In that day it shall be said to Jerusalem, Fear thou not: and to Zion, Let not thine hands be slack. 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.
Zephaniah is a prophet of God prophesying in Judah at the time of King Josiah. This is before the captivity and after the rule of the great King Hezekiah. Judah is filled with syncretistic religion at this time. There is the worship of Jehovah mixed with the worship of all the pagan gods. Zephaniah’s prophecy is a prophecy of impending judgment for this forsaking of God. More than any other prophet, Zephaniah focuses upon the coming Day of the Lord, a day of reckoning when all will be judged. But judgment, Zephaniah reminds the church, begins in the house of God. Judah, too, will come under judgment. That prophecy of judgment takes up a majority of the book. Read a bit of it from: “The great day of the Lord is near, it is near, and hasteth greatly, even the voice of the day of the Lord…. That day is a day of wrath…because they have sinned against the Lord.”
But in Zephaniah 2 there is a call to repentance and faith. And chapter 3 records the wonderful mercy of God upon those who by grace repent and ask for forgiveness. Zephaniah, foreseeing the repentance and faith of the remnant, gives in chapter 3 one of the most beautiful and precious descriptions of God’s tender love in all of Scripture. God tells His people through Zephaniah that He is a God who breaks forth in singing for joy over His repentant sons and daughters whom He loves.
The text says something that strikes us as strange. It says that God rejoices over us with joy and singing. This sounds strange because we are commanded repeatedly to rejoice before God and to sing unto God, but we do not expect to hear that God rejoices and sings over us. That seems backwards. And though it is true that this is a figure by which God declares His great love for us, we must not downplay the significance of the thought.
What does this mean, then, that God will rejoice over thee with singing? This rejoicing and singing is not the singing of worship of course. Part of the reason we sing and rejoice before God is to worship and exalt His Godhead. This is not the case here. God is not worshiping us when He rejoices over us with song. Rather, this is a figure that expresses God’s intense, zealous love for and joy in His people. A song is often an expression of the delight a person has in another person or thing. That song will recount that person’s characteristics that delight the one singing. That is what this song is here. It is a singing and rejoicing of delight.
You find a young mother singing with delight over her newborn baby that she carries in her arms. You find in Eastern lands a bridegroom rejoicing over his bride. It was a common tradition for a bridegroom to have a song that he would sing over his bride upon their marriage. That song represented his delight in his new bride. This is what God is doing here, rejoicing as a bridegroom over His bride. Isaiah says that explicitly in: “And as the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so shall thy God rejoice over thee.” What a beautiful picture, God the bridegroom rejoicing over His bride, His people.
There are two dangers when speaking of the love of God. One is that we cheapen it by speaking of it to the exclusion of His holiness. Then God is presented as a being whose love a person can take advantage of. It’s a love that is weak, presented so cheaply that it loses any of its meaning and even desirability. The other danger, however, is that God is not viewed as a loving Father to His people in Jesus Christ. Rather, He is seen as a cold, hard, angry Father to His people, who would really rather destroy them but cannot, now that Jesus has died for them. God presents Himself here as a God who not only loves His people, but loves to love them. He retains His glory and dominion and power, but He does not hesitate to be a God who also breaks into song at the thought of His people whom He loves in Jesus Christ. It does not demean Him in the slightest to show us that this is who He is, a Father who pours His delight and love in audible and visible expression over His people.
There is a lesson here for husbands and fathers. As God is both austere and loving, so must we be. We are called to be honorable, men of character and holiness. There ought to be a weight to our word in our homes. There ought to be a firm will that engenders respect, as well as strict discipline when that word is ignored. At the same time, it ought to be the experience of our wives that we delight in them. When our children are grown and out of the home, there ought to be in their mind memories of a father who delighted in his children, who rejoiced over them. For such is our Father in heaven.
It is precious that the text says that God rejoices over us, and sings over us. Verse 17: “He will rejoice over thee with joy. He will joy over thee with singing.” It does no good to rejoice and sing concerning someone if that person is not there to hear it. God rejoices over us. This is an overture of intimacy and communion. We are there while God is rejoicing and singing.
Nowhere in Scripture does it ever record God rejoicing and singing over anything or anyone other than His people in Christ. Scripture tells us that, when God created all things in the beginning, He looked upon His creation and pronounced it good. It does not say that He rejoiced over it. We read that, when God had communion with Adam in the garden, He walked with him, but never does it say He rejoiced over him. In the Scriptures say that God rejoices in all His works, but it will not go so far as to say that God rejoices over His works. What we are told in is a unique act of God. The redeemed of the Lord alone are honored with such great delight from Him that He breaks forth in song over them. There is closeness. He is hovering over us in His delight.
The reason God sings over us, and can sing over us in His holiness, is also given in verse 17: “The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save.” It then goes on to say that He “will rejoice over thee with joy.” He has saved us, mightily, and therefore He delights in what He sees in us.
And He saves mightily by being in the midst of us, verse 17: “The Lord in the midst of thee…will save.” When the text says that God is in the midst of thee, it is a prophecy of the coming of Jesus Christ. God is the mighty one, who is powerful to save. And He will do what it takes to save His people, even by coming into their midst in the person and work of the Lord Jesus.
Verse 15 explains what His coming into our midst effects: “The Lord hath taken away thy judgments.” The Lord Jesus will come into your midst to take your punishment for sin away. He will be the sacrifice that can represent you and will be able to bear your guilt, because He is God Himself come into your midst.
The whole first part of Zephaniah speaks of judgments that fall upon the unbelieving in Judah. God threatens with wrath and destruction for sin. There will be no substitute to take the judgments away. Those judgments will fall directly upon the impenitent in the church.
But then in our text in chapter three, God says that for the remnant, those who are repentant and believing, God Himself will take away the judgments. He will do it by coming into the midst of His people and bearing away the judgment for sin. That’s the gospel in Zephaniah. And it is on this basis that God rejoices over His people. As verse 17 says, He rests in His love. His wrath is satisfied. All offense is taken away, there is only peace and rest—no fury, no wrath, in the love of Jehovah our God. This comes for God’s own in the way of repentance. In 3:9 the remnant will “call upon the name of the Lord.” That calling on the Lord’s name was for repentance. “For then will I turn to the people a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord.” The pure language of God’s people is the language of repentance. This too was a gift from God himself.: “For then will I turn.”
Repentance—pure language—is the means by which we too experience the closeness of the text. Without the means of repentance, you know no sacrifice for your sins, and you are exposed to the fiery judgment of God. If you hold on to your sin, you will not know a loving Father but a merciless Judge. But no matter your sin, in the way of repentance and faith a man knows the sacrifice of Christ as His own substitutionary sacrifice. This will be the means by which we experience the Father rejoicing over us.
And knowing His joyous love sung over us, we will heed the pleasant command of verse 16: “In that day it shall be said to Jerusalem, Fear thou not: and to Zion, Let not thine hands be slack.” A child is secure in the father that delights over him; so too by this text, we must have all fear taken away. Whatever anxieties are in our life, whatever questions are left unanswered, whatever troubles confront us, the greatest problem in life has been solved. Your God rejoices over you with joy, and He joys over thee with singing. Do not fear.
And secondly, the command in Zephaniah 3:16 is “Let not thine hands be slack.” Slack hands are hands that are not working, are not active, have no life in them. This is a figure for the child of God who is bound by fear and therefore cannot praise and worship and live unto God with a heart full of joy. Fear paralyzes a person. He cannot live with a joy in the service of God. Hope takes away all fear. It animates the child of God to vigorous worship. It fuels a life of service to Jehovah. Hear by faith a Father singing over His children, and let this lift up the slack hands to a life of service and love for God. Let it fuel worship and praise. The Scriptures bring it back around full circle in verse 14: “Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem.” Lift up the hands, delight, joy, praise, sing, to your God, for your God delights, joys, and sings over you.