< November 19, 2017 >

Commentary on Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18

 

In Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18, the audience is jarred out of its familiar ritual commemoration of the Day of the Lord to find itself in the far more destabilizing reality of God’s actual presence.

As in the announcement of the Day of the Lord in Amos 5:18-20, human expectations are overturned: this will not be a day of rejoicing (Zephaniah 1:8-11), but a day of deep anguish (1:14). We might concede that this is no capricious outburst of divine anger but a response to human sin (1:17). Even so, as enlightened moderns schooled to expect divine mercy and at least some measure of proportionality, we find ourselves asking what kind of sin could have led to so great a judgment.

Perhaps the problem begins in the very act of commemorating the saving work of God in human ritual. Ancient Israelite worship presupposed a correspondence between the microcosm of the Temple as a symbolic representation of creation and the great cosmic reality of creation itself.1 Within the microcosm of the Temple, ritual actualized God’s mighty acts of past salvation for the present participants. In effect, God became present through the ritual itself.

Herein lies the problem: Just how do human beings celebrate, in ritual, the sovereign freedom and majesty of a God who creates and delivers, judges and destroys? More specifically, how do the participants really know where they stand with God? This text addresses that question by interweaving traditional ritual elements with an announcement of judgment. The adaptation of these ritual elements in Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 has the effect of moving the readers back and forth between the relatively safe space of the microcosm and the larger cosmos, where human failure to live out their ritual affirmations is exposed to the harsh light of divine judgment.

Two ritual elements evoke the microcosm of ritual space. First, the unit opens with an onomatopoetic interjection comparable to the English “Hush!” (Zephaniah 1:7; New Revised Standard Version “silence!”). In other texts associated with the temple, this command to silence functions as a ritual summons, and it is often accompanied by the declaration that God is present for the proceedings (see also Habakkuk 2:20; Zechariah 2:13; Amos 8:3). The second ritual element is the stately, almost hymnic description of the Day of the Lord in Zephaniah 1:14-16. The unit’s repetition of the word “day,” along with its relatively generic description of warriors and battlements, suggests that this was a set piece designed to commemorate God’s archetypal victory against his enemies.

The ritual begins with the call to silence and the announcement of the coming Day of the Lord. Very quickly, however, it becomes evident that the ritual is no longer under the control of human functionaries. The Lord is not only present in his temple, he has also prepared the sacrifice and sanctified the invited guests. Just as suddenly, it becomes clear that the inhabitants of Jerusalem are not the invited guests but the enemies God sets out to destroy (see also Zephaniah 1:8-11).

In Zephaniah 1:12, God breaks out of the ritually enclosed expectations of salvation. Taking up a lamp, YHWH searches Jerusalem, seeking out all those who “thicken on their dregs,” and who declare that God will do neither good nor evil. The New Revised Standard Version’s translation of the verb qapha?, “thicken,” as “rest complacently,” implies that the people are in a kind of drunken stupor, lingering over the “dregs” of their wine. But in the metaphor, the people are the wine, and the verb refers to the wine’s maturation and eventual deterioration.2 J. J. M. Roberts conveys this meaning, characterizing the people as those who, “like well aged wine, long undisturbed in their tranquility,” give no thought to how they had acquired their wealth, or to God’s role in their well-being.3

More likely, the “wine” has already gone bad. In the same way that God the vinedresser had expected good grapes for all his efforts in Isaiah 5:1-5, God the vintner now searches in the dark corners of the stores to determine how well the wine is “thickening” or maturing. But, in the same way that Amos’s basket of summer fruit (qayitz), has already reached its “end,” (qetz, Amos 8:1-2), the intended greatness of the inhabitants of Jerusalem has already turned sour.

In the parable of the vineyard in Isaiah, God had expected his vineyard to yield the fruits of justice and righteousness, and commentators often suggest that a similar expectation is expressed here in Zephaniah. Because of the people’s arrogance in their self-made wealth, all of it will be stripped away (1:13, 17-18). But Zephaniah identifies a more fundamental sin, since the people are not explicitly condemned for unjust economic practices but for what they believe to be true about God: “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm” (Zephaniah 1:12b). Such a statement flies in the face of what is true about their own identities as the good wine of this vintner; worse, it sharply contradicts what they affirm in worship about the power and sovereignty of God. The punishment is therefore utterly proportional.

Denying that their strength comes from God, their strength is the first to go (Zephaniah 1:13; contrast New Revised Standard Version: “their treasure). Failing to see the work of God in their lives, they are struck with blindness (1:17). Choosing their own reality over the reality they profess in worship, they find themselves utterly cut off from the very ground of their existence, and are ground back into the dust from which they were created.


Notes

1. For this understanding of the relationship between the microcosm of ritual and cosmic reality, see Michael Floyd, Minor Prophets, Part 2 (FOTL XXII; Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000), 170.

2. Floyd, 198.

3. J. M. Roberts, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah: A Commentary (Old Testament Library; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991), 180-181.