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?

Signature

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: Like Chaff (2:1-3)

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,

Chapter two!

It only took us fourteen weeks to get here.

Gather yourselves together, yes, gather together,
O undesirable nation,
Before the decree is issued,
Or the day passes like chaff,
Before the LORD’s fierce anger comes upon you,
Before the day of the LORD’s anger comes upon you!
Seek the LORD, all you meek of the earth,
Who have upheld His justice.
Seek righteousness, seek humility.
It may be that you will be hidden
In the day of the LORD’s anger.

– 2:1-3 (NKJV)

Shameless

The NKJV renders the Hebrew kâsaph and lôh as “undesirable” here, but a better translation would be “without shame” or “shameless.” Strong’s defines kâsaph as “to pine after; also to fear: have desire, be greedy, long, sore” (1) while lôh is “not (the simple or abstract negation); by implication no” (2). In this context, the people of Judah are without shame before God. They do not long for Him. They do not pine for His presence. They parade their sin in front of Him. Their love has gone completely cold.

It is thus fascinating that God calls them to gather themselves together and repent. He has no delusions. He knows who they are. He sees through the thickest walls and the heaviest doors. He watches what they do when they think all is hidden. He knows they don’t care.

This is how God works.

Christ arrives right on time to make this happen. He didn’t, and doesn’t, wait for us to get ready. He presented himself for this sacrificial death when we were far too weak and rebellious to do anything to get ourselves ready. And even if we hadn’t been so weak, we wouldn’t have known what to do anyway. We can understand someone dying for a person worth dying for, and we can understand how someone good and noble could inspire us to selfless sacrifice. But God put his love on the line for us by offering his Son in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to him.

– Romans 5:6-8 (MSG)

Isn’t that incredible? He calls out to people who are about to suffer the consequences of their bad choices. He doesn’t ask us to clean up our lives. He doesn’t command that we get all the ducks in order before coming to Him. Instead He says, “Come, right now, when you’re shameless. When you don’t have sense enough to care about Me. When you think I’m out to ruin all your fun and that I want to be mean to you. Come. Let Me show you otherwise.”

God punishes, but He gets no pleasure from it. He would rather that Zephaniah’s people bow down in the middle of the muck and mire and ask for forgiveness. He would rather show them how to start over.

Corporate

The ancient Jewish understanding of relationship with God focused less on the individual and more on the community. An individual’s faith and standing before God were important, but rarely considered apart from the group as a whole. Each member of the nation was connected to the others.

Where individuals are singled out it seems to be for the good of the community. For example, the Genesis narrative develops the theme of God’s blessing, which though resting on certain individuals, renders them agents for some greater work of God. Joseph’s rise to fame in Egypt preserves the lives of his entire family ( Gen 45:4-7 ). Through Noah’s faithfulness God brings salvation to his family as well as animal life (Gen. 7-9). And the blessing of the promise of nationhood and land for Abraham was not only for his descendants but for all families on the earth ( Gen 12:1-3 ). After 430 years in Egypt, an entire people is delivered through Moses (Exod. 1-12). Through Esther’s rise to power the Jewish people are spared annihilation ( Esther 7 ). (3)

When one strayed, he affected the whole nation. When one loved the Lord, she affected the whole nation. This is why, even though verse three makes it clear that there is a righteous remnant in the land (we’ll get to that in a minute), God calls the entire group to appear before Him and repent. God does not hold one person responsible for another’s sin, but He does teach His people then and now to love and admonish the wayward and even, as in Daniel 9, participate in repenting for those sins.

In our modern Western context, we have trouble grasping the corporate nature of relationship with God. As far as we are concerned, it’s every woman for herself. Passages like Matthew 5-7 (the Sermon on the Mount), 1 Corinthians 12-13, Romans 12-14, Ephesians 3-5, Colossians 1 and the whole of 1 John point in the opposite direction. I am not responsible for your sin and you’re not responsible for mine, but we are on this journey together. When I hurt, you hurt. When you do well, I do well. We each have a role, a function, and can’t do without each other.

The Remnant

Zephaniah especially called upon the godly remnant…to pray and seek God’s face, perhaps referring to the promise in 2 Chronicles 7:14. But even if the majority of the nation followed false gods and turned away from the Lord, God would still protect His own precious remnant when the day of judgment comes (Mal. 3:16-18). (4)

In general, the prophets are careful to point out that there were people who were still obedient to the Lord. Remnant is a fancy way of saying “leftovers or remainders” (5). There were people who remained true to Him. Nevertheless, they would suffer because of the actions of their kinsman. Daniel, Hananiah, Azariah and Mishael were all deported to Babylon (Daniel 1). It is likely that they were castrated, made into eunuchs (6). Given that the first chapter of the book that bears his name shows Daniel and his comrades refusing to violate kosher law, it’s my opinion that they were probably among those who loved God. They didn’t deserve to be carted away, have the chance of family life ripped from them and be forced to serve a foreign king.

Yet Daniel and others like him had an important job in the middle of the suffering.

They were a ‘company of the concerned’ who became the nucleus of the restored nation when they returned to the land. In every period in history, it is the godly remnant that keeps the light burning when it seems as if the darkness is about to cover the earth. (7)

It would be easy for us to say, “That’s not fair. These people, this remnant, loved God. Why did they have to go through that? Why were they going to have to see their homes destroyed and family members killed?” I tread lightly, because I don’t believe that anyone really has a good answer to that kind of question, but I think it comes down to the ripple effect. God doesn’t force anyone to live rightly and actions have consequences (a point Zephaniah hammers on time and time again). Rarely do those consequences go without touching others.

Think of it this way: Suppose the country you live in decides that it’s illegal to be a Christian. (This is reality in many parts of the world). God isn’t punishing you. You haven’t done anything to displease Him. Yet suddenly you find yourself imprisoned or even killed. The wrong choices others make impact your life, even though you’re doing your best to follow God.

Like Chaff

The Hebrew word here is qash, meaning “stubble, chaff” (8). (Deep, right?) Chaff is “the seed coverings and other debris separated from the seed in threshing grain” (9)

Okay, so here’s where it gets good.

The harvesting process involves separating the grain from the chaff. Chaff is useless. It’s an #aintnobodygottimeforthat sort of thing. In ancient times, the grain would be separated from the stalks, usually with a hinged stick-like instrument called a flail, and laid out on a threshing floor. It was then thrown into the air like this:

Image result for ancient threshing

The wind would carry away the useless chaff while the heavier grain settled back to the floor.

God is telling His people, “Your time is short. Don’t waste a moment.”

Reflection

  1. How have you been shameless? How do you recognize the attitude if it crops up in your life now? What do you do about it?
  2. Read 1 John. (It won’t take that long). Note the use of corporate words (“us,” “we,” “you”). Do you have a sense of belonging to a larger community of faith, or are you stuck in “just Jesus and me” mode?
  3. Read Daniel 9:1-19. What do you think of Daniel repenting for his entire nation? What do you think of him identifying with people he’d never met and sins he’d never committed? Is that something you could do?
  4. Read Zephaniah 2. What stands out to you? What do you want to know more about from this chapter?

My journey to faith. (15)

Sources

(1) Kâsaph

(2) Lôh

(3) Salvation

(4) Warren Weirsbe. Be Concerned: Minor Prophets. (David C. Cook: Colorado Springs, 1996), 149.

(5) Remnant

(6) Were Daniel and His Friends Eunuchs?

(7) Weirsbe, 150.

(8) Qash

(9) Chaff

Image

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