God is holy. It is a fearful thing to come into the presence of such a holy God – just ask Isaiah. And it is an even more terrible thing to come under the wrath of God. God compares himself to a lion who will rip the wicked to shreds. Clearly we cannot relate to God in a casual, relaxed way, but rather must come to him in reverence, awe, and humility. We must throw ourselves at his feet, confess our evil, and depend only on his mercy. The mercy and grace by which God saves us demands a life of piety, holiness, and sacrifice.
All of the above paragraph is true and thoroughly biblical. Countless verses and passages could be summoned as evidence of God as holy, fearful, and utterly sovereign. We do well to take God at his word and reflect on how he so often describes himself to us, especially in an age when many would like to focus strictly on the love of God.
Certainly the prophet Zephaniah took seriously these aspects of God’s being. Zephaniah was tasked with bringing a message of doom and judgement to his family, friends, and fellow countrymen. Israel had turned its back on God and now God was going to crush them under the weight of his wrath. Zephaniah describes the day of judgement in the following way:
That day will be a day of wrath,
a day of distress and anguish,
a day of trouble and ruin,
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and blackness,
a day of trumpet and battle cries…1:14-16
Zephaniah could not have had any illusions about God as a friendly deity willing to overlook sin and let bygones be bygones. He understood well the holiness and wrath of God and that we cannot simply walk into God’s presence expecting him to love us just as we are, sin and all. If we think otherwise we are in serious error and have not taken our offence against God seriously enough.
Yet, if our image of God – our belief of who he is and our thoughts about how he relates to us – is only of a holy, wrathful God we also err. If our approach to God is only one of utter unworthiness we will live in an unhealthy imbalance. God has not called us out of bondage into a life of gloomy, reserved servitude to an untouchable and dangerous God. Rather, we are called into a loving relationship with a very near and ever present God who delights to bless us. Think of the language God uses to describe our relationship with him: friend, child, wife, father, brother. It is the language of family, of close intimacy.
Towards the end of his prophecy, Zephaniah speaks to this familial and intimate way in which God relates to his people. Against the backdrop of holy wrath, listen to these words:
The LORD your God is with you,
he is mighty to save.
He will take great delight in you,
he will quiet you with his love,
he will rejoice over you with singing.3:17
These are not the words of an unapproachable God who demands our worship out of pure selfishness. Neither do these words describe a God who decided to enter into a formal, legal relationship with a set group of participants with the exclusive purpose of demonstrating his sovereign power. The salvation spoken of by Zephaniah is not some transaction whereby we receive righteousness from God and then remain as an indebted servant for the rest of our lives.
Rather, this salvation includes an abundant, joyful relationship with the God who saves us. The righteousness we receive from God makes it possible to be fully alive and fully loved by God himself. It makes it possible for us to be included in the family of God and call him “Our Father.” This salvation includes God’s delight in us, not because of some innate or earned worthiness, but because of the amazing work he does within us. Just as God rejoiced over his creation at the genesis of our world, so also he will rejoice over his new creation at the consummation of our world. Can you even imagine God singing the song of your salvation? Can you fathom the idea of God taking delight in who he has made you?
These words of God, by way of Zephaniah, are stunning. Not only do they help to correct a view of God as only fierce and holy, but they provide us with a wonderfully accessible picture of what it means to be saved. To be known by God is not that your name is listed in the book of life, granting you access through the gates of heaven, but rather it means that you will be in a relationship with God that is something like a combination of friend, child, and spouse. And that relationship begins now, even if we cannot see face-to-face just yet.
These words also speak to what the Christian life is about. It is not a solemn obedience to a perfectionist master, nor is it a fearful bunkering-down until God rescues us from an irredeemably wicked world. Rather, it is a balanced blend of painful sacrifice for a God who sacrificed everything for us, and joyful delight in the God of our salvation and the goodness which still remains in his creation. The Christian life is a hopeful expectation of a renewed world where we will rejoice in what God has done in and through us. And where God himself will rejoice in us.