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Thursday, February 18, 2010

God Surprised?

One of the themes in Amos is God's anger at God's people. Israel (the Northern Kingdom of 10 tribes) had relied on alliances with foreign, pagan powers for national security instead of trusting in God. These alliances included syncretism, the blending of religions. God found this to be intolerable.

Equally distasteful to God was the hypocrisy. The wealthy minority demonstrated proper form in their pious religious rituals, but at the same time, they neglected the needs of the most vulnerable people in society and even perpetuated the suffering of the poor. And so, in creative wording and vivid metaphor, Amos speaks God's wrath to Israel.

But, it seems the Israelites do not react the way God thought they would. Amos 4:6-13 presents a progression of responses from God. If we ascribe to the notion that God knows all before it happens, it wouldn't seem God ever responded to anything. Is something really a response if I know ahead of time it's going to happen?

It is not analogous to say I know ahead of time that if my son has a great day at school, he will get a nickel in his jar and ice cream at dinner. I know that's what I would do. But, maybe I forget. Or maybe, he forgets to tell me. I know that is my plan. To say God knows all, means God knows what is going to happen including what God will do. This is not what God would do, but what God absolutely will do. No other scenario is possible.

So, if God knows the whole drama before it plays out, then God isn't responding to things. God knew ahead of time Israel would rebel and abandon the covenant. God knew in advance how God would react. Yet, the wording of Amos 4 doesn't read with that certainty.

In verse 6, God recites a series of harsh punishments God has meted out to the people. "I gave you absolutely nothing to eat." Then at the end of the verse, God seems surprised. "Yet you did not return to Me" (HCSB).

So, God ramps up the divine discipline. "I withheld the rain; ... I sent rain on one city, but not on another." And again, the chagrined response, "Yet you did not return to Me" (end of v. 8. HCSB). Five times God tells of drastic ways He has punished the people. Find times, a frustrated God repeats, "Yet you did not return to Me."

Finally in verse 12 God says, "Therefore, Israel, that is what I will do to you." And God proceeds to inform the recalcitrant Israelites that there will be no more discipline from a distance. God is moving in. "Israel, prepare to meet your God" (end, v.12). That's a bit peculiar. Hasn't Israel already known God?

This whole monologue from the Lord sounds dramatic. It is like God is caught in a cause and effect situation and it does not seem that God is free to step out of it. God is reacting to Israel with the same anger a parent has when a child is completely disrespectful and disobedient. As a parent of young children, I can relate. But, I am not supposed to be able to relate to God. God is supposed to be above such pettiness.

What I see here is a personal, relational God, one who takes the relationship very seriously. I admit it is completely possible I am seeing implications in the text that are not there. Perhaps Amos 4:6-13 says nothing to indicate that God is surprised or caught off guard by Israel's sinfulness. Perhaps the belief that God knows the future as if it already happened is in tact with a reading of Amos.

I would take issue with the notion that sovereignty = foreknowledge. I believe God is absolutely sovereign over the universe and especially over the ways of humans beings and the history of earth. I don't think God is ever out of control or that there are events that are beyond God's control. I don't think anything happens that God cannot handle.

But I also think God gives human beings free-will. That's what it means for us to be made in the image of God. The people of Israel could have chosen to be faithful to the covenant. They would have needed God's help to live as a faithful people, but they could have chosen to ask for that help and I believe God would have given it. All along the way, Israel had choices. As I read Amos, I see God confounded by their choices.

Does that mean God did not know their choices before they made them? I am not ready to go there. But, the question is intriguing.

"So the Lord God formed out of the ground each wild animal and each bird of the sky and brought each to the man, to see what he would call it" (Genesis 2:19, HCSB). Did God not know a turtle was a turtle? Did God have to wait and see what Adam would call it before God knew it was a turtle? God waited to see what the man would call each animal. Mmmm. God was frustrated each time Israel did not respond to God's discipline.

What does it mean about God, about time, about the future, about foreknowledge?


  1. God knew what Adam would choose before Adam did. That does not mean Adam had no choice, just the God knew.

    If I tell my son to do something, with the foreknowledge that he is not going to do it and I'll have to punish him, it doesn't mean he had no choice.

    A nickle in the jar, talk about cheap.

  2. Don't Mock the value of a nickel.

    How do you know God knew? And is your punishment record with your son 100%? Is there ever a time when you wavered? When you say you'd punish him, it is what you would do. Maybe that is an apples-oranges comparison. But with God knowing I am going to type this email, do I have a choice to not type it? And, is foreknowledge the same as foreordained?

  3. That and five quarters will buy a cup of coffee.

    I don't have to punish him now. Why? When he was young I did punish him.

    Proverbs 13:24 (ESV)
    24 Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.

  4. So you're saying your punishment record with your son when he was young was perfect and now he's a perfect young person or young adult? You did it flawlessly? I ask because your first post indicated you do punish and now you're suggesting that was a thing of the past.

  5. I am not saying that I'm perfect or the I raised a perfect son. Just that doing the right things when he is young will pay off in the end. The first post was hypothetical.
    God predestines us to adoption as sons. We make choices, some right some wrong, but nothing is a complete surprise to God. God's grace is irresistible.

  6. Total Depravity
    Unconditional Election
    Limited Atonement
    Irresistible Grace
    Perseverance of the Saints

  7. I don't believe Limited Atonement or Irresistible grace accurately reflect scripture (either the spirit of the message or the explicit truth of the totality of scripture or the understanding of the original audiences)

    I understand that Calvinists are very committed to TULIP theology (sometimes dogmatically committed)but it is a system of interpretation that came along 1500 years after the scriptures were completed. TULIP is not gospel, it is a very human theological system.