The internal strife within Syria, the use of chemical warfare and the images of slain children in the news has caught the attention of the world; and rightly so. With this, the escalating violence in Syria has become a political inconvenience for the Obama administration and a real concern for Israel’s national security. It’s too soon to tell, but Syria’s problems could become the world’s problem in the near future. While the future is an unknown quantity for us, the past is not.
America is a relatively new country. But the principles which inspired its founding are ancient. In fact, they can be traced back to the bible. Incidentally, this is an anthology of inspired and historical writings which feature the nations of both Israel and Syria (also known as Assyria in the Old Testament). Specifically, in the prophetic of books of Amos and Hosea we discover how God works among these nations.
And could it be that these same writings gives us an insight how the same God of nations works today? The answer is: yes. Circumstances change but there are two things that always remain constant: God and human nature. Although the twists and turns of the future are never known with certainty, the moral and spiritual lessons of the past give us at least some guidance as to how Divine Providence and world events come to pass.
Because Israel (first as one nation, then as two kingdoms) was at the center of God’s plan for the world, we see, within the pages of the book of Amos and Hosea, not just how God relates to individual persons, but also as he relates to the nations.
Before Amos and Hosea:
Before the prophet Amos and then his younger contemporary, Hosea, came on the scene, the kingdom of Israel had already reached its zenith under the reign of King David (approximately 1000 B.C.). But his grandson, Rehoboam, a much less prudent king and one not as pious as David, initiated policies that divided the federation of the twelve tribes into two separate kingdoms; this, between 950 B.C. and 900 B.C: The northern kingdom known as Israel (compromising 10 tribes) and the southern kingdom known as Judah (with only 2 tribes including the tribe of Judah where David’s posterity would be preserved). However, the repercussions of this division among the twelve tribes, descendants of Jacob’s twelve sons, did not take effect for another several years. In fact, both kingdoms enjoyed economic prosperity for well over a century.
As stated, Israel, the northern kingdom, enjoyed considerable prosperity and comfort. Between the years 900 and 740 B.C., for instance, not a few citizens had a regular home and a vacation house. At the same time, however, many Israelites had fallen into idolatry and had practiced the lowest forms of immorality. The poor were neglected. Sexual deviancy was rampant. And child-sacrifices were even performed to appease their new gods.
The Appearance of Prosperity:
Historian Guglielmo Ferrero reminds us in his book, "Ancient Rome and Modern America," (1914) that national prosperity is not always what it seems: "A civilization is not always in reality richer and stronger in times when it bears the most visible marks of so being. We are rather apt to find that when it is most dazzling and outward seeming, its decadence has already begun."
Indeed, Israel dazzled on the outside just before she was conquered by Assyria around the year 740 B.C. As Old Testament theologian, Bernhard Anderson, once said, “Although Israel seemed healthy outwardly, inwardly she was diseased with a malignant cancer. Israel was not merely guilty of social crimes; she stood accused of unfaithfulness to her calling as the people of Yahweh.”
Yet, the Lord, in his mercy, sent prophets to warn Israel (the northern kingdom) that it was measured, weighed, and found wanting. She was found wanting in the most vital area of her national security- namely, fidelity to Yahweh. Indeed, Israel, without knowing it, invoked the chastening hand of her Lord. But international or political dangers were not yet on the radar when Amos was called by God speak his Word. Although Assyria was becoming the most powerful empire during Amos’ lifetime, it did not, as of yet, pose any threat to Israel. Instead, the danger that Assyria posed to the Ten Tribes of Israel was still only a “cloud on the horizon.”
Nevertheless, the prophet Amos, a native from the southern kingdom of Judah, was called by God to deliver a message to Israel. Interestingly, it was the tradition of the prophets to first indict the people of God for their sin of infidelity and apostasy and then point their finger of condemnation at the surrounding nations. But Amos starts with the other nations first and then makes a case against Israel by saying: “You alone have I favored, more than all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your crimes.” (3:2) As Bernhard Anderson said, “Israel’s special calling did not entitle her to special privileges.” Even more than the other Gentile nations, she will be judged more severely.
Anderson goes on to remind his readers of an interesting historical fact. He said, “It has been rightly observed that intolerance in religion was not characteristic of ancient peoples, and was only introduced into Israel by the prophets.” This was still the case in ancient Rome. In the early years of Christianity, Christians were accused of being intolerant by the pagans because they rightly insisted that only the one and true God should be worshiped. The other pagan gods, Roman or Greek, as far as the members of the Church were concerned, were either false or demonic. Perhaps this principle of prophetic intolerance inspired this passage from the Gloria, a liturgical prayer that dates back to the second century: “For you alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord, you alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, in the glory of God the Father.”
Judged and Courted:
According to Amos, the Israelites from top to bottom tolerated too many compromises with foreign religions. From there, sin was added to sin, infidelity to infidelity, and crime to crime. For that reason, Amos offered little hope to her.
Although his younger contemporary, Hosea, was used by the Lord to confirm the indictment that Amos previously leveled against Israel, his message contains rays of light. The prophet Hosea was called go to further than Amos in illustrating God’s love for his people. By divine appointment, he was to marry a prostitute by the name of Gomer. And, as anyone would expect, she was unfaithful to Hosea. But the prophet pursues her. He forgave her. And he was willing to take her back although he had every right to legally disown her.
Their relationship was to be a symbol of God’s love for Israel. Through the unfailing love of a husband and the infidelity of a wife, God is depicted as courting his unfaithful spouse, namely, Israel. Regarding his love for Israel, the Lord says, “So I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart.”
The desert, in biblical terms, is a place of testing and hardship. As C.S. Lewis once said, “God whispers through our pleasures, speaks through our conscience, but shouts through our pain.” Like many of us, Israel had to learn the hard way. When she was conquered by the Assyrian army, 27, 290 Israelites were deported to the region of Persia and repopulated Israel with colonists from Babylonia, Elam, and Syria. The Ten Tribes were lost forever.
It is believed by some biblical commentators that the prophet Hosea had to witness this sad spectacle of events, namely, the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel and the dissolution of the Ten Tribes. But even with this sad note, Hosea gives them hope. It is a hope not based on nationalistic aims but one based on an event in the distant future, namely, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ:
“Come, let us return to the LORD, for it is he who has rent, but he will heal us; he has struck us, but he will bind our wounds. He will revive us after two days; on the third day he will raise us up, to live in his presence. (6:1-2)
Several centuries before this revolutionary, the prophet Hosea speaks to the remedy of national and international troubles; a remedy often ignored by political rulers; a remedy that involves a wholehearted return to the Lord through humility and repentance. But until that remedy is applied, God uses nations- even ungodly nations -to purify those whom he has favored with this grace. And that grace, if not used for divine gain, will be accounted for.
Postscript: Building Better Than They Knew
Led by Archbishop James Gibbons, the Third Plenary Council at Baltimore in 1884 was a gathering of fourteen archbishops, sixty-one bishops, and a number of priests and religious. From this Council came the following words about America’s founding:
"We consider the establishment of our country's independence, the shaping of its liberties and laws, as a work of special Providence, its framers 'building better than they knew,' the Almighty's hand guiding them.... We believe that our country's heroes were the instruments of the God of nations in establishing this home of freedom…”
This Third Plenary Council of the Catholic Church formally recognized that God not only favored the United States of America in its founding but also in its divine mission to be a home for freedom; a freedom that is in keeping with God’s goodness. But like ancient Israel, America has no claim on God’s favor if, in fact, she is unfaithful to him.
America the Beautiful:
The song, “America the Beautiful,” has us invoke God’s blessings on America with the words, “God shed his grace on thee.” And that beautiful invocation, sung by countless Americans over the years, has been honored by God. Indeed, America, imperfect though she be, has advanced the cause of justice and has been exceedingly generous with the needs of many nations.
But America, like ancient Israel, has renounced the origin of her beauty in many of her public institutions; the most notorious of them all- our public school system. And like the prophet Amos and Hosea, this same patriotic song alludes to that which renews her beauty when it has been disfigured through unfaithfulness:
“May God thy gold refine, till all success be nobleness and every gain divine!”