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From Judgment to Joy: Prophecy in a Minor Key

“Yahweh your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save. He will be joyful over you with gladness; He will be quiet in His love; He will rejoice over you with joyful singing.”

- Zephaniah 3:17 -

 

The tide has turned against Christianity. Doors opened by the faith are now barred shut. No longer is church attendance or Bible study acceptable smalltalk. Read the news and you’ll see why. God’s law and ethics are being excised from our culture and government. When we grieve this widespread rejection of God, the Almighty can start to feel far-off and uninvolved. But the prophets of old remind us He is a high and holy judge who is also nearby and in constant control. Hear Isaiah: For thus says the One high and lifted up who dwells forever, whose name is Holy, “I dwell on a high and holy place, and also with the crushed and lowly of spirit in order to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the crushed’ (57:15).


This stupefying withness of God is both a blessing and a curse. We rejoice that God lives in us and seals our salvation, but we know He must one-day punish every unforgiven sin currently sullying His creation. The minor prophets (like Zephaniah) get a bad rap. Calling them minor implies insignificance versus loftier major prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah. But this couldn’t be more wrong. The minor prophets are shorter in length, but they accentuate attributes of God we typically shy away from to our detriment - namely, God’s righteous and (sometimes) bloody judgment against those who abandon His law.

 

Little is known of Zephaniah, who traces his royal genealogy back four generations to good King Hezekiah - something unique among the prophets. This likely won him King Josiah’s ear, in whose reign (640-609 B.C.) Zephaniah preaches. During Josiah’s rule, idolatry and wickedness reach fever pitch until sweeping revival breaks out in Judah. The young king seeks God and is convicted to topple altars to Baal, burn false prophets’ bones, and grind carved idols to dust (2 Chron. 34:3-7). Spiritual renewal leads to long-overdue temple renovations and the discovery of the Book of the Law. When God’s law is read, Josiah tears his in robes in horror as he now fully realizes Judah’s apostacy.



Given that Zephaniah sounds the alarm for God’s judgment against paganism in and outside Judah, we can place his preaching before Josiah’s reforms and the recovery of God’s long-abandoned law. Geopolitical upheaval is stirring the region. The transfer of power from Assyria to Babylon is weakening Nineveh’s grip on Judah, granting Jewish independence for the first time in decades. But just as the future starts looking bright, God’s eleventh-hour prophet declares dread, judgment, and the coming day of Yahweh.


Zephaniah mentions the day of Yahweh more than any other prophet. This ‘day’ refers to temporal judgment by cruel conquerors, such as Nebuchadnezzar, as well as a final divine judgment by Yahweh Himself. Zephaniah’s name means ‘Yahweh hides,’ which helps unravel the meaning of his message. Zephaniah warns that, after hiding from God in order to worship idols, the day of Yahweh is ‘near’ (1:7). When this day comes, God will repay Judah by hiding His goodness and unleashing trouble, distress, destruction, desolation, thick darkness, dense gloom, and very much death (1:15-17).


After untold chances to repent, God will punish Judah until they remember He is both holy and at hand. Fools who try to buy God off with shallow sacrifice will see their error when Babylon lays siege to their precious land: ‘Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to deliver them on the day of Yahweh; and all the earth will be devoured in the fire of His jealousy, for He will make a complete destruction, indeed a terrifying one, of all the inhabitants of the earth’ (Zeph. 1:18). So, we learn this day of Yahweh is both near and not-yet. While Judah will be unable to bribe God for mercy from Babylon, the whole earth will only be judged when God unveils His full righteousness in a future tribulation that heralds the return of Christ to rule and reign (Rev. 6-19) in perfect peace and holiness.



Kings and Chronicles show the dire effect despicable leaders have always had on God’s people. Kings persistently forget how God’s unmerited grace and nearness led Moses to strengthen Israel as they prepared to face pagan Canaanites, saying: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or be in dread of them, for Yahweh your God is the one who goes with you. He will not fail you or forsake you” (Deut. 31:6). Most kings were nothing like Joshua, who lived by Moses’ words. Joshua fought with God as his shield, secured Canaan, and told chronically rebellious Israel: If it is evil in your sight to serve Yahweh, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve Yahweh” (Josh. 24:15).


In typical Bible fashion, while Zephaniah heralds judgment, he also delivers gospel hope. The prophet (speaking for God) tells Judah to seek and serve God, as Joshua did, so they may yet be saved: ‘Seek Yahweh, all you humble of the earth who have worked His justice; seek righteousness, seek humility. Perhaps you will be hidden in the day of Yahweh’s anger’ (Zeph. 2:3). This reminds us of the double-meaning of Zephaniah’s name (Yahweh hides), as while God hides goodness from stubborn sinners, He remains the only refuge for repentent seekers in the day of trouble. This is why Luther has us sing: ‘A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing; our helper he, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.’


We misread the Bible if we say God in the Old Testament is cruel while God in the New Testament is gracious. Remember that as holy Lawgiver, only God has the right to judge. Yet, out of mercy, God pleads with Ezekiel: “Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked…is it not that he should turn from his ways and live?” (18:23). God is not shy to grieve when we reject His grace and dive headlong into damnation. The mercy is all of God, and the foolishness is all of us. Therefore, even in the face of Judah's ‘near’ devastation, Zephaniah praises his good God: ‘Yahweh is righteous in her midst; He will do no injustice. Every morning He brings His justice to light; He does not fail. But the unjust knows no shame’ (3:5).



Do we today, like idolatrous Judah then, deserve the wrath of an omnipresent God who knows all our sin? Absolutely. Do we today deserve the worst kind of alienation and disgrace? Of course. Yet God continues to save all who repent and turn to Him because He forsook the holy One who cried from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me?” Jesus Christ became sin for us that we might seize God’s ever-present grace and be joined to His goodness. Our good God is the same ‘yesterday and today and forever’ (Heb. 13:8). He remains the rightful judge of all the earth, but out of love He calls us to kneel at the cross - the very crux of redemptive history - and marvel that He is both ‘just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus’ (Rom. 3:26).


Zephaniah paints a startling picture of God’s just judgment that remains relevant. Yet the not-so-minor prophet unveils the heights of God’s grace when at last he writes: “Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands fall limp. Yahweh your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save. He will be joyful over you with gladness; He will be quiet in His love; He will rejoice over you with joyful singing” (Zeph. 3:16-17). Since our fall, God has kept rescuing the lost, so much so that He will one day sing over Israel as He renews their kingdom with Christ as their king. What a Savior we have!



All Scripture quotations are from the Legacy Standard Bible

2 comments

2 Comments


And the [1000 year] question is, who is the Israel that HE will be singing over in verse in Zephaniah 17?

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Edwin O'Hanlon
Edwin O'Hanlon
Dec 21, 2023
Replying to

If I said: 'great question,' it would be the understandment of the millenium. I believe Yahweh is singing over a newly saved Israel in Zeph. 3:17. I've grown convinced that when Paul says all Israel will be saved, he is looking ahead to the moment of Christ's second coming when the Jewish remnant will confess from Isaiah 53. They will look upon the one whom they pierced. Then they will mourn, repent, and come to Christ in a moment of gracious realization. Does that square with your reading of Scripture?

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