The FISHERS Magazine (Issue 224)

And Leap, Ye Lame, for Joy!

Christian Living

The prophecy of Zephaniah closes with this exhilarating poem:

“'I will gather those who grieve about the appointed feasts –
They came from you, O Zion;
The reproach of exile is a burden on them.

Behold, I am going to deal at that time with all your oppressors,
I will save the lame and gather the outcast,
And I will turn their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.

At that time I will bring you in,
Even at the time when I gather you together;
Indeed, I will give you renown and praise among all the peoples of the earth,
When I restore your fortunes before your eyes,'
Says the LORD”

(Zeph 3:18-20).

What will God do for Israel in the end times? He will purify and vindicate Israel (v. 18), He will rescue and transform Israel (v. 19), and He will gather and exalt Israel in the world (v. 20).

In the middle of this poem, God makes an emphatic statement of intent, “I will save the lame and gather the outcast”. The “lame” represent those whose internal weaknesses cripple them and render them acutely unable; the “outcast” denote those who, due to external prejudices, are cut off from the community. The “lame” and the “outcast” together sum up all the downtrodden and disadvantaged among the Israelites. It is these that God solemnly affirms He will save and regather into the Promised Land. Nothing will be allowed to stand in the way of God’s salvation of His elect.

This article focuses on the divine statement, “I will save the lame”. Often, the significance of Scripture escapes us because we fail to read it in its historico-cultural context. Let us see what this verse meant to Zephaniah’s audience who first heard these words.

Rescue and Regathering

The metaphor of the “lame” is particularly poignant in the context of Israel’s return to their land. Zephaniah gave this prophecy at a time when long journeys were undertaken on foot. There were no wheelchairs; the crippled went nowhere. Had you been a lame Israelite exiled in Babylon, you would need help just to get out of bed. You seldom left your house, and never left your village.

Imagine one day, you hear Cyrus’ decree that all Israelites may go home – how would you feel? While everyone rejoiced, you would be stricken with deep grief. They would all be going home, but you would be left behind in a foreign land. You would feel cruelly singled out for disqualification from this blessing. And as the community departed with joy, you would feel abandoned by men and forsaken by God.

However, God simply will not let this happen in the end times; He affirms, “Behold, I am bringing them from the north country, and I will gather them from the remote parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, the woman with child and she who is in labour with child, together; a great company, they will return here” (Jer 31:8). God will bring Israel back; He will personally bring all of Israel back. There would be no lame left behind, no blind left behind, no pregnant woman left behind, even if she were in the midst of labour! This is how serious God is about the final salvation of the remnant of Israel.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg of God’s blessings.

Restoration and Rejoicing

Isaiah 35:5-6 gives us more details about this restoration of Israel to the Beautiful Land, “Then the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Then the lame will leap like a deer and the tongue of the mute will shout for joy”. Generally, no disability will hinder the homecoming of God’s people. But note particularly, “the lame will leap like a deer”.

No man has ever competed against the deer at jumping. A half-hearted skip by a deer would outstrip the most strenuous efforts by man. When chased, mountain deer would run towards the safety of steep slopes, where their leaping prowess and sure-footedness would defeat even the swiftest predators. In the last days, the lame of Israel will “leap like a deer” – not only would their disabilities be overcome, God will exalt them at precisely the point of their crippling weakness.

But there is more to the verb “leap”, for it connotes an expression of overwhelming joy (see Luke 1:44, “For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy.”). The lame will be filled with exultant, exuberant joy that results in spontaneous leaps into the air. Their joy is in the Lord and the salvation He provides. This, then, is the real blessing; because, for the lame to walk but to remain joyless would leave them profoundly empty.

But even this exultation is not yet the full measure of God’s blessing.

Readmission and Reverence

Isaiah 35:8-10 continues and completes the celebration of Israel’s future return to their Land.

A highway will be there, a roadway, and it will be called the Highway of Holiness.
The unclean will not travel on it, but it will be for him who walks that way,
And fools will not wander on it.

No lion will be there, nor will any vicious beast go up on it;
These will not be found there.
But the redeemed will walk there.

And the ransomed of the LORD will return and come with joyful shouting to Zion,
With everlasting joy upon their heads.
They will find gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

Note that the road on which the Israelites travel is the “Highway of Holiness” on which only the holy may walk, to the exclusion of all the unclean. Also note that the final destination is “Zion”. We read these verses with hearts unmoved; but the lame in Zephaniah’s day will be blown away by the greatness of this prophesied salvation. Why?

While “Zion” and “Jerusalem” denote the same locality, the two names bear rather different significances. One may go to “Jerusalem” to seek an audience with the incumbent king, or to meet with friends, or to transact some business; but one went to “Zion” only for one purpose – to worship Yahweh (“Zion” stresses the religious character of Jerusalem). Hence, the lame are prophesied as travelling on a holy road that leads ultimately to the worship of Yahweh.

This effectively ends – indeed overturns – the prohibition in the Torah that once barred the lame from the sacred assembly. It is little wonder that they go “with joyful shouting”. Had you been in any way disabled in Old Testament (OT) Israel, you would hear this prophecy and freeze in disbelief (not unbelief) – simply because this was too good to be true! But it is true!

The Torah zealously guards God’s holiness. In honour of God, no person of any sort of disability may approach God; Leviticus 21:18, “For no one who has a defect shall approach: a blind man, or a lame man, or he who has a disfigured face, or any deformed limb”. The reason God gives for this is “so that he will not profane My sanctuaries” (Lev 21:23). At this point, many people presume themselves more righteous than God, and decry such “blatant discrimination”. In their hurry to condemn God, they fail to read the closing words of Leviticus 21:23, “For I am the LORD who sanctifies them.” The main point of this prohibition is to emphasise God’s holiness, without in any way disadvantaging persons with special needs. After all, God personally sanctifies them.

But in future, under the New Covenant, the lame will walk on the “Highway of Holiness” (they are no longer unclean) and will freely come into the sanctuary to worship God (without in any way profaning Zion). Jesus Himself gave robust notice of this in His day. In Matt 21:12-13, “Jesus entered the temple and drove out all those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who were selling doves. And He said to them, ‘It is written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer”; but you are making it a robbers’ den.’”. He violently drove out the covetous and irreverent; but the very next verse says, “And the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them” (Matt 21:14). The Lord received the disabled and made them clean, so that they may draw near to worship God.

The salvation of God is indeed marvellous; but there is one more observation to be made.

Retrospection and Reminiscence

The word “lame” in Zephaniah 3:19 is a special word used only twice else where in the OT. Micah 4:6 gives essentially the same prophecy, “I will assemble the lame and gather the outcasts, even those whom I have afflicted.” What is fascinating is where the word first appears in Scripture; Gen 32:31, “Now the sun rose upon him just as he crossed over Penuel, and he was limping on his thigh.”

The scene is by the river Jabbok, the time was in the middle of the night – and we find Jacob wrestling with God, unable to overcome Him. At some point, God dislocated Jacob’s thigh, and the narrative concludes with this comment, Genesis 32:32, “Therefore, to this day the sons of Israel do not eat the sinew of the hip which is on the socket of the thigh, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s thigh in the sinew of the hip.” On the night that God subdued Jacob, Jacob surrendered his will to Yahweh, and it was then he began to limp, it was then he became “lame”.

The point of Jacob’s limp is that none of us are saved in our strength, we are saved only when we recognise and acknowledge our weakness and helplessness. From that night of the surrender of self-will, Jacob started limping, and he limped for the rest of his life. The nation of Israel commemorated that by not eating the sinew of the hip which is on the socket of the thigh.

Israel’s limp will not hinder God from accomplishing His intended blessing – not for Israel the man (the forefather of the nation), nor for Israel the nation (the redeemed remnant of the end times). God saves both from their weakness, through their weakness, but only when they have come to own, and confess, their weakness.

God relishes turning our crippling disabilities into untold blessing, transforming that which limits us into that which magnifies His greatness. But this requires us to be humble, to acknowledge our failures, to confess our shame. In the end, it is “so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God, and not from ourselves” (2 Cor 4:7).

Tan Soon Yong
- Tan Soon Yong is a pastor of The 'Fisherman of Christ' Fellowship and an editor of Fishers.

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