Our Great Salvation

Introduction: Through Zephaniah, the Lord has announced his judgment on the nations that have ridiculed Judah and arrogated themselves against the “God of Israel” (2:8.9). Embedded at two spots within this pronouncement of judgment on the nations hostile to God’s chosen people are statements that point to the proper effect this judgment should have. Israel should look upon it as both a warning and a grace. In 2:1-3 God warns of coming judgment to Jerusalem and Judah. Verse 2 gives four condemning habits; verses 3 and 4 list four areas of leadership that are destructive–officials, judges, prophets, and priests—and  advises the inhabitants to look to the fierceness of his wrath against the other nations as a demonstration of what he will do. They should, therefore, humble themselves and pursue the righteousness set forth in the law in order to find refuge when God’s wrath descends. Then, after giving a graphic prophecy in 2:4-15 of destruction of the pagan enemies of Judah, with a lengthy narrative against Assyria and Nineveh (13-15), he returns to a description of his anger against Jerusalem (“the oppressing city” 3:1). Though it is blessed with the covenant and with the revelation of God, she seems of the same moral character as Nineveh. Proclaiming his perfect righteousness and equity in his infliction of wrath (3:5), the Lord returns to a statement of the vanity of all attempts to bring this rebellious city to repentance. If its inhabitants possessed an unbiased rationality and sense of justice, they would be brought to reverence and repentance (3:7). Given, however, that their hearts are filled with a wicked aversion to God’s law, even the most severe warnings will not suffice. If honor to God’s purpose and love for his righteousness is to reside in the heart of rebellious creatures, then God Himself must perform a gracious work of redemption and renewal. In light of this we hear Yahweh’s call.

I.  Verse 8 – “Therefore wait for me,” declares the Lord, “for the day I will stand up to testify. I have decided to assemble the nations, to gather the kingdoms and to pour out my wrath on them—all my fierce anger. The whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger.”

A. This display of wrath on the entire created order continues a theme already established in Zephaniah in chapter 1. It is a clear manifestation of his lordship over everything particularly emphasizing that his moral standards are operative throughout the moral universe. God’s wrath, his jealous anger, is not like a childish temper tantrum, but a fitting display of the eternal and intrinsic opposition of his infinite holiness to all that ignores, detracts from, or opposes Him.

B. He will testify to his justice and defend his honor and no mouth will contradict, for the perfect purity, glory, and justice of his cause will be seen, even by those that oppose Him and are not reconciled in heart to his righteous and sovereign prerogative. In Ezekiel 36, God declares that even the restoration of the people is not for their sake but for the vindication of the holiness of his great name (Ezekiel 36:22, 23).

C. Ezekiel 38, 39 give a specific example of God’s “decision” to manifest his holiness among the nations in his detailed prophecy against “Gog.” His wrath toward them will issue in this: “So I will show my greatness and my holiness and make myself known in the eyes of many nations. Then they will know that I am the Lord (38:23). See also Isaiah 30:18-33 which begins with the word “Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you.” Patience is required to see the final purpose of the Lord but He will finally honor Himself in saving all his people. “Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these [new heaven and a new earth] .  . . count the patience of our Lord as salvation” (2 Peter 3:14, 15). One of the confessions of the first century church concerning Christ was “Proclaimed among the nations” (1 Timothy 3:16), followed by “Believed on in the world.”

D. When did God decide to do this? We should see this from several standpoints.

1. Within the order of chronological time, God decides to punish when he has given a determined space for repentance. That clearly is operative in this narrative and reflects the reality of Romans 2:1-4.

2. The holiness of his nature calls for an immediate punishment for every disobedience [sometimes that is manifest  for specific sins as in the case of Nadab and Abihu (the sons of Aaron who offered unrequired fire on God’s altar), Uzza (who violated required protocol in touching the ark of God), and Ananias and Sapphira (who lied to God about an offering)] and would certainly be done unless delay or forgiveness serve his ultimate purpose more clearly and fully. Presently  he delays his coming in judgment for he is calling his elect from every nation, preserving them until he calls them, and holding the ungodly under judgment for the day of judgment (2 Peter 2:9, 10).

3. God decided this in his eternal decrees, possessing full wisdom of all that would manifest his eternal purpose of inciting the praise of his glory. This awesome purpose, conceived within the eternal counsels of God and based on the love within the triune God that, in a sense, constitutes the essence of God, is announced by God in his dealings with Pharaoh (Romans 9:17, 18) and with many of the Jewish religious leaders that rejected the cornerstone (1 Peter 2:8). So with the elect, “For God has not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” When there are some that are condemned who “refused to love the truth and so be saved,” there are others by the grace of God whom “God chose to be saved . . . through the sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:9, 13).

II. God will show mercy in redeeming his people – Commentators disagree as to whether this section deals exclusively with the restoration of Israel or whether it also includes the calling of the Gentiles, or nations. To me it seems that Zephaniah envisions a time when the nations will be called and reconciled to the God of Israel and this will prompt also a great restoration of Israel, one of the prophetic visions that prompted Paul’s exposition of these things in Romans 11:25-32. Since the judgment on the nations (2:6) did not result in Israel’s repentance (2:7), God’s mercy to the nations will prompt his mercy to Israel.

A. Verse 9 begins with the purifying of the nations, Gentiles, and their call to gospel privileges: “Then I will purify the lips of the peoples [ESV, “Change the lips of the peoples to a pure speech”], that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him shoulder to shoulder [ESV, “With one accord”]. The Gentiles, just described in terms of their arrogance and as recipients of the wrath of God, now are granted grace, purity of heart resulting in sincerity of profession, and will unite with all that fear the Lord in truth and worship him in Spirit (See John 4:23, 24; Philippians 3:1-3) See also Paul’s statement in Acts 28:28, “Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.”.The pure speech could refer to the message of the gospel, now on their lips as they forsake vain repetitions in religion and blasphemous and impure language in daily conversation. Matthew Henry remarked, “not by making the phrases witty, but the substance wise.” True prayer, gospel speech, and “praise to God, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (Hebrews 13:15) constitute pure speech.

B. Prompted by the conversion of the nations, God now calls the remnant of his people from wherever they are scattered.

1. Verse 10 -From as far away as Ethiopia, that is from all the places on the earth where these people are dispersed, God will establish a spirit of worship.

2. Verse 11 – In some manner, the deeds that have been so reprehensible in the sight of God will be put away. They will not be brought to shame by them, for God will have taken away the guilt connected with their rebellion. In their attitude of repentance, they will be remorseful for their evil deeds, rebellion, and unbelief, but they will no longer pursue shameful things, nor will they come to the day of judgment in a shamefaced way as if they still have sin for which they must answer.

3. The kind of leadership—those mentioned in verses 3, 4—that brought the nation to ruin and set such a destructive example will be removed. Those that were proudly exultant, the arrogant boasters, no longer are present, leaving only the “meek and humble.” Only those that “seek refuge in the name of the Lord” will be there. Concerning the New Jerusalem, John saw this vision: “But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Revelation 21:27).

4. “The remnant of Israel” is used to point to those within the nation that, by grace, have embraced the saving work of God as typified in the sacrifices, as stated in the words, “will trust in the name of the Lord.” Through Israel’s history, in the midst of a large number of unbelievers, set apart only by the external ceremonies of Israel’s religion, God maintained a remnant (Romans 11:1-5; See Malachi 3:16-18).

5. Their transformation will be so thorough that the prophet sees that in the final issue of this call to purity of speech, humility of spirit, penitence of mind, and trust in the Name of the Lord, “They will do no wrong; they will tell no lies, a deceitful tongue will not be found in their mouths” and their lives will be filled with perfect satisfaction and security. “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Revelation 22:14, 15).

C. Exultant praise will be the response of those that are reconciled to, and by, this mighty Savior. In human experience salvation is initiated by a great alteration of affections in accord with the transforming purpose and power of the Spirit of God (2 Corinthians 3:12-18).

1. Verse 14 – The words that characterize the kind of affection resident in the souls of those so redeemed by God are “Sing, . . . shout, . . . be glad and rejoice with all your heart.”  Peter described the alteration of affections in this way: “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8, 9).

2. The specific event that has drawn forth such praise is that appearance of God in his redeeming mercy; He “has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy.” Whereas, the immediate enemy that brought punishment from the hand of God for the nation as such was another nation, the enemy from whose wrath they have been redeemed in this case is God Himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). Now, instead of being against this people of his reconciling love, “The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you” so that no harm ever will come to them. This promise certainly inspired Paul’s confidence, that, as he faced a day of beheading, he could say, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom” (2 Timothy 4:18).

3. The message to Jerusalem before was, “Prepare for destruction as recompense for all your sin,” now the message it “Fear not, O Zion.” They need not grow weak in helplessness, “do not let your hands hang limp,” nor do they fear God’s presence in judgment, but their assurance is “The Lord your God is with you.,” with them to save, not destroy. This truly is the meaning of “Emmanuel,” our God is with us. It is Christ’s coming to save that denominates him Emmanuel, “the Mighty Warrior who saves.”

4. As judgment is replaced by salvation, so rebuke is replaced by exultation. The picture of that of  uninhibited joy. God Himself is singing about his redeemed people. He has loved them with an everlasting love, for He has loved them in Christ—“In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ”—and  will include them in the Trinitarian love that has always existed before the foundation of the world (John 17:24-26). “He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.” Matthew Henry finds this expression truly impressive. “O the condescension of divine grace! The great God not only loves his saints, but he loves to love them, is pleased that he has pitched upon these objects of his love. . . . He that is grieved for the sin of sinners rejoices in the graces and services of the saints, and is ready to express that joy by singing over them.”

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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