Joel Baden and Sarah Drummond discuss hope, apathy, and why the context of prophecy matters in Zephaniah 3:14-20. The text is appointed for the Third Sunday of Advent (Advent 3), Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.
The prophecy isn’t a prediction of the future; it’s a call to action in the present.
Welcome back to Chapter, Verse, and Season: a lectionary podcast from Yale Bible Study.
Every week, we bring you into the halls of Yale Divinity School to overhear two of the faculty chatting about a biblical text. We ask them to share their impressions of one of the Revised Common Lectionary readings for the coming Sunday. And hopefully that will spark some insight for your preaching, teaching, or reading this week.
I’m your host, Helena Martin. I’m a student here at Yale Divinity School, and I’m also a priest in the Episcopal Church.
This episode, we have Sarah Drummond, Founding Dean of Andover Newton Seminary at Yale and Joel Baden, Professor of Hebrew Bible and Director of the Center for Continuing Education
They’re discussing Zephaniah 3:14-20, which is appointed for Sunday, December 12, the Third Sunday in Advent. Here’s the text.
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you,
he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you,
so that you will not bear reproach for it.
I will deal with all your oppressors
at that time.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you home,
at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes, says the Lord.
Joel, one question that I had as I looked at the text from Zephaniah that is sounding like some kind of inauguration or celebration of a leader is: whom is this song celebrating? Is there some kind of future moment that Zephaniah’s people or Zephaniah’s listeners are waiting for?
So, I don’t hear it as being about any person or even like “real” real time in, in particular. The context here, you’re right, it looks like this super “rejoice-y” kind of text, like it’s going to be awesome. All of the people who were oppressed are going to be unoppressed, right? Like whatever the opposite of oppressed is; raised up, but in fact, we have to recognize that the context that this speech is coming in, this isn’t the beginning of a thing.
This is the second half of a speech that began with Zephaniah being like: “Oh, you’re all in real trouble.” You’re all evil and terrible. And your whole world is about to come to an end. I’m going to destroy everything. Everything about you is problematic.
And when I’m done, (and you know, in this text Zephaniah reads a lot like Isaiah, who does this a ton) when I’m done and I’ve gotten rid of and eliminated all of the evil from your midst, the few of you who are left – and who are the few who are going to be left after God has gotten rid of all of the real troublemakers? It’s the lowly! The lowly people who didn’t do anything wrong, the oppressed people in their own society. They’re going to be the ones who are now lifted up to live in this eschatological sense.
It’s definitely not thinking about someone ever even being a king. The only king here is going to be God. It’s going to be that God is going to be the king. And all of the people who were lowly are now going to be happy.
Isn’t it an amazingly Western assumption on my part that if there’s redemption, there has to be a Redeemer? If there is some sort of new earth, somebody must have made it come to pass. It never occurred to me that it could have just been God.
I mean, it should have though, right? Like it should have occurred to you that God would be the Redeemer, probably?
I think that that you might be onto something there Joel.
But you’re right. I mean, there is, obviously, so much of the Bible, and certainly so much of tradition has accomplished that by means of an agent, right? Whether it’s a human kingly agent or a human messianic agent; there’s no agent here.
I don’t think in this text you’ve even got the notion of God using the foreign nation as his vehicle of destruction. I mean, it’s probably in the context, but it’s not said explicitly here.
God is bringing the punishment for the evil. And then God is lifting up the people who are left.
Well, I find it really helpful to be reminded that this section of the text on which we’re focusing is right on the heels of God telling the people “I’m about to blow you all away. I’m about to just wipe you out.”
And I’m thinking about in kind of contemporary moments where there is that need to tack on the oration of hope, the oration of “and then, everything is going to be better.” I do think that one of the wet blankets that’s hanging over our society right now.
And when I say right now, I’m thinking about the era of post COVID, when we’re being asked to make so many sacrifices, but we don’t know what we’re doing it for. We don’t have that image of hopefulness.
And I actually think that this text might play that role when you couple it with the death and destruction that people need to feel like “I’m shooting for something here.” I’m making the sacrifices because things are going to get better, maybe not immediately, but it will.
Yeah. It’s funny. I mean, to put on my like historical critic, Bible scholar, hat for a second,
Do you have any other hats? I’ve never seen any.
It is the only hat I wear.
I’m glad to hear that, it becomes you.
I appreciate that.
When I look at this, I think about the fact that, from my perspective, this section at the end, the section we’re reading, (verse 14 on) I’m pretty confident is just tacked onto the end of this section, and indeed the end of the book.
Which is a typical thing that happens in prophetic books. You’ve got a prophet who’s like: “It’s going to be bad; it’s going to be terrible; it’s going to be awful. Change, change, change!”
And that’s why prophets say: “it’s all going to go to hell” – because they’re trying to accomplish change in the now, that’s the impetus for the speech. So that can be pretty devastating as a message.
This happens all the time with prophetic books: somebody sees that devastating message of: “Change! It’s all going to be terrible.” And then they tack on: “But in the end, I will redeem. In the end, I will turn your suffering into joy.”
Which you can imagine, as you just said, you can understand that need from the part of the hearer, but you can also understand how that actually kind of undermines the message of the prophet. If the prophet is yelling: “Change, change, change! Or we’re all going to die! Everything’s going to be terrible!”
To then say: “It’s actually going to be okay, though.” – that sort of misunderstands, or is a misreading of what the prophecy is. The prophecy isn’t a prediction of the future, it’s a call to action in the present. And I think that’s almost universally true, certainly in the earlier prophets of the Bible, which Zephaniah is one.
I think the section that you’re appreciating as a response to the prophecy of woe, as it were, you’re reading it as somebody who’s actually experiencing the bad. You’re reading it from the perspective of: “we are going through something here” or “we’ve been through something here, and man, I want to know that it could get better.”
The prophet is writing from the perspective of: “it hasn’t gotten bad yet, so I need you to change before it gets to that point.” So again, I think the section that’s tacked on at the end verses 14 through 20, is tacked on after the bad has happened.
Zephaniah is writing before the exile. And saying, you guys need to change before the worst happens. Once the worst has happened, how does that message still work? You need the hope once it’s gone bad, not before it’s gone bad.
What a thought provoking notion, not so much about the text being tacked on, which is something that I know happens in literature. It happens when somebody tries to turn a book into a movie. You change the ending because you want people to see it, and if it’s too depressing, they might choose not to!
Like the theatrical release, the director’s cut!
Yeah, exactly, like the theatrical release, the director’s cut. And that doesn’t surprise me as much as what you’re sharing about how important it is to look at where you are in the process of doom. Are you on your way to doom? You need a certain kind of prophecy. Are you in the midst of doom? You need a different kind of prophecy.
So if you’re on your way to doom, if you’re on the doomsday road, then you need the warning. You need the urgency. You need to wake up. If you’re in the midst of it, you might need constellation to say: “yeah, back there you probably should have been listening to me on the doomsday road. but now that the car has actually hit the wall I told you it was coming, now you might need some hope.” Hope that there is going to be a different reality, this sort of already and not yet.
But I also wonder if this idea of a happy ending being the only appointed section raises questions about the line between hope and anesthesia. Hope that inspires you and makes it possible to get out of bed in the morning, versus something that dulls your sense of urgency to the point that you stop paying attention. Depending on where you are in the doomsday road process, that could be a really important urgency, a really important distinction.
Yeah. And not just where you are, but who you are.
Because one of the nice things about Zephaniah here – and again, you don’t get it from the assigned section here, you have to go back into the beginning of the chapter – is the destruction that’s coming. It may be coming for everyone, right? The nation is going to suffer, but the people who are to blame for it are not the common folk. This section begins by castigating the officials and the judges and the priests, and even the other prophets.
In other words, it’s the leadership that has brought Israel to its doom here. And in the end, presumably the destruction is going to feature those people most prominently. Such that the folks who are left to think hopefully, maybe even in the time of the destruction, the people who can say to themselves: “I think it’s going to be okay for me” are the people within the broader society who have been doing everything right. Why are they suffering along with them? Obviously we live in a time when greater popular suffering because of the sins of leadership is a pretty obvious feature of life. And I think regardless of where you sit on a political or social spectrum, everybody feels that.
Like: “I’m doing the right things, and I believe in the right things and I’m acting the right way. But we, as a nation, are being misled.” This mistrust of leadership, of expertise, of government, of power; that’s here too. So, where you are and also who you are changes how you hear that.
These prophecies and how you hear these calls to change, calls to action, or calls for hope.
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Chapter, Verse, and Season is produced by Joel Baden, Kelly Morrissey, and me, Helena Martin. Production help from Crichelle Brice. And our theme music is by Calvin Linderman.
Thank you, as always, to the Center for Continuing Education at Yale Divinity School. And thank you to Dean Drummond and Professor Baden for taking some time for us today.
We’ll be back next week with another conversation from Chapter, Verse, and Season.
New Revised Standard Version Bible
Copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Host: Helena Martin
Producers: Helena Martin, Joel Baden, Kelly Morrissey
Music: Calvin Linderman