Zephaniah prophesied in turbulent times. He seems to have been an adviser to the young King Josiah, who came to the throne as a child of eight after the murder of his father. Not that the Prophet approved of Josiah’s father. On the contrary, he was determined to mould the young Josiah’s character so that he would take an entirely different direction from his father. And in his early prophecies, perhaps when he was trying to get the new policy established, Zephaniah rails against the terrible behaviour both of Josiah’s father and of his grandfather too. They had worshipped the Canaanite gods Molech, Baal and Astarte and had practised soothsaying, magic and child sacrifice as well as ordinary everyday idolatry. Although Josiah’s grandfather had reigned for 55 years, the Bible and Zephaniah brand him a terrible failure and a blot on Judah’s history.
In comparison Josiah was a blazing success morally, but unfortunately he lacked the diplomatic skills of his grandfather. The culmination of Josiah’s reign was a foolish alliance with Babylon against Egypt and Assyria. At Armageddon, or Megiddo as it’s also called, he met the Egyptian army on its way to attack the Babylonians, and was shot full of arrows for his pains. He died in Jerusalem, still a relatively young man, his full potential unfulfilled.
Later in his prophecies, then, Zephaniah celebrates Josiah’s reforms but looks back with regret on the demise of this good reforming king, who had heeded the Prophet’s advice and done everything he could to make the people of Judah more holy and God-fearing. Zephaniah tries to reassure the people that another good ruler will be coming along soon. It’s a Biblical example of someone whistling in the dark to keep his and other people’s spirits up.
So Jerusalem or Zion - the name of the hill on which Jerusalem stands - is depicted as a young girl singing a heartfelt song of joy and thanksgiving. The wickedness of Josiah’s father and grandfather - and the willingness of the people to follow their example - have been forgiven by God. And, although Josiah’s death may have brought fresh disaster, God is now in their midst. And he’s a warrior who will give the people victory, so there’s nothing to fear from Egypt or Assyria.
God will renew the nation in his love. It will be like a holiday time, not a tragedy, because God will wipe out the disaster of Josiah’s death and ensure that Judah will not be reproached for taking a wrong turn and getting mixed up in power politics. He will deal with the mighty empires that would like to oppress Judah and rescue the men who were disabled or scattered in the fighting. Their shame at losing the battle of Megiddo will be changed to worldwide praise and renown because God is going to restore the nation’s fortunes.
So what has this got to do with Advent? Well, arguably the prophecies of Zephaniah did not come true in his lifetime. The succession of weak and vacillating kings who succeeded Josiah did not see the fortunes of Jerusalem restored. Worst of all, perhaps, Josiah’s chosen successor was deported to Egypt and died in exile there. And eventually, many years later of course, Jerusalem herself was overthrown and destroyed by her former Babylonian allies.
Zephaniah’s prophecy survived, one suspects, because it could be looked at more generally, as a promise for the future. It was probably a source of comfort and encouragement to the returning exiles who re-established Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple, and to those who later defended it against another wicked king, Antiochus Epiphanes, who tried to wipe out the Jewish faith and replace it with Greek idols rather than Canaanite ones.
It was also a source of encouragement, of course, to Christians. But is Jesus the warrior king anticipated by Zephaniah? I hardly think so. At best the prophecy has to be treated as a metaphor for God’s victory over evil through Jesus’ death on the cross. But one thing is for sure, God is love and he does intend to save the lame and gather the outcasts. Those who trust in him need not be afraid. All of these things chime with the Christian message of hope.
And we live in pretty turbulent times ourselves, perhaps not as turbulent as the time of Zephaniah and Josiah, but turbulent enough. We too need to know that God is in the midst of us. We too need reassurance that cost-cutting and recession will not go on and on for ever. We too need encouragement not to fear and not to give up - ‘not to let our hand grow weak’ as the Prophet puts it. We too need to know that those at the bottom of the pile, the disabled, the oppressed, the marginalised, have not been forgotten and that our past sins - of greed and over-indulgence - have been forgiven.
In our reading from Philippians Paul says that Christians should stand out from the crowd because we should always be rejoicing, even when times are hard. When others are jostling and competing for influence, or trying to shove their way to the front of the queue for profits, or tax breaks, or funding, or welfare, we should be an example of gentleness and forbearance.
This is because Jesus is the exact opposite of the kind of messiah envisaged by Zephaniah. Zephaniah expected a warrior king, someone with a heart of gold but who was also ready to use tough love when oppressors and enemies of the truth stood in his way, someone who believed that the end can justify the means. But Jesus is the very opposite of Zephaniah’s vision, a gentle messiah, someone who aims to overcome evil and injustice purely by moral example. But he’s a messiah who doesn’t just make peace come about - by force if necessary; he’s a messiah who is the living embodiment of peace.
It can’t be denied that Zephaniah’s picture of leadership has its attractions. His kind of messiah would certainly be a useful ally to have on your side in a bitter conflict against ruthless and determined foes. In contrast, Jesus’ pattern of messiahship is about enduring suffering in order to overcome hatred and violence through love. It’s a tough ask for people who are oppressed by evil forces. Yet Paul insists that Jesus’ way is the only geneuine option if we want to achieve the peace that belongs to God, the peace which passes all understanding and which has the power to guard our hearts and minds forever.
Yet the biggest contrast between Zephaniah’s vision of messiahship and Jesus’ vision is something else. We’re not just talking about a contrast between force force and gentleness, for Zephaniah’s messiah is someone who has never actually arrived. Zephaniah looked forward eagerly to his coming, but even the good King Josiah was unable to bring about the peace of God, and neither could later Jewish leaders. It’s a goal which still eludes the leaders of modern Israel, and isn’t that because - in the last resort - they try to establish peace like a warrior giving victory to his people, who does not let his hands grow weak, just as Josiah tried to do at Armageddon?
If forceful leaders can sometimes restore the fortunes of their people for a time, they can never get over the bar of establishing a peace that endures for ever and guards our hearts and minds. If people follow Zephaniah’s way something always goes wrong in the end, whereas Jesus’ vision may be hard to follow but it really is deliverable. Advent is a celebration of the fact that our messiah did come and he still reigns. As the Prophet Isaiah said, ‘He will reign over [his people] forever, and his kingdom will know no end.’