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“The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.” — Zephaniah 3:15
When God Sings
We live in changing times. Climate change has global temperatures rising, glaciers melting, and super-storms brewing. While those who own beachfront property are getting nervous as sea levels rise, island nations such as Kiribati, the Maldives, and Micronesia are in danger of disappearing altogether.
Political turmoil and power-grabbing activities by ISIS and other groups have wrecked formerly stable countries, brutally murdered thousands, destroyed cultural heritage sites, and sparked an immigration crisis that threatens to overwhelm Europe.
Times are changing, but we are not the first people to experience cultural shifts and political upheavals. Our text today derives from a period in Israel’s history when times were about to change in a major way – both for bad and for good.
A “minor” prophet
Zephaniah is one of those prophets you may never have heard of unless you memorize the books of the Bible. We may think of him as being obscure, but Zephaniah’s book suggests that he played a living and vital role in Israel’s history.
The final form of Zephaniah is almost certainly postexilic, but the superscription identifies the prophet as having been active during the reign of King Josiah (640-609 BCE).
Zephaniah’s genealogy is traced back four generations (more than any other prophet) to Hezekiah. If this refers to the famous King Hezekiah (715-687 BCE), then Zephaniah was also the great-great grandson of another illustrious king. A careful reading of the book shows that Zephaniah criticized the royal house, but never the king himself.
King Josiah is best remembered for having instigated a religious revival in Judah. He renovated the temple, ordered the destruction of altars to other gods, and instituted the book of Deuteronomy – purported to having been found during temple restorations – as the law of the land. Since part of Zephaniah’s preaching was sharply critical of Judah’s cultural and religious life, his activity, along with that of Jeremiah, may have helped to spark Josiah’s revival.
A major message
There are two important aspects to Zephaniah’s prophecy. The first part of his book is devoted to a scathing criticism of sinful people everywhere, starting with other nations and concluding God’s people who lived in Judah. They had failed to follow God’s way, he believed, in thinking that they could worship both Baal and Yahweh. Zephaniah saw disaster looming on the horizon, and he insisted that it was well deserved.
Zephaniah’s prophetic message of doom reminds me of an old song written by Terri Sharp and recorded by Don McLean: “When the gates are all down, and the signal light’s flashing, and the whistle is screamin’ in vain – and you stay on the track, ignoring the facts, well, you can’t blame the wreck on the train.”
The prophets sometimes described that coming train as an imminent invasion of a particular nation, such as Babylonia or Assyria. Zephaniah may have had a particular enemy in mind, but he believed Israel’s greatest fear should be a coming day of divine judgment, which he referred to as the “Day of Yahweh” (1:7, 14). People in Israel traditionally looked forward to a “Day of the LORD” as a time of deliverance and vindication, but the prophets were convinced it would not be a day of good news for everyone. If Yahweh was coming to punish the wicked, liberate the oppressed, and vindicate the righteous, should that not affect the wicked in Israel, as well?
Like Amos (5:18, 20), Ezekiel (30:3), Joel (1:15; 2:11, 31), and other prophets, Zephaniah saw God’s impending judgment as a train wreck waiting to happen. Zephaniah’s prophetic warning bell rang clearly: If the people of Judah did not recognize the peril of their wicked path and get off the tracks, they would be destroyed. If any survived to think about it, they would know that “you can’t blame the wreck on the train.”
That sentiment remains true. How easy it is to find ourselves loitering on the train tracks of life, neglecting God’s way and courting danger by insisting on our own way. We hurt other people, we abuse our own bodies, we focus on our own needs to the neglect of others who need us, we engage in risky behaviors.
When we live like that, we are a train wreck waiting to happen: waiting to contract a preventable disease, waiting to crash while drinking or texting, waiting to wreck a marriage. Zephaniah’s warning is a clanging bell, a flashing light, and a lowered gate to warn us of impending danger. But if we ignore the warning, when trouble comes, we can’t blame the wreck on the train.
A joyful song(vv. 14-20)
Zephaniah saw a coming day of disaster for those who have rejected God’s way, but he also saw beyond the train wreck to the possibility of a new day of life and hope. A transition comes in 3:9-13, as the prophet looks to a day when God would reverse the multilingual curse of Genesis 11 and all peoples would share the same speech (literally, “a pure lip”). A poor and humble remnant of Israel would return, he declared, minus the proud and haughty.
Zephaniah was not the only prophet to include both words of dizzying doom and glorious hope. Amos (9:11-15) and Zechariah (ch. 14) also preached judgment along with encouraging words of hope, as did Isaiah (chs. 40-55) and Hosea (ch. 11). Zephaniah declared that a time would come when Israel’s present danger and future judgment would come to an end. He saw a new day when God’s people would again put their trust in God and populate Jerusalem in a sublime new age not unlike the New Testament image of a new heaven and a new earth.
That good news would call for joyful song on the part of God’s people, and that’s what we find in today’s text, as Zephaniah looked to a day of celebration: “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” (3:14).
Zephaniah exulted in Israel’s cause for celebration: the Lord would reverse the judgments that the people deserved, turn away Israel’s enemies, and dwell in Israel’s midst as king, so there would be no need to fear any future disaster (3:15-18).
Speaking for God in words that recall Mic. 4:6-7, Zephaniah declared: “I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord” (vv. 19-20).
These verses seem to be directed to Israel in exile, as a promise that a purified remnant of the Jews would return from Babylon and live an idyllic and peaceful life in the land of promise. As such, they may have been proclaimed by a later prophet, one who expected the turnabout to occur soon: it would happen “before your eyes.”
The promise was not fulfilled in the initial return from exile, however, which turned out to be a quite depressing affair. It would have to look to a new future in a new age. Micah (4:1-4) and Isaiah (2:1-4, ch. 11) had also spoken of the eschatological age as a time when all would live in harmony and no one would have cause to fear.
You may notice that several themes in this passage sound a lot like the New Testament. Zephaniah’s insistence that God would take away judgments that Israel deserved helped prepare the way for the New Testament concept of salvation by grace. The Gospel writers and Paul declared that Christ came precisely to take the judgment of God’s people upon himself, so that we might be forgiven of our sin and made right with God (John 1:29, 1 Cor. 15:3, 2 Cor. 5:21).
Zephaniah’s idyllic picture of God dwelling as king in Israel’s midst is reflected in Jesus’ persistent announcement that the kingdom of God had come near – that the rule of God was present in Christ’s own ministry (Mark 1:15, Matt. 4:23; Luke 10:9, 11).
Look back for a moment. Zepha-niah’s happy oracle began with a call for the people to sing praise for the Lord’s steadfast love (v. 14), but in v. 17 he declares that God will sing for joy in celebration of the prospect of dwelling among a faithful people.
Can you draw that picture in your head? Can you hear that sound? Can you imagine the voice of God, like a great waterfall with rhythm, singing with joy? Zephaniah saw a day when God would go looking for his people, would bring them home, and sing for joy over the reunion. Just imagine!
Have you known the joy of being found by God – saved from your lost condition, forgiven by divine grace, born anew and wrapped warmly in the swaddling clothes of eternal love? It’s no accident that this text is read during the Advent season.
When the angels sang for the shepherds in those ringing voices that declared glory to God and peace on earth, it was just a prelude to the day when God’s people will gather home, the day when the great God of the universe will sing for joy in a way that echoes even now in the hearts and souls of those who love him. BT
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for December 13, 2015 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: Zephaniah 3:14-20
Teacher Prep | Youth & This Session
Celebrate with your students! Our students go through so much, we need to celebrate them whenever we can. If you ask your students how much pressure they feel they are under or how bogged down they are, don’t be surprised. There is a growing pressure to never fail, so when something good happens, it seems to be a relief instead of a time for celebration. There are stories throughout scripture of the celebrations that occur when God rescues the people or when someone comes back to God. Take time to celebrate the successes that your students have!
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“Celebration Time!” from AFV via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: Zephaniah 3:14-20