February 1, 2018 Chapel Service — Dr. Keith Mathison

Posted On February 05, 2018

Keith Mathison
“The God Who Sings and Rejoices
—Zephaniah 3:14–20

Dr. Keith Mathison is Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Fla.



If you have your Bibles, open them to the book of Zephaniah. I’m sure many of you haven’t heard that too often but if you don’t know where this book is, its between Habakkuk and Haggai. So it’s an obscure little book tucked away in the Old Testament. While you’re looking for that, I do have a little story about the obscurity of this book. Years ago at one of the Ligonier conferences, I think it was when one of my books had just been published, I don’t remember, things start to blend together when you’re this old; and Ligonier graciously offered me, they said, “would you like to sit down at one of the signing tables when we do that during the break?” So I said sure, I’d be happy to do that. So I sat down and Robert Godfrey was just to my right. People were lining up, coming down the table. There was four or five of us signing different books that people are bringing. It’s always amusing to me because Bob Godfrey, Sinclair Ferguson, these are my heroes and it’s just kind of amusing to get to sit with them. But, people were coming by and signing them, and back then I used to always write my signature and then I would put Zephaniah 3:17 beneath that. And, Bob Godfrey is looking over at me as I’m signing this after two or three times he says, “what are you writing there?” And I said, “Zephaniah 3:17.” And he just looked at me, “Show off!” So, you know, he meant it, he grinned because nobody knows where Zephaniah is.

You know, a lot of people don’t even know this is in the Bible. But, it’s an obscure text. I know your email said Zephaniah 3:14-20, but I’d like to go back to chapter 1 and set the context for this passage I want to look at. It’s an amazing, astounding passage, but it’s even more so when we look at the context. This is a short little book. The first verse of this book reminds us that Zephaniah ministered during the reign of Josiah who was the last of the Godly kings in Judah. So, this is around 640 to 609, described in 2 Kings 22 and 23. And, the book of Zephaniah’s structure is basically three big parts or sections. First chapter up through chapter 2 verse 3 contains an extensive prophecy about the coming day of the Lord. A day of judgement. And then there’s a middle section from chapter 2 verse 4 through chapter 3 verse 8 that’s a series of oracles against the nations and another oracle of judgment against Judah. And then the final section of the book, chapter 3 verses 9-20, is an oracle of future salvation, redemption and blessing. And, we’ll get to that momentarily, but I would like to just get a glimpse, because Zephaniah is amazing in a number of ways and when we look at how it builds up to this final oracle of salvation; it’s quite amazing.

The theme of the day of the Lord, even though it’s predominant in the first section of the book, dominates the entirety of this little book. Just as Amos had prophesied the imminent coming of the day of the Lord to the northern kingdom of Israel 100 years prior, Zephaniah’s prophesying the day of the Lord against Judah, the southern kingdom in the very near future. The past destruction of Israel by Assyria and the coming destruction of Judah by Babylon are both instances of this day of the Lord; this day of judgement that God is bringing on them. The book opens, after indicating the authorship and when he wrote it, it opens with a declaration of judgement that is so sweeping and so severe it harkens back to the days of Noah. Look at verses 2 and 3 of chapter 1. The word of the Lord through Zephaniah, he says, “‘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 the Lord.” (Zephaniah 1:2,3)

This is, this is intense judgement language, the judgement coming upon Judah in the near future, that God is bringing upon them is analogous to what He did in the days of Noah. And, Israel Judah needs to hear this, they need to understand that this is how severe their sin is. He is going to sweep them away. And, this language is echoed back in Genesis chapter 6. So it’s one of the most dramatic and intense and terrifying pictures of judgement in the entirety of the prophets, and it doesn’t stop there. He expands on the consequences of this coming day of the Lord in verses 8 to 14, it’s going to be a time of punishment and wailing, and then he further describes this coming day in verses 15-18. And, I want to read this passage as well. Just keep this in your mind when we get to the end. This coming day of judgement:

A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements. I will bring distress on mankind, so that they shall walk like the blind, because they have sinned against the Lord; their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung. Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them on the day of the wrath of the Lord. In the fire of his jealousy, all the earth shall be consumed; for a full and sudden end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.

I mean, this is cosmic destruction language that’s coming upon-being applied to Judah. And, this first section of Zephaniah ends with this admonition in the first three verses of chapter 2. “Gather together, yes, gather, O shameless nation, before the decree takes effect—before the day passes away like chaff—before there comes upon you the burning anger of the LORD (YHWH), before there comes upon you the day of the anger.” So this repeated use of the word “before” is reminding us and indicating the urgency of this situation. There is not much time left before this judgment falls. And then he turns in verse 3 and we find a different word repeated. Seek YHWH. “Seek the LORD, all you humble of the land, who do his just commands; seek righteousness; seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the anger of the LORD.” And this repeated use of the word “seek” indicates that all is not lost for those who repent, for those who seek the Lord, who seek humility, who seek righteousness, they may be hidden on the day of the Lord; they may be protected from this poured out wrath and be redeemed and saved through this.

Now, the second major section of Zephaniah is a series of oracles of judgement against the nations and against Judah, as I said, and the oracles of judgement against these nations cover all four points of the compass. There’s an oracle against the Philistines to the West, there is an oracle against Moab and and Amon to the East. Zephaniah turns to an oracle against Cush in the South and then he turns to Assyria in the North. So, North, South, East, and West; all applied here. Following the oracles against the nations is another oracle against Jerusalem describing exactly what it is they did. And, we read in chapter 3 verses 1 to 8.

Woe to her who is rebellious and defiled, the oppressing city! She listens to no voice; she accepts no correction. She does not trust in the LORD; she does not draw near to her God. Her officials within her are roaring lions; her judges are evening wolves that leave nothing till the morning. Her prophets are fickle, treacherous men; her priests profane what is holy; they do violence to the law. The LORD within her is righteous; he does no injustice; every morning he shows forth his justice; each dawn he does not fail; but the unjust knows no shame. “I have cut off nations; their battlements are in ruins; I have laid waste their streets so that no one walks in them; their cities have been made desolate, without a man, without an inhabitant. I said, ‘Surely you will fear me; you will accept correction. Then your dwelling would not be cut off according to all that I have appointed against you.’ But all the more they were eager to make all their deeds corrupt. “Therefore wait for me,” declares the LORD, “for the day when I rise up to seize the prey. For my decision is to gather nations, to assemble kingdoms, to pour out upon them my indignation, all my burning anger; for in the fire of my jealousy all the earth shall be consumed.

Three and a half-two and a half chapters of profoundly intense judgment language that’s coming upon Judah and Zephaniah makes it abundantly clear that this is the wrath of almighty God and it is about to fall and it is fearsome. There has been some hope held out for the repentant, but the emphasis through these first two chapters and the first eight verses of chapter three is wrath. There’s coming judgement and it is not something to be taken lightly. It’s, again, if you read through the prophets and the oracles of judgement, there is almost nothing comparable to the intensity of language in Zephaniah. But then, you turn, in the final verses of Zephaniah, in verses 9 to 20, that this devastating judgement is not the final word. There is hope beyond judgement. Even after this language of cosmic destruction, that He’ll wipe out everything, there’s hope on the other side. There is good news here. This section contains two oracles, First, an oracle concerning God’s purification of the faithful remnant in verses 9 to 13, and then the second and final oracle in Zephaniah, one concerning God’s love for His people. And, that’s the one that I would like us to turn our attention to and slow down and look at this at this point.

Look at what Zephaniah says in verse 14 after all of this: “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem!” It’s a little strange isn’t it? Given the content of the book to this point, given what Zephaniah has said to this point; death and destruction and judgement is coming your way and then he calls them to sing. “Sing-O daughter of Jerusalem, rejoice!” We wouldn’t be surprised if he said “lament and weep O daughter of Jerusalem,” but rejoice? That’s, that’s rather striking. It’s a call for unrestricted celebration and its directed not only to future generations, he’s directing it to his own audience. The-those faithful who are hearing him, who are repenting, who are seeking the Lord, who are seeking righteousness. They are called to rejoice. The day of the Lord is coming upon them very soon, upon Judah and upon Jerusalem. But after his, God is going to deliver them and he will get into this in the next few verses. And, he’s calling them to rejoice in this coming redemption. It’s as good as done because the faithfulness of God; His promise can not fail and He will do this.

In verses 15 and 16 we see hints at this complete redemption: “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. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: “Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak.” These words anticipate the complete redemption of God’s people. He will remove their judgement, he will clear away their enemies He will remove their fear, and ultimately, He is in their midst. The Lord God Almighty is in their midst. And, how else should God’s people respond to this truth? Sing, shout, rejoice, this is good news, this is gospel.

But, it gets more amazing, the language of Zephaniah. Look at verse 17, the first part of this: “The Lord your God is in your midst,” He’s already said that in verses 15 and 16. He is a mighty one who will save. This God, the God who is in their midst, this mighty one who will save. The divine warrior who is going to deliver His people. This God, we’ve spent a lot of time in Doctrine of God class, for some of you this year, for some of you in the past. We talk about: pure act and simplicity and His eternity and his immutability, His perfect goodness, His perfect and pure holiness, all of these things and sometimes that can become very abstract and we can begin to view God as some kind of abstract object. But then look at what Zephaniah says next about this God. The infinite, eternal, immutable, all mighty God, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords: “He will rejoice over you with gladness; He will quiet you by His love,” or as some translators have it, He will be quiet over you in His love, “He will exult over you with loud singing.” Listen to this again. He, God, will rejoice over you with gladness. He will be quiet over you in His love. He will exult over you with loud singing. He’s just called His people, you and me, to sing, to rejoice, to exult, to shout, and here He’s saying He himself rejoices and exults and sings over His people. Over us, over you, and over me; we are God’s-if we are God’s people this is true of us and it’s astounding. Can you even begin to fathom this? Think about it for just one moment, read this passage and meditate on this. The Lord God Almighty, the Creator, the maker of heavens and earth. The One who’s redeemed His people through the blood of His Son sings over them. He-loud singing! Not just quiet singing, not just a lullaby, He sings loudly and rejoices!

Reading this, it’s almost incomprehensible. It’s like getting a peak behind the veil into the holy of holies. It’s just utterly astounding what is being said here. For me, I can imagine God rejoicing over the creation, over the works of His hands. You look at the beauty of the mountains or of the sea, I can picture that. I can see God rejoicing over that and just exulting over that, but over me? A wretched, redeemed sinner? You know, I know my heart, I know where I was, I was an enemy of God. Paul tells us this. We were enemies, we were fleeing from Him. We were blasphemers, sinful, repulsive in every sense, just evil. And, because we have been redeemed, this kind of language is now used of His people that He sings and rejoices over us. It’s absolutely astounding. Why? Because we were enemies. We were enemies and now we are children. We were enemies of God, now adopted children of God and He sings over His children. If you are a child of God He rejoices over you, He sings over you. We recall the prodigal son; I think that’s the passage in the New Testament that reminds me the most of this passage.

You have Jesus giving us this parable of the prodigal son. And, we know the story, the son leaves and squanders all of his inheritance and sins mightily against his father. And, what does the father do? Jesus portrays him as waiting, looking for the son to return. And, we’re that son. You know, we know- we have the same response. The son comes back and what does the father do when he sees the son in that story? He doesn’t push him away, he runs to him. We get this language of this father, he’s girding up this robe and running to him; very undignified in that culture. But this language, Jesus is obviously using this to describe God in His response to a repentant sinner. But how does the son respond? ‘I’m not worthy of this,’ you know, he doesn’t get this. He’s completely astounded at the love of his father. And, that’s how I feel when I’m reading this passage in Zephaniah. ‘Is this possible?’ And, it’s not because of anything intrinsic in us. We are sinners. The basis of this is somewhere else that we’ll-that we need to discuss. But, He’s called us to rejoice, He’s called us to sing, and He says that He sings and He rejoices.

Can you imagine what heaven is going to be like? I’ve always pictured heaven, in the new heavens and the new earth, I recall when I first became a Christian, I loved to close my eyes and listen to the church singing. I just imagined this multiplied by 10,000’s and every tribe and tongue and nation, singing and exulting the Lord. What if God is singing? He’s going to drown us out. This mutual singing, if this is, and this is speculation, the scripture doesn’t say that in Zephaniah. But, we just picture, this is the character of God; His infinite love for those who are in Christ. And, now I picture after running-it took me years to find Zephaniah. I didn’t know where Habakkuk was so I couldn’t find Zephaniah, but, like many young Christians, was focused on the New Testament and then some of the Old Testament; Genesis and the Psalms. But, running across this passage for the first time just stuck me and it’s been a favorite from that point forward. In verses 18 to 20 he continues to speak of this work of redemption.

I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival, so that you will no longer suffer reproach. Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you in, at the time when I gather you together; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,” says the LORD.

Is there any doubt at this point who is going to accomplish the work of redemption? This is not something God’s people can accomplish, He does it. It is God’s sovereign work, only He can accomplish this. He is the one who says, “I will” over and over again. But, how is any of this possible? How will redemption be accomplished? How is it possible that we, who are enemies of God, Jews or Gentiles, can be brought into this state, made children of God and be able to stand in the presence of a holy God and not only be declared righteous but to the point where He sings over us? It’s through the person and work of Jesus Christ. It’s the gospel of Jesus Christ. He’s the one who accomplished the work that makes this possible. When we’re-our justification isn’t because we’re righteous. He’s not declaring us righteous because we are internally of ourselves righteous. The perfect righteousness of Christ is imputed to us, our sin is given to Him, his righteousness is given to us. We’re declared righteous and He sees us in Christ. We are in Christ now and this provides the grounds for Him doing what Zephaniah describes; singing, exulting, rejoicing. It is through the work of Christ that we have this redemption in Ephesians 1 verses 7 and 8. In Him we have redemption through His blood. In Him we have the forgiveness of our trespasses according to the riches of His grace which He lavished upon us in all wisdom and insight.

This work is based on the perfect, infinite, holy love of God that Zephaniah describes. We all know John 3:16, “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Eternal life of face to face with a God who is pouring out that infinite love upon us. And again, we sing and rejoice because of this redemption. Like the saints in the book of Revelation we cry out, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people (you redeemed people) for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” This song of praise to the Lamb, but God sings too. If you have trusted in Christ and in Christ alone, you are His. You are an adopted child of God and He rejoices over you. It’s not just the angels that rejoice over the repentance of a sinner, God is described as rejoicing.

But, we’re not Jews in Judah just prior to an imminent exile into Babylon. So, how does this-how do we apply this? We have very general ideas but how do we think of this? We are in an in between period, the already and not-yet that you’ve heard a lot since you’ve been here, and there is still a judgement to come. There is a day, the ultimate day of the Lord, when this world will be judged in righteousness by the King of Kings; by Christ. That is still ahead of us. But, if we are in Christ. If we have, by His grace, sought righteousness and repented by His grace and through His Spirit then we are hidden, as Zephaniah says, in the day of the Lord. We will be redeemed through that and come out on the other side into the new heavens and the new earth. So we’re not in Judah’s position exactly but we are in an analogous situation. And, like them, like the faithful remnant in Judah, we can look back on God’s past act of redemption on the completed work of Christ and rejoice and sing and exult in this. In that which Jesus has accomplished, that which has been applied by the Holy Spirit to us, we can sing Amazing Grace. We can rejoice in the fact that a wretch like me has been saved by amazing grace, that a wretch like you has been saved by God’s amazing grace through the perfect work, the completed work of Jesus Christ applied to us.

So, we can rejoice in what God has done, but we can also rejoice in what He’s going to do. The work that He has started in us He will complete, He will finish. And, every one of these promises that He has made for our future salvation can not fail to pass because God is the infinite almighty, all powerful God. He can not lie and He can not fail to complete these promises of Salvation. So, we can, like Zephaniah’s contemporaries, we can rejoice in the redemption to come even if there are temporal worldly judgements. Even if this nation should be judged by God tomorrow, we trust that there is salvation on the other side of that because even if this nation is judged or some other nation is judged, the kingdom of God will stand. He will-His throne can not be shaken. We can rejoice in this future salvation that we are called to.

We look back at what He has already done, we do not lose hope in what is to come, what He has promised, and finally again on a more personal level. It’s not just the big cosmic thing. We’re not just numbers in a computer to God. He has saved you as an individual. He has saved me as an individual. He has redeemed us as individuals. And, this language isn’t to be just abstracted. Apply this, read this verse. Go home tonight and read Zephaniah 3:17 and think about that. Think about what kind of love is this that God has done this for you. And, that God sings over you, not for your own intrinsic worth, but for what He has done for you and is doing for you in Christ through the work of the Spirit. To think about the fact, for a moment, that the almighty God, the creator of heaven and earth, our Father, sings over us in His love. I think that should fill us with amazement, it should fill us with awe and it should fill us with joy. It’s, again, easy for us to lose sight of this when we’re reading 500 pages a week and when we’re preparing for exams or writing papers and writing quizzes. And, the Doctrine of God, you’re reading your Berkhof, and you’re reading-whoever else you’re reading, Turretin. And, this God can start to become a topic. An object over there rather than our Father in heaven. Rather than the triune God whose work of salvation has been applied to you. The one who loved us from eternity past and who sent His only begotten Son. He sings, He rejoices. Sing and rejoice in response, we will do this for all eternity.

Transcripts are lightly edited.