Zephaniah prophesied during Josiah's reign - years leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem in 586BC. The Babylonian army was about to sack the city of God, to destroy the temple of God and to carry into exile the people of God. And Zephaniah rightly thinks to himself – if the city of God, the house of God and the people of God aren’t safe from destruction, then nothing is safe. If the very house of God is going to be judged, then the whole world will one day be judged. And so this national crisis that Zephaniah faced made him think of the global crisis we will all face when the LORD judges the earth.
The whole world is heading for the flames (Zeph 1:18; 3:8). And these flames are the LORD's jealous love (cf Song 8:6)- see more on the jealous judgement of God here.
For the proud, who stand alone in the face of the coming judgement, this will be a judging, consuming fire. For those who are sheltered by the LORD who hides (Zephaniah means the LORD hides), these flames will only refine and bring us into the sunshine of His love.
In Zephaniah 3:9-20 we see Refining (v9-13); Rejoicing (v14-17) and Restoration (v18-20).
These verses are some of the most extraordinary depictions of our future hope ever written. From the deepest depths to the highest heights, Zephaniah takes us through law to gospel. He shows us our utter hopelessness in ourselves and then, in this passage, proclaims our glorious future in Christ.
We usually live in the dreary middle, thinking our badness is not that bad and our God and His future is not that good. Zephaniah tells us the truth. And once we have faced the realities of our helplessness he will blow us away even more by the LORD's overwhelming love.
Our biggest battle in the Christian life is to trust the LORD's love for us - sinners though we undoubtedly are. Zephaniah will urge us to renounce ourselves - our badness and our goodness. And to simply allow God's blazing love to shine on us in all His glory!
What are your hopes? Let’s spend 30 seconds and think now: what are your hopes for this week... what are your hopes for this year... what are your hopes for your life.
Well let’s shine the light of God’s word into our lives. Let’s ask Zephaniah, What is our hope for the world?? Zephaniah answers – Judgement. Cosmic, fearful, earth-shattering, unavoidable judgement. That is our HOPE for the world.
Zephaniah was a prophet in the years leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem around 600 years BC. The Babylonian army was about to sack the city of God, to destroy the temple of God and to carry into exile the people of God. And Zephaniah rightly thinks to himself – if the city of God, the house of God and the people of God aren’t safe from destruction, then nothing is safe. If the very house of God Jerusalem is going to be judged, then the whole world will one day be judged. And so this national crisis that Zephaniah faced made Him think of the global crisis we will all face when God judges the earth.
Look again at how his prophecy begins. Chapter 1:2
2 "I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth," declares the LORD. 3 "I will sweep away both men and animals; I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. The wicked will have only heaps of rubble when I cut off man from the face of the earth," declares the LORD.
Like Noah’s global flood only more comprehensive. Man and beast, birds and even the fish swept away WHEN man – or more literally v3 says when “THE Man” – is cut off from the face of the earth. That’s coming says Zephaniah. It is, v14, the Day of the LORD. Verse 15:
15 That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness,
And the last sentence of the chapter sums it up:
“In the fire of His jealousy the whole world will be consumed, for He will make a sudden end of all who live in the earth." (v18)
And from chapter 2, Zephaniah says – Just because you’re not in Jerusalem don’t think you’ll escape judgement. From v4 he prophesies judgement on the West. From v8 he prophesies judgement on the east. From v12 he prophesies judgement on the south. And from verse 13 he prophesies judgement on the north. Go north, south, east or west – you won’t escape judgement. The Day of the LORD is global and inescapable.
But before those in Jerusalem start to point the finger at the nations and gloat, Zephaniah turns his attention back on Jerusalem in chapter 3. If you thought the nations were bad, the people of God are the worst of all.
And so it all comes to this dreadful climax in chapter 3 verse 8:
8 Therefore wait for me," declares the LORD, "for the day I will stand up to testify. I have decided to assemble the nations, to gather the kingdoms and to pour out my wrath on them--all my fierce anger. The whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger.
The world is heading for the flames.
[SLIDE – fire]
The whole world is heading for the flames. And remember – for Zephaniah, that is our HOPE: the whole world heading for the flames. Let’s think about that for a second because both this verse and chapter 1:18 speak of the LORD burning with jealousy.
Our God is a consuming fire as the Scriptures repeatedly say. What does that mean? Let me show you one of the concluding verses from the Song of Songs.
[SLIDE – Song]
Here's a little respite from the horror of judgement - let's turn to the romance section of the bible...
If you don’t know it, Song of Songs is the raciest part of the bible. Jewish men had to be 30 before they could read Song of Songs. Because it begins with this line “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth for your love is more delightful than wine” and it gets racier as it goes on.
It’s a love story about a King and His beloved and they sing to each other in rapturous joy and intimate affection. And then here’s how the book ends, this is one of the final verses:
Love is strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the LORD. (Song 8:6, ESV)
Do you see how death and the grave are parallel terms? They basically mean the same thing don’t they. Well love and jealousy are parallel terms too. Love and jealousy can be seen as basically the same thing too.
We tend to think of jealousy as always wrong. But it’s not always wrong. If someone made some serious moves on Emma and I didn’t get jealous, there’d be something wrong with my love. Love is meant to be faithful and protective and if something harms or threatens or belittles or competes with me for the one I love - I get jealous. And that’s no bad thing. In fact jealousy (if it’s this kind of right jealousy) is a mark of passionate love.
And as we see in this verse it’s a sign of BURNING love – its flashes are flashes of fire. WHICH IS – says this verse – the very flame of the LORD.
Burning, jealous love is the very flame of the LORD. Our God is a consuming fire because He burns with Jealous Love. Before there was even a universe the Father has loved His Son in the power of the blazing Holy Spirit – who is often associated with fire in the bible. The Father has always loved His Son with a possessive, protective, burning passion – and woe betide the person who harms or threatens or belittles His Son. His Son, Jesus Christ, is the King and the Bridegroom – the True King and Bridegroom to which Song of Songs points. And Christ loves His people, His bride – us, if we belong to Him. And woe betide the person who harms or threatens or belittles His bride. The very flame of the LORD – His very divine nature – is a burning, committed, possessive, protective, jealous love. When the bible says “Our God is a consuming fire” that’s what it means.
And Zephaniah 3:8 says the whole world is heading for the flames.
[SLIDE – Hope – Judgement]
The Day of the LORD will be the day when the flame of the LORD – His Jealous Love – will burn most brightly. For His enemies – for those who belittle and threaten His love – it will be their destruction. But for those who are the objects of His affection – it will be the eternal sunshine of His love.
The same fire – the same burning love – will be the judgement of the lost and the joy of the saved. To one it will be destruction, to the other it will be the sunshine of God’s love.
And we’ll see that as we read on into our passage for this evening. Because in v9 we come across the most remarkable word. Perhaps it’s the most remarkable word in this section, which is full of remarkable words, is the very first word. Chapter 3 verse 9: THEN. THEN. Verse 8 has told us the whole world is heading for the flames. But verse 9 says THEN. There is a future. There is hope. And it’s not the hope of somehow avoiding the flames – the whole world is heading for the flames. But somehow there’s a hope even as we head for the flames. Verse 9 says
"Then will I purify the lips of the peoples, that all of them may call on the name of the LORD and serve him shoulder to shoulder.”
The flames don’t simply destroy – for some they purify and refine.
[SLIDE - Refining]
In fact “the peoples”, the nations, heathens like the Cushites and the Moabites and the hated Assyrians and the Britons and even those pagan Australians who Zephaniah couldn’t have even dreamed of – the peoples will come through these flames purified, cleansed, refined.
We’re not just talking about a few faithful Israelites that are going to survive the Day of the LORD. Verse 10:
From beyond the rivers of Cush my worshippers, my scattered people, will bring me offerings.
There will be an international people of God who are not destroyed by the flames but refined.
By the way – when I talk about being refined in the fires, I’m talking about a joyful and instantaneous thing. I’m NOT talking about purgatory – there’s no such place as purgatory, that’s an invention of the Catholic church. I’m just saying what Zephaniah is saying in v9 – that the Day of the LORD will be a purifying experience for us. 1 John 3 says: “When Christ appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” When we are in the direct presence of the LORD Jesus, the effect of seeing His radiant face will be a glorious and instantaneous purifying.
And if you know how unclean you are at present, you will long for this. If you’re ashamed of your spiritual filth right now, you will cry out for this day. Verse 11:
On that day you will not be put to shame for all the wrongs you have done to me…
Tattoo this verse on the inside of your eyelids: On that day – if you belong to Jesus – you will NOT be put to shame for ANY of the wrongs you have done to Him. Again, this is why I stress, this is not purgatory, there is no such place. Jesus will never, into all the depths of eternity, He will NEVER throw your sins in your face, He will NEVER make you feel ashamed. Never!
The very essence of the LORD’s future is grace – unconditional forgiving love. The LORD’s future is not for those who are good enough to come through the flames unscathed. It is for guilty sinners like you and me who have been hidden by the LORD.
If you’ve been here in previous weeks you may remember that Zephaniah’s name means “The LORD hides.” In view of the coming day of judgement, the LORD hides His people in a safe place, to give them refuge. Look back to chapter 2 verse 3:
3 Seek the LORD, all you humble of the land, you who do what he commands. Seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you will be sheltered on the day of the LORD's anger.
The LORD hides the humble of the land in a shelter to keep them safe from the judging flames. And we know from places like Psalm 2 for instance that the hiding place is Christ Himself – the Son of God. Psalm 2 finishes by saying “Blessed are all who take refuge in the Son of God.”
That’s how we survive through the judging flames and into the sunshine of God’s love. We have been hidden in our refuge Jesus Christ.
As the smallest and most insignificant example, it works a tiny bit like the sunshield works on Danny Boyle’s film “Sunshine.”
The spaceship Icarus is flying towards the sun and the only way the crew can survive is this giant shield that protects them from the deadly rays. It bears the onslaught to keep the people safe.
And you think “So what, that’s just an impersonal lump of metal.” Jesus is the eternal Son of God. The Personal object of God the Father’s burning love from before the beginning of time. And He voluntarily steps forward to say “Father, my people are heading for the flames. They are sinful and adulterous and guilty and shameful, and there can be nothing but consuming judgement for them. But I want to be their shield from the flames, I want to be their hiding place, I want to be their refuge, I want to be their shelter from the storm that’s coming. Father let me stand at their Head and face those judging flames.
And so Christ stepped forward, He stood at the head of His people – the true Head of Israel and the true Head of the human race.
[SLIDE – cross]
He took the judgement of God as it crashed down upon Him. On the cross He was THE Man cut off. He was the House of God destroyed. And He became the true refuge for all who trust Him.
If anyone comes through the Day of the LORD and into the sunshine of God’s love it’s only because they have taken refuge in Jesus, the Son of God. The LORD’s future is not for the proud who try to stand on their own two feet. It’s only for the humble who hide themselves in Jesus.
Read on in v11:
because I will remove from this city those who rejoice in their pride. Never again will you be haughty on my holy hill. 12 But I will leave within you the meek and humble, who trust in the name of the LORD.
The LORD’s future has no room for pride. Only the humble who are hidden in Christ will survive. But they have such a wonderful future: Verse 13:
13 The remnant of Israel will do no wrong; they will speak no lies, nor will deceit be found in their mouths. They will eat and lie down and no-one will make them afraid."
I look forward to this very much, don’t you?
Speaking no lies. No deceit in our mouths. Zephaniah is focusing on our speech because, as James chapter 3 will say later, the tongue is the rudder of your life and perfect speech means a perfect life. If you ever have perfect speech it will only be because you’re a perfect person. Well Zephaniah says, get ready for the day when your speech, in fact your whole life, will be shot through with humble, grateful, righteous love.
I long for the day. How many of my words now are born out of pride or deceit or anger or self-righteousness or manipulation or a thousand other sins.
One day we will be perfect men and women. That is the refining that we’re looking forward to when Christ returns.
So if you like diving up passages into threes...
[SLIDE - Refining, Rejoicing, Restoration]
...this passage does fairly nicely divide up into three paragraphs. And the first paragraph has told us of the refining that will happen on the Day of the LORD.
But secondly, verses 14-17, there is rejoicing. And this is really the heart of it all – in more ways than one.
Do you remember in Song of Songs we saw that the very flame of the LORD is Love – Burning, Jealous, Committed, Marital, Faithful Love. And certainly in Song of Songs – the way that kind of love is expressed is through singing. In Song of Songs – the beloved, the woman sings first and then the Lover, the King sings back. Bear that in mind as you read verses 14-17:
14 Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem! 15 The LORD has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm. 16 On that day they will say to Jerusalem, "Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. 17 The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing."
Did you notice the singing here? First the people of God are commanded to sing. And it’s an emphatic four-fold command in v14. Look at the four-fold command: SING, SHOUT ALOUD (for some of us that’s what singing amounts to – shouting aloud), BE GLAD and REJOICE. Zephaniah is just piling up the commands here and in case you thought you were meant to do that half-heartedly, he adds “with ALL your heart.”
So the people of God are to sing. And notice how the people of God are described as feminine? The daughter of Zion. The daughter of Jerusalem. The people of God are being spoken of like the woman of Song of Songs (and the woman in Song of Songs is often spoken of like the people of God). But we are the bride of the LORD singing to Him with joy. And He is – v15 – the King. Just like in Song of Songs – the King who is the Lover, the Bridegroom. And after His people have sung to Him – we’re just the warm-up act. Verse 17 – He REJOICES over us with singing.
Let’s take a close look at v17, because this is one of those ‘too good to be true verses’ isn’t it? At every point where I want to tone it down, Zephaniah cranks it up. I imagine the verse to say something like:
“The LORD your God wishes you all the best from afar.” But No! He is with you.
I imagine it saying ‘He is mighty to judge’. Well here it says He is mighty TO SAVE. In fact literally it describes Him as A Warrior Saviour. Our Husband LORD with burning love is a Warrior Saviour. And it goes from amazing to incredulous with the next bit…
What’s the next bit: He will treat you as legally innocent. Is that what it says? He will tolerate you on the outskirts of His love. Is that how it goes? He will graciously allow you into His magnificent presence. Is that what the verse says?
He will take delight in you. No, wait. More than that. He will take GREAT delight in you.
Do you believe that? If you belong to Jesus and you read that and say, no Christ could never feel about me like that – it’s your word against His. I’d be a little more humble about it if I were you. Hear again the Word of the LORD: He WILL take great delight in you!
And it’s almost as if He anticipates our protests of unworthiness with the next bit…
He will quiet you with His love
Shhhh. His love quiets us.
We’re pretty disquieted people aren’t we? We have busy, noisy souls. Well in His presence He will quiet us. How? With His sheer display of glorious magnificence? No He will quiet us with His love. Love is the very flame of the LORD. And one day He will wrap us in such a blazing fire of love it will strike us utterly dumb. And then, to crown it all, what will He do?
He will rejoice over you with singing.
That’s too much isn’t it? I could just about handle it if it said: “He will list several of your achievements in the presence of His Father and shake you heartily by the hand… Well done, there’s a good chap.” Is that it? No He will rejoice over you with singing.
And notice, He’s not gathering His people around Him so that we can hear Him sing a solo. This is the overflow of His joy IN US. It’s not a chance for Him to show off about Himself but to express how He feels about us.
Can you begin to imagine what this will be like? Just to hear the LORD singing. I mean we read in Matthew 26 that He sang a hymn with the disciples at the end of the Lord’s Supper. What kind of voice does Jesus have? I imagine Jesus is a tenor – the Father’s a baritone, the Spirit’s an alto or soprano. That’s my speculation based on nothing. But what’s even more mind-blowing than the fact that the LORD does sing is the fact He sings TO US.
Just to give you a comparison. In Islam they talk about paradise. But the Quran talks about paradise as a place of rivers of wine and plenty of virgins (or raisins depending on your translation), but you know what’s missing from Muslim paradise? Their god – that’s who’s missing. Allah is not there. In the Hadith – the sacred writings surrounding the Quran it speaks of one time when the chosen few will get to see Allah (or some manifestation of Allah) from a great distance. And that’s it. The greatest you can be is a slave of Allah looking on from a distance.
But we are the Bride of Christ, Who greatly delights in us, Who quiets us with His love, Who rejoices over His people with singing.
Do you believe the bible? Do you dare to believe this verse?
Isaiah 62:5 says
As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.
Have you ever been at a wedding where the Groom sings to his bride? I’d love to see that. I never had the guts to do it myself – shout loudly maybe, not singing. I’d love to see that. But one day I’ll be on the receiving end of it. And so will you, if you belong to Jesus.
How do we know this is coming? Because of v15:
The LORD has taken away your punishment, He has turned back the enemy.
When did that happen for us? It happened when the LORD Jesus died on the cross. And ultimately we can know we are heading for the wedding banquet because Christ went to the cross.
Our Warrior Saviour bowed His head to the divine judgement to give us refuge. He has turned judgement away from us and taken it upon Himself. He has destroyed our enemy, the devil, triumphing over Him by the cross. And He has risen again to claim His blood-bought bride.
Now if He went through the cross to win His bride don’t you think that now He will want to enjoy His bride? He’ll move heaven to earth to rejoice in us. Having died for us when we were filthy, do you think that when we’re purified He’ll reject us or get bored of us? No if you want assurance of the love of Jesus, if you want to know that He WILL take great delight in us – look to the cross and see the lengths He’s gone to, to have us.
People have trouble believing in the love of God. And I have great sympathy with that. The LORD doesn’t want us simply speculating about some heavenly joy or working up feelings in our hearts. He has demonstrated His love for us says Romans 5 – demonstrated it at the cross. We don’t measure the love of God by the feelings we can conjure up, we measure the love of God by the crimson red blood of Jesus. That blood was shed for you. And now that He’s died for us, He can barely wait to rejoice over His blood-bought people.
We’ve seen refining, we’ve seen rejoicing, let me say a couple of words about restoration. Look at verses 18-20:
18 I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival, so that you will no longer suffer reproach. 19 Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. 20 At that time I will bring you in, at the time when I gather you together; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes," says the LORD.
The LORD will restore our fortunes. If you’ve been scattered, He will gather you. If you have suffered shame, He will give dignity. If you have mourned, He will bring joy. If you’ve been lame, you will leap for joy.
I wonder if you believe this? The LORD will put the whole world through the flames, not basically to destoy it, but to purify, refine, restore and perfect it. Didn’t Jesus specifically tell us that anything we “lose” in this life for Him or the gospel, we will receive back with astronomical interest. All things are heading towards a cosmic restoration. And if we are the bride of Christ – then we inherit EVERYTHING that Christ inherits. If we belong to Christ we CANNOT lose.
Zephaniah was about to face a terrible army – the Babylonians. He was about to face the sacking of his beloved city, the desecration of his beloved temple and the scattering of exile. For a few decades it would seem as though he was onto a loser. Ask him now though. Ask him on that final day when we see Christ, face to face, when He wipes away every tear, quiets us with His love and sings to us.
What do you hope for? The world is headed for the flames – the fires of God’s Jealous Love. It means judgement or, if you are hidden in Christ it means refining, rejoicing and restoration.
So now May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing. That by the power of the Holy Spirit, you may overflow with hope. (Romans 15:13)