Zephaniah 3’s description of God exalting over Israel as a husband over his bride has created some difficulties for interpreters. According to on Balserak ( Divinity Compromised: A Study of Divine Accommodation in the Thought of John Calvin ), Conrad Pellican and Bucer argue that since “God is not able to be revealed with human words” He speaks inappropriately: He “compares and offers himself to his people at one time as a father ( modo patris ), another time as a mother ( nunc matris ) and then taking to himself the feelings of a married man ( mariti affectum ), since he surpasses all these in excellence” (24).

Calvin has even more trouble with the prophetic portrayal of God:

“what could be more alien to God’s glory than to exult like human beings when influenced by joy arising from love? It seems then that the very nature of God repudiates these modes of expression. In fact the prophet seems as though he had removed God from his celestial throne in heaven to earth . . . . God represents himself here as a husband who burns with intense love for his wife; and this does not seem (as we have said) to be suitable to his glory. But whatever tends to convince us of his ineffable love for us . . . doubtless illustrates the glory of God and takes nothing away from his nature. We at the same time see that God, as it were, humbles himself. For if it were asked if these things are suitable to the nature of God, we must say that nothing is more alien to it. It may then appear completely incongruous that God should be described by us as a husband who burns with love for his wife, but we hence learn more fully, as I have already said, how great is God’s favor towards us, who thus humbles himself for our sake, and in a manner transforms himself, while he puts on a character not his own.”

But how does Calvin know this? He is clearly testing the biblical portrait of Yahweh’s joy by reference to a theology proper that excludes divine joy. But where does the standard theology come from? His answer, I suppose, would be that Zephaniah 3 is alien to the overall revelation of God’s nature in Scripture, and he may also claim that “obscure” passages like Zephaniah 3 have to be read in the light of clearer passages. But Yahweh’s joy (and elsewhere His sorrow) are also part of the Bible’s character sketch of God, and there’s nothing obscure about them.

And this interpretive move raises questions about God Himself. If He “puts on a character not His own” by portraying Himself as a husband burning with love, how do we know when He’s not putting on a character? What kind of face is hidden by the mask?

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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