Zephaniah 3 – Sea Change, Key Change

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Today’s PassageZephaniah 3

Here’s the third and final chapter of Zephaniah, and here’s a turning point right in the middle of it. Or, perhaps more accurately, here’s a light at the end of the Zephaniah tunnel. Here’s a spatial metaphor for the linear development of a prophetic text? Yes. That.

It begins with a lament over Jerusalem. “Woe to her who is rebellious and defiled, the tyrannical city!” (1), mourns the prophet. What is “woe?” It’s the Hebrew הוֹי, howy. It’s onomatopoeia: it’s the sound you make when you cry. It’s that choking howling sob, that falling wail when your sorrow shoves itself out your mouth in tear-soaked vowels. And yes, the tyrannical city isn’t some foreign capital, but Jerusalem itself: “She did not trust in the Lord…her prophets are reckless, treacherous men; her priests have profaned the sanctuary” (2, 4). The people of Israel, the children of God’s covenant, are just as lawless and vicious as the nations around them. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

But it is, and Zephaniah’s still hitting the same notes of universal judgment from the first two chapters. Or at least he is until verse nine. As God promises to give his people “purified lips,” we hear that first key change, that minor third shifting to a major. He continues, “In that day you will feel no shame because of all your deeds by which you have rebelled against Me” (9). Even as the day of the Lord looms, there’s hope of forgiveness for a nation gone wrong, the promise of a spared remnant.

As the book closes out, the final passage is basically awash with light. Zephaniah promises the remnant: “The Lord has taken away His judgments against you…He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy…I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will turn their shame into praise and renown” (15, 17, 19). Hindsight is 20/20, and with the benefit of history and revelation, we have the knowledge that God takes away his judgments against us by putting them on Jesus Christ at the cross. But Zephaniah’s prophecy concludes with hope that even after everything has been scoured and blasted and received what it deserves, God can still bring back a remnant.

Zephaniah is a book about a lot of things. Some of them I don’t understand. But here’s one thing I do understand: forgiveness.

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