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Major Truths in Minor Prophets: There’s a Song in the Air

June 24, 2007

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Thank you for your kind comments about the sermon series from the prophets. One of the reasons we have this series is because some weeks ago, Paula Joye asked me if I would preach a sermon on her favorite verse from the book of Zephaniah.

We know very little about the prophet Zephaniah, but what we do know comes from his own words. Zephaniah son of Cushi, Zephaniah ben-Cushi, was a prophet who lived about seventy years after Isaiah. If you want to place him historically, think of him as being halfway between Isaiah and Jeremiah. He is a contemporary of the prophet Nahum. Zephaniah provides us with his genealogy at the very first of his little book, saying that he is the great-great grandson of Hezekiah. I am not sure whether he was actually related by blood to Hezekiah. Regardless, he considered this his spiritual lineage. If he actually was a blood relative of Hezekiah, it means that he was a cousin, several times removed, to the current king, Josiah. We place Zephaniah at the time when Josiah, the boy king, had just come to the throne.

Why is it important that Zephaniah traces himself back to Hezekiah? Scholars consider Hezekiah a good king, a reformer, who tried his best to lead the people of Israel to do what was right. Hezekiah wanted them to turn away from idolatry and to worship the one true God by focusing on God’s law. Isaiah, the prophet and priest at the time of Hezekiah, encouraged the people toward this reform, this renewal movement. Then after Hezekiah, his son and grandson, two evil kings, led the people in the wrong direction. I Chronicles 21:7 simply says that they did “what was evil in the sight of the Lord” and that evil was a kind of synchretism. They tried to synchretize the faith of Israel with the faith of foreign gods. They set up altars and established idolatry as a part of the religion of the land. At one point, it grew so bad that the temple was completely closed. There was no longer any worship in the temple. Once Josiah came to the throne, he consulted careful advisors. Perhaps the prophecy of Zephaniah challenged this young boy-king to carry out critical reforms.

During the reign of Josiah, the temple was cleansed. During that process, what they called the Little Book of the Covenant was discovered. Most scholars believe that it was the book of Deuteronomy or at least a portion of it. The very word Deuteronomy, which means “the second law,” was an account of how Moses spoke to the people of Israel before they entered the Land of Promise. Deuteronomy is actually a collection of Moses’ sermons. Perhaps some priest who was concerned that at some point the people would turn back to God hid this book in the temple.

If you start reading the book of Zephaniah, you will probably quit before you finish the three short chapters. Try reading this book if you have trouble sleeping at night,. It might help you fall asleep. Zephaniah calls for the people to return to God. He leads the reform. Have this scene in your mind – a courtroom. Here, the accused sits before the prosecutor who rails about everything the accused has done. The prosecutor, Zephaniah, unloads, leveling charges against the people of Israel. The great high Judge, the righteous Judge, is God. Judah comes to court condemned, and the God is about to rap His divine gavel and mete out the harshest sentence possible, a sentence called “the day of the Lord.” Look at Chapter 1, beginning at Verse 14.

“The great day of the Lord is near,

near and coming quickly.

Listen! The cry on the day of the Lord will be bitter,

the shouting of the warrior there.

That day will be a day of wrath,

a day of distress and anguish,

a day of trouble and ruin,

a day of darkness and gloom,

a day of clouds and blackness,

a day of trumpet and battle cry

against the fortified cities

and against the corner towers.

I will bring distress on the people

and they will walk like blind men,

because they have sinned against the Lord.

Their blood will be poured out like dust

and their entrails like filth.

Neither their silver nor their gold

will be able to save them

on the day of the Lord’s wrath.

In the fire of his jealousy

the whole world will be consumed,

for he will make a sudden end

of all who live on earth.”

Zephaniah presents a message of gloom and doom. It is not a happy prospect. This word from Zephaniah is punishment to the harshest degree. The divine Judge can pronounce this sentence, but Zephaniah offers a provision, a stipulation, if they confess and repent. The accused enters a plea of guilty, guilty as charged. This is not an empty jailhouse conversion. This is not just going through the motions. Zephaniah asserts that confession must be heart-felt, a real change. Look at Chapter 2, Verses 1-3:

Gather together,…

O shameful nation,

before the appointed time arrives

and that day sweeps on like chaff,

before the fierce anger of the Lord comes upon you,

before the day of the Lord’s wrath comes upon you. v
Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land,

you who do what he commands.

Seek righteousness, seek humility;

perhaps you will be sheltered

on the day of the Lord’s anger.

There is a hope. That hope comes through confession.

Responsive Reading: REPENTANCE

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love;

according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.

Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.

Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your

sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified

when you judge.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit
within me.
Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing

spirit, to sustain me.
Psalm 51

The very name Zephaniah means “the Lord protects” or perhaps “the Lord treasures.” Even in the prophet’s name, we get an inkling that God wants more than divine retribution. He does not desire to simply execute His wrath. He longs for a renewed relationship with His people. He yearns genuine, sincere, and heartfelt repentence, and He desires His people to turn to Him. Consider Chapter 3, beginning at Verse 9:

“Then I will purify the lips of the peoples,

that all of them may call on the name of the Lord

and serve him shoulder to shoulder.

From beyond the rivers of Cush

my worshipers, my scattered people,

will bring me offerings.

On that day, you will not be put to shame

for all the wrongs you have done to me

because I will remove from this city

those who rejoice in their pride.

Never again will you be haughty

on my holy hill.

But I will leave within you

the meek and the humble,

who trust in the name of the Lord.

The remnant of Israel will do no wrong;

they will speak no lies,

nor will deceit be found in their mouths.

They will eat and lie down

and no one will make them afraid.”

God is indeed a righteous Judge, but He is more than that. God is also a divine parent that wants what every parent wants. When our children are rebellious, when they turn away from our instruction and disown us, we want a renewed relationship with them. God is a divine parent, intent on doing everything He can to bring His wandering children back home. He wants to bring His children back into a relationship with Him simply because He loves them and longs for them.

Dr. Will Willimon, at the time he served as the dean of the chapel at Duke University, preached an advent sermon on this very text just two Sundays before Christmas. He chose this text, he said, because it indicates that God wants to do something different. God is not satisfied with the status quo. He does not want to just punish us. Instead, God wants to change us, to make a real difference in our lives, to turn us around and bring us home to Him. Our Father in heaven is indeed a righteous judge, but He is also our shepherd, an analogy we find throughout the Bible. We belong to God.

In his book The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning, who is a recovering alcoholic, says that we need to recover our concept of grace. He said that we have failed to understand the depth and magnitude of God’s grace. We need to know that God bestows His grace on us, even when we are rebellious. God’s grace never gives up on us, even when we are about to self-destruct. God’s grace comes to us in compassion, even when we are in the gutter. The grace of God, our Shepherd, redeems.

Responsive Reading: RENEWAL

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside
still waters,

He restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for
his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil,

For you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

All we like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to

his own way; but the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Psalm 23; Isaiah 53

Zephaniah’s name is Zephaniah ben-Cushi. Ordinarily in the Old Testament, the word Cush means “Africa.” Zephaniah’s name means “Zephaniah, son of Africa.” Was Zephaniah a black prophet? Maybe. Imagine that. It is an interesting thought. I do know that Zephaniah had an unusual theological perspective, one rarely found in the Old Testament.

I began this service with the Call to Worship, using a verse from the book of Nehemiah, “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). We often hear this passage quoted and see it printed on bookmarks. You might have marked it in your Bible. For a long time, I thought that passage meant that I somehow had to summon the joy of the Christian life so that I could receive the strength of the Lord. Then something happened soon after I came to Morningside eleven years ago. I received a letter from Cliff Barrows, Billy Graham’s minister of music. Cliff, a family friend, has made frequent visits to Spartanburg. He said in the letter that he wanted to give Morningside a passage of scripture. I invite your attention to Zephaniah 3:14-16:

Sing O Daughter of Zion; (Daughter, of course, is a term of

This is the divine father talking about His children.)

shout aloud, O Israel!

Be glad and rejoice with all your heart,

O Daughter of Jerusalem!

The Lord has taken away your punishment;

he has turned back your enemy.

The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you;

never again will you fear any harm.

On that day, they will say to Jerusalem,

“Do not fear, O Zion;

do not let your hands hang limp.”

Our scene returns to the courtroom. The accused has pled guilty. The Judge raps His gavel and grants pardon. The accused no longer has to hold limp hands, handcuffed in bondage. The accused is free, free not because of any merit of his or her own but free because the divine Judge has refused to punish. He has granted pardon. Verse 17: “The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.”

I have known for a long time that God has a sense of humor. That is reaffirmed every morning when I look in the mirror. You would know that too, if you could see what I see in the mirror. God has a sense of humor, and He laughs. Can you imagine the great God of the universe laughing? The book in the Old Testament that talks more about God’s laughter than any other is Job. God is a God of laughter, even when things are very, very sad. God sings. God rejoices. I simply did not have the concepts that God sings and experiences joy until I received the note from Cliff Barrows.

Imagine God kicked back in a La-Z-Boy recliner. He takes His child on His lap, a child that has been so disturbed, so fretful. God, this divine parent, quiets His children with His love. Then He begins singing a song that brings to that child a sense of peace, a sense of comfort, a sense of calm. That song assures the child that this divine parent takes great joy in their relationship.

It is what parents do. It does not matter how hard-headed your children have been or how close you have come to punishing them. It does not diminish your love one single bit. You just want to take great delight and joy in them, not because they have done anything especially notable but because you love them. God will take great delight in you.

I realized that “the joy of the Lord is my strength,” not because I must muster the joy but because God takes joy in me. He takes joy in you. As Cliff Barrows said, God takes joy in Morningside. He loves us. He longs to be with us. He enjoys meeting us here in this place. God is an unusual God. The word holy means to be different. God is holy. God is unique.

God concludes His statement here through Zephaniah by making an eight-fold promise. Follow with me just the verb forms, beginning in Verse 18.

I will remove sorrow from you…

I will deal with all who oppress you…

I will remove your burden…

I will rescue the lame…

I will give you praise and honor…

I will gather you…

I will bring you home…

I will give you honor and praise…

I will restore your fortunes…

This God loves us very much and takes delight and joy in our relationship to Him. He promises us that He will not fail us. When the covenant between God and His people is broken, it is His people, never God, that breaks it. He renews that covenant here through Zephaniah.

How do we understand God? Perhaps the way to understand God best is simply to say that God is holy. He is the righteous Judge, the Shepherd who wants to lead us. He is a divine parent who laughs and sings and rejoices over His children. He wants more than anything else for us to share, to celebrate, that relationship with Him because He is holy.

Responsive Reading: REJOICING

Great is the Lord!

Let us praise him and exalt his name for he is holy!

Exalt the Lord our God and worship him in his holiness!

Exalt the Lord our God for the Lord our God is holy!

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of
his glory.

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is,

and is to come. Amen.

From an ancient prophet, the simple message is that we are all guilty. We have all been unfaithful to God, but He loves us and longs to have a renewed relationship with us. Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Savior? If not, we invite you to make that decision. Some have other decisions to make, perhaps a decision for church membership. We invite you to respond to the invitations of God as we stand and sing together a beautiful hymn, “Redeemed.” What a word! Will you respond?

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely


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