The God Of Justice And Love
( Originally Published 1916 )
Our previous study has led to rather broad and general conceptions, based often upon fragmentary evidence, sometimes of uncertain date. With the middle of the eighth century B.C. we come to a very different kind of standing-ground. The great religious teachers of Israel now begin to preserve their sermons and songs in separate books which have come down to us in something like their original form. The history of Israel's religious progress becomes the life-story of these teachers. Through them streams of religious thinking, which have long been gathering, suddenly emerge, making the age one of the most important eras in the moral and, religious history of humanity. In the oracles of these prophet-teachers we are able to see the times in which they live and the personal experiences through which they are led to new levels of religious insight. Thus our study becomes largely biographical for the two centuries of the prophetic age.
Four great names, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah, mark the brief half-century that brings the Hebrew revelation of God and of human duty almost to its culminating point. The first two of these appear in Northern Israel, where Elijah had done his work more than a century before.
Amos is a second and greater Elijah, and, like his prototype, he stands amid the scenes of wealth and luxury of the larger kingdom as one who comes from simpler and sterner surroundings. Elijah came from the grazing districts east of the Jordan, Amos from among the herdsmen of Tekoa, a mountain-top village on the borders of the wilderness in Southern Judea. Suddenly he steps forth, a stern figure in shepherd garb, and startles the gay throngs at the royal sanctuary of Bethel.
He begins with a song or poetic oracle of doom.
Yahweh from Zion shall roar,
His swift-flashing pictures sweep about the borders of Canaan from Syria to the other ancient foes Philistia, Ammon, Moab denouncing each in turn for some act of cruelty in warfare known to his hearers. With the skill of a supreme orator he carries his auditors with him by starting on a road that they will gladly travel. Doom upon their foes for cruel acts committed against Israel, expressed in majestic, rhythmic speech, could not fail to win a sympathetic hearing.
Then the prophet leads on to the thought that Israel's God condemns Moab also for an act of wanton vengeance against the dead king of Edom. Here he takes a great step forward in assuming that the God of Israel is concerned with the treatment which other nations accord one another. Yahweh becomes thus a God of nations holding the balances between them in righteousness. If Amos is not thus a thoroughgoing monotheist, he certainly oversteps the bounds of absolute henotheism; but he is not concerned with such distinctions. His purpose is to secure assent to the principle that God must punish selfish, cruel con-duct wherever it raises its ugly head. With this assumed he hastens to apply his principle to Israel, for the men of Israel have been passing cruel to their own poor and unjust to their unfortunate.
The application so skilfully introduced represents the precise opposite of the hearers' faith.
The time is one of great national prosperity. The ancient struggle with Damascus had been brought to a close, a generation before, by Syria's complete humiliation before the advance of the great military power of the day, Assyria. Then, for a time, Assyria's westward campaigns had been checked by her own internal troubles, and the reigning king of Israel, Jeroboam II, had been able to spread his boundaries rapidly, bringing under his sway many of the surrounding peoples. Wealth had grown with conquest. According to the ancient doctrine of the people, God had shown his satisfaction by thus blessing the nation. They were looking, not for judgment, but for greater manifestations of his will and power to make his people prosperous.
In subsequent addresses Amos presents in varied ways his new and epoch-making doctrine that Yahweh's choice of Israel was ground for her greater condemnation, and that his blessing was conditional upon the social righteousness of the people. If the merchant sold refuse wheat and dealt with false weights and measures, if the elders who sat at the village gate as a local court of justice accepted bribes from rich litigants and turned aside the poor from his right, if the wealthy women caused their husbands to crush the needy in order that they might enjoy their wine suppers, then the nation could not be the object of God's favor but must soon meet just condemnation and ruin.
No teacher of the pre-Christian era, it is safe to say, comes so close to the most vital interests of our twentieth century as this prophet of the eighth century before Christ. The attack which he makes upon bribery and the oppression of the poor has been re-echoed again and again in recent years among all the more advanced nations of the world, where the struggle for political equality has passed on to the struggle for honest government and economic justice. With the transference of interest from such questions to the strife of nation against nation, when war breaks out, appeal is made to God for national victory, and many deny that the principles of righteousness can be applied in the dealings of nations. At such a time the voice of Amos rings out anew, declaring that God demands righteous dealing of nation with nation as well as of class with class. Yahweh's previous blessing upon a people imposes a far greater responsibility than rests upon others to let justice roll down as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.
The opening years of the twentieth century as possibly no previous fifteen years of history have made it possible to appreciate the outreach of faith and doctrine. Many who acknowledge the God of Amos and of Christ shrink back from the audacious certitude of the ancient prophet's belief that God's unwavering test of a nation is the justice of its political and economic life and of its relations with other peoples.
In tracing the religious history of Israel Amos is significant not only for his own great contribution to the advance of religious thought, but also for the contemporary evidence which his book affords as to the prevalent ideas and practices of the people. We have already noted that the people interpreted national prosperity as the mark of divine favor and as an earnest of even greater blessings. The "day of Yahweh," the day when he should especially manifest himself for his people, was the object of their longing desire. The book indicates also that worship was conducted not only at Bethel and Dan, but also at Gilgal and, apparently, at Samaria and Beersheba. Freewill-offerings, thank-offerings of leavened bread, burnt-offerings, peace-offerings of fat beasts, and tithes were all brought to the sanctuaries where the sound of musical instrument and song arose in honor of Yahweh.
The new moon and the Sabbath alike were observed as days of abstinence from buying and selling. Apparently the lands outside of Canaan were accounted ceremonially unclean, although the old Canaanite worship of license with wine and harlotry still existed in Israel, the Nazarites were led to break their vows of abstinence from wine, and the prophets were forbidden to speak.
Such are the outstanding features in the picture of Israel's religion given by Amos about the year 750 B.C. The people are not irreligious; they have faith in the power and purpose of their God to prosper his people; they worship him with a varied and liberal ceremonial. Some forms connected with the worship may have an idolatrous character, but, in the main and so far as it goes, it seems in accord with the practices approved in the later law codes. To Amos the very sumptuousness of the service, in contrast with the absence of sacrificial ceremony in the wilderness period, is an offense; but his chief ground of condemnation of the worship is that Yahweh's true service consists in righteous conduct rather than in song and sacrifice.
Now for the first time in our study the line between the priestly and the prophetic sides of religion becomes clearly marked. In the earliest times priest and prophet had essentially the same function, namely, to discover the unknown for the people whether by interpreting the omens from the organs of the sacrificial victim, casting the sacred lot, falling into a prophetic frenzy, or whatever the particular means of ascertaining the divine will and purpose might be. Gradually, with the development of the ceremonial side of religion, there came to be an organized priesthood which alone could officiate at the sacrifices and which developed and preserved an approved system of ceremonial. From the priestly function of interpreting the omens and casting the lot there grew up a body of decisions that formed the priestly Torah, "teaching" or "law," which will be discussed in a later chapter.
The true prophets, freeing themselves from the primitive practices of gazers and seers with their trances, came to understand more and more of the divine nature and purposes and to interpret life and history in the light of their increasing knowledge of Yahweh's character. As their appreciation of God's essentially moral character grew clearer and clearer they must inevitably come into conflict with all that opposed the moral interpretation of life as affording the supreme standard.
With Amos the issue became sharply drawn and acute. Justice in business and government, and not burnt-offerings or hymns, was his interpretation of God's will for man. To the established priest of Bethel the prophet was but a "seer" or "gazer," seeking a living by plying his trade at the king's sanctuary. To this implication of belonging to the order of professional prophets Amos answered with vehement denial; claiming a special mission from Yahweh. The scene at the Bethel sanctuary thus distinguishes the member of a prophetic order from the specially commissioned prophet almost as sharply as it distinguishes prophet from priest.
Near the close of the same prosperous reign of Jeroboam II Hosea became conscious that the experiences of his life had been God's leading along a dark path to a sublime truth which he must now proclaim. The opening chapters of his book tell, in brief and broken utterances, the tragic story of his domestic life. The personal experience is so fused with its interpretation and application to Israel that it is not always easy to distinguish where the prophet is speaking of himself, his wife, and her lovers, and where of Yahweh, Israel, and the Baalim. Very probably the outward facts of Hosea's history were familiar to his hearers so that they would understand all the circumstances more readily than we can do.
This seems to be the essence of Hosea's tragedy: He married one Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim, betrothing her to him in purity as Yahweh won Israel in the wilderness. He was a man of- insight who already understood that the bloody methods adopted by Jehu in stamping out the house of Ahab and the baalism which it supported deserved a prophetic condemnation, and so he named his eldest son Jezreel as a sign that the blood spilt there would return upon the house of Jehu. To his second child, a daughter, the prophet gave the ominous name "She is not pitied," indicative of God's determined judgment upon Israel. To the third child he gave the name "Not my people," for Israel had ceased to be God's people. Now Gomer had left her husband for a paramour, and Hosea in his indignation denied that she was his wife and would have no mercy upon her children.
Apparently the woman's course led, at length, to its natural issue and, deserted of her lovers, she fell into actual slavery. Hosea still loved her and bought her from her owner; many days she should abide for him no man's wife and so would he be also toward her.
In taking back his faithless wife to the protection of his house Hosea realized that Yahweh thus loved his people, though they turned to other gods. In the period of purifying discipline through which Gomer must pass he saw the necessity of Israel's exile in which she must abide long without the sacred pillar that stood beside Canaanite and Hebrew altars, without image, and without sacrifice, the visible means by which she sought fellowship with Deity.
Through this tragic experience Hosea felt that God had called him to pass in order that he might know and understand. Amos had comprehended Yahweh's justice and had seen that condemnation must fall upon all unrighteousness. Hosea was no less conscious of impending doom, but his inner experience had taught him that although God must discipline, his love was unchangeable. On one occasion he pictured the relation of God and Israel as that of a father and tenderly cherished son who had grown up to waywardness.
As in Amos, so in Hosea it is God's care of his people in bringing them from the land of Egypt to which appeal is made. A study of the work of these prophets places us in a better position than at first to realize the significance of the exodus as the basis for the moral appeal in Israel's religion. The God who had compassion upon the people in their misery, in the helplessness of their childhood, could arouse them to compassion toward men and gratitude toward him if anything could do so.
Amos' message, however, must end in hopeless doom upon a people who had flouted the divine watch-care, while Hosea's heart teaches him that one who truly loves can never wholly give up the loved one: "How shall I give thee up, Ephraim ? how shall I cast thee off, Israel ? my heart is turned within me, my compassions are kindled together. I will not execute the fierceness of mine anger, I will not return to destroy Ephraim : for I am God, and not man." The prophet's thought swings between the hopelessness of his people's condition, who perish for lack of knowledge, and the unchanging love that cannot abandon them to their just fate. Love itself is helpless to save when there is no comprehension and response, yet the divine love remains a ground of hope.
Hosea goes much more deeply to the roots of life, its doom and its salvation, than Amos can do. His message will be taken up and carried on to fuller insight by Jeremiah, but will reach its con-summation only in the teaching of Jesus as interperted in the Fourth Gospel. There the true nature and meaning of religion finds its final solution in the thought that eternal life is comprehending fellowship between the lather and his children, fellowship, too, of the children with one another in the great family. There Hosea's despairing realization that the people perish be-cause they dō not know God as the loving, faithful husband or father is answered by the elder son, who is the express image of the father, through whom the younger sons come to know God and enter into sympathetic fellowship with him.
If Amos' message is epoch-making in human history as revealing the only firm warp and woof out of which a harmonious and lasting economic, political, and social fabric can be woven for this world, Hosea's message carries us far beyond this, introducing us to that ultimate interpretation of life in terms of the family which holds true not only for this world, but for the next as well, trans-forming this life even into the eternal life of the divine family as well as into an ordered society.
The corrupting character of the existing religion is pictured again and again by Hosea in vivid terms: "Whoredom and wine and new wine take away the understanding. My people ask counsel at their stock, and their staff declareth unto them; for the spirit of whoredom bath caused them to err, and they have played the harlot, departing from under their God. They sacrifice upon the tops of the mountains, and burn incense upon the hills, under oaks and poplars and terebinths, because the shadow thereof is good: therefore your daughters play the harlot, and your brides commit adultery. I will not punish your daughters when they play the harlot, nor your brides when they commit adultery; for the men themselves go apart with harlots, and they sacrifice with the prostitutes; and the people that doth not understand shall be overthrown" (4:11-14). Images of gold and silver have been made and idolatry has become prevalent, yet the people make their sacrifices to Yahweh (8:4, II, 13).
Whether Hosea's picture of the company of priests lying in wait to murder like troops of robbers is a literal or only a figurative description of rapaciousness, in any case it vividly presents the corruption of the priestly order in the later years of Hosea's ministry, a time when the strong rule of jeroboam had been followed by a succession of assassinations and complete anarchy. It was a time when the thief entered in and the troop of robbers ravaged without.
Amos would substitute for elaborate ritual just dealings in all life's relations. Hosea imaginatively pictures Ephraim penitent for the moment, seeking to return to Yahweh, and assures the people that what God desires is kindness and not sacrifice, and knowledge of himself rather than burnt-offerings. Both prophets appear opposed to priestly ritual as the true practice of religion, whether the ritual be counted as Yahweh-worship or is so intermingled with Canaanite ideas and usages as to be practical idolatry.
In offering a substitute for forms of worship, each is true to his own apprehension of God's essential nature. Yet there is no contradiction between their two conceptions of God and of his service. One conceives him as just and desiring that the strong shall do justice to the weak; the other conceives him as loving and longing that his people shall do kindness one to another. A God who was mighty and just without love would be an object of terror and would not lay such stress upon the wrongs of the poor and weak as Amos' God does. A God who was loving without justice would be a partial respecter of persons, a corrupting influence, and would not lay such stress upon the corruption of the political and religious order and its inevitable doom as Hosea's God does. Each prophet is able to see distinctly different aspects of the same infinite perfection, and each has his significant contribution to make toward Israel's completed revelation of God.
Less than fifteen years elapsed between the last recorded words of Hosea and the capture of Samaria with the downfall of Northern Israel. The promise of religion in the north was great; hence had come Deborah, Samuel, Elijah, the authors of the Ephraimite prophetic history, and Hosea, and here, too, Amos had delivered his only recorded oracles; but the national life of the Northern Kingdom came to an abrupt end and its religious message was passed over to the sister-kingdom by which it was preserved, developed, and handed on to future generations.