How God Restores

Joel and Zephaniah

February 22, 2009 | Brian Bill

Life is often filled with good news and bad news.  Have you ever heard someone say, “I have some good news and some bad news?  What do you want to hear first?”  When I’m asked this question I usually want the bad news first in the hopes that the good news will be so good that the bad won’t seem so bad.  

Last Sunday someone told me that she found some of my old sermons on cassette and listened to a couple of them.  I think that was the good news but I sensed that she was setting me up for some bad news.  Sure enough, she then told me that the sermons were so long that her tape player stopped working!  

Tucked in the middle of some incredibly bad news we see God’s gracious hand reaching out to people with some really good news

A young son came running into the house and asked his mom if she wanted the good news or the bad news first.  She opted for the bad news and so he gave it to her in excruciating detail.  When she asked what the good news was, he said, “There isn’t any good news.”  It’s easy to come to that conclusion when you study the Minor Prophets but I want to suggest that this isn’t entirely accurate.  Tucked in the middle of some incredibly bad news we see God’s gracious hand reaching out to people with some really good news.

I heard about a pastor who was preaching on the Minor Prophets…all twelve of them in one sermon!  After two hours he was only half-way through his message.  Everyone was getting restless and most had stopped paying attention.  After four hours, to everyone’s relief, he said “Finally…”  It was almost over, they thought.  Then to their horror, the Pastor said, “Oh my, I forgot about Micah…what shall we do with Micah?”  One lady down in front couldn’t take it any longer.  She stood up and said, “Hey, preacher! Micah can take my seat…I’m going home!”

Last week we learned from Micah that God expects us to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with Him.  This morning we’re going to focus on just two of the twelve Minor Prophets – Joel and Zephaniah.  Next week we’ll be in Haggai and then we’ll finish up with Malachi in two weeks. We’ll look at Joel and Zephaniah individually, starting with their bad news and ending with their good news.  They both begin with news of judgment and conclude with notes of joy.

It’s not easy to outline the message of the prophets because these books are really anthologies of several sermons given over a period of years.  With that said, when you study the prophets, a common pattern emerges.  It looks something like this:

  • Warning of impending judgment because of sinfulness (bad news)
  • Description of the sin (bad news)
  • Depiction of the coming judgment (bad news)
  • A call for repentance (good news)
  • A promise of future deliverance (good news)

Bad News in Joel

Joel is speaking to people who have become complacent and self-centered, taking God for granted.  Things were going well, they had a lot of food, and many were just comfortably coasting along.  And then a crisis hits.  Joel comes on the scene to interpret the invasion of some locusts that had stripped the land.  Look at 1:2: “Hear this, you elders; listen, all who live in the land.  Has anything like this ever happened in your days or in the days of your forefathers?” A catastrophe has happened and Joel wants to make sure it gets their attention and wakes them from their spiritual slumber.  Our country faced something like this after 9/11.

Joel describes the devastation in 1:4: “What the locust swarm has left the great locusts have eaten; what the great locusts have left the young locusts have eaten; what the young locusts have left other locusts have eaten.”  Several waves of locusts have come and consumed everything.  Do you ever feel like that?  You get hit with one thing and then another situation slams you to the ground.  And then you get clobbered again.  The economy was devastated and everything in their culture was in crisis, much like ours is today.

In a sermo called, “What is the Recession For?” John Piper lists some of God’s purposes behind this global problem. 

  • He intends for this recession to expose hidden sin and so bring us to repentance and cleansing. 
  • He intends to wake us up to the constant and desperate condition of the developing world where there is always and only recession of the worst kind. 
  • He intends to relocate the roots of our joy in his grace rather than in our goods, in his mercy rather than our money, in his worth rather than our wealth. 
  • He intends to advance his saving mission in the world—the spread of the gospel and the growth of his church—precisely at a time when human resources are least able to support it.  This is how he guards his glory. 
  • He intends for the church to care for its hurting members and to grow in the gift of love. 

Among other things, the lesson of the locusts is that as bad as this is, there’s more devastation to come in the “Day of the Lord.”  Look at Joel 2:1: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill.  Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming.  It is close at hand…”  The blowing of the shofar was the equivalent of sounding an air raid siren. Drop down to verse 11: “The Lord thunders at the head of his army; his forces are beyond number, and mighty are those who obey his command.  The day of the Lord is great; it is dreadful.  Who can endure it?”  

The Day of the Lord, as understood by most commentators, can be summed up as that time period in which the Lord intervenes to judge His enemies.  It’s a day of destruction for unbelievers but also a day of salvation for those who believe.  Looking into the future, judgment will come during the seven years of great tribulation, and then joy will reign in the Millennium and beyond.

Many times when you’re reading a prophecy in Scripture, there is an immediate fulfillment and an ultimate fulfillment.  The prophet might be writing about something near and also something far, that even he doesn’t know the details of.  This chart called “The Prophetic Telescope” is helpful to me.

Specifically, when Joel writes about the “Day of the Lord,” he is thinking about the destruction Assyria or Babylon is going to bring, but there is also a fulfillment that is still far into the future.  We could show it like this.

That’s enough bad news, don’t you think?  Are you ready for some good news?

Good News in Joel

1. God calls people to return. 

In Joel 1:14, the religious leaders are instructed to “declare a holy fast; call a sacred assembly.”  And Joel 2:12-13 says: “‘Even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.’  Rend your heart and not your garments.  Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.”  The word “return” is in the imperative tense.  In other words, it’s a command and it means “to come back to.”  

It’s important to return with all your heart.  Joel, along with all the prophets, is calling us back to a God-centered life because God doesn’t want half-hearted allegiance.  He’s concerned about their lack of concern. If you’re struggling with something right now, look at it as an opportunity to fully return to Him.  Look at Joel 3:14: “Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision!  For the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision.”  Incidentally, this is not a valley in which we make a decision; it’s when God announces His decision.  We better receive His salvation now, before it’s too late.

That reminds me of the man who went to his pastor to confess a nagging secret sin that he was unable to hold in anymore.  He admitted that he had been stealing building supplies from the lumberyard where he worked.  The pastor asked him how much lumber he had taken over the years: “I took enough to build my home and enough for my son’s house.  Then I took enough to build houses for my two daughters.  Oh, and our cottage at the lake.”  The pastor mulled this over and told him this was a very serious offense and counseled the man to consider doing a retreat.  To which the man answered, “I’ve never done that.  But if you get the plans, I can get the lumber.”

The people were used to wearing rough sackcloth to let everyone know they were contrite and they tore their garments as a show of their sorrow.  But they didn’t mean it in their hearts.  They are called to repent and return with all their heart…and so are we.

2. God will then restore. 

The order here is critical.  God restores only after we return. We see this in Joel 2:25-26: “I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten – the great locust and the young locust, the other locusts and the locust swarm – my great army that I sent among you.  You will have plenty to eat, until you are full, and you will praise the name of the Lord your God, who has worked wonders for you; never again will my people be shamed.”  One translation uses this cool phrase: “I will make it up to you.”  

Sometimes I hear people lament that they didn’t come to the Lord until they were older.  I’ve felt like that at times, wishing I would have had the opportunity that our students have now to be involved in such a dynamic student ministry.  I’ve also heard older believers say that they wish they would have gotten serious about the Lord and about serving much earlier in life.  Friends, it’s not too late.  God can, and will restore the years the locusts have eaten.  He will make up for the barrenness of our lives when we turn back to Him.

3. We then receive the Holy Spirit. 

Joel 2:28-32 is quoted by Peter in Acts 2:17-21 to show that the Holy Spirit will be given and “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  Up until the Day of Pentecost, God’s Spirit was given to certain people at certain times for specific purposes.  But now, because of the coming of Christ and His death on our behalf, the prophecy of Joel 2:28 is fulfilled: “And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.”

Before we move on, I want to make two more points from chapter 3.

  • Everyone will either face a God who “roars” or a God who is a “refuge.”  We see this in 3:16: “The Lord will roar from Zion and thunder from Jerusalem; the earth and the sky will tremble.  But the Lord will be a refuge for His people, a stronghold for the people of Israel.”  I like how John Piper puts it: “When the day of the Lord comes, God will meet us either as a roaring lion to devour or as a quiet refuge of delight.”
  • God’s purpose is to make known that He alone is God.  Look at 3:17: “Then you will know that I, the Lord your God, dwell in Zion, my holy hill.”  God does all that He does for the fame of His holy name.  The story of the Bible is wrapped up in His glory, that all the nations might know that He and He alone is the Lord.

Bad News in Zephaniah

Let’s zoom in on Zephaniah now.  To find it turn right from Joel and go seven books, or if it’s easier, find the Gospel of Matthew and go left four books.  This poor prophet is not only hard to find, he often gets ignored or confused with Zechariah.  He ministered during the reign of Josiah, one of the godliest kings in Judah.  Some believe that Josiah instituted reforms and revival in large part because of the influence of Zephaniah.

There’s quite a bit of bad news in Zephaniah – out of three chapters, two and a half are filled with woes and warnings.  Check out 1:2: “I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth…” and 1:4: “I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all who live in Jerusalem…” and 1:12 shows us what God thinks of those who are spiritually smug and stagnant: “At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps and punish those who are complacent…”

The “Day of the Lord” is referenced over twenty times in these three short chapters, more than in any other Old Testament book.  Here are just two examples from 1:7: “Be silent before the Sovereign Lord, for the day of the Lord is near…” and 2:1-2: “Gather together, gather together, O shameful nation, before the appointed time arrives and that day sweeps on like chaff, before the fierce anger of the Lord comes upon you.”  Matthew Henry points out that “The prophet meant in that terrible description of approaching judgments not to drive people to despair, but to drive them to God and to their duty – not to frighten them out of their wits, but to frighten them out of their sins.”

Good News in Zephaniah

In his outstanding commentary on the Minor Prophets, James Montgomery Boice writes: “No matter how depressing the message of judgment in the Minor Prophets becomes, it is never the final word of God to His people.”  Like Joel, Zephaniah urges the people to return to God before it’s too late.  Look at 2:3: “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, you who do what He commands.  Seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you will be sheltered on the day of the Lord’s anger.”

For the remainder of our time, I want to focus on a verse that has been called the “John 3:16” of the Old Testament.  Please turn to Zephaniah 3:17: “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.”  I see five practical promises in this passage.  Before we go through them, let me just say that some of you are going to have a hard time believing them because you don’t think that God delights in you.  Because of all your sins, you’re filled with shame.  Could I ask you to allow God’s living Word to speak to you right now?  

To help us capture its meaning, I’d like to read this verse as it appears in several translations and paraphrases.

NLT: “For the Lord your God is living among you.  He is a mighty savior.  He will take delight in you with gladness.  With his love, he will calm all your fears.  He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.”

ESV: “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”

Message: “Your God is present among you, a strong Warrior there to save you.  Happy to have you back, he’ll calm you with his love and delight you with his songs.”

Amplified: “The Lord your God is in the midst of you, a Mighty One, a Savior [Who saves]! He will rejoice over you with joy; He will rest [in silent satisfaction] and in His love He will be silent and make no mention [of past sins, or even recall them]; He will exult over you with singing.”

1. God’s presence – God is with you! 

“The Lord your God is with you…”  When you feel alone or abandoned, remember that God’s presence is with you.  This literally means that God is “in the midst of you.”  God is not just watching you; He is walking through life with you.  He’s not just near you; He’s right in the midst of whatever you’re in the midst of.  I love the words of Jesus in John 14:8: “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.”  Hebrews 13:5 says, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” If you know Jesus through the new birth, He promises to be your constant companion.

How are you doing on the 60/60 Experiment?  Having a chime go off every hour has helped me to remember that God is always with me.  

2. God’s power – God is for you!  “…He is mighty to save…” 

God is a mighty warrior and He overcomes all odds to defeat the enemy so we can be free and safe.  This word “save” is stated with an emphatic oomph.  God is powerful and mighty and is for you!  This should give us great assurance.  I love John 10:28-29: “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.  My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.”  Romans 8:31: “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

3. God’s pleasure – God delights in you!  “…He will take great delight in you…” 

The look crossing your Heavenly Father’s face when He thinks of you is joy

The word delight means to be bright and cheerful.  Some of us think that God frowns when He thinks of us.  Instead of glaring at you; God is glad that He made you!  The look crossing your Heavenly Father’s face when He thinks of you is joy.  Max Lucado captures this thought well: “God is for you.  Had He a calendar, your birthday would be circled.  If He drove a car, your name would be on His bumper.  If there’s a tree in heaven, He’s carved your name in the bark…”

4. God’s peace – God calms you!  “…He will quiet you with His love…” 

This can be translated as “He will be at rest in His love.”  The NASB puts it this way: “He will be quiet in His love.”  Most often the love of the Lord is expressed as loyal love, stressing God’s unconditional commitment to us.  The word “love” in this passage however, means “to be united” and is used of Jacob’s passionate love for Rachel (Genesis 29:20), the fond love of Jacob for Joseph (Genesis 37:3) and Jonathon’s deep friendship with David (1 Samuel 18:3).  

Isaiah 62:5: “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.”  This is wedding imagery where God sweeps us off our feet and in the quiet rest of relationship we can cease striving.  The idea here is that God contemplates His beloved with wordless adoration and perfect contentment.  One commentator said that “The battle cry on the day of judgment will be replaced by the poignant hush of the reuniting of two lovers.”

I love the way some of the older commentators speak.  Listen to what Albert Barnes has to say: “The soul, until it hath found God, is evermore seeking some love to fill it, and can find none, since the love of God alone can content it.”

5. God’s praise – God celebrates you!  “…He will rejoice over you with singing.” 

God moves from the quiet rest of being in relationship with us to exuberant rejoicing.  The Hebrew word for “rejoice” means “to spin around in joy with great gladness and glee.”  When our girls were younger I used to spin them around and we’d giggle together.  God is spinning around when He thinks of His sons and daughters as well.  The word for singing refers to “a shout or shrill sound.”  This is loud singing, not just mumbling or half-hearted lip synching.  Do you picture God spinning and shouting in song when He thinks of you?  Jared Anderson has written a cool song called “Amazed.”  Here are some of the lyrics: “You dance over me while I am unaware.  You sing all around, but I never hear the sound…”

Nehemiah 8:10: “…for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”  This verse is commonly misunderstood to suggest that it’s our joy that gives us strength.  Look closely.  It’s God’s joy that gives us strength.  When we picture Him as rejoicing, we can be rejuvenated.  

Dennis Jernigan has written a translation of Zephaniah 3:17 from the Hebrew that captures the majesty of this verse: “The eternal self-existent God, the God who is three in one; He who dwells in the center of your being is a powerful and valiant warrior.  He has come to set you free, to keep you safe, and to bring you victory.  He is cheered, and He beams with exceeding joy and takes pleasure in your presence.  He has engraved a place for Himself in you, and there He quietly rests in His love and affection for you.  He cannot contain Himself at the thought of you and with the greatest of joy spins around wildly in anticipation over you…In fact, He shouts and sings in triumph, joyfully proclaiming the gladness of His heart in a song of rejoicing!  All because of you!”

Bringing It Together

We need to hear the bad news in order for the Good News of the gospel to make sense.  That’s why it’s important to use the 10 Commandments when witnessing because people need to see that they’re sinners before they’ll see their need for salvation.  I have three steps in closing.

1. Repent of your sins. 

Zephaniah 3:11-12 describes the haughty and the humble.  It’s only the humble who will repent.  What’s it going to be?   Will you face judgment or will you experience joy when the Day of the Lord comes?  2 Peter 3:9 tells us that God “is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”  Yet 2 Peter 3:10 tells us that judgment will surely come: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief.  The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.”

2. Receive the Savior. 

3:9 refers to those who “call on the name of the Lord and serve Him shoulder to shoulder” with others.  3:13 describes the remnant and verse 15 says that “The Lord has taken away your punishment…”  If you’ve never done what Romans 10:9 says, then do so today: “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.”

3. Rejoice in singing. 

Frederick Nietzsche, the nineteenth century German philosopher famous for his quote that “God is dead,” once said this of Christians: “If they want me to believe in their God, they’ll have to sing me better songs…I could only believe in a God who dances.”  Friends, we are called to rejoice in God because God rejoices in us.  Listen to 3:14: “Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel!  Be glad and rejoice with all your heart…” I love what Alexander Maclaren said about this passage: “What a wonderful rush of exuberant gladness there is in these words!  The swift, short clauses…the very words seem to dance with joy…for every throb of joy in man’s heart; there is a wave of gladness in God’s.  The notes of our praise are at once the echoes and occasions of His.”

One of my favorite lines in the movie Fireproof is this: “Don’t follow your heart; lead your heart.”  Too many of us are way too focused on our feelings.  It’s time to focus on the facts.  Sure, the Bible has some bad news but the good news overshadows the bad.  Here are the facts or promises we can hold on to.

  • God’s presence – God is with you!
  • God’s power – God is for you!
  • God’s pleasure – God delights in you!
  • God’s peace – God calms you!
  • God’s praise – God celebrates you!

How can we not respond with songs of rejoicing in a spirit of reverence?  It’s now time for us to sing like we mean it!  We sing because He sings.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?