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Zephaniah 3:14-20

Joy to the world, the Lord is come Let earth receive her King. (Isaac Watts)

Joy reverberates throughout the closing verses of the otherwise sobering (if not depressing) book of Zephaniah. If Isaac Watts’ intention was to write a hymn celebrating not the first but the second coming of Christ, when God ultimately sets all things to rights, then Joy to the World is an appropriate inclusion for this third Sunday of Advent: judgment is past, the King is in the midst of his people, the marginalized and outcast are gathered and honored, and joy is the order of the day!

Bad News, Good News

We could easily focus only on the joyful tone of the text here in Zephaniah as well as those in Isaiah and Philippians. However, the Lucan passage (3:7-18) provides an important parallel to the larger context of Zephaniah. Judgment is the consequence of refusal to live in accordance with the holy and just reign of God and Zephaniah 2 calls out several surrounding nations for judgment. Yet without doubt, the primary focus of judgment is on the people of God, identified as Jerusalem and Judah (chapters 1 and 3). The people of Jerusalem and Judah had the greatest opportunities to know God most intimately; they had a long, concrete salvation history; yet lack of gratitude and persistent corruption resulted in judgment (for example, see Zeph. 3:6-7).

One approach to this text would be to highlight that, apart from the recognition of a genuine problem (corruption, injustice, faithlessness, conflict, brokenness), God’s judgment is incomprehensible. The first two and a half chapters of Zephaniah make clear the plethora of problems “in the days of King Josiah” (1:1). Today, a glance at social media posts, news feeds, or at the lives of those around us – perhaps even our own lives – can give pause to even the most optimistic person. We do not lack for examples of bad news! Thus, we should have no trouble establishing the problem(s) for our hearers.

But Zephaniah 3:14-20 bears resounding witness to the truth of Romans 5:20: “where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (NIV 2011). We would be hard-pressed to recognize grace if we always received fully and only what we deserved or earned. Apart from the recognition of our need for a Savior, the Gospel can hardly be the good news it genuinely is; indeed, the Gospel would be unnecessary! However, after highlighting some bad news, the contrasting good news seems more likely to capture the imagination and speak to the longings of the people. Joy is intensified when it is wholly unmerited and the result of sheer grace!

Fear not. God is in your midst.

The final line of 3:13 promised that those who experience the salvation of God shall be free of fear. Verses 15 and 16 emphasize the fulfillment of that promise: because Yahweh is in their midst, the people no longer fear disaster (15b). Furthermore, they are now encouraged to action, which seems to be the sense of “do not let your hands grow weak” (v. 16, NRSV). And the action to which they are called is worship: sing, shout, rejoice, and exult (v. 14).