The books of the Old Testament prophets can be so challenging to read that it’s easy to overlook the big concepts and the larger historical events that these books reference.
I’ve been reading through the Old Testament books of Amos and Hosea lately and one of the most fascinating things to me about these men is that although they devoted their lives trying to save the people of northern Israel, they ultimately failed.
What does it mean that God called Amos and Hosea to spend their entire lives doing something that was met with utter failure?
Approximately 722 B.C. the Assyrian Empire conquered the northern kingdom of Israel (the Jewish kingdom had split into a northern and southern portion after the death of Solomon). However, for many years before the conquest, the people of the northern kingdom lived in great prosperity.
As often happens in such times of abundance, the people’s lives were filled with self indulgence. The records speak of palaces decorated with ivory, sumptuous feasts, drunkenness, and bodies anointed with costly oils. And all the while, slavery was rampant, the poor were exploited to maintain the imbalanced economic structure, and corruption of the justice system was rife.
God first calls Amos, a shepherd, to call the people back to promoting a just society. Then God calls Hosea, believed to be a baker, to show the people how much pain their rebellion was causing God.
These were average men, called from professions of peace and predictability, to a life of much difficulty. Yet in spite of their toil, their efforts did not bring about the societal transformation that they had hoped for. Rather, the people continued on perpetrating evil against the weakest in society causing God to ultimately allow the Assyrians to conquer the northern kingdom of Israel.
Stories of failure seem to be common in Scripture. Indeed, it’s remarkable just how common they are.
When I think about failure and faith, I am reminded of two important points:
1) The first is the eventual harm of a belief system that teaches the merits of human-earned salvation. Most of the world’s religions—except Christ’s teaching—are rooted in the idea that if we do enough good, we will be rewarded with good things by God, the universe, or some higher power.
Yet this belief, as seemingly logical as it appears, is actually the source of more hatred toward God and self-loathing than possibly anything. For when the inevitable hardship happens to us, we then blame God because we feel we are living a good-enough life and deserve good things, or we end up despising ourselves because we think we have not been righteous enough and are being punished by God.
Yet, fortunately, this is not the Christian message.
2) What is the Christian message, then? For this we look no further than Jesus himself.
Although there is great mystery and depth to this subject, the essence of the story is that God himself enters this world in Jesus. And according to Christians, Jesus has came to forgive all sin and provide everlasting salvation. This is no small claim.
So how does Jesus accomplish this?
Contrary to the expectations of his original followers, Jesus’ plans are not for self-aggrandizement and ascension to a position of political power.
Rather, Jesus is tortured and killed by the very same people he has come to save. Indeed, his failure seems even greater than that of Amos or Hosea, for Jesus dies an early and tragic death.
Yet, paradoxically, it is in his death that Jesus saves us. This is a great mystery about which much more could be written, but God himself—dying on our behalf and for our sins—is the source of our redemption. What appears to be failure is, in fact, the purest and most perfect action this universe has ever witnessed.
If an event that, at first glance, appears to be failure is ultimately the greatest gift to humankind, how much moreso should I look deeper into what I initially see as setback, hardship, or failure.