The LORD Your God in Your Midst: Alive & Active

The Lord your God in your midst,The Mighty One, will save;He will rejoice over you with gladness,He will quiet you with His love,He will rejoice over you with singing.” (1)

Gentle Reader,

Next week we will begin digesting Zephaniah’s book bite by bite. I’m so excited I can hardly stand it! This journey with you has already been so rewarding. I can’t wait to learn more!

Today we pause between ending the background work and beginning the detail work. In this space, this breath, we settle on the awesome, holy nature of the Bible.

For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

– Hebrews 4:12 (NKJV)

These words, nestled between a commentary on the need to submit to God in order to enter into rest and a beautiful exposition on how the work of Christ in His identification with and salvation of humanity enables that rest, grab our attention. God’s word is alive? God’s word is a sword? What does this mean?

…a sharp word of discernment, which penetrates the darkest corners of human existence.

The author describes God’s word first of all as “living and active.” The former adjective stands at the head of the verse, perhaps for emphasis, and asserts that that word, rather than being outdated, a “dead” speech-act of a bygone era, still exists as a dynamic force with which one must reckon. “Active” proclaims the word as effective in carrying out God’s intentions. The same word that at creation set the elements of the cosmos to their appointed tasks and still governs the universe toward God’s desired intentions (1:2–3), has the ability to effect change in people. It is not static and passive but dynamic, interactive, and transforming as it interfaces with the people of God.

The sword imagery emphasizes that while God’s word is a word of promise to those who would enter God’s rest, it is also a discerning word of judgment. Verse 12 asserts that like a sword that cuts and thrusts, the word penetrates and divides, being able to reach into the depths of a person’s inner life. In listing the parts of a person on which the word acts—“soul and spirit, joints and marrow”—the preacher simply proclaims the word’s ability to break past a surface religion to an inner, spiritual reality. Rather than dealing with externals such as religious observance, the penetrating word “judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

Lest one think carelessly about the extent of God’s discernment, the author assures us through verse 13 that “nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” The word translated “uncovered” (gymnos), which normally communicates nakedness or having a lack of adequate clothing, was also used figuratively of being helpless or unprotected. In the context of God’s penetrating word, the concept calls to mind a complete inability to hide anything from God’s gaze. Those who have not responded to God’s word in obedience are spiritually naked, vulnerable before his awesome gaze. A similar imagery is evoked by the participle translated “laid bare,” which means “exposed.” This theme of complete exposure and vulnerability of all creation before God was common in Jewish theology of the era. (1)

God has not ceased speaking. The book you hold in your hands or the words you read on the screen have not lost their importance or meaning or immediacy. What was true for Adam and Eve remains true today.

The world rejects metanarrative, or one overarching “big story.” The Bible stands against this rejection. It declares that God exists. Truth is not relative. Sin is a real condition and a real problem. There is only one way to remedy that condition and problem. Every “little story” fits within that simple yet deeply confrontational declaration of dependence.

Zephaniah’s voice rises with the other Divinely-inspired prophets and authors in praise of the True Lord. He points up, to the One who sits on the throne. He joins in exposing the willful blindness and the depth of darkness found within each and every human being. He pushes the reader toward the light, toward a breaking point. Choose God and live. Anything else is disaster.

This is the message of the Bible.

Reflection

  1. Consider the fact that God sees all and knows all. With that in mind, carve out some time to pray. Is there anything you need to confess to Him right now? Anything you need to deal with? (Prayer doesn’t need to be eloquent or long-winded. Just talk to Him as a child would a loving father).
  2. Think about your approach to the Bible. Do you understand the power in the words you read? Do you understand that you need to cultivate an attitude of worship and reverence?
  3. The point of Bible study is not to gain more head knowledge, but to develop an ever-deepening relationship with the Lord. Where are you at right now? Close to Him? Far away? Confident? Unsure? Where do you want to be? Why?
  4. Many Christians have trouble reading anything in the Old Testament beyond the creation account in Genesis. We assume that it doesn’t really matter for us today. Read 2 Timothy 3:16-17. How much of Scripture is useful? How much is relevant?
  5. Think about everything you’ve learned so far. What do you want to know now? What do you hope to gain from studying Zephaniah?

Until next time.

My journey to faith. (15)

Sources

(1) NIV Application Commentary (under the “Study This” tab)

For all entries in The LORD Your God in Your Midst series, go here.

Five Minute Friday: Help

Along the Way @ mlsgegg.com

Gentle Reader,

Chris has been out of town all week, watching over a group of boys at church camp. I can introvert with the best of them, but that whole absence makes the heart grow fonder thing? It’s true.

Kate says: help (me if you can, I’m feeling down. I love the Beatles).

Go.

The United States of America needs help.

Ever-deepening political divisions. Racial tensions. Continuing economic disparity.

We are at war with ourselves. We have forgotten how to disagree. We call each other names. We threaten violence. Sometimes we even act on the threat.

Instead of practicing loving kindness and thereby modeling a different, better way to those on the outside, the Church rolls around in the mud, pointing fingers and flinging accusations.

I am bone-tired of it. All of it.

The prophet Daniel prayed:

O Master, great and august God. You never waver in Your covenant commitment, never give up on those who love You and do what You say. Yet we have sinned in every way imaginable. We’ve done evil things, rebelled, dodged and taken detours around Your clearly marked paths. We’ve turned a deaf ear to Your servants the prophets, who preached Your Word to our kings and leaders, our parents, and all the people in the land. You have done everything right, Master, but all we have to show for our lives is guilt and shame, the whole lot of us—people of Judah, citizens of Jerusalem, Israel at home and Israel in exile in all the places we’ve been banished to because of our betrayal of you. Oh yes, God, we’ve been exposed in our shame, all of us—our kings, leaders, parents—before the whole world. And deservedly so, because of our sin.

Compassion is our only hope, the compassion of You, the Master, our God, since in our rebellion we’ve forfeited our rights. We paid no attention to You when You told us how to live, the clear teaching that came through Your servants the prophets. All of us in Israel ignored what You said. We defied Your instructions and did what we pleased. And now we’re paying for it: The solemn curse written out plainly in the revelation to God’s servant Moses is now doing its work among us, the wages of our sin against You. You did to us and our rulers what you said You would do: You brought this catastrophic disaster on us, the worst disaster on record—and in Jerusalem!

Just as written in God’s revelation to Moses, the catastrophe was total. Nothing was held back. We kept at our sinning, never giving You a second thought, oblivious to Your clear warning, and so You had no choice but to let the disaster loose on us in full force. You, our God, had a perfect right to do this since we persistently and defiantly ignored you.

Master, You are our God, for You delivered your people from the land of Egypt in a show of power—people are still talking about it! We confess that we have sinned, that we have lived bad lives. Following the lines of what You have always done in setting things right, setting people right, please stop being so angry with Jerusalem, Your very own city, Your holy mountain. We know it’s our fault that this has happened, all because of our sins and our parents’ sins, and now we’re an embarrassment to everyone around us. We’re a blot on the neighborhood. So listen, God, to this determined prayer of Your servant. Have mercy on your ruined Sanctuary. Act out of who You are, not out of what we are.

Turn Your ears our way, God, and listen. Open Your eyes and take a long look at our ruined city, this city named after You. We know that we don’t deserve a hearing from You. Our appeal is to Your compassion. This prayer is our last and only hope:

Master, listen to us!
    Master, forgive us!
    Master, look at us and do something!
    Master, don’t put us off!
    Your city and Your people are named after You:
    You have a stake in us!

– 9:1-19 (MSG)

We do not live in a theocracy and we have not replaced Israel. We haven’t been carried off into exile. It’s not an exact parallel. Still, Daniel’s prayer is moving. His words stir up something painful in me. I know that there will never be Paradise this side of Christ’s return, but I wonder – what would this country look like today if the Church hadn’t slacked off? What if we hadn’t wasted time fighting about Calvinism and who can preach and what kind of clothes people can wear? What if we had just shared Gospel, cared for the widows and orphans and never began screaming about our rights? What if we hadn’t mixed the “American Dream” with the message of salvation? What if we hadn’t bought into the lie that Republican always equals conservative which always equals Christian?

I wonder what would happen now if we, like Daniel, took the posture of mourning. Of repentance. If we took on the burden of really caring about our country, in the way that truly matters.

Stop.

My journey to faith. (15)

The LORD Your God in Your Midst: Structure

The Lord your God in your midst,The Mighty One, will save;He will rejoice over you with gladness,He will quiet you with His love,He will rejoice over you with singing.” (1)

Gentle Reader,

You might be wondering if we’re ever going to get around to actually discussing the book of Zephaniah. Take heart! I know it’s unusual to spend so much time introducing and contextualizing a section of Scripture that’s only three chapters, but we won’t walk away from this series with a complete understanding of the book without this background work. Bible study requires effort, but it’s an effort that ends in blessing. Don’t check out.

Chiasm

Most people do not fine Zephaniah easy reading, [so] it may help you in this regard to see his careful literary structure,which take the form of a series of concentric patterns…within each of these, and sometimes interlocking between, them, there are further concentric patterns. (1)

These patterns are called chiasms, a literary device in which a series of ideas are presented and then repeated in reverse order. This creates a “mirror” effect:

We use chiasms in everyday language. For example, have you ever said, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going”? Have you ever read or heard John F. Kennedy’s quote, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”? We speak this way without realizing it. A chiasm is simply a way of comparing and contrasting.

How and Why

How do we figure out if what we’re reading is a chiasm?

The first step is often to notice two separated passages on the same subject or which use the same infrequently-occurring words, or words which are significant for the authors argument but which do not otherwise occur with frequency in the given section.

The intervening material between the two passages is then scrutinized for parallel vocabulary and/or ideas which match each other step-by-step until a [center] is reached. Generally the closer one comes to the [center] the more precise the parallelism becomes, until it is frequently a phrase-for-phrase balancing.

Having established that there is a [center], one then extends the limits until no more effective parallelism of subject and/or vocabulary is to be found. (2)

Why does this even matter?

It can help one to see the whole argument and its main point.

One side of a chiasm may shed light on the meaning on the other side or even the meaning of the [center] when either is in doubt. (3)

What’s wonderful is that you don’t have to be a literary theorist or critic to discern pattern and meaning in a book. Few if any of us sit down to read without caring to comprehend what we’re reading, even when it’s a dry assignment for school or work. We’re already looking for pattern and meaning. Knowing how a portion of the Bible is structured before reading is just one more useful tool to aid in understanding.

The large chiastic frame of Zephaniah:

A. God’s judgment of Judah, with consequent wailing (1:2-18)
B. God’s judgement of nations (2:1-3:8)
A. God’s redemption of the remnant, with consequent rejoicing (3:9-21) (4)

Don’t get hung up here. You’re not an idiot if none of this is making sense right now. Keep going. It will click.

More Patterns

Zephaniah also exists within the “if, then” pattern seen throughout Scripture, though it is more implied than directly stated. God makes it very clear that if His people obey, there will be blessings (not always material in nature). If His people disobey, there will be consequences. If we do this, then God will do that. If we do that, then God will do this. The warnings of the prophet logically flow from this place. His words function as gigantic, neon, flashing STOP sign. If the inhabitants of Jerusalem heeded, then God would forgive and spare them. If they refused, then God would bring punishment.

All of this is expressed in brilliant and powerful images…[and a] frequent use of hyperbole. (5)

Hyperbole is an exaggerated statement or claim that isn’t meant to be taken seriously. Again, we speak this way on a daily basis. “It took forever” doesn’t mean that a task actually stretched on into eternity and “It was like a million years ago” doesn’t mean that an event actually took place that far back on the timeline. The first indicates frustration, the second surprise or incredulity or forgetfulness. We know this without being told.

Facing Reality

The effectiveness of the hyperbole in Zephaniah

…lies in the people’s taking seriously the extent of the tragedy that awaits them. (6)

The prophet wrote in heightened, poetic language, confronting his reader with the enormity of what was to come if there was no rush to repentance. Zephaniah wanted to shake his people out of their stupor. He needed them to see, to understand, what was going to happen. It was his job to be direct, blunt and forceful.

It was also his job to say exactly what God told him to say. God uses strong, even combative words in order to reach those He loves. He knows who will respond to a gentle whisper and who will respond to a mighty roar. He knows when His people need tenderness and He knows when they need a swift kick in the pants. By the time Zephaniah came on the scene, God had spent centuries calling, wooing, reminding. As the clock ticked toward destruction, He began to speak in a great, booming voice.

Reflection

  1. Think of one or two examples of chiastic phrases or sentences that you use or hear often. Write them down. In what situations do you use this kind of language?
  2. Read Mark 2:27. Diagram the sentence using the “AB,BA” model above.
  3. Think of some “if, then” statements that you use or hear often. Write them down. In what situations do you use this kind of language?
  4. Read Deuteronomy 4:29. What are the people to do? What will God do?
  5. Think of one or two examples of hyperbole that you use or hear often. Write them down. In what situations do you use this kind of language?
  6. Read Matthew 23:23-24, focusing on verse 24. What point does Jesus make here?
  7. Read through Zephaniah again, this time focusing on patterns. What stands out to you?

Until next time.

My journey to faith. (15)

Sources

(1) Gordon D. Free and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible Book by Book: A Guided Tour (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 249.

(2) Chiastic structuring

(3) Ibid.

(4) Fee, 249

(5) Ibid.

(5) Fee, 250.

Image: Chiastic structure

For all entries in The LORD Your God in Your Midst series, go here.