Rorate Caeli

Saints of the Old Testament: St. Sophonias

King Josias obeys the Holy Spirit's prompting to purge the land of false religion

Only two days after the commemoration of the prophet St. Naum, the traditional Roman Martyrology today offers for our veneration another of the holy prophets of the Old Testament -- St. Sophonias, whose book is another of the Minor Prophets. Indeed, this month and September both have a higher number than usual of Old Testament saints' days. St. Sophonias holds a place of honor as second from the top of the list of this day's saints in the Martyrology, immediately after the great apostle of the Orient:

This Day, the Third Day of December

St. Francis Xavier, confessor, of the Society of Jesus, who died on the 2d of this month. 

In Judea, the holy prophet Sophonias.

The first verse of the book of prophecy that St. Sophonias wrote tells us that the historical setting of his prophetic ministry was the reign of the holy reforming King Josias of Judah in the latter half of the 600s B.C. In Hebrew his name -- Tsephanyah or Zephaniah -- means "the Lord protects," in the sense of protecting by concealment. Sophonias is somewhat unusual in that he identifies himself not only by giving his father's name (or, in the case of St. Zacharias, the names of his father and grandfather), but traces his own genealogy back four generations: "Sophonias the son of Chusi, the son of Godolias, the son of Amarias, the son of Ezechias" -- "Zephaniah son of Kushi son of Gedaliah son of Amariah son of Hezekiah." The fact that this remarkable identification culminates with the name "Hezekiah" has led some to speculate that St. Sophonias was a scion of the royal house of Judah, a descendant of the saintly King Ezekias. Though it is impossible to confirm that Sophonias was a royal Davidic scion, it may at least be said that the chronology of his genealogy agrees with this speculation. Nevertheless, it is contradicted by the earliest known extra-biblical tradition about Sophonias in The Lives of the Prophets, which says:

"He was of the tribe of Simeon, of the field of Sabaratha. He prophesied concerning the city, also concerning the end of the nations and the confounding of the wicked. When he died he was buried in his own field."

Like St. Naum's prophecy, the Book of Sophonias has only three chapters. The message that God gave Sophonias to deliver was primarily a prophecy of divine wrath in punishment for the idolatry of his fellow Jews. Sophonias uttered his prophecies when King Josias was still a youth and had not yet embarked upon his purifying reforms. In his first chapter he foresees the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile by which God, uninterested in interreligious dialogue, will purge the Holy Land of the defilement of false religion. But in his vision Sophonias also sees the Final Judgment at the end of the world, using language and imagery that later was used in the Requiem Mass Sequence Dies Irae -- "That day is a day of wrath, a day of tribulation and distress, a day of calamity and misery, a day of darkness and obscurity, a day of clouds and whirlwinds . . ." (Soph 1:15). Thus, the calamities that befell Judah and Jerusalem in 587/6 B.C. allegorically foreshadow the travails of Judgment Day.

After denouncing Judah's wickedness and predicting God's coming wrath, in the second chapter Sophonias also pronounces God's judgment upon the surrounding Gentile nations, including Assyria, whose downfall also was predicted by St. Naum, and which came to pass near the end of the reign of Josias. In his final chapter, however, Sophonias moves from judgment to consolation and hope, concluding his books with a vision of the restoration of Israel, the return of the Jews from captivity, the deliverance of God's elect from their enemies and oppressors, and the establishment of the Kingdom of God in and over Israel.

"The remnant of Israel shall not do iniquity, nor speak lies, nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouth: for they shall feed, and shall lie down, and there shall be none to make them afraid. Give praise, O daughter of Sion: shout, O Israel: be glad, and rejoice with all thy heart, O daughter of Jerusalem. The Lord hath taken away thy judgment, he hath turned away thy enemies: the king of Israel the Lord is in the midst of thee, thou shalt fear evil no more." (Soph 3:13-15)

All ye holy patriarchs and prophets,

Pray for us!