Monday, December 11, 2006

Preparing a Sermon on Zephaniah 3:14-20 (part 2)

For the preceding post on preaching the third Sunday of Advent, click here.

We have identified the appointed text for Advent 3, Year C, Zephaniah 3:14-20, as a hymn or psalm of praise and now need to delve into the exact meaning of all the praise. Why will there be such joy at the time of God's definitive Advent?

Zephaniah delivered his prophecies in support of King Josiah's reforms of Judah, just at the time when Scriptures such as Hosea and Deuteronomy were to have their most significant spiritual impact in the southern kingdom. These books emphasize that our covenantal Lovers Re-Unitedrelationship with God is one of deep, committed love. It is possible for humans to betray God's love and break God's heart, and we have done so. But Zephaniah 3 announces that at God's coming Advent all that will be put behind us.

The joy of Zephaniah 3 is the joy of healing between two lovers, the joy of a marriage re-born in love. The Hebrew commands to take joy in 3:14 are feminine singular. The vocabulary of 3:17 pictures God's renewed love for his estranged spouse. What we have here is what Abraham Heschel called "one of the boldest conceptions of religious thinking," a metaphor that "endows with a nobility that is a synonym for eternity." We are the consort of God, and Zephaniah 3 proclaims that God wants his consort back. At God's Advent, God renews God's depth relationship of love between man and woman!

Marvin A. Sweeney in his Zephaniah commentarymakes the daring suggestion that the verb here in 3:17 is the same one (חרשׁ) as in Judges 14:18. If Sweeney is right, Zephaniah's poetry contains here a strong connotation of the joy of deep physical intimacy with one's lover. Our covenantal relationship with God really is meant to be a living intercourse, not a constant drudgery.

Sweeney's reading, though startling, has the advantage of avoiding recourse to text-criticial surgery (cf. NRSV; NAB; NJB) and of avoiding the odd picture of a scene containing both loud singing and tender, soothing quiet (cf. NIV, NLT).

Zephaniah 3:17 has something else to startle us. Perhaps nothing is more satisfying than the assurance that you have brought joy to the person you love with all your heart. Perhaps the single most amazing dimension of Zephaniah 3 is its message that at God's advent, our renewed love relationship with God will bring God true joy. Amazing: the author of joy will take joy. The thought is not unique to Zephaniah. Deuteronomy 30:9 describes God exulting over us using the exact same diction (שׂושׂ) as Zephaniah!

More on Zephaniah 3 soon; Stay tuned...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the startling idea of our covenantal relationship as a "living intercourse" (3:17), I think Zeph 3:17 is more in keeping with Deuteronomy's discourse of covenantal love than is often acknowledged. Jacq Lapsley has a nice piece in CBQ ("Feeling Our Way: Love for God in Deut," CBQ 65 (2003):350-69) in which she reads the love language in Deut as more than "duty" or "service" (contra Moran and company) and closer to what your postings suggest is going on in Zeph 3. If so, it is interesting that a more intimate conception of divine love sufaces in influencial works during that period such as Deut, Zeph, and certainly Hosea.


Fri Dec 15, 12:38:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Many thanks, JDS. Bravo! --S.

Fri Dec 15, 12:51:00 PM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not (yet) persuaded by Sweeney's interpretation of the verb. Does it not bother you that the connotations are negative in all five parallel references he gives?

But the translation offered by NIV and NLT (cf. ESV) is unlikely to be correct either. The verb is never used in the Hebrew Bible in this sense. While a causative use of the hiphil is found in Job 11.3 (and maybe 41.4), there it is (negatively) "to silence" rather than (positively) "to quiet".

For the moment I stick with what the verb means most of the time: "to be silent". God is silent "meaning that God will refrain from accusing Jerusalem of wrongdoing" (Berlin).

Sat Dec 16, 12:04:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Yes, I agree that none of the various solutions are without problems. The reading you go with works, and avoids the jarring juxtaposition of simultaneous "shouts of joy" and "silence." Yet it does require us to flesh out God's "silence" in the direction of "refrain from accusation" without any help from the specific verse at issue. And, even if "silence" is our first choice in translation, the ambiguity inherent in poetry surely allows us to hear other additional or homonymous meanings of the Hebrew root, no? ---Stephen C.

Sat Dec 16, 06:03:00 PM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't find it too difficult to flesh out God's silence. But I grant you that God's silence is not entirely without problems, given that the book starts with "Word of the LORD" and ends with "says the LORD"!

And I grant the possibility and legitimacy of hearing a meaning the (human) author may not have heard. I'd still wish we had more evidence for Sweeney's reading of "ploughing" as a positive love metaphor...

Sat Dec 16, 06:28:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Nathan said...

I stumbled across this commentary in a search for more information on Zeph 3:17. I am not a scholar, just one who loves the Lord. As I read through what you wrote, I found some of the concepts confusing, but think I got the general idea of what you were saying as you were trying to tease out what was the seeming contradiction in exalting in joy and being silent in love.

Having 4young daughters, this seems to make perfect sense to me. One moment we are wrestling on the floor or jumping on the trampoline and the next we are quietly snuggling, saying, "I love you." I think the two concepts are synonymous.

Just a layperson's thoughts!

God bless,


Sat Apr 26, 09:05:00 PM GMT-5  

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