The LORD Your God in Your Midst: Then I Will Restore (3:9-11)

The LORD, the Mighty One

Gentle Reader,

Today I look out the window and see dark, cloudy skies and bare tree limbs. The transition between the short Autumn season and frigid Winter has begun. Nature settles in for a rest. The dogs fur grows thicker, fluffier. It’s harder to get out of the warmth of my bed to exercise as the mornings are chillier.

Hard to believe that we’ve been in Zephaniah since the beginning of June. Yet the timing somehow makes sense, in a way that reminds me that God really does move in grace. For as Advent draws near, the time of anticpating the coming of the King, weeks of celebration culminating in Christmas, the prophet’s words move to their cresendo.

“For then I will restore to the peoples a pure language,
That they all may call on the name of the LORD,
To serve Him with one accord.
From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia
My worshipers,
The daughter of My dispersed ones,
Shall bring My offering.
In that day you shall not be shamed for any of your deeds
In which you transgress against Me;
For then I will take away from your midst
Those who rejoice in your pride,
And you shall no longer be haughty
In My holy mountain.”

– Zephaniah 3:9-11 (NKJV)

Layers: Again

How one interprets these final passages largely depends on one’s eschatological view. I write from an historical pre-millenialist position, meaning that Revelation 20:1-6 can be taken at face-value:

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, having the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. He laid hold of the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years; and he cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal on him, so that he should deceive the nations no more till the thousand years were finished. But after these things he must be released for a little while.

And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a[a] thousand years. But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.

– (NKJV)

The pre-millenial view also helps to make sense of Ezekiel 40-47, which record a restored Temple, worship customs and the re-division of the Promised Land among the tribes of Israel. God is a God who keeps His promises, so it is my (very non-expert) opinion that the 1,000 years of Christ’s reign are largely about the Jewish people finally and completely receiving what God had given them before the close of this earthly age. (Of course this doesn’t mean that non-Jewish people are left out, as we’ll see in a moment).

Obviously I have barely skimmed over a huge subject, so I encourage you to study on your own. It’s okay if you disagree with me. The fact is that nobody knows precisely how the these things will play out. What matters for our purposes is that, in Zephaniah, we are once again confronted with layers. The first layer of the prophecy here was fulfilled in 539 B.C., when Cyrus the Great of Persia decreed that the people of Judah could return to their homeland if they wished (covered in the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi [the Italian prophet]). Their time of punishment had come to an end and God was drawing them back home. The second layer was fulfilled in the founding of the modern state of Israel on May 14, 1948, following 1,878 years of diaspora, or scattering, after the fall of Jerusalem to the Roman army in 70 A.D. During the millennium, the Jews will experience full relationship with God through Jesus Christ and lasting peace in their land.

The Lord will not be thwarted. He gives humans freedom to choose, but He will accomplish what He set out to accomplish. He gave that little section of land to the Jewish people and they will have it, come what may.

The Wall

The use of the word “peoples” in verse 9 points to the Lord’s plan for all tribes, tongues and nations (Revelation 7:9). Not only will He restore the Jewish people, but He will gather together His children from all across the globe. This has been the plan all along:

God’s call of Abraham involved bringing God’s blessing to the whole world (Genesis 12:1-3). God accomplished this by giving the Jews the knowledge of the true God, the written Word of God, and the Savior, Jesus Christ (Romans 9:1-5). Therefore, they were to share these blessings with the Gentiles. (1)

400 years stretch between the close of Malachi and the conversation between an angel and a priest (Luke 1). Centuries of rules came to function as thick wall between Jew and non-Jew. I give this process and the people behind it the benefit of the doubt. In the New Testament, Jesus wasn’t joking when He addressed the burden of legalism, to be sure, but it was in more of a “let me show you the better way, My way” and less of an “you idiots” way. (Unless the people He was speaking to were being a idiots. Then we get the “whitewashed tombs” and “brood of vipers”).

It is my personal belief that legalism arose out of two things: fear and not knowing what else to do. No way did these people want to go through punishment and exile again. They didn’t want to make God mad. They wanted to do everything as correctly as possible. Then, when the prophets ceased speaking and years turned to decades turned to centuries, they simply kept doing what they knew to do without the benefit of fresh insight or revelation. Fear joined hands with pride and prejudice and “this is the way things have always been done.”

But no matter, for Jesus came to blow up that wall.

…you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.

– Colossians 2:13-15 (NKJV)

The New Testament epistles show a very Jewish church figuring out what it means to maintain their identity as Jews while accepting God’s plan of salvation for all people. Today we live in the other extreme, as the very Gentile church begins to figure out what it means for us to maintain our identity as non-Jews while embracing Jewish (Messianic) believers. Just as thy struggled with the beauty of God-ordained diversity in the first century, so do we today.

My Worshipers

What we must remember is that we are all worshiping the same God. First, the Jews:

Zephaniah closes with a joyful note of redemption. Jerusalem, the city of God, will be cleansed from the arrogant so that Yahweh himself might dwell among his people. They also will be cleansed so that their language and their deeds might reflect the moral nature of the God they serve. With Yahweh, the Mighty Warrior, dwelling among them, the people will not fear their enemies but will rejoice in the care he will provide.

There is no distinctive break between vs. 8 and 9. They are linked by the concept of fire, which on the one hand consumes the world but on the other purifies God’s people. The prophet, in v. 9 and 10, draws upon the imagery of the Tower of Babel incident (Genesis 11:1-9) to portray a once-scattered but soon to be united people whose lips (speech) have been purified. This reestablished community will be characterized by worship, the natural activity of a redeemed people.

The theme of purification continues in v. 11 in that the proud will be removed from their midst. (2)

Then, the Gentiles:

Instead of calling on their false gods, the Gentiles will call upon the true and living God and have their lips purified. Since what we say with our lips comes from the heart (Matthew 12:34-35), cleansed lips indicate forgiven sin and a cleaned heart (Isaiah 6:1-8). … The prophets teach that in the kingdom age the Gentiles will go to Jerusalem to worship and serve the Lord (Isaiah 2:1-15, 4:1-6; Ezekiel 40-48; Zechariah 14:9). The God of Israel will be the God of all the earth, and the Gentile nations will honor and serve Him. (3)

Harmony

Zephaniah paints a picture of a harmonious land, free of proud people and all the troubles their pride causes. People stream into Jerusalem from all over the earth in order to worship God. This happens now, in little bits and snippets, as those who truly belong to God seek to live in obedience to Him. We are graced with glances of what a completed world will look like, bathed in the everlasting presence of God. This is the “already” reality of the kingdom existing within each of us (Luke 17:21).

But there is the “not yet” as well. Jerusalem is not a peaceful city. The Temple that Ezekiel saw doesn’t exist. Overwhelming numbers of Jewish people are not suddenly proclaiming Christ as Lord (Revelation 7:1-8; 14:1-5). Jesus has not returned in bodily form.

We wait.

Reflection

  1. We just barely began to unpack some heavy concepts. It is difficult to distill such things as end-times views, the role of the Temple in the millenial reign of Christ and how Jews and Gentiles related to each other into a few simple sentences. What questions do you have after reading this entry? How will you go about getting them answered?
  2. Do you understand that Christianity is firmly rooted in Judaism? Do you have a hard time accepting that? If you have time, watch this video (part of a series).
  3. How will you worship and obey God today?

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Sources

(1) Warren Weirsbe. Be Concerned: Minor Prophets. (David C. Cook: Colorado Springs, 1996), 158.

(2) Asbury Bible Commentary (under the “study this” tab)

(3) Weirsbe, 158-159.

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

The LORD Your God in Your Midst: Fierce Anger (3:6-8)

The LORD, the Mighty One

Gentle Reader,

I received some expected heat over last week’s entry. What I wrote was decidedly not politically correct. How odd that theology should be expected to be politically correct. Ah, no. Do we shape God to suit ourselves or do we allow Him to shape us?

The Bible – it is not meant to make us feel comfortable or affirmed in our sins, whatever those sins are. It is not to be manipulated, cherry-picked or brushed aside. Grace is not a blank check ensuring our ability to do whatever we want without consequences.

Christianity is a wide tent. There is plenty of room for legitimate differences over interpretation and application. What there is not room for is the thinking that “well, you can’t really trust the Bible on _________.” If you can’t trust the Bible on _________, then you can’t trust what the Bible says about anything. If you can’t wrap your head around x, y, or z being sin, and therefore something that separates us from God, then you question the entire concept of sin, which leads to questioning the need for Christ.

It’s all a puzzle that fits together so tightly that removing even one piece causes the whole picture to fall apart.

There is a discussion covering topics such as textual integrity and faith behind these brief paragraphs that I simply don’t have time to get into right now. I encourage you to think about the “hot button” issues of our day. How does Scripture address them? In specifics or general principles? How does this impact you? Do you need to change your thinking or behavior? Study some more?

I haven’t “arrived.” I am just as much a sinner as anyone, and probably worse. There isn’t a lot that I haven’t done or seen at this point. I need Jesus desperately. He gets pickier with me as we walk along together. Sometimes I ignore His conviction. I don’t always get it right. Nevertheless, I know, for sure and for certain, that His way is always best. Whatever He asks to lay down, however He commands us to submit, is, without fail, for our good.

On with the show.

Surely They Will Change

“I have cut off nations,
Their fortresses are devastated;
I have made their streets desolate,
With none passing by.
Their cities are destroyed;
There is no one, no inhabitant.
I said, ‘Surely you will fear Me,
You will receive instruction’—
So that her dwelling would not be cut off,
Despite everything for which I punished her.
But they rose early and corrupted all their deeds.”

– Zephaniah 3:6-7 (NKJV)

That phrase, “Surely you will fear Me, you will receive instruction,” informs the entire book of Zephaniah and even Scripture as a whole.

“Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?” says the Lord GOD, “and not that he should turn from his ways and live?”

– Ezekiel 18:23 (NKJV)

God doles out discipline because He wants people to turn away from death. He isn’t pleased when anyone chooses to live apart from Him. Those who are in covenant relationship with Him are called to repentance and the often difficult work of restoration when they choose to engage in sin. Those outside of that covenant are punished as a means God uses to draw them to Himself. He does not throw bricks for the fun of it. He does not delight in painful consequences. Anything that happens as a result of our beliefs and actions, whatever they are, can be a tool in His hands, used to move us deeper into holiness, whether we’re at the starting line or at mile 30.

Rashi writes that God had planned good things for the people of Judah and He didn’t want to have to cut that good off from them. (1) How did the people of Jerusalem respond to this? “…they arose early and corrupted their deeds.” This draws us to Romans 1, where Paul makes the argument that those who do not follow God actively suppress the truth. There is a choice involved. This is exactly what they were doing. They had been warned and the devastation would come. They chose to ignore what was right in front of them.

Zephaniah records that God essentially wonders what else it would take for the people to repent. This wondering is, of course, not a true wondering, for God knew already. (It’s a mystery to us, how He exists outside of time, therefore knowing all, yet does not force Himself onto anyone. We cannot unravel that). He knew that many would keep marching down the path of destruction.

So He turns His eye toward those who have remained faithful.

The Faithful Remnant

“Therefore wait for Me,” says the LORD,
“Until the day I rise up for plunder;
My determination is to gather the nations
To My assembly of kingdoms,
To pour on them My indignation,
All My fierce anger;
All the earth shall be devoured
With the fire of My jealousy.”

– Zephaniah 3:8 (NKJV)

In knowing that God doesn’t take pleasure in the death of the wicked, we could mistakenly come to believe that God is never angry. This would be wrong. We have trouble understanding how God can be angry yet not vindictive, because we assume He is like us. He is not. His anger is perfect, meaning that it is never expressed as a grudge or vendetta. He is holy and just. His character requires a response toward the sin that He cannot stand.

Yes, sin makes God angry. But He is not an abusive parent, boss, friend or spouse. He is not twisted. He doesn’t have a dark side. He doesn’t clap His hands and get all excited in His anger. His responses are always right. (What about the jealousy He brings up here? It is not jealousy of, because God is completely secure in Himself, but jealousy for. He knows what is best for each person He created).

Despite the mentioning of emotions and fire, the scene changes. Zephaniah’s head must have spun more than once with all the shifts in narrative throughout his short book.

In the face of such a dismal picture of human corruption as Zephaniah drew in 3:1-7, believers are exhorted to “wait” for the Lord to come as witness, to pour out His wrath against all peoples, and to purify a remnant who will seek refuge in Him. To “wait” for the Lord means to “long for” Him (Job 3:21; Isaiah 30:18) and to place one’s confident hope only in Him (Psalm 33:20; Isaiah 8:17, 64:4). (2)

Those who remained faithful to God are counseled to be patient in the midst of the oncoming storm. To place all their trust and hope in Him. The days were about to get dark. They were to cling to Him as the light in that darkness. To look for Him. To long for Him.

To love Him, even when the majority didn’t.

A New Focus

There is little in the way of commentary in this entry for good reason: we are crossing a bridge. God, through Zephaniah, is pushing the lever on the ViewMaster (not a sponsor).We have seen the depths of destruction and chaos. We understand why Judah was going to suffer. We understand why the surrounding nations were going to fall. We understand that God was (and is) perfectly just.

We have looked at the past. We have studied the events that would occur as a result of that past, perhaps within Zephaniah’s lifetime. Now our eyes will turn to the future, to another prophecy layer cake.

We are about to move into the hope.

Reflection

  1. Do you trust the Bible? Do you find it to be reliable? Read this as a jump off point. (Note: I dislike his use of the terms “liberal” and “conservative” because they are loaded; there is not much consensus on what it means to be “liberal” or “conservative” because the definitions are always biased).
  2. What is God asking you to give up? How is He commanding you to submit to Him?
  3. I’m calling on my Presbyterian peeps here to help us understand God’s emotions. How can God have feelings and yet remain constant? Read this. What do you agree with? Disagree with?
  4. Read Zephaniah 3. What stands out to you?

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Sources

(1) Zephaniah 3 Commentary, Rashi

(2) Chad Brand, Charles Draper, and Archie England, eds., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 2003. “Zephaniah.” p. 1706.

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

Five Minute Friday: Journey

along-the-way-mlsgregg-com

Gentle Reader,

Morning. Stars still twinkle in the haze above. Leaves dance on the pavement. Red and gold and brown. Bare branches fling their spindly fingers into the deep blue autumn sky, heralding another soon-to-be change in seasons. Bright sunlight bursts out from behind the mountain, bathing the prairie grasses. I squint and breathe in suddenly, involuntarily. The Artist is showing off. He is saying, “Look. See Me. Feel My presence in this beauty.”

And I do.

Kate says: journey.

Go.

All of us, I think, are constantly struggling with who to be in a particular moment. What part of ourselves to express. Almost as if we have multiple personalities, but instead simply different versions of the same person, some more true than the others.

I am pulled in opposite directions. One arm stretches toward ambition. The other toward obscurity. One side full of fire and toughness. The other badgered by fear.

Desiring, in the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton, to “not [throw] away my shot.”

Yet also desiring to become small so that God may be great.

I do the things I’m “supposed” to do as a writer without formal representation. The Facebook page, filled with new content each day. The book proposals. Keeping the Twitterness fresh. The launch team. The blogging schedule.

It works.

But it doesn’t.

Because I am caught in the middle.

Worried over not putting myself out there enough (the ambition speaks). Wary over putting myself out there too much (the obscurity calls). Ready and able to write hard word. Scared of the rejection that such a voice must bring. What is my motivation? Glorying in self or glorying in Him?

I have a sense of being at a crossroads, but I don’t know why. I don’t know where either road leads. So I’m sitting in the middle. Close my eyes and breathe deeply, taking notice of air filling my lungs and my heartbeat slowing from frantic gallop to contented trot. How there can be the brush of peace in the struggle, I don’t know. I do know that I have been here before. I will be here again.

God shapes me. It is painful. It is never not painful. Perhaps others don’t struggle as I do. Don’t wrestle as deeply over every nuance and possible outcome. That’s okay. We are known intimately. Our Creator understands what must happen for us to become who we are meant to be.

Me? Like Jacob, I roll around with God. I want to know what He knows. See what He sees. Tears gather as I see what must die in me in order that I might live.

This, my journey. The crossroads and the dust and the scars. The beckoning of fame and popularity against the insistent Voice.

And I know what Paul meant,

I’m full of myself—after all, I’ve spent a long time in sin’s prison. What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God’s command is necessary.

But I need something more! For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.

It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge.

I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?

The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.

– Romans 7:16b-25 (MSG)

Stop.

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Photo Credit: Mike Enerio