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The Accusing Word
It is difficult to give attention to accusing words. They do not conciliate; they do not appease wrath; they do not draw the speaker and the hearer together in mutually affectionate fellowship. We cry for sweet words, consolatory promises, tender expressions, and we are willing to pay men a price for telling lies that will for the moment soothe the pain that nothing but spiritual surgery can extirpate. It is a charge against the pulpit, the prophetic office, the whole ministerial function, that it will cry, Peace, peace, where there is no peace; that it will daub the wall with untempered mortar; that it will prophesy smooth things if it may but be allowed to sit down at the festival of wealth, and enjoy the banquet of mammon. Now and again it does us good to hear the voice of judgment, the tone of rebuke, the criticism of righteousness. When a man comes and offers us this advantage, we may say, "Physician, heal thyself"; but when any authority that assumes to be divine undertakes to deal with our infirmity, with our iniquity, with our selfishness, it will be wise on our part to hear how far that authority can vindicate its own divinity. It is the glory of the Bible that it never accuses man without disclosing the reason for the accusation. God does not thunder against man because he delights to show his Omnipotence, or exercise the prerogative of deity; he never simply confounds the intelligence of men; he comes before his creatures with reasons; explicitly does he state the bases on which he proceeds in his strange work of judgment, and he first secures the consent of the conscience before he lays his lash on the back of our iniquities. It is not a pleasant vocation to be summoned from the plough and from the fruit-house in order to denounce the sins of the age. The prophets were not called to easy positions; they were without salary, without official status granted by kings and councillors; they were the offscouring of the earth, they were the sensationalists of their day; there was no name too humiliating to be withheld from them by tongues gifted with the genius of malevolent misrepresentation. All this is forgotten; all this is lost in our idolatry of respectability. The Jonahs that raved in the streets of the city were accounted mad, and mad they will always be counted; the men who utter things we do not understand, and do not tax our moral attention, and do not make our home-life uncomfortable, and do not tear to pieces our personal complacency, are men who will be allowed to eat the fat things of prosperity, and lie down on the velvet couch of popularity. Amos was the sensation of his day. He laid about him like one infested with a spirit that could not be quelled. He raved, he shouted, he thundered, he foamed at the mouth; when men passed him they were glad to escape from the influence of a fanatic. Yet this is the man who is worshipped to-day as an ancient prophet, and whose words are quoted as the basis of discourses which utterly fail to catch the inflation and holy madness of his enthusiasm. The Church loves to have it so. The Church can devour any amount of self-complacency; to be pricked, to be irritated, to feel the flagellating lash upon the conscience, is not the trick of the Church to-day, is not the luxury of modern piety. Therefore we have distributed our workers; we have built places in which sensationalists may cry themselves to peace, and we have assigned them positions in their own journalism in which they may utter their maledictions and their benedictions where we do not come under the influence of either. The Church could not to-day receive an Amos; the ancient prophets could have no place in the modern sanctuary. It is a lie to think that that which was once sensational has ceased to be sensational. If Christ's was not sensational preaching, then the fourfold account of his ministry is a fourfold misrepresentation. When a man's congregation will arise and thrust him out of the synagogue, and take him to a hill in order to cast him headlong down in order that he may be killed when that experience is described as other than sensational, the church has added to the iniquity of indifference the immorality of not understanding the language in which its own Gospel is declared. To-day no minister is cast down from the top of a hill; to-day ministers are applauded in proportion to their ability to bewilder the people, and to so affect their imagination with cloudy presences and rhetorical spectres as to turn their attention wholly and absolutely away from the monitions and claims of conscience.
Now the Lord puts into the mouth of the prophet Amos a style of utterance which never occurred to the unconscious ploughman. The farm servant whom we have just described begins to speak parables in enigmas. In short, hurrying questions, like messages delivered in whispers, the prophet sets forth parable after parable. Not one of the parables is elaborated; therefore they have been supposed to be mere inquiries. Thus we do injustice to the Word of God. The word "mere," as a term excluding the universe, as applied to any one text, is a piece of practical blasphemy. No one can tell how much there is in any single line of God's book. They are the great interpreters who find everything in one word, who find the universe in the word God, who find infinity and eternity in the same verbal sanctuary; and they mistake the prophecies who imagine that with lexicon and with history they can tell where prophecy begins and ends. Prophecy begins in eternity and ends in eternity; and they are not expositors of the word, but robbers of the treasury of Christ, who limit the range of any single spiritual implication of Holy Writ. There has come into the later pulpit instruction of young students a fallacy, a most mischievous sophism, which is depriving the ministry of some of its noblest attributes, and robbing it of some of its larger possibilities of usefulness. The fallacy is that men can read into the Bible something that is not in it. That is only possible when the something read into it is either, first, iniquitous, or, secondly, is wanting in magnanimity. Whoever reads into the Bible anything that patronises shortcoming of a moral kind is not an expositor, but a debaser of Holy Scripture; and whosoever reads into the Bible anything that is exclusive, sectarian, bigoted, and to the disadvantage of the millions of the ages, is not an expositor, he is a liar. Whoever finds in prophetic words, or apostolic reasonings and benedictions, new and higher heavens, broader and brighter skies, poesies too large and tender for human words, is not reading something into the Bible, but is operating along the prophetic line, is pursuing to still fuller issue apostolic meaning; and it is the gift of God in that man that he sees the flower in the seed, the golden harvest in the handful of grain, and all the glory of Bashan in one poor looking little acorn. When the florist takes a flower of one kind and a flower of another, and so treats them as to bring them into unity, and produce an almost third quantity in floriculture, he is not reading something into nature, he is developing something that, was in nature before he was born, something that was in the Let there be, the fiat that made nature God's lower sanctuary. So there shall arise in the ages to come men who will so treat the prophets and the apostles, Moses and the Lamb, as to show that the Bible was not a full-grown garden, but a great seed-house in which was all manner of seed, to be reverently, lovingly, faithfully handled and distributed and applied, until it spread itself in blushing flower, in tender beauty, in sacred bloom, in infinite fruitfulness over all the spaces of human imagination and human service.
So regarded, these inquiries of Amos become pictures in germ, parables in protoplasm, the very beginning of those educational exercises that challenge the imagination, and lure the fancy beyond the gates that are never shut; the gates that are closed, indeed, but which will fall back in the far-away blue horizon the moment they are tapped by him that knocks reverently, and with the persistence of devoted love. Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. It hath not entered into the heart of man to conceive all that God has laid up in the Bible. When the word-splitter has done, then the greater annotator takes up the work, and carries it to nobler issues and applications. The dictionary has a work to do in the exposition of the Bible. No wise man will lightly dismiss the word-critic; the lexicographer may also be an ally and a fellow-worshipper, but after he has arranged the words, and set them in their grammatical arrangement and perspective, then must come the man who, mayhap, will know nothing of the science of grammar, but having the gift of the spirit, the genius of sympathy, will, out of grammatically arranged materials, make heavens higher than we have ever seen, describe horizons that make the orbits of any planets small circlets; and with such men we must move if we would allow our religious imagination to be trained, chastened, and abundantly enriched.
Look at the inquiries: "Can two walk together, except they be agreed?" No man can tell where that parable ends. First of all, it is generally omitted to point out where it begins. What is the point of the inquiry? In the first instance it is a point that relates to God. Thus the parable will read: How can I, the living, true, pure, holy God, walk with you when your policies are full of deceit, and the beds on which you lie have been stolen from the poor? The inquiry has been narrowed down to merely human limits, as if it were a question relating to passing fellowships, transient acquaintances, ecclesiastical relationships; as if it amounted simply to reciprocity of opinion; as: Two men think alike, and therefore they may belong to the same religious community; two men think alike, and therefore they may expel a third man who has the temerity to differ from them; two men have so appropriated God and all God's universe, that if any man shall attempt to take an inch of either without first consulting them, they will combine that they may anathematise and then destroy him. This is not the meaning of the passage in any sense. There is no requirement of uniformity of opinion anywhere in God's book. Blessed be God! the Lord knows that in the matter of opinion his creatures, shaped in his own form, must have boundless liberty. No two men can think alike, can be identical in opinion, or in intellectual judgment. Thank God, the Lord knew this, and therefore he called around him, when he came in the form of his Son, men of all kinds and grades of intellect, and all degrees of fancy and of mental power and of moral habitude, that they might in their twelvefoldness show that the way into the city is by a twelvefold gate, and that the Gospel looks in all directions, and has something to say to every man in the tongue in which he was born. The inquiry, however, does relate to moral considerations. How can the honest man and the thief be partners in the same business? How can the Christian and the atheist so enter into articles of association that the one man shall be able to say his prayers, while the other man is denying his God and robbing the public? The question is severely moral, because primarily it relates to the possibility of God walking with man when man is seeking to do that which is evil. The Lord declares that he can have no connection whatever with bad people. The prayers of the wicked are an abomination unto him; when they make prayers they throw filth in the very face of heaven; when they go to church they defile the golden pavement of the sanctuary; when they open their polluted lips to sing the psalms and hymns of the holy house they attempt, mumblingly and feebly indeed, but certainly, to set falsehood to music. God has left every Church that has left him. Here he states the reason for his abandonment. He says in effect, We are not agreed, and therefore we cannot walk together; you have left me, and therefore I must leave you.
Another parable is in the question, "Will a lion roar in the forest, when he hath no prey? Will a young lion cry out of his den, if he have taken nothing?" Before the lion springs upon his prey he roars as if in triumph, because the prey is delivered to his paw. And so it is with men who are both bad and good; bad men have their seasons of rejoicing over fallen honour, over disenchanted influence, over the downfall of sanctified excellence; but the point of this parable may be, that when the Lord roars from Zion, as we have just seen him doing, he means his very roar to be the beginning of a Gospel. What is the meaning of that roar? It is a warning; and when the Lord warns, the Lord wishes those who are warned to have an opportunity of escaping. When he blows the war trumpet in Zion it is that he may alarm the cowards, not into deeper cowardice, but shame them back to their loyalty and their courage. Thus the Lord uses the trumpet of providence, the trumpet of events. If we had ears to hear we should detect in many a sound in the resonant air the meaning that God is nigh at hand, awaking the sleepers, alarming those who are at ease in Zion. The daily journal cannot exhaust the meaning of providence. Probably there is hardly a daily journal that acknowledges in so many words that there is any providence at all. We require a larger and bolder annotation of events than can be given by merely political seers. The world is not a political club; the world is a school, a scene of discipline, a theatre of preparation and probation; and only the religious genius, only the prophetic spirit, can interpret the action, the colour, the movement, the suggestion of all that takes place within the limits even of a single day. Encourage every Amos to ask his question. The inquiry may appear sometimes to be feeble, and sometimes to be foolish; it may express to those who do not understand the case the speaker's weakness; but to those who have understanding of the times, and the gift of reading providence, the inquiry of seers, prophets, apostles may be as a key that opens some hitherto unopened gate to admit the age into some larger pasture or wider liberty.
"Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?" That is another parable. It is not to be exegetically cleared up, or comprehended and concluded. It opens the whole mystery of the origin and operation of evil. There cannot be a devil in the universe without the Lord having created him. The origin of evil is not the greatest mystery in the universe; the origin of God must ever be the one mystery of all thought. God himself is a greater mystery than can be any mystery that occurs under his throne. It is certain, however, that in this instance we must distinguish between two evils. There is an evil of iniquity, and there is an evil of punishment. There is a wrongdoing, and there is a consequence that follows upon that wrongdoing. The parable may be here limited to the latter interpretation. Can there be evil, of the nature of judgment, punishment, infliction for wrongdoing, in a city, and the Lord hath not done it? The Lord is the chastiser of wrong; the Lord is the author of hell. It is fashionable to turn away with gestures of dissent or of disgust from the mere mention of perdition; but God dug that pit, God filled that pit with fire and brimstone, God made hell; or there is a power beyond him that has turned part of his universe into offensiveness in his nostrils. God could not have a universe such as this universe is in its probationary periods without making in it a hell. We must have houses of punishment, prisons of discipline, jails in which we confine for a time the rottenness of society, that its pestilential influence may be withdrawn from the social atmosphere. What shall come in the ages, who can tell? who knows what God may be doing even in perdition? There we must not follow our imagination, because we have no explicit revelation to sustain it in its adventures. It is enough for us to know two things: first, thank God, that all evil is burned; and to know, secondly, that God is love, and that his judgment has in it an element of mercy in all history, and therefore may have in it an element of mercy in all futurity. Foolish is he, almost to the point of profanity, who dogmatises in the presence of this infinite problem. But we may say iniquity deserves to be burned for ever, and we can say, with all the houses of ancient history, "His mercy endureth for ever." We are to recognise God's presence in all the judgments that befall a city. The city is under God's care. The city is a unit as well as the family; the family is a unit as well as the individual, and therefore God deals with the unit in its own way, and after its own measure, and according to its own peculiarities. If there is a pestilence in a land it may be of the Lord's sending; we may have our theories as to disinfection and caretaking and attention to all sanitary regimen and discipline and law all that may be useful and unquestionably pertinent within given limits; but there are pestilences that sanitation has not explained, there are pestilences that sanitation has never overtaken. Look at the larger explanations and implications, and never be satisfied with thinking that any torch can hold all the light of the sun, or that any human heart, how brilliant and novel soever, can express the decree, or symbolise the full purpose of God.
Thus the prophet continues his noble career, challenging imagination by questions, exciting attention by inquiries, and anticipating Christ's own method of teaching when he spoke a parable, and left it to the people to find out the interpretation. O wondrous beyond all other sights ever set forth in human pictorial representation is the sight of Jesus talking in parable to a hostile audience! They are charmed with the speech; they never heard their language spoken before so purely, pathetically, plaintively, suggestively; but when that wizard speaker comes to a close, and looks round to see the effect of his speech, we read, "They perceived that he spake this parable concerning themselves." So long as it remained a parable, it remained a picture; when it became an application it became a judgment, and no sooner did these men feel the sting of fire upon their consciences, than they rose, and would have thrust down to death the speaker who enchanted their imagination.
When will Amos return? When will the Son of man send a vicegerent that shall speak in his own tone and represent his own earnestness? Until then the congregation occupies itself in somnolent admiration, and the Church turns itself into an institution devoted to the barren process of mutual congratulation. The church is wrong. All archbishops and bishops, all popes and presbyters, all nonconformist ministers and evangelists, are alike in this condemnation. There does not issue from the pulpit of the church, taking the word Church in its largest explication, that tremendous voice of thunder which is an eternal challenge to all evil, and a perpetual terror to all evildoers. So long as the House of Lords and the House of Commons, so long as the House of Senate and of Congress, and the Body Legislative, so long as the parliaments of all countries can say, "We may do as we like, for the clergy are dumb dogs that cannot bark," we shall have a decadent church; but when the Church in all its departments, in all its sections, is ardent with the fire of the divine presence; when it will overhaul all legislative enactments; when it will discuss them at the altar; when it will dispute over them under the very shadow of the Cross; when bishops, men of learning, presbyters and ministers, men of practical experience and burning eloquence, arise and say, "You shall not damn this nation, unless you do it in the face of our protest," when that day comes, know ye that the Lord has come. Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly!
Almighty God, it is a fearful thing to fall into thy hands when thou dost arise to judge the earth; yet God is love, and it is better to fall into the hands of God than into the hands of men. Thou dost not willingly grieve or afflict thy children. Judgment is thy strange work, mercy is thy delight; in wrath thou dost remember mercy, and even in thy judgment thou callest to mind that we are but dust. Who can stand before the Lord when he ariseth? Who can answer the thunder of the Most High? When thou dost plead against us with all thy power behold we wither away; but thou comest to us in gentleness, in pity, in tears, in redeeming compassion. If we will rend our hearts and not our garments, if we will make confession of sin, and cry unto the Lord for pardon at the Cross of Christ, and for the sake of his work, behold all heaven is not enough for us, thou dost fill us with gladness and promise us immortality. We thank thee for all thy light and care, thy wisdom and strength, thy grace all-healing, all-conquering; and for the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, profitable to direct, and working in us evermore the miracle of sanctification. Good is the Lord; the will of the Lord be done, the judgment of the Most High be turned aside by the work of the Saviour, and all the tenderness of the Cross be revealed unto us that we may not die in the darkness of despair. We pray at the Cross; we sing at the Cross; we remember and forget our sins at the Cross. O hear us in heaven thy dwelling-place, and when thou hearest, Lord, forgive! Take away from us thy rebuke, and hide not thyself from our petition. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Amos 3". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany