From Gospel Translations
I’ve written a handful of books on a variety of topics, and one thing that occasionally happens when you publish a book is that people ask you to sign it. I think of signing autographs as something that famous people do, so it feels a bit awkward to sign a book. I’m happy to do it, however. If you’ve written a Christian book, many people will want something in addition to your signature. They also ask for your favorite verse of Scripture. Many authors will write down a verse such as John 3:16 or Romans 8:28. My favorite verse of Scripture is Zephaniah 3:17.
Years ago, I was sitting at a conference book-signing table with a prominent Reformed scholar. He saw me writing “Zeph. 3:17” under my signature. When there was a break in the line, he leaned over and whispered: “Show off.” I knew he was kidding me, but his words were important insofar as he was pointing out the obvious fact that Zephaniah is not on many Christians’ “Favorite Books of the Bible” list. When was the last time you read Zephaniah?
Before looking at Zephaniah 3:17, it may help to know who Zephaniah was. Zephaniah was a prophet of God who was called to bring a message of judgment to the people of Judah in the seventh century BC during the reign of Josiah (640–609 BC), the last of the godly kings of Judah. This was a crucial period in the history of God’s people because these were the final decades leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon in 586. The northern kingdom of Israel had already fallen to the Assyrians in 722. Judah was on the same path of sin and rebellion. Into this context came the prophet Zephaniah.
Zephaniah’s book begins with one of the most dramatic declarations of coming judgment found anywhere in Scripture. His description of the calamity that is about to fall upon Judah hearkens back to God’s judgment of the earth during the days of Noah. Zephaniah writes (in 1: 2–3):
“I will utterly sweep away
everything from the face of
the earth,” declares the Lord.
“I will sweep away man and beast;
I will sweep away the birds of the
heavens and the fish of the sea,
and the rubble with the wicked.
I will cut off mankind from
the face of the earth,” declares
Here the wrath of God against those who rebel against Him is on clear display. Those who think such language is harsh do not understand the truly evil nature of sin. Most of the book continues along this vein, with Zephaniah pronouncing oracles of impending doom against Judah and against the nations.
The final section of the book (3:9–20), however, contains two oracles of salvation. This is not unusual in the prophetic books as the prophets move from oracles of woe to oracles of blessing. Zephaniah’s oracles of blessing indicate that judgment is not God’s last word for His people. He begins with an oracle concerning God’s purification of a faithful remnant (vv. 9–13). This is followed by an oracle describing God’s rejoicing with His people (vv. 14–20). In verse 14, God calls upon His people to sing and rejoice (v. 14), for He has taken away their judgments and removed their enemies (vv. 15–16). Then in verse 17, we read what O. Palmer Robertson calls “the John 3:16 of the OT.”
The Lord your God is in
your midst, a mighty
one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with
God calls upon His people to sing and rejoice in verse 14. Then in verse 17, He sings and rejoices over them. Stop and consider this for a moment. The Lord God Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, the Holy One of Israel, rejoices over the remnant. He exults over the faithful with loud singing. Loud singing! Rejoicing! This is not Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover.” This is not the abstract god of the philosophers. This is our God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And this God, the living God, rejoices over His faithful remnant with gladness and loud singing.
Does this remind you of any New Testament passage? Consider the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32). The father in this parable, who represents God, sees his prodigal son returning home, and what does he do? He runs to him, embraces him, and kisses him. This was not something a dignified, elderly Jewish man did at the time. Jesus tells us there is joy in heaven when a sinner repents (Luke 15:7). It is not only the angels who rejoice. God rejoices as well. Zephaniah 3:17 vividly reminds us that our Father in heaven is not some distant deist god who cares nothing for us. It is a picture of profound and deep personal love, the kind of love that would sacrifice all for our sake. The kind of love that did sacrifice all for our sake. To Him be all glory, honor, and power.