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Zephaniah. One of the minor prophets, a part of ‘The Book of the Twelve’. It’s on page 944 if you’re using one of the Church Bibles, otherwise it’s four from the end of the Old Testament.
Zephaniah’s message is that the Day of the Lord is coming: a day when God himself will testify and stand in judgement against all nations and people, including, as Andrew reminded us last week, God’s people. Even so, it contains a message of hope, of present and future possibility. Zephaniah had his ministry in the Southern Kingdom of Judah during the reign of Josiah. Josiah’s reign began in 640BC when he was eight years old. He reigned for 31 years. If you want to know more about him, read 2 Kings chapters 22, 23 and 2 Chronicles chapters 34, 35. He restored the temple in Jerusalem, including celebrating Passover. He dismantled shrines to other gods. When workmen discovered the ‘Book of the Law’ in the temple, Josiah had it read to all the people. He restored the worship of the Lord, including obedience to his commands. Zephaniah probably wrote a few years before this great reform. But within a dozen years of Josiah’s death, Zephaniah’s prophecy had its short-term fulfilment with the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of most of the people.
When you read Zephaniah, and I hope you will, it is helpful to know that when English translations have the word LORD in capitals or small capitals, they are using this to indicate that the Hebrew text is using God’s 1personal name. God gave his name to Moses at the burning bush – I AM, or I AM THAT I AM. After the destruction of the temple, the Israelites never spoke it again: using instead, Adonai – Lord – or Elohim – God. We hear echoes of it when, for example, Jesus says, “before Abraham was, I am.” [John 8:58, NIVUK].
Using God’s name allows Zephaniah to distinguish clearly between the one true God, and false gods: whether those of other tribes or peoples or the idols that people set up in place of God, whether these are money, health, happiness, peace, family, clan, self, there is an endless list of things or people, many good things in their right place, that they could – and we can – put first in our lives before the one true God.
Zephaniah is a collection of Hebrew poems, grouped into four sections:
- First, The Day of the LORD’s Judgement (1:1–2:3), has three sections,
- The first verse: an introduction. Incidentally, the longest family history of the Old Testament prophets that we have.
- Then the announcement of the LORD’s punishment, which is the rest of the first chapter.
- Then the first three verses of chapter 2 are a call to repentance.
- Second, sayings against the nations, including Judah’s neighbours, and that’s the rest of chapter 2.
- Third, sayings against Jerusalem, is the first eight verses of chapter 3.
- Fourth, final promises, and that’s the rest of chapter 3.
It is not the first time that Zephaniah has been preached about here. I have notes from 23 September 1984. I cam across them two or three weeks ago. Margaret had kept them. So some of us have been to this book before. However – and I’ll be quoting from this sermon – none of us was around for a sermon by C H Spurgeon, a leading 19th-century Baptist preacher. He preached on the same theme from Zephaniah on 30 October 1887 with the title: “A Sermon for the Time Present” [Spurgeon, 1887], so we cannot expect Zephaniah to interest only historians of the Middle East of 2,600 years ago.
Zephaniah has graphic descriptions of the Day of the Lord, presenting it as a reversal of Genesis 1: by the word of the Lord, the ordered world will return to chaos. But a popular view at the time was that the Day of the Lord would be a time of judgement on the nations, the enemies of God’s people, but a time of great rejoicing for God’s people. Zephaniah confirms there will be a judgement on their enemies but insists there will be a judgement on God’s people.
With our New Testament perspective, that is not a surprise. We know that Jesus will return in power and in glory and, after the resurrection of all the dead, God will judge each person, “For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due to us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” [2 Cor 5:10, NIVUK]
But those in Christ are in a position incomparably better than those who are not in Christ: we have a guarantee that our names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. As the apostle Peter says, “… if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgement to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, ‘If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?’ [1 Pet 4:16–18, NIVUK]
The writer to the Hebrews puts it, “Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” [Hebrews 9:27–28, NIVUK]
And the apostle John: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments.” [1 John 2:1–3, NRSV]
Zephaniah prophesies judgement on the nations, but not only for destruction. In God’s mercy, there will also be a purification of the nations and of God’s people: the Lord’s love and his invitation extend to Gentiles, not just Israelites (3:9). God wants everyone to turn to him. Also, in Zephaniah, we see concern with the poor and the humble. Zephaniah reverses the usual worldly standards: the poor and the humble may be the only ones to be blessed. (2:3, 3:12). Zephaniah is not demanding poverty, but he is demanding care for the poor and the humble. He is condemning pride, reliance on wealth (1:18, 11), and self-confidence (2:13–15). Growing in humility matters: not the false humility like Dickens’ character Uriah Heep, but, in simple terms, I think humility is seeing myself as I really am, and that comes through my experience of God’s goodness and love. (see [Anon, 2009, pp37–38])
Before we leave this major theme of Zephaniah’s, that the Lord’s judgement is certain and will arrive, I will read from C S Lewis’ “Mere Christianity”:
I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realise what it will be like when He does. When that happens, it is the end of this world. When the author walks on to the stage the play is over. God is going to invade, all right: but what is the good of saying you are on His side then, when you see the whole natural universe melting away like a dream and something else—something it never entered your head to conceive—comes crashing in; something so beautiful to some of us and so terrible to others that none of us will have any choice left? For this time it will be God without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature. It will be too late then to choose your side. There is no use saying that you choose to lie down when it has become impossible to stand up. That will not be the time for choosing: it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realised it before or not. Now, today, this moment, is the chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that chance. It will not last for ever. We must take it or leave it.
[Lewis, 2002, p65]
Earlier, Dick read Zephaniah 3:8–13 for us. This passage marks the transition from judgement to restoration and promises for a future. So chapter 3, verses 9 and 10 offer hope to those outside Judah. Verses 11 to 13 offer hope of restoration for a remnant of Judah.
Verses 14 and 15, remind us that, for those who are God’s faithful people, including those who accept and follow Jesus, the punishment for their sins no longer falls on them:
Sing, Daughter Zion;
shout aloud, Israel!
Be glad and rejoice with all your heart,
The LORD has taken away your punishment,
he has turned back your enemy.
The LORD , the King of Israel, is with you;
never again will you fear any harm.
[Zephaniah 3:14–17, NIVUK]
But it has a command. The people of the Lord are to be grateful and to offer thanks and praise. Even though, for now, the situation may be hard and difficult, it is the only right response for all God has done, is doing, and will do for them. This command applies at least as strongly to the Church. We are not as afflicted as the Israelites were during the exile. They were to lose the temple and the promised land: in human terms, they might seem to have been abandoned by their God: yet Zephaniah is reminding them that God is still their preserver. As Christians, disciples or followers of Jesus, we have the absolute assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of God. As Paul said,
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:
‘For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
[Romans 8:35–39, NIVUK]
As St Paul says in his letter from prison to the Church at Phillippi, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice!” [Philippians , NIVUK]
Returning to Zephaniah, from verse 16,
On that day they will say to Jerusalem,
‘Do not fear, Zion;
do not let your hands hang limp.
The LORD your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
but will rejoice over you with singing.’
[Zephaniah 3:16–17, NIVUK]
‘do not let your hands hang limp’: fear can paralyse; can drain away energy: the prophet is insisting that should not happen. We should not fear, because the Lord our God is with us (v17) and he is a mighty warrior, not to terrorise his own, but to save and preserve them.
The Lord’s people must be about their business. This verse reminds me of the story of Moses praying for the success of God’s people, when his arms, his hands grew weary, Aaron and Joshua, sat him down and supported him. Prayer is vital to the work of the Church, don’t weary of it, do it yourself, do what you can to support others in doing it. Whatever God is calling you to do in and for the Church, get on with it; read the Bible, discover what Jesus is saying to you, and do it.
This section at the end of Zephaniah is about joyful song and praise. In verse 14, Jerusalem will sing: her sentence commuted, trespasses hidden, enemies removed. (After [Berlin, 2008, p148]). Here in verse 17, God will rejoice over his people, with whom he is triumphantly and lovingly re-united, this is the same image as the New Testament one of God, the bridegroom, and the Church, his beloved bride.
John Calvin’s summary is “that God is most highly pleased when he can show himself kind to his Church.” [Calvin and Owen, 2010, p303]
Listen again to the end of verse 17:
He will take great delight in you;
in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
but will rejoice over you with singing.
God delights in his people, Zephaniah presents an image of God rejoicing with singing – not always the image people have of the character of God. We saw the joy that the remnant of God’s people had (3:14-16), here we see God’s joy (3:17), the Lord rejoicing over his faithful people. We can underestimate the joy God has in his people.
In Spurgeon’s sermon I mentioned earlier, he says: “Faulty as the church is, the Lord rejoices in her. While we mourn, as well we may, yet we do not sorrow as those that are without hope; for God does not sorrow, his heart is glad, and he is said to rejoice with joy – a highly emphatic expression. The Lord taketh pleasure in them that fear him, imperfect though they be. He sees them as they are to be, and so he rejoices over them, even when they cannot rejoice in themselves.” [Spurgeon, 1887, p610]
Again from Spurgeon, “Can you imagine it? Is it possible to conceive of the Deity breaking into a song: Father, Son and Holy Ghost together singing over the redeemed? God is so happy in the love which he bears to his people that he breaks the eternal silence, and sun and moon and stars with astonishment hear God chanting a hymn of joy.” [Spurgeon, 1887, p608]
And this is not an isolated passage where God rejoices in the restoration of his people.
But at that, my timer tells me my time is up. Thank you.
We’ll finish with a prayer. Let us pray.
whose Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness,
and was tempted as we are, yet without sin:
give us grace to discipline ourselves in obedience to your Spirit;
and, as you know our weakness,
so may we know your power to save;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
[Collect for the First Sunday in Lent, © The Archbishop’s Council, 2000]
[Anon, 2009] Anonymous trans. C A Butcher, The Cloud of Unknowing with the Book of Privy Counsel (Boston; London: Shambhala, 2009}.
[Berlin, 2008] Adele Berlin, Zephaniah: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 25A, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008).
[Calvin and Owen, 2010] John Calvin and John Owen, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, vol. 4 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010).
[Guzik, 2009] David Guzik’s Commentaries on the Bible: Zephaniah (Santa Barbara, CA: David Guzik, 2001).
[NIVUK] The Holy Bible: New International Version (Anglicised Edition, 2011), Revised and updated edition (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2011).
[NRSV] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition (Washington, DC: National Council of Churches of Christ, 1993).
[Lewis, 2002] C S Lewis, Mere Christianity, rvd edn 2002, (London: Harper Collins, 2002).
[RJNB] Holy Bible Revised New Jerusalem Bible (Study Edition, 2019), (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2019)
[Smith, 1985] J M P Smith, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Micah, Zephaniah and Nahum (Edinburgh, T & T Clark, 1985).
[Spurgeon, 1887] C H Spurgeon, “A Sermon for the Time Present”, in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 33 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1887).
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