Thursday, May 29, 2008

Language and the Redemption of the Nations

In my morning worship today, I was in Zephaniah and 3:9 leaped out at me: “For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord." Several texts connected in my mind and raised larger questions about how God uses language to bring judgment and mercy upon the nations.

Of course, the first text was Genesis 11: in response to the god-like ambitions of the people, God pointed to their common language as enabling their activities. And so, God moves in judgment against the people and place so that "its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth" (11:9).

The issue at Babel was the presumption of the people to gain security and significance apart from God; but gaining independence from God was facilitated by a common language. God in judgment (and mercy) confused their language and dispersed the people over the earth; from this scene, God immediately calls Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3) to be the father of the faithful who would rely on God's Word, not their own.

Zephaniah's prophecy comes in the context of the "day of the Lord" in which God brings judgment upon the nations (especially Babylon) as well as Judah. As God judges his enemies, he holds out the hope of renewal, through a "pure speech"--one that he grants as he changes people's language (and hence, their hearts). They move from their words, the confusing language of the nations, to God's Word, the pure speech that enables others to relate rightly to God. And yet, this hope of renewal is tied to "the day of the Lord," the coming of God himself in judgment and mercy.

One of the days of the Lord was Pentecost: after King Jesus has come in judgment and mercy at the cross and empty tomb, he grants his Spirit so that everyone present was "filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance" (Acts 2:4). These who depend upon the King and who are obedient to Jesus' Gospel Word are granted languages that enable the nations to hear God's Word in their own tongues (Acts 2:5-12). And yet, this was a epochal event, a day of the Lord that points forward to the final "Day of the Lord" in which the final form of God's reign is displayed.

That final "Day" is described in Revelation 7: "After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, 'Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!' And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, 'Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.'"

Here is a picture of Babel Undone: people in all of their diversity of language and place coming with the same song--pure speech that centers on God's Word of salvation. The prophecy of Zephaniah comes true through the work of Jesus' Spirit as he uses his Word to renew hearts and "changes their speech" from self-reliance to God-centered reliance, from self-salvation to "salvation belongs to our God."

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