Amidst all the horrific images and promises of judgment and destruction in this little book, chapter 3 is filled with hope. Yes there is still some promise of judgment to come, but we get some beautiful descriptions of the telos of it all, the end or purpose for which all of the judgment is happening. As we’ve seen over and over again in the prophets, judgment and salvation are inextricably wound together as if in a very fine thread. You don’t know where one ends and the other begins, and such is this chapter. This melding of judgment and salvation finds it’s ultimate fulfillment in Christ. Could this bloody mess of a human being hanging on a Roman cross cursed of God actually be our salvation? Knowing the Old Testament, and prophets like Zephaniah, turns this into a rhetorical question.
The chapter starts with a typical recitation of the sins of “the city of oppressors, rebellious and defiled!” Her officials, prophets, and priests are completely corrupt, but the recitation ends with a declaration of the perfection of God’s character:
5 The Lord within her is righteous;
he does no wrong.
Morning by morning he dispenses his justice,
and every new day he does not fail,
yet the unrighteous know no shame.
This is truly the heart of the matter: God is perfect, and we are wretched sinners. How could Zephaniah say “every new day he does not fail” when the world is more or less a hell hole? Isn’t this why so many people want nothing to do with him? God has obviously failed, they logically conclude, if he couldn’t keep the world from being this way. But we must understand this one thing: The Bible, God’s revelation and communication to man, was not written to justify God to us, but us to God. We believe Zephaniah because God’s definition of things is the true nature of things. His is the ultimate big picture of which we are a very small part, and our time on earth a very small piece. We declare he cannot fail because he knows the beginning from the end, and this chapter gives us a glorious picture of that end.
Then we see another recitation and judgment promised to the nations, and that “The whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger.” But the very next verse is a promise of the mercy and grace and salvation to come:
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.
Like I said, a very fine thread. How is it that the “whole world” will be consumed, and yet he will purify them so they may all call on his name? Maybe the consuming fire is one of judgment and purification at the same time? More importantly, we notice that this salvation is completely of the Lord. We don’t and can’t purify ourselves! We also know that the “all” cannot refer to each and every person, but to all nations, which the Lord promised would be blessed through Abram’s seed, that is Christ! One more thing. All the religious striving of every human being is fruitless apart from the supernatural work of God in the soul. People spout about God (lips) all the time, but idolatry and self-justification are the only result without God’s transforming work by his Spirit. Here is what will characterize these people:
12 But I will leave within you
the meek and humble.
The remnant of Israel
will trust in the name of the Lord.
What a contrast! The haughty pride and vanity and violence of the wicked versus the meek and the humble who know and trust their Lord. This of course refers to the historical remnant of Israel and Judah, but ultimately refers to us! All the last verses of the chapter and book speak of the great and glorious future the “remnant of Israel,” and the “Daughter of Zion” and “Jerusalem.” There is an historical restoration, but what it points to is an ultimate restoration where “The Lord has taken away your punishment.” The Lord, “The King of Israel” will do this. Because here is the bottom line of all of redemptive history:
17 The Lord your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
but will rejoice over you with singing.”
As hard as this is to believe sometimes (always?), it is we, his people, in whom he takes great delight! Let us rest in that. As the great 19th century theologian Charles Hodge put it perfectly, “According to the Bible the favor of God is the life of the soul.”