Sunday School Lesson
Lesson 4 (KJV)
Renewed in God’s Love
Devotional Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:12–21
Background Scripture: Zephaniah 3:14–20
14 Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem.
15 The LORD hath taken away thy judgments, he hath cast out thine enemy: the king of Israel, even the LORD, is in the midst of thee: thou shalt not see evil any more.
16 In that day it shall be said to Jerusalem, Fear thou not: and to Zion, Let not thine hands be slack.
17 The LORD thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing.
18 I will gather them that are sorrowful for the solemn assembly, who are of thee, to whom the reproach of it was a burden.
19 Behold, at that time I will undo all that afflict thee: and I will save her that halteth, and gather her that was driven out; and I will get them praise and fame in every land where they have been put to shame.
20 At that time will I bring you again, even in the time that I gather you: for I will make you a name and a praise among all people of the earth, when I turn back your captivity before your eyes, saith the LORD.
The LORD thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love.—Zephaniah 3:17a
The Righteous Reign of God
Unit 1: The Prophets Proclaim God’s Power
After participating in this lesson, each learner will be able to:
1. Identify a reason for joy.
2. Contrast a reason for joy with a reason for sorrow.
3. Sing a hymn or praise chorus that reflects the text’s mandate to do so.
How to Say It
A. Nobody Wants to Do It!
A task that no one wants to do is to notify the next of kin that a loved one died in a traffic crash or a similar incident. A veteran of 30-plus years in law enforcement said that this was the worst part of his work. These situations are especially stressful when there are multiple deaths.
Old Testament prophets also had the unwelcome task of bringing bad news. Their task involved not news of deaths that had happened, but deaths that were to come. And reactions to the prophecies differed. At one extreme was wholesale repentance (example: Jonah 3:5–9). Much more common was the other extreme of rejection of the message and persecution of the prophet (example: Jeremiah 38:1–6).
Zephaniah was a prophet like others in bringing news both good and bad. How he was treated is unknown to us. But his prophecies bear study yet today.
B. Lesson Context
The instructor for a class on the Minor Prophets presented an imaginary conversation in Heaven. A person had recently arrived there, and one of the first persons he met introduced himself as Zephaniah. The new arrival was thrilled, for he assumed that this was the prophet who wrote book of the Bible by that name. So he asked his new friend if he had indeed written that book. The individual replied that he had, and then he asked the new arrival in Heaven what he thought of the little book of only three chapters. One of the students in the class reflected on that scenario and decided to write a term paper that would feature some aspect of the book of Zephaniah—just in case!
The prophet is identified in Zephaniah 1:1 in terms of the name of his father. That was a normal way to identify a person more specifically. But that designation is part of a listing found in no other writing prophet: the four generations of those who came before Zephaniah. The fourth one is Hezekiah (given as “Hizkiah” in the King James Version), the same name as one of the “good” kings of Judah (reigned about 727–699 BC; 2 Kings 18). The information given by Zephaniah causes many to conclude that he is referring to that king. That is a conjecture, but it is usually understood that there is no reason to list the name unless it referred to that king, who reigned about 100 years earlier. Zephaniah was therefore a great-great-grandson of Hezekiah. The prophet rebuked members of the royal family (Zephaniah 1:8), and it has been suggested that his being of royal blood gave him more grounds to condemn his cousins.
Zephaniah 1:1 also features the name of “good” King Josiah, during whose reign (from 640 to 609 BC) Zephaniah prophesied. The flagrant iniquity that is condemned throughout most of the book seems to indicate that the reforms of Josiah had not yet taken place. The revival began after the Book of the Law was found in 622 BC by Hilkiah the priest while doing repairs to the temple (2 Chronicles 34:8–15). A possible time for the book of Zephaniah is, therefore, in the late 620s BC.
Judgment, punishment, and hope are three topics frequently found in the writings of the prophets. Judgment indicates that God has compared His announced expectations with the obedience of the people, nation, or nations being considered. Punishment is pronounced on those found guilty. Hope often follows when the punishment has accomplished its purposes. All three topics are present in the book of Zephaniah.
The prophet is primarily concerned with Judah’s continued rebellion against God (see 2 Kings 22:1–23:28). The first two chapters of the book of Zephaniah describe a coming Day of the Lord, in which Judah is to face judgment and punishment for idolatry. The punishment promised was to be a tool of God for purifying His people.
The prophecy presents us with a sharp change of theme beginning in Zephaniah 3:9, where restoration of a remnant takes center stage. Today’s study reviews the final verses of Zephaniah, where a hopeful theme resounds.
I. Praises to the Lord
A. Calls to Sing (v. 14)
14. Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem.
Hebrew poetry often repeats thoughts by using different words—a feature known as parallelism. That feature is present when the phrases in lines of poetry echo one another. Despite two (or more) different phrases, one thing or action is in view. Thus in the verse before us, the daughter of Zion being addressed is the same as both Israel and daughter of Jerusalem. The designation Zion originally referred to “the city of David” (2 Samuel 5:7); eventually Zion came to include the temple area just to the north (Joel 2:1). Zion often parallels (stands for) the city of Jerusalem in Old Testament poetry (example: Psalm 128:5), and that is the case here.
The prophets frequently refer to Jerusalem, Zion, or both in terms of a daughter (examples: Isaiah 37:22; Lamentations 2:13). This is a literary technique known as personification, in which the writer assigns the qualities of a person to something that isn’t human. The name Israel, for its part, can take different references depending on historical context. Sometimes it refers to the entirety of the 12 tribes (example: 1 Kings 4:7). At other times it refers only to the 10 tribes of the northern kingdom of the divided monarchy (example: 2 Kings 3:1). At still other times it refers to the patriarch Jacob (example: Genesis 35:10). Here all the terms in our verse seem to refer to the faithful remnant.
The verse under consideration stands in sharp contrast to Zephaniah 3:11, which addresses wrongful rejoicing because of pride. Future rejoicing with all the heart was to have an entirely different basis as a response to the fulfilled promises of the Lord. God’s people were not forgotten, and times of joy and happiness lay ahead. Indeed, when the first wave of returnees from Babylon laid the foundation for the second temple, their rejoicing was heard far away (Ezra 3:11–13).
What Do You Think?
What prevents you from singing and shouting for joy more frequently?
What other verses encourage you to overcome these barriers to more joyful worship?
B. Causes for the Rejoicing (v. 15)
15a. The LORD hath taken away thy judgments, he hath cast out thine enemy.
Here begins a listing of four reasons why the people were to sing, shout, and rejoice. First, the prophesied Day of the Lord and its attendant judgments would be a thing of the past (see Zephaniah 1:7–10, 14–16, 18; 2:2–3). Second, God will defeat (cast out) the enemy Babylon, thus ending the oppression Judah was yet to face. The oppression was the consequence of the nation’s sinful choices, but God would not allow those consequences to destroy completely. Instead, like a parent considering a punishment to be sufficient, He will end it (compare Isaiah 40:1–2). God’s affirmation of His faithful remnant in this regard is to be the cause for the joyful celebration just noted above.
What Do You Think?
Does accepting the reality that God has taken away judgment for your sins dismiss feelings of guilt? Why or why not?
How will you bear patiently the consequences of past behavior (examples: health issues, broken relationships, legal problems)?
15b. The king of Israel, even the LORD, is in the midst of thee.
We come to the third and most important of the four reasons for rejoicing: the Lord, the real king of Israel, will be with the people. In the ancient Near East, the presence of a king was essential to the well-being of his people. An absentee ruler could not judge disputes. People might think, While the cat’s away, the mice can play (compare Matthew 24:48–49). A ruler who was present and active could be expected to provide some degree of protection and justice. So when Zephaniah describes God as a king present in the midst of His people, the prophet is telling a powerful story of God’s protective rule (compare Isaiah 54:14; Zechariah 9:8–9). The text thus serves to provide encouragement for those who would be oppressed in the still-future Babylonian (Chaldean) exile.
This language of presence foreshadows significant New Testament themes. God’s promise to dwell with His people was fulfilled in Jesus. As the incarnate Word, He physically lived among people (John 1:1–18). Before He ascended, Jesus promised that “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). The indwelling of the Holy Spirit for the Christian is a blessed reality (Romans 8:9–11; 1 Corinthians 6:19; 2 Timothy 1:14). The promise here is also a reminder of Jesus’ final words, as given in Matthew 28:20: that He would be with His people—always!
What Do You Think?
What spiritual practices do you lean into when you need to overcome fear or anxiety?
How does the assurance of God’s presence ease the burden of overcoming these things on your own?
15c. Thou shalt not see evil any more.
When God is with His people, there is no room for evil. And that is the fourth reason for rejoicing. God was promising through Zephaniah to step into the situation in a new way. Although the nation of Judah as a whole had disobeyed and turned its back on God, He would not abandon the faithful remnant among His covenant people. The promised restoration in general and this verse in particular in no way suggest that God exempts His people from experiencing the natural consequences of their choices. The context, rather, is that of God’s removal of those who instigate evil.
The promise of restoration does not end with Zephaniah’s prophecies to pre-exilic Judah (and the restoration that will result in a post-exilic remnant). In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught His disciples to pray for restoration in terms of God’s kingdom coming and God’s will being done (Matthew 6:10).
As Jesus proclaimed that coming kingdom, He did not consider the restoration to have been accomplished fully during His earthly ministry. Instead, restoration and the establishing of the kingdom of God were inaugurated. Fulfillment is in some sense both “now” and “not yet.” Full restoration in terms of new life in Christ is consummated at His return (1 Corinthians 15:52–57; Revelation 22). In the meantime, we allow the Holy Spirit to transform us daily (Romans 12:2).
What Do You Think?
In what ways are you already experiencing the “now” of restoration in your relationship with God?
What aspects of life suggest that you are still living in the “not yet”?
Every year on her birthday, Meri Mion remembers her lost birthday cake. It happened when she turned 13, which was also the day Allied troops liberated her hometown in Italy during World War II. After a tense night, hiding as the retreating Germans shot at their house, Meri and her mother peeked out the next morning to discover that an American command post had been set up only 150 yards away!
In celebration of both Meri’s birthday and the liberation, her mother used scarce supplies to bake a cake. But after leaving it outside the window to cool, it disappeared before Meri had a bite of it. But she reasoned that someone else—maybe even one of her liberators—needed it worse than she did. That reasoning made the sacrifice bearable.
We all face negative experiences as big as losing a loved one and as small as losing a birthday cake. What can help most in this regard is contrasting our losses with God’s infinitely greater sacrifice when His Son died on the cross. When we are overwhelmed by joy and gratitude at the liberation Jesus has brought us, we can take our own losses in stride. As we do, we constantly remember that our current suffering (perhaps of our own making) is far outweighed by the eternal reward that awaits (2 Corinthians 4:16–18). How can you best stay focused on that perspective? —A. W.
C. Confidences Expressed (vv. 16–17)
16. In that day it shall be said to Jerusalem, Fear thou not: and to Zion, Let not thine hands be slack.
When burdens are lifted, some people become cautious about moving forward—just in case another difficult blow is coming. God’s people as a nation had experienced much suffering throughout their history. Here, however, a blessed assurance is repeated in different words, and Jerusalem—synonymous with Zion—is exhorted again to be confident and move ahead. It is time to be busy in the Lord’s work. Caution can be wise, but too much caution results in accomplishing nothing.
17. The LORD thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing.
The image Zephaniah paints is that of a victorious king. Having defeated the enemy, God’s entire focus shifts to His utter joy over once again being with His people, providing and caring for them (compare Isaiah 62:4). The phrase he will rest in his love may seem curious at first. It should be understood as God’s shifting from a mode of active wrath to one of steady love. In that mode, the Lord will no longer punish the people (compare Hosea 14:4). The cycle of joy is thereby complete: as God’s people will celebrate their restored relationship with Him, God will celebrate being present with them.
What Do You Think?
How would you approach life differently if you wholeheartedly accepted that God rejoices over His people?
What prevents you from joining in God’s joy over His people?
II. Promises of the Lord
A. Comfort for the Sorrowful (v. 18)
18a. I will gather them that are sorrowful for the solemn assembly, who are of thee.
This verse presents some translation difficulties. Taken as a whole, however, the verse suggests that the solemn assembly that was instituted (whether part of an annual festival or a Sabbath observance) as an expression of faith either had or was to become a matter of shame instead. Another possibility is that because God calls the people to rejoice, He will remove those who choose to continue to wallow in sorrow; they will not be allowed to prevent others from expressing their joy.
18b. To whom the reproach of it was a burden.
The language of reproach brings another dimension to the promise of restoration. The same word is translated “shame” elsewhere (example: Isaiah 47:3), and that may be the sense here. Shame and honor in the time of the ancient Near East were more than simply matters of hurt feelings. Rather, those concepts spoke to how people identified and valued themselves. To be cast into exile would result in the Judeans no longer understanding who they were as a people (compare Psalm 74). This burden will be lifted when God reclaims His remnant.
B. Condemning the Oppressors (v. 19a)
19a. Behold, at that time I will undo all that afflict thee.
The phrase at that time links this promise to the previous verses. The consequences to be suffered for sin will come to an end as God removes the agents of judgment (all that afflict thee). Judah will no longer be known as the people who abandoned their God (compare Deuteronomy 29:24–25; Isaiah 60:18). What the Babylonians will have done to the people of God will become their own fate also.
C. Confirming the Restoration (vv. 19b–20)
19b. And I will save her that halteth, and gather her that was driven out; and I will get them praise and fame in every land where they have been put to shame.
In the ancient Near East, physical disabilities often were considered evidence of a deity’s judgment (see John 9:2). The older English word halteth refers to a handicap related to walking. Similarly, enslavement by a hostile nation was thought to prove the inability of both king and deity to protect a people (compare Isaiah 14:1–8). Restored relationship with God removes and heals these purported signs of abandonment (see also Ezekiel 34:16; Micah 4:6). Physical healing, freedom, and return home are concrete ways God’s justice and love will be announced.
Best Plan or Second-Best Plan?
“It was a combination of the saddest moment of my life but also the proudest.” That’s how Craig described meeting his son Sam for the first time.
It all started in 1969 when Craig was a young enlisted man stationed at an army base. His red convertible helped him attract a pretty girlfriend, but it didn’t exactly suggest he was the marrying type. After completing military service and returning home, his former girlfriend called and congratulated him on being the father of a healthy baby boy—whom she had already placed for adoption.
Unable to find Sam or contest the adoption according to the laws of the time, Craig resigned himself to never seeing his son—such was a consequence of the immorality that preceded. But 52 years later, Sam tracked Craig down with the sad news that he was dying of cancer. Craig crossed the country to sit at Sam’s side and catch up on the lost decades. On the drive back home, Craig received a phone call that Sam had passed away.
That was a bittersweet reunion. We too may find ourselves in long years of struggle over a relationship broken because of sin. Often when we are attempting to cope, we are actually searching for God’s second-best plan, His best plan (“Don’t sin!”) having been rejected already (hence the heartache).
Which do you find yourself searching for most: God’s best plan or His second-best plan? —A. W.
20. At that time will I bring you again, even in the time that I gather you: for I will make you a name and a praise among all people of the earth, when I turn back your captivity before your eyes, saith the LORD.
The book of Zephaniah ends in a positive way. This is a vivid contrast to the first chapters of the book, which provide both a scathing denunciation and the promise of punishment. As Zephaniah again referred to that time, he reinforced the link between the promises. God’s restoration of familial relationship goes hand in hand with restoring a sense of identity as God’s covenant people. God’s care is to be demonstrated in this renewed relationship and rediscovered identity.
The phrase when I turn back your captivity reemphasizes that the terrible judgments of the Day of the Lord were yet to occur, from the perspective of the original reader. And as the decades passed until they did, it would be easy to forget or outright dismiss the predictions of exile and return (compare 2 Peter 3; Revelation 2:4–5). Could there be anything sadder than to fail to be restored to relationship with God Almighty himself?
A. An Irony of Prophecy
Fulfilled prophecy is partly intended to validate a prophet and His message. In the Bible, however, quite often the original recipients of a prophecy did not live to see the fulfillment. That is the situation with the prophecies in today’s lesson. The original recipients of this message lived in the time of Josiah (Zephaniah 1:1). He was slain in battle about 609 BC. The destruction of the temple did not take place until 586 BC and the return from exile did not begin until 538 BC. So the people who first heard this prophecy did not understand the significance of what was being promised. Later, the people in captivity in Babylon did understand, and they are described as weeping when they remembered Zion (Psalm 137:1).
The return of the captives from Babylon was a rare event in history. What happened to them was noticed by other nations: almost 50,000 people were so sincere in their faith that they made the four-month trip back to the land God had promised to their forefathers. The people who returned were never seriously tempted again by idolatry. The Babylonian captivity was not pleasant, but it had positive, long-lasting results. People finally learned that God meant what He had said in the first of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Today’s study is therefore a lesson about hope, and this hope is backed by the assurances of God himself.
Jesus promised that He would come again, and He added that the time is unknown (Matthew 24:36, 44). Almost 2,000 years have passed since Jesus made those statements. He then added that the important thing is to be ready. God keeps His word, so … be ready!
Almighty God, we are thankful for the people who taught us about You. We are grateful for their examples of faithfulness and for the faith of others through the centuries. Today we rededicate ourselves to be faithful until the end—the end of our lives or the end when Jesus comes to gather His people. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
C. Thought to Remember
Resolve to stand on the promises of God—today and all the tomorrows!
Standard Publishing. KJV Standard Lesson Commentary® 2022-2023 (p. 1012). David C Cook. Kindle Edition.