If you’re shocked that a pastor would ask that question, then you haven’t read many of my lessons. I’ve already confessed that I’m really no different than you are when it comes to the questions and struggles I have in this life. I may be better equipped to find the answers, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have the questions. So if you’re like me and you’re life isn’t always filled with rainbows and unicorns, you’ve probably wondered, Does God Really Love Me? If you’ve ever spent any time reading the Psalms, you’ll soon realize that not a few psalmists seemed to wonder the same thing when they lamented their life circumstances. Job lost absolutely everything—his possessions, his family, and his health. He demanded God explain why He allowed his suffering. He never asked the specific question, but if he believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that God loved him, then he probably wouldn’t have demanded that God explain why his life was in shambles. I might be wrong, but I suspect all Christians have doubted God’s love for them at some point in their life. I know I’ve wondered it more than once in my life. Growing up in the home of an abusive alcoholic I doubted God’s love after every beating. Throughout my life, there have been times when I have doubted God’s love for me. And recently, that same doubt found its way into my thoughts as I continue to struggle with health issues.
Whether you are struggling with personal health issues, or you’ve lost someone you love, or your marriage has come to a painful end, or your marriage is just painful, or you’re terrified that marriage will never come to you, or having a child continues to elude you, or you’ve been devastated by the loss of a child, or your job is sucking the life out of you, or you simply can’t find a job, or you’re being crushed by financial struggles, or you continue to grieve for a child who has walked away from his or her faith, or daily you fear for your life simply because you are a faithful follower of Christ, at some point even the most steadfast believer’s resolve and belief in God’s love is tested. If that describes you right now or has described you at some point in the past when you just stuffed your doubt in the closet because someone at some point told you that doubting God means you’re not a very good Christian, let’s just be honest and ask the question, Does God Really Love Me? and together try and work through what that means.
15The LORD has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm. 16On that day they will say to Jerusalem, “Do not fear, Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. 17The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.” 18“I will remove from you all who mourn over the loss of your appointed festivals, which is a burden and reproach for you. 19At that time I will deal with all who oppressed you. I will rescue the lame; I will gather the exiles. I will give them praise and honor in every land where they have suffered shame. 20At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home. I will give you honor and praise among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortunes before your very eyes,” says the LORD.
Zephaniah is one of the twelve minor prophets of the Old Testament. His message is a short three chapters, but they are filled with a powerful and dire warning to Israel if they continued along their path of willful disobedience. Zephaniah was a prophet in Jerusalem from around 640 B.C. until around 621 B.C. Israel went through a period of being led by a succession of kings most of whom 2 Chronicles refers to as “evil.” During the time of Zephaniah, Josiah became the king of Israel. He was preceded by Manasseh who ruled in Jerusalem for fifty-five years. Manasseh reintroduced all the pagan religious practices that his father, Hezekiah, had removed from the land. As a result, the people were led into gross disobedience. Manasseh defiled the Temple and the Temple courts by building altars and phallic images for the sex god Baal and sex goddess Asherah. He also led the people to worship cosmic powers and sought guidance from the constellations. Manasseh burned his sons as sacrifices and practiced witchcraft and fortunetelling. He held séances and consulted spirits from the underworld. Why is it important that you know this, because as the leader goes, so do those who follow him. Manasseh was the model that the nation followed. It’s no surprise that God was furious. And this is precisely the context in which Josiah became king and Zephaniah prophesied. Josiah was a good king, but he had some hard work ahead of him, and Israel was staring into the teeth of God’s judgment according to Zephaniah’s warning. Zephaniah’s prophecy is frightening in its prediction of judgment. However, his message also contains one of hope when judgment leads the nation to repentance. What is important in the context of our Subject Text is the very clear message of God’s love for His people. During the coming judgment, the people could easily reach the point of despair that might lead them to wonder, Does God Really Love Me? and our Subject Text answers that question.
15The LORD has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm.
The first half of Zephaniah’s prophecy predicts “the great day of the Lord” that will “sweep away both men and animals…the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. The wicked will have only heaps of rubble when I cut off man from the face of the earth (1:3).” He describes that day as a day of distress, anguish, trouble, ruin, darkness, gloom, a day of clouds, and blackness (1:15). And if that isn’t frightening enough, Zephaniah tells them that they will stumble around like blind people when their blood is poured out like dust and their entrails like filth (1:17). Yikes! That certainly paints a hopeless picture. However, v. 15 shines a bright ray of hope into the darkness of Zephaniah’s bleak judgment. Notice what the prophet says—the Lord “has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy.” The judgment hasn’t even occurred at this point yet Zephaniah is already telling them that God has put an end to their distress and suffering.
What does this tell you about God? First and foremost, it tells you that God isn’t soft on sin. You can’t just go through life thumbing your nose at God and think He will close His eyes to it. Eventually, God will judge and punish all those who refuse to repent of their sins. “The Lord urges the people to repent because otherwise, their ‘iniquity will become to them their stumbling block.’ The Lord will clearly intervene, but from another perspective, it is the people’s sin that brings them to ruin because it prompts divine intervention. Divine sovereignty and human responsibility are held in delicate balance.” “The unchanging love of God toward his people cannot rest apart from a completed redemption, despite the necessity of punishment for sins.” Second, God is merciful and always ready to save those who repent and turn back to Him. Finally, when you combine the first two things, we learn that God is always sovereign; nothing is beyond his control. God has the power to judge and the power to save. We see this when Zephaniah describes God as the King of Israel. Remember I said that Josiah was the king in Israel. So what is Zephaniah saying? He’s saying that no matter who we think is in control over our lives, God is ultimately in control of everything.
16On that day they will say to Jerusalem, “Do not fear, Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. 17The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.”
I want to clarify a couple of things because of the way I split up vv. 16-17. To what day is “that day” referring? It is the day when God turns back Jerusalem’s enemies. And to whom is “they” referring. It is referring to all the enemies of Israel. So on the day when God turns back Israel’s enemies, their enemies will literally encourage them not to fear. Hands hanging limp is an idiom that signifies hopelessness and despair. Israel’s enemies are signaling their surrender at the hands of God, the “Mighty Warrior” who has come to save Israel. Of course, God coming to Israel’s rescue is a theme that is often repeated throughout the Old Testament. But I really want you to focus on what the prophet says in v. 17. Whether God rescues Israel from four hundred years of slavery in Egypt or from the brutality of the Babylonians, or the Assyrians, or the Persians, we are mistaken to believe that God did so just so that He had someone on hand to worship Him. Instead, look at how God feels about His people. Make no mistake, followers of Jesus Christ, His Church, are not just part of what is understood to be God’s people, if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you are a child of God (Jn. 1:12)! Having said that, God takes great delight in you! Not only does God take great delight in you, He rejoices over you with singing! I want you to close your eyes and think about this for a moment. Doesn’t this describe what you do? You take delight in God, don’t you? Isn’t your worship music an illustration of rejoicing over God in song? Most sincere Christians do this regularly, and it comes perfectly natural to us. But how does your perspective of God change when you realize that He does that over you or more accurately because of you—not because He worships you in any way but because He loves you so deeply? I can’t even begin to tell you how meditating on this verse has moved me and comforted me because I have done this with my own children, so it is very, very real to me personally.
“The verse speaks tenderly of God’s love for his people. ‘Three parallel lines each containing three phrases express the deepest inner joy and satisfaction of God himself in his love for his people…that the Holy One should experience ecstasy over the sinner is incomprehensible.’ [Theologian, O. Palmer Robertson,] called the verse the John 3:16 of the Old Testament. Here we have the ‘reasons for their deliverance,’ namely God’s satisfaction with the remnant and Yahweh’s own power to save…
“The general sense of the verse is plain: God delights in those who he has redeemed…God delights, he quiets, bursts into song over you…‘To consider Almighty God sinking in contemplations of love over a once-wretched human being can hardly be absorbed by the human mind.’ But that is exactly the point of the verse—God delights in you. The verb is most often intransitive, depicting the inward condition of the subject rather than depicting quietness conveyed to another. Yahweh joins the people’s singing and soothes them by expressing love. This amazing love of God for human beings is inexplicable. Human minds would never dream up such a God. Human actions or human character could never deserve such love. God’s love comes in his quiet absorption because this is who God is. In the core of his being, God is love (1 Jn. 4:8). Zephaniah thus sings the prelude to the cross king of love Jesus reveals, a love that ‘surpasses knowledge’ (Eph. 3:19). How can this not cause God’s people to praise! ‘surely the greatest reason for them to offer praise is found here. They are to rejoice in Him because He, their gracious King and Savior, rejoices in them.’”
18“I will remove from you all who mourn over the loss of your appointed festivals, which is a burden and reproach for you. 19At that time I will deal with all who oppressed you. I will rescue the lame; I will gather the exiles. I will give them praise and honor in every land where they have suffered shame. 20At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home. I will give you honor and praise among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortunes before your very eyes,” says the LORD.
Part of the prophetic doom predicted by Zephaniah about Israel is that they will be stripped of everything—their ability to formally practice their faith, their homes, their land, and all their possessions. If you think about it, Zephaniah is predicting that Israel will be stripped of its identity. God’s people were identified by all the commandments, and religious practices dictated to them by God Himself and by the land, homes, and possessions they took from the Canaanites who possessed the land before God handed it to Israel almost literally on a silver platter. Before that, they were basically refugees wandering around in the desert for forty years on their way out of Egypt. They practiced their faith but they didn’t become a nation of people until they took possession of the land. Zephaniah was saying that they were going to lose all that set them apart from everyone else—everything that made them special. However, just as devastating as that revelation must have been to them, vv. 18-20 must have been a relief that their identity as the people of God wouldn’t be lost forever.
“For an exiled people, no set of promises carries more hope. To be gathered home, to have what was lost restored, and to be honored by other peoples of the earth are the normalcy and health for which every culture longs. For believers in Zephaniah’s Jerusalem, hearing the promise before any of this is lost will expand their view to the greater good God desires for them. Their culture will pass first through the great Babylonian crucible of purification. Then the people will understand that their previous cultural successes have come only through God, who gives all good things.”
Does God Really Love Me? I fully realize that this question never even enters many, even most, of your minds. But I know some of you are like me and have asked this very question because I’ve talked with you, I’ve sat with you, I’ve wept with you, and I’ve prayed for you when your spouse was abusing you, after your marriage ended, after you lost your job, after your doctor told you had cancer, after you lost your loved-one, as you watched your grown child exchange his Christian faith for a life of willful sin and disobedience. As followers of Christ, we know the answer to that question academically. In other words, we know it in our head because most of us know John 3:16 by heart that God so “loved” the world that he gave his Son to die for us. We see that God loves us because we see images of Jesus hanging on the cross. So we know it is true in our heads because God says so in His Word and we can see it with our eyes. But there’s still something missing—do we know it in our heart? That’s it isn’t it?
When you struggle long enough, and your pain and/or grief is deep enough, what you have known and seen often gets crowded out by what you feel, and during those times, it really doesn’t feel like God loves you. The problem is that the cross is a one-sided event that only God could accomplish. When you think of the cross, what do you usually think about? You think of judgment, punishment, sin, penalty, and death. We usually don’t immediately associate the cross with love even though that’s precisely what motivated Jesus to willing go to the cross. Again, we know that in our head and we see it with our eyes, but it doesn’t always immediately touch our heart in the context of love especially when it feels like we are being crushed under the weight of our struggles. What we want; what we need is for God to convey love to us the way we would convey love to us; the way we convey love to others. Although dying for our friends and family may be the ultimate show of love, we normally show our love for friends and family when they know we delight in them; when we spend time with them; when we talk with them; when we laugh with them; when we celebrate with them. Now, look at how Zephaniah says God shows His love for you—God delights over you; He rejoices over you with singing! Wow! That image of God blows my mind! Be honest, do you normally picture God this way? I know I haven’t. I usually picture God as serious; all business. Perhaps reservedly delighted but not rejoicing and certainly not singing and never any of those things because of me! If you’re like me and find good news about your life to be in short supply right now and you’re pushed by pain and grief into wondering, Does God Really Love Me? You can know it in your mind because you’ve read it in His Word and see it with your eyes because you’ve witnessed the power of the cross but Zephaniah’s words should speak right to your heart with the answer, YES! God loves you expressed by His delight and joy over you with singing!
 Mark J. Boda and J. Gordon McConville, eds., Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 672.
 O. Palmer Robertson, The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah, (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990), 336.
 Kenneth L. Barker and Waylon Bailey, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah—The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 1998), 496-497.
 James Bruckner, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah—The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 332.
(Audio version; Music: "Seasons" by: Hillsong Worship and "O Come to the Altar" by: Elevation Worship--Music Coordination by: Meagan Seredinski)