Summary of the Text
Ancient Lens: What can we learn from the historical context?
Zephaniah’s Context: The book of Zephaniah was likely written in the late 7th century, BC. In the southern kingdom of Judah, Josiah was king from 640-609.[i] The first prophetic voice since Isaiah in the late 8th century, Zephaniah was likely written during Josiah’s reign. In this view, the first two chapters of the book would have been written earlier in Josiah’s reign, before Josiah led an attempt to reform Judah with the third chapter written toward the end of Josiah’s reign, after his reforms had failed.
In 2 Kings 22 we read that Josiah was just 8 years old when he became king. While still a young adult, in the 18th year of Josiah’s reign, Hilkiah, the high priest, discovered the book of the law while the temple was being renovated. Josiah heard the book read aloud and realized Judah had not been faithful. He, along with other religious leaders, lead the people of Judah to significant reforms. However, by the time Josiah died, Judah had become unfaithful again – the reforms had failed.
Judgment Interrupted by Joy: Our passage, Zephaniah 3:14-20, likely would have been written after these reforms had taken place. Verses 1-9 of chapter three speak of the Judeans’ unwillingness to be corrected. The first two chapters of Zephaniah invite Judah to reform, while the first part of chapter three rebukes Judah for its failure to reform. Then, in stark contrast, the final portion, verses 14-20, offers a dramatic picture of hope.
This transition is jarring. In her commentary about this passage, Deborah Block says, “God’s promised salvation interrupts a tirade of judgment with a song of joy. The ‘day of darkness and gloom’ (1:15) is supplanted by a day of gladness.”[ii] Zephaniah was writing of the injustices Judah continued to commit and the catastrophic consequences of the Judeans’ moral failure. These words had likely spanned a generation, first a call to repentance, and then a rebuke for a lack of repentance. Further, the end of Josiah’s reign was a tumultuous one. Josiah died in battle against the king of Egypt who had formed an alliance with the Assyrians. There was much uncertainty for those who would have originally heard Zephaniah’s words.
In the midst of that turmoil and uncertainty, with the country on the brink of disaster, Zephaniah invited Judah to sing and shout aloud, to rejoice, even! Their fortunes were to be restored. They would be gathered together again, no longer needing to fear their enemies. God was with them, in their midst.
[i] Elizabeth Achtemeier, Interpretation: Nahum-Malachi, ed. James Luther Mays and Patrick D. Miller Jr. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 61.
[ii] Deborah A. Block, in Feasting on the Word Advent Companion, ed. David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Kimberly Bracken Long (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 57.
Ἰησοῦς Lens: How do we point to Jesus?
“In your midst”: Chapter 3 of Zephaniah uses a Hebrew phrase that could be translated as “in your midst” more than anywhere else in the entire Old Testament. In the New International Version, verse 15 uses the phrase this way: “The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you. Never again will you fear any harm.” As Christians, we affirm that the man, Jesus, was also God in the flesh. We use the term “Immanuel” from Isaiah 7 to refer to Jesus. It literally means, “God with us.” The crux of the hope in this passage from Zephaniah 3 is that God is with us.
This is the hope of the season of Advent. Even though uncertainty abounds, even though nothing looks as it should, in Jesus, God is quite literally “in our midst.” With God in our midst, we need not fear any longer. As God continues to be present during the worst of times, we learn more of God’s character. Elizabeth Achtemeier, in her commentary, quotes Charles Spurgeon by saying, “The fulfillment of a divine promise is not the exhaustion of it. When a man gives you a promise, and he keeps it, there is an end of the promise; but it is not so with God. When he keeps His word to the full, He has but begun. He is prepared to keep it, and keep it, and keep it for ever and ever (“A Sermon for the Time Present,” p. 733).”[i]
For the people of Judah, a question throughout this book was who is their king? Under who’s authority do they submit? Verse 15 says that the Lord, in their midst, is their king. For Christians, we proclaim this truth about Jesus. Jesus is our king and Lord. And he, although strong and mighty (verse 17) is strong in his love for his people. Jesus, our Lord and King, is actually the king of love who dwells in our midst. And this is cause for celebration. It gives us hope in the midst of suffering, peace in the midst of uncertainty, and joy in the midst of sorrow so that we can love others with the same love of the Messiah.
[i] Elizabeth Achtemeier, Interpretation: Nahum-Malachi, 87.
Modern Lens: How does this touch my heart, life, emotions, thoughts and relationships today?
Out of Darkness, Joy: The third Sunday in Advent is often known as the Sunday of joy for Protestants. The candles of Advent are mainly purple, like the liturgical color for Lent. While this is a color for royalty, it is also a color for penitence. This penitence is disrupted by the rose-colored candle for the third week, the week of joy. It’s fitting that our passage in Zephaniah 3 would be the passage for the week of joy. The passage itself interrupts an oracle of doom and destruction with celebration and joy.
This joy is born out of a threefold hope that can be found in this passage. These verses first speak of a hope to the people of Judah – even though they’ve been unfaithful, God will restore them because God is in their midst. Second, Christians derive hope in this passage as we see its fulfillment in Jesus. Through Jesus, God is in our midst. Third we see even today that Christ is in our midst still, through the Holy Spirit, and Christ will return one day to restore all creation. For these reasons, God’s people throughout the centuries have ongoing reason to celebrate with joy.
What does joy look like when life still has struggles? That’s the power of this passage. These words of restoration were not uttered in a vacuum. They come after two and a half chapters of judgment and pronouncement of doom. How much more powerful are these words, then, when considering all that’s come before? We, too, even when we see challenges around us, can celebrate God’s ongoing and future restorative work. Joy is more than a feeling. It requires a choice. We choose joy. We choose to remember God’s promise and recognize that God is in our midst. While we await Christ’s return, in faith, we choose joy now. We remember God’s faithfulness. We worship our Lord and King, who is strong, mighty, and for us. Jurgen Moltmann says it like this: “biblical thought always understands hope as the expectation of a good future which rests on God’s promise.”[i] Our joy is born in our hope in Christ. We choose to hold God at his word.
In this Advent season, how does God’s presence in our midst give you hope? What promises of God’s faithfulness do we need to cling to? In a May 21 article on Forbes.com, we read that roughly half a million tweets are generated every minute of every day. In the last two years alone, roughly 90% of all information in human history was created.[ii] We do not lack information. However, what information do we ingest? What do we focus on? This passage encourages us to choose joy. Let’s focus on the hope we receive in God’s promises.
Themes and Ideas for Preaching:
How do we cultivate joy? We start by dwelling on the promises of God. The promise of Advent is that God is in our midst – in the waiting and in the future. God’s presence in Jesus Christ empowers us to love others joyfully, even when life is not going as hoped.
[i] Jürgen Moltmann, “Hope,” in The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology, ed. Alan Richardson and John Stephen Bowden (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983), 271.
[ii] See Bernard Marr, “How Much Data Do We Create Every Day? The Mind-Blowing Stats Everyone Should Read,” Forbes.com, https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2018/05/21/how-much-data-do-we-create-every-day-the-mind-blowing-stats-everyone-should-read/?sh=1da52d4c60ba
Austin Hill has been the senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Dodge, IA since 2013. Originally from Southern California, Austin received a B.A. in Psychology from Seattle Pacific University and his M.Div from Princeton Theological Seminary, where he met his wife, Sara. In 2017, Austin completed his Doctor of Ministry degree from Fuller Theological Seminary.
The way of Jesus cannot be imposed or mapped — it requires an active participation in following Jesus as he leads us through sometimes strange and unfamiliar territory, in circumstances that become clear only in the hesitations and questionings, in the pauses and reflections where we engage in prayerful conversation with one another and with him.
Between the Probable and Proved
Between the probable and proved there yawns A gap.
Afraid to jump, we stand absurd, Then see behind us sink the ground and, worse, Our very standpoint crumbling.
Desperate dawns Our only hope: to leap into the Word That opens up the shuttered universe.