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December 16, 2012
Zephaniah 3:14-20

This surprising call to praise and expression of joy and hope closes the small and generally little known prophetic writing of Zephaniah. This is a surprising ending to the book as Zephaniah’s focus has been on the coming day of the Lord, and on God’s judgment and destruction. Zephaniah writes in his first chapter condemning Jerusalem. In chapter 2 he then condemns other nations. The first half of chapter 3 then returns to a savage indictment of Jerusalem with: ‘Ah, soiled, defiled, oppressing city! It has listened to no voice; it has accepted no correction. It has not trusted in the Lord; it has not drawn near to its God.’ (vv. 1-2) The officials are ‘roaring lions’, its prophets are ‘reckless, faithless persons’ and its priests ‘profane what is sacred’ and ‘do violence to the law’ (vv. 3-4).

In today’s passage, Zephaniah looks beyond destruction and judgment due in such a situation to hope and restoration. In this regard the Book of Zephaniah is similar to some of its larger prophetic siblings, like Ezekiel or Amos, where judgment against Israel/Judah/Jerusalem is related to judgment against the nations, and the book ends with words of hope. In Zephaniah 3, the passage set for today opens with a call to rejoicing in Jerusalem. The reason for this rejoicing is the presence of God mentioned in vv. 15 and 17. This is a major change in the meaning of God’s presence in Jerusalem. Earlier in the chapter (v. 5), God was mentioned as being present in Jerusalem, but at that point God’s presence signified judgment and condemnation. As the writer looks past the judgment, a time of joy and rejoicing is portrayed. Far from being a ‘soiled, defiled, oppressing city’ Jerusalem will once again be a city in which God delights, and which delights in God’s presence. Verses 18-20 present an address from God reminiscent of the restoration envisaged in Isa 61:1-2 and proclaimed by Jesus in Luke 4:18-19. Here God promises to save the lame, gather the outcast, change shame into praise and renown, and restore the fortunes of the people.

This time of rejoicing in God’s presence, however, is clearly not what we would see as a utopian vision of peace and harmony. God is present in Jerusalem as a warrior, and the rejoicing and the restoration that take place are not untouched by violence; it is the victory of God the warrior king. The restoration is the endpoint of the judgment of God. Having brought the enemies to cleanse Jerusalem, God brings victory to the remnant, ‘a people humble and lowly’ (v. 12). The images of joy and hope sit very closely together with the images of destruction. The image of God as warrior king, even at a time of restoration, retains its overtones of violence, warfare and death. To focus on this image of God as warrior king, and on the close proximity of judgment and rejoicing can be very difficult for us.

For the preacher in the season of Advent, however, the vision of this section of Zephaniah is a significant one. The prophetic writer keeps hold of a sense of hope for the future, and expresses this at the end of his oracles of judgment. Zephaniah uses this call to rejoicing to express a hope for a changed world, a new character for his people, and for Jerusalem, that ‘soiled, defiled, oppressing city’. This hope, though, is not divorced from the destruction and judgment envisaged at the beginning of the chapter. God is pictured as present within Jerusalem, but this is not a vague hope of blessing, or a simple inspirational, devotional message. God’s presence here is as a warrior, a victor rejoicing with his people, following his destruction of all but a remnant of them. This is a triumphant king, with a restored city, but one in which the destruction and judgment still cast a dark shadow.

This passage captures the tension between the hope and conviction we hold in God’s future, and the radical change and re-shaping of our world that is required for this foreseen future to become a present reality. There is great hope in a vision of a future restoration, but all of the difficulty and pain associated with this sort of change remains in view. The image of God as warrior reminds us of the struggle inherent in working to overcome the oppression that keeps many ‘lame’ and ‘outcasts’. The difficulties inherent in reading this passage are also echoed in the remaining readings for the week, especially in the call of John the Baptist to repent in Luke 3:7-18, and in the exuberance of the call to ‘rejoice in the Lord always,’ in Phil 4:4-7.

Isaiah 12:2-6

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