ON Scripture: Dr. Walter Brueggemann on Zephaniah 1

ON Scripture - Sunday, November 13, 2011

(Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost)

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18

by Walter Brueggemann

This poem features extravagant language about a coming time of loss, disaster, distress, and suffering. It is commonly dated to the time before Jerusalem was destroyed by the invading Babylonian empire. While the daring poets whom we call "prophets" could discern the coming danger to the city, most of their contemporaries, ensconced in ideologies of self-regard, did not notice the danger. They simply assumed that as God's chosen people, all would be well. That situation sounds very much like our own. The most discerning among us, often given to poetic extravagance, can see the coming trouble, if not from environmental abuse then from unsustainable economic self-indulgence. At the same time many folk, trusting in old assurances of well-being, assume all will be as it was. They are simply impervious to the real threats that poetic discernment articulates.

It is no wonder in such a circumstance of wholesale denial, that the poet must resort to vigorous, hyperbolic (?), searing rhetoric. This rhetoric is not prediction. It is rather an extremity of emotive speech designed to penetrate denial with the hope of evoking response that takes seriously the non-negotiable holy purposes of God.

The first person utterance of God, given us by the poet, portrays an attentive holiness that is offended by the obdurate self-indulgence of the populace. Indeed, that obdurate populace has banished God from its life. That does not mean they have given up on religious talk and religious gesture. Rather they have decided, in quite practical ways, that God is no real agent in the life of the world. The old superstitions about God have been rejected and God, while worshipped, is seen as an irrelevant. God cannot do good and cannot do evil, does not punish and does not reward, and so can be safely disregarded.

In our time we, like those ancients, have found God to be an irrelevance to the life of the world. The so-called "new atheists" only bring to speech what is commonly unspoken but tacitly accepted. In a world of Enlightenment rationality where human knowledge is transposed into ultimate control, God is surely an irrelevance. Consequently we are free to do what we want and must do what we can to secure ourselves.

And then the poet moves against such a conclusion, against ancient practicality and against modern rationality. The prophetic claim is a rhetorical one. The offer is a poetic one. The effort is to imagine alternatively, to conjure a world that is not itself ultimate, but that finally must give account of itself. Such a claim given in cold logic is not easy to make. But such a claim, given in shrill poetry, invites us to imagine that soon or late we must give answer for obdurate self-regard.

The poetic response to the elimination of God as a real player in the world is that God will have "a day." God will have a time of intrusive self-assertion. There is among us a lot of craziness about such a time in biblical interpretation, and we get ludicrous time-tables and speculative imagery. But this poetry is none of that. It is simply an insistence that answering for life in the world is ultimately inescapable, because the world is not self-contained. It is finally at the behest of a mystery beyond us that we cannot control or manage. The poet, moreover, knows the name of that mystery who has been known in the long memory of Israel, who does not now propose to be absent from the public process of world history.

As a result we get poetry that pounds at our ears: "the day, that day, a day, day, day day...!" There is a time, surely to come, when life bursts out beyond our control and our management in ways that threaten and undo us. It was not difficult for that old poet to imagine such at time in the future of Jerusalem when the holy city would be under savage assault; it surely felt in prospect like the end of the world! Mutatis mutandis, it is not difficult to utter such poetry of extremity in our time in the wake of 9/11, in the midst of the environmental crisis, when the economy is in free fall, and when the world as we have known it evaporates before our very eyes. The poet wants his listeners to sense at some deep emotive level that the future of the world is beyond our confident control. There will be ample time later to talk about the good future that God will give beyond the disaster, as in 3:16-20. But not now! Now there is only time for candor about the free fall in which the faithful affirm that the Holy One is present, albeit only in poetic imagination.

What a time is coming on our obdurate society! What a season it will be when our control turns feeble. What a day it will be when we see the limit and failure of our anxious knowledge and our technology and our hardware and our imagination. It will be a time that feels like a cosmic assault. It will be a time that sounds like death and darkness and gloom and wrath and distress. (The reader may add other terms that come to mind, as long as they are uncompromisingly negative!). One does not need to be superstitious or primitive or even religious to imagine that we face "A Day of Reckoning." The economic issue that runs from Greece directly to my pension plan is a drama that arises from obdurate self-indulgence on the part of some. As the old poet would have anticipated, we learn that there is no way to outflank that Day or secure a "pass" on it. The poet could perchance "foresee" what even we must now face.

The Mystery will--soon or late--envelop our self-confident control that has been greedy and self-serving. And comes then the uneasy, unsettling awareness that our tools for control are futile in the big picture, no help from money, no help from knowledge, and no help from arms...no help! No help at all!

Of course such hyperbolic rhetoric might be wrong. Maybe our control will prevail. Maybe our mastery will continue to perpetuity. Maybe all will be well and all manner of things will be well. Maybe we will dwell in perpetual shalom. Maybe. But we may doubt that as the poet doubts that. And you, dear reader, may doubt with the poet. We do not know the day or the hour; of course not. We only know that we are called to sober awareness. The hidden mystery of life is well beyond our little systems and will not be mocked.

Our little systems have their day,

They have their day and cease to be.

They are but broken lights of thee,

And thou, O Lord, art more than they. (Tennyson).

Walter Brueggemann

Columbia Theological Seminary

November 8, 2011

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