We are studying Zephaniah 3:14-20 for Sunday, May 3. This is the sudden, happy good news that comes abruptly at the end of a prophecy that up to this point has focused on complete and total dire destruction. [Here are some questions on the text.] Here are my notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Zephaniah is a short work – it’s tempting to call it “concentrated” – of mostly unrelieved, unmitigated disaster. Except for the last part of the last chapter, which includes our text.
The first verse of the book places it “in the days of King Josiah,” which would make its date of composition sometime 640-609 BCE. Josiah was one of the good kings of Judah. The book of Kings (2 Kings 22:1 – 23:30) portrays him as a righteous religious reformer, but explicitly judges the Josian reforms as too late to avert disaster (2 Kings 23:26). The dire predictions of the book of Zephaniah are in line with the prophecy delivered by Huldah in 2 Kings 22, after rehabbers in the Temple discover a “book of the law,” which is generally described as some version of the book of Deuteronomy.
“The great day of YHWH is near, near and hastening fast” (Zeph. 1:14), and it will be “bitter.” There is no call to turn and be saved in this prophecy. There is only a plea for “all you humble of the land” to “seek YHWH” so that “perhaps you may be hidden on the day of YHWH’s wrath” (Zephaniah 2:3). Maybe a few individuals will be justified in holding out a small amount of hope on that day, but just for themselves, not for the nation or the city.
Zephaniah never names Babylon as the agent of this destruction, but we know from our own historical perspective that the Babylonians fit Zephaniah’s description.
As a result of this prophetic bleakness, the hopeful future on the other side of this disaster strikes the reader as even more unexpected, dramatic, and shocking.
Zephaniah 3:14-20 appears annually in the lectionary in the readings for Easter Vigil. Every three years, it’s also one of the choices for the Third Sunday of Advent, alongside Luke 3:7-18 (“You brood of vipers!”) and Philippians 4:4-7 (“Rejoice in the Lord always!”). The lectionary here rivals Zephaniah himself for a whiplash-inducing juxtaposition of messages.
CLOSER READING: Zion/Jerusalem is the subject of a number of imperatives, commands: “sing”, which is really more like a kind of shout or cry than a melody, “shout,” “rejoice/exult,” “don’t fear,” “don’t let your hands droop.”
Zion/Jerusalem is a feminine singular subject. In this text, YHWH is the mighty one who will save the princess.
YHWH has most of the verbs in the text, and they alternate between rejoicing and saving, by taking away adverse judgments and turning away or “dealing with” enemies or oppressors. YHWH also gathers outcasts.
In v17, God will “exult” over Jerusalem with singing – this is the same kind of loud, piercing, victory shouting kind of “singing” as in v14. So Zion and God will both be making a lot of noise. We should have in mind more “boo-yah!” and “ta-daa!!!” than some refined classical duet.
V18 might mean what the NRSV says, about removing disaster, or maybe it means “I will gather them that sorrow for the solemn assembly, who were of thee; to whom the burden upon her was a reproach.” (Complete Jewish Bible; American Standard & KJV are similar). Everyone seems to struggle to make sense of the text here.
In v20, the speaker suddenly addresses a [masculine, plural] group of people; God will gather you-all; that gathering it will be simultaneous with the restoration of personified Zion. In fact, the word translated fortunes is literally captives, a feminine plural that might refer to the city and its surrounding towns, although it could also refer to people.
The language of “restored fortunes” [or, literally, restored captives] might well remind us of Psalm 126. In real life, as in Zephaniah, after what came before, the arrival of good news seems unbelievable at first.