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Spring Quarter: Justice and The Prophets
Unit 3: Called to God’s Work of Justice
Sunday school lesson for the week of May 3, 2020
By Dr. Hal Brady
- Identify themes of restoration.
- Explain the significance of those themes.
- Why do you think this lesson is important to Christians?
The writer of today’s lesson introduces it by pointing out that a small church in Spain had a famous painting of Jesus that was deteriorating due to age and moisture. Painted directly on the stone wall by 19th
century artist Elise Garcia Martinez, the picture portrayed Jesus wearing a purple robe and a crown of thorns.
One day, church officials found the work of art changed beyond all recognition, and authorities suspected vandalism. It turned out that the culprit was not a vandal, but a church member who took it upon herself to restore the painting but had failed miserably.
When a priceless work of art needs to be restored, it’s foolish to trust the job to anyone but the best. Like the painting, Israel needed true restoration. Was anyone willing and able to take on the job?
The book of Zephaniah stands in the ninth position of the collection of Hebrew prophetic literature called the Book of Twelve. The book has three Chapters and represents the collected order or divinely inspired sermons of the prophet Zephaniah, who was a prophet in the southern kingdom of Judah in the seventh century BC. Zephaniah’s lineage suggests that he may have been of royal blood (Zephaniah 1:1). Undoubtedly, this family background would have given him special insight into the state of the nation and impact his understanding of God as King of Israel. For sure, Zephaniah understood the importance of leadership and what its absence would mean to a nation.
We are informed that Zephaniah likely wrote in the late 620s BC before King Josiah’s spiritual reform. The prophet is primarily concerned with Judah’s continued rebellion against God (see 2 Kings 22:1-23). The first two chapters of the book of Zephaniah describe a Coming Day of the Lord in which Judah is to face judgment for idolatry. This judgment is to come in the form of both the natural consequences of that nation’s choices and as a tool of God for purifying his people.
God’s process of purification would remove the rebellious in order to ensure the survival of those remaining faithful – “the remnant of Israel” (Zephaniah 3:12; 2:7,9; compare Isaiah 10:20-22). The prophet’s warning to Judah carries weight because of the earlier deportation of the northern kingdom (Israel) by Assyria in 722 BC. That reality and its associated horrors underlined the fact that Zephaniah’s warning was not an idle threat.
Thus, Zephaniah’s prophecy of God’s judgment came true in 586 BC. That was the year the Judeans were cast into Babylonian exile (2 Kings 25:1-21). The prophesied restoration would not begin until 538 BC, when Jewish captives were allowed to return to Judah (Ezra 1:1-4).
Important! Zephaniah’s prophecy presents us with a sharp change of theme beginning in Zephaniah 3:9, as restoration of a remnant takes center stage. The Lord promises that the “meek and humble will trust in the name of the Lord” (3:12) and will be untroubled by those who are proud and haughty. Therefore, the remnant can freely celebrate captivity’s end.
(Zephaniah 3:14, 15)
Having been told why the remnant should celebrate, the people are encouraged to “sing…be glad and rejoice” (compare Psalm 9:2; 95:1; contrast 137:1-4).
The prophets frequently refer to Jerusalem and/or Zion in terms of a “daughter.” This is a literary technique known as personification, in which the writer assigns the qualities of a person to something that isn’t human. And since Jerusalem is the location of the temple, this imagery emphasizes the value of God’s covenant people. It also stresses God’s unique claim to stand as their champion.
The word “Israel,” for its part, can designate different things depending on the historical context. Sometimes it refers to the entirety of the 12 tribes. At other times it refers only to the 10 tribes of the northern kingdom of the divided monarchy. Here, however, the word seems to refer to the faithful remnant, as do the two uses of “daughter.”
Some students suggest that the use of the word “Israel” signifies the completeness of God’s welcome home. Admittedly, that is quite possible as long as it is acknowledged that Zephaniah’s prophecy refers to the completeness of a remnant, not the whole.
15a. says, “The Lord has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy.” After the Prophesied Day of the Lord and the “punishment” that characterizes it (example, Zephaniah 1:7-10), God will step into the situation in a new way. Though the nation of Judah as a whole has disobeyed and turned its back on him, God will not abandon the faithful among his covenant people. In other words, God’s anger concerning Judah’s sin will subside.
After God uses Babylon as his agent to discipline his people, he will then defeat Babylon, thus ending the oppression Judah faced during that time. Most certainly, Judah will have to face the consequences of its choices, but God will not allow those consequences to destroy completely. God’s affirmation of his faithful remnant is to be the cause for the joyful celebration mentioned above.
Note that the faithful remnant will suffer along with the unfaithful majority. But when the time comes for God to turn back the “enemy,” he will bring to fullness of his presence to bear in rescuing his remnant. The nature of the coming exile may look like God’s complete abandonment. But that is never true for those who remain faithful.
15b. “The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you;”
In the ancient Near East, the presence of a king was essential to its well-being of his people. An absentee ruler cannot judge disputes.
Besides, when a king is present, the people expect him to provide some degree of protection and justice. So when Zephaniah describes God as “the King” present with his people, the prophet is telling a powerful story of God’s protective rule (compare Isaiah 54:14; Zachariah 9:8,9).
We are informed that this language of “presence” foreshadows significant New Testament themes. God’s promise to dwell with his people was fulfilled in Jesus. As the incarnate Word, he physically lived among people (John 1:1-18). Prior to his ascension, Jesus promised that “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20). And the indwelling of the Holy Spirit for the Christian is a blessed reality (Romans 8:9-11; 1 Corinthians 6:19; 2 Timothy 1:14).
The theme of the 17th
World Methodist Conference held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, was appropriately “Holy Spirit, Giver of Life.” The conference logo featured the Christ of Rio, with arms outstretched standing in the midst of a descending dove. Truly it was a powerful symbol. Down from the mountain the Holy Spirit brings Christ the Redeemer to meet the needs of humanity, indeed, all creation.
15c. “Never again will you fear any harm.”
The promised restoration in general and this verse in particular does not suggest that God will exempt his people from experiencing the natural consequences of their choices. The context, rather, is that of God’s removal of those who instigate “harm” against the remnant. The protection he gives, offers hope to God’s people in the midst of judgment against the rebellious. As the psalmist put it, there is joy coming in the morning, even after the tears of the night before. (Psalm 30:5).
Now the promise of restoration does not end with Zephaniah’s prophecies to pre-exilic Judah that is to become the post-exilic remnant. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray for restoration in terms of God’s kingdom coming and God’s will being done (Matthew 6:10).
As Jesus proclaims that coming kingdom during his ministry on earth, it is clear that he does not consider the restoration to be accomplished fully at the time. To the point, restoration and the establishing of the kingdom of God are inaugurated. Fulfillment is in some sense both “now” and “not yet.”
Full restoration in terms of new life in Christ is consummated at his return (2 Corinthians 15:52; Revelation 22). In the meantime, we allow the Holy Spirit to transform us daily (Romans 12:2).
In verse 16, Zephaniah’s phrasing makes it clear that the promise of restoration is certain, though the exact timing is unrevealed. “That day” points to a real occasion while leaving the timing open. For sure, people may fervently desire to know exactly when restoration is to come. However, God’s fervent desire is that people be confident that the promise of the restoration is certain (compare Hebrews 11:1). Important to note that what is to happen on the day mentioned here is the opposite of what will happen on “that day” of Zephaniah 1:15.
Verse 16 also reminds us that there is no occasion for “fear” in God’s restored kingdom. When the king of creation is fully present, peace and justice hold sway in his realm.
“Hands” in the Bible can express strength or symbolize power (example, Micah 5:9). However, they can also indicate a feeling of helplessness or hopelessness in situations characterized by fear (example 35:3,4). Thus if “hands hang limp” after this pronouncement, that, in turn points to a lack of faith (compare Matthew 14:26-31).
In verse 17, Zephaniah again presents a positive state of the future. The reason the people are not to fear is because the “Mighty Warrior” is present with them. The picture Zephaniah paints is of a victorious king. Having defeated his enemy, God’s entire focus shifts to his utter “delight” over once again being with his people, providing and caring for them (compare Isaiah 62:4).
Here we see God shifting from a mode of active wrath to one of steady love. And in that mode God will no longer punish the people (compare Hosea 14:4). The Cycle of Joy is thereby complete as God’s people celebrate their restored relationship with him, God celebrates being present with them.
Taken as a whole, verse 18 suggests that the “appointed festivals” that were instituted as an expression of faith have become a matter of shame instead. Now, the language of “reproach” which can also mean shame is the sense here. Shame and honor are more than simply matters of hurt feelings in the ancient Near East. Rather, those concepts speak of how people identify and value themselves. To be cast into exile will result in the Judeans no longer understanding who they are as a people (compare Psalm 74).
Important to note! This “burden” will be lifted when God reclaims his remnant. Restored relationship means restored identity. God brings the joy of identity with him in the place of the shame of his rejection.
The phrase “at that time” links the promises of verse 19-20 to the previous verses. The people are to experience restoration identity and so much more. Judah will no longer be known as the people who abandoned their God (compare Deuteronomy 29:24,25; Isaiah 60:18). Restored relationship with God removes and heals these purported signs of abandonment. In other words, the oppressed, the lame, and the outcast will all be honored and praised.
The alienation caused by sin in general and idolatry in particular is reversed when God is once again present with his people. Those willing to affirm allegiance to God alone, rejecting idolatry – the opposite of which will be the main reason for the forthcoming exile – are promised God’s care in his plan to restore his people to wholeness.
“At that time” in verse 20, God promises return, restoration, and praise “Among all the peoples of the earth.”
In concluding this lesson, there are two very important things to note. First, the word that ultimately came to Zephaniah was more about the future than about the past, and more about those who will inherit the future than about those who will be punished. It is God and the faithful who rejoice because of God’s having mercy in their behalf.
The interlinking of God, Israel, and the nations under which Zephaniah has vision of the future is a direct challenge to groups and races and religions and ideologies that continue to preach and push all kinds of separation in our time.
At least one of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s sayings captures what truly causes God to rejoice as people learn to live together in unity:
“….In our African language we say ‘a person is a person through other persons.’ I would not know how to be a human being at all except I learn this from other human beings. We are made for a delicate network of relationships, of interdependence. We are made to complement each other. All kinds of things go horribly wrong when we break that fundamental law of our being. Not even the most powerful nation can be completely self-sufficient.”
Second, Zephaniah’s promise of restoration for the Old Testament remnant is relevant to us today because it foreshadows our restored relationship to God through Jesus Chris.
Christians have been delivered from the captivity of sin; yet we still live in a world that is bogged down in that captivity. Therefore, the fullness of our deliverance is yet to come. However, we trust God to keep his promise because he has, among other things, “set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit (2 Corinthians 1:22). Despite the fact that God’s kingdom is not
yet here in its fullest sense, his continuing work of restoration is guaranteed by the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Resources for this lesson
- Name one specific way God’s care for you in the past should cause you to sing a song of gratitude yet today.
- In what ways do you sense that God wants you to be His hands and feet with regard to restoring the lost to Him?
- What is the most important thing to you about God’s promise of restoration in this lesson?
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries (halbradyministries.com).
- “2019-2020 Standard Lesson NIV Commentary, Uniform Series, International Bible Lessons for Christian Teaching,” pages 301-308.
- “The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VII,” pages 698-704.