Saturday, June 26, 2021

Mining the Minors: Amos (21)

We hear a lot in the current environment about how the powers that exist have been instituted by God, and that whoever resists them resists God’s ordinance. And that is certainly true, but only to a point. Scripture is full of men and women who didn’t simply go along with unlawful orders from tyrants, and who, far from incurring judgment, were blessed by God for resisting the expressed will of those very “powers that be”.

It falls to each one of us to decide before God at what point Romans 13 no longer applies to our circumstances. Invariably, some of us will make mistakes, either acting too hastily in defiance of authority, or else waiting too long to put up resistance. But if I’m going to be one of those acting in error, I think I’d prefer to be too quick off the mark than to drag my feet and regret it later.

In the days of Elijah, the conscience of a government official named Obadiah would not permit him to stand by idly while a Baal-worshiping foreign queen used her influence to have the prophets of the Lord exterminated in Israel. He discreetly subverted Jezebel’s orders by hiding 100 prophets from Ahab’s soldiers and feeding them on the sly. Ironically, it seems highly probable he did so from the bounty of the royal kitchens. As they say, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. Obadiah did something, at considerable risk to himself and probably his loved ones, and good for him.

Back in our study of the book of Amos, the prophet is about to bring up the touchy subject of speaking truth to power. Like Obadiah, not everybody has the stomach for it.

Amos 5:10 — Don’t Shoot the Messenger

“They hate him who reproves in the gate, and they abhor him who speaks the truth.”

Israel had established a tradition of shooting the messenger for at least a couple of generations before Amos came along. And though the killing of God’s prophets was initiated at the top, Elijah blamed the nation that carried out Ahab’s orders: “For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.” He was not wrong. Here is the thing about oppressive governments: they can’t do much oppressing unless they have willing collaborators among the people.

In a scenario where the authorities are acting inconsistently with their God-given mandate, there are four possible responses for those disinclined to armed rebellion: (1) collaboration; (2) passivity; (3) subversion; or (4) public rebuke. Obadiah was in the third group, but people like Elijah and Amos were not content to work quietly in the background to undermine a corrupt system. They were “in the gate” speaking truth.

In the ancient East, the gate of a city was where you went to get a hearing from the elders of the people. It was where justice was supposed to be dispensed, not in a boardroom in the bowels of some impressive stone building, but right out in public where everyone could see. A seat in the gate was a position of respect. Therefore, a man who reproved in the gate was a man who had the temerity to call the system corrupt, who had the courage to accuse the powers that be of abusing their authority. It’s no wonder such men were hated, and hated by those who had the authority to order their death or imprisonment.

So, sometimes the messenger got shot, or whatever passed for it in those days. Jesus spoke of “Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” Samaria was no different, except in that its judgment came 136 years earlier than Jerusalem’s first diaspora.

Amos 5:11 — Stone Houses and Pleasant Vineyards

“Therefore because you trample on the poor and you exact taxes of grain from him, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine.”

Sometimes good men suffer while the wicked prosper, and the Old Testament has much to say on that score. But thankfully there are occasions in this life in which God shows that he is not mocked. In this case, the poor who had been “trampled on” and taxed in Israel for years would now become the primary beneficiaries of any houses the nation’s conquerors left intact, and the vines and fields their Israelite oppressors had cultivated at their expense.

It is well established both from scripture and history that the entire nation of Israel was not taken into exile. Such a practice would have been unlikely in ancient times. Why, after all, would the king of Assyria want his major cities cluttered up with the destitute of other nations? Matthew Poole writes that leaving some of the poorer people to dress vines and till the ground was “a thing very usual with conquerors, for their own advantage, that their conquests may yield them some revenue”.

So then, it was the elite of conquered nations, including Israel, who would be carried off in large numbers and put to work in the service of the Assyrian Empire. For once, the tramplers of the poor would not get to reap the benefits of their corrupt business practices and legal maneuvering.

Amos 5:12 — Caught in the Act

“For I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins — you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate.”

The oppressor oppresses because he believes he will never be called to account. Today, he will tell you he is free to reorder the world as he sees fit because God does not exist. In ancient times there were probably fewer atheists, but there were plenty of men who believed their local gods were more powerful than the gods of other nations. When Sennacherib invaded Judah and taunted King Hezekiah, his argument was not that Hezekiah’s God didn’t exist, but that he had no power to save. “Do you not know what I and my fathers have done to all the peoples of other lands?” he asked. “Were the gods of the nations of those lands at all able to deliver their lands out of my hand?” Evidently not.

Then there were those who had no problem in believing in gods generally, and perhaps even in the God of Israel, but oppressed others because they were convinced they would never be called to account for their actions. As the psalmist put it, “They crush your people, O Lord … and they say, ‘The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive.’ ” They believed God to be indifferent to the cries of those they were oppressing, the proof being that years went by in which they were free to exploit others with no apparent consequences.

To people like this God replies, “I know.” The God of Jacob is very much aware. He numbers transgressions. He measures the magnitude of sin. He counts specific offenses: the affliction of the righteous, the taking of bribes, the neglect of the needy by those responsible for caring for them and giving them the justice they deserve. Amos is telling the oppressors they have been caught in the act, and will indeed be called to account for their crimes.

Amos 5:13 — Living in Evil Times

“Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time.”

And here we circle back to the story of Obadiah, Ahab’s household administrator. Not everybody is an Elijah. Not everybody is an Amos. Not everyone has the courage to reprove in the gate. Telling the truth sometimes has terrible consequences, and many of us haven’t the courage to bear them. As Hebrews puts it, “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated …” This was the fate of many of the men God called to speak on his behalf.

So then, in evil times it is prudent to keep silent. Not especially courageous. Not particularly commendable. Not worthy of great reward.

But definitely prudent.

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