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).
The invitation to worship flows from the sheer grace of God. The saved remnant of God’s people are able to sing, shout, rejoice, and exult because God “has taken away the judgments against you” and “turned away your enemies” (v. 15, NRSV). The people have not delivered themselves; Yahweh alone is the source of their deliverance: “a warrior who gives victory” (v. 17). The warrior who sounded the battle cry of judgment (1:14) is now the warrior who secures the peace of the faithful ones.
The promise of deliverance from fear and fearfulness seems an appropriate message in our current socio-political context. Beyond national and international issues and tragedies, there may be situations within your local context which contribute to a sense of fearfulness among your parishioners. The reminder that deliverance is from “the Lord, your God, [who] is in your midst” (v. 17a) – Immanual! – may offer renewed hope and joy.
Our Rejoicing God
Perhaps most astounding of all is the description of this King and warrior who rejoices and delights in the people he has saved (v. 17). One commentator has gone so far as to refer to Zeph. 3:17 as the John 3:16 of the Old Testament (Robertson, p. 339). God does not delight or rejoice in judgment, though some of our people might be hard-pressed to believe that in light of their own life-experiences. Rather, God delights and rejoices in restored relationship! God is the parent who cares nothing for dignity and decorum at the sight of the prodigal child trudging home, but instead runs to reconcile and restore!
In verse 17, the line translated “he will renew you in his love” (NRSV) is alternatively translated as “he will be silent in his love” (footnote, NRSV) Scholars have grappled with the translation and intent of the line. While both provided by the NRSV are theologically true, I am drawn to the latter translation for at least two reasons. First, from an exegetical standpoint, it provides a compelling contrast between the warrior who sounds the battle cry of judgment (1:14) and the victorious warrior who is now lovingly silent in the midst of those he has saved. Next, from an experiential standpoint, I recall the sheer joy and delight of silently holding close a quiet, contented, trusting child. Deep love may be powerfully conveyed with silence!
But silence, too, has its limitations. So God moves from silence to exultation “with loud singing” (v. 17). God not only invites the redeemed remnant to sing, shout, rejoice and exult, God leads the chorus! God now bursts into song – over God’s people! The Hebrew indicates great jubilation: a bridegroom rejoicing over his bride (Isa. 62:5); David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant (2 Sam. 6). God is in full-throated celebration when relationship is restored! What a breath-catching realization!
May we grow in understanding and acceptance of the depth and breadth, the width and height of this truth; and may we lead others to the same! Joy to the world, indeed!