Monday, April 21, 2008

Rejoice Over Me With Singing (Zephaniah 1-3)

Back in the days of my High School youth group, there was a praise song we used to sing called “Zephaniah 3:17”. The chorus (adopted from that passage) implored the Lord to “quiet me with your holy love, and rejoice over me with singing.” It was a cheesy but sweet song, especially when sung with dozens of young people around a campfire with a lone acoustic guitar leading the way – sort of an evangelical Christian “let it be”.

Though I mean no disrespect for campfire praise songs (which have probably done my soul more good than I know), I can’t imagine that this was really the tone the prophet Zephaniah had in mind.

The book of Zephaniah opens with this:
“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.
Here God is bringing back the imagery of the Flood in Genesis. I really can’t get over the horror of that story. Many today dismiss it as a wrathful and unjust picture of God, but this misses the real tragedy – that man has made himself a cancer on creation that it warrants the destruction of the entire project.

Only here God is talking specifically about Judah:
I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and I will cut off from this place the remnant of Baal and the name of the idolatrous priests along with the priests, those who bow down on the roofs
to the host of the heavens, those who bow down and swear to the Lord and yet swear by Milcom, those who have turned back from following the Lord, who do not seek the Lord or inquire of him.
Zephaniah goes on to talk about the terrible the day of the Lord. The judgment will come on Judah, and upon all the surrounding nations. Egypt, Assyria, Moab, and the land of the Philistines will all be swept away by his fierce anger:
In the fire of his jealousy,
all the earth shall be consumed;
for a full and sudden end
he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.
I think this is a perfect example of the pitfalls of reading the Bible with either wooden literalism or dismissive allegorization. Clearly the Babylonian scourge didn’t actually wipe out all the inhabitants of the Earth. Clearly the birds, fish, beasts, and people lived to see another day. But it is every bit as clear that a cheap spiritualization does violence to the text. Like in the Genesis story itself, you miss the point if you see these events in anything less than cosmic terms.

The exile of Israel isn’t just something that feels like the end of the world – it really is the end of the world. Israel is man’s representative and the platform for the world’s redemption. If the light of the world is darkness, then the darkness is great indeed!

It is here, at the end of all things, while peering into the abyss, that we hear the words which inspired the praise song:
Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter of Jerusalem!

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.

At that time I will bring you in,
at the time when I gather you together;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes.
Though their evil is such as to render the goodness of creation forfeit, there is no pit so deep that Israel’s God is not deeper still. There are no lengths to which he will not go to save them. Though they see the world crashing down around them for their faithlessness to God, it is God’s faithfulness to man that will be the final word.

However, unlike the sentimentality of the praise song, this salvation isn’t something that can be focused on apart from the terrifying judgment of God. As we saw with some frustration earlier, Josiah’s reforms were not enough to stay his anger. On the contrary: the salvation of God is found in enduring the curse for the joy set before them.

I find some of these prophets a hard slog - this one in particular. Thanks for making something I've always found crushingly boring and gloomy a little more like poetry.

Not that I want to be dismissively allegorical but I was mentioning to another blogger today attending a seminar for families of patients in the Eating Disorder Unit. The anxiety and grief in that room were like a wave threatening to drown us all. This is primarily a disease of the affluent and successful - how terrified were these mothers and fathers who had always been able to buy or network their way out of problems.

17I will bring distress on the people
and they will walk like blind men,
because they have sinned against the LORD.
Their blood will be poured out like dust
and their entrails like filth.

18 Neither their silver nor their gold
will be able to save them
on the day of the LORD's wrath.

This disease is one that pounds away at all your secrets and lies and pretences, until the whole edifice upon which you have built your life is left in rubble. Our comfortable lives become an idolatrous veneer for the lies on which they are built. You can either be destroyed or build up with the truth. It made me think how passages like this, while also referring to a specific time and place, can also be an allegory to our individual struggles. How in order to start again everything that is false and twisted has to be swept away. Through suffering we are healed.

"the salvation of God is found in enduring the curse for the joy set before them."

I would love to hear more. What do you mean?

Hi Mr. Annonymous,

I wrote a little more on this here, though in a way nearly every post has some of this theme in it. The two posts before this had a lot to say about it as well. I think it's one of the most important in the Bible - those who attempt to escape the curse only bring disaster upon themselves, but those who willingly submit to it find that the curse itself is exploited for blessing.

Man isn't given eternal life by escaping death - but rather, by obediently enduring death he is raised to life. Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Christ's sake will find it.

By the way, you should really leave some sort of fake name, so that I know I'm talking to the same person. ;-)

I agree, you did a great job putting into poetry something to sing that could be considered dreadfully morbid and boring :-)

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