The LORD Your God in Your Midst: Conclusion

The LORD, the Mighty One

Gentle Reader,

I almost quit.

It’s true.

I never expected to spend half the year blogging through Zephaniah. It’s three chapters! Around week 18, I realized that what began as a project for my own edification had turned into a chore. I’m not sure exactly when or how or why it happened. I began to dread Monday mornings and the stack of books and the research. The joy leaked out bit by bit until none was left.

That is where the discipline part of writing comes in. Having published one book and gearing up to begin the process of publication for a second, I know there are days when it’s all about gritting your teeth and slamming the keys. Writing can be so fulfilling, so fun. It can also be the longest, slowest slog.

I am glad I stuck with it, because God, as usual, is fascinating in His timing. We have lived in the hopeful passages for the entirety of the Advent season. I didn’t plan that. I had no plan when I began this, no set end date (though I never imagined I’d be closing this out six months and two weeks after starting). In His mystery, He moved me, the writer, and you, the reader, to see the grace and light in a book that many ignore. He opened our eyes to the real and deep consequences of sin, but didn’t leave us drowning there in the muck. He took us through the whole process of punishment and forgiveness and restoration, ending on the distant strains of kingdom music just as our mouths began to fill with Christmas songs.

How like Him.

How very like Him.

Every book of the Bible tells the whole story, but cannot be fully understood apart from the others. We’ll never make sense of that. All we can do is strive to live in the middle, resisting the urge to pick out the things we like and toss the rest. Every narrative, poem, allegory, oracle and letter contains the arc of sin and salvation, fall and uplift. Every line is rich, yet not fully grasped as a treasure without the others.

It is my earnest desire that you step away from this series with a solid foundation in how to study the Bible. Your interpretations may be different from mine. That’s okay. What matters is that you now know how to approach that big book. You’ve been exposed to commentaries, word searches and songs. You’ve read articles and answered questions. You know now that there is no “just Jesus and me” Christianity; that you need the input of other believers, both in your “real life” and from within the long tradition of the faith, to help you learn and live. Most importantly, you know now that you are, in fact, smart enough to study the Bible and that you do, in fact, have time to do so.

Yet my heart beats with a desire greater still than this. I hope that you come away with love. Love for the Bible, yes, but love for the God of the Bible. Maybe you didn’t know a thing about Him before reading this. Maybe you’ve known Him for years but have drifted away. Or maybe everything is perfectly fine. Wherever you are in relation to the Lord, I hope that your soul reverberates with, “I love You, too.”

Because you see, God said it first. Beth Moore taught this concept in one of her studies. I can’t remember which one. She rightly pointed out that God loved us long before we ever loved Him. He has said over and over, through every splash of ink in sacred writ and down through the ages. “I love you, child. I love you.”

May we love Him, too.

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

The LORD Your God in Your Midst: I Will Save (3:18-20)

The LORD, the Mighty One

Gentle Reader,

“I will gather those who sorrow over the appointed assembly,
Who are among you,
To whom its reproach is a burden.
Behold, at that time
I will deal with all who afflict you;
I will save the lame,
And gather those who were driven out;
I will appoint them for praise and fame
In every land where they were put to shame.
At that time I will bring you back,
Even at the time I gather you;
For I will give you fame and praise
Among all the peoples of the earth,
When I return your captives before your eyes,”
Says the LORD.

– Zephaniah 3:18-20 (NKJV)

The God of Hope

I can think of no better way to dig into these last verses than to quote Warren Wiersbe:

God’s promise is that His scattered people will be gathered, His lame people will be rescued, and His sinful people will be forgiven and no longer bear the shame of their wicked deeds. “I will bring you home” (vs. 20) is God’s gracious promise, and He will keep it. Where once the Jewish nation brought shame and disgrace to God’s name and were poor witnesses to the Gentiles, now Israel will bring honor and praise to the Lord their God and reveal to the Gentile nations to glory of His name. Israel will receive honor from the Gentiles and give the glory to the Lord. …

…there is a present-day practical lesson here for any of God’s people who have strayed from His will and experienced His chastening. When you come to Him with a broken heart, confessing your sins, He will receive you the way a loving mother receives a disobedient child. He will love you and even sing to you! He will bring peace to your heart and “quiet you with His love.” Yes, we suffer for our disobedience; and sometimes we carry the scars of that disobedience for the rest of our lives. But the Lord will forgive us (1 John 1:9), forget our sins, and restore us to loving fellowship.

Dr. William Culbertson, late president of Moody Bible Institute, sometimes ended his public prayers with, “And Lord, help us bear the consequence of forgiven sin and to end well.” There are consequences to forgiven sin; for though God in His grace cleanses us, God is His government says, “You will reap what you have sown.” After King David confessed his son, the prophet Nathan assured him that the Lord had put away his sin, but the rest of his days David suffered the tragic consequences of what he had done (2 Samuel 12:1-15).

But when God establishes His kingdom on earth, He will restore His people, renew the land, and give His people a new beginning that will cause them to forget their past disobedience and focus on praising the Lord and glorifying His name.

Jehovah is “the God of hope.” (1)

Darkness Passes

Zephaniah knew that his people weren’t going to escape the judgment that they had brought upon themselves. He understood that the would have to crawl through the valley before they would reach the heights his book ends on. Yet he also relished in the fact that the judgment would not last forever. His people were not a lost cause.

The final verses of the book (vv. 18-20) are spoken by Yahweh himself as he promises to reverse the fortunes of his people who must go through the destruction measured out to the nations in the Day of Yahweh. For them judgment becomes remedial, not final.(2)

Sometimes it seems that sin and darkness will win. The assumption is that grace is the lesser force. Forgiveness and the presence of God are surely far beyond the reach of mere mortals. Try as we might, there comes a point when we recognize that the mess is of our own making and we deserve to live in it. It is tempting, so tempting, to hang our heads and give up. We have offended God.

Whether this recognition comes for the first time or the thousandth, how breathtaking it is when God bends low and pulls us toward Him. He uses the mess. He uses the consequences. He takes the very chains that bind us and turns them into cords of love (Hosea 11:4). As we comprehend the full horror of our sins, He allows us to catch a glimpse of stunning, merciful light.

There is a decision to be made in that moment. He never forces it. We can go back to the darkness and the weight. Or we can learn, as Judah did. We can cry out for forgiveness. We, to whom God owes nothing, can be saved. By His will. By His hand.

All Him 

Strong emphasis lies in the repeated “I will.” All that they will gain—relief from burdens, salvation from oppression, return from exile, honor and praise—will be due to the direct action of Yahweh. Salvation belongs to him alone. (3)

Calvinists like to accuse anyone who isn’t Calvinist (i.e., me) of holding to a man-centered salvation. Nothing could be further from the truth. We can quibble over the ordo salutis all day long, but the glaring fact is that all the work necessary for life and salvation was initiated, carried out and completed by God. Anyone who reads the Bible honestly must come to this conclusion.

The Jewish people won’t live in peace and harmony because they are more deserving than others. God did not choose them because they were special. They became special because they were chosen, just as with Gentile believers. He will lift their burdens (and ours) because He wants to. He will deal with their enemies (and ours) because He wants to. He declares them (and us) His children because we have done the only thing that is left to do – accept His free gift of grace.

Whether you fall on the side of predestination and the irresistible nature of grace or see salvation as genuinely offered to all and believe free will is real doesn’t matter. A lot of people think it does. A lot of people think a Christian lives or dies on being able to recite the Doctrines of Grace or the Remonstrance from memory. This is not the case. Salvation is the work of God. You can think it flows via this avenue or that. It doesn’t matter. In fact, we’re probably all a little bit right and a little bit wrong and will be surprised when we see the whole picture.

What matters is that you stake your life on His. That you cast yourself entirely on the mercy of God. That you confess, out loud, that Jesus is Lord and believe with purity (Romans 10:9). That you live this thing out as He enables you to do so (Ephesians 2:10, James 2:14-26).

Per gratiam. Per fidem. Quae in operibus.

By grace. Through faith. Expressed in works.

Amen.

Reflection

  1. Read the whole book of Zephaniah. What stands out to you? What words and phrases have a deeper meaning for you now?
  2. Sum up what you have learned in a few simple sentences.
  3. Obviously we did not explore every nook and cranny of this fabulous book. That is the nature of Scripture; it is bottomless. What concepts or people do you want to learn more about now?
  4. The goal of Bible study is threefold: to know God, to love God and to obey God. After this study, do you know Him better? Love Him more deeply? Want to obey Him?
  5. How can you take the lessons of Zephaniah and apply them to your daily life?

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Sources

(1) Warren Weirsbe. Be Concerned: Minor Prophets. (David C. Cook: Colorado Springs, 1996), 161, 162.

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

(3) Ibid.

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

The LORD Your God in Your Midst: Sing! Shout! (3:14-15)

The LORD, the Mighty One

Gentle Reader,

Small, clear lights bounce off of ornaments, throwing a cheery glow about the room. Candles burn, hazelnut and vanilla melting in the heat, filling the air. Advent. Christmas.

How appropriate that we are invited into a joyous celebration.

Sing, O daughter of Zion!
Shout, O Israel!
Be glad and rejoice with all your heart,
O daughter of Jerusalem!
The LORD has taken away your judgments,
He has cast out your enemy.
The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst;
You shall see disaster no more.

– Zephaniah 3:14-15 (NKJV)

With Them Then

In the last seven verses of his book, Zephaniah shares a hymn of praise. The excitement is palpable. After all the sin, after all the disaster, after all the chaos, after all the years of judgment – God reveals to His prophet that He has not given up on the people. Those who choose to reject Him are rejected in return, but He will not leave them as a whole. He will not turn a deaf ear to sincere repentance. He will not fail to come through.

..the people of God are summoned to rejoice in the presence of Yahweh. The recurring word qirbek, “your midst” (NIV “within you,” vs. 12; “with you,” vs. 15, 17), contains the central theological idea of the passage, Yahweh dwells among [H]is people. (1)

As we have discussed so many times before, many prophecies had an immediate fulfillment, with final unfolding yet to come. Israel is obviously not at peace. The glory of God obviously does not fill the Temple, which will not exist in its proper form before the thousand-year reign of Christ. This time of singing and celebration must be in the future.

And yet.

 When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the Lord, according to the ordinance of David king of Israel. 11 And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD:

“For He is good,
For His mercy endures forever toward Israel.”

 

Then all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid.

– Ezra 3:10-11 (NKJV)

But.

…many of the priests and Levites and heads of the fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes. Yet many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard afar off.

– Ezra 3:12-13 (NKJV)

The people returned from exile. They rededicated themselves to God. Under the leadership of Ezra the priest/scribe and Nehemiah the gutsy cup-bearer, they repaired the city walls and rebuilt the Temple (as much as a ragtag group could). There was joy. There was hope. There was gladness.

But there was weeping. The Temple was not as it once was, not just in lack of beauty but in lack of weighty holiness. The lack of Shekinah, the glory of the Divine. The people did their best. They were reaching out, wholeheartedly, to the Lord. I believe that He responded – His way of responding had simply changed. Here was the precipice, the time between the times. The years just before the silence. He was still good. He was still involved. He was still working out His plan.

It just didn’t look like what they imagined it would.

With Us Now

No trumpet. No fanfare. Only those with the keenest eyes and clearest senses even noticed with the glory of God, the Divine presence, returned to the Temple.

…when eight days were completed for the circumcision of the Child, His name was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.

Now when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord…

– Luke 2:21-22 (NKJV)

And yet.

…weep with those who weep.

– Romans 12:15b (NKJV)

But.

“…He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever—  the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.”

– John 14:16-18 (NKJV)

And yet.

From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness…

– 2 Corinthians 11:24-27 (NKJV)

All is not complete. All is not well. Their songs and our songs – tinged with tears. Mouths that fill with praise equally fill with mourning.

Sing Now, For Tomorrow Comes

The “already.” The “not yet.”

Where we live.

We sing through the sobs, as they did, because we know that tomorrow comes. We know that there will be a day when we are no longer afraid. No longer sick. No longer in pain. No longer at odds with another. Not longer depressed. No longer anxious. No longer wrapped up in distractions and vain ambitions. The day will come when the wavering notes are transformed, becoming bright, clear and strong.

Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”

Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” And He said to me,  “Write, for these words are true and faithful.”

And He said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give of the fountain of the water of life freely to him who thirsts. He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My son.” …

Even so, come, Lord Jesus!

– Revelation 21:1-7, 22:20b (NKJV)

Sing now. Seek the beauty.

Tomorrow comes.

Reflection

  1. Listen to these songs. Spend some time in worship.

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Sources

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

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