Bible: Judgment and a faithful remnant
June 12 — Zephaniah 3:6-8; June 19 — Zephaniah 3:9-20
In just three chapters, the Book of Zephaniah does an excellent job of capturing the essence of the Old Testament prophets. He offers a sharp critique of the kingdom of Judah, focusing on its leaders. And he likewise sharply critiques the surrounding nations for their violence, injustice and disregard toward God.
However, as with the other prophets, Zephaniah does not give a message where judgment is an end in itself. He does not hold God’s retributive justice and mercy in an open-ended tension. He resolves whatever tensions there might be with a concluding vision of healing and wholeness.
The issue is not whether God’s mercy prevails. It does. The issue is who will be in a position to receive this mercy.
Like Amos, Zephaniah combines his oracles against the nations with a statement about Jerusalem sharing in the same sins. On the one hand, this reflects the lack of favoritism — injustice leads to condemnation, whether it’s the gentiles or the children of Israel. On the other hand, as we will see in the final section of the book, the universality of God’s judgment is the other side of the coin of the universality of God’s salvation — for “all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12).
God’s word, especially to Jerusalem in 3:6-8, pleads with the people to learn from the judgment of the nations and repent. Such a plea seems likely to remain unanswered (3:7). The events that follow Josiah’s kingship show that destruction does come to Jerusalem.
Nonetheless, Zephaniah makes a crucial theological point that allows the covenant people’s identity to survive after the crushing events of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. Judah’s fall will not happen as a result of God abandoning the covenant people. Nor will God suffer defeat at the hands of the Babylonian gods.
To the contrary, this crushing event is seen as the natural consequence of the people’s abandonment of God’s will. In fact, it is an indication that God does remain present. God holds the people accountable and fulfills the promise that the people will lose the land should they turn from the way of Torah. And God remains present with the people through their trauma and provides a way forward.
Zephaniah concludes with a vision that promises God’s presence and guidance into wholeness. “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” (3:9). This healing will come to the nations and to Israel.
Ultimately, God’s presence in the community is about healing rather than punishment. “Do not fear, O Zion” (3:16). Remarkably, not only the people rejoice in their healing God. God also rejoices. God ultimately offers pardon, not condemnation.
We are left with several questions. How do we cultivate a sense of God both as the one to whom we are accountable — the one who guides history so that when we turn from the way of Torah (and the way of Jesus) we suffer consequences — and as the one who is the source of healing, the one whose presence in our traumas is a healing presence?
The prophets, including Zephaniah, speak of a remnant (2:7) that goes through the trauma (no escape-valve rapture here!) and comes out on the other side as witnesses to God’s saving ways.
What is involved in being such a remnant? How do we face the impending traumas of our time in ways that will enable us to serve as healing agents, no matter what comes?
Ted Grimsrud is senior professor of peace theology at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.
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