“Come to Bethel and rebel; rebel even more at Gilgal! Bring your sacrifices every morning, your tenths every three days. Offer leavened bread as a thank offering, and loudly proclaim your freewill offerings, for that is what you Israelites love to do! This is the declaration of the Lord God.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever done the right thing in the wrong place? I was watching one of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies with my boys the other day. In one scene, the main character was at a hotel with his family. After a misadventure out in the parking lot late one night, he went back to his room and crawled in bed with his parents only to discover the next morning that it wasn’t his room at all. He had spent the night with another family. That was a pretty funny episode, but as Israel reminds us here, doing things that look right in the wrong places can actually be a pretty dangerous thing as well.
I love passages like this one because they reveal that God had a bit of a sarcasm streak. It makes me feel a little better about my own occasional snarkiness. These two verses are absolutely dripping with sarcasm. That’s important to know because if you miss it, you’ll run the risk of not understanding what Amos is saying.
At a glance, it sounds like God is encouraging the people to worship, but condemning them for it at the same time. Why the apparent duplicity? There’s not. A little geography and history help shed some light.
Before Jerusalem was established as the capital of the united nation, Israel had a couple of different places the people gathered for worship. Now, they were technically supposed to worship only where the tabernacle was, but it’s inherently mobile nature combined with the fact that it moved around a few times left people worshiping in a couple of different places. Bethel and Gilgal were two of these.
Once Jerusalem became the capital and Solomon built the temple, though, worship wasn’t supposed to happen anywhere else. When Jeroboam broke away with the ten northern tribes and formed the breakaway kingdom of Israel (leaving Judah to the south), he didn’t want his people worshiping back in Jerusalem over his entirely justified fears of an eventual reunification coming out of it. As a result, he set up a center of worship in Bethel. Gilgal developed similarly.
This wasn’t a good thing in and of itself because it violated God’s command, but the bigger problem was that it wasn’t Yahweh who was being worshiped in these places. At Bethel, Jeroboam took a page from Aaron, Moses’ brother, and made two calf gods for the people to worship. Eventually, the people were just worshiping Baal and Asherah there.
The thing was, though, they were doing it with many of the rituals prescribed in the Law of Moses. In other words, someone from the outside looking in at Jerusalem and Bethel might think the people in those places were worshiping the same gods. There may even been some of the people themselves who thought they were. They weren’t.
They may have been technically performing some of the right rituals, but they were doing them in the wrong place and with the wrong heart. Even the place issue itself might not have been that big of a deal without any other considerations in place (after all, we can worship God today anywhere in the world because of the internal presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers), but there was this other consideration of the fact that God had told them Jerusalem was the only acceptable place to worship.
The reason for this was His concern that if their worship wasn’t centralized, it would eventually become syncretistic, meaning it would be corrupted by the introduction of ideas and practices that were not from Him, not honoring of Him, and would not shape the people in His image, but rather in the image of something else to their great harm. They proved Him right in grand fashion.
That was a problem. The even bigger problem was that they wouldn’t listen to Him when He sent prophets to tell them they weren’t doing right and were eventually going to pay for it. He sent warning after warning and they wouldn’t listen to any of them. So here He is finally throwing up His hands (rhetorically, anyway) and sarcastically proclaiming what amounts to this: Since you love doing what is wrong so much, just go ahead and do it. Go on and throw yourself totally into it. What’s the worst that could happen?
That’s all what’s happening here. What kind of an impact should all of this have on us? Well, this thought occurred to me: While God is never going to give up on us, at some point, if we insist on doing things on our own instead of the way He has told us, eventually He’s going to stop warning us against it and let us crash and burn. This won’t be done vindictively because that’s not in His character, but at some point we demonstrate that the only way we are going to learn is the hard way.
When we try and do life apart from how He’s told us, there will always eventually be consequences for that. This isn’t because He’s waiting to get us. It’s because His way is the only way that will lead to positive outcomes for our life and the lives of the people around us. That’s simply the way He designed the world to work. And before you think about complaining remember that He’s the designer. We’re not possessed of sufficient resources to meaningfully question how He designed the world to work. Our best bet will always be to go with what He says. Anything else will eventually result in a mess.
Let us commit to doing the right things in the right ways and in the right places with the Scriptures and the Spirit as our guides so that we can live the life that is truly life. And when we’ve gotten off course, let us commit to listening well to His gentle correction and getting right back on course. There’s no reason to waste time exploring paths other than His. They’ve already been mapped and found wanting. All of them. Do life life His way. You’ll be glad you did.
***I apologize for the errant post yesterday. It’s amazing what one wrong click will do!***