How God Loves Us: The Sound of Salvation, Zephaniah 3:17
Zephaniah has given us something more visceral to help us understand the love of God: the sound of salvation.
As he approaches the marketplace with determination and intent, the fiery-framed prophet moves to the busiest part of town. His clothes are shoddy but colorful, muted by the bleaching sun and a year's worth of accumulated roaming. His nomadic existence is evident; his ankles show half-healed scars, the history of many unfriendly roads written in his flesh. His feet appear like overbaked bread, with crusts of street dirt and dung clinging as lichen grows on unimpressive rock. His eyes are alive like rushing waters but sunk deep in his head and hidden like a snake peering out of a hole. His hair is oily, tossed and burnt by the wind; it dances in wild staccatos with each boutade of breeze. On his chin, his beard betrays a history not yet decided; browns, blacks, and some grays are twindled in chaos like lightning from a thousand skies. His voice isn't deep but horse and high; it neither commands respect nor grants authority. He opens his arms; he screams. Like a madman, he only screams. He struggles to find words that depict the visions that flash in his mind, occupy his dreams, and press upon him with unrelenting urgency. The people near him were already looking but trying not to show it, yet now, as he screams, they stare uncomfortably. They see God's chosen with full attention, and his scream converts to a screed of speech. This is what they hear:
"I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, declares the Lord! I will sweep away man and beast, I will sweep away the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea, and the rubble with the wicked. I will cut off mankind from the face of the earth, declares the Lord! I will stretch out my hand against…" (Zeph. 1:2-4a)
The prophet keeps yelling, but most of the marketplace has returned to its business. God's chosen is not who the people would choose, so they no longer listen. Better to haggle over prices than accept the priceless words of the hag.
Zephaniah was a prophet during a reforming period of Israelite history. Having survived the terrible reign of King Manasseh, King Josiah took the throne with reform in mind (640-609 B.C.). Josiah instituted needed changes, but Zephaniah did not relent. He must have been annoying. When you have good motives and intentions to make things right, a scraggly man in the marketplace screaming that you are not doing enough and that certain death and suffering are on the way must be exasperating. Thus it is with all prophets; they are always unwelcome mouthpieces.
Zephaniah's recorded prophecy in the book that bears his name is rather short. Much of it concerns the coming Day of the Lord, a time of judgment when God will purge the world of evil and unrighteousness by establishing justice. The Day of the Lord is not just one day; in the Bible, it is a series of days of judgment that culminate in one final judgment–just like there are many "graduations" in school that lead up to one big graduation in which you earn a diploma. Zephaniah is warning the people that God does not tolerate sin and unrighteousness. And he calls them to repentance and more reform. He hopes a meditation on the end of days will motivate change in the present.
Better to haggle over prices than accept the priceless words of the hag.
Noteworthy is Zephaniah 1:14, "The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter; the mighty man cries aloud there." Please pay attention to the visceral, sensory nature of that verse. Zephaniah does something rather strange. He points us to the sound of that day. We are told what we will hear. The sound of that day will be bitter, and part of the reason will be the cries of sadness, pain, and loss accompanying it. Even the mighty man cries aloud there. What Zephaniah invites you to imagine is not what you would see but the cries you would hear on that day. This is a particularly powerful means of imagination.
Recently, I watched a documentary on North Korea. In the documentary, French tourists secretly filmed their guided tour of various pre-planned locations. One place they were taken to was a museum all North Korean children must attend on school trips. The children are in elementary school. The museum exists to show (from the North's completely false narrative) that the United States started the Korean war by invading the North (in fact, the exact opposite is the case). Inside are giant murals of American soldiers killing Koreans with pickaxes, knives, and red-hot iron rods. The soldiers also sick their dogs on helpless peasants, eating them alive. While viewing this mural, the propagandists in North Korea thought that adding a loud soundtrack of screaming, crying children on a permanent loop would be effective, so that's what they did. The murals are done in a Soviet-Stalinist style and are unimpressive, but the sound of screaming, crying children is enough to make anyone uncomfortable and crazy. Zephaniah is calling us to this same kind of imagining. It's terrifying, unsettling, and disturbing. We resist the invitation, but we shouldn't.
God will change the cries of Zephaniah 1:14 to the renewed sounds of Zephaniah 3:14.
We shouldn't because if we do, we lose a lot of the force and understanding of Zephaniah's most famous verse, which comes at the end of the book. After an extended warning of the coming Day of the Lord, Zephaniah pivots. He begins to speak of the Lord's relenting love. The Lord will not punish his people forever; he will turn back to them and restore them. Because the Jewish people lived by the law, they were punished as law-breakers. But that does not mean God will abandon them. His promise to be their God and keep them will never end. That promise is fully realized in Christ, whose people no longer live under the law but under grace. Therefore, our sins fall on Jesus (Romans 8:1); thus, there is no need for prophets like Zephaniah anymore to be sent to the nations. Instead, the Church sends missionaries (witnesses) into the nations to tell about the coming judgment and grace of God that comes through Jesus. But Jesus has not yet come when Zephaniah is writing. So, the news of God's mercy is surprising. Live by the law, and be judged by the law; live by the sword, die by the sword, an eye for an eye—these were the simple transactional ethics of the day. But God will not wipe out his people. He will not let their sin have the last word.
God will relent of his punishment towards his law-breaking children because he loves them and will redeem them through the work of the Messiah. Zephaniah speaks to this reality at the book's end, and there he layers all kinds of sounds for us to imagine. In 3:9, he says, "for at that time I will change the speech of the people to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord." In 3:14, he uses words like, "sing aloud!", "shout!", "rejoice!", and "exult!"
God will change the cries of Zephaniah 1:14 to the renewed sounds of Zephaniah 3:14.
And that brings us to Zephaniah's most famous and beautiful verse, 3:17: "The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will quiet you with his love; he will exalt over you with loud singing." Everything of the former condemnation is now reversed. God, who was far away and coming in wrath, with sin distancing him from his people, is now so near that he is in our midst. The mighty one who wrought destruction is now the mighty one who will save. And now Zephaniah invites us to listen to the sounds of God. These are meant to replace the sounds read earlier. God will rejoice over us who he has redeemed. The mighty man, who previously was brought low by his cries, is now soothed and quieted. "Be still and know that I am God" (Ps. 46:10) becomes an actual state of affairs in this passage. The longing, the desires, the hope for better, and the fear accompanying loss are all gone. There isn't even a prayer here, the chatty cry for help. No, there is only peace that is represented in silence—that is, our silence, because God is not silent.God is rejoicing and singing over us loudly. Can you hear it? The loud cries of the people in their sadness have been met and overcome by the louder singing of God. Zephaniah ends the book with a picture of a carnival with all its merry sounds and colorful motions. So often, we think of the love of God as an emotion, and, of course, it is not less than that. But Zephaniah has given us something more visceral to help us understand the love of God: the sound of salvation. It is in the imagination of what we will hear that we receive a glimpse of God's love in Christ. Thus, we can respond by "singing a new song to the Lord" (Ps. 96:1-2). And when we cry our own tears, they are not wasted. For God hears us, and he reminds us that we are loved. And now you can see that he also invites us to know those tears will be renewed. They will water the soil of God's coming newness; they will be met and overcome in the loud singing of God's own voice. A song for you, a song of love, a song that dries tears, silences cries, and sets us off into the festival of God's celebration. The prophet may look untrustworthy and crazy, but the sounds by which he fills our imagination are the sounds of salvation that ring with Good News, love, and promise.