Unit: Minor Prophets (Nahum, Zephaniah, Habakkuk)
Theme: Justice Will Come
Lesson Text: Zephaniah 3:9-20
Supplemental Text: Romans 8:1-2; Psalm 28:6-9
Aim: Be glad and rejoice because the Lord has taken away the punishment we justly deserve.
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By Mark Scott
A theological dilemma in the biblical story is this: How can God punish sin (and thereby stay true to his promise and character) and yet absolve the sinner? The answer is that he had to act on people’s behalf when they could not act on their own. God himself had to become the one who is just and the justifier of those who put their faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26). The result of this salvific act was release from condemnation (Romans 8:1-2).
Were it not for God justifying people, the book of Zephaniah would be terribly negative. Without this closing section, this prophetic work would be entirely doom and gloom. The good news is that God will justify (i.e., make right) the nations as well as Israel. Because of whom God is and what he did, punishment can be removed. So, what do justified people look like?
They Look Humble
Our lesson text starts with the word Then (v. 9). It is a big word. After God announces all his judgments, then he steps in to cleanse those who call on his name. He will clean up the profane speech of the nations so they might call out to God to save them. They will be united in this (serve shoulder to shoulder). As far away as the rivers of Cush (the upper Nile in the land of Sudan and Ethiopia), people will come to find God.
God will remove the boasters (those who swell with self-importance) and the haughty (exalted or high ones). Jerusalem is the holy hill on which this will take place. Indeed, the cross is a death blow to pride (1 Corinthians 1:22-25). In place of the formerly proud, God will leave the meek and humble (poor and needy). These people, having experienced justification, will have clean speech (since what comes out of our mouths reveals who we really are) and peace and safety (eat and lie down and no one will make them afraid).
They Look Glad
Justified people have a song in their hearts and a skip in their steps. The prophet challenges the people to sing and rejoice (shout for joy). They sing because God will take away their punishment (i.e., mispat, the judgments against them). And he also will turn back their enemy. Zephaniah foresees a time when Assyria and Babylon will no longer bother Israel.
Fear will be cast aside. No longer will hands hang limp (a sign of defeat and despair). God will save. God will act as a Mighty Warrior (valiant or strong). These will be things to sing about. But Israel will not be the only one singing. God himself will sing. Verse 17 puts it beautifully: “[God] will take great delight in you.” By virtue of his justification, God will choose to no longer rebuke them. And perhaps best of all, he will rejoice over them with singing. Like a mother singing sweet lullabies over her child, so the Lord will sing over his justified people. (Can you hear it? “He has made me glad; he has made me glad; I will rejoice because he has made me glad.”)
They Look Hopeful
Zephaniah looks toward the future when Israel will go home. Many evangelical scholars believe this refers to literal Israel returning to their homeland in the special millennial reign of Jesus from Jerusalem. Other scholars believe its primary reference is to the return of the exiles from Assyrian and Babylonian captivity before the initial coming of Christ. Still others spiritualize the text and suggest that home simply means being forgiven.
To whichever one it refers, we are told that God will take away any mourning concerning the loss of the Jewish festivals. Those festivals were not just celebrations of the people’s faith but also the means of being justified before a holy God. If their festivals are taken away, it must mean there is a new means of justification (Romans 3:21-26; the whole book of Hebrews). During this special time, after the Messiah’s coming, God will rescue the lame and gather the exiles. He will give them praise and honor, he will gather them together, and he will bring them home.
God’s people, Jews and Gentiles, will then become the envy of the whole earth. God will restore their fortunes (literally from their captivity). For the Jew, “going home” means to the land of Israel. For the Gentile, it means to the church (i.e., being included in the chosen people of God). For the Christian, it means going home to God to the land where there is no more night (Hebrews 4:9-10; Revelation 22:5).