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Zephaniah, Barth, Judgment, and Grace

January 21, 2013

How to make sense of the judgments and grace of I AM? At once I can hear the nations (Israel, Philistia, Moab, Ammon, Cush, and Assyria) leveled under the judgments of God. “I have decided to assemble the nations, to gather the kingdoms and to pour out my wrath upon them – all my fierce anger. The whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger (Zephaniah 3:8).” And this judgment must be held simultaneously with the promise; The nations on every shore will worship him, every one in its own land (Zephaniah 2:11).” What worshippers would be left on the shores after their gathering for judgment? The tsunami of justice would sweep them all away, leaving I AM with an uninhabited earth, void of the worshippers he has determined to raise up.

What to make of such troubles?

Karl Barth on such troubles: “All the disasters of world history, all the persecutions and trials of the community, and above all the judgments on Israel which culminates in the destruction of Jerusalem are only the great shadow of the cross falling on the cosmos, the Messianic woes which not even the cosmos can evade, the participation in the divine judgment, effected in the death of Jesus, to which even the cosmos is subject, though this judgment is to its salvation, to the salvation of all Israel, the salvation of the community, the salvation of all human beings, and indeed of the whole cosmos.”


My sense then of Barth and of Zephaniah is this – those sweeping and terrifying judgments which I AM testifies to on his “Day,” which must necessarily be absorbed by all the nations are absorbed by the one nation, Israel is punished vicariously for the idolatry of all the nations. But even more specifically Israel in its truest and best sense, this is in its Messiah and sole representative. So Christ’s death is the locus of I AM’s judgment of the nations; so in him Cush, Assyria, Philistia, Moab, Ammon are all, along with Israel subjected to the fires of justice.

It is only in this way that I AM can and actually does gather his global praise, in this way that every shore rings with gladness – final justice has been done and we have lived to tell about it! That act of judgment is also at the once the act of grace by which I AM garners praise. It is thus that Zephaniah can conclude; “‘Sing, O daughter of Zion, shout aloud, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem!  I AM has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. I AM, the king of Israel, is with you, never again will you fear any harm… I AM 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… At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home. I will give you honor and praise among the peoples of the earth when your restore your fortunes before your very eyes!’ Says I AM. (Zephaniah 3:14-17, 20)”

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