Will God Accept Our Worship?
A Study in the Minor Prophets: Amos
March 1, 2002 - This continues our Bible study on the Minor Prophets. Top Bible scholars explain the major themes of these books—and show how the prophets' messages affect us today.
by M. Daniel Carroll R.
Traveling to other countries can be a wonderful way to broaden our understanding of how others view life and God. Sometimes what we encounter can shock us into reconsidering the nature of our own Christian faith.
For example, some religions hold to beliefs in hundreds of deities. While traveling in Southeast Asia several years ago, I visited a temple dedicated to a god of good fortune, who has a human body and an animal head. The size of the temple and the sincere devotion of the large crowd worshiping there made quite an impression on me. Seldom have I been so struck by the power of a distorted view of God over a people.
What if, however, we put ourselves into the shoes of a person visiting a so-called "Christian country" for the first time? If that person looked at big urban centers to get a grasp of how Christians view God, what would that person see? There is a wide array of denominations, each one emphasizing different aspects of Christian faith. If our visitor decided to attend several churches on Sunday mornings, he or she would be treated to worship styles ranging from traditional, liturgical services to charismatic services with contemporary music.
What view of God would this person come away with? How faithful to Scripture are these many representations of God? And what kind of lifestyle do these theologies and worship styles demand of their churchgoers?
Searching for God
The Old Testament prophets continually struggled to shape the thinking of the people of Judah and Israel about the Lord their God. Archaeological finds of the past 20 years have provided abundant evidence for widespread religious syncretism, or combining the worship of many gods. But the problem was not only that the people worshiped deities other than God but also that they had very twisted ideas about the one true God. The prophets recognized that erroneous views of God led to a set of priorities and values that were not pleasing to God and that would bring His judgment.
The Prophet Amos was from the town of Tekoa, in the southern kingdom of Judah, but he ministered in the north, in Israel, during the reign of Jeroboam II.(1) In the mid-eighth century B.C. Israel had returned to some of its earlier dominance in the region. Its borders had been restored to earlier days of glory, and the nation was proud of its military achievements and economic strength.(2) Confidence was in the air; Israel seemed impregnable.(3) Was not the Lord God on their side?
For those people in power, life was comfortable. But only a few actually enjoyed the benefits of the nation’s success. Amos denounced this prosperity, because it was based on injustice and a debauched lifestyle. Corruption was rife in the courts(4); the well-to-do ignored the plight of the less fortunate, even as they exploited them for their own economic benefit.(5)
The primary focus of Amos' attack, however, was the people's warped view of the God of Israel.(6) The most pressing need was to define the true nature of the Lord and so change how the nation understood its responsibilities to Him and to others, especially to the powerless in their midst.
Amos used a number of different names to express the incomparability of God, such as "the Sovereign Lord"(7) and "the Lord God Almighty."(8) The climax of several of his most powerful passages is the declaration "the Lord is his name."(9) A correct understanding of God would yield a social and religious life very different from what the people were living.
The Worship That God Requires
The prophet’s critique of Israel’s understanding of God did not mean that the country was irreligious. Far from it! The sanctuaries were crowded, and their courts resounded with praises. Amos, however, sarcastically describes the worship at Bethel and Gilgal as sin,(10) and he announces the Lord’s emphatic rejection of all of Israel’s rituals and of its chief temple.(11) Why was God so adamantly opposed to this devotion and these offerings?
There are at least three reasons why the Lord God refused to accept this worship. First, their services were designed to please themselves, not God.(12) Their sacrifices did not deal with sin but rather were occasions for celebrating what the Lord, their national God, supposedly had done on their behalf.
This observation leads to the second reason. God says that He had sent them all sorts of judgments—not blessing!(13) Their worship was disconnected from the harsh realities of life and an accurate grasp of the character of God. Their praise made them feel good about themselves and their country's supposed achievements, but no thought was given to repentance and to holy living.
The third reason was that the Lord God would not accept worship that was disconnected from the practice of social justice.(14) Seeking God at the sanctuaries had to be accompanied with striving to do good to the unfortunate and to those who suffered oppression.(15) What made all of this more insidious was that those who were suffering participated in this religious system, which legitimized and sanctified the self-deceiving social system of which they were the victims! In no way could God allow this kind of worship—or society—to continue.
What Can We Learn?
Christians today can learn from Amos's scathing remarks about Israel's religious activity. For example, there has been a recent resurgence of interest in spirituality. But is the focus mostly inward, without any consideration of meeting the needs of the lost and of those who are racially and socially marginalized in our churches, schools and communities? Do we separate our personal walk with God from the broader mission of the Church to the world?
Recently there also has been heated discussion about Sunday worship styles. If we were to take an honest look at our church services, what would we find? Do we focus on the righteous demands and holiness of God, or do we fall into the trap of highlighting the entertainment value of special music and speakers? Are we so focused on praising a God of blessing that we have forgotten that He also brings judgment upon His people when they disregard their duty to be light to a fallen humanity?
Does our teaching deal with national and global concerns, or does it center almost exclusively on our own personal needs? With the debate these days about worship styles, why is there so little talk of worship's theological and ethical demands? These questions can produce anger and defensive attitudes—even as they did in Amos' time.(16)
The Importance of Historical Perspective
Finally, Amos points to a way of acquiring a true picture of God: discerning what He does in the world. Amos' prophecy looked ahead to a time of condemnation for Israel's sins and further ahead to a time of restoration.(17) In other words, God's people can learn to live well by considering the future—both near and far. The fear of judgment should shock them to obedience; the assurance of a blessed hope can move them to be faithful to their call, no matter the circumstances.
Amos looked back at what the Lord God had already done for His people. He had redeemed them from Egypt and sent them spokesmen so that they might know His will.(18) But the people did not reflect on God's provision and express gratitude to Him.
We Christians are often ignorant of our history. We do not educate ourselves about how God has moved throughout the history of the Church in different parts of the globe. We give little serious reflection to God’s demand that the Church be constant and true to its calling until Jesus returns in glory. Our lack of historical perspective can condemn us to repeat the embarrassing mistakes of the past.
Amos, the prophet from Tekoa, can speak to the 21st-century Church. His words are difficult indeed, but there is much potential for growth to those who heed his message!