Zephaniah!

The lectionary readings for today (Sunday 13 Dec) are: Zephaniah 3.14–20; Philippians 4.4–7; Luke 3.7–18; (the canticle is Isaiah 12.2–6).

There is a surfeit of riches here but I will make a few comments on the Zephaniah reading because I must confess that I have not read from the book of Zephaniah in quite some time. I decided then to read the whole book as a kind of refresher. Then I remembered why I don’t read from it very much. It is generally a pretty miserable book that pronounces judgement on the whole of  Zephaniah’s known world. The positive bits are found basically in the verses cited above. In fact these are so positive that some commentators suspect they are a later addition. I, for one, am glad they are there!

Anyway, the text of Zephaniah presents  all kinds of difficulties and this is reflected in the fact that at many points the translators are not sure what to use as the basis for their translations so they differ wildly from each other. Verse 17 of today’s reading is a case in point.

Calligraphy by Kathleen Borkowski at http://www.kathleenborkowski.com

NSRV (with RSV and  NJB) has  ‘He will renew you in his love’. This relies on a textual emendation suggested by the early Greek translation, the Septuagint. The Hebrew text as it now stands however is difficult to decipher. The grammar is unusual but the clause might be taken to mean that God will be quiet or that God will quieten Zion (or the reader). Thus the AV has, ‘He will rest in His love’, JPS has, ‘He will be silent in His love’ and the NIV has ‘he will quiet you with his love’. Yet this seems all wrong because the clauses immediately before and after it speak of God rejoicing or exulting with shouts of joy over God’s people. Still, ‘He will be quiet /silent in his love’ makes sense in the context of Zephaniah. God is pronouncing judgement on the whole world and indeed on Judah and Jerusalem, so suddenly to say that God will be silent might mean that, in his love, God will refrain from announcing condemnation; God will hold back judgement. This would be a cause of great rejoicing and an appropriate corollary to God’s exultation over his people. God’s silence as judge would be tantamount to God’s singing loudly in joy as bridegroom or lover to God’s people. It would be the loudest, most ear-piercing quietness you had ever heard! However we translate it, Zephaniah provides us with a wonderful image of God as one who rejoices over his people even though they too often fail to rejoice over their God.

We sang about this, I think, the other day at our Advent Wednesday gathering. We used John Bell’s and Graham Maule’s paraphrase of John 1, Before the World Began:

Before the world began
one Word was there;
grounded in God he was,
rooted in care;
by him all things were made,
in him was love displayed,
through him God spoke and said,
‘I am for you’.

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