TAKING REFUGE IN THE PROMISE
Third Sunday of Advent
Analysis by Steven C. Kuhl
14 Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! 15 The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. 16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. 17 The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you* in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing 18 as on a day of festival.* I will remove disaster from you,* so that you will not bear reproach for it. 19 I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. 20 At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.
DIAGNOSIS: The Day of the Lord Is Judgment
Step 1: Initial Diagnosis (External Problem): Exploiting Political Chaos for Financial Independence But Not Real Reform Zephaniah writes (c. 629 bce) in a time when the political landscape of the Middle East was in turmoil. (For a detailed historical account see John Bright’s A History of Israel.) Since the reign of King Ahaz (c. 735), Judah was determined to avert the fate of her northern neighbor, Israel, by becoming a willing client-state of Assyria: paying tribute not only in the form of money, but also in the form of homage to the Assyrian gods and their magical arts. Now Assyria’s power was waning. It was being undermined by the marauding Medes and Babylonians. International chaos was therefore brewing and that left an opening for Judah to gain independence from Assyria. The assassination of pro-Assyrian King, Amon, by anti-Assyrian elements in Judah brought the boy King Josiah (640) to the throne, but the execution of the assassins meant that pro-Assyrian elements would persist. To be sure, as Assyrian power evaporated, Judah’s political independence under Josiah increased. Indeed, it became possible for Judah to cease paying monetary tribute to Assyria altogether. But as Zephaniah notes, this independence had no effect on Judah’s internal politics: Officials within it roared like lions, judges acted like wolves, prophets were reckless and faithless, and priests profaned the sacred (3:3-4). For all its political independence, Judah still persisted in giving spiritual tribute to Assyria’s gods and magical arts. Why?
Step 2: Advanced Diagnosis (Internal Problem): Unfaithful Majority –It Has Not Trusted the Lord (3:2)
Judah’s bondage to Assyria was more than political and monetary. It was also spiritual. For the vast majority in Judah, especially those with position and power, their identity had become wrapped up in Assyria’s identity. Assyria’s gods and magical arts had taken Judah’s heart captive. As Zephaniah put it, Judah did not listen to the voice of the prophets, did not accept correction, did not trust in the Lord and did not draw near to God (3:2). Instead, Judah trusted Assyria’s gods and magical arts, thinking they were the secret formula behind Assyria’s power and by extension their own.
Step 3: Final Diagnosis (Eternal Problem): “The Day of the Lord”: Yahweh’s Wrath Is in the Chaos
But nothing could be farther from the truth. In all this, says Zephaniah, “they have done violence to the law” (3:4) and God would not let such violence go unchecked. The “day of the Lord,” the “day of God’s wrath,” was come and no one would be left standing. (See the breadth of God’s wrath in the first 2 and half chapters.) That is the meaning of the international chaos that surrounds Judah, from which Judah is not exempt. National power is not a sign of divine pleasure. Nations rise because God has often unseen purpose to accomplish through them—his judgment. Assyria served that end for a moment, but no more. As Zephaniah say, “The Lord within it is righteous; every morning he renders his judgment, each dawn without fail” (3:5). The international chaos, which includes the fall of powers, is now the sign in which God is rendering judgment on all those who sin against him (1:17). God is impartial in his righteousness; Judah is not exempt. His wrath and judgment will not cease until all that opposes God is eliminated (1:2-6).
PROGNOSIS: But in the “Name of the Lord” Is Refuge
Step 4: Initial Prognosis (Eternal Solution): Yahweh’s Promise: There Is Refuge in the Name of the Lord
Yet, judgment is not the last Word from the throne of God and judgment is not the last thing to proceed from the lips of the prophet. Even as “the day of the Lord” looms large, something promised in the “name of the Lord” looms larger: “refuge” from the wrath of God (3:12). The promise is clear: “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more” (3:15). How this can be is not said and why the Lord issues it is not explained. What is important to know is that the promise comes in the “name of the Lord.” It has God’s seal of approval on it and it is irrevocable. The Advent faith of Christians see this promise being worked out in history in the coming of Jesus—the King of Israel—to deliver his people from sin, judgment and death. Indeed, Zephaniah offers a suggestive picture of Christ the King, crucified and raised, when he says: “The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival” (3:17).
Step 5: Advanced Prognosis (Internal Solution): A Faithful Remnant Seeking Refuge
For Zephaniah, integral to his proclamation of the promise is the concern that people claim the promise. A refuge is useless unless one enters into it. A promise makes no difference until it is trusted. And that’s the challenge. Remember, Judah’s heart is held captive to the false promises of Assyria’s gods and magical arts. “It does not trust the Lord; it has not drawn near to its God” (3:2). It thinks that magical arts, not trusting in the promise of God is its refuge. Therefore, pulling hearts away from those false promises and into God’s promise is essential to the promise’s fulfillment—and that “turning of the heart” is no minor miracle. For this reason, Zephaniah’s prophecy takes on the form of a plea to faith, an exhortation to “daughter Zion” to “rejoice and exult with all [its] heart” in this promise of God (3:14). Zephaniah counts it as joy that a faithful remnant will seek refuge in the Lord’s promise.
Step 6: Final Prognosis (External Solution): Spiritual Reformers within the Chaos Zephaniah fully expects that this faithful remnant, by virtue of its faith in the promise, will make a difference in the midst of the chaos. There will be spiritual reform. Exactly what that looks like is not prescribed. Zephaniah gives no law, no blueprint, as to what it might look like. The most he says goes something like this: “They shall do no wrong and utter no lies, nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouths. Then they will pasture and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid” (3:13). What we know for sure, then, is this: true reform is founded on the promise and not the law, and that the general outward expression it evokes is song: singing for joy even in the midst of turmoil. Some scholars think that Josiah’s reform was a response to Zephaniah’s prophetic work in combination with the discovery of the book of Deuteronomy during temple reconstruction. Josiah certainly sought to rid Judah of its Assyrian bondage, politically and spiritually. You can read about it in 2 Kings 22:1—23:31. But, as the writer of 2 Kings also notes, Josiah’s reform did not last. That, however, should not surprise us. For this side of the “final reform” (that eschatological last day anticipated by Zephaniah and all the prophets), mini-reform movements by faithful remnants will come and go. That is the abiding truth in the slogan ecclesia semper reformanda est. Translated “the church (the faithful remnant) is always being reformed,” it reminds us that in every age the people of God need to be called back to faith in the promise. It reminds us that Zephaniah’s message is needed by every generation.