Saturday, August 21, 2021

Mining the Minors: Amos (29)

How does man end up negotiating with God?

Human reasoning cannot account for it. God, who knows everything, has already determined the most effective, just and reasonable course of action in every conceivable instance. He needs no advice or input from humanity. There is absolutely nothing created beings can contribute to the process by which a sovereign God works out his sovereign will. The idea is preposterous.

And yet it happens all the time in scripture. God deliberately seeks out man’s opinion, or else man expresses it and God allows him to have his say, even indulging his choices.

Participating in the Divine Plan

Cain complains, “My punishment is greater than I can bear.” God accommodates by giving him a mark to protect him, though Cain certainly doesn’t deserve it. Abraham asks, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” God accommodates by agreeing not to destroy Sodom if even ten righteous men can be found there. Moses is offered the chance to have a great nation built from his own family line while the people he leads are obliterated. Instead, he begs God not to destroy Israel, and God accommodates his request. Mind boggling, really.

Good men or bad, God appears almost endlessly open to further discussion when his proposed solutions meet with disagreement or qualification. Examples may be multiplied: David’s “you choose the punishment” conversation; Hezekiah’s shadow; the command to King Joash of Israel to strike the ground with a fistful of arrows; or the dung upon which Ezekiel was to bake unclean bread.

You really can’t get around the idea that God, though at all times remaining sovereign over all things, deliberately seeks out and cultivates human participation in his plans.

Amos is about to have this experience. God is going to show him a group of three visions concerning his judgment of Israel, and he will graciously and quite unnecessarily allow Amos to weigh in on what he sees.

Amos 7:1-3 — The First Vision: Locusts

“This is what the Lord God showed me: behold, he was forming locusts when the latter growth was just beginning to sprout, and behold, it was the latter growth after the king’s mowings. When they had finished eating the grass of the land, I said, ‘O Lord God, please forgive! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!’ The Lord relented concerning this: ‘It shall not be,’ said the Lord.”

The first possible option for Israel’s coming judgment is an invasion of ravenous baby locusts scheduled to occur after the “king’s mowings”. Multiple commentators suggest this odd expression refers to a form of food taxation. The first of any harvest would be set aside for the king, after which the people were allowed to feed themselves from what remained. If the locust horde arrived after the king’s mowings, there would be nothing stored up for the people to eat, and the nation would starve.

Alternatively, the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown commentary allegorizes the locusts, making them Syrian harassers rather than literal pests. This seems an unlikely interpretation, especially because God relents of the punishment, whereas history shows decades of Syrian harassment and an eventual Assyrian invasion are precisely what happened to Israel in the end.

Amos’s appeal for the Israelite people can have no basis in justice; their punishment is richly deserved. Instead, the prophet intercedes on the basis that Jacob is “so small”. Like Cain, he cannot bear the righteous penalty he has incurred, anymore than you or I can bear the weight of God’s righteous wrath against our own sins. And the Lord graciously relents: “It shall not be.”

Amos 7:4-6 — The Second Vision: Fire

“This is what the Lord God showed me: behold, the Lord God was calling for a judgment by fire, and it devoured the great deep and was eating up the land. Then I said, ‘O Lord God, please cease! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!’ The Lord relented concerning this: ‘This also shall not be,’ said the Lord God.”

The second option is judgment by fire. Fire on the strongholds is the punishment Amos prophesied against Israel’s seven neighbors in chapters 1 and 2. But this fire seems considerably more intense and destructive than the comparatively brief torching the neighboring nations were to receive. The fire Amos sees is so awesome that it eats up the land of Israel and even devours “the great deep”.

In scripture, “great deep” [raḇ tᵊhôm] is consistently used of large bodies of water like the oceans and the Red Sea. The Sea of Galilee lies to the north of Israel, the Dead Sea to the south and the Mediterranean (given its great size, an admittedly unlikely candidate for “devouring” by fire) to the west. But any fire that would cause even smaller, inland bodies of water to evaporate must have made for a terrifying vision indeed.

Again, Amos appeals not on the basis of justice but mercy. Jacob is small. He will be completely consumed. Nobody and nothing will be left. There is perhaps an implicit acknowledgment that this cannot be. God’s promises to his people throughout history cannot be invalidated.

Once again, the Lord graciously relents: “It shall not be.”

Amos 7:7-9 — The Third Vision: the Plumb Line

“This is what he showed me: behold, the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb line.’ Then the Lord said, “Behold, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass by them; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.’ ”

The Plumb Line

We tend to think of plumb lines in connection with construction, and generally use them to keep the walls of our buildings at 90 degrees to the flat planes of their floors and ceilings, which is simply good engineering. The instrument used thousands of years ago in Israel was similar — a lead weight on a string — but the plumb line in scripture has a specific implication that is more related to destruction than construction. Over a century later, and at least forty years after the fall of Samaria to the Assyrians, the Lord would use this very vision of judgment he showed to Amos as a cautionary tale for another sinning nation. Through a series of prophets, he would assure King Manasseh of Judah that he was still in the business of judging evil. “I will stretch over Jerusalem the measuring line of Samaria,” he says, “and the plumb line of the house of Ahab.” In other words, “I will apply exactly the same standards to Judah as I applied to Israel. I will judge you with the same metrics I applied to them.”

So then, the figure of the plumb line is less about maintaining verticality, and more about setting a non-negotiable standard of quality for workmanship in the household of God. Bad construction will always be torn down rather than tolerated.

similar figure is used in the New Testament with respect to the church. No inferior workmanship or materials are allowed to remain in the house Christ is building, and none would be allowed in Israel.

Never Again Pass By Them

I believe “pass by” in this context means to overlook. Micah says God pardons iniquity and passes over transgression [ʿāḇar, same expression], and Solomon writes that it is man’s glory to overlook an offense [ʿāḇar again], so there is plenty of precedent for interpreting the Hebrew this way. God is saying he is done cutting his people slack they do not deserve. He is done looking the other way. He is going to deal once and for all with Israel’s blatant idolatry (“high places”), with its false religious pretenses (“sanctuaries”) and with the injustices rampant among the leaders of the nation (the “house of Jeroboam”).

You will notice Amos has no objection to this final vision. Perhaps he sensed the absolute appropriateness of the judgment. Perhaps carefully calculated destruction seemed preferable to total annihilation. Perhaps he sensed that God’s mind was made up and he would not be deterred.

In any case, judgment was coming, and the plumb line it would be.

Negotiating with God

So we come back to this conundrum: Does anybody ever really negotiate with God? Can anyone really persuade an infallible being to change his mind? Or is it possible God accepted Abraham’s argument for Sodom graciously, but had never for a moment contemplated judging the righteous with the wicked? Is it possible God never intended to build a great nation out of Moses, but wanted to give his servant opportunity to express a faint echo of God’s own self-sacrificial care for the spiritual condition of Israel? Is it possible God knew full well that it would trouble Ezekiel’s priestly conscience to bake his bread over human dung, and kept the cow dung option in reserve for the moment Ezekiel would demonstrate his quite reasonable reluctance to defile himself before God and man?

Is it possible God sometimes suggests options he will never pursue with the intention of bringing out what his servants think about him, of provoking them to greater understanding of who he is and how he operates, or of bringing their hopes and desires for the world into alignment with his?

Just asking the question.

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