Commentary on Zephaniah 3:14-20
For, if it is true that the child was born of the virgin and is mine, then I have no angry God and I must know and feel that there is nothing but laughter and joy in the heart of the Father and no sadness in my heart. – Martin Luther, “Sermon on the Afternoon of Christmas Day”1
As we have been moving through Advent in preparation for the joyful celebration of the revelation of God’s love for the world in the birth of Jesus, the Old Testament lessons have resounded with the reality that it has ever been so with God’s love for Israel. Zephaniah 3:14-20 fully captures that moment of shared joy in its reclaiming and reframing the ancient tradition of the Day of the Lord. It is widely acknowledged that this tradition had existed long before the first biblical reference to it in Amos 5:18-20. Although its precise meaning is difficult to reconstruct, it is clear from Amos’ inversion of expectations that the Day of the Lord was always meant to be a day of celebration and joy. Whether that focus was on the victory of YHWH the warrior-king over the enemies of Israel, or on the acclamation of YHWH’s renewed presence in the Temple, it was a day to celebrate YHWH’s saving love for Israel.
Beginning with Amos, however, the Day of the Lord became more closely associated with the terrors of divine judgment, as the prophets warned that it would be a day of darkness, not light, an inescapable day of judgment, not salvation. What made that Day so terrifying was that God appearing would shatter human expectations, as God’s radical otherness was revealed. Zephaniah understands that divine otherness well. Throughout the book, the prophet declares a great “sweeping” as God comes to rid the land, temple, and people of all the foreign and idolatrous ways that have estranged Israel from their God (see especially Zephaniah 1:2-3).
Just as suddenly, Zephaniah 3:14-20 reverses expectations yet again. YHWH removes the judgments, vanquishes Zion’s foes, and comes once again to dwell in Zion’s midst. Zion and YHWH exult in this reconciliation. If Zion rejoices because of YHWH’s mighty acts on her behalf, YHWH rejoices over her. It is a shared joy that reverses a long and difficult history of shame and dishonor, as even the nations are summoned to sing Zion’s praise.
This unit explicitly engages with Zephaniah’s overall message of judgment in order to overturn it. For example, the pervasive emphasis on YHWH’s presence in Zion’s midst explicitly reverses the earlier emphasis on the presence of wickedness in Zion/Jerusalem (see Zephaniah 3:5, 11).2 In addition, the personification of Zion/Jerusalem as YHWH’s daughter reflects a conscious appropriation of prophetic themes from later texts like Ezekiel (chapters 16, 23), Lamentations, and Second Isaiah. Similarly the emphasis on gathering the lame and outcast (Zephaniah 3:19) reflects a post-exilic theme of gathering the scattered exiles and appears to have been developed in conversation with Micah 4:6-7. The presence of these exilic themes suggests that the book of Zephaniah was revisited and reshaped for a post-exilic audience—an audience who had survived the judgments of the previous generations but still awaited the fulfillment of YHWH’s promises of restoration.
What is distinctive about the use of these themes is that they are compressed into concise, concrete images, as if to provide fleeting glimpses of a substantially new reality. By contrast, other exilic texts develop these themes far more lyrically in order to dwell at joyful length on Zion’s restoration (see, for example, Isaiah 49:14-26; 54:1-14). Zephaniah’s ancient readers may well have been familiar with this broader tradition, and the few brief references to Zion’s restoration may have evoked a rich memory of these other texts. For modern readers and hearers who may not know these biblical traditions, Zephaniah’s compressed imagery invites us to imagine why these particular motifs were chosen to encapsulate the new reality that Zion and YHWH now share.
Take, for example, the portrayal of newly delivered daughter Zion. Julia O’Brien has noted that the motif of Jerusalem as “daughter” is often employed in the prophetic literature to emphasize both Jerusalem’s vulnerability and dependence on YHWH.3 This vulnerability has its counterpart in the portrayal of YHWH as a mighty warrior king, a motif that is also present in this unit. In response to Zion’s apparent helplessness, YHWH drops the charges against her4 (NRSV: “taken away the judgments against you”), repulses the enemy, and returns to dwell in her midst.
But it is worth noting that this rescue need not imply that Zion remains vulnerable and dependent on YHWH’s gracious deliverance. Note, for example, that she is not only freed from her enemy, she is also freed from fear. By combining the exhortation “fear not” with a physiological expression of panic, “let not your hands drop,” Zephaniah employs a concrete visual image in order to characterize Zion’s new stance. The image of dropped hands is relatively rare in the Old Testament, but it is always an indication of paralyzing fear. Interestingly, it is never used of women; when it is used of men, however, it can imply that their fear and anguish are so overwhelming they are like women in labor (see especially Jeremiah 6:24; 50:3)5 It also appears in descriptions of the inescapable Day of the Lord and is occasionally accompanied by other shameful physiological symptoms of overwhelming terror.6 The image of dropped hands almost always implies such utter despair that warriors shrink away from battle.
In the somewhat gender-bending use of the expression in connection with Zion, Zephaniah 3:16 envisions a new way of being. To be sure, Zion is strong because YHWH is present; at the same time, her strength is fully her own. Zephaniah does not appear to suggest that all evil has been vanquished from the land, or that YHWH’s return means that Jerusalem can be at ease. Rather, now strengthened by YHWH’s presence, Jerusalem need no longer find herself paralyzed by fear. To be without fear is to be ready, and able, to act.
Zephaniah gives a new glimpse into divine reality as well. Verses 17-20 continue to elaborate on God’s deliverance of Zion, first mentioned in verse 15. The Hebrew in these verses is so obscure that there is little scholarly agreement about their meaning. What is clear is that YHWH rejoices over Zion, and that it is his love for Zion that motivates his actions.
Although NRSV emends verse 17b “he will be silent in his love” to read “he will renew you in his love,” the emphasis on YHWH’s vocal expressions of joy in the surrounding lines invites a reconsideration of the original Hebrew. If YHWH is singing and rejoicing elsewhere in the verse, how does being “silent in his love” fit? If verse 15 has declared that YHWH has “removed the judgments” against Zion, keeping silence out of love for her would indicate a decisive end to judgment of any kind.7 And, since this silence is surrounded by song and rejoicing, we can conclude that this silence is not simply divine forbearance but rather full acceptance of Zion as she is. Past conflicts, past complaints, remain definitively in the past. What now bind YHWH and Israel together is joy in one another, and song.
- Martin Luther, “Sermon on the Afternoon of Christmas Day.” Luke 2:1-14. December 25, 1530. https://mail.mcm.edu/~eppleyd/Luther2.html Accessed 9/21/2021.
- Adele Berlin, Zephaniah: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 25A; New York, London: Doubleday, 1994), 143.
- Julia M. O’Brien, “Jerusalem as (Defenseless) Daughter,” pp. 125-151 in Challenging Prophetic Metaphor: Theology and Ideology in the Prophets (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).
- Compare NRSV: “The Lord has taken away the judgments from you” (Zeph 3:15). For the reading of the meaning of this line as “drop the charges,” see Berlin, Zephaniah, 142.
- See also 2 Sam 4:1; Ezra 4:4; Neh 6:9; 2 Ch 15.7.
- Ezekiel 7:17; 21:12; for these references, see Berlin, Zephaniah, 144.
- Berlin, Zephaniah, 145.