By Steve Beard –
Set in 19th century France, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is an epic tale of the spiritual consequences of sin and the search for redemption. In the 1998 movie version, there is a noteworthy scene with the story’s protagonist Jean Valjean (played by Liam Neeson), a reformed thief and factory owner, and Fantine (Uma Thurman), one of his former employees who is deathly sick. Fantine has been ruthlessly fired from her job at the factory because they discovered the truth of her illegitimate daughter, Cosette (Claire Danes). Unemployed, Fantine is forced to work as a prostitute in order to care for Cosette.
In an act of mercy, Jean Valjean cares for Fantine, attempting to nurse her back to health. “When you are better, I will find work for you,” Valjean says.
“But you don’t understand. I am a whore,” responds Fantine. “And Cosette has no father.”
“She has the Lord,” he responds. “He is her Father and you are his creation. In his eyes, you have never been anything but an innocent and beautiful woman.”
After Fantine’s death, Valjean fulfills the role of Cosette’s father and protector. Later in the movie, as a young woman, Cosette described Valjean in elegant terms. “My father is a very good man. I grew up in his love,” she said. “His love was my home.”
The Les Miserables dialogue has unique spiritual significance within our contemporary culture. For many Christians, there is a seemingly direct correlation between the way they interact with their earthly father and the way they view their heavenly Father. After all, it is not difficult to understand how someone who has experienced trauma or abuse in a relationship with an earthly father could be fearful, apprehensive, or reluctant about pursuing an intimate relationship with a spiritual Father. The same could be said of those who experienced an absentee father or an extreme disciplinarian. This kind of spiritual logjam can only be healed through grace-filled pastoral care and prayer so that God’s love can become – to borrow from Cosette – our home. The psalmist described God as a “father to the fatherless, a defender of widows” (Psalms 68:5)
The Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647) declares that the “chief end of man” is to “glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Similarly, John Wesley declared: “One design you are to pursue to the end of time: the enjoyment of God in time and in eternity.” Enjoyment of God?
Basking in the unceasing graciousness of a heavenly Father is far more difficult than it sounds. For too many people, God seems remote, impersonal, and unknowable. Because of that, even Christians may suffer from an inability to feel forgiven or they may be riddled with nagging doubt, mistrust of God, and even bouts with hyper-perfectionism.
The late Dr. David Seamands, author of Healing for Damaged Emotions, discovered in counseling sessions that even straight-A seminary students would say, “I don’t know if God cares about me; I’m not sure he knows I exist. If he does, I’m not sure he’s concerned.” In contradiction to their theological concepts of God – the manifestos they wrote for their seminary classes – they felt in their hearts that God is untrustworthy, mean, and unforgiving. Many felt that they were trying to please an unpleaseable God.
We all have mental pictures of God. Quite often we affirm one theological creed but secretly believe something altogether different. There is a big difference between what one may think about God and what one may feel about God. To some extent, we all make God into our own image, shrinking divinity into a puny caricature.
“Most of our failure to love and trust God stems from our pictures of God as unlovable and untrustworthy,” observed Seamands. “And most of our anger against him is not really against the true God but against our unchristian or subchristian concepts of God.” This is one of the crucial factors of the incarnation, the theological concept of flesh being applied to God. Only when the Word became flesh was it possible for us to get an honest and true picture of God, “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
Minor prophet, major revelation
Six hundred years before Jesus came to earth, the prophet Zephaniah drew a unique and startling picture of God. “The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17).
When an irreplaceable friend showed me this verse 25 years ago, it transformed my perceptions. At the time, I had no problem visualizing Jesus as the patron saint of the weak and lowly and outcast. But my mental image of the God of the Old Testament was a Zeus-like figure who flexed with twin lightning bolts of anger and judgment. Yet in the midst of this brief segment of scripture centering on divine wrath, the prophet Zephaniah up-ended my incomplete picture of God. One observer fittingly referred to this verse as the John 3:16 of the Old Testament and it deserves a more focused look.
• “The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save.” God is right here, right now. Too frequently this reality is overlooked or not realized. The phrase “is with you” means “in the midst of.” In the midst of trials, temptations, and tribulations, God is there for us. We are never separated from his love and strength.
One translation states: “a warrior to keep you safe” (NEB). Another states: “a warrior who gives victory” (RSV). In the book of Deuteronomy, this big-hearted warrior “defends the orphan, the widow, and the alien” (10:17).
• “He will take great delight in you.” The King James Version reads: “he will rejoice over thee with love.” It can be profoundly surprising to discover that the Creator should derive delight from our relationship with him. But the biblical picture of God expresses such unsurpassed joy over his people.
“[T]he LORD will take delight in you as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:4-5). That is the insatiable, ravishing heart of divine love. “I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more” (Isaiah 65:19).
In Luke chapter 15, Jesus paints an illuminating portrait of unbridled joy: “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” A few verses later he reiterates: “I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” This is a different image than the grim portrait of a dour-faced street corner prophet with “REPENT” painted on a sandwich board sign yelling at passersby. In the hands of Jesus, repentance – turning our heart toward God – is the trigger point for both joy in heaven and redemption on earth.
• “He will quiet you with his love.” This has been translated: “he will be silent in his love.” The King James Version reads: “he will rest in his love.” Bible interpreters have speculated on a host of different meanings for this phrase. Some have suggested that: 1) because of his love, God will keep silent regarding his people’s sin; others believe that 2) God’s love will be so strong and deep as to hush motion or speech; still others hold that 3) the silence is due to God planning good deeds toward his people.
However you look at it, the concept is stirring. It is difficult to imagine the God who literally shook the mountain in front of Moses being quietly content in his love. At the same time, God desires to calm our anxieties. “He will cause you to be silent so that you may have in the secret places of your heart a very quiet peace and a peaceful silence,” observed Martin Luther.
Jesus expressed the silence of God in a different way. At his trial and crucifixion, he remained silent although he could have called on ten thousand angels. “Like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7).
• “He will rejoice over you with singing.” The word rejoice suggests “dancing for joy,” or “leaping for joy,” or “to spin around with intense motion.” Can you allow yourself to imagine God spinning around wildly over you? For many of us, that may shatter our stained-glass, one-dimensional impression of God.
The word for singing in this verse is more like a shout of rejoicing or loud cheering in triumph. With imagination, one could picture God dancing over his beloved people with singing or shouting with a thunderclap of joy.
The picture of a joyful Redeemer was eloquently conveyed to the writer of Hebrews: “Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:2, emphasis added).
The author of joy breaking out into singing! The God of history dancing a jig! The pleasure of heaven bursting forth like a fiesta! “Remember that it was merely a spoken word that brought the universe into existence,” observes Bible teacher John Piper. “What would happen if God lifted up his voice and not only spoke but sang?”
What are the songs of heaven? In Jeremiah, the chorus may have been: “I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them and I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me. I will rejoice in doing them good and will assuredly plant them in this land with all my heart and soul” (32:40-41, emphasis added).
The song in Romans might be that all things work together for good for those who love God (Romans 8:28). The psalmist may have heard a song and reported that “no good thing does [God] withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Psalm 84:11), and that those who delight themselves in the Lord will receive the desires of their heart (Psalm 37:4). What about goodness and mercy pursuing us all the days of our life (Psalms 23:6)? The song in Exodus proclaimed that God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (34:6).
Singing and silence
When my son was born, his mom and I agreed that we would sing “Jesus Loves Me” over him after his birth. Once the nurses and doctors and relatives cleared out, it was just the three of us. And we were, unmistakably, joined by the looming presence of God. We knew what we had planned, but I was unable to follow through. Instead, I wept. Mom ended up singing alone. Dad couldn’t utter a word.
At that moment, our son was christened into this world through a Zephaniah prism. He was greeted with singing and silence, tears of joy and a song from the heart.
Of course, there are many factors that hold us back from hearing the rhythms of heaven. In The Pleasures of God, John Piper observes, “Zephaniah labors under the wonderful inspiration of God to overcome every obstacle that would keep a person from believing – really feeling and enjoying – the unspeakable news that God exults over us with singing.” Some of the obstacles to intimacy with God are still found in our modern day.
• Guilt. Zephaniah proclaims: “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you” (3:15). The old hymn declares: “Jesus paid it all, All to him I owe; Sin had left a crimson stain, He washed it white as snow.” As Philip Yancey has written: “The one distinct thing about Christianity is that God loves immoral people and that he has extended himself to the least deserving. Once you understand grace, you understand that none of us deserve it.”
Yancey goes on to explain: “In logical terms, grace is unnatural, even scandalous. It grinds against the American sense of fairness and justice, lavishing good things on undeserving people. The shepherd leaves his flock of 99 vulnerable to rustlers and wolves in order to search for a single, lost, beloved sheep,” he writes in What’s So Amazing about Grace? “A woman takes a pint of exotic perfume, worth a year’s wages, and pours it on Jesus’ feet. A widow who drops two small coins in the temple bucket ‘has put more into the treasury than all the others,’ Jesus says. The boss pays a vineyard laborer who has worked just one hour the same amount as those who work all day.” Grace always defies logic.
• Fear. When gripped by an uncertain future, verdict, or diagnosis, it is difficult to remember that God is protectively watching over you. “At that time I will deal with all who oppress you” (Zephaniah 3:19). We are invited to allow fear to be swallowed in the assurance that the Lord and the forces of heaven are vigilantly protective.
• Worry. If we are honest, it is tempting to believe that God is too big and his love unfathomable. Nevertheless, the Bible seems to say that he is able to love you in his fullness and run the universe. Somewhere between microparticles and galaxies, God loves us with an undivided and undistracted heart. “The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst” (Zephaniah 3:15). Elsewhere in scripture God is described as dwelling “in a high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit” (Isaiah 57:15).
• Shame. To those who have been wounded by rejection, God is able to empathize. Scorn was heaped on Jesus. He was slandered and belittled. While on the cross, he “became a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). It was in those anguish-filled hours when Jesus said, “Father into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). He trusted his heavenly Father. We can too. “I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth” (Zephaniah 3:19).
His nearness, our dearness
Jonathan Edwards is considered to be one of the finest theological minds in American history. He was a prominent leader in the Great Awakening as it spread through New England in the 1730s. There were 50,000 converts out of a total 250,000 colonists at the time. Edwards was most famous for his 1741 sermon, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” – a lengthy and vivid message about the dangers of sin and the horrors of hell.
It was his wife Sarah, however, who gained such a profound revelation of heavenly love. She was whole-heartedly captivated by the overwhelming presence of God for several days. The title of her testimony was: “Her Uncommon discoveries of the Divine Perfections and Glory; and of the Excellence of Christ.”
There is a segment in her lengthy essay where she offers a poignant description of spiritual intimacy with God. “The great part of the night I lay awake, sometimes asleep, and sometimes between sleeping and waking,” she wrote. “But all night I continued in a constant, clear and lively sense of the heavenly sweetness of Christ’s excellent and transcendent love, of his nearness to me, and of my dearness to him; with an inexpressibly sweet calmness of soul in an entire rest in him. I seemed to myself to perceive a glow of divine love come down from the heart of Christ in heaven, into my heart, in a constant stream…. It seemed to be all that my feeble frame could sustain, of that fulness of joy, which is felt by those, who behold the face of Christ, and share his love in the heavenly world” (emphasis added).
It is one thing to extol or even embrace the grandest thoughts about God. It is quite another thing to experience the radiation of divine love. Admittedly, faith and epiphanies are great mysteries. While certainly not always so beautifully described, there have been trustworthy souls within Christian history who describe being enraptured with a similar mystical and incomprehensible sense of God’s presence.
Most compelling is Sarah Edwards’ description of friendship with God as “his nearness to me, and of my dearness to him.” May we all be afforded the opportunity to experience the truth of being a sinner in the hands of a singing God.
Steve Beard is editor of Good News.
Thank you for your beautiful and inspiring article. This verse in Zephaniah was new to me; now it will become one that I keep with me for meditation. You are right about the image being a startling one! It brings such joy to imagine God in that way. Blessings.