you can live out what you learned throughout your day.

Example: God’s plan involves creating a people from every nation on earth. Knowing this, I can begin praying for the nations and for God to draw people from all over the world into His family. The knowledge of this new kind of family frees me to share the gospel with friends, neighbors, and co-workers from every type of lineage and heritage. I can be full of hope for God’s work among people of every nationality, as well as reminded of God’s faithfulness in keeping His promises.  

Apply: How does the truth from Zephaniah 3:9–12 affect you and your relationship with God and others? What are some specific actions you could take to live out the truths found in this book this week? If you're having trouble coming up with an application of this particular passage, how could you apply the main message of Zephaniah to your life this week?
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The last step in reading the Bible helps us wrap everything up. We take the time to summarize the main message and implications of the book. As you summarize what you learned, it solidifies what God taught you through this video. 

Share: Now that you’ve spent time learning about Zephaniah, how would you explain the main points of this book to a friend? If you were going to explain what you learned to a friend, what would you say? What would you be sure to include? Why?
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Reading the Bible doesn’t have to be like weeding a garden. You can find great joy in learning about God through His Word. Read through Zephaniah this week. As you study, use observation, interpretation, contextualization, and application as a guide. Take the next step and put what you learn into practice. 

To learn more about The Bible Project, click here.