Saturday, July 10, 2021

Mining the Minors: Amos (23)

Who would eagerly anticipate and call for God to act in judgment? You might be surprised.

When injustice is rampant in society, those who are hurting tend to identify the beneficiaries of their perceived oppression and blame everyone in that targeted group regardless of personal involvement. In Germany it was the Jews. In Mao’s China it was the wealthy landowners. In Western society it is the “patriarchy”. In the Israel of Amos’s day, it was the rich.

So then, up goes the cry for judgment: If only God would deal with this fellow over here, or that group over there, everything would be fine.

Of course, those who hold this view of evil are taking a very narrow view of sin, and are not generally concerned to look long and hard at their own abuses and rejection of God’s commandments. They have failed to notice that throughout history, when God passes through the midst of a sinning people, few lives are left untouched.

Amos 5:16-17 — Universal Mourning

“Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord: ‘In all the squares there shall be wailing, and in all the streets they shall say, “Alas! Alas!” They shall call the farmers to mourning and to wailing those who are skilled in lamentation, and in all vineyards there shall be wailing, for I will pass through your midst,’ says the Lord.”

Just Passing Through

“I will pass through your midst,” says the Lord. A God who dwells in your midst is there to have fellowship with you and protect you. The promise that God will dwell with men is cause for singing and rejoicing, as Zechariah declares concerning Israel, and as Christians eagerly anticipate in a coming day. But a God who “passes through” is coming to judge. He cannot dwell among his people when they will not walk in his ways. There is nothing positive about this particular turn of phrase.

The book of Exodus lists ten plagues with which Pharaoh and Egypt were afflicted. Before the final plague, God told Moses and Aaron to celebrate the Passover for the first time, and to take some of the blood of the Passover lamb and put it on the doorposts and lintels of their houses as a sign of identification with the God of Israel. Those who were willing to call themselves his were to be spared. As God said, “I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments.”

Was the average Israelite in Amos’ audience still familiar with the writings of Moses? If so, he would surely have recognized in the prophet’s terminology an awfully familiar ring. It shows how far God’s people had fallen in that they were now about to experience the very same sort of judgment that Egypt experienced when Pharaoh refused to listen to God’s repeated warnings.

Before we ever call for the day of judgment, we had better be very sure we have the blood of a spotless Lamb on the functional equivalent of our lintels and doorposts. One day soon God will be passing through.

No Exceptions

Amos mentions five different sectors of Israelite society to show that everyone in Israel would be deeply affected when God passed through their midst. The people in the squares or marketplaces would wail, the city dwellers would mourn, and those in the countryside would be called to mourning instead of farming. What would be the point of getting up before dawn and remaining industrious when the Assyrian army was going to take everything you own and lead you away into captivity?

“Those who are skilled in lamentation” may refer to professional mourners, an ancient Egyptian custom that, like many others, was probably picked up by Israelite women during their sojourn in Egypt. The higher echelons of society could afford to grieve by proxy; to pay women to make an impressive public display of screeching, breast-beating and hair pulling on their behalf. Today we call this outsourcing. In any case, the point is that affluence would be no protection against the coming judgment. The rich would be calling for those skilled in lamentation because they too would have much to lament.

The translators of my English Bible have supplied the word “all” three times in these two verses in an attempt to convey the universality of the coming judgment. When the Lord passed through the midst of Israel, he would impact all walks of life and every stratum of Israelite society.

Amos 5:18-20 — Darkness, and Not Light

“Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light, as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him. Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?”

The Day of the Lord

Like “I will pass through”, the expression “the day of the Lord” is rarely used to describe anything most intelligent Bible students would greet with enthusiasm. Isaiah associates it with destruction, Jeremiah with vengeance, and Joel with fear and trembling.

Contrary to the way we sometimes hear it used, the phrase “day of the Lord” does not refer to a single event or period. Amos may have been one of the first to use it, but the expression is found in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Obadiah, Zephaniah, Zechariah and Malachi. And of course the writers of the New Testament speak of a “day of the Lord” that was still future then and remains so today. More about that here.

The Old Testament prophets employ “day of the Lord” as a euphemism for coming cataclysms to occur in various times and places. Ezekiel uses it to describe the sacking of parts of Egypt by the Babylonians, the decisive moment in which was the Battle of Carchemish. In turn, Isaiah uses it to describe the slaughter of the Babylonians by the Medes, which occurred in the time of Daniel. Obadiah uses it to describe God’s judgment of Edom for its violence against Israel. Zephaniah uses it to describe God’s judgment on Judah.

And yet most or all of these historical references also point to a greater and final day of the Lord associated with universal judgment and the end of this present age. Obadiah says, “the day of the Lord is near upon all nations.” And Malachi says, “I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes,” a phrase we now know referred to the coming of John the Baptist, and perhaps even a future “Elijah”.

Lions, Bears and Serpents

Amos uses “day of the Lord” three times, all in this passage. He questions why anyone would be undiscerning enough to call for such a day when it is characterized by “darkness, and not light”. As in the previous two verses, Amos associates the day of the Lord with universal wrath against those who are its objects. Sinners who flee from the lion will meet up with the bear. Those who escape the bear and think they have made it safely home will sigh with relief just before the unseen serpent strikes. These images are metaphorical, of course, but the serve to illustrate the futility and foolishness of trivializing the holiness of God.

Amos does not mention it, but other OT prophetic passages declare that in its final aspect the day of the Lord will be a time of great joy and blessing for a future Israelite remnant. Instead of being objects of God’s wrath in that day, those who love him will help execute it. Malachi again:

“But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked.”

This is the day of the Lord. Israel was in no condition to be looking to God to come in judgment on its enemies when judgment must first begin in Israel. Amos says, “Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord.” Why would you have it? You are not ready for it.

No comments :

Post a Comment