The prophet Sophonias (aka. Zephaniah)

Today is the turn of Saint Sophonias, or Zephaniah, an Old Testament prophet whose entry in the martyrology falls directly below the great Jesuit priest and missionary, S. Francis Xavier.

“Commemoration of Saint Sophonias the prophet, who in the days of King Josiah of Juda announced the ruin of the impious on the great Day of the Wrath of the Lord and who strengthened the poor and needy in the hope of Salvation [to come].”

Roman martyrology, December the 3rd

Salvation to come… the reason so many of these prophets have liturgical memorials in Advent is precisely because of their role in consoling a desolate people with the future prospect of renewal and redemption, in the age of the Jewish Messiah. Sophonias was working during the reign of the good King Josias of Juda and ministering to the southern Judaite kingdom. In the midst of the brief (apparent?) prosperity of Juda under Josias, the prophet predicts the coming doom when the king will have gone to his final rest. It’s all, again, rather sad, for the king’s grandfather Manasses and his father Amon had apparently and inevitably brought divine vengeance upon the people (according to the narrative in the books of the Kings). It was now a matter of time before the southern kingdom would be destroyed for its persisting idolatry.

“‘Fall to I must, and weed yonder plot of ground,’ the Lord says; rid it,’ says He, ‘of man and beast, of bird in air and fish under water; and down shall the godless come too, never a man left alive upon it. All Juda, all the citizens of Jerusalem, shall feel the stroke. Not a trace shall they leave behind, yonder gods of the country-side, acolyte and priest of theirs not a memory; forgotten, all that worship the host of heaven from the roof-tops, all that worship… take they their oaths to the Lord, or swear they by Melchom; forgotten, all that turn their backs on the Lord, and will neither seek nor search for Him.”

Sophonias, 1: 2-6

The doom brought by the neo-Babylonian empire would encompass the whole of the Holy Land, reaching down into the south-west, to the coastal Gaza strip, which would eventually only hold the remnants of the Israelites, most of them being carried away into distant exile.

“Gaza and Ascalon to rack and ruin left, Azotus stormed ere the day is out, root and branch destroyed is Accaron! Out upon the forfeited race that holds yonder strip of coast-land; the Lord’s doom is on it, the little Chanaan of the Philistines; wasted it shall be, and never a man to dwell in it. There on the coast-land shepherds shall lie at ease, there shall be folds for flocks; and who shall dwell there? The remnant that is left of Juda’s race; there they shall find pasturage, take their rest, when evening comes, in the ruins of Ascalon, when the Lord their God brings them relief, restores their fortunes again.”

Sophonias, 2: 4-7

The prophet foretells the utter destruction of all the petty kingdoms in the region, and even of mighty Assyria herself, Nineve being left ‘forlorn, a trackless desert’ before the onslaught of the Babylonian empire. It seems as if the death sentence is already read, and we can probably already see that in the second book of Chronicles, where the sins of King Manasses are given as so manifestly abhorrent that there was no mercy left for Juda. All that is now left for the remnant of the people that will be left is to patiently suffer the destruction to come and await the restoration in the future. And this is where the book starts to sound a little Messianic:

Hope, then, is none, till the day, long hence, when I will stand revealed; what gathering, then, of the nations, all kingdoms joined in one! And upon these, My doom is, vengeance shall fall, fierce anger of Mine shall fall; the whole earth shall be consumed with the fire of My slighted love. And after that, all the peoples of the world shall have pure lips, invoking one and all the Lord’s name, straining at a single yoke in the Lord’s service. From far away, beyond Ethiop rivers, My suppliants shall come to Me, sons of My exiled people the bloodless offering shall bring. No need, then, to blush for wayward thoughts that defied Me; gone from thy midst the high-sounding boast; no room, in that mountain sanctuary of Mine, for pride henceforward; a poor folk and a friendless I will leave in thy confines, but one that puts its trust in the Lord’s name.”

Sophonias, 3: 8-12

Sophonias is then very much a Saint of Advent. A purification of the people is to be had, he says, and this remnant that is so often mentioned are those people who had placed their trust in God and not fallen into idolatry; they would survive the great tragedy to come. And thus the book ends on a note of encouragement. ‘Courage,’ says Sophonias, ‘for forgiveness will also come, for Emmanuel (God in our midst) will deliver you.’

“Break into song, fair Sion, all Israel cry aloud; here is joy and triumph, Jerusalem, for thy royal heart. Thy doom the Lord has revoked, thy enemy repulsed; the Lord, there in the midst of thee, Israel’s King! Peril for thee henceforth is none. Such is the message yonder day shall bring to Jerusalem: Courage, Sion! What means it, the unnerved hand? Thou hast one in the midst of thee, the Lord thy God, whose strength shall deliver thee. Joy and pride of His thou shalt be henceforward; silent till now in His love for thee, He will greet thee with cries of gladness.”

Sophonias, 3: 14-17 
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