In recent days Kathleen and I have been reading through the eighth century prophets — Isaiah, Amos, Hosea and Micah.
These are less familiar to the church than virtually every other part of the Bible. My friend, Pastor John Hendricks, referred to them as “the clean part of the Bible.” He meant the portions of the Bible we don’t read much so they don’t have smudges or thumbprints on their pages or pencil marks in their margins.
Admittedly the prophets are not as easy to read as the gospels, and they often do not seem very warm and “evangelical.” But they are filled with passages waiting patiently to speak to the church today. We should listen to them more than we do.
The second half of the eighth century before Christ (the 700s B.C.) was a time of great prosperity and accumulated wealth for the nations of Israel and Judah, but this created problems. Abundance brings its temptations in every age. Wealth itself gives a sense of power and self-sufficiency; and unless treated as a sacred trust, power seems almost invariably to corrupt.
Amos forewarned the northern kingdom of Israel: “You oppress the righteous and take bribes, / and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts. / Therefore the prudent man keeps quiet in such times, for the times are evil” (Amos 5:12,13). There was a breakdown of just or fair dealings.
During the same period Hosea, speaking for God, says of the people of the capital of the Northern Kingdom (Samaria) “They practice deceit, / thieves break into houses, / bandits rob in the streets; / but they do not realize / that I remember all their evil deeds” (Hosea 7:1,2). There was a breakdown of moral order.
But in spite of all this secular decay these clear-eyed prophets noted that, curiously, there was no letup in the showy practices of religion.
Elaborate worship practices were an insult to the Lord when offered with soiled hands and from deceitful hearts. “The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me? says the Lord…. When you come to appear before me, / who has asked this of you, / this trampling of my courts? (Isaiah 1:11, 12).
You would think prophets of such courage and candor would sway the people. What giant proclaimers of truth they must have been! After all, their prophecies still occupy a place in the Bible 2800 years later.
But, religious or not, they had a stubbornness in the face of rebuke that would call down severe judgment.
These prophets were actually lonely men, an irritant to those who heard them. Their prophecies of impending judgment were scoffed at and rejected. Across history, true prophets have often disturbed consciences and paid for their courage with their lives.
When Amos went to the northern kingdom he was ordered by a man named Amaziah: “Get out you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there.” (Amos 7:12). In other words, he was saying, our ears are closed to your words.
Yet, there was actually urgent reason for them to pay attention; the mighty Assyrian armies threatened attack and later the Babylonian legions would come. Before such hordes, without God’s protection there would be slaughter and destruction. But somehow pride, self-indulgence and greed blinded the minds of their leaders.
Are these prophets messengers to the church today? Times of abundance tend to blur moral boundaries. Leaders not kept accountable slip easily into the abuse of power instead of the rightful distribution of justice — the exercise of fairness for all. The ancient prophets would caution believers in every age: be alert!
The health of a company of God’s people, whether a local church, a parachurch body, or a denomination of believers spread across the land, must be measured not only by its evangelistic zeal but also by the clarity and firmness of its commitments to be righteous and deal justly in all situations.
Image credit: The Prophet Isaiah, Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons