How Zephaniah Helps Us Feel the Glad Love of God
John Piper says it's almost too good to believe. Hear Zephaniah's words:
The Lord your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.
Zephaniah 3:17 is an absolutely magnificent promise that is meant to make us feel God's joy. Like when the father ran to embrace his prodigal son, some scenes in Scripture are especially meant to astonish us with mercy.
But not everyone can bring themselves to believe God's love for us is that powerful. Though, as Pastor John writes, Zephaniah wants to help us get it:
[Zephaniah] labors under the wonderful inspiration of God to overcome every obstacle that would keep a person from believing — really feeling and enjoying — the unspeakable news that God exults over us with singing. (178)
But there are many who struggle, and you might be one. In chapter seven of The Pleasures of God John Piper sketches a hypothetical dialogue between a one who struggles and the rationale of Zephaniah. He speaks for Zephaniah and interacts with the potential inhibitions that keep us from believing in God's love. It goes like this:
A Dialogue with the Logic of Zephaniah1
"Can you feel the wonder of this today — that God is rejoicing over you with loud singing?”
“No, I can’t, because I am too guilty. I am unworthy. My sin is too great, and the judgments against me are too many. God could never rejoice over me.”
“But consider Zephaniah 3:15. God foresees your hesitancy. He understands. So his prophet says, ‘The Lord has taken away the judgments against you!’ Can you not feel the wonder that the Lord exults over you with loud singing today, even though you have sinned? Can you not feel that the condemnation has been lifted because he bruised his own Son in your place, if you will only believe?”
“No, I can’t, because I am surrounded by enemies. Obstacles press me in on every side. There are people who never let me believe this. There are people at work who would make my life miserable if God were my treasure. There are people in my family who would ostracize me. I have friends who would do everything to drag me down. I could never go on believing. I would have too many enemies. The oppression would be too much to bear, I could never do it.”
"But consider Zephaniah 3:17, ‘The Lord is a warrior who gives victory’; and verse 19, ‘Behold, at that time I will deal with your oppressors [says the Lord]’; and verse 15, ‘He has cast out your enemies.’ Can you feel the wonder that God is doing everything that needs to be done for you to enjoy his own enjoyment of you? Can you see that the enemies and the oppressors are not too strong for God? Nothing can stop him, when he exults over you with loud singing. Can you feel the wonder of it now? Can you believe that he rejoices over you?”
“No, still I can’t, because he is a great and holy God and I feel like he is far away from me. I am very small. I am a nobody. The world is a huge place with many important people. There are major movements and institutions that he is concerned with and happy about. I am too small. God is like the president. He is far away in Washington, busy with big things."
"But consider Zephaniah 3:15, ‘The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst’; and verse 17: ‘The Lord, your God, is in your midst.’ He is not far from you. Yes, I admit that this staggers the imagination and stretches credibility almost to the breaking point — that God can be present personally to everyone who comes to him and believes on him. But say to yourself, again and again, He is God! He is God! What shall stop God from being close to me if he wants to be close to me? He is God! He is God! The very greatness that makes him seem too far to be near, is the greatness that enables him to do whatever he pleases, including being near to me. Has he not said, for this very reason, ‘I dwell in a high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit’ (Isaiah 57:15)? Can you not then feel the marvel that God makes merry over you — even with loud singing — when you come to him and believe him?"
"But no, you just don’t understand. I am the victim and the slave of shame. I have been endlessly belittled by my parents (see Zephaniah 2:8, 10). I have been scoffed at and threatened and manipulated and slandered. Inside this cocoon of shame even the singing of God sounds faint and far away and indecipherable. It is as though my shame has made me deaf to anyone’s happiness with me, especially God’s. I cannot feel it.”
"Now I am sure I do not feel all that you feel. I have not been through what you have been through. But God is no stranger to shame. Unbelievable shame was heaped on his Son (Hebrews 12:2), terrible slander, repeated belittling, even from his own townsfolk (Matthew 13:55–58). Therefore, ‘We do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses’ (Hebrews 4–15). I know I have never walked in your shoes. I did not have to live with the family you lived with. But Jesus knows. He feels it with you. And best of all, his Father says right here in Zephaniah 3:19, ‘I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.’ Is it not amazing how well God knows you? Can you not feel the warmth of his heart as he makes provision for every question you have? Do you not yet hear the singing of God as you draw near?”
1This is adapted from The Pleasures of God: Meditations on God's Delight in Being God, 1991, (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2012), 179–180.