“Therefore, wait for me — this is the Lord’s declaration — until the day I rise up for plunder. For my decision is to gather nations, to assemble kingdoms, in order to pour out my indignation on them, all my burning anger; for the whole earth will be consumed by the fire of my jealousy. For I will then restore pure speech to the peoples so that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him with a single purpose.”
— Zephaniah 3:8-9 (CSB – Read the chapter)
I remember reading the first Lord of the Rings book when I was in college. The only thing I regretted was that I waited so long to read it. I eventually burned through the second and third books on a single week trip to South Carolina with my family that summer. After finishing the first book, I remember talking to a friend and being absolutely distraught that Gandalf had died in the end. He just smiled a knowing smile and said, “Keep reading.” What He knew was that the story wasn’t over. That’s a pretty good reminder for what we see here.
After promising judgment to Israel once again at the beginning of chapter 3, the section gradually turns to a description of judgment of the whole world. Everything is going to be consumed by His burning anger. The end of v. 8 is pretty hopeless. “For the whole earth will be consumed by the fire of my jealousy.” God has put up with people worshiping things that He created long enough. No more. Judgment is coming.
Verse 8 pictures the whole earth being gathered together in order to be judged. This is it. This is the moment when we finally see the angry, wrathful God we always knew Him to be come out and show His great, ugly face. This is the moment when a monster who’s trying to be accepted let’s his inner-monster out and people see him for what he really is.
And then…v. 9 goes somewhere entirely unexpected. The Lord assembled all the earth…for restoration. He brings everyone together so that He can restore in them pure tongues that don’t worship other gods and goddesses so that they can be in the relationship with Him they were always intended to have; so that they can serve Him with an undivided heart as they were always intended to do. He’s going to restore them to who they were always intended to be.
Wait, what? What happened to the judgment?
Friends, what we see here once again—and once again in the Old Testament prophets—is the true character of God. It’s the same character put so clearly and gloriously on display on the cross. His wrath against sin is fierce and terrible. No one can stand before His withering glare. But His love for the people He created is absolute. Nothing can or will shake it. And His purposes are always aimed in the direction of mercy and love. Judgment may come because He is just, but restoration will always follow quickly in its wake. Reconciliation is always the goal. Judgment may seem to rule the day, but the story isn’t over.
That’s the God we serve. I wonder, do you serve Him? His purposes for you are always concerned with mercy and grace. Troubles will still come. Sin is still loose on the earth because the time has not yet come to destroy it. He’s waiting to give as many as will—perhaps you?—a chance to turn from it and receive His invitation into love. And sin causes pain and destruction. But His plans for you through the pain are grace and mercy. The story isn’t over. He is the God who does good things. Will you receive Him and the hope He offers?