Saturday, July 17, 2021

Mining the Minors: Amos (24)

The Israelite legal requirement for multiple witnesses to any criminal charge goes back to the Law of Moses and the book of Numbers, but is itself restated many times in scripture. By the time we encounter it in the New Testament from the apostle Paul, there is a new twist on the “two or three” rule. “This is the third time I am coming to you,” he writes. “Every charge must be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.”

Did you catch that? In this case the three witnesses are all the same person. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure that’s not precisely what God intended.

Of course, Paul is not talking about amending a legal requirement ordained by God to make it easier for the prosecution to convict the accused. What he is doing, and doing perfectly legitimately, is deriving a broader principle from an Old Testament law, which we may restate this way: When the Holy Spirit repeats something he has said before, whether through a prophet or an apostle, it means it is time we sit up and listen very carefully.

The Spirit is doing much the same thing through Amos in chapter 5.

Amos 5:21-24 — I Will Not

“I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Twos and Threes

Even without the bolding I have introduced for emphasis, if you stare at the paragraph above for sixty seconds you are bound to start seeing pairs and trios all over the place. I count at least seven instances of such repetition. Nothing is said just once:

I hate / I despise / I take no delight
feast days / solemn assemblies
burnt offerings / grain offerings / peace offerings
I will not accept / I will not look / I will not listen
noise of your songs / melody of your harps
justice / righteousness
waters / stream

Repetition with or without variation is a familiar Hebrew rhetorical device. You find it used all the time in Psalms and Proverbs. Here, everything Amos says is repeated and restated, sometimes with a synonym and sometimes with a slight twist. Either way, the prophet is telling Israel it’s time to pay attention. God is not pleased with any aspect of his peoples’ religious routines. They are abhorrent to him.

Real Repentance

The message is this: that for God to take pleasure in what the worshiper is offering requires a change of heart and a change of life. Mere outward compliance is completely insufficient. The finest of the flock and herd, the sweetest melody, the largest and gravest gathering — none of this matters when you go out to sit in the gate on Monday morning and favor rich over poor, your friends and family over widows and orphans, and the man who slips a bribe into your pocket over the man who can’t afford to.

Real repentance doesn’t make louder religious noises, it changes one’s life day in and day out. And it is not enough to act righteously once or twice in order to make amends. Rather, righteousness and justice must become patterns of life. They must “roll down”. They must be “ever-flowing”, not intermittent. Streams and rivers do not make distinctions. They flow where they flow, refreshing rich and poor alike.

A Familiar Theme

If this all sounds very familiar, you have probably read something strikingly similar (and better known) in the first chapter of Isaiah: “Who has required of you this trampling of my courts?” “I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly.” “Even though you make many prayers, I will not listen.” The prophets Amos and Isaiah were contemporaries for roughly fourteen years, from approximately 767 through 753 BC, though the primary target of Isaiah’s prophetic ministry was the kingdom of Judah while the primary target of Amos’s was Israel.

It is possible, though unlikely, that one prophet took inspiration from the preaching of the other. The two passages may be thematically similar, but they are sufficiently distinct in vocabulary and syntax that any charge of plagiarism would be a non-starter. It seems far more likely that God sent two different prophets to two different nations with similar messages because they were in similar states of spiritual distress.

Similarities and Differences

That said, if you read Isaiah carefully, you will notice one very telling difference from Amos’s message. God had placed his name in Jerusalem. He had not placed his name in the imitation temples of the various Israelite cities. Their altars may have looked similar, their priests may have dressed alike, their feasts may have taken place at the same time of year, their sacrifices may have been offered in a similar manner, and their state of spiritual decrepitude may have been near-identical, BUT … one place of worship belonged to God in a way the others simply did not.

So, in Amos, God speaks six times of your feasts, your solemn assemblies, your burnt offerings, your fattened animals, your songs and your harps. He takes no ownership of any of it. In Isaiah, however, the Lord makes reference to my courts. The temple in Jerusalem was God’s in a way that no Israelite counterfeit could ever be. Jesus could speak of “my Father’s house” in Jerusalem. There were no equivalent places of worship in Samaria, however ancient and venerable.

Likewise, there are so-called Christian churches today which, if we were to carefully assess their teaching and practices in the light of those of the first century church, we would have to admit almost nothing about them can be said to be truly Christ’s. Then there are others in which the teaching and order of service possess traces of apostolic authority, but in which this authenticity is nevertheless marred and ruined by the same sort of spiritual decrepitude that characterized Judean worship more than two and a half thousand years ago.

Whatever the God-given authority behind them, if your heart and your daily life are in the wrong place, your religious routines are of no interest to God. That was true of Judah and Israel, and it is true today both in the institutional church and in those churches which claim to follow the teaching of the New Testament.

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