Scripture: Zephaniah 3:14-20
Joy to the world, the Lord is come
Let earth receive her King.
Joy reverberates throughout these closing verses of the otherwise sobering (if not downright 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 right, 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!
We could easily focus only on the joyful tone of the text here in Zephaniah as well as those in the Isaiah and Philippians lectionary texts appointed for today. However, the Luke 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, including Ashkelon, Ekron, Canaan & Moab. Yet without doubt, the primary focus of judgment is on the people of God, identified as Jerusalem and Judah. 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, Zeph. 3:6 reads: I will devastate their streets. No one will pass through. Their cities will be laid waste. There will be no person, no inhabitant left.
One approach to this text would be to highlight that, apart from the recognition of a genuine problem (i.e., 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 Judah’s 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 problems of our day.
But Zephaniah 3:14-20 bears resounding witness to the truth of Romans 5:20: where sin increased, grace multiplied even more. 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!
So the message Zephaniah gives is: 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 15-16 emphasize the fulfillment of that promise: because Yahweh is in their midst, the people no longer fear disaster. Furthermore, they are now encouraged to action, which seems to be the sense of do not let your hands fall in v. 16. And the action to which they are called is to worship: rejoice, 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 rejoice, shout, rejoice and exult because God has removed your judgment and turned away your enemy (v. 15). The people have not delivered themselves; Yahweh alone is the source of their deliverance: a warrior bringing victory (v. 17). The warrior who sounded the battle cry of judgment in chapter 1 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 culture. Beyond national and international issues and tragedies, there are situations within our local context which contribute to a sense of fearfulness among our members. The reminder that deliverance is from the Lord our God in our midst (v. 17a) – Emmanuel – offers us renewed hope and joy.
Perhaps most astounding of all is the description of this King and warrior who rejoices and delights in the people he has saved. One commentator has gone so far as to refer to Zeph. 3:17 as the John 3:16 of the Old Testament. God does not delight or rejoice in judgment, though some 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 create calm with his love is translated as he will be silent in his love in the New Revised Standard Version. Scholars have grappled with the translation and intent of the line. While both are theologically true, I am drawn to the second translation for at least two reasons. First, it provides a compelling contrast between the warrior who sounds the battle cry of judgment in 1:14 and the victorious warrior who is now lovingly silent in the midst of those he has saved. Second, I recall the sheer joy and delight of silently holding close a quiet, contented, and trusting grandchild. Deep love may be powerfully conveyed with silence!
But silence, too, has its limitations. So God moves from silence to exultation with singing (v. 17). God not only invites the redeemed remnant to rejoice, 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, as in Isa. 62:5; or David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant in 2 Sam. 6. God is in full-throated celebration when relationship is restored! What a breath-catching realization that is!
May we grow in understanding and acceptance of the depth and breadth, the width and height of this joyful King of Israel; and may we lead others to the same!
Joy to the world; the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King:
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And heaven and nature sing, and heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and heaven and nature sing!
Amen and amen!