Out of the Depths I cry to you, O Lord,
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you may be revered.
Psalm 130:1-4 (NRSV)
Do you ever hear something that just makes you cringe?
Maybe it’s simply a word that seems vile to your ears. Maybe it’s a harsh truth that stirs up strong feelings when you hear it brought up in casual conversation. Or maybe its a lie; you just get sick at the thought of dangerous untruths digging deeper and deeper into the social consciousness of the people you care about.
I’m not sure which category of cringe-inducing remarks this fits into, but the end result is the same: I can’t help but wince whenever I hear people, especially Christians, talk about the “Old-Testament-god of wrath and vengeance, of fire and brimstone.”
Some people I know who identify God this way are individuals with no real interest in the Lord. They have an image of a God that is cruel and vindictive — often because that is how he has been portrayed by their Christian friends — and they have made up their minds that they want nothing to do with that type of God, so they give up on him all together. My heart breaks for these people. I pray for them, and I hope that I can find a way to show them some portion of the true love that God has for them.
What is more confusing to me is how some Christians talk this way as well. They speak of one god who was legalistic, rigid, demanding and dangerous — an old god who brought down fire from heaven to consume those who displeased him — and another god who is welcoming, compassionate, forgiving and full of love — a Good Shepherd who will leave everything behind to rescue one lost sheep. It’s as if all of a sudden, God changed his mind about how he was going to run things; he changed his mind about how he wanted creation to be ordered; he changed his mind about what kind of relationship he wanted to have with his people, and so he sent Jesus to Earth to give us an update and let us in on the new plan.
This kind of thinking doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t believe God changed his mind. He has always wanted people everywhere to seek him out, to know him, to live in relationship with him and to build healthy relationships with others in order to honor him. When God revealed himself in the person of Jesus, he gave humanity its clearest and most direct glimpse at himself as part of the ongoing revelation that began at the beginning and is still unfolding to this day. In Jesus, men and women saw better than ever the love, compassion, wisdom and grace that God has for all people. That same love Jesus lavished on those he came in contact with, and the same desire he showed to live in intimate relationship with his followers, was not anything new — it had been God’s will all along, but somehow the message kept getting misunderstood; it still does today.
To be honest, not that long ago I had conflicting images of God’s judgment and God’s grace. I had a hard time reconciling the God that created the universe, that preserved Noah’s line in the flood, that lead his people on an exodus out of Egypt and established a line of priests, prophets and kings in Israel with the God who was born in a manager, lived as a homeless wanderer, built relationships with people that crossed all racial, economic, social and religious lines, and then died on a cross to demonstrate his own steadfast love for mankind. The Yahweh of the Old Testament and the Jesus of the New Testament seemed so far apart in my eyes.
Then I decided to read the Old Testament; Not just the stories of Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses, but the sacred writings of God’s prophets and priests. Imagine my surprise when I saw the love of Christ embodied in these ancient scriptures.
If any preacher epitomizes the “Fire and Brimstone” style of homiletics, Amos is the man. The book of Amos begins with harsh words for Israel’s neighbors, who have attacked their distant cousins living across the border and pillaged cities that were living in peace. Amos declares God’s judgment will literally be demonstrated by fire raining down from heaven and consuming these people. Then he turns his sight on Israel. Because God’s people have traded in real justice and loving relationships for hypocritical religion and shrewdly-amassed wealth, they also will reap their just rewards. Yet the book of Amos isn’t all doom and gloom. It is a desperate plea to the people. Amos, again and again, calls for his listeners to turn back to Yahweh, to repent, to denounce their greedy lifestyles, to stop paying lip service to God and start living in community with one another as God intends.
The first several chapters of Amos seem to be all judgment with no hope, but don’t give up! Keep reading, and you’ll learn that even when God’s people have utterly disregarded his word and turned their backs on the needs of their neighbors, the Lord is still waiting with open arms to take them back, to call them his own children again, to forgive their sins and guide them into a better life.
Listen to this funeral song I am ready to sing about you, family of Israel:
“The virgin Israel has fallen down and will not get up again.
She is abandoned on her own land
with no one to help her get up.”
The sovereign Lord says this:
“The city that marches out with a thousand soldiers will have only a hundred left;
the town that marches out with a hundred soldiers will have only ten left for the family of Israel.”
The Lord says this to the family of Israel:
“Seek me so you can live!
Do not seek Bethel!
Do not visit Gilgal!
Do not journey down to Beer Sheba!
For the people of Gilgal will certainly be carried into exile;
and Bethel will become a place where disaster abounds.”
Seek the Lord so you can live!
Otherwise he will break out like fire against Joseph’s family;
the fire will consume
and no one will be able to quench it and save Bethel.
The Israelites turn justice into bitterness;
they throw what is fair and right to the ground.
(But there is one who made the constellations Pleiades and Orion;
he can turn the darkness into morning
and daylight into night.
He summons the water of the seas
and pours it out on the earth’s surface.
The Lord is his name!
He flashes destruction down upon the strong
so that destruction overwhelms the fortified places.)
The Israelites hate anyone who arbitrates at the city gate;
they despise anyone who speaks honestly.
Therefore, because you make the poor pay taxes on their crops
and exact a grain tax from them,
you will not live in the houses you built with chiseled stone,
nor will you drink the wine from the fine vineyards you planted.
Certainly I am aware of your many rebellious acts
and your numerous sins.
You torment the innocent, you take bribes,
and you deny justice to the needy at the city gate.
For this reason whoever is smart keeps quiet in such a time,
for it is an evil time.
Seek good and not evil so you can live!
Then the Lord, the God who commands armies, just might be with you,
as you claim he is.
Hate what is wrong, love what is right!
Promote justice at the city gate!
Maybe the Lord, the God who commands armies, will have mercy on those who are left from Joseph.
Because of Israel’s sins this is what the Lord, the God who commands armies, the sovereign One, says:
“In all the squares there will be wailing,
in all the streets they will mourn the dead.
They will tell the field workers to lament
and the professional mourners to wail.
In all the vineyards there will be wailing,
for I will pass through your midst,” says the Lord.
Woe to those who wish for the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the Lord’s day of judgment to come?
It will bring darkness, not light.
Disaster will be inescapable,
as if a man ran from a lion only to meet a bear,
then escaped into a house,
leaned his hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a poisonous snake.
Don’t you realize the Lord’s day of judgment will bring darkness, not light —
gloomy blackness, not bright light?
“I absolutely despise your festivals!
I get no pleasure from your religious assemblies!
Even if you offer me burnt and grain offerings, I will not be satisfied;
I will not look with favor on your peace offerings of fattened calves.
Take away from me your noisy songs;
I don’t want to hear the music of your stringed instruments.
Justice must flow like torrents of water,
righteous actions like a stream that never dries up.”
Amos 5:1-24 (NET)
What do you read there?
Amos reminds me, first of all, that God is inescapable. Whether we acknowledge him or not, trying to hide ourselves from God is as futile “as if a man ran from a lion only to meet a bear, then escaped into a house, leaned his hand against the wall, and was bitten by a poisonous snake.” Sounds like a scene from a movie, doesn’t it? We cannot hide our actions, or even our motives, from the one who made the stars in the sky and the hairs on our heads. This brings us to the next point, that even if God’s big plan for the world, and for my life, seems hard to decipher, it’s important to remember that the most important task he has called us to is to live honest lives, to practice social justice, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and in so doing, honor and worship him with our lives — not just with our organized religious services. “Seek good and not evil so you can live! Hate what is wrong, love what is right. … Justice must flow like torrents of water; righteous actions like a stream that never dries up.” This is the faithfulness God demands from us! This is the type of faithfulness he tried to communicate to his people through the law given to Moses, it is the type of faithfulness the ancient prophets tried to call the Israelites back to, and it is the type of faithfulness perfectly embodied in the person of Jesus.
Then there is the prophet Hosea. Working through Hosea, God took another unique approach to getting his message across to the people. While Amos courageously proclaimed God’s truth to the people until they couldn’t hear it anymore, Hosea modeled the steadfast love and forgiveness God shares with us in his own family relationships. Apparently, at the Spirit’s guidance, Hosea was lead to marry a local prostitute. After the honeymoon period, he continued preaching, and she continued plying her trade; yet Hosea was more than ready to take her back, never hesitated in forgiving her infidelity and always offered unfailing love — even to one who spurned him again and again! When the prostitute is so buried in her life of sin that she is taken into slavery, Hosea goes into town and buys her back. He pays for his own wife, like any other man in the street could, so that he can take her back home with him, forgive her once again, and try, one more time, to begin building an intimate relationship based on love, not selfish pleasure.
This is the type of enduring love the God of the Old Testament has for his people — for all people — even in the darkest of times. The writings of Amos, Hosea, Jonah and the other prophets speak of painful things — suffering, poverty, slavery and death. These hard things are a part of life, often brought into being by our own hands. These things are not God’s will for our lives, but he is committed to finding a way to work through them for the good of creation.
When Israel was a young man, I loved him like a son, and I summoned my son out of Egypt. But the more I summoned them, the farther they departed from me. They sacrificed to the Baal idols and burned incense to images. Yet it was I who led Ephraim, I took them by the arm; but they did not acknowledge that I had healed them. I led them with leather cords, with leather ropes; I lifted the yoke from their neck, and gently fed them.
They will return to Egypt! Assyria will rule over them because they refuse to repent! A sword will flash in their cities, it will destroy the bars of their city gates, and will devour them in their fortresses. My people are obsessed with turning away from me; they call to Baal, but he will never exalt them!
How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
How can I surrender you, O Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
How can I make you like Zeboiim?
I have had a change of heart!
All my tender compassions are aroused!
I cannot carry out my fierce anger!
I cannot totally destroy Ephraim!
Because I am God, and not man — the Holy One among you — I will not come in wrath!
Hosea 11:1-9 (NET)
The way I see it, God hasn’t changed at all.
Unfortunately, I don’t see that we have changed much either.