I’m not sure how many people read the book of Zephaniah as a Christmas devotion, but if you’ve never done it, I heartily recommend it. After you immerse yourself in the prophecies of the the Day of God’s wrath found there, and you see the sin exposed there that merits that wrath, you can’t help meditating on what a sweet wonder it is that there should even be such a thing as Christmas.
Here’s what I mean— reading Zephaniah, you see God’s holy abhorrence of the sins we so easily tolerate. The wicked nations back then were seeking their security in things like silver and gold and military might. Their preferred religions were those that allowed perverse pleasures as part of the package. They basically deified themselves, while mocking God. I don’t think much has changed since then. And God’s sentence upon them was complete destruction.
God’s people, though, were even worse, because they knew better. He was their covenant God. He had redeemed them from slavery and rescued them continually. They were his precious possession, called to be a light to the people around them. Still they failed to trust or draw near to him. They were rebellious, defiled and complacent. They believed God existed, but they disregarded him. They refused to obey him. Sure, He was there, but it was as if he were a mere toy, a stuffed lion on a shelf, which a child pets, or throws around the room at will, but which he never expects to actually roar. Zephaniah, speaking to this outrage, promised a day of wrath and ruin was near, and hastening fast; a day when “in the fire of his jealousy all the earth will be consumed.”
Reading Zephaniah is sobering. I know that I too fail to trust God and draw near to him. I too often seek security in other things. I disobey. I too deserve the jealous wrath God promised to pour out. Apart from his grace I would have no hope.
In fact, God’s judgment did fall on Zephaniah’s original audiences. The enemies of God’s people were destroyed one-by-one just as God said. Jerusalem also was destroyed and the people dragged away captive. But these were just mini-versions of what was prophesied, only shadows of the terrible day to come when God said he would sweep away even the fish of the sea.
Now put a mental picture of the kind of wrath described in Zephaniah alongside of Christmas. For me, the wonder is that even 600 years or so after Zephaniah’s prophecy, at the time of the first Christmas eve, the all-consuming day of wrath still delayed. God could have justly poured darkness and wrath on those shepherds watching their sheep near Bethlehem that evening, but instead they saw his glory fill the night sky. Instead of the fire of God’s anger unleashed, angels proclaimed “good news of great joy. ” A Savior was born! How can it be? We were a world awaiting wrath!
It seems so incongruous. But, praise God, even so it is consistent with the eternal intentions of our redeeming God. Even 600 years earlier, in the dark chapters of Zephaniah, such a thing was hinted at. Chapter 3 vs. 14-17 say,
“Sing aloud o daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. Fear not O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The Lord your God, is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”
Isn’t this in fact the meaning of Christmas? The fact is, though today is December 27 and Christmas is over for another year, for me, joy remains, because the Mighty One remains in our midst. He who has taken away my judgment and cleared away my enemies remains with me. Though the day of wrath is still on his calendar, I do not need to fear it or let my hands hang down limp in defeat. For he is strong to save his remnant. He will rejoice over them. and we will rest together in his love. Can’t you hear him singing?