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.

Five Minute Friday: Create

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

At least 75 people died during a Bastille Day celebration in southern France after someone drove a truck into a crowd.

What was the freaking point of that?!

My heart is heavy. People assume that pacifism means passivity. It doesn’t. The violence presses on me. The cries of the bereft ring in my ears. I want to do something. Yet I have struggled with how or if to write about the events of recent weeks. I’m a white Christian woman living in an essentially ethnically homogeneous area. Two of my uncles are on the police force in a large West Coast city. I haven’t experienced the injustice that others have.

What can I do? What can I say? What should my response be to those who kill in the name of race or religion?

I want to scream. STOP IT!

Hate doesn’t make any sense. Skin is just skin. Nobody has control over what shade God paints them. I’m a little darker than an albino and guess what? I’m not superior to anyone. I’m not #blessed because I’m pasty. Let us all collectively pull our heads out of our behinds and get over it. Additionally, other people’s choices in the way they live their lives – religion, sexuality, whatever – are theirs to make. By all means, have convictions. Disagree with ideas. But if your religion or philosophy or political bent moves you to name-call, belittle or even kill others who are not like you, then you either need to renew your understanding of said religion, philosophy or political bent or get a new one entirely.

God is not supportive of hate, so let’s not try and drag Him into this. (If you throw Romans 9:13 at me I will throw both a systematic theology textbook [not Wayne Grudem’s] and a book on basic interpretation at you). The load is all on us. God can and will release us from that load, but we’d best be owning it first. Hate is sin. It is evil.

We need to repent of it.

Go.

Kate says: create. A word loaded with meaning. There are so many ways to take this pompt. But my mind is on one track. What is my role in creating a church (both general and specific) environment where hate cannot thrive?

We started talking about all of this the other day in a Voxer group I’ve been part of for a year-and-a-half. One of the ladies told us about how her employment situation has forced her to work with someone different. Someone “other.” They’ve had conversations. Shared experiences and viewpoints. Listened to each other.

That’s the second step, after repentance. When we choose to lay down our assumptions and prejudices and actually engage with someone, we’re doing the work.

Problem is, we’re lazy. We want the beauty of peace, but we don’t want to labor for it. We want God to swoop in and *poof!* it all away. Make it bright and shiny and clean. Come on, now. Don’t we know our Bibles better than that? (I know the answer, and it is sad). When, aside from the moment of justification, does God do that before the culmination of history?

He doesn’t.

Repentance makes us right with Him so we can turn around and get right with others and then model that vertical and horizontal rightness for the rest of the world. There’ll be no human-created utopia this side of Eternity. We’d be great fools to expect that. We’d be perhaps even greater fools to think that we are given leave to sit idly by as darkness rolls on. That’s the tension we live in, knowing that our efforts will not bring about world peace but knowing we are not allowed to quit. We are people of light, children of day (1 Thessalonians 5:5). As God patiently molds us into new people (2 Corinthians 5:17), He pours into us everything that is required to obey His commands (Hebrews 13:21).

“Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest?”

He said to him, Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”

– Matthew 22:36-40 (HCSB)

No days off. No “but I don’t like him!” No “but she annoys me!”

No “I hate…”

Stop.

My journey to faith. (15)

Photo Credit: Rodion Kutsaev

The LORD Your God in Your Midst: Prophecy

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,

The word of the LORD…

– Zephaniah 1:1a (NKJV)

True and False

By Zephaniah’s time it seemed that there were two false prophets for every true – a sad state of affairs. The people knew better. Before the nation was even established in its physical boundaries, God warned them:

If a prophet or someone who has dreams arises among you and proclaims a sign or wonder to you, and that sign or wonder he has promised you comes about, but he says, “Let us follow other gods,” which you have not known, “and let us worship them,” do not listen to that prophet’s words or to that dreamer. For the LORD your God is testing you to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and all your soul. You must follow the LORD your God and fear Him. You must keep His commands and listen to His voice; you must worship Him and remain faithful to Him. That prophet or dreamer must be put to death, because he has urged rebellion against the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the place of slavery, to turn you from the way the LORD your God has commanded you to walk. You must purge the evil from you. …

 The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him. This is what you requested from the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, “Let us not continue to hear the voice of the Lord our God or see this great fire any longer, so that we will not die!” Then the LORD said to me, “They have spoken well. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. I will put My words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. I will hold accountable whoever does not listen to My words that he speaks in My name. But the prophet who dares to speak a message in My name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods—that prophet must die.” You may say to yourself, “How can we recognize a message the LORD has not spoken?” When a prophet speaks in the LORD’s name, and the message does not come true or is not fulfilled, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.

– Deuteronomy 13:1-5, 18:15-22 (HCSB)

As we discussed last week, a prophet had to be called by God. It wasn’t enough to say, “Oh, yeah, I’m totally a prophet.” It was also not enough to predict the future; a true prophet’s words would always come to pass and they would never lead the people away from God. The people had very clear rules as to who a prophet was and what he or she was to do. They knew that they were supposed to think critically, weighing and measuring every word and action of every proclaimed prophet against what they knew to be right and good.

Smack You in the Face

When studying a prophetic book such as Zephaniah, it’s important to have a grasp on what prophecy was understood to be in the Old Testament context. First, it was not primarily about prediction:

Biblical prophecy is more than “fore-telling”: two-thirds of its inscripturated form involves “forth-telling, ” that is, setting the truth, justice, mercy, and righteousness of God against the backdrop of every form of denial of the same. Thus, to speak prophetically was to speak boldly against every form of moral, ethical, political, economic, and religious disenfranchisement observed in a culture that was intent on building its own pyramid of values vis-a-vis God’s established system of truth and ethics. (1)

The prophet’s main job was essentially to smack his audience in the face with truth in order to bring them to their knees. Romans 2:4 states that God’s kindness leads to repentance, but this is no weak, wishy-washy, hopped-up flower child version of kindness. God is firm. He does not yield. He defines the way and commands people to walk in it.

Our finite minds push against this Divine line in the sand is kind. Surely, if God truly loves us, then He would want us to be happy? Surely He would give us leave to do as we please?

Is a father unkind when he grabs his child by the arm and yanks her away from a busy street? Is a mother unloving when she enforces consequences when her teenager ignores curfew? (Full disclosure: I sure thought it was unloving at the time. Now I know was an idiot).

About the Future

That said, fore-telling was an important part of the prophet’s job, though never divorced from his forth-telling:

…prediction was by no means absent from the prophetic message. The prophets were conscious of contributing to the ongoing plan of God’s ancient, but constantly renewed promise. They announced God’s coming kingdom and the awful day of the Lord when God’s wrath would be poured out on all ungodliness. In the meantime, before that eschatological moment, there would be a number of divine in-breakings on the historical scene in which the fall of cities such as Samaria, Damascus, Nineveh, Jerusalem, and Babylon would serve as harbingers or foreshadowings of God’s final intrusion into the historical scene at the end of history. Thus each minijudgment on the nations or empires of past and present history were earnests and downpayments on God’s final day of coming onto the historic scene to end it in one severe judgment and blast of victory. So said all the prophets. And in so saying they exhibited the fact that all their messages were organically related to each other; they were progressively building on one another. And, being focused distinctly on God, they were preeminently theocentric in their organization. (2)

Failure to obey God would inevitably lead to judgment, both personal and national. (Please note that it is not appropriate to assume God’s judgment at work every time a person gets sick or a home burns to the ground or a job is lost. There is a huge difference between consequences due to rejecting the Lord and consequences due to living in a broken world. We must be careful to avoid reading into Scripture things that simply are not there).

Related

Just as the functions of fore-telling and forth-telling are far too intertwined to separate, so we must not lift prophetic statements out of their contexts:

…the predictive sections of biblical prophecy exhibit certain key characteristics: (1) they are not isolated sayings, but are organically related to the whole of prophecy; (2) they plainly foretell things to come rather than being clothed in such abstruse terminology that they could be proven true even if the opposite of what they appear to say happens; (3) they are designed to be predictions and are not accidental or unwitting predictions; (4) they are written and published before the event, so that it could not be said that it was a matter of human sagacity that determined this would take place; (5) they are fulfilled in accordance with the original utterance, unless expressly attached to a condition; and (6) they do not work out their own fulfillment, but stand as a verbal witness until the event takes place.

History, then, is the final interpreter of prophecy… (3; emphasis mine)

God was the source of all prophecy, so it makes sense that the work and words of the prophets was interrelated. The one builds upon the other.

This is important for us to grasp, for we fail to understand that these men and women were very aware of each other. They stood in a “servant of God” tradition that stretched all the way back to Moses. It’s no big stretch to think that Zephaniah read Isaiah. It’s no big leap to imagine that Jeremiah discussed Zephaniah’s words with his scribe, Baruch.

Back Then

Further, in our obsession with eschatology, we often ignore the ancient immediate fulfillment of these predictions in our search for answers regarding what is yet to be. (I think most of us do this innocently). We must remember that the prophets spoke, wrote and performed within the boundaries of national Israel and Judah (except for Jonah), and so their predictive statements generally pointed to the near future, to what would surely happen if the people of God did not repent.

Ben Witherington writes:

Prophecy was more often than not predictive in character, though most often its subject matter dealt with something thought to be on the near horizon, not something decades, much less centuries, in the future. And even when the more remote future was the subject of prophecy, the subject was raised because it was thought to have a rather direct bearing on the present. In short, ancient prophets and prophetesses were not by and large armchair speculators about remote subjects. (4)

This does not mean that they never spoke of the end of time, as Witherington goes on:

…prophecy about the more distant horizon was deliberately less specific and more universal or multivalent in character, dealing with ideas and themes that the immediate audience could understand, but also themes that could transcend the immediate and particular circumstance of those listening to the prophet. I should also stress the imagaic character of prophecy dealing with the more distant horizon. Almost all oracles have something of a poetic form, but prophecy about the more remote future tends to involve even more metaphor, simile and poetic devices like hyperbole to make its point. (5)

Layers and History

Like a rich, expertly made and decorated cake, prophecy has layers. So, whether we like it or not, we must be students of history. We cannot assume that all prophecy has been fulfilled and we cannot assume that all prophecy has yet to be fulfilled. We have to look at the timeline. We have to put forth the effort.

People don’t like to study history because they see it as nothing more than a long, dry list of dates and dead people that have no bearing on the present. We would do well to kick that attitude right out of our lives, because, as long as we hold onto it, we’re never going to develop a deep appreciation for Scripture. The words of that Book are about more than us, in the here and now. We are not the point, the center.

God is, and He spoke to those who loved Him long before you and I were ever a twinkle in our parents’ eyes. He is the focus of every line, every syllable. Yet somehow, the Bible is also the story of our family, the ones who have gone before us in the faith. We need to know them. We need to see how they interacted with and reacted to this same God we know today. We need to learn from their example and understand their times. We need to heed their warnings.

Reflection

  1. Read Deuteronomy 13:1-5 in another translation. God’s opinion of false prophets is clear. What about our attitude toward false teachers today? What needs to change? How should we respond? (A false teacher isn’t someone who holds to an historic, orthodox interpretation or doctrine that you simply disagree with, but rather someone who pretends to be Christian while teaching something contrary to Scripture).
  2. How do you respond to the idea that you should study history? Do you enjoy it? Hate it? Why?
  3. How do you respond when you come across a prophecy in the Bible? Does it scare you? Intrigue you? Why?
  4. Take a moment to pray, asking God to help you understand and love both history and prophecy, whether you’re a seasoned veteran or a newcomer.
  5. Read through Zephaniah again, this time focusing on the layered nature of the words. What do you see as having an immediate, ancient fulfillment? A future fulfillment? Both?

My journey to faith. (15)

Sources

(1) Prophet, Prophetess, Prophecy

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Ben Witherington III. The Problem with Evangelical Theology: Testing the Exegetical Foundations of Calvinism, Dispensationalism and Wesleyanism. (Waco, Texas. Baylor University Press. 2005), 99.

(5) Ibid.

Note

While I am not a cessationist (one who believes that all miraculous gifts of the Spirit stopped after the death of the Apostles), I do write from the perspective that the fore-telling element of prophecy ceased with the closing of the canon in the book of Revelation. I do believe that God will lay something on one Christian’s heart to be shared with another Christian, but this is forth-telling, meant for encouragement and gentle rebuke – and must always be in line with what has been revealed in Scripture. Whatever your perspective on this issue is, the words of Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21 remain true: “Do not despise prophecies. Test all things; hold fast what is good.” (NKJV)