John H. Paterson
THE Christian’s understanding of God and His world is full of paradoxes and apparent contradictions. So often he has to hold in balance two equal and opposite points of view, refusing to allow either to exclude the other. Often, too, in the history of the Church Christians have made the mistake of adopting such points of view as flags around which to rally opposing forces. By [71/72] doing so they polarise differences, create divisions and make reconciliation impossible. One of the clearest historical examples of this process is to be found in the centuries-long continuation of the debate between Calvin and Arminius about the nature of God’s grace towards man and the possibility of falling away from it. We have Calvinists and Arminians to this day.
The problem is that such divisions as these stem from our very limited appreciation of the “manifold wisdom of God”. Because His mind and character are indeed many-sided, they transcend our simple formulations; yet God Himself is entirely consistent and perfectly balanced. He is not a Calvinist — or an Arminian either.
In particular situations, nevertheless, it may be necessary to stress one or other aspect of the character of God which, at that moment and by particular individuals, is being dangerously neglected. It has already been suggested in these articles on the Minor Prophets that that is what these men of God were called on to do. But as users of the Word of God, who now have at our disposal all twelve of the prophets’ messages, we must make sure that we, in turn, do not stress one prophecy or one message at the expense of another.
Next in line for our consideration in this series is Amos. But a Bible student writing studies which appear at intervals of two months may perhaps be allowed to feel that it is wise to link the message of Amos with that of Obadiah, which follows it in our Bibles, lest for the two-month period between publications he appears to be encouraging a one-sided view of the character of God. For in a rather curious way we find in these two prophecies the Calvinist-Arminian debate of later centuries foreshadowed. We do well, therefore, to consider them together.
The Message of Amos
Of all the prophets speaking to Israel and Judah Amos was, probably, the sternest and most forthright. He was unsparing in his denunciations, and refused to modify his tone for king or priest (7:12-17). He charged them all alike with moral failure. The ‘missing dimension’ in their understanding of God was, quite simply, a failure to understand the moral basis of God’s dealings with men. The mistake they made was to confuse religion with morality; to assume that the special relationship with God which they had been granted all those centuries before was sufficient cover for them, and that after that what they did was irrelevant.
Not so, says the prophet; no change of status or special favours alter or cancel the moral imperatives that stem from the character of God. On the contrary, the only consequence of being ‘special’ people in any way is to, increase moral responsibility: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities” (3:2).
The basic message of Amos is conveyed by him in two particular ways: firstly, by a list of denunciations in Chapters 1 and 2 and, secondly, by a series of visions in Chapters 7 and 8. In the first of these sections Amos denounces in turn Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon and Moab — all Israel’s heathen neighbours — and then passes straight on to denounce Judah and Israel too. There is no break, no distinction, between friend and foe, heathen and Hebrew. Only the nature of the sin denounced is different; Judah has “despised the law of the Lord, and have not kept his commandments” (2:4), a sin which is only possible to those who have a knowledge of that law in the first place.
To a people like the Jews, who were accustomed to think of themselves as an altogether distinct and special nation under God, it must have come as a blow to find themselves listed with all their heathen neighbours in a common stream of denunciation. But worse was to come, in the four visions recorded in Chapters 7 and 8 — locusts, fire, plumbline and summer fruit. For the point of the first three of these is surely to be found in their indifference to the name or nationality of their victims. After centuries of attempts by man at controlling or, at least, predicting the movements of Middle East locusts, there is still no telling where they will strike, or whose crops they will devastate; they eat the corn of friend and foe indifferently. The fire does not sweep through a town sparing certain houses because their owners are, or are not, Jewish; it burns everything in its path. And the point of the plumbline is surely the same: it is an entirely objective test of the quality of the building. It does not matter whether the wall is made of mud or stone, whether it has been built by black men or white men, soldiers or priests. The plumbline simply asks: ‘Is it straight?’ [72/73]
And so to the basket of summer fruit. It is a fact that during the soft-fruit season, many green-grocers who are selling baskets of strawberries or raspberries invite their customers to select their own from the display in the shop. This is because the average customer has a deeply ingrained fear of being swindled; summer fruit goes bad so quickly that an unscrupulous seller can arrange a basket of fine-looking fruit on top and squashed and mouldy fruit underneath. Reputable green-grocers therefore invite their customers to ‘choose your own’, to show that there is no deception.
Israel had gone bad. On the top of the basket there was the thinnest possible layer of what still appeared to be good fruit — a few burnt offerings and feast days (5:21-22) giving an impression of devotion to Jehovah. But underneath injustice, disregard for God’s law and the worship of other gods had rotted away the life of the nation. Therefore “prepare to meet thy God, O Israel” (4:12).
Amos reminds us that God is a God of justice. He does not have two moral standards, a high one for the heathen and a low one for those people to whom, for quite separate reasons, He has shown His favour. That would be grotesquely unjust. To paraphrase the principle in New Testament terms, faith is not an evangelical substitute for good works. It is a point which James made clear, centuries later, in his epistle. And it is the same point which Stephen argued (Acts 7:42), when facing his accusers; he quoted the words of Amos while he charged his audience with being blinded by national pride in the face of moral bankruptcy and the murder of the Son of God.
The Message of Obadiah
If a knowledge of God brings extra responsibility and, consequently, extra guilt, are we not better off without it? As a Jewish character in a modern play asks, turning his eyes to heaven, ‘Lord, I know we’re your chosen people, but couldn’t you choose someone else, just for a change?’ This thought brings us to Obadiah, briefest of all the prophets: making, indeed, one simple point and making it in a single sentence (v.17): “the house of Jacob shall possess their possessions”.
To understand Obadiah, we must notice to whom he was speaking: to Edom, the nation who were Israel’s cousins through descent from Esau. Evidently, Israel had been attacked by enemies and the nation was in dire straits. At that point Edom, judging Israel’s resistance to be at an end and the moment favourable, declared war on her in order to be able to share in the spoils of her defeat. It was the more reprehensible because Edomites had always enjoyed something of a special status in Israel (Deuteronomy 23:7). But now, on the basis of expediency and short-term advantage, Edom was prepared to forget old family ties and join Israel’s enemies.
It was Obadiah’s task to warn Edom that it had backed the wrong side. Whatever the present appearance, Israel’s future was secure, and secure for the very good reason that God is not an Edomite. God is God of faithfulness ; a God of principle, not expediency; a God loyal to His purpose and so to His people who form part of that purpose. Contrary to the present appearances, there was a future for Israel, but not for Edom (vv.15, 18: cf. Malachi 1:4), and whatever spoils Edom might have obtained by taking sides against Israel would soon be returned to their original owner: the house of Jacob was, in the long run, safe in its possessions.
The actions of the Edomites need not surprise us; with their tendency to be ruled by expediency, they were running true to ancestral form. Esau had sacrificed principle for short-term advantage; he had despised his birthright (Genesis 25:34) and traded it for food. Neither he nor his descendants — who, in a spiritual sense, are with us to this day — could make head or tail of the way God deals with His own people: “My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked by him: for whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth” (Hebrews 12:5-6). The appearance of God’s dealings with His people is apt to be misleading; it may be the moment of chastening or testing. But the underlying principle is never in doubt — faithfulness to His purpose and promises.
So the two books complement each other. We need them both, and we need them together. They present equal and opposite truths about God. Yet neither prophet was entirely one-sided. With Amos, the gloomiest of prophets, the way back is still open: “I will bring again the captivity of my people of Israel … and they shall no more be pulled up out of their land” (9:14-15). And with Obadiah, there is hope even for the Edomite (a character who lurks somewhere in all of us) though not as an Edomite. For it was specifically [73/74] provided that an Edomite might become an Israelite (Deuteronomy 23:7-8); in time, in the third generation, he might come to share in the trials, the responsibilities, but also the privileges of a people whose God is always faithful to His own.