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Love from Above. Zephaniah 3:14-17.
December 24, 2017

For those who love Christmas music, there is a wide range of preferences. Some prefer fast paced simple tunes that raise their spirits. Others prefer more obscure tunes that may have a tie to a particular event or family tradition. Some look primarily for theological accuracy while others like peaceful, tranquil tunes that help people relax. I tend to prefer carols written in minor keys with descant. They tend to deal with times of difficulty and the love of God in such situations.

 

One such situation occurred to the people of God during the reign of Josiah. According to Zephaniah 1:1, the prophet Zephaniah delivered the Word of the Lord during the reign of Josiah, king of Judah. Josiah reigned from 637 to 608 BC. So his reign came to an end just 20 years before Jerusalem was sacked by the Babylonians and Israel was taken into captivity. Josiah is the king, you recall, who found the long-lost book of the law in the temple and tried to reform the people who had drifted so far into idolatry and wickedness. Zephaniah, then, was a part of this effort to call Judah, and especially Jerusalem, back to God. (Piper, J. (2007). Sermons from John Piper (1980–1989). Minneapolis, MN: Desiring God.). To mutually delight in the presence of God, to experience His Love from Above.

 

We properly sing and praise God when we recognize Him in our midst. That is what Christmas is all about. We have been created to join with the saints before us and the heavenly host in praising God for Emmanuel, God is with us through the person of Christ. While we are on this earth, we can sing these praises, not because all our difficulties have ceased, but because God is with us. In the coming of Christ this Christmas eve, we praise God for sending His Love from Above. We celebrate Christ with us, the one beloved by the Father, and the one who gives and shows us His love for us.

 

The coming of Christ as the Father’s Love from Above is exemplified through: 1) The Rejoicing of Love (Zephaniah 3:14), 2) The Reasons for Love (Zephaniah 3:15), and finally 3) The Results of Love (Zephaniah 3:16–17)

 

The coming of Christ as the Father’s Love from Above is exemplified through:

1)         The Rejoicing of Love (Zephaniah 3:14)

Zephaniah 3:14 14 Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! (ESV)

 

The opening verse of this section contains an unrestrained summons to rejoice. By piling up every available expression for joy, the prophet leaps across the vale of gloom into the realm of grace-beyond-devastation (O Palmer Robertson).  He starts with the direction to have a triumphant song.  Indeed, they are to ‘Sing aloud… shout … Rejoice and exult/be glad. The term that is used forshout’ is one that is often used in Scripture in connection with the cry given at the beginning of a battle (cf. Num. 10:9; Josh. 6:10; 1 Sam. 17:20; 2 Chr. 13:12, 15), the outcome of which is not believed to be in doubt. Coupled as it is with gladness and rejoicing, it is also reasonable to assume that these people are being called upon to rouse their faith and, as we shall go on to see, they have every good reason for doing so. Moreover, the kind of rejoicing that is expected is not half-hearted. Each person is told to rejoice ‘with all your heart’. They are to shake off all sense of reserve and doubt. They are to rejoice as though the victory had already been won, even though its reality is still some way off. With all their emotions the people should rejoice and exult/be glad (Barker, K. L. (1999). Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (Vol. 20, p. 494). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.). True praise of God can never be less than an exercise of the whole person (Ps. 103:1).( MacKay, J. L. (1998). Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah (p. 400). Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications.)

  • Why do we come together to celebrate God’s love? In the midst of difficulty in our lives, alone we are tempted to doubt that He loves us. But when we come together in corporate worship we recount all that He has done and promises to do. The sending of His Son is the greatest gift of love and even though the consummation of His love seems far off, our worship is an expression of faith in the fulfillment of His promises.

 

Who is it that is to rejoice in this way? It is the people of God: ‘O daughter of Zion … O Israel … O daughter of Jerusalem!’ The very mention of these namestwo geographical (Zion, Jerusalem) and one ethnic (Israel)—would have brought back wonderful memories of God’s gracious dealings with his people in the past. But it is not just, or even primarily, the past that is in this prophet’s mind now. He is concerned with both the present and a most glorious future that is in store for these people. He refers to the city as ‘daughter’—the simple explanation being that the Hebrew word for ‘city’ is feminine. This daughter is, however, the reassembled remnant of Israel. As such she has a special relationship with her Lord and therefore she is entitled to the confidence that goes with such a relationship. When these people sing and shout and rejoice, it is because they know something of who God is, what He is like and what He can do. Their rejoicing is based upon the certainty of the promises of one whose word will never fail. His word is the expression of His love to His people and the fulfillment of that word is evidence of that love.

 

Please turn to Malachi 1 (p.801)

 

It is not uncommon to question the love of God in the midst of difficulty. Malachi exposes and answers the doubts of his contemporaries who question God’s love because of their political, economic, and spiritual destitution. (Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (p. 1774). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.)

 

Malachi declares:

Malachi 1:2-5I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How have you loved us?” “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.” If Edom says, “We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins,” the Lord of hosts says, “They may build, but I will tear down, and they will be called ‘the wicked country,’ and ‘the people with whom the Lord is angry forever.’ ” Your own eyes shall see this, and you shall say, “Great is the Lord beyond the border of Israel!” (ESV)

  • This might seem like a strange passage to use to talk about God’s love, but it epitomizes the nature of His love. If God had chosen Jacob/Israel over Esau/Edom, why did he allow his people to suffer the total devastation of their country in 586 b.c. by Nebuchadnezzar and 70 years of Babylonian captivity. But the broad outworking of history is the evidence of God’s love for His people. As Zephaniah would talk of the daughter of Jerusalem, Malachi referred to how Jacob experienced God’s sovereign favor by which he was granted a privileged role in redemptive history as a bearer of the messianic promise (Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (p. 1774). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.)
  • Even through, Christ was sent to a nation under Roman captivity at His birth, and would one day suffer crucifixion under that captivity, that death brought us life. The Father’s love for us was not contradicted by suffering, but perfectly epitomized by Christ’s suffering. Our suffering is not an abandonment by God, but the usual means of Him outworking His love for us.

 

Illustration:3218 Love Makes Obedience

God did not just have a warm regard for us, but acted on His love in sending His Son. For us, true love is shown in obedience. Hazel Hartwell Simon said it like this:Love makes obedience a thing of joy! To do the will of one we like to please Is never hardship, though it tax our strength; Each privilege of service love will seize! Love makes us loyal, glad to do or go, And eager to defend a name or cause; Love takes the drudgery from common work, And asks no rich reward or great applause. Love gives us satisfaction in our task, And wealth in learning lessons of the heart; Love sheds a light of glory on our toil And makes us humbly glad to have a part. Love makes us choose to do the will of God, To run His errands and proclaim His truth; It gives our hearts an eager, lilting song; Our feet are shod with tireless wings of youth! (Hazel Hartwell Simon as recorded in Tan, P. L. (1996). Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: Signs of the Times (p. 762). Garland, TX: Bible Communications, Inc.)

 

The coming of Christ as the Father’s Love from Above is exemplified through:

2) The Reasons for Love (Zephaniah 3:15)

Zephaniah 3:15 15 The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;  you shall never again fear evil. (ESV)

 

Clear reasons are now given for the call to rejoice referred to in verse 14. In Scripture, you find the indicative (what is) before the imperative (what to do). In contrast to much of the mushy, shallow, infatuation commonly found in music to “love”, true biblical Christianity is characterized by clearly articulated reasons and incentives for doing what it is called upon to do. Just as there are reasons to believe, so there are reasons to rejoice in God’s love. The great overall reason for rejoicing here are that the things which God in his kindness has promised are as good as done. Even though in the time of Zephaniah, the people have still to go into exile; there is still much suffering that will have to be endured. Full participation in the blessings that God will soon enunciate are still a distant reality to those who are called upon to rejoice in them. But all the verbs in this verse are prophetic perfects or “perfectives of confidence,” a device to speak of the certainty of the events (Barker, K. L. (1999). Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (Vol. 20, p. 494). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.).

  • We too are a people awaiting the fulfillment of promise. We celebrate the coming of Messiah that first Christmas, but will still have to endure suffering. How can we know God’s love? We are confident that He loves us because of what He has done in the sending of His son, and the sure promise of His return.

 

The first explicit reason that Zephaniah offers for their rejoicing is that ‘The Lord has taken away the judgements/punishment against you’. Although the immediate context justifies identifying those ‘taken away’ with the oppressive regime that had subjugated Israel, ancient Israel’s problems, like our own, are not simply, or even primarily, those that arise from external factors; they also arise from the sin that lives and threatens to rule in the human heart. It is this that has caused the invasions to come about in the first place; the wrath of God—whether it takes the form of an invading army sent to punish, or that accumulated outburst which awaits the impenitent at death or on the Day of Judgement (Rom. 2:5)—is his response to sin’s rebellion. Therefore to have this dealt with, to have it once and for all behind us, ought to be a great source of joy to the child of God in experiencing God’s love (cf. Rom. 5:1-2). The unchanging love of God toward his people cannot rest apart from a completed redemption, despite the necessity of punishment for sins (Robertson, O. P. (1990). The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah (p. 336). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.). The greatest impact of having Christ come to us is the forgiveness of sin through Him. After the taking away of sin (Zep 3:13) follows the taking away of trouble. When the cause is removed, the effect will cease. Happiness follows in the wake of holiness (Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 1, p. 710). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.). This is all linked with love. That is why Jesus said in John 14:15If you love me, you will obey what I command. That is what Zephaniah is saying. If you are among those who have been touched and changed by God and who therefore love him, you will be striving to do what God says. You will want to obey him. You will be succeeding more and more, for wanting to obey Christ is the most important factor in a life of holiness.( Boice, J. M. (2002). The Minor Prophets: an expositional commentary (p. 457). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.)

 

A second reason for rejoicing is that ‘He has cleared/turned back your enemies’. As has already been intimated, it must be remembered that this enemy was God’s means of chastising his rebellious people. Neither the Assyrians who overthrew Israel in 722 B.C. nor the Babylonians who were destined to overthrow Judah in 586 B.C. had assailed God’s people simply at their own instigation. Those who made themselves the enemies of God’s ancient people by invasion, subjugation and exile were nevertheless God’s unwitting instruments. But their time too would come. The Babylonians would be replaced by the Persians and, in due time, the Persians too would succumb to a conqueror of their own. (cf. Hab. 2:15–17). Here, then, is a further cause for rejoicing among the people of God. The wicked can do no more than God permits; moreover, they will never be permitted to triumph in their wickedness. God is always on the side of his people, and those who prove faithful will find that ultimate victory will be given into their hands (Deut. 28:7). In all of this the rejoicing is becauseHe (the LORD) has” done these things.

 

Please turn to 1 John 4 (p.1023)

 

The third reason for rejoicing is that ‘The King of Israel, the Lord is in your midst/with you’. Supreme happiness for the child of God is to know that God is in the midst of His people. Sometimes, however, it is made to seem as if he is a long way off. This is especially (though not exclusively) so when we are consciously disobedient to him. The fact of the matter is that He can only be known and felt to be with his people in a positive sense when He is revered by them. Or, to use the very words suggested by the text, he can only be present as King. There can be no compromise in this. If we would have him with us, he must exert his kingly rights over us. When there is Immanuel, God with us, it is transformative. Jubilation does not arise from our own actions, but rather because of the presence of our God. (Baker, D. W. (1994). Zephaniah. In D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, & G. J. Wenham (Eds.), New Bible commentary: 21st century edition (4th ed., pp. 855–856). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.)

 

John explained the significance of the LORD being in our midst/with us:

1 John 4:7-12 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. (ESV)

  • Because love is an essential attribute of God, He sent His son for us. Christ is therefore the Immanuel, God with us. In having the LORD in our midst/with us, it means redemption from sin for those who repent of their sin and put their faith in Christ. Christmas transforms: God with us shows us His love and enables us to love one another. There is no true love without Christmas.

 

Christmas means no fear. When the Lord is among his people, “you shall never again fear evil/any harm”. The people in Zephaniah’s time did not have to fear the treat of invasion. To have God with us is to live under his guardianship and protection. Now who or what could meaningfully challenge the security provided by this ‘King of kings’? At a much later date the eternal Son of God would offer similar assurances to his people, saying to them,I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand’ (John 10:28–29). So, as these Old Testament people look to the future, they too can rejoice with confidenceGod is in their midst and they have no need to fear. No longer will He be present only in His shekinah glory, or as the Angel of the Lord; indeed, He will personally reside in Jerusalem “in [their and our] midst.” Therefore, “you shall never again fear evil/any harm.The personal presence of the Lord shall render ineffective all the powers of evil and harm (Kaiser, W. C., & Ogilvie, L. J. (1992). Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi (Vol. 23, pp. 239–240). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc.).

 

Poem:William Rees (1802–83) expressed it like this:

Here is love, vast as the ocean. Lovingkindness as the flood, When the Prince of life, our ransom,

Shed for us his precious blood. Who his love will not remember? Who can cease to sing his praise? He can never be forgotten Throughout heaven’s eternal days. On the Mount of Crucifixion. Fountains opened deep and wide; Through the floodgates of God’s mercy Flowed a vast and gracious tide. Grace and love, like mighty rivers, Poured incessant from above, And heaven’s peace and perfect justice Kissed a guilty world in love (William Rees (1802–83) translated by William Edwards (1848–1929).

 

Finally, the coming of Christ as the Father’s Love from Above is exemplified through:

3) The Results of Love (Zephaniah 3:16–17)

Zephaniah 3:16–17 16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: “Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. 17The 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. (ESV)

 

In verse 16, not only is ‘that day’ kept firmly in focus, but also the theme of fear. Fear is being connected with despair (cf. Isa. 13:7). It is a portrait of someone who has been reduced to utter despair. His hands, the instruments by which he normally does his work, are hanging limply by his side (cf. Heb. 12:12; Isa. 35:3). It is as if he has no energy left within him. He has been reduced to hopelessness; he doesn’t have the heart to go on. This is a clear picture of what fear can do to us. We can, as we say, become ‘paralysed with fear’. But the whole point of this statement here is to remind the people of God that there is no reason why this condition should remain true of them. On ‘that day’ all the causes of their fearful and depressive anxiety will be removed. Indeed, the expectation of such a day should have the opposite effect; a new vigour should characterize both their countenance and their conduct. This should be especially so when they realize that ‘On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem, “Fear not/Do not fear, O Zion; let not/do not let your hands grow weak/hang limp. Now the question is: who will say such things to the inhabitants of this city? The answer seems to be that their deliverance has become common knowledge; it is said by everyone (3:9–10). Such is the contrast between their former and present state that the whole world will join in the general praise of the arrival of their longed-for peace and security. That day will throw off all discouragements. The prospect of this has important consequences even for their immediate situation. It is certainly not a time for selfish indulgence.

  • The significance of the gift of Christ’s love to us, results in the love of Him and in the giving of this gift to others.

 

 

Please turn to Romans 8 (p.944)

 

In verse 17, the coming of the LORD is seen in the assurance of His omnipotence. The verse begins, ‘The Lord your God is in your midst/with you’. Once again, this opening sounds very familiar (cf. 3:15). But even here something very special is immediately added. It is that this God is most definitely theirs (‘your God’). This wonderful assurance is then immediately followed by another: He is: “a mighty one (gibbôr ) who will save.’ The word translated “mighty” is gibbôr, an adjective usually used as a noun, often translatedhero” or “warrior” as in 1:14. It is used most frequently with military activities to describe one “who has already distinguished himself by performing heroic deeds.” In this case the word speaks of God who is “a warrior who brings salvation.”…So here the Divine Warrior has declared peace. He will issue no more battle cries. He will wreak no more havoc. His people have no reason for fear except a healthy “fear of the Lord” (see 3:7, 15–16). He has accomplished his purpose. He has vanquished the proud. The holy, humble remnant now seek him in righteousness. The cry has become reality: “The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad; let the distant shores rejoice” (Ps 97:1). “The Lord reigns, let the nations tremble; he sits enthroned between the cherubim, let the earth shake. Great is the Lord in Zion; he is exalted over all the nations. Let them praise your great and awesome name—he is holy” (Ps 99:1–3).( Barker, K. L. (1999). Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (Vol. 20, pp. 495–496). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.)

 

How is this power relevant to His love? The Apostle Paul explained to the Christians in Rome:

Romans 8:31-39 31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (ESV)

  • God’s power keeps us in His love. In the great exhibiting of His love, He shall not let anything in the universe detract, or separate us from it.  According to v. 37, we are conquerors through him who loved us

 

The fourth reason for rejoicing according to Zephaniah 3:17 is that the Lord assures us of the depth of His love. Indeed, God is now seen to be doing that which he had previously exhorted his people to do. God is exalting, delighting, rejoicing and singingover us! In three simple but stunning ways the prophet reminds the people of the great experiential love that awaits them. First, the prophet says that ‘He will rejoice/take great delight over/in you with gladness .’ It is not just that we will learn to delight in our gracious Lord, but that He will delight in us. Indeed, there is to be a mutual joy and rejoicing in our love for each other. This delight is grounded in the kind of God he is; he is a God of mercy (Micah 7:18). Few things give him as much pleasure as being able to show kindness to his people. He delights to take on the role of the father whose ever-loving arms embrace the returning prodigal (Luke 15:11–32). He is like the once-jilted lover who now delights in taking the object of his love for his bride (Isa. 62:5; cf. 65:19).  As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride (cf. Is. 62:4), the Lord will exult over His people with gladness and song, resting in quiet ecstasy over His people in whom is all His delight (cf. Deut. 30:9; Is. 54). (MacArthur, J., Jr. (Ed.). (1997). The MacArthur Study Bible (electronic ed., p. 1330). Nashville, TN: Word Pub.)

 

Secondly, the prophet says that ‘He will quiet you by/with his love.’ This as an act of God towards his people. He will quiet ‘you’—that is, ‘Jerusalem’, ‘Zion’, ‘Israel’, the people of God. After all they have been through, he will quiet them with tokens of his love. He will, in New Testament terms, ‘shed his love abroad in our hearts’ (Rom. 5:5)—a love that is beyond all human comprehension.

  • Christmas is a timeto be still in the Love of God. We contemplate His love, we praise Him for His love and share His love with others as He shared His love with us.

 

Finally, the prophet says, ‘He will exult/rejoice over you with loud singing.’ Having exhorted them to rejoice, it is now time for God to exult/rejoice over them. To consider Almighty God sinking in contemplations of love over a once-wretched human being can hardly be absorbed by the human mind.” But that is exactly the point of the verse—God delights in you….“Yahweh joins the people’s singing and soothes them by expressing love.” This amazing love of God for human beings is inexplicable. Human minds would never dream up such a God. Human actions or human character could never deserve such loveIn the core of his being, God is love (1 John 4:8). Zephaniah thus sings the prelude to the cross kind of love Jesus reveals, a love that “surpasses knowledge” (Eph 3:19). How can this not cause God’s people to praise!Surely the greatest reason for us to offer praise is found here. We are to rejoice in Him because He, our gracious King and Savior, rejoices in us.” ( Barker, K. L. (1999). Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (Vol. 20, p. 497). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.) God the Spirit sings today through the hearts and lips of Christians who praise God in the Spirit (Eph. 5:18–21).( Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). Be concerned (p. 137). Colorado Springs, CO: Chariot Victor.)

  • There is no greater expression of Christmas love than to consider that it is because of love that God came to dwell with us.

 

(Format note: Some base commentary from Webber, D. (2004). The Coming of the Warrior-King: Zephaniah Simply Explained (pp. 153–185). Darlington, England: Evangelical Press.)

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