Saturday, April 10, 2021

Mining the Minors: Amos (10)

God doesn’t enjoy punishing people, even when they are unusually wicked. He takes no pleasure in the death of anyone, preferring that they change their ways and prosper rather than get what is coming to them. This is a well-established principle of scripture; both prophets and apostles testify to the fact that our God lets us off the hook every single time he can possibly justify it.

As the psalmist put it, “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

Cities, Disasters and God

This being the case, I take issue with attempts to universalize the implications of a rhetorical question like this one from the third chapter of Amos, “Does disaster come to a city unless the Lord has done it?” and to attempt to apply them to every disaster in human history, as if God has nothing better to do with his time than make errant human beings as miserable as possible.

When bad things happen, the first thing we look for is somebody to blame. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” It is certainly possible any given disaster is the divinely appointed consequence of sin, but it does not follow that this is true in every case, as the Lord himself made clear on several occasions. Statements like “Does disaster come to a city unless the Lord has done it?” must be understood in their context, as our very next verse in this chapter points out.

Amos 3:7 — God and the Prophetic Word

“For the Lord God does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.”

The Object is Repentance

If the purpose of inflicting misfortune on men and women was always and only retributive, God would have no compelling reason to announce disasters in advance. The office of prophet in scripture would be declared vacant, and Elijah, Isaiah and their ilk could have taken up knitting or cheering for sports teams. But because God is exceedingly gracious and prefers encouraging repentance to inflicting punishment, sending disaster is an absolute last resort. If the threat of discipline will serve the same purpose as an act of discipline, turning the wicked from their ways, then a threat will do just fine. Knowing this feature of God’s character all too well motivated Jonah to run rather than go and prophesy coming judgment to the city of Nineveh. He wanted the Ninevites to get their just desserts, and knew full well that warning them of disaster might turn them from their ways, causing God to withhold his judgment for another season.

My point is this: that if we don’t know why a bad thing happened, then chances are God had nothing to do with it (beyond permitting it to go on, of course, as his sovereignty requires). If God were directly and actively involved in punishing sin, we can be sure he would have first made an announcement. He simply doesn’t do these things quietly.

This is what Amos is telling Israel: the Lord God does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.

A Little Bit of Evidence

Doubt me? Well, the whole of scripture stands behind me on this one. When Cain contemplated the very first murder in human history, God spoke to him personally to warn him against allowing his emotions to drive his actions. When the world of Noah’s day had become so wicked it could not be allowed to carry on, God sent them a herald of righteousness. The city of Sodom got Lot, who the Sodomites themselves accused of acting as their judge. Pharaoh got nine lesser plagues before the first drop of Egyptian blood was shed. The Canaanites got plenty of warning before God’s judgment came upon them in the form of an Israelite invasion. Rahab told the Israelite spies, “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt.” Nobody in Canaan was in any doubt about what was happening to them and why. Even Achan was told right up front to keep himself from “things devoted to destruction” or else the camp of Israel itself would become a “thing for destruction”. No surprises there.

Then there were the prophets. Before judging Eli’s house, God sent him Samuel. Before judging David, God sent him Nathan. Before judging Ahab, he sent him both Elijah and Micaiah. Before judging Israel and Judah, God sent word repeatedly about what was coming if his people refused to repent. Israel got Elijah, Elisha, Amos and Hosea. Judah got Joel, Isaiah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah and Jeremiah. The Ninevites got Jonah, the Babylonians Daniel. The returned exiles got Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. The last book of the Old Testament ends with a prophecy about yet another prophet and the words “lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”

Before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70, Israel got first John the Baptist, then Messiah himself, and finally the apostles and prophets of the first century, all of whom warned of coming judgment. Why? Because the Lord God does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets, and through the prophets, to those who are in danger of incurring his judgment.

When the End Comes

When the end finally comes for the current world order, nobody will stand around scratching their heads wondering why. They have had the book of Revelation printed and circulated all over the world for almost 500 years. No, they will cry out to the rocks and mountains, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.” They will know exactly what’s coming, why it’s coming and who it’s coming from. If they don’t, it’ll be because they simply haven’t been listening. God has no interest in judging confused people with no clue as to why bad things are happening to them. He wants them to turn, not die. And if they won’t turn, then he wants others to see, learn and turn before they too incur his wrath.

So when John Piper teaches that God “reach[ed] down his hand” and “dragg[ed] his fierce fingers across rural America” back in 2012, sending 90 tornados across 12 states, I call time out for a theological rethink. That is not the God I know, and not the God our Bibles teach us about. When he’s going to judge people, he makes very sure they know how and why. The Lord God does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.

Our God doesn’t afflict people with free-floating, phantom guilt for sins we can’t identify and of which we therefore cannot repent. When God is really judging you in this life, be sure you will know it. Don’t let any self-appointed, know-it-all determinist tell you otherwise.

Amos 3:8 — A Certain Outcome

“The lion has roared; who will not fear?
The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?”

The rhetorical question form has already gotten a good workout in this chapter. Here Amos sums up the conclusion to which his series of “if-then” statements have been pointing in exactly the same form, with two more rhetorical questions. The Assyrian lion, ready to devour its prey, has made its presence known. Fear is the obvious response, and both Bible and secular history indicate that fear was well founded.

But if a lion presents a terror and a threat, surely the Almighty God represents a level of authority and power far beyond any in the natural world. Amos’s message from God demands to be heard even in the face of cultural and political opposition. There is no reasonable alternative. If God has spoken, his word cannot safely be ignored.

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