The Old Testament lesson for this Sunday is from the Book of the Twelve, the prophetic work of Zephaniah. The text is Zephaniah 3:14-20 which serves as the conclusion of Zephaniah’s writing. While the details we have on this prophet are sketchy it seems he may have been a resident of Jerusalem as he provides intimate details of the city in his prophecies. In fact, Zephaniah may have been related to King Josiah who was reigning during his time of prophesying. Josiah was a good and faithful king and Zephaniah seems to be at work during the time of Josiah’s reforms—a reformation if you will—proclaiming the “Day of the LORD” is near.
The first part of our pericope (verses 14-17) is a departure, at least in terms of the speaker, from what proceeds and what follows. The verses which come before our pericope are being spoken by/proclaimed by the LORD and the same is true for verses 18-20. Verses 14-17, however, are the words of Zephaniah himself. His message is one of rejoicing, exultation, and joy. The beginning language is quite similar to Zechariah 9:9 which is also found in the gospel texts of Matthew 21:4-9, Mark 11:7-10, Luke 19:35-38, and especially John 12:15. These are all accounts of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. This is obviously great cause for rejoicing and exultation.
Zephaniah tells us the cause of rejoicing is the removal of the enemy and its judgements (sin), because now the LORD is in your midst. As with Yom Kippur, the city must be cleansed for God to dwell with His people in their place. The difficulty is sinners cannot remove sin because they are sinners—a Catch-22! In the Old Testament the High Priest must make this sin removal a reality with the sacrificial goat and the sin-bearer goat. In truth, the High Priest is only standing in the place of Christ, the last and greatest High Priest (read Hebrews!). In the New Testament, the INCARNATION and the One who will fulfill the role of both goats is required for the sin of the people to be removed so the Holy One might dwell in their midst.
The last three verses (18-20) are delivered in the voice of the LORD God who speaks of the restoration of His people. The restoration of Israel itself is but a picture of the restoration of the whole world accomplished by the all-availing sacrifice of the Christ.
The restoration of Israel itself is but a picture of the restoration of the whole world accomplished by the all-availing sacrifice of the Christ.
3:14 רָנִּי root: רנן Qal imperative: “to sing out; rejoice; give a ringing cry out”
הָרִיעוּ root: רוע Hiphil imperative: “to cheer; rejoice; shout in triumph”
שִׂמְחִי root: שׂמחִ Qal imperative: “to rejoice; exult”
וְעָלְזִי root: עלז Qal imperative: “to exult; triumph”
Note the string of four imperatives, all similar in meaning and tone.
3:15 הֵסִיר root: סור Hiphil: “to remove; to put away” Note the causative sense: “The LORD has caused your judgements to be removed”
פִּנָּה root: פנה Piel: “to remove; empty; clear away”
Enemies and judgements can be equated with sin, and, as the causative verb notes, only the LORD can remove/put away sin. When sin, enemies and judgements are cleared away there is no more fear.
3:16 אַל-תִּירָאִי root: ירא Qal imperative: “to fear” “Fear not!”
אַל-יִרְפּוּ; root: רפה Qal: “to grow slack; drop; sink”
3:17 יָשִׂישׂ root: שׂושׂ שׂישׂ Qal: “to exult; rejoice; show joy”
בְּשִׂמְחָה. “with joy; with gladness”
יַחֲרִישׁ: root: חרשׁ Hiphil: “to keep silent; to be silent; be quiet”
יָגִיל root: גיל Qal: “to rejoice; to shout in exultation”
בְּרִנָּה. “cry of jubilation; loud singing” Note the change of voice: Now we hear the LORD speak.
3:18 נוּגֵי root: ינה Niphal: “to mourn; to be grieved; to be worried”
אָסַפְתִּי root: אסף Qal: “to gather; bring together”
מַשְׂאֵת “tribute; present; burden” The idea appears to be that this “tribute” is a required payment made by those under the authority of foreign powers.
חֶרְפָּה, “disgrace; shame; reproach; scorn; taunting” The meaning of this Hebrew word is a bit unclear.
3:19 מְעַנַּיִךְ. root: ענה Piel participle with a verbal suffix: “to oppress; to afflict” “your oppressors”
הַצֹּלֵעָה root: צלע Qal participle: “to be lame: to limp” “the lame one; the lame”
וְהַנִּדָּחָה root: נדח Niphal participle: “to be scattered; to be banished; to be cast out” ”the outcast; the banished one”
לִתְהִלָּה from: תהִלּה “glory; praise; fame”
3:20 שְׁבוּתֵיכֶם. from: שׁבוּת “captivity; imprisoned for debt” Again, this Hebrew word is unclear.
Waiting is not easy, but after waiting a long time, one would at least expect us to be ready when the time came.
There are several ways one might go in preparing to preach this text. This is the season of Advent, therefore, I chose to focus on the “waiting” aspect in my sermon. I include the beginning of that sermon below.
Sometime ago, I was waiting in line at my bank. One thing about waiting in line—you are never alone! Unfortunately, you seldom have the choice as to whom you are waiting with. As I stood in line waiting, the woman ahead of me was beside herself. She had waited too long... according to her schedule! She fidgeted, cranking her head from one side to the other, searching for more tellers to get the show on the road. She almost demanded the loan officer become a teller. In fact, any warm body connected to the bank would do. I shudder to think what would have happened if the janitor had wandered by. The woman was all over the place and I was given the responsibility of holding her place in line. I did not mind, it got her away from me! Finally, her turn came. She grumbled and complained all the way to the counter—and, lo and behold, she was not ready! She had neglected to fill out her deposit slip. She had not endorsed her check. She did not even know how she wanted her funds directed. The teller would have made Saint Teresa proud—my thoughts would have made her blush. All that time, all that waiting, and she was not ready!
Waiting is not easy, but after waiting a long time, one would at least expect us to be ready when the time came. So, Zephaniah the prophet, after having pronounced judgment and exile for the people of Judah and the city of Jerusalem, and after having pronounced judgment upon the enemies of Judah, and after having predicted the conversion of the Gentiles, he proclaims restoration and joy for the people of Judah. He says, “On that day... at that time.” But what day? What time? In true prophet fashion Zephaniah does not fill in the blanks.
Even though the people will go into exile and the city and Temple will lie in ruins as the people groan under the burden of the Babylonians, Zephaniah says, “On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. 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 by His love; He will exult over you with loud singing.” On that day... so, they wait for that day.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Zephaniah 3:14-20.
Text Week-Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Zephaniah 3:14-20.
Lectionary Podcast- Prof. Ryan Tietz of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Zephaniah 3:14-20.