Zephaniah was a prophet during the reign of King Josiah in the seventh century before Christ. The prophet announced God’s judgment on Judah and Jerusalem, saying that God would cut off “the idolatrous priests” (Zeph 1:4), but he also predicted judgment on enemy nations, saying that “Moab shall become like Sodom and the Ammonites like Gomorrah” (Zeph 2:9).
The short book ends with a song of joy, one that promises, “The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness” (Zeph 3:17). The divine warrior says, “I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast” (Zeph 3:18). Then God promises, “I will bring you home” and “restore your fortunes” (Zeph 3:20).
At the heart of this good news is the promise that “The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst” (Zeph 3:15). Zephaniah wants the people to know that they will be living coram Deo—an ancient Latin phrase which means “in the presence of God.” That is what most people seek when they attend a service of worship, and it is why most services include songs of praise, an assurance of forgiveness, a word of hope, and prayers for healing. In coram Deo worship, people come into God’s presence so that they can be restored to wholeness and strengthened for service. The Book of Zephaniah is instructive to us because it contains these elements of worship.
Praise, confession, and forgiveness
Songs of Praise. “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion,” says Zephaniah; “shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart” (Zeph 3:14). The first command of the prophet to the people of Israel is to come into God’s presence and rejoice with song. Most coram Deo worship services begin with people singing their thankfulness and adoration.
Assurance of Forgiveness. When we stand in front of our perfect God, we are reminded of our imperfections, which is why worship moves quickly to a prayer of confession and assurance of forgiveness. “The LORD has taken away the judgments against you,” says Zephaniah (Zeph 3:15). And because we, as Christians, believe that Jesus has taken our sins upon himself for all time, this assurance of forgiveness is eternal. “The LORD is in your midst,” says the prophet, “you shall fear disaster no more” (Zeph 3:15). When we are living coram Deo, we know that our forgiveness is forever assured.
God is with us
A Word of Hope. No worship service is complete without a word from the Lord, one that gives inspiration, such as, “The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love” (Zeph 3:16–17). At the heart of this verse is the promise that God is with us and that we will be coram Deo, in the presence of God. The prophet Isaiah delivers this same assurance when he says that a young woman “shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (Isa 7:14), which means “God is with us.” This verse from Isaiah is later quoted by the angel who tells Joseph that Mary’s child is from the Holy Spirit (Matt 1:20-23). All of these verses are words of hope that remind us that God is with us.
In my novel City of Peace, a pastor named Harley Camden read a scripture verse to his congregation after a very traumatic week in the small river town of Occoquan, Virginia. “Hear the words of scripture,” he said. “‘Galilee of the Gentiles—the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.’ Here in Occoquan, we have sat in darkness, but the promise of our faith is that God’s light shines in the darkness.”
Pointing to the stained-glass window behind him, he said, “Look at the face of Jesus in our window. Such calm in the middle of a storm. Jesus says in today’s scripture that ‘the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ I believe that: The kingdom of heaven has come near, right here in Occoquan. It isn’t fully present, but it has come near.” Harley felt a rush of affection for the people sitting in the well-worn old pews, and as he looked around he remembered the church’s original name. It had been called Emanuel Baptist, and the name Emanuel meant “God is with us.” He suddenly realized that God was truly with them.
Fullness of life
Prayers for Healing. The final element of worship in a coram Deo church is prayers for healing. “And I will save the lame and gather the outcast,” says God through the prophet Zephaniah, “and I will change their shame into praise” (Zeph 3:19). When we come into the presence of God, we ask for healing because we believe that God desires our complete restoration. God wants us to be returned to fullness of life and strengthened for service. “I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD” (Zeph 3:20).
This passage from Zephaniah is one of the Bible’s greatest hits because it ends with a strong affirmation that God is with us and the future will be good for us. The prophet tells us that God is in our midst as “a warrior who gives victory” (Zeph 3:17), and because of this we can worship and live as people who are coram Deo, in the presence of God.
1. What does it mean to you to be coram Deo, in the presence of God?
2. Which element of a worship service is most important to you, and why?
3. How is your life impacted by the promise that God is with you?
Coming soon: My new book The Bible’s Greatest Hits: Top 66 Passages from Genesis to Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2021). Written for private devotion and group discussion, the book contains the best in biblical scholarship as well as practical connections to daily life, along with questions for reflection at the end of each chapter.