The sign of the Lord’s humble people: Zephanaiah 3

Zephaniah begins the end of the Book of the XII, so the eschatological themes in Zephaniah take on greater importance.  Up to this point in the Minor Prophets, we saw a cycle of destruction.  Then, in the last book, Habakkuk questioned why the Lord would allow such a cycle.  The Lord answered him there briefly, but the rest of the answer begins with Zephaniah.  In chapter 1 of Zephaniah, the Lord spoke of bringing down everything, but saving a few through grace; chapter 2 described gathering the eschatological people of the Lord.  Here, chapter 3, the prophet described the final triumph of his humble people.  Overall, Zephaniah paints the portrait of his people in the end times.

Here in chapter 3, we read how some people never learned their lesson: they remained proud even after being chastised. When the Lord comes to judge, the humble ones of every nation will submit to the Lord. The Lord will remove the proud from Jerusalem, which will become the capitol of his people, the humble ones. Their very punishment and shame will become their pride—by being humbled they will be exalted.

Consequences of rejecting the Lord

In the beginning of this chapter, in verses 1-5, the prophet described the actions and attitudes that resulted in the city from their rejection of the Lord.  He calls the city יונה yonah (v. 1).  This word can be a verb, “wrong (someone)” (eg, Ezekiel 18:7).  The RSV and JPS translated according to this meaning.  It can mean “pigeon” or “dove” (as the Septuagint read it), which the biblical writers associate with mourning or despair (eg, Ezekiel 7:16; Hosea 7:11; 11:11).  Finally, it is the name of the prophet who directly rejected the Lord, Jonah.  In a time of mourning, the city rejected the Lord (v. 2), like Jonah, and found herself in horrible despair.

The city left the Lord, as we saw in ch. 1; only the humble will become the Lord’s people (ch. 2), so here we read the alternative as the city’s leaders use their power in corrupt ways.  Power made the officials hungry without limit, like lions and wolves (v. 3), and the prophets, who are called to be faithful to the Lord’s word, were rebellious, and the priests, who are to teach holiness, instead profaned the holy (v. 4).  The Lord, however, stood as the righteous one in the midst of the city, highlighting the wrongdoing and injustice of the city (v. 5).

Destruction is the sign to the people

Even though the Lord destroyed nations and great cities to teach the people his control over all powers, the people still did not learn (vv. 6-7).  The cities that represented such power became empty (v. 6).  The Lord said, “Indeed you will fear me!”  In Hebrew, though, the word for “me” can also be read as “my sign,” so we can translate, “Indeed you will fear my sign.”  For the people the Lord taught about himself through the sign of destruction that he showed them.  Nevertheless, they ignored the lesson and continued in their disobedient, unenlightened ways (v. 7).

On the last day, the final sign by destruction will arise and individuals from all the nations will come to praise the Lord (vv. 8-10).  On the day of judgement, the Lord will arise as a “witness,” though this word, with a different vowel, could also be read as “forever.”  So the Lord will arise “as a witness” or the Lord will arise “forever”; in either case the Lord’s sign of destruction will stand forever.  Once the nations are purified by fire, their mouths will speak only the pure speech of the praise of the Lord (vv. 8-9).  Those from beyond the known world, beyond Cush, will come to worship the Lord and be spared destruction from the Lord’s fire by his grace (v. 10).

Hence, the remnant of Israel, from ch. 2, who will dwell in the Lord’s city, will also dwell with the righteous of all nations (vv. 11-13).  When no more proud people remain in the city, only the humble will be found there.  As we saw in Nahum, the Lord is the shelter from the storm of the Lord where the humble find refuge.  The remaining members of the city–the remnant–will act and speak with humility.  As pride is banished, so the city’s shame goes.

Joy and an end to fear

As the Lord demonstrated that he is the master over every earthly power, once he declares his people innocent, they do not need to fear anything more (vv. 14-20).  He commanded them to rejoice (v. 14).  The Lord turned away the judgement against the people, so he had no more basis for bringing evil upon them again (v. 15).  They did not need to be afraid because the Lord is the supreme warrior and their ultimate ally and savior.  Their enemies will be destroyed, as well (vv. 16-17).

The Lord will transform the weak and humble of the people (vv. 18-20).  Those who humbled them he will remove (v. 18), and then he will make the humble into praise and renown (literally, “a name”) (v. 19).  The Lord will make his final point or “sign” by gathering these humble, lame, defeated individuals of all nations into a single people, in his holy city.  The sign will display the Lord’s strength in two ways: his abilities to destroy the strength of the most powerful of the world and to make a people out of those who had no power.  He will make you into a sign, O humble people!

Learn from the sign and you will be a sign

Once the people departed from the Lord, their wickedness and rebellion mushroomed.  Consequently, the Lord destroyed them; yet the people did not learn.  At the same time, people from the other nations came to learn from this sign, this teaching, from the Lord.  These ones learned humility from the Lord who is the master of all.  In the end, the humble who recognize the Lord’s sovereignty will flock to the Lord’s city, where he will protect and save them.  The people of humility, whom he commanded to gather in ch. 2, will remain in the shelter of their savior, the Lord.

The cycle is coming to an end where nation A oppresses B, the Lord puts down nation B, and then nation A becomes the oppressor, and the Lord puts down nation A.  He has to find the nation who will learn the lesson and refuse to become the oppressor through humility.  Habakkuk, the prophet previous to this book, questioned the meaning of the cycle of destruction, but finally gained the humility that allowed him to decode the Lord’s teaching.  In the book of Zephaniah, the Lord is looking for those who follow in Habakkuk’s footsteps and will comprise his eschatological people.

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