Holy Spirit, Jesus, Rabbi, Master, Friend. Please, burn my lips and singe my tongue, before my mouth starts fires. Chasten me with enough humility to take a lashing from others, to look back and lament without forgetting inconvenient details. Take that withering shame and animal anger to forge within me that courage for the other: Sister, Brother, and even stranger Strangers. Help me to see others, not as threats or rivals, but family. I have always wanted to be left alone. But it seems I’ll just rot in there. It seems like instead I need a family reunion. You know I would rather just read books, talk and then hide away. But if you can save me, save us all from ourselves, by bringing us together, do it. I feel like I’m floundering, in over my head. My past is regretful, our present in limbo and our future unclear. Give me at least some arms to hold onto or others to teach me how to swim.
Now that the people were officially out of Babylon, the verdict was clear. It wasn’t exile that was the problem, it was them. Nothing had changed: the religious leaders were just as corrupt as ever, caring less about others or God than themselves. Everyone did whatever they wanted sexually—disregarding the damage to their own souls or the body count of others left behind them (2:10-16). And on top of all that they were a bunch of Scrooges! (1:6-14; 3:6-12). And they wondered why God wasn’t listening to them? Ironically, people assumed God didn’t care about them; they certainly didn’t care about God (3:13-15).
They were still going to church, but did it really matter? Leaders of a previous generation, the Martin Luther King Jrs and the Billy Grahams, were dead. Many were losing their faith. People were falling off into cynicism as many had no answers for their questions. Up steps an anonymous figure. We don’t know who Malachi was, the word simply means “My messenger”–more of a title than a name. But this person steps into the vacuum to remind God’s people of their past, put their present into perspective, and address their questions:
|Cynics: How has God loved us?||God’s messenger: Do not forget the blessings he has allowed you to experience. Blessing you did not earn, but God gave you as a gift because he loves you (Mal 1:1-5).|
|Cynics: How have we shown contempt for God?||God’s messenger: By disregarding what you owe him, worshiping him with token gestures (1:5-14).|
|Cynics: Why does God no longer pay attention to me?||God’s messenger: Because he’s standing up for the women you’re abusing (2:13-16).|
|Cynics: How have we wearied God?||God’s messenger: By complaining that God loves evil since we see evil men succeed (2:17).|
|Cynics: How are we to return to God?||God’s messenger: Stop robbing God. Act like your life depends on him, not money (3:6-12).|
|Cynics: What have we said against him?||God’s messenger: You’ve said faith in God doesn’t make any difference. Those who don’t follow him are better off (3:13-15).|
Malachi, again, takes us back to the beginning to urge us forward. Malachi reminds us of Moses, of the promised blessings and curses. God was right. They had been exiled. And he had brought them back. But now what? Nothing is really resolved, right? Malachi basically repeats Moses’ warnings: follow God, watch for a coming messenger, and try not to get cursed (4:4-6). Just as Moses knew, Malachi still seems to be waiting on the time when God would change peoples’ hearts. But when?
John is standing in the water, shouting out to the crowd, “I am the one saying, Prepare the Yahweh’s Path! The Day of Yahweh is coming! (Mal 3:1-5). Get ready. Can you help anyone? Do it! Are you using anyone? Stop it! Do your job fair and square and trust God to take care of you (Lk 3:10-14).”
He looked out at the religious leaders of his day, the pastors, the conference leaders, the missionaries, the Christian authors, and grew angry. “You bunch of snakes! Who told you this was the cool thing to do now? Change! Do something tangible that shows you’re actually serious about returning to God, and stop telling yourselves you’re so much better than everyone else. The purifying fire is about to expose you” (Mt 3:7-10).
Then Jesus came up to the water. John’s eyes grew wide, and he shook his head. But Jesus grabbed his hand and pulled him close, saying, “Go ahead, John. Put me in the water. Let’s put into motion what God has planned for so, so long. Let’s set things right.” And just like the Israelites crossing with Moses’ words still ringing in their ears, Jesus stepped into Jordan, coming out of his baptism burdened with the mission to finally bring the exiles home.
The rest is history . . . and yet the story’s still unfolding. Over and over, God kept His promise from the Garden to defeat the enemy through humans; every time, though, the enemy gets his pound of flesh (3:15). Two steps forward, one step back. Through kings, prophets, dirty shepherds, etc., God never failed to remind His people of the blessings He offered, as well as the curses that waited if they did things their own way. But ultimately, what God’s people needed was a prophet, a king, yes, a shepherd, who could remake people’s hearts.
If you call yourself a Christian, you should know that this hoped-for human has already come. We believe Jesus has already remade our hearts to follow God. Like Israel, we look back to remember God’s promises: how, left to our own devices, we will choose our way over God’s way, we will marginalize people, we will give ourselves over to the corrosive effect of power. And we will be cursed for it. We remember, too, that God never lets evil go unpunished, but also has so much compassion that he came as Jesus to rescue this world and make it more like home.
We’re still far from home. A look at your phone or a glance at the news confirms it. And so, like Israel, we wait for the day when Jesus comes again and finally brings everything back together. Lent is about being between two advents. Jesus has already come. And He’s coming again. In the meantime, we let go of things, slow down, and remind ourselves there ain’t nothing in this world we can fix on our own.
We are still pilgrims. Already catching glimpses of God’s justice and love, but not yet fully. The question is, will we choose life? The answer is not far off, He is near. He is our King, Jesus. Through His death and resurrection, He made it possible for us to truly live with hearts alive to God, and able to inherit His promised blessings. Let’s never forget: our hope is not in comfort in our own culture, or power to affect change. Our hope, even with exile threatening, is and always has been a God who is so compassionate and gracious, so just yet so patient, He will always welcome those who truly seek Him home. Happy Easter.
Listen: Malachi 1-4; Luke 3
Nehemiah’s chest was still heaving, spittle still stuck in his beard. He had chased the half-breed infidels off. Bits of their hair were still stuck between his knuckles. For the third time, as he watches his life’s work unraveling before his eyes, Nehemiah lifts his head to the roof with tears in his eyes and yells, “Remember me, O God! Remember me for the good I tried to do!”
This is how the return from exile ends. When a dream dies, it kills part of us with it. The collective story of Ezra-Nehemiah (originally one story written on one scroll) reminds us of the limits of reform. Three leaders, political, religious, and private sector, respectively, set out to lead their people out of exile and, by sheer force of will and religious zeal, bring God back to their nation. It doesn’t work.
Exile had always been “a death to make way for a rebirth” (1). Whether Adam and Eve stumbling away from Eden, or the Hebrews crying for rescue in Egypt, the story of exile has always been learning hard lessons while hoping for a new future. Yet now, a group of God’s people are allowed to return to their Promised Land, fewer in number than ever.
The stories of Zerubabbel, Ezra, and Nehemiah started off great. As prophesied by Jeremiah (2 Chron 36:22), the kings in power were now legislating and even funding Israel’s return to Jerusalem. To control their empire and promote peace through a kind of religious liberty, the Persians allowed conquered nations like Egypt, Greece, and Israel to restore their religious practices (2). It is hard to imagine the relief and excitement they must have felt. Finally, God was back on their side!
Zerubabbel leads the people back and rebuilds the temple. Ezra teaches the people God’s word and sees fruit. Nehemiah rebuilds the wall. Yet, despite God’s promises that all nations would worship him in Jerusalem, outsiders are chased off (Ezra 4:1-5; Neh 13:8), families are split apart (Ezra 10:10-11:44; Neh 13:23-25), and, unlike before, God’s Spirit does not return to dwell in the rebuilt temple (Ezra 3:11-13). In fact, one of these interracial, Samaritan families built their own temple to worship Yahweh (John 4:20-22) in this period after they were marginalized by Nehemiah and company. This is their new normal.
Even after all the foretold blessings and curses had come. Even after they had been returned to their Promised Land. Nothing had changed the condition of the human heart. Still, they were waiting on something no legislation, no amount of funding, not even limitless moral effort could provide . . . a heart not bent on self-centeredness and self-destruction, a heart able to follow God.
- Derek Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 12, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 15.
- Kidner, 21.
Listen: Nehemiah 9-10, 13
Others had spoken for God to those who claimed to carry his name. Not Daniel. In Daniel’s story we see the consummate exile: God’s people completely divested of political power, deported slaves in a foreign country.
Daniel had been resettled when Babylon exiled the leaders and the educated from Judah, and proves to be a wise and winsome leader in the midst of a culture that has its own new version of morality. It’s hard to find a better example of Jeremiah’s advice to the exiles, to seek the welfare of the country of exile (Jer 29:4-7). Time and again, Babylon prospers because of Daniel’s devotion and effort. In some ways, Daniel is the token minority: his food is different, his customs are different, he is in constant threat of losing his job or his life, and everyone is always looking to find fault with him. In spite of this, Daniel works harder and is more competent than any of his contemporaries—knowing their own literature, language, and magic better than they did! For all these reasons he’s loved . . . and hated.
After breaking a law made especially for trapping people like him, Daniel is sentenced to death, placed in a pit with a stone rolled over the entrance and sealed. This righteous man, in the pit of his worst nightmare, is not torn to shreds by the vicious animals surrounding him. Instead, he is raised out of the darkness of the pit, has his life restored, and is completely vindicated. Meanwhile, his enemies, poetically (at least as poetic as death by lion can be) suffer the defeat they intended for him. It wouldn’t be the last time the stone rolled away revealing how God’s kingdom works.
Time and again, Daniel watched the long arm of the Lord reach into Babylon, reminding him and them who was the real King of the World. No one, no king, no nation, was beyond his reach. He reached inside the furnace (3:25), He could drive a dictator out to pasture (4:28-37), and He literally put the writing on the wall of the rave-turned-orgy in front of the most powerful man on earth (5:1-9). With all the violence and all the upheaval as the nations raged like animals, God still laughed at them (Ps 2). They didn’t know who they caught a glimpse of in the furnace, protecting His boys. He was the stone who turned world empires to dust and filled the world (2:34-35). He was the hand over the lion’s mouth (6:22). He was the human Daniel saw rolling in on thunderheads (7:13) given all power and authority (Mt 28:19-20) and worshiped by every tribe, nation, and tongue in an everlasting, invincible kingdom (Rev 7:9). Daniel’s God was a king. Not just King of the Jews, the King of Kings.
In chapter 9, Daniel repents for the sins of his ancestors. Remembering the curses from Moses’ day, Daniel also acts like Moses, standing in the gap: confessing the sins of his sinful nation while begging for God’s mercy on that nation. And God answers in a peculiar way. He lets Daniel know that instead of the 70 years Jeremiah had predicted, the exile will actually last 490 years (70×7), confirmation that the small band led by Nehemiah and company had not ended anything.
Daniel reminds us there is no more profound act of resistance to oppressive world systems than prayer. Instead of kowtowing to authority figures to be sucked in and pulled along by either promises of promotion (5:17) or threats of violence (2:17), Daniel prays. Every day, he kneels before God so he can stand up to world powers. He is not unkind, he simply tells it like it is, calling Nebuchadnezzer to change his ways for his own good and for the sake of the oppressed (4:27). Daniel had everything to lose by simply praying. Yet he practiced civil disobedience by showing everyone to whom he bowed the knee, from where his power and agency came. He would not, could not, change anything before acknowledging his dependence on God. He staked his life on God revealing what he should say and do instead of his ability to figure it out (2:17-27). What about us?
The whole time he resisted oppressive systems, suffered the pain of marginalization, stuck his neck out for his friends and enemies, was threatened with death multiple times, and then gave his best energies to the country that had enslaved him and killed his family, Daniel probably wondered why God had asked him to seek the prosperity of this place, these people. Our recourse is not escaping the systems of this world. No. Even while the nations rage and ravage around us like animals, no one can ever stop us from serving the true King, here and now on this planet. After all, it is all his, and He is always with us.
Listen: Daniel 1-12 (especially Daniel 1-6, 9)
Jeremiah paces around the room, unable to quench this fire eating away at his bones. His faithful scribe Baruch looks up every now and then, concerned, as Jeremiah dictates a letter to those exiled in Babylon.
Jeremiah had been born as King Josiah was inaugurated. He probably entered his ministry as Zephaniah began lambasting Josiah and his government. An Assyrian empire had leveled the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Many of the people were carted off to Assyria and resettled there. Other people from other defeated countries were resettled into Israel, effectively obliterating their cultural and religious heritage. Already God’s words were coming true (Deut 28:36-37).
Assyria had turned to do the same to Judah, but God had intervened. Yet, even after the Assyrian army finished off the Northern Kingdom, and Judah celebrated that they had been spared, Jeremiah had stood in God’s temple and shouted, “Do not think for a minute this place makes us special! Look at the way we’re treating immigrants and foster kids! Look at our senseless abuse and addictions!” God himself had told him, then and there, not to even pray for the nation (7:1-16). The threat of exile still loomed over them.
No matter how hard they had tried, no matter how many times God warned the kings of Judah, they would not listen. Several times, Jeremiah had received death threats and even attempts at his life. No one wanted to hear this message. All throughout their culture, the religious experts were predicting peace and revival. But there would be no peace (8:11). Hadn’t Micah told them their wound was incurable? (Jer 15:18; 30:12) Why were they slapping around band aids trying to preserve their institutions?
The Southern Kingdom must have thought they were lucky. Maybe they could dodge Moses’ prediction (Deut 32)? Maybe they had already skirted disaster and would just skip to God blessing them again? They had narrowly avoided Assyria’s army. But they had not escaped the curses the had sworn upon themselves. Another army finally showed up. Assyria had faded, but Babylon was just getting started. They raided the country and exiled most leaders and educated people to Babylon. It is to those people, those surviving leaders, that Jeremiah is writing.
“This is what God is saying to those of you He carried off into exile . . . purse the peace of Babylon! There is no plan for insurgency. This new normal will not be over anytime soon, as some are saying. Things are not going back to the way they were. So plant yourselves where you are: live your life. You’re going to be here for a long time. But don’t worry, I know the plans I have for you . . . And I’ll bring you back one day.”
God had specifically told Jeremiah to not pray for these people (7:16; 11:14; 14:11). How ironic it is that these people are now told to pray for Babylon (1). But this was part of God disciplining them. As Moses had seen, their hearts were still not loyal to God. But one day, Jeremiah had Baruch take this down:
I’m going to marry Israel/Judah again. Not like before when I led them out of Egypt and they were unfaithful to me, even though we had just gotten married. No, I’m going to commit myself to them again. Only this time, I’m going to put My law in their minds and inscribe it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people (31:31-33).
A glimpse of hope for the future.
- Michael L. Brown, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Jeremiah (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 358-59.
Listen: Jeremiah 29
This man is no Amos: the shepherd prophet with no notable lineage or profession. Imagine, instead, a regal figure from royal blood, most likely of African descent, standing before the nation’s leaders and religious advisors (1).
The anonymous army promised by Amos had come to the Northern Kingdom. Assyria had obliterated Israel. Perhaps the kingdom to the south thought the real problem had been dealt with. True, they weren’t perfect. But they were the part of the country serious about following God.
Something miraculous had happened after Micah prophesied against the Southern Kingdom. The king (Hezekiah) had listened. “Micah’s powerful voice changed Hezekiah’s heart, reshaped Judah’s policies and so saved the nation from immediate catastrophe (cf. Jer. 26:17–19)” (2). Of course, the next king offended God more than ever. But now, the current king, Josiah, had implemented several aggressive reforms to again steer the nation back to God.
Again, miraculously, someone had found a scroll of Moses’ words from Deuteronomy in the temple as they were renovating it. The young king asked them to read him the words written on the scroll. And as the blessings and curses (Duet 27-28), and the foreboding song of Moses (Duet 32), rolled off their lips, King Josiah’s heart grew heavier and heavier. Finally, he tore his clothes, barking out orders, “Go, inquire of Yahweh for me and for the people and for all of Judah concerning the words of this scroll that was found. For the wrath of Yahweh that is kindled against us is great because our ancestors did not listen to the words of this scroll to do according to all that is written concerning us!” (2 Kings 22:13).
Here stands Zephaniah, a devout believer and elite member of society in the middle of a reform movement, most likely bringing some helpful insight for turning the place around. Maybe they nodded in satisfaction as one of their own railed against the cultures and countries surrounding them (2:4-15), as God threatened to turn the unassailable world power, Assyria, into a spooky abandoned house infested with animals (2:15). But their smiles turn upside down when he turns on them. They are ravenous lions and wolves, he says (3:3-4), as he blasts every level of leadership. He warns, God wasn’t going fix things (2:12). God was still going to work every morning, never failing to bring justice (3:5), and yet there was no level to which they would not stoop to do their own work instead of His! And now God’s about to wipe the slate clean with fire (1:2-3; 3:8). This man may have delivered the first “turn or burn” sermon (literally!).
Though other prophets spoke of the “Day of the Lord,” it is front and center for Zephaniah. The Day of the Lord is Yahweh’s Day, when He would unleash the consequences of people’s decisions, and their collective cultural impact. Since Moses, God had promised Israel blessings and curses depending on whether they listened to Him or not. Zephaniah now feels the tremors growing closer as a foreign army marches to invade, bringing chaos with them, bringing the exile Moses promised. They had already watched this promise come to pass in the northern kingdom. Now, it was their turn.
Zephaniah, whose name means “Yahweh has hidden,” echoes the words of the pagan king of Nineveh from the story of Jonah, when he says “Seek Yahweh, all you humble of the land, you who do what he commands. Seek righteousness, seek humility. Perhaps you will be hidden in the day of the Lord’s anger” (Zeph 2:3). With God’s cleansing inferno of justice also comes His purifying love. Just as always, God will use calamity to remove humanity’s impurities. As three young men–Daniel’s friends–will later discover when that foreign army finally arrives, the safest place to be when the fire comes is at the blazing center, talking with the one who himself is light (Dan 3), “no one to make them afraid” (Zeph 3:13). The southern kingdom would feel the blaze of that cleansing, holy, convicting fire . . . Would they still trust God, even after the painful purification? Or would they allow it to consume them? What about us?
- J. Daniel Hays, From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race, Series Ed. D. A. Carson, New Studies in Biblical Theology – 14, (Downers Grove, IL: Apollos, InterVarsity Press, 2003), 123.
- Bruce Waltke, “Micah,” from , Obadiah, Jonah and Micah: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 26, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 150.
Listen: Zephaniah 1-3
It would be easy to get the idea that all the problems were in Israel’s Northern Kingdom, while the other half of the country was unscathed in Judah. Micah clears up that misconception. Micah cried out against the false teaching of overconfidence and self-indulgence of Judah’s talking heads: the false prophets. Micah speaks on behalf of, not the upper crust of society, but the commoner, the country folk. He hones his sights in on Judah’s leadership: kings and leaders who hate good and love evil, and have built their society on bloodshed and violence (3:1-10).
Micah did not call anyone to change. From his perspective the people’s “wound is incurable” (1:9). In this way, he is one of the first radicals. While not trying to tear down the institutions of Judah, Micah did discern the political leaders were bringing curses down on everyone’s heads. He subpoenas everyone into court to be judged by God (6:1). The politicians, prophets, and pastors of his day were all so stubborn that Judah “could only be changed by the dissolution of the structures in which they trusted and the institutions that provided the cover for their underhanded actions” (1). He lets it slip that the two kingdoms of Israel will be sacked and led away by not one but two nations—Assyria and Babylon (4:8-13). You see, “the false prophets saw no connection between Israel’s sin and the rampaging army, but the true prophet saw the Lord marching above it (Micah 1:3–7) fulfilling the curses he had threatened when he gave Israel her moral covenant at the beginning” (2).
Yet there was future hope. Micah believed history was the key to the future. Yes, looking back reminded of him of his people’s faithlessness and Moses’ promise of exile. But he also remembered God’s unshakeable integrity and His promises to restore. They were still waiting on someone to rescue them, someone who could fundamentally change their hearts toward God. Another king, perhaps?
You see, God’s government was opposed to Judah’s corrupt government. His kingdom superseded concerns about national borders, encompassing the whole world (4:1-4, 13; 7:16-17) (3). And it was over this kingdom that Micah prophesied another king, like King David, would come from no-account Bethlehem. Some future year in Jerusalem, one chosen by God because of his humble heart (and not his bonne fides) would shepherd God’s flock again, comprising people of all tribes, nations, and ethnicities (4:2; 5:2-4). What is required in this kingdom? Not great acts of sacrifice, not lavish pomp and circumstance, but “to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8).
In the final chapter of Micah, the prophet personifies the nation with a beautiful proclamation. A representative voice–speaking as the whole nation–acknowledges their sin, that they stand doomed before God, and will face the consequences. Yet . . . the speaker cries out with confidence, “But as for me, I will look to Yahweh; I will wait for the God of my salvation. My God will hear me. Rejoice not over me, O my enemy! For though I fall I shall arise; when I sit in darkness Yahweh will be a light for me. I will bear the rage of Yahweh, for I have sinned against him” (7:7-9). Little did they know, their king, their Good Shepherd from Bethlehem, would become this figure, standing in the place of his doomed people, yet, ultimately, rising from the darkness. Darkness, suffering, and, yes, even exile, were all a segue—part of how their hearts would be changed.
- C. Hassell Bullock, An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophetic Books (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 119.
- Bruce Waltke, “Micah,” from , Obadiah, Jonah and Micah: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 26, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 151.
- Bullock, 119.
Watch: Bible Project video on Micah
Listen: Micah 1-7
Probably around the same time Amos arrived in town, at the idolatrous temple in Bethel, God was asking another prophet in the Northern Kingdom to do something even more outrageous: “Get yourself a prostitute wife and have some kids with her.” Of course, Hosea’s peers did not understand. Hosea was likely a middle to upper-class man. He was supposed to be an upstanding citizen. But his life decisions led people to say he was a “fool” and “out of his mind” (9:7).
In some ways, the nation of Israel was founded from the beginning on idolatry, as the people quickly made a golden calf and called it their God, Yahweh. Now, the people are again worshiping God at a golden calf in Bethel. Yet they say they know God. This claim would be their undoing. It was one thing not to worship God—but to worship a distorted image of God–while still calling it God–was fatal.
Through the risk and suffering in this prophet’s personal life, God communicated His own grief and spurned love with His people. Hosea models the gut-wrenching risk of love, especially the grief of God trying to love the people He created. Perhaps Paul was reflecting on Hosea’s life and marriage when he later wrote that our marriages tell a story of love: ideally, the story of God loving his people (Eph. 5:32).
Hosea compares Israel to a “silly dove, easily deceived and senseless—now calling to Egypt, now turning to Assyria. When they go, I will throw my net over them; I will pull them down like birds of the air . . . I will catch them” (7:11-12). This description is a callback to Jonah (Jonah means dove in Hebrew). Just like Jonah cared more about God blessing himself or his country (crying over a weed but getting angry when God saved an entire city) so these people don’t mourn over the right things but rather cry when their comfort is disturbed (7:14) The nation does not realize the dangerous situation she’s in because of her outward prosperity. Her corrupted priorities were symptoms of the malaise that had crept in through their idol worship—their unfaithfulness to the God who had rescued them in the first place. They cared so little about the right things their strength was being sapped and they didn’t even know it (7:8-9). They were already living the curse.
Despite Israel immediately prostituting herself to that golden calf, God was said to have married the nation, the people of Israel, when He entered in covenant with them at Mt. Sinai. Now, even though she had continued to abandon Him to play the whore with every other idol in sight, He still wanted to be with her. However, just as Gomer, Hosea’s wife, was sold into slavery in the interim, God’s people too would be led back into slavery. They would be exiled. But . . . as the story played out before their eyes between the prophet and the prostitute, God wouldn’t be angry with them forever. Just like Israel in Egypt, just like Hosea and Gomer, He would buy his people back out of slavery to be with them again.
Watch: Bible Project video on Hosea
Listen: Hosea 1-4
Imagine the haggard shepherd, Amos, fresh off his journey from the Southern Kingdom (not six miles from Bethlehem). Imagine him stepping into the sanctuary in Bethel, where worship of God and country had been molded together in the shape of a bull. Imagine him dusting himself off and shutting the worship service down with breaking news from God.
Tracking along with the opening chapters of Amos, we can again imagine Amos on his way up to the capital, calling out the surrounding nations as they fight against the God of Creation, before leveling the charge against the divided kingdom of Judah and Israel (Amos 1 & 2). Then, when he arrives at the temple in Bethel, he calls out every family sitting there (3:1), the housewives living in luxury while they disregard others (4:1), the at-ease upper-echelon (6:1-3), the pastors, politicians, and entertainers (6:5) are all held responsible.
Not since Moses’ warning in Deuteronomy had a prophet reminded God’s people that the state and survival of the nation hinged on faithfulness to God. Prophets of old had spoken to the kings. Now, Amos is condemning not just the leaders, but the citizens of the Northern Kingdom.
Almost no citizen is spared other than the “poor and needy.”
The country had experienced leisure, luxury, and security, while profiting from loopholes and pushing aside the poor (5:12). Did they not remember these were the very same curses they had called down upon their heads? But now another voice cries out on behalf of God, in the middle of their worship: “I hate this! I refuse to take one more look at your so-called worship of Me. Stop this cacophony of singing and music. Instead, let justice—that mighty river—flow and flood like a continuous stream of righteousness” (5:21-24).
This is also the first time that a tremor is felt in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. No name is given, but dredging up the dreaded prophecy of Moses, Amos predicts exile. Another nation will come and take over their Northern Kingdom of Israel (6:14). The words had to have landed like a hammer on the congregation.
That’s when the priest in charge of Bethel, Amaziah, had enough. He stepped forward to put an end to this uneducated shepherd’s yapping. He knew the law was on his side. He hadn’t been listening; he hadn’t heard that God was not on his side, even if the government was. Looking at this disheveled fellow, he says, “Go back to where you came from, and ply your trade in the Southern Kingdom if you’re looking for food. This is the king’s property and this is God’s house, the temple of our kingdom” (Amos 7:10-14).
But Amos doesn’t back down, “I am not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet. I was herding my sheep and keeping the sycamore trees when Yahweh snatched me away and sent me here. So listen up! You’ve told me to shut up. You want me to preach to someone else but not our own people. Well guess what? Disaster is coming on your family. Your land is going to be given away out from under you. And everyone in this land is going to be exiled away from it” (7:14-17).
Amos boldly reminded Israel that–just as Moses had warned–disaster would follow their sin. His words devastated and angered those choosing sin over God. Yet his message concludes with a hope that the exiles could savor after they watched his warnings of captivity come true. God would raise up a new city of David, a new people of His own, planting them Himself, never to be uprooted (9:11-15).
Watch: Bible Project video on Amos
Listen: Amos 3-7
Israel too was a country divided. The Northern Kingdom had split off years ago. They were coming out of a time of “prosperity and relative peace from pesty neighbors.” Years of fairly stable leadership had “created luxury and ease for many and spawned poverty and injustice for numerous others” (1). There had been grassroot stirrings that things were not right; a growing feeling of malignancy was creeping through the country’s moral fabric. The king at this time was a man named Jeroboam II. “He did evil in the sight of the Lord” (2 Kings 14:24). His namesake, Jeroboam I, was the founder of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, who had quickly steered the people of God toward idolatry (1 Kings 12).
However, in the middle of all this stands Jonah, a man of God, who speaks for God and assures the king that God will restore the borders of the land. Jonah, in his lifetime, assured the nation that others would not infringe on their territory. But actually, the story of Jonah is the story of God caring about other nations, and opposing the pride of Israel, the people known by His name—all through the same mopey, reluctant prophet.
What we see follow in the book of Jonah is best described as satire. Perhaps, looking back, people realized just how silly this prophet was. Jonah himself was real, as seen by how Jesus references him alongside other historical figures (Matthew 12:38-42). But the book of Jonah makes a statement about the patriotic figure and his country. The people bearing the name and waving the banner GOD, if their resident “man of God” is any indication, seem to be the ones who respond least appropriately to Him. While the winds and waves obey His command, “pagans” from other countries bow the knee on a dime, and even the livestock repents when confronted with God’s word, the man of God from the people of God is vomited out by the fish that just can’t stomach his pride.
Jonah also shows an amazing lack of awareness for his surroundings. While the sailors offer sacrifices to Yahweh overhead, he vows in the belly of the beast that if God rescues him, he will worship Him in the temple . . . presumably the temple in Bethel presided over by a cow statue. The place they called “the house of the Lord” had never had God in it! Later, he is seething over God’s patience and compassion with the Assyrians (Ex 34:6-7) . His distortion field is massive: he can’t stand God for being so good, or see how twisted his own desires are, as he weeps for a weed when God preserves the entire populace of the Assyrian capital, including their cattle.
As Christians–God’s people who are supposed to represent him today–let’s read Jonah understanding that it was written to satirize people like us. When economic prosperity or simply a history of religiosity lead us to condemn God’s love for those we call our enemies, be careful. We may find ourselves swallowed up. Or as God asks Jonah—no matter what you think about what God is doing—“Is it right for you to be angry?”
- C. Hassell Bullock, An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophetic Books (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 39.
Watch: Bible Project video on Jonah
Listen: Jonah 1-4