Monday, September 07, 2015

Mission Accomplished

How does the Infinite behave in close proximity with the Very Finite Indeed? (That would be you and me, by the way.)

I struggle with this as I read about the Lord Jesus and his dealings with men. He asked them questions to which, being God incarnate, he already knew the answers. He confronted them with impossible conundrums to bring out what was in their hearts. The common language in which two very different parties may converse and the language of theology are in such (apparent) conflict that we may wonder whether man can ever hope to begin to comprehend the Divine.

And yet that very comprehension seems to be God’s purpose.

The Inevitable Backstory

If you’re an avid reader of the Old Testament, excuse me taking a paragraph or two to summarize a situation with which you are likely more familiar than I am, but I recognize the Minor Prophets are among the less-read portions of scripture.

Amos was a native of Judah (the southern kingdom) who prophesied in Israel (the northern kingdom) during the 41 year reign of Jeroboam II in the eighth century B.C., a period characterized by relative prosperity, victory over Israel’s Syrian enemies, the retaking of borderlands previously lost … and rampant idolatry. It is said of Jeroboam that he “made Israel to sin”, which suggests that he not only continued in the idol worship of his forefathers but led the nation into further degradation and corruption. Perhaps his success at politics and war made him more popular and influential with his people than he might otherwise have been.

The NIV Study Bible puts it this way:
“Israel at the time was politically secure and spiritually smug. About 40 years earlier, at the end of his ministry, Elisha had prophesied the resurgence of Israel’s power (2 Kings 13:17-19), and more recently Jonah had prophesied her restoration to a glory not known since the days of Solomon (2 Kings 14:25). The nation felt sure, therefore, that she was in God’s good graces. But prosperity increased Israel’s religious and moral corruption.”
God was understandably displeased with the character and conduct of the northern kingdom, and Amos was given the unenviable job of telling a rebellious people the inevitable consequences of their sin. In chapter 7 of Amos’ book, he describes three things the Lord showed him:

The Locust Plague

The first vision was of an impending plague of locusts. Amos, struck by the extent of the damage in his vision, pleaded with God not to judge Israel this way:
“O Lord God, please forgive!
How can Jacob stand?
He is so small!”
And “Jacob” was small. Very small, in fact. Israel was, comparatively speaking, an insignificant little backwater monarchy always inconveniently positioned north and south of much more impressive geopolitical powers. And no kingdom in those days was immune from the caprices of nature. Even today, the fragility of North American economies reminds us how quickly boom becomes bust, and how widespread prosperity or poverty hinge on comparatively minor events. Amos understood that a locust plague at this point would be a disaster from which Israel was unlikely to recover.

Some expositors suggest the locusts were not insects but an invading foreign army. Whether we interpret such a prophecy figuratively or literally is normally significant. Not so in this case: Amos records that the Lord relented in response to his prophet’s plea and did not bring on the judgment he had been shown.

Judgment by Fire

So the Lord showed Amos another vision. If taken literally, it would be the equivalent of an out-of-control prairie fire so intense that it would evaporate all the springs, brooks and rivers in Israel — every source of potential refreshment. Expositors that see the prophecy as figurative, like the writers of the Pulpit Commentary, again imagine an army, identifying this judgment with the second invasion of Tiglath-Pileser II. And once again, it doesn’t matter what exactly was intended since Amos again pleads with God, who again declares, “This also shall not be”. 

When something doesn’t happen, whether it was hypothetically going to be literal or figurative is kind of beside the point.

So What’s the Point?

Now as much as the history is intriguing and prophecy is always fun to speculate about, what really interests me about the dialogue between God and his servant in chapter 7 is the relationship between these two very unequal parties, and more specifically what God is seeking to accomplish in the heart of this man with whom he is sharing his thoughts.

When Amos records twice that “the Lord relented”, we cannot read it without recognizing that God knew exactly how Amos would respond to these visions of judgment, and he already knew precisely what he would eventually do to Israel. This is what I mean about the difference between plain language and theology. “Relent” is such a limited word — such an appallingly human word. It can only describe the appearance of an action (or in this case an inaction). It is no more than a poor approximation of what has taken place in the mind of God as viewed from Amos’ limited perspective.

Even posing the question “Did God mean it?” is not particularly helpful when God already knew exactly how Amos would respond. But such are the limits of human interaction with the Divine. It is not disingenuousness or ill-will that keeps a parent from explaining his actions in exhaustive detail to a child, or that forces him to use vocabulary that does not adequately express his thought processes or the subtleties that would be perfectly clear to another adult. No, it is the limitations of the child’s understanding that are the problem.

Thus, with all that we know of God from the rest of scripture, it is singularly unreasonable and inaccurate to paint him as the vengeful minister of justice and Amos as the caring moderate holding back the tide of divine vengeance with his sweet reasonableness and compassion. That would be the childish view.
God is infinitely more compassionate and reasonable that even his most devout servant, even when justice must be dispensed. Take that as a given.

No, I believe the interaction in verses 1-9 is less about the particular punishment to be inflicted on Israel (which, given the holiness of God, was inevitable anyway), and more about the desire of God to bring his prophet into an understanding of the necessity and absolute reasonableness of what was about to take place.

I think he wanted Amos to be on the same page with him.

Abraham, Friendship and Maturity

A similar intent is seen in the Lord’s exchange with Abraham just prior to the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah. Their extended conversation is actually less about saving Lot’s life (which we now know from the New Testament and the character of God was bound to happen anyway regardless of Abraham’s intercession) and more about God sharing his thought processes with his friend and bringing him into acceptance of his purposes. As he says:
“Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.”
Here, in sharing with Abraham his purposes, God seems to have in mind both Abraham’s personal maturity in the knowledge of God and his ability to intelligently instruct those yet to be born to him.

The Plumb Line

So finally we come to the third vision of Amos. It reads like this:
“Behold, the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb line.’ Then the Lord said,

‘Behold, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel;
    I will never again pass by them;
the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
    and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
    and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.’ ”
A plumb line, for anyone who has never worked in construction, is a very simple device used in building since time immemorial to measure whether something is perfectly vertical. Here is serves as a reminder of God’s righteousness and the fact that, in comparison to it, everyone and everything it measures is bound to be “off the vertical” to some extent.

Locusts and fires are images of things arbitrary and omnivorous. Locusts devour until they are filled or until the food is gone. Fires burn until all available fuel is consumed or until there is no more oxygen to feed them. There is no reasoning with them. The only limit to the damage they can potentially do is the size of the territory to be eaten or burned. In other words, they are of limited value as images of the judgment of God. They may in some measure remind us of the terror of pure holiness, but they cannot accurately depict the incredible patience, forbearance and self-control characteristic of God’s dealings with those who despise him.

A plumb line is something entirely different in nature and altogether more precise.

It is not a weapon of destruction but a tool used in building. It reminds Amos and us that God, despite the necessity of judging Israel, fully intended — and still fully intends today — to make something of that nation for his glory and their good. Where his people are concerned, he will surely judge, but not without a view toward ultimately bringing about their blessing and restoration. Sure, he will tear down all the crooked work that inaccurately reflects his glory, but he will build it up again and this time it will be what he always intended.

Certainly he will never judge randomly, and he will not utterly destroy that which bears his name. The judge of all the earth will, in fact, do right. We only know this for sure because Abraham declared it, but there is enough in scripture that by faith we might eventually figure it out for ourselves.

Do you notice Amos has stopped protesting now? Like Abraham, he understands something more of what the Lord is all about.

Mission accomplished.

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