God Rejoices over His People: A Meditation on Zephaniah 3:17
By Sarah Dalrymple
Some of you will be familiar with the ITV Talent Show ‘The Voice’. You remember how the contestants walk on stage, but the judges can’t see them, because their chairs are facing in the opposite direction. Some contestants are ‘chair-turners’. They begin to sing, and we immediately see the reaction of the judges. After listening to a few bars of music, their hand is on the buzzer and their chair turns round.
Can you imagine your reaction if you could hear God singing? That would be a chair-turner! We’re accustomed to hearing about God ‘speaking’. What is it that would make God sing?
Let's look at the prophecy of Zephaniah. We may not know this little book very well. But for the sake of time, we can sum up its message with two words: Judgment and Restoration.
Zephaniah is probably a member of the extended royal family in Judah. He is God’s spokesman to Judah during the reign of King Josiah (640-609 BC). Israel has fallen to Assyria eighty years earlier, but over that period of time, Judah (the southern kingdom) fails to learn the lesson, and sinks deeper and deeper into apostasy. Then, one day, the book of the law (which had been ignored for decades by Judah’s kings) is discovered in the temple. When King Josiah hears God’s Word, he is utterly broken. He humbles himself before the Lord, and embarks on a campaign of reforms in Judah, renewing the covenant and reinstating the Passover.
Zephaniah’s message is quite possibly part of that sequence of events. He’s taking every opportunity warn God’s people of impending judgment. So he talks about ‘the great day of the Lord … a day of wrath … a day of distress and anguish … a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom …’ (1:14-16). God is about to execute justice – not only on Judah, but also on the peoples that he has used as instruments of judgment upon his own rebellious people.
And yet…this messenger of judgment also pronounces some of the sweetest and the most glorious words in all of the Old Testament. And that’s what I want to share with you for your encouragement. Judgment and restoration. This is the pattern that we see consistently in the prophetic books. Judgment is not the last word. Sin must be punished, but judgment is also restorative. God will keep his covenant; in his grace, he will reclaim his people through judgment. And that’s what we see in the last section of the book (see 3:14-16).
The prophet speaks to this restored remnant of Israel, the rescued ones, whom their Lord has brought home, just as a bridegroom brings home his bride - to ‘sing aloud’, to ‘shout’, the ‘rejoice and exult with all your heart’. Why? Because the righteous Judge, in his grace and mercy, has dealt with their sin. He has taken away the judgments against them. He has dealt with their enemies. Never again will they fear evil. God is right there in midst of his people, in residence, on his throne. Not just any god, but the God who is mighty to save!
God rejoices over his people
Look at verse 17. What happens when God’s people sing? Three things. First: God rejoices over his people with gladness! Isn’t it an amazing thought that God’s joy has a voice! Can you imagine that? And our joy in his salvation brings him joy.
Of course, we need to be very careful about projecting our human emotions upon God. Unlike us, God’s emotions are not subject to circumstances or influences beyond his control. God is not ‘emotional’ in the sense that we are. But there’s also a danger in thinking of God as not being ‘moved’ when he looks upon us - the people whom he has freed from the judgments against us and pronounced righteous in his sight. God, the holy God, is angry at sin. But he rejoices over those whom he has saved from its penalty! Remember Jesus’ parables about the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the Prodigal Son? ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost’!
Our God is a God who rejoices over us. But there’s another bold and beautiful thought here as we think of the gladness of God. We’re told, secondly, that:
God will quiet his people in his love
God ‘will quiet you with his love’. The conviction that I am loved by the God who has saved me brings peace to my heart. It calms my fears.
There is another way of translating this phrase, and this reading just shines light on another facet of the diamond of God’s love for us. Here it is: ‘he will be silent in his love.’ It’s like the mother who, having chastised her little child for some naughtiness, takes him in her arms and hugs him. She doesn’t need to tell him she loves him. He knows! It’s like the couple, who after a sharp exchange, mutually decide to forgive and to forget, and just sit in a silent embrace. Nothing more needs to be said.
So it is with the God who has saved us. In his great love, he will make no mention of past sins, or cast them up to us. The Lord ‘will not always chide, nor keep his anger for ever ... for he has removed our transgressions from us.’ They are forgotten. He will be silent in his love.
The Lord our God ‘will exult over us with loud singing.’
Side by side with this picture of peace, we have another picture of divine love that is expressed exuberantly! The object of this divine love and exultation – well, it’s us ... those of us who, like that remnant in Zion, have ‘sought refuge in the name of the Lord.’ So on the one hand, we have the quietness of God’s love, and on the other, we have this exultant expression of it. And the two pictures together just help us to grasp something of the depth and the intensity of the love God has for us, his children.
So how can we know something of this great love? Where can we find its secret? Well, Zephaniah found it in the assurance that the Lord, our God is in our midst – a mighty one who will save. He found it in this vision of God’s love resting upon his people, rejoicing over them. Do we believe that there is a saving, Almighty God in the midst of us? Then let us sing aloud…rejoice…exult! And in so doing, let’s give our God and Saviour cause to rejoice over us with gladness, to quiet us with his love, and to exult over us with loud singing.