The first 11 verses today sums up the message of the meaning of a day of God for those deaf to correction. The city is lost, the officials, judges, religious leaders all corrupt and self-serving. God consistently delivers providential justice and mercy, till the day mercy pauses.
A few demonstrations of consequences might have showed us better. Remember, this prophet assumes that we saw Assyria rule Israel already. Yet we ignore the clear object lessons of karma and consequences, doomed to repeat the lessons of history unlearned.
The promise – or threat – is that God gathers the nations, and sorts not between one nation and another, but between the haughty rich fools, and the humble poor wise. Which are you in that day? This is not St Peter at the gate checking individuals, but devastation in Jerusalem, exposing truths.
Yes, the book closes with a promise of a righteous remnant, a humble poor gathering or survivors. Again, that’s the root narrative of a million stories in our tradition ever since. But the church selects the song of joy, without the context of who is singing, and who is no longer enjoying the music, on the day of God.
Shamed now – you will find honour and pride again. Proud and honoured now – you should likely worry. Does this sound like some other prophetic voice you’ve heard, like Jesus of Nazareth? This is not a universal heaven for all, by an impartial God who does not act in history, but provides ‘pie in the sky’. This is a partial God who vindicates today’s losers and humiliates today’s winners.
Zephaniah 3 (NRSV)
1 Ah, soiled, defiled, oppressing city!
2 It has listened to no voice; it has accepted no correction. It has not trusted in the LORD; it has not drawn near to its God.
3 The officials within it are roaring lions; its judges are evening wolves that leave nothing until the morning.
4 Its prophets are reckless, faithless persons; its priests have profaned what is sacred, they have done violence to the law.
5 The LORD within it is righteous; he does no wrong. Every morning he renders his judgement, each dawn without fail; but the unjust knows no shame.
6 I have cut off nations; their battlements are in ruins; I have laid waste their streets so that no one walks in them; their cities have been made desolate, without people, without inhabitants.
7 I said, ‘Surely the city* will fear me, it will accept correction; it will not lose sight* of all that I have brought upon it.’ But they were the more eager to make all their deeds corrupt.
8 Therefore wait for me, says the LORD, for the day when I arise as a witness. For my decision is to gather nations, to assemble kingdoms, to pour out upon them my indignation, all the heat of my anger; for in the fire of my passion all the earth shall be consumed.
9 At that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the LORD and serve him with one accord.
10 From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia* my suppliants, my scattered ones, shall bring my offering.
11 On that day you shall not be put to shame because of all the deeds by which you have rebelled against me; for then I will remove from your midst your proudly exultant ones, and you shall no longer be haughty in my holy mountain.
12 For I will leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name of the LORD—
13 the remnant of Israel; they shall do no wrong and utter no lies, nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouths. Then they will pasture and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid.
14 Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!
15 The LORD has taken away the judgements against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.
16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.
17 The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you* in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing
18 as on a day of festival.* I will remove disaster from you,* so that you will not bear reproach for it.
19 I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. 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 home, at the time when I gather you; 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.