By Dr. Mark Scott
Have you ever considered God in the role of a tailor? He knows about making something out of remnants—and so did the prophet Zephaniah. Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah formed the triad of prophets whom God used to prepare his people for Babylonian captivity. But way before the captivity took place (586 BC), God was already predicting the end of the captivity, the return of the exiles, and the refinement of the remnant so that the promise of the Messiah would be ensured.
Much of Zephaniah’s writing is a scathing judgment on the nations as well as God’s people. But by Zephaniah 3 the smoke of God’s judgment is beginning to clear and the joy of the remnant is on display. James Smith said, “Zephaniah began with a description of universal judgment and the destruction of the earth. Properly understood, the concluding verses of Zephaniah reach out to the new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells” (The Minor Prophets).
The remnant of Israel will trust in the name of the Lord. The word remnant is the Hebrew word shaeriyth. It occurs 66 times in the Old Testament. It means residue and what is left over. God can use leftovers for his purpose (Matthew 14:20; 15:37), but first he wants to purify them.
God said that he would purify the lips of the peoples. The word purify is the Hebrew word hapkak. It is used 94 times in the Old Testament and means to turn or overturn. Before God could use the remnant he had to overturn them. And this remnant will be composed of all the peoples. Did Zephaniah envision a time when the remnant would be composed of both Jew and Gentile?
There were several characteristics of this refining for the remnant. One was calling on the name of the Lord. This could mean prayer (Genesis 4:26) or calling out to God for salvation (Joel 2:32). The remnant recognized their dependence on God. Another characteristic of the purified remnant was service to God that showed up in unity. Zephaniah pictured it as working shoulder to shoulder. Still another characteristic of the purified remnant was worship. Zephaniah pictured it as people coming from the continent of Africa (beyond the rivers of Cush) to bring their offerings to God.
There were several things God would do to refine the remnant. God would remove the arrogant boasters and haughty from Jerusalem. These proud people brought shame on God’s holy hill. In contrast God would put in the place of the proud the meek (afflicted or lowly) and humble (poor or weak). The seemingly weak people had God’s congratulations (Matthew 5:3-12). As the remnant trusted in the Lord, God would help them do no wrong, and he would help them speak truth. (A deceitful tongue will not be found in their mouths.) God would also give them security. They would be able to eat and lie down and no one will make them afraid.
Charles Spurgeon said, “Is it not a curious thing that whenever God means to make a man great, He always first breaks him in pieces?” God wanted to use the remnant to bring the Messiah for the saving of the world. But first he had to purify that remnant.
Zephaniah 3:14, 20
The prophet called on God’s people to sing. The Judeo-Christian faith is a singing faith. Other religions have their chants and incantations, but followers of the biblical God really sing (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). In fact, they overcome by singing a new song (Revelation 5:9). Their exuberance is evident in their volume (shout aloud) and passion (rejoice with all your heart).
The remnant could sing because the Lord himself sang over them. One of the most beautiful verses in Zephaniah 3
is 17 (not part of our printed text). God quieted them in his love and rejoiced over them with singing. When God’s people came back from captivity, we see that they really did this (Nehemiah 12:43).
God promised to bring them home. God promised to give them honor and praise before the peoples of the earth. God promised to restore them. The Hebrew word for restore is shuwb. It means to turn or return and is used heavily throughout the Old Testament (1,066 times). And this is always the road to joy. When God’s people return to him, he can sew something beautiful even out of a remnant.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2012, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.