Sermon Briefs: Zephaniah 3:14-20
Tom A. Cutting begins his sermon on this passage by saying: "I've never preached a sermon on the prophet Zephaniah. You may never have heard a sermon on the prophet Zephaniah.You may never have heard of the prophet Zephaniah. But today is the day."
That may be true of most pastors and congregations. But a study of several sermons on this text opens up some interesting possibilities.
Cutting did a good job with his sermon A Presence Known.1 After pointing out that this last chapter from the prophet is an unaccountable burst of joy and sunlight following gloom and doom, Cutting asks why the shift, and replies in the words of the text, because "the king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst." (v. 15c) The passage declares "that the Lord is among us as king."
The preacher then develops that theme by discussing what sort of a king is he, what is he like. He replies:" he is the sort of king who comes to us as a child; He is the sort of king who comes to us when we can't come to him; he's the sort of king who makes his presence known in the ordinary things of our lives; he's the sort of king who really wants us to rejoice."
Cutting uses as an illustration of his second point the conclusion of the movie The Chosen. It is a story from the Talmud about a king who has a son who has gone astray from his father. The king sends word to his son, "Return to your father." "I cannot," answers the son. Then the king sends a messenger to say, "Return as far as you can, and I will come to meet you the rest of the way."
This, says Cutting, is "the good news of God's love. We have come as far as we can and it's not enough. God has come the rest of the way in the babe born in Bethlehem's manger."
James D.W. Watts in The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible says this passage tells how "the purge of God's judgment will produce a people of Zion capable of worship in purity and joy."2 Two nineteenth-century preachers in England have sermons which emphasize the theme of joy.
Alexander Maclaren (1858-1903) preached in Manchester for 45 years. He was the prince of expositors in his day. His sermon on vv. 14 and 17 is titled Zion's Joy and God's.3 What is striking about this sermon is its emphasis on God's joy. God bursts out into singing, says Maclaren. "For every throb of joy in man's heart, there is a wave of gladness in God's. The notes of our praise are at once the echoes and occasions of his. We are to be glad, because God is glad: God is glad because we are so. We sing for joy, and God joys over us with singing because we do."
Maclaren replies to the objection that we are not to let the shadow of our emotions fall upon God. That is a danger; but the worse danger is to conceive of a God who has no life and heart. The expositor points out that the word rendered "rejoices" in verse 14 is not the same as the word for it in verse 17. In verse 14 it means "leap for joy;" in verse 17 it means to move in a circle. "Thus the gladness of God is thought of as expressing itself in dignified, calm movements, whilst Zion's joy is likened to the more violent movements of the dance."
C. H. Spurgeon's 1887 sermon on this passage deals with many things. It is called A Sermon for the Time Present,4 and the preacher begins with a long lament over the apostasy of the times. This was the era of Darwinian progress, biblical criticism, and a very unsettling time in the church. But as the hour-long sermon went along, Spurgeon was caught up in this text, and he spoke of God's joy in his people (Zion)."Think of this! Jehovah, the living God, is described as brooding over his church with pleasure." See verse 17b. "You are trembling for the ark of the Lord; the Lord is not trembling but rejoicing. Faulty as the church is, the Lord rejoices in her." This is something the church needs to hear today, when it is so caught up in its failures and faults.
Spurgeon brings out another pregnant phrase in the passage: "He will rest in his love" or, as the marginal reading had it in Spurgeon's Bible and in the New Revised Standard Version, "he will be silent in his love." What does it mean for God to "be silent in his love?"
Spurgeon has just a few paragraphs on the phrase in this sermon, but it is the theme of another one which he preached in 1859. The title is The Savior Resting in His Love.5 After dealing with the text in terms of "resting," he turns to the marginal reading. What does it mean? "One old divine" thinks it means that God's love is so vast that it can be better heard by his saying nothing than by attempting to express it. Spurgeon cannot go along with that, although he does agree that there is more to the love of God than can ever be expressed, perhaps more than we can bear to know in this life, and perhaps this is what the phrase means.
But there may be another meaning. It may mean that the Christ will be silent about his people's sins. Just as the wife cannot testify against her husband, so the Lord will not testify before the judgment seat against his bride, the church, but will bear the judgment for her. "My people have had their sins blotted out. I will be silent in my love." Whether or not this interpretation appeals to you, it is a phrase worth thinking about and preaching about.
Elizabeth Achtemeier thinks the Zephaniah passage is an appropriate Old Testament lesson for Easter. "The songs of Israel marvelously set forth the exultation necessary to the people of God at the resurrection, for it was to just such a victory that Israel looked forward."6 She also makes a point that relates to v. 19: "This total reliance on Jahweh is pictured not only in terms of the new people's humble and contrite trust in Jahweh alone..., but also by saying that the new people are the blind and deaf and dumb, the lame and afflicted and imprisoned, to whom Jahweh has given the power to see, to hear, to speak, to walk, to come forth into the light."7
George Laird Hunt
1. Received by request. 2. Cambridge University Press,1975, p. 179. 3. 20 Centuries of Great Preaching, Clyde E. Fant, Jr. and William M. Pinson, Jr., eds. (Word Books, Vol. 5), pp. 19-21. The excerpt is from Maclaren's Exposition of Holy Scripture, Vol. 4 (Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1959), pp. 245-248. 4. Spurgeon's Sermons, Vol. 33, pp. 601-612. 5. Spurgeon's Sermons, Vol. 47, pp. 142-153. 6. Elizabeth Achtemeier, The Old Testament and the Proclamation of the Gospel (Westminster Press, 1973), p. 138. 7. Ibid, p. 208.