The Pleasure of God in the Good of His People

The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will be quiet in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.

The Setting for the Book of Zephaniah

According to Zephaniah 1:1, "The word of the Lord came to Zephaniah the son of Cushi . . . in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah." Josiah had begun to reign in Judah about 80 years after the northern kingdom of Israel had been swept away by the Assyrian invaders.

During those 80 years the southern kingdom of Judah had not learned the lesson of the northern kingdom, and sank deeper and deeper into sin and rebellion against the law of God.

In the 18th year of Josiah's reign Hilkiah the priest found in the temple a copy of the book of the law that had been ignored for decades. When he read it to the king, Josiah was broken. He humbled himself before the Lord and rent his clothes and wept (2 Kings 22:19).

Over the next 13 years Josiah led an amazing reformation in Judah based on the law of God. He renewed the covenant between God and his people (2 Kings 23:3). He took all the vessels of Baal and Asherah out of the temple and burned them in the fields of Kidron (23:4). He deposed the idolatrous priests (23:5). He broke down the houses of the male cult prostitutes (23:7). He removed the horses that the kings of Judah had dedicated to the sun (23:11). And he reinstituted the Passover that had been ignored since the days of the judges (23:22).

These were the days of Zephaniah according to 1:1. So when we read this little book, we can picture it as part of the call for reformation that Josiah was pursuing. No doubt the prophet and the king teamed up to try to draw the people back to God. How did Zephaniah preach? What kind of preaching does God inspire when his people are in need of revival and reformation?

A Warning About the Coming Wrath of the Lord

All of chapter 1 is a warning to Jerusalem and a prediction of the coming day of the Lord in wrath. Verses 2–4,

"I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth," says the Lord. "I will sweep away man and beast; I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. I will overthrow the wicked; I will cut off mankind from the face of the earth," says the Lord. "I will stretch out my hand against Judah, and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and I will cut off from this place the remnant of Baal and the name of the idolatrous priests."

Why was God's wrath so kindled?

  • Verse 8: the officials and king's sons were arrayed in foreign attire, wanting to be like the other nations who knew not God.
  • Verse 9: servants were filling their masters' houses with violence and fraud.
  • Verse 12: men were thickening upon their lees—they were like the sediment at the bottom of stale wine, saying in their hearts, "The Lord will not do good, nor will he do ill." God has ceased to be a practical reality in their lives.

A Call to Repentance

Then in chapter 2 the first warning is followed by an earnest call for repentance. There may yet be hope, at least for those who repent. Verses 1–3:

Come together and hold assembly, O shameless nation, before you are driven away like the drifting chaff, before there comes upon you the fierce anger of the Lord, before there comes upon you the day of the wrath of the Lord. Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do his commands; seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the wrath of the Lord.

Even if the humble in the land can't avert the final wrath of God, they may at least perhaps be hidden themselves when the terrible day of the Lord comes.

A Warning to the Surrounding Nations

Then in 2:4–15 Zephaniah cries out the woes and warnings not just over Judah and Jerusalem, but also over the surrounding nations of the world.

  • On the west are the cities of Philistia, Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, and the tribe of the Cherethites (vv. 4–7).
  • On the east are the lands of Moab and Amon (vv. 8–11).
  • On the south are the Ethiopians (v. 12).
  • And on the north is the terrible Assyria (vv. 13–15).

Judgment is coming on the whole surrounding world. And verse 10 probably sums up best the reason: "This shall be their lot in return for their pride, because they scoffed and boasted against the people of the Lord of hosts." The root cause of worldwide judgment is human pride.

One Last Indictment Against Jerusalem

But lest the people in Jerusalem gloat over the judgment of the nations Zephaniah comes back to them and in 3:1–8 gives one last indictment of Jerusalem. Verses 1–2:

Woe to her that is rebellious and defiled, the oppressing city! She listens to no voice, she accepts no correction. She does not trust in the Lord, she does not draw near to her God.

An Amazing Shift

Then, at the end of his indictment, as so often in the prophets, comes an amazing shift. Along side the destruction of his wrath, God puts the re-creating power of his love. It seems that in spite of the worldwide outpouring of his wrath, God is going to do two great acts of mercy described in 3:9–20.

1. The Promise of a Global Awakening

He is going to cause a global awakening so that people from all the nations turn to him. Verse 9:

Yea, 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.

In other words God will not be content merely to destroy the nations of the world. He aims to be Lord over the nations. How can this be? Look how verse 8 ends and how verse 9 begins:

For my decision is to gather nations, to assemble kingdoms, to pour out upon them my indignation, all the heat of my anger; in the fire of my jealous wrath all the earth shall be consumed. 9) For then I will give the peoples purified lips that all of them may call on the name of the Lord, to serve him shoulder to shoulder.

How will God pour his indignation on the nations and consume the earth with his jealous wrath, and at that very time purify nations so that they call on his name and serve? This is a picture of worldwide judgment and worldwide turning to God.

Zephaniah doesn't work out the details for us. Perhaps he pictures the judgment of God as an extended series of catastrophes over a period of time that come to climax in the final destruction of all unbelievers. And perhaps during this extended time of judgments God also works among the nations of the earth to purify a people for himself through the preaching of the gospel so that he will indeed have a people for himself from all the tribes and tongues and nations (Revelation 5:9).

No matter how God intends to do these two things we must affirm what the prophet affirms: God will not be denied a people to call on his name and to serve him from all the nations of the world. And so he himself is going to change them and give them a heart and lips to call on his name. That is the first act of mercy described in 3:9–20, a global awakening with people from all the nations calling on the Lord and serving him.

2. The Promise of Revival and Purification

The other act of mercy in these verses is the revival and purification of his people Israel. He is going to remove the proud and leave only a people who are humble and lowly, who trust in the name of the Lord. Verses 11–12:

On that day you shall not be put to shame because of 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. For I will leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly. They shall take refuge in the name of the Lord.

In other words, not only is God going to create a people for himself from all the nations of the world, but he is also going to purge and purify his people Israel (cf. John 11:52). He will eliminate the proud and he will keep for himself a humble and lowly people.

So the judgments and the wrath announced in chapters 1 and 2 are not the last word in Zephaniah's prophecy. The last word is the promise of a worldwide turning to God and a revival of true faith among his people Israel.

A Brief Look at Ephesians 3:4–6

Now before we look at the spectacular promise of verse 17, let's look for a moment at Ephesians 3:4–6. The reason for this is that in the Old Testament the question about how the converts from the nations and the converts in Israel relate to each other is not clearly answered. How do you and I stand as Gentile converts to the God of Israel? We are sort of johnny-come-lately's in this affair. Do we share in the full blessings of Israel?

Paul calls this a mystery, which means that it was not clearly revealed at the first. What is the answer given in Ephesians 3:4–6?

When you read this you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; that is, how the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

The answer is that through the gospel we Gentiles have come to believe on Jesus. And through Jesus we have become full-fledged members of God's people: fellow heirs along with believing Jews of the promises of God.

The Spectacular Promise of Zephaniah 3:17

So now we go back to Zephaniah. And when we read 3:17, we know that it refers not only to all believing Jews but also to all Gentiles who have become heirs of the promise through faith in Christ, the seed of Abraham.

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 [literally: be silent in his love]
he will exult over you with loud singing.

From this amazing verse I get the title of this morning's message: "The Pleasure of God in the Good of His People." God does not do you good out of some constraint or coercion. He is free! And in his freedom he overflows in joy to do you good. He exults over you with loud singing.

What Would Happen If God Sang?

Can you imagine what it would be like if you could hear God singing? Remember that it was merely a spoken word that brought the universe into existence. What would happen if God lifted up his voice and not only spoke but sang! Perhaps a new heaven and a new earth would be created. God says something almost just to that effect in Isaiah 65:17–18,

Behold, I create a new heavens and a new earth . . . I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy.

When God spoke at the beginning, the heavens and the earth were created; perhaps at the end, the new heavens and the new earth will be created when God exults over his people with loud singing.

When I think of the voice of God singing, I hear the booming of Niagara Falls mingled with the trickle of a mossy mountain stream. I hear the blast of Mt. St. Helens mingled with a kitten's purr. I hear the power of an East Coast hurricane and the barely audible puff of a night snow in the woods. And I hear the unimaginable roar of the sun 865,000 miles thick, one million three hundred thousand times bigger than the earth, and nothing but fire, 1,000,000 degrees centigrade, on the cooler surface of the corona. But I hear this unimaginable roar mingled with the tender, warm crackling of the living room logs on a cozy winter's night.

And when I hear this singing I stand dumbfounded, staggered, speechless that he is singing over me. He is rejoicing over my good with all his heart and with all his soul (cf. Jeremiah 32:41)!

Can You Feel the Wonder of This?

Can you feel the wonder of this today? That God is rejoicing over you with loud singing?

"I Am Too Guilty"

"No," you say, "I can't, because I am too guilty that God should rejoice over me."

But will you not believe verse 15: "The Lord has taken away the judgments against you!"

Can you not, then, feel the wonder that the Lord exults over you with loud singing today?

"I Am Surrounded by Enemies"

"No," you say, "I can't because I am surrounded by enemies, and obstacles beset me on every side."

But will you not believe verse 17: "The Lord is a warrior who gives victory"; and verse 19: "Behold, at that time I will deal with your oppressors"; and verse 15: "He has cast out your enemies"?

Can you not, then, feel the wonder that the Lord exults over you with loud singing?

"God Feels Too Far Away from Me"

"No," you say, "Still I can't because he is a great a holy God and I feel like he is far away from me."

But will you not believe verse 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.

Can you not, then, feel the wonder that the Lord exults over you with loud singing?

"I Am Enslaved to Shame"

Still you say, "No, because I am enslaved to shame. I have been endlessly belittled by my parents (cf. 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."

But again I ask, Will you not believe the promise at the end of verse 19: "I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth"?

Can you not, then, feel the wonder that the Lord exults over you with loud singing?

"How Can God's Joy in His Own Name Apply to Me?"

And now you say, "Almost I can let go and feel this unspeakable wonder that God exults over me—even me with loud singing. But there remains one obstacle. You have said that God loves his own glory above all things. You have said that God takes pleasure in his own name. How then am I to imagine that he should be interested in me? How does the joy that God has in his own name apply to me?

If that is your last obstacle, then make ready to sing! For the answer is given clearly in verse 12. If you knew that God delights in his name above all things, and if you wanted to be folded into that joy and be a part of the pleasure of God yourself, where would you go? Where would you seek refuge?

Verse 12 gives the answer: The Lord says "For I will leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord." Here is the connection between God's delight in his name and his delight in you. When you take refuge in his name, he exults over you with loud singing.

If you seek your own glory among men, truly you have your reward on the earth. If you exalt your own name among men, truly you have your reward on the earth. If you bank on your own righteousness, truly you have your reward on the earth.

But if you humble yourself and seek the glory of God above all things, and if you hide your name in the name of God, and if you clothe yourself with the righteousness of his Son, then your heavenly Father who loves his name above all things will reward you beyond all imaginings and exult over you with loud singing.

So put aside all pride and boasting in self today. Take refuge in the name of God. Bank your hope on the righteousness of Christ and not your own. And let yourself awaken to the wonder that the Lord, the King of kings, rejoices over you with gladness and exults over you with loud singing.

(For further study see Micah 7:18; Psalm 35:27; 149:4; Jeremiah 32:37–42; Deuteronomy 30:9; Isaiah 62:5; 65:19.)