Commentary on Zephaniah 3:14-20
This reading from Zephaniah is marked by hope, rejoicing, and reprieve, but it comes from the end of a three-chapter book in which the first two chapters consist of horrific warnings.
Zephaniah prophesied early in the 7th century BCE, about 50 years after Isaiah and before Jeremiah.1 The rulers previous to Zephaniah’s time had generated unjust social and political policies, leaving Judah in great need of a prophet who would call the people to make changes.
Zephaniah blares out judgment against worship of false gods, rulers who act like foreigners, violence, fraud, complacency, and the faithless assumption that YHWH is powerless. Image after image builds up a portrait of the destruction that will come on the Day of the Lord: “the people… shall walk like the blind… their blood shall be poured out like dust… the whole earth shall be consumed…” (1:17-18).
Although reading the entire book does not take a long time, it will take you a vast distance into the possibility of utter annihilation. What humans have done in choosing infidelity to YHWH’s steadfastness will result in Earth itself being punished.2 All of creation will be obliterated on the Day of the Lord. This is not a new idea in scripture. We first hear of this day of power in Isaiah 2 and Amos 5 when “a day of clouds and thick darkness” is to come, accompanied by God the warrior who will make things right again. Because this is the third Sunday of Advent, Zephaniah’s words lay down a perspective in which to appropriately receive the savior.
This Sunday — ¾ of the way through Advent — begins to prepare us for rejoicing by promising the end of judgment. The Day of the Lord is coming. It is a festival day. The babe in the manger (who is naturally on our minds) is radiant. The cattle are lowing. Mary and Joseph care for their son. Zephaniah’s prophecy is as comforting as the smell of hay. Speaking directly to the people, YWHW says, “I will renew… will exult over you… will remove disaster from you… will deal with all your oppressors… will change shame into praise… will bring you home… make you renowned and praised… restore your fortunes…” (Zephaniah 3:17-20). This is certainly gospel news.
But we are not allowed to assume that this coming is all sweetness and light. Zephaniah’s announcement of the Lord’s resolve to save the people carries line-by-line descriptions of why this renewal is necessary. The promise rests on the need for rescue. The flip side of the joy that is to happen on the Day of the Lord is present as each phrase of promise is coupled with the negative it implies, reminding the hearer that disaster has come as reproach for failings, oppression exists, the lame and the outcast suffer alone, shame needs to be changed into praise, an in-gathering is required because the people are scattered and fortunes have been taken away. This is an accounting of the inevitable inability of human life to follow the commands of the Lord. This is an accurate depiction of our need for God. Law is not just command but reality.
The Day of the Lord is not simply one thing. “Yahweh’s ‘Day’ was/ is/ will be so fearful/ wonderful, so hideous/ beautiful, so warlike/ peaceful that attempts to place either its origin or its exact chronological development into a historical box seem doomed from the outset.”3 It is a day perfectly suited to the complexity of Advent itself. Ultimately, the Day of the Lord promises that disapproval will be revoked, the bad guys will get theirs, the wounded will be cared for, everybody will go home, and the marks of stability will be set in place.
The reading from Luke sharpens the meaning of this renewal. John the Baptist rebukes the crowds for their presumptions, sternly asserting that God’s power is not restricted to those who assume their lineage saves them; God “is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” (Luke 3:8) John charges the people to bear good fruit, focusing on relationships between to all people. Regarding the poor, he says share what you have. To the wealthy, he says do not cheat others. To those in power, he demands the just use of influence.
Just so, Zephaniah announces that the condemnations pounded out in chapters 1-2 are not the last word. The prophet declares that despite the fact that nations have been laid waste and corruption has continued, “my decision is to gather nations, to assemble kingdoms, to pour out upon them my indignation…” (3:8) so that “all of them may call on the name of the Lord” (3:9). And from that point on, Zephaniah’s words are the joy that we hear first in today’s reading: “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion… the Lord has taken away the judgments against you.” (3:14-15)
One missing piece in Zephaniah’s move from denunciation to rejoicing is the people’s orientation. Have they repented? We do not know. The book is a compilation of texts neither definitely attributable to only one prophet nor organized as a whole. The removal of judgment (3:15) is, however, proclaimed. Nothing in Zephaniah indicates repentance, yet “true repentance bows in helpless submission in the face of this great forgiveness.”4 Perhaps the gift of Zephaniah is the utterly unmerited release that comes like the Day of the Lord without warning and is yet complete.
1 Jose D. Rodriguez, “From Memory to Faithful Witness: The Power and Ambiguities of Religious Narratives (Zephaniah 1:7,12-18),” in Currents in Theology and Mission 35:4 (Aug 2008), 264.
2 Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 173, 265, 344 n. 59.
3 Michael S. Moore, “Yahweh’s day,” in Restoration Quarterly 29:4 (1987), 208.
4 Andrew H. Bartelt, “Third Sunday in Advent,” in Concordia Journal 11:6 (Nov 1985), 227.