What Are We Waiting For? - Reflections on Zephaniah 3:14-20

by Dr. John Holbert on Monday, December 6, 2021

What Are We Waiting For? - Reflections on Zephaniah 3:14-20

The Peripatetic Hebrew Bible Preacher Dr. John Holbert 

          Zephaniah is counted among the “12 minor prophets” of the Hebrew Bible. However, there is nothing in this power-packed book that might be called minor. Many scholars surmise that the book was composed sometime during the early reign of Josiah, the 7th century BCE reforming king, whose tragic death at the hands of the Egyptian pharaoh, Necco, in 609BCE, lead to the increasing weakness and final collapse of Judah to the invading Babylonians in 587/586. Zephaniah’s loud assault against the moral and religious depredations of Judah and Jerusalem is a summary of similar charges that had been leveled against Israel by most of his prophetic colleagues, from Amos to Isaiah to Jeremiah. The radical reforms of Josiah, begun particularly after the discovery of the scroll of Deuteronomy in the rebuilding walls of the temple in 622BCE, might have offered Zephaniah hope for a better future for Judah, but in the bulk of his oracles, he mainly excoriates the lapses of the chosen people.

          Zeph.3:1-4 is a typical compendium of evil that the prophet attacks:

“Ah, repulsive, unredeemed, filthy city!

It has heard no voice, has taken no correction.

In YHWH it has not trusted, has not drawn near to its God.

Its princes are like roaring lions;

Its judges like night wolves, leaving nothing until morning.

Its prophets are reckless, faithless people.

Its priests have cursed the sacred, have violated Torah.”

This inclusive list of the political and religious leaders of Judah and their horrifying shortcomings suggest a wholesale belief that the city is doomed in the sight of the righteous YHWH. Its future is bleak; its survival in its present state unlikely. Princes, judges, prophets, and priests are all condemned by the prophet’s scathing words. How can there ever be reconciliation and redemption for such monstrous evil?

          Yet, in the midst of this unrestrained litany of salaciousness, Zephaniah speaks hope. The prophet enacts in his final words the very essence of the gospel of God, the announcement of hope when none appears at all likely or possible. In short, Zephaniah models for us preachers the promise of Advent; there is no death so dead that YHWH cannot discover and rekindle life within it.

          “Sing, Zion’s daughter, shout Israel!

          Rejoice and praise with all your heart, Jerusalem’s daughter!

          YHWH has removed your judgments, has repulsed your enemies.

          The monarch of Israel, YHWH is in your midst;

          You shall fear evil no more” (Zeph.3:14-15)!

          And so it is with us this Advent, 2021. COVID still rages among us, while too many US Americans concoct excuses to avoid the vaccination that can end the disease. We have failed to reckon with the racial divide that was made all too evident once again by the ongoing abuse of African-Americans at the hands of poorly trained or sometimes malevolent police, while we white people benefit from our Black citizens’ continuing losses. Our political life is a shambles, badly divided by ongoing lies and cries of “election fraud” while no evidence for such fraud exists. As always, we desperately need Advent, that time of wholly unexpected and undeserved holiness, when God comes among us, bringing salve for our weary souls, life for our bent toward death. And we preachers stand again as beacons of light in the darkness, purveyors of sweet and wonderful hope and joy that overwhelms and conquers our darkness and fear. It is that joy for which we wait for this and every Advent, and Zephaniah shows us the way.

“At that time, I will return you, when I gather you again.

I will make for you a name and a hymn among all earth’s peoples,

When I restore your fortunes right before your eyes” (Zeph.3:20).

          Surely, all that is simply too good to be true! Yet, in Advent, that is what is promised, that is what God offers, that is what the Mighty One holds out to us in the midst of our despair and profound sadness. “YHWH your God is in your midst, the saving warrior who will rejoice over you with gladness and will silence you with God’s love” (Zeph.3:17). That is what the Hebrew text actually says: God will silence you with love. No more whining and wailing! No more complaining with cries of anguish and pain. The wonderful love of God will silence all that when God appears among us again and showers us with the rain of God’s overpowering and unbreakable love. Advent is just what we need at the end of our calendar years, perhaps most especially at the end of this calendar year. After all, in the Christian calendar Advent begins the year, confronting our winding down with its empowering up, expressing its joy in the face of our ongoing sorrow and sadness. Listen to Zephaniah! Let him lead you this Advent.

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