Commentary: Zephaniah 3:14-20
The prophet opens his book by tracing his ancestry (1:1). His familiarity with court circles and great knowledge of Jerusalem have suggested to some that he was of the royal line. His message is delivered during the reign of Josiah (640-609 B.C.), but probably occurred before his reforms. He apparently knew the work of Amos and Isaiah and was a contemporary of Jeremiah and Nahum.
The main theme of the work is the coming day of the Lord which announces God's judgment on Judah. The book includes oracles against Judah (1:4-13), Philistia (2:4-11), Cush (2:12) and Assyria (2:13-15). In a politically troubled world, the prophet sees the fate of nations in God's hands.
The lectionary text exhibits a reversal of the prevailing mood of the book as a whole. It closes with a promise of restoration and God's mercy. As a result of this abrupt change, many scholars hold the passage or parts of it to be a later addition. At several points, the manuscript evidence is corrupt, so readings in English translations vary widely.
V. 14 The text opens with a personification of Jerusalem and its inhabitants that reminds the reader of the Zion songs or enthronement songs of the Psalms. Israel is enjoined to sing, rejoice, and exhalt. (See Zech 9:9)
V. 15 Here the reason for the rejoicing of the previous verse is given. God has provided both spiritual and political deliverance. God has taken away punishment and has turned back the enemy (understood as those against Israel). Note that the help is defensive rather than offensive since it fundamentally consists of God's presence "with them."
V. 16 The instruction "fear not" usually accompanies assurances of God's presence to save. Recall how frequently Mark's Jesus tells his companions not to fear. Weak hands or limp hands are an image of dis couragement which is inappropriate in light of God's saving presence.
V. 17 The implication at the outset is that the worst punishment was God's absence. Note the two images of God in the verse. God is a warrior (cf. Ex 15:3) and God is a lover (cf. Hos). This might provide the beginning point of the sermon. The text of 17b is corrupt, but the idea is that of a lover who does not know whether to sing or be silent.
V. 18 Again, the text is corrupt, and in the Hebrew v. 18 does not connect v. 17. For the feasts see Leviticus 23.
Verses 19 and 20 sound like Isaiah 56-66. Certainly the elements of post-exilic eschatology are here: 1) a destroyed enemy; 2) a gathering of exiles; 3) a return to their own land.
V. 19 "At that time" would be the Day of the Lord spoken of earlier in the book. The broken, incomplete, and scattered will be restored and returned. Exiled Israel will be returned to its homeland and will be restored in the eyes of the world.
V. 20 The praise and honor granted to Israel fulfills the promise to the Patriarchs. (Gen 12:2-3)1
Bonnie Bowman Thurston
1. Repeated ideas in the passage around which an Advent sermon might be built include the following: "The Lord is with you" (vv. 15, 17); "singing and rejoicing" (vv. 14, 17); "I will...gather" (vv. 19, 20); "praise and honor" (vv. 19, 20).