Zephaniah 3:14-20 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
14 Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
15 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.
16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
17 The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
18 as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you,
so that you will not bear reproach for it.
19 I will deal with all your oppressors
at that time.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
20 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.
When you read this Psalm you almost get the sense that Zephaniah has Judah’s return from exile in Babylon, but Zephaniah’s ministry dates to the time of Josiah in the seventh century BCE, just prior to the exile in Babylon. While it’s possible that this song dates from the post-exilic period and was added to the earlier words of Zephaniah, it fits the earlier period just as well. Whether a celebration of a return from exile or national revival, it invites us to rejoice that God’s judgments have been removed and God is ready to renew the people in love. So, let us rejoice and be glad in the Lord our God!
We hear these words from Zephaniah as we continue our journey through Advent to the revealing of the Christ Child on Christmas Eve. The opening season of the Christian year, Advent serves as a reminder that God is faithful to the promises made. Thus, as we gather for Advent worship, we take hold of those promises that inspire and encourage us along the way. Advent is, of course, an eschatological season. It looks forward to the ways in which God will act on behalf of the people—thus the warrior imagery here.
For a nation like Judah, which stood on the road connecting the powers of Egypt and Mesopotamia, it often “hosted” armies seeking to expand their domains at Israel’s expense. Thus, they must entrust themselves to God’s care. There is a word here in verse 19 that declares that God the liberator will deal with oppressors, save the lame, and gather the outcast. Those on the margins will “change their shame into praise.” Of course, it should be noted that much of the book of Zephaniah is a rebuke to Judah, but not here. At least, here Zephaniah, looking forward, perhaps with Joshua’s reforms in mind, envisions a different, purified nation, that will celebrate God’s presence. In the verses just prior to the song, we hear the prophet speak of the remnant of Israel that will seek refuge in the name of the Lord and will “do no wrong and utter no lies, nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouths. Then they will pasture and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid” (Zeph. 3:12-13
Taken by itself, upon reading this song of joy, you would never know that Zephaniah had pronounced judgment on Judah. There is the reference to judgments rescinded, but the nature of the crimes isn’t laid out. More likely we take hold of the opening lines, which invites us to sing the Lord, with songs of joy and exultation. Perhaps the song celebrates a new reality, in which Judah has heeded the call of the prophet and reformed its ways. Thus, it would appear, that Judah has taken steps to change their ways. They’ve heard the pronouncements and have reformed their ways. Thus, we can see the connection to the reforms of Josiah that returned appropriate forms of worship and decorum to the Temple, and proper behavior among the people. This leads naturally to a call to rejoice in the Lord. Even as we see signs that behavior changed, there is also the recognition that God is acting on behalf of the people. Again, it is good to remember that Judah was a small nation that sat between dueling empires, thus this little kingdom was a valued vassal, not for its treasures, but for its strategic location. The nation was constantly needing to shift loyalties, but for Zephaniah, there is only one loyalty to be considered, that is the loyalty to God, the protector, the warrior.
Placing this song into the season of Advent, we can see how it connects with the day of joy. So, Zephaniah joins Paul with a song of joy, as Paul invites the Philippians to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4
). Though in Luke, John the Baptist is warning the crowds to be baptized, so maybe he is where Zephaniah was before the song was written! (Luke 3:7-18
). There is, therefore, a connection in the season of Advent between the call for repentance and change and the invitation to rejoice in God’s presence.
So, what does Zephaniah have to say to us? How might we move into a position of joy? It would seem that this would require accepting God’s judgment, if we are to move into God’s new vision. If we fail to heed those calls to change our behavior, we will make the call to rejoice rather shallow. So, we might want to hear this reading with the caravan at the border in mind. Why, we would be wise to ask, have thousands of Central Americans lined up at the border seeking asylum? What might be the cause of the disruptions of life in Honduras and Nicaragua. How might situations on the northern side of the border, have contributed to the frustrations and distress, where parents fear the power of gangs that originated in the United States. Perhaps, we can start, as Seth Moland-Kovash suggests, by praying “in solidarity with our sisters and brothers around the world who do experience the world in ways much more like the experience of Zephaniah’s hearers. We pray for an end to all disasters and conflicts, and we trust in God’s promise for restoration” [Feasting on the Word,
p. 55]. When we pray in solidarity, then it’s possible for us, whose situation is very different, to experience God’s restoration in our own situations. At the same time, it’s important to remember that this word of judgment is issued within a broader offer of mercy. Remember that Zephaniah sings that God has taken away the judgments placed on Judah. The same would be true for us.
When we are burdened with guilt, feeling that we must clean ourselves up first, before we come to God, will leave us in the dust. Yes, John called out the “the brood of vipers” for their hypocrisy, he also offered them an opportunity to start afresh in baptism. It is God’s offer of forgiveness that leads to joy. As Alan Gregory notes, “though God has not taken back a word of the condemnation, God’s grace exceeds the condemnation in the healing powers of renewal” [Connections,
p. 36]. This encounter, both now and in the future, will not leave us unchanged, but instead will allow us to move forward in God’s grace into a new reality, one of renewal, and thus a joyous homecoming. So “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” (Zeph. 3:14b).
Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.