14 Rejoice, Daughter Zion! Shout, Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem. 15 The LORD has removed your judgment; he has turned away your enemy. The LORD, the king of Israel, is in your midst; you will no longer fear evil. 16 On that day, it will be said to Jerusalem: Don’t fear, Zion. Don’t let your hands fall. 17 The LORD your God is in your midst—a warrior bringing victory. He will create calm with his love; he will rejoice over you with singing. 18 I will remove from you those worried about the appointed feasts. They have been a burden for her, a reproach. 19 Watch what I am about to do to all your oppressors at that time. I will deliver the lame; I will gather the outcast. I will change their shame into praise and fame throughout the earth. 20 At that time, I will bring all of you back, at the time when I gather you. I will give you fame and praise among all the neighboring peoples when I restore your possessions and you can see them—says the LORD. (CEB)
How many of you knew there was a black prophet of African ancestry in the Old Testament? Well, if you didn’t, then meet Zephaniah. He was the son of Cushi, which, in Hebrew, means African, and usually refers to the upper-Nile region south of Egypt. Whether Cushi is the name of Zephaniah’s father or a racial designation, we don’t know.
Zephaniah the prophet went beyond naming the usual two generations of his genealogy, expanding it to four. He was the grandson of Gedaliah, and great-grandson of Amariah, and the second-great-grandson of Hezekiah (c.f. Zephaniah 1:1). It’s assumed that his second-great-grandfather was King Hezekiah. So, Zephaniah was a distant part of the royal family: maybe second-cousin to King Josiah.
After all, King Hezekiah had strong political ties to the 25th Dynasty of Egyptian Pharaohs, who were Nubians of the Kushite Empire. The Scriptures mention several people of African descent living in Israel in the days of the prophets Zephaniah and Jeremiah. It was common for marriages to be made between royal families to seal political alliances. It’s possible that a daughter of Gedaliah, who would have been King Hezekiah’s great-granddaughter, was given in marriage to a Nubian noble named Cushi as part of the continued alliance between Judah and Egypt. If that’s the case, then Zephaniah was born from that political union. And, we have a black prophet in the Old Testament.
This section of Zephaniah’s writing stands out as a sudden and unexpected shout of joy. The first eight oracles are only bad news for, and judgment against, Judah and Jerusalem. While King Hezekiah “…did what was right in the Lord’s eyes, just as his ancestor David had done” (2 Kings 18:3), his son and successor, Manasseh, was one of the worst. And, while Josiah was described as a faithful king who tried to reform the Kingdom of Judah by returning to the laws of the Covenant at Sinai, Zephaniah saw a different reality on the streets.
The people neglected the matters of justice and righteousness. They didn’t take care of the poor. They withheld their tithes and offerings from God. They treated their neighbors with disrespect. They worshipped idols. They put their trust in wealth, power, and prestige. They believed that God wouldn’t act on account of these things. They thought they were secure.
But, through Zephaniah, God said, “I will wipe out everything from the earth, says the LORD. I will destroy humanity and the beasts; I will destroy the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea. I will make the wicked into a heap of ruins; I will eliminate humanity from the earth, says the LORD” (Zephaniah 1:2-3 CEB).
Not only did Zephaniah suggest the destruction of the earth, but he said that the Lord would invade the darkness of Judah’s heart like a person who takes a lamp into a dark place to ferret out secret and hidden sins (c.f. Zephaniah 1:12). The people thought that God didn’t see the things they did or read the thoughts of their minds, or know the sinful desires of their hearts, so they did whatever they wanted. But Zephaniah declared that the day of the Lord is coming: a terrible day of judgment, and a bitter day of distress and anguish, ruin and devastation, darkness and gloom.
It’s almost-but-not-quite astonishing that the last oracle of Zephaniah is one of rejoicing. To be sure, Zephaniah doesn’t foresee everyone rejoicing here. God declared that the corrupt priesthood which was more worried about appointed feasts than justice for the poor, lame, and outcast, would be removed. Their concern was for ritual. But they neglected the weightier matters of righteousness, namely, caring for people.
This was a problem that persisted to the time of Jesus, who said, “How terrible it will be for you legal experts and Pharisees! Hypocrites! You give to God a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, but you forget about the more important matters of the Law: justice, peace, and faith. You ought to give a tenth but without forgetting about those more important matters” (Matthew 23:23 CEB; c.f. also Luke 11:42).
It’s somewhat ironic that the lame would have been considered sinners according to Deuteronomic theology. They would have been outcasts. Their infirmity would have been proof, in the minds of some, that they were sinners. Yet, it’s the lame and the outcast whom God will deliver, gather, and change their shame into praise and fame throughout the earth. These are the very people who were neglected by the king and by the priesthood. He tells those who were being oppressed, “Watch what I am about to do to your oppressors…” (Zephaniah 3:19a CEB).
One thing we need to understand is that, in the Scriptures, promise does not come apart from judgment. The Scriptures do not offer comfort to the comfortable. Rather, God’s promises, like that declared by Zephaniah, come after dark times of death, destruction, despair, and pain. Yet, twice, in the imperative for the people to rejoice, Zephaniah tells the people not to be afraid, and he says that the Lord is in their midst.
But, if we’re honest, we’re afraid of a lot. One scholar suggested that, if we read between the lines of verses 16-20, we can see something of our own souls. “We fear that God is not in our midst… We fear that our hands are weak and powerless… We fear insignificance, doubting that we matter in the course of events and dreading that we will be crushed by them. We fear political defeat and natural disaster. We fear shame and reproach, that our faults… will be discovered and render us less than the person we had fooled ourselves and others into thinking we were. We are afraid that we won’t have enough, won’t be enough. We even fear that God may keep God’s promises, and interrupt the safety of our fears and the familiarity of our enemies with something new” (D. Block in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, pg. 54-55).
Zephaniah’s oracle acknowledges our fears and dispels them with a promise of restoration and joy. It’s as if the prophet has brought us forth to the very lip of the chasm of judgment and doom, only to draw us back at the very last moment. Our joy is made all the more intense because of the absolute hopelessness out of which it springs. The word of God which began as irredeemable judgment has been transformed into transcendent gladness! That which once anticipated the silence of the people (c.f. 1:7) or, worse, our cries of sorrow (c.f. 1:11), now celebrates with a song of joy (c.f. 3:14).
The roots of this song of joy don’t lie in the strength or sudden turn toward goodness of the people. Rather, this song of joy is rooted—absolutely—In the grace and benevolence of God. The God who is Israel’s judge is also Israel’s lover and faithful partner in a holy covenant. The coming of the Lord looked like a moment of disaster and fear, but all that has changed. Now the presence of God among us removes all of our fear; it brings salvation.
This song promises us a day of great joy and exultation. It’s a day of renewed love, gladness, singing, salvation, gathering in, and the restoration of fortunes. It is the Lord who has championed the cause of God’s people. Because our God will now rejoice and exult, we, too, can be caught up in this same celebration. Since the Lord our God will renew us in his love, we are invited to accept this love and to participate in this love with gladness and joy.
Today we are called to rejoice! Rejoice in God our Savior! Rejoice in the one who comes to save us, to heal us, who comes to BE our joy. Christ our Savior not only gives us reason to feel joyful, he IS our joy.
Every December, I hear people lament that they can’t get into the Christmas spirit, that they don’t feel like they should at Christmas time, that they’re missing a feeling of joy. I can relate to that. I think we all can admit there are times in our life where the feeling of joy has been absent. Yet, while joy is a feeling, it’s also a response to what we know to be true. That’s one of the beautiful things about this Sunday: we are reminded that no matter what trouble, trials, or tribulations are going on in our lives, there is reason to rejoice!
Rejoice that God loves you!
Rejoice that God has put God’s own love into us so that we might share it with everyone around us!
Rejoice that God has redeemed us!
Rejoice that God remembers your sins no more!
Rejoice that God calls you by name as his beloved daughters and sons!
Rejoice that God will one day wipe every tear from our eyes!
Rejoice that God has given us each other, to bear with one another through whatever happens in our lives.
Rejoice that God came into our very midst as a human being, born so many years ago, to dwell with us and share our humanity!
Rejoice that Jesus, the Christ, has gone to prepare a place for us where there will be no more sorrows!
Rejoice that our Lord will one day return and make God’s home among us.
Rejoice that we will live forever in the presence of the living God who is Love!
This Sunday, we are invited to rejoice and exult with all our heart in the salvation of our Lord and God. Don’t fear. The Lord our God is in our midst.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
~Rev. Christopher Millay