Everyone has a read on God of one sort or another. The question of how we read God also has an applied element. Our view of God shapes the way we live; and, obversely, the way we live exposes our actual reading of God no matter what we say we believe.
This is a point made here before and it bears repeating. This time, however, let’s take up a variation of the question: that is, how does God read our reading of him? Is our view accurate? Do our various responses to him fit who he really is?
With that question in mind we become more open to his coaching us—ready to ask him to correct us if we’re off base. And if we have read him correctly, it’s likely to encourage us to be bolder in sharing him with others.
A brief Old Testament book, Zephaniah, gave the people of Judah a helpful reading of God’s perspective. When I reread it a couple of weeks ago it caught my attention more than ever before. The prophet warned of “the day of the LORD” that is coming soon. On that Day every false version of God will be corrected. Any human distortions will be dissolved by the reality of his actual presence.
Zephaniah offers God’s reading of the way these Judeans read God. That double reading applies to us as well. It’s what God is looking for in any age; and what his plans and promises are for that coming Day.
A seeking heart. The book begins with the promise that on that Day God will “utterly sweep away everything” (1:2). While restarting relations after a clean sweep sounds encouraging at one level, it really isn’t good news to those who haven’t paid attention to what God has expressed about himself in the past. Devotees of Baal and Milcom are listed among the false versions of God common in Zephaniah’s day who will be swept away. Yet in a summary sentence (1:6) we’re told of the timeless measure to be used by God in this final sweeping judgment: he will confront all those “who have turned back from following the LORD, who do not seek the LORD or inquire of him.” God looks after those who look for him; but those who don’t seek him are facing a frightening future.
A bigger God. Zephaniah also wrote about how God views the decayed morality that comes with either a weak view of God or in settings where he is dismissed. Zephaniah lists qualities such as violence and fraud, and even merchandising that isn’t true and fair as the sort of thing that God won’t accept. What is it in this corruption that stirs God? The naïve belief that he really doesn’t know what’s going on: “At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the men who are complacent, those who say in their hearts, ‘The LORD will not do good nor will he do ill'” (1:12). God is not casual about those who are casual and careless towards him.
A faithful devotion. If anyone believes that Jesus in the New Testament offers God’s grace while in the Old Testament the Father is angry and harsh, they’ve missed one of the great themes of the Bible: in both Testaments God is jealous for our love. Sin is ultimately faithless disaffection—a refusal to love God—even though he is the one whom we were created to love and enjoy. In the place of loving God fallen human hearts now love security and pleasure—as located in “silver” and “gold” (1:18). But this false love will be confronted on the coming Day: “In the fire of [God’s] jealousy, all the earth shall be consumed; for a full and sudden end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.” Faithlessness won’t endure that Day but, as will be seen below, faithful love is treasured by God.
A genuine humility. The main feature of a heart devoted to God and to his ways is humility. But it’s not as if humility is something we manufacture. Rather it goes with seeing ourselves for who we are while at the same time seeing God for who he is. He is our creator; we are his creation. He pours out his goodness to us; we receive it in full dependence. He directs; we respond. This spontaneous and appropriate humility is crucial: “Seek the LORD, all you humble of the land, who do his just commands; seek righteousness; seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the anger of the LORD (2:3). The goal of all God-fearing people is to please the God who loves us, not to compete with him.
A deep trust. Zephaniah offered a review of the major world powers of his day. Each country is promised divine justice. Many are hostile to Israel and behind the anti-Judah impulses of that day is a Satanic hatred of God. This is an echo of the revolt in the garden of Eden. Nineveh, for instance, refused to trust God but trusted in themselves, using a title reserved for God alone: “This is the exultant city that lived securely, that said in her heart, ‘I am, and there is no one else'” (2:15). Thus her reward on the coming Day will be desolation. The same is true of any group of people—including Jerusalem: “She does not trust in the LORD; she does not draw near to her God” (3:2). God reads hearts and delights in those who trust him, simply because he alone is fully trustworthy.
A song of loving delight. As we have seen, much of what Zephaniah offers in anticipation of the coming Day is shared as warnings. The book ends, however, on an upbeat note. God looks for that coming Day when those who love him will join him in antiphonal delight. Decades ago it was the fashion of musicals such as the Sound of Music to have a lover and his beloved sing to each other. This is the final vision that Zephaniah offers of the future. In a coming day those who are forgiven in Judah will “Rejoice and exult with all your heart” (3:14). God will celebrate in return: “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” (3:17).
This vision of the coming Day offered by Zephaniah tells us of a God who is both frightening and winsome. He wants us to read him accurately; and he reads us with unerring awareness wherever we are in respect to him. The invitation we have before us today is to be captured by him and by all he offers us. And then to wait for the Day when he rejoices over us with his “loud singing” of delight. What a God and what a future!