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As is often the case in the Old Testament prophetic books, the third chapter of Zephaniah takes us on a roller coaster ride from harsh scoldings and dire threats to inspiring words of encouragement and hope. Yahweh is talking to Jews, of course. The ancient Jews are who He’s talking to most of the time in the Bible. And when we get to verse 17 of this intense chapter, we come across one of those famous one liners that Christians love to yank out of context and claim as a direct promise for themselves.
“Yahweh your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in His love He will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.” (Zeph. 3:17)
Isolating this verse can give you all kinds of problems. For starters, God isn’t talking to you. His thought actually begins in verse 16, where His audience is identified:
“Do not fear, Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. Yahweh your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in His love He will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.” (Zeph. 3:16-17)
We’re in the Old Testament here. And since the Jews treat God abominably throughout the entire Old Testament, it should give you pause whenever you find Yahweh speaking so positively towards them. Clearly we need more information.
Zion is another name for Jerusalem. This whole passage is directed to the Jews who are living in the southern kingdom of Judah. The prophet Zephaniah preaches around the same time that Jeremiah is starting his long preaching career. By now, the northern kingdom of Israel has already fallen to the Assyrians and Yahweh is getting ready to hand the south over to the Babylonians. He tells the prophet Jeremiah that He’s so disgusted with the Jews who are alive at this time that nothing will stop Him from destroying them. Jeremiah even gets in trouble with God for trying to pray for mercy for his fellow countrymen. Earlier in Zephaniah 3, we find the prophet saying:
Woe to the city that is rebellious and defiled, the oppressive city! She has not obeyed; she has not accepted discipline. She has not trusted in Yahweh; she has not drawn near to her God. (Zeph. 3:1-2)
Now does God love the Jews? Of course He does. But these particular Jews are snarky little twerps, and since God rebukes spiritual rebellion, you need to be careful not to run wild with the part of verse 17 that says:
“He will take great delight in you; in His love He will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.” (Zeph. 3:17)
Yahweh really doesn’t take great delight in willful defiance. He doesn’t smile on snarky souls, nor does He rejoice over brats. Yet many Christians teach that He does exactly this by teaching that God’s wrath is never directed towards those who are saved. Many view salvation as some free pass that we can use to spit in the faces of Yahweh, Jesus and the Holy Spirit without fear of retribution. Well, no, this isn’t at all how it works. So since Yahweh is speaking to a crop of Jews who are currently hating Him, and we find Him suddenly talking about delighting in them, what’s going on?
Reading the whole chapter always helps. Back in verses 11-12, we find Yahweh describing a purging of all of the rebels from this crowd of folks who He is addressing. There are always at least a few earnest, God-fearing souls somewhere in the mix. God says He’ll remove all of the twerps until only the sincere believers remain.
“On that day you will no longer need to be ashamed, for you will no longer be rebels against Me. I will remove all proud and arrogant people from among you. There will be no more haughtiness on My holy mountain. Those who are left will be the lowly and humble, for it is they who trust in the Name of Yahweh. The remnant of Israel will do no wrong; they will never tell lies or deceive one another.” (Zeph. 3:11-13)
On our site, you’ll notice that we sometimes write posts that are directed to a very specific audience. When we do this, we let you know by either putting an indication in the title such as “Help for Priests” or we’ll define who we’re talking to at the beginning of the post by saying something like, “In this post, we’re talking to Christian soldiers.” God frequently does the same thing in the Bible, and if you’re going to properly interpret what He says, you need to always look for comments in which He defines who He is talking to. When someone yanks verse 17 out and tosses it into one of those Bible promise books that are so popular among Christians, it can easily sound like God is talking to you in this passage and delighting over you just because. But no, if you check out the context, He’s clearly talking to ancient Jews. Not only is He talking to Jews, but He specifies in verses 11-13 that the only Jews He’s taking delight in are those who are sincerely seeking and trusting Him. It’s the righteous remnant that Yahweh says He is so pleased with, not just any random group of souls. It’s earnest believers who are taking the concept of honoring Him very seriously.
DOES GOD REALLY SING?
So what’s with the singing thing? Does God actually sing over us? Verse 17 can also be interpreted to mean God is “shouting with joy,” but either way, a very theatrical behavior is being described. Is this language meant to be taken literally?
When you personally get excited about something, do you usually burst out in spontaneous song? Many Americans and Brits would find this to be rather over the top behavior. Well, the ancient Jews were all about drama and noise. They loved making emotional scenes in public. They had no use for stuffing things down or keeping a stiff upper lip. When they were upset, they ripped their clothes in public, walked around in rough, scratchy material, and threw dirt all over themselves. In the book of Ezra, we find the priest Ezra throwing himself down on the ground in something akin to an adult tantrum as he prays to Yahweh at the top of his lungs.
Being exclamatory was so important to the Jews that they’d actually hire people to wail out loud at funerals just to crank the volume up to acceptable levels. For these people, broadcasting emotions was essential. In exciting moments, everyone shouted at the top of their lungs. When something really thrilling happened, it was quite natural for someone to burst into song and do some kind of spontaneous jig. After the Israelites crossed through the Red Sea, we find Moses’ sister Miriam busting out in song in Exodus 15. After a great military victory in Judges 5, military officer Barak and the prophetess Deborah break out in spontaneous song, and you can bet they weren’t singing softly. In 1 Kings 1, young Solomon gets officially anointed as the next king of Israel. The Jews work themselves into such an epic lather that we’re told:
All of the people followed Solomon into Jerusalem, playing flutes and shouting for joy. The celebration was so joyous and noisy that the earth shook with the sound. (1 Kings 1:40)
When our Gods talk to us, They use language, metaphor, and imagery that we can personally resonate with. Yahweh is talking to Jews in the Bible. The ancient Jews had some strange terms. They associated power with arms. Ever wonder why Yahweh’s always reaching His arm out in the Old Testament? It’s because He’s talking to Jews. “The arm of the Lord” meant “the power of the Lord” to Jewish ears. In Zephaniah 3:17, Yahweh is encouraging a small remnant of sincere believers that He really delights in their devotion to Him. Well, if you’re going to get across the concept of delight to an ancient Jew, you’ve got to make some noise about it. You can’t just say, “I’m pleased with you.” You should at least be bursting out in song or shouting for joy. These are Jews God is talking to, and they have no use for subtlety. So when Yahweh is talking to Jews, He talks like a Jew, hence we find Him talking about singing over a people who love dramatic expressions of emotion. It’s yet another fabulous example of how personal our Gods get with us.
So what’s the takeaway for you here? Should you be picturing God literally belting out melodies in Heaven about you? Well, if this is an image that blesses you and you are sincerely seeking God, then He’ll probably encourage you to view Him this way. If you find this kind of imagery strange or off-putting, then God is going to use different imagery when He describes His pleasure with you. Your relationship with God is a personal, intimate thing. He isn’t going to relate to you the same way that He relates to someone else, and that’s a wonderful thing.
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