The Joy of God’s Love
The Lord your God in your midst is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over you with joy;
he will rest in his love, he will joy over you with singing ~ Zephaniah 3:17
Our Lord said that we live by every word from God’s mouth (Deut. 8:3; Matt. 4:4). This is the way he formed us – to be whole when we are listening to him, happiest when holiest, and truly alive when eating his word. To eat his word means to take it into our hearts, to love it and find it sweeter than honey (Ps. 119:103), and to live by it not for a quarter hour each morning but all the day (Prov. 23:17). As Job confessed, we need God’s word more than our daily bread (Job 23:12).
It is helpful, and in some seasons absolutely necessary, to have a specific morsel or two to take with you on the battlefield of life, on your journey to heaven. We do not go on a day hike without packing something to eat and drink. Yet, too many of us start a day with little or nothing in our spiritual backpacks. We do not gather the manna in the morning, and by noon we are famished. We rush into the day having taken little time for quiet communion with Christ, spiritual eating for the trials and temptations ahead. Our spiritual blood sugar sinks fast, and we become faint. Always, child of God, have at least one promise of God, one passage of Scripture, with which to refresh yourself along the way.
Zephaniah 3:17 has been much on my mind, and I commend it to you again. It has been called the John 3:16 of the Old Testament. The more I consider that observation, the more it strikes me as very fitting. It is surprising for this package of promises to be found in this particular place. If you read the opening of the prophecy, you will find one of the most startling declarations of judgment to be found in Scripture. God’s people will soon be howling under his wrath (1:10-11). Calamities galore are about to fall upon God’s people, for his great day of judgment is near (1:12-16).
After expanding his scope to include the Philistines and Moabites as also under the approaching doom of judgment, the Lord begins explaining the reason for his judgments against his people. We always find it hard to understand and harder to accept that God treats his people so roughly, often more firmly than he treats the children of disobedience and wrath. The Lord gives the ungodly their good things in this life (Luke 16:25; Ps. 17:14), but he disciplines those whom he loves. He cannot wink at our sins, for we must be partakers of his holiness (Heb. 12:5-11).
And what are we to do when tested beyond endurance, beyond hope, when tears become our food, when the hordes of ungodly men make us afraid, and when the Lord seems not to be listening to us? We are to remember his promises. He says, “Take and eat.” And he gives just such a promise in Zephaniah 3:17, especially to his faithful remnant who lived through such horrendous judgments and needed the bread of heaven to keep them from perishing in the wilderness of this world.
Unpack these promises carefully. “The Lord your God.” You mean the Lord who is afflicting us. Yes, the same, for we need not understand his ways with us to trust his love for us. No matter the fires through which we must pass, he ever remains true to himself. He is our Lord, the covenant keeping, promise remembering, and mercy loving God and Father through Jesus Christ (Ex. 34:5-6). He is our God, the omnipotent Creator and Sustainer of all things.
He is in our midst, and he is mighty. It is the great promise to us as it was to the small church then facing the juggernaut of God’s judgment that he nevertheless remained bound to them, with them. It is the same with us, with imprisoned believers who have not seen the light of day for years: the Lord is with them. We do not see how, but faith sees something higher, eats the promise, regains strength and hope: “I will never leave you or forsake you.” (Matt. 28:20). “I will dwell with you, and walk with you” (2 Cor. 6:16). And he is gibbor, which is translated “mighty.” It can mean strong man, even hero. In Isaiah 9:6, it is one of our Savior’s names: El Gibbor, which is most often translated “the mighty God.” This is who is with us – the God-Hero, the strong and mighty God, the Captain of our salvation (Heb. 2:10). Think less upon your sorrows and more upon the Christ who is with you. Do not drown in your tears by bitterness but take your tears to the mighty Man of Sorrows, who will collect them in his compassion and pour them back out as mercies and experience and hope. As he grows in you, and you in him, you will endure and overcome, for it is not you, but Christ by his Spirit in you.
And he will save – this is such a rich and costly packet of promises. He does not say, “You will not suffer,” but, “I will save.” Nor does he tell us specifically how in each season or generation he will save. He can save by giving endurance as much as by giving relief. We must give him room to save us as he thinks best, whether by taking us to heaven or leaving us in in an earthly prison. He will be glorified in all his ways of saving his people.
And he will rejoice over us with joy – wait – the same God is who is about to make the world howl with judgment? He is rejoicing over us? And as the last phrase in the verse says, “Rejoice over us with singing, or strong cries of rejoicing?” The same events we see in the world can have very different purposes. What makes the children of wrath howl makes the children of promise sing – for God is rejoicing over us and in us. It is one of the most amazing promises in the Bible; nothing like it is to be found in all the world religions of works and rituals and mysticism and escapism. There is no rejoicing God in Islam, or the Greek mythologies, or in the laboratories of Secularism. This is because there is no grace and no redemption, no love.
And notice that between the two clauses of joy, there is another clause, which explains the joy. It is the promise of promises, the John 3:16 of the Old Testament. “He will rest in his love.” “Rest” is the word for “be quiet,” so the idea seems to be that God is quiet or settled in his love for us. Nothing that happens to us moves him an inch away from the highest and holiest and completest love he has for us. Nothing that we see in the world that troubles us in any way reflects upon God’s love. It cannot increase or diminish. It is fuller and more settled than we can ever know. No sin of ours drives him from the inner sanctum of redeeming, gracious love.
Our Savior also participates in this quiet love, for he is the proof of it. He is not the cause of it. Our Father did not start loving us at Calvary, as if he were before that sacrifice a hard and angry deity, armed with vengeance against us. No, Calvary was the outpouring of his love. Love slew the Son that it might bring many sons and daughters to glory. Love met justice and kissed it, satisfied its claims, and quieted its demands. The sword against us is sheathed. There is no more condemnation. There is quiet love – God’s settled, Christ-purchased and mediated, Spirit-sealed love for us. He sings love-songs to us – of what he has done for us, prepared for us, and will one day enjoy with us. He will one day bring us fully into that inner sanctum of love singing, the love of the Father and the Son (and the Spirit) in us, with us complete in that love, never lacking anything, a sustained, quiet yet overwhelming, settling yet majestic enjoyment of his love (John 17:24-26).
Hear him singing over you in love – by faith in his promise. In this world, we hear much noise, the screaming of souls already destined for the fire and revealing already that there is no peace for the wicked (Isa. 57:20-21). There is much howling going on, and there will be more. We are on the march now, with our individual trials and crosses, as well as our collective responsibilities to stand fast and contend for God’s truth (Phil. 1:27; Jude 3). How can we press on when we feel so pressed down? There is only one way. Faith must chew on the promise of God’s unchanging love.
His love for us, his presence with us, his power for us, and his joy over us are some of the richest promises in Scripture. God’s love does not wait until we are perfect to sing. He rejoices over us now. He is settled now in his love for us, and nothing will move him. He cannot forsake you, for he cannot stop loving you. Believe this promise. Take it with you wherever you go. You will need this promise. It is a light when other lights go out, bread when other breads turn stale, joy when other joys are hollow. It is the love of God that will bring us home to glory. Look to him and be saved. Believe his promise, and sing back to him – in every trial, in the dungeon, in the lion’s den, in loneliness. Sing to the God who sings over you; rejoice in him who amazingly rejoices over you with exultation. This God will never leave you.