Saturday, May 08, 2021

Mining the Minors: Amos (14)

Why would God extend an invitation to sinners to keep right on sinning? Isn’t that the exact opposite of what he really wants?

It’s not a bad question. Yet the scripture frequently shows us God standing back and allowing the sinner to act out the evil in his heart, from his warning to Cain in Genesis 4 that “sin is crouching at the door” (which went sadly unheeded) to the accumulated sins of Babylon in the book of Revelation, which are “heaped high as heaven”.

This divinely permitted real-world actualizing of the evil desires of the heart often comes at great cost to others. Yet here in Amos, God once again invites the people of Israel to “multiply transgression”.

Amos 4:4-5 — Multiplication of Transgression

“ ‘Come to Bethel, and transgress; to Gilgal, and multiply transgression; bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three days; offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving of that which is leavened, and proclaim freewill offerings, publish them; for so you love to do, O people of Israel!’ declares the Lord God.”

While very occasionally God may be observed to break out in judgment at a moment’s notice (think Nadab and Abihu, Uzzah, or Ananias and Sapphira), the pattern of delayed judgment is far more common — definitely a good thing for mankind. For example, early in Genesis Abraham is told that his offspring will be sojourners and servants for 400 years before inheriting Canaan, because “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete”. The average onlooker might ask why God would not step in and stop them right then, before more babies died on the altars of Baal or Molech. But in the unsearchable wisdom of God, the Amorites got 400 more years.

Again, the apostle Paul addresses sinners who pass judgment on other sinners, and are “storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath”. Isn’t the measure of wrath they have already accumulated adequate? And we all recall the words of the Lord Jesus to the Pharisees in his Seven Woes, “Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers.” It would have been much better for the hypocritical Pharisees if they had not! Finally, think of the angel’s mysterious words in the last chapter of Revelation: “Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy.” We are living in a time when much is allowed that God absolutely does not desire.

Possible Answers

One possible answer is that God is not content to judge men merely on the basis of his knowledge of our evil motives and desires. He could, and his judgment would be perfectly fair. But evil that remains concealed in the human heart, while quite transparent to God, cannot be seen by men and angels. David wrote of the evil of his own heart coming out into the light in the matter of Bathsheba and Uriah, and he said this: “Against you, you only, have I sinned ... so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.” It was not merely that God would judge David appropriately, but that his judgment would be seen and acknowledged as righteous by those who looked on. There is no question of God’s judgment needing justification: of course his judgment is just. The issue is that God wants men and angels to agree about the righteousness of his judgment, and surely not for his sake but for ours. Indeed, Paul says the law itself was given “so that every mouth may be stopped”. It is necessary not just that sin be worthy of judgment, but that “sin might be shown to be sin”. The evidence must be out there in the world. “How long, O Lord?” must come before “Hallelujah!”

Another possible answer is the lesson of the prodigal son. In order to come to the point of genuine repentance, it was necessary for him to reach bottom. He came to himself while starving in a pigpen. Sure, the father could have sent his servants to bring home the prodigal while he was in the middle of squandering his property in reckless living, but the lesson of sin would not have been learned and the prodigal would have remained ungrateful and unfit for the father’s house. Or, as Jesus put it, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” Living with the guilt and the fallout from their sinfulness caused the tax collectors and sinners to perceive they had a problem, and thus to seek the solution in Christ, while the Pharisees, whose iniquity was largely internal and less obvious to the world, continued to justify themselves.

Peter tells us the Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise [of righteous judgment on a sinful world] “but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance”. There is a price to be paid in human suffering when judgment is delayed, but the alternative — instant judgment the moment evil is contemplated — would leave none of us standing.

But back to the specifics of these two verses.

Bethel and Gilgal

Bethel was the site of an Israelite counterfeit of God’s real temple in Jerusalem, the home of one of Jeroboam’s two golden calves, to whom sacrifices were offered and in whose honor feasts were held at times of Jeroboam’s devising rather than in accordance with the Law of Moses. Gilgal was the former site of the tabernacle, the place where Saul was made Israel’s first king, and a place where the sons of the prophets gathered in the time of Elisha. The prophet Hosea also mentions Gilgal as a place of worship and speaks of bulls being sacrificed there, so presumably another of Jeroboam’s many temples had been built in Gilgal.

Through Amos, the Lord here invites the sinners to keep on sinning; to transgress and multiply transgression. It is undoubtedly a rhetorical device intended to provoke shame and guilt in those who heard, as it is well established that God would much rather forgive the repentant than punish the obdurate.

Years and Days

It has been pointed out that the KJV and some other older translations read “bring ... your tithes every three years”, which completely misses the intended sarcasm. Most modern translations, including the New King James, agree that this should actually be rendered “three days” rather than “three years”. It is true that the Law of Moses commanded a tithe of produce only every third year, but what I think the Lord is saying here is that the accumulated guilt of the Israelites was not in any way lessened by the gusto with which they engaged in their empty religious rituals. Their enthusiasm was not for God, but for themselves. Even if they had appeared at Bethel or Gilgal every three days with their offerings, their generosity was to “base priests and spurious sanctuaries”, as Ellicott aptly puts it.

The command to “bring your sacrifice every morning” is the same sort of over-the-top sarcasm. In fact, normal practice was to bring sacrifices annually. There is no suggestion the Israelites were actually multiplying sacrifices to such an unsustainable level; rather, the command to do so implies that no matter how much they offered, the only thing that was really multiplying was their own guilt and accountability. Frequency of religious observance was no substitute for obedience.

Leavened Sacrifices and Published Offerings

According to the Law of Moses, the cakes offered in a “sacrifice of thanksgiving” were never to be made with leaven. Once again, God is not commanding that his law be broken, but reinforcing that without the proper exercise of an obedient heart behind it, a legally-compliant unleavened sacrifice was as bad as a sacrifice defiantly leavened. The leaven was in the hearts of the worshipers.

Likewise, the religious hierarchy is invited to “proclaim” and “publish” freewill offerings. Students of the Hebrew suggest these were orders given by the false priests to bring offerings which, under the Law of Moses, were intended to be spontaneous gifts. Thus they were effectively turning the promptings of the heart into legalistic formalism and voluntary generosity into coercive taxation. In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord Jesus addressed a similar spirit of legalistic self-congratulation, warning against practicing one’s righteousness in order to be seen by men, and sounding trumpets “as the hypocrites do in the synagogues”.

So You Love to Do

The “so you love to do” of verse 5 may refer specifically to the publishing and proclaiming of freewill offerings, but probably refers more generally to all the various manifestations of empty religious performance art listed in verses 4 and 5. It gets to the root of the problem. God invites his people to multiply transgressions because the idolatrous religious facade in which they are engaged is the thing they really love, no matter that they append God’s name to their rituals and rites of choice.

And if the hearts of the people were callused and tainted, then it was better that their wicked impulses be brought out into the light where they could be identified and judged than that they remain concealed from public view while being every bit as vile, false and poisonous.

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