Zephaniah 1:1 tells us that this prophecy dates from the reign of King Josiah, which would place it in the early 600s BC, and therefore before the Babylonian exile. This certainly fits with the earlier chapters of the book, which are full of dire warnings to the Israelites of the coming judgement when God the Mighty Warrior will turn on them and give them the come-uppance they so richly deserve for their opulent and profane lifestyles. But then at 3:14 there is an abrupt change of tone: suddenly the people are called to rejoice and celebrate because God has commuted their punishment, defeated their oppressors and purified their nation.
As with the book of Isaiah, which we have looked at previously in this blog, it does seem likely that the final paragraphs are later additions, the happy ending written much later towards the end of or after the judgement and purification of the exile. It would rather seem to undermine the prophet’s message of warning if he went on to tell the people that it was all going to end up fine. Neither, as history clearly tells us, was it the case that the restoration happened before the punishment, or instead of it. It was only through the experience of abandonment and punishment that Israel could learn her lesson and step back into God’s favour.
As a post-Easter reading this seems to speak to us of cheap grace. The salvation of the human race, whilst it had always been God’s plan, didn’t happen without judgement or punishment. It was only through the cross that we could be restored to our inheritance as God’s people. I have often said to different congregations, whilst talking about that greatest of post-modern virtues ‘tolerance’, that God is not tolerant; he is forgiving, and there is all the difference in the world between those two concepts.
But once we have been ransomed, healed, restored and forgiven, just look at the scenario which Zephaniah paints for us! Once the Mighty Warrior is for you rather than against you, there is no need for fear, no room for oppression, no call for dishonour or shame. When the one who was fighting against you because you were living against him starts singing songs of joy over you as a beloved daughter, you know something dramatic has happened. In the past it took a generation or more of exile: in Christ it took three days. Hallelujah – what a Saviour!
So often when we come to worship we see ourselves as in some way putting on a performance which we hope God will enjoy. This passage helps us to see things differently. In a most un-Anglican way God is seen singing, shouting, delighting, rejoicing. He may even have put his arms in the air like a good charismatic: who knows? The really good news is that we are invited to join in. He is not in the audience holding up cards with numbers on to assess our attempts at worship: he is partying with all he’s got, and inviting us to the party too.