There is a profoundly beautiful verse in the book of Zephaniah, in which God re-affirms his saving presence with his people Israel, and declares that “he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing” (3:17). The image which the prophet gives is of the Almighty Creator God crooning his love song over his frightened, wayward, difficult people, even as a parent, overwhelmed with compassion and love, might sing a lullaby over a fretful child, trying to re-assure them that they are safe.
I find that verse is a particularly significant reminder of God’s nature and our need. It is a noteworthy declaration of the depth of care and commitment on the part of God towards us, even though most of the time our doubts, words, actions, fears and rebellion hardly serve to merit us such an affectionate response. It is like those wonderful words in the book of Hosea, in which an exasperated God throws up his hands and says (McIntyre’s translation of chapter 11): “That’s it! All of you – out of the pool! I’ve had it with you Ephraim. Whatever I’ve done for your good, you’ve rejected it. The more I called you to me, the faster you ran away from me. Fine! No more. I’m done with you. It’s death and destruction for you. Whimper, whine, plead and call to me as you will when your sins lead you into chaos and catastrophe, your prayers are going to fall on deaf ears. I’m done with you forever!”
Then, no sooner does he finish saying that he has wiped his hands of them, then the Lord sighs and says (again, my translation, but check it out for yourself): “Who am I kidding? How can I abandon you Israel? I can no more desert you than I can deny my own character.” “For I am God and not man, the Holy One among you.” And acknowledging the depth of his compassion, God asserts once again his plan and purpose to save and redeem.
God’s very nature is to call us to himself and rejoice over us with singing. So badly has the Lord wanted to save and redeem us and reconcile us to himself, that not even the death of his own Son upon the cross was too great a sacrifice to give. How much does God love us and this world he made? The widespread arms of our Saviour on the cross assert the infinite graciousness and compassion of our God.
But if God’s very character and eternal heart’s purpose has been to seek after us in love, that verse in Zephaniah reminds me also of the terrifyingly deep longing in the human heart to “be quieted” with that holy love and to hear the rejoicing song of God in our hearts. Scripture tells us that we were made for relationship. We were created to be in a love relationship with God and to find our sense of meaning, worth and life purpose within that holy embrace of love with our God, and then to live and reflect it in the quality of our human relationships.
Human beings have this core need or core longing that is quite literally bred in the bone. As much as we try to live in self-reliant independence from God and from others, our soul’s longing is to belong, to be affirmed as of value and to receive and respond to an unconditional acceptance and love. Such longing is hard-wired into our very nature. Centuries ago, St. Augustine described this longing as being a God-shaped hole in the human heart, which only God can fill. Sadly, we try to fill that hole with everything but God.
Which leads to the problem of lust. By lust, I don’t mean simply in the sense of sexual desire as we generally tend to use the word. Rather, I mean the obsessive craving after whatever object or activity or achievement we think will satisfy that God-shaped, God-needing emptiness within our soul. Whether it is wealth or worldly power or power over others in our relationships; whether it is fame and adulation or feats of accomplishment on grand or minor scales, whether it is for food or sex or any other additive or accolade, any time we try to satisfy our core needs with anything other than with what God along can provide, we are lusting. And sadly, we end up trying to quench our thirst with by trying to drink sand. Worse, we will go to incredible lengths to rationalize our lusts as reasonable, and to justify all our actions, choices and efforts in chasing after those trivial and empty facsimiles.
And all the time, God is waiting to receive us in all our longing, and to give us what we most desperately need, which is himself. Heaven’s love song, which can alone quiet us, continues to pursue us, if only we believed that it really is more than sufficient for all our longing.
Psalm 42 said it best: “As a deer gets thirsty for streams of water, I truly am thirsty for you, my God. In my heart, I am thirsty for you, the living God.” Nothing else will ever do.