Policies often ignore plight of downtrodden


By Dr. Talmage B. Skinner


June 3

Committed to Justice

Purpose: To identify how authentic worship develops a mature faith that is expressed in a social conscience.

Bible Lesson:  Amos 5:10-15, 21-24

Key Verses:  “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” — Amos 5:24


A bit of background will help to understand Amos. After Solomon, the United Monarchy of Israel split into the Northern Kingdom (Israel with 10 tribes) and the Southern Kingdom (Judan with two tribes – Judah and Benjamin). The split was along a fault line that been there a long time. Israel was stronger but less stable. Israel was more interested in the Moses Covenant tradition, while Judah was more concerned with the covenant between God and David. Judah, of course, had the temple in Jerusalem and the promise that they believed a descendant of David would be on the throne forever. This made for a stable change of leadership.


In the north, kings changed very much like judges changed in the days of the Tribal Confederacy before Saul became the first king. The kings of Israel did not send the people back to Jerusalem to worship in the temple; therefore the writers of the scripture label all of them bad. Many were bad for other reasons as well. Israel built Samaria as their capital with places of worship such as Dan and Bethel to compete with Jerusalem.


As the years passed, interesting and powerful people ruled Israel. The most exciting period was the time of Elijah who stood up to Jezebel and King Ahab. Around 786 BCE Jeroboam II became king in Israel. He ruled successfully in a time of resurgence and prosperity for most of the people. There was a great deal of religious fervor, public worship and confidence that they were God’s chosen people and that God would bless and protect them. They longed for an expected event called the Day of the Lord when God would drive out all the enemies of Israel and bless them.


Into this apparent good time came Amos from Tekoa in Judah. He was a layperson, not a priest or prophet or a prophet’s son. Amos dressed sycamore trees. God called him to go to Israel and prophesy. His message was straightforward: “The expected Day of the Lord is not light, but darkness. Israel is doomed because God is very displeased with Israel and the way people are living. All the public display of religion and piety cannot cover up the way they treat the poor and helpless. There is in place an unfair system of justice and the rich get rich on the backs of the poor. It is a materialistic society.”


Amos said that God was tired of their “solemn assemblies and their music and sacrifice.” For Amos, it seemed that right living is more important than right worship. He is not saying that worship does not matter but that religious palaver without deeds and a reformed system is empty and evil.


The Hebrews, north and south, never dealt with the questions, “Does God exist?” God is Yahweh who brought them out of Egypt. The question is, “What does God require?” Well, Amos answered that question with a trumpet call in 5:21-24, “Take away the noise of all your assemblies, offerings, sacrifices, songs – and do justice and live a righteous life.” If people did justice and lived righteous lives, then all that public display would be wonderful.


We live in a materialistic society. Many of our churches just see who can put on the best show. We judge success with the accumulation of wealth and its being spent on lavish lifestyles. We honor people who are rich and seem to praise them for ruthless and unconcerned attitudes toward the poor.


Amaziah, the priest at Bethel, told Amos to go home to Judah and prophesy there and never again speak at Bethel for it is the king’s sanctuary and a temple of the kingdom. Does this sound familiar?


You do not dare disagree with the president because you will be called a traitor, but it goes much deeper than that. We get our worship and entertainment all mixed up. We pray that God’s will be done on earth, but then we choose policies in business and government that neglect not only the needy of the country, but all the miserable, trampled-on people of the world.


The older I get, the more aware I am of the simple truth that none of our material stuff will leave this life with us. The longer I am a Christian and study both the Old and New Testaments, the more I see a lack of concern – a deep concern for the poor and downtrodden of the world. I see a “lifeboat” mentality, which is “as long as we and our own are OK, do not worry about others.” We used to sing a hymn from the Cokesbury Hymnal called Others. We need to dust it off and not only sing it, but practice what it teaches.


June 10

God’s Indictment of Israel

Purpose: To examine how divine judgment is neither punishment nor vengeance bout an expression of God’s faithfulness and truth.

Bible Lesson:  Hosea 4:1-4; 7:12; 12:8-9

Key Verses:  “There is no faithfulness or loyalty, and no knowledge of God in the land.” — Hosea 4:1


Hosea probably overlaps with Amos just a bit. He is from Israel and has a longer career than the brief one of Amos. Hosea also preached doom for Israel because of the same attitudes and wrongs lifted up by Amos. He tends to see the faulty living as the result of impure worship. Couple these two prophets with attention to worship and moral living and you get a strong message for their day and ours.


The message of Hosea is more in his life than in his words. God tells him to marry an unfaithful woman whose name is Gomer. They have several children who are given symbolic/prophetic names. Gomer is indeed unfaithful to Hosea, and he divorces her and casts her out. Later on, he buys her and restores her to her position as his wife. This is a parable of the relationship between God and Israel. God chose Israel. After a time, the people of Israel went whoring after false gods and God punished Israel and cast her out. Then after a time of punishment, God takes her back as his people and restores Israel. The punishment is to heal, to cure, to refine the people of God. The redemption of Israel is an expression of pure grace.


In 9:1 and following, Hosea lists the indictment against Israel as unfaithfulness; a lack of loyalty to the God who brought the people out of Egypt. Israel is also charged with having no knowledge of God. There is a big difference between knowing about God and knowing God. Because they do not know God, there follows swearing, lying, murder, stealing and adultery. Chapter 12:8-9 speaks of a false confidence that is kin to the Greek concept of “hubris,” which is an inappropriate self-love and confidence.


The sin of Israel is always expressed as separation from God that is brought on by lack of loyalty (Hesed) and one type of rebellion or another against God. Examples are eating the forbidden fruit, because it would make Adam and Eve know as much as God, or the Tower of Babel – climbing up to heaven on our own. There is the ongoing struggle with the Canaanite religion that manipulates their gods for their own benefit. That focus of the Baal religion is active today. Just watch TV and listen to the emphasis on getting blessings, gifts and wealth from God. Listen to all the preaching about using God for our own success.


All of this shows they do not know God. They know a magical being who grants their wishes. The God of Israel is not a fairy godmother. Some scholars think Gomer was a part of that Canaanite culture and the worship of Baal. Over and over again Israel tried to worship Yahweh and Baal at the same time. Because of this God is going to punish Israel. However, Hosea does not see everlasting doom. He takes Gomer back. A remnant will return, and Israel will be restored.


Perhaps we must endure some hard times to be purified and return to the fold as people who know God and his ways. I do not believe that God makes bad things happen to people. I do believe God uses everything that happens to us to instruct, strengthen and purify if we are paying attention.


June 17

True Worship!

Purpose: To show that acts of worship we choose to offer cannot substitute for God’s demand for righteousness.

Bible Lesson: Isaiah 1:10-11, 14-20

Key Verses:  “Seek justice rescue the oppressed.” — Isaiah 1:17


Yes! This scripture does sound a lot like Amos and Hosea. All of the great prophets are own the same page. At the heart of our religion is how we treat other people. Sometimes it is how you treat other Hebrews; but little by little until we get right in the middle of the message of Jesus, it is how we treat everyone, not just our own kind. The proof of worship is in the living and doing.


For a long time everything centered around offering sacrifice to God, sometimes even going so far as to offer human sacrifice, which was done to please God and gain his favor. All God wanted was for the people to “ … learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). Without a good understanding of the sacrificial system, the death of Jesus on the cross makes no sense.

Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice, and guess what? The sacrifice comes from God. Instead of sitting back and smelling all that burning meat, God offers the sacrifice that reconciles us to God. He replaces our attempts to bribe God with an atoning deed that ends all attempts to get God to save us, give us victory and all that our heart desires. The one we seek to honor graciously shows his love/forgiveness to us. What God wants is for us to respond to his action with action of our own; not action directed toward him, but toward others.


You cannot get to the meaning of Isaiah without chapter 6 and the story of Isaiah’s call and temple experience at the time of the death of King Uzziah. The heart of the chapter is his experience of the holiness of God and his own impurity. Also of importance is chapter 5 and the “Song of the Vineyard” telling of God’s displeasure with Israel and her infidelity and shallow faith. I am fearful that many today have mixed up their worship with entertainment. In attempts to be casual, comfortable and have a good time in worship, we have often lost a sense of and experience of the Holy.


One of Isaiah’s big tasks was to speak to the king about trusting in God rather than alliances with big or small countries for defense. As he looked at the world situation, he believed that God would use Assyria to purify Israel (it turned out to be Babylon), but at the heart of his message was that Israel (in his case Judah) was called to be good not powerful. They were called not for special privilege but to be a “nation of priests, a light unto the Gentiles.” We hear so much about “national interest” and being No. 1 in the world. Perhaps it is time to “learn to do good.”


Recently I read that a presidential candidate said that it is important that other nations be afraid of us. I would rather they respect us and want to emulate our character. Making tons of money in our personal lives does not make up for wickedness and neglect. Power and wealth often keep individuals and nations from being good.


June 24

Finding Satisfaction

Purpose: To discover how we can live faithful lives in the midst of a secular culture.

Bible Lesson:  Isaiah 55:1-3b, 6-11

Key Verses:  “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near.” — Isaiah 55:6


The Isaiah we see and hear about in chapter 55 is not the same person we met last week. Scholars believe that this material was written after the fall of Jerusalem perhaps during the Exile or near to the time of the return. Isaiah of Jerusalem in last week’s lesson was pointing toward a harsh punishment for Judah. Second Isaiah (we have no idea of his real name) is writing after the fall and is writing about God’s grace toward Israel and, like Hosea’s accepting Gomer back, God is restoring Israel and is fully available. He is offering a new covenant that will last, a new covenant written on the heart.


All of the great prophets preached doom and punishment for Israel’s unfaithfulness and neglect of justice and mercy. Those who survived the fall of Judah started preaching renewal and hope and the return of a remnant that would be God’s people (Second Isaiah and Ezekiel). The emphasis of this lesson is on how God provides so many things for us. There is danger here in reading this just for today and thinking of what God wants to do for us. In must be read in the context of a message to people who have seen their country and religion destroyed and who have lived in a strange and foreign land. In modern terms, the message is comfort after the Holocaust or after the death of innocent students or any of life’s troubles.


Often overlooked in the Old Testament is how many times God forgave Israel. It makes ones think of Jesus’ instruction to forgive “seventy times seven,” or an infinite number of times. This is the grace of God. It would be a big mistake to believe that our actions have no consequences of that God is a forgetful old grandparent who indulges and allows all things.


The Deuteronomistic writers in the Old Testament had a simple formula: obey God and you will succeed and be blessed; disobey and you will be punished by bad things happening. We know that is too simple. Bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people.


They do make a point with this overly simplified formula. The ultimate good does come by seeking to do God’s will. To ignore it trivializes it in the long run and leads to destruction. Even then God is seeking our redemption.

Second Isaiah affirms that God did not jus put us here; he is always involved. Our creation is not just one magical act, but a maturing, learning developmental process of lifetimes and ages. Life is a teacher who illustrates our lessons through our experiences. Isaiah teaches us that God constantly makes all things new, that he has established an everlasting covenant, not just with David, but with all humankind. Our part should be gratitude and thanksgiving and hope for the future.


Seek first and always the kingdom of God. The good things that God wants to give us are the lasting gifts of deep joy and love that are present in all of life situations.


• Skinner is a retired member of the South Carolina Annual Conference and served as the chaplain at Wofford College for many years.