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.”

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: the Mighty One (3:16-17)

The LORD, the Mighty One

Gentle Reader,

In that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
“Do not fear;
Zion, let not your hands be weak.
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.”

– Zephaniah 3:16-17 (NKJV)

Here we are, finally. These beautiful words that have been our focus for 24 weeks.

I have good news: These are true words.

I have bad news: These words are often misunderstood.

What it Means

I realize that I have very nearly beaten you to death with the word “context,” but it never ceases to be important. Many, myself included, have been guilty of using Zephaniah 3:17 in a way its author never intended and its original audience wouldn’t have understood. Consider:

Yahweh dwells among his people. They may rejoice and not be afraid, for they will be protected from any harm. Yahweh will be their God, a warrior of salvation. His people will rest securely in his covenantal love (v. 17). (1)

As well as:

…with exceeding great joy, not to be conceived of, or expressed; as a bridegroom rejoiceth over his bride: this will be the time of the open marriage of the Lamb with the Jewish church; and there will be strong expressions of joy on this occasion; Christ will rejoice over them to do them good; and there will be such singular instances of his goodness to them as will abundantly show the joy he will have in them… (2)

And:

He is a Mighty One, Who will save [Israel] from the enemy. … He will conceal your transgressions with His love…He will cover your sins with His love. (3)

This isn’t about God singing to you.

I know. Harsh.

We’ve learned so much about context and prophecy and layers. Don’t get upset and walk away now. Of course the metaphor can be extended and you can know that God takes delight in you. We simply must acknowledge that Zephaniah remains a Jewish man writing a Jewish book in a Jewish setting. God doesn’t dismiss non-Jews, but we are not His primary concern in these verses.

Don’t Miss It

How does verse 16 begin? “In that day it shall be said to Jerusalem.”To the Holy City. To the people who rightfully dwell there by virtue of having been given the Promised Land. The suffering is over. The centuries of back-and-forth have ended. The promise-keeping God does just that, keeps His promise.

…why is God so joyful? This passage of Zephaniah speaks of a future time when God has ended His judgment upon Israel. All of their enemies have been destroyed, and Israel is entering a time of safety and blessing (verses 8, 15, 19). Zephaniah is speaking of the future millennial kingdom when the Messiah (Jesus) will reign with His people in Jerusalem (Isaiah 9:7; Revelation 20:1–6). (4)

He rejoices over His people as they rejoice over Him. He pours out His love. Bonds of eternal, unbroken affection are renewed. Restored.

Jeremiah echoes the theme:

“Now therefore, thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning this city of which you say, ‘It shall be delivered into the hand of the king of Babylon by the sword, by the famine, and by the pestilence’: Behold, I will gather them out of all countries where I have driven them in My anger, in My fury, and in great wrath; I will bring them back to this place, and I will cause them to dwell safely. They shall be My people, and I will be their God; 39 then I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me forever, for the good of them and their children after them. And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from doing them good; but I will put My fear in their hearts so that they will not depart from Me. Yes, I will rejoice over them to do them good, and I will assuredly plant them in this land, with all My heart and with all My soul.’”

– 32:36-41 (NKJV)

The entire focus of the Bible is God. Not us. He does what He wants because what He wants is best and right and good. So the fact that He takes some time to enjoy the Jewish believers? It doesn’t diminish we non-Jewish believers in any way. In fact, we should (and I believe we will) celebrate. We, the Bride, will watch as Israel, the Wife, parties with her Husband. For just the briefest of moments, we will stand on the edges and watch the reunion. And then, wonder of wonders, we will be ushered in, invited to take our places as the family of God truly becomes one.

Imagine the singing.

Quiet, You

…God holds them next to His heart like a loving mother holds a baby; He quiets them with His love, and He even sings to them! This image of the “motherhood of God” assures forgiven sinners that God is with them, that He loves them, and they have nothing to fear. (5)

This is something that every Christian can take to the bank: God loves us. He loved us even when we didn’t know Him, when we were blind and stupid and wretched (Romans 5:6). He loves us when we choose to be blind and stupid and wretched even though we know better (Romans 7:15-25). We can race to the throne of grace at any moment (Hebrews 4:16). When we are born again into His family, we can call Him Abba – Daddy (John 1:12-13, Romans 8:17, Galatians 4:7).

Does it really matter if the music that Zephaniah writes of was composed for a specific moment in time and for a specific people? The point of the passage is not the song but the love. Our souls can be quiet, assured of His grace. We can hold up trembling hands to Him and know that He will pull us close.

Wait a Minute

So does God not sing over us as a mother does when she rocks her baby to sleep?

Never base your entire theological framework on a question that can’t be answered. Personally, I won’t be shocked if we do find out one day that God sang to each of us, a song that we understood in our spirits but could never fully comprehend. That would be quite like Him. All we can know for sure is that this is not what Zephaniah meant and that we are commanded to sing to God. We don’t need to wonder about whether He’s singing in return – that puts the focus on us and we are very much not the focus.

Reflection

  1. As we drawn near the end of our study, do you understand and embrace the importance of context?
  2. Does it bother you that Zephaniah 3:17 doesn’t mean what most people think it means? Why or why not?
  3. Read Jeremiah 33. Does it excite you to know that you will see the restoration of Israel?
  4. Read Ephesians 2. What verses stand out to you? How do they confirm God’s love?
  5. Spend some time in prayer. Ask God to open your eyes to His love.

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Sources

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

(2) John Gill’s Exposition of the Whole Bible

(3) Zephaniah 3 Commentary, Rashi

(4) Got Questions (note: not the best resource, but I like how this answer was phrased)

(5) Warren Weirsbe. Be Concerned: Minor Prophets. (David C. Cook: Colorado Springs, 1996), 160.

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