Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.
This week we have another Easter-tide celebration of the victory of God, this time from around 700 BC, wedged in between the ministries of Isaiah of Jerusalem and Jeremiah. Whilst the book itself tells us that it is set in the reign of king Josiah, and is therefore a dire warning not just of exile but even of the possibility of utter annihilation for Israel, our passage is markedly different in tone, leading scholars to suggest that it might be a later, post-exilic addition to the book, celebrating (as does Deutero-Isaiah) the fact that punishment is over, sentence has been commuted and the people are free.
But there is a subtle change of tone from that of Deutero-Isaiah. Zephaniah does talk about forgiveness and restoration, but he talks much more about the victory of God over oppressive enemies. God, the king of Israel, the mighty warrior, has triumphed, and has rescued his battered and wounded people from all those who would hurt and harm them. The setting of the passage in the Easter season by our lectionaryists (I just made that word up) gives the cross and resurrection a much more Johannine feel. For John the victory comes on the cross, and not on Easter Sunday morning. The cross is not a temporary triumph for human evil, which God has to undo by raising Christ from death (cf the frequent use of the term ‘but God’ by Luke in the Acts speeches). John’s Christ is not a sacrificial victim slain to atone for sins. He is the true king being crowned not after the cross and in spite of it, but on it. His cry ‘It is accomplished!’ says that it is all over, done and finished with.
Zephaniah’s words of comfort to the exiles have this same kind of ring about them. Their need is less forgiveness and restoration than rescue. God comes not like a shepherd to regather his wandering lambs, but like a warrior to save them from the marauding wolves. The reign of God is less about forgiving sin than about defeating the Enemy behind it.
But Zephaniah takes it even further than this. In the one purple passage from this book, in 3:17, a text well loved by charismatics, God the mighty warrior is seen rejoicing and singing over his people. Considering the number of biblical passages about us singing to God, this comes as a fascinating reversal and a beautiful truth about the feel of our salvation, as opposed to a forensic account of how it works. In a famous passage in his 1990 book The Forgotten Father Tom Smail describes a rather grudging and grumpy acceptance of the returned prodigal son who is allowed back into the family home but only just, and must now carry on all interactions through his brother, as no personal contact is allowed with the father directly. Zephaniah neatly gives the lie to this approach, which I have found is surprisingly common among Christians who kind of know that they are forgiven but somehow can’t seem to manage to believe that God actually likes them in any way. Zephaniah tells us that God delights in us, and some of us need to hear that.