The closer we get to the end of the Old Testament the quicker the books move along. We are reading the minor prophets now, minor not because they are less important but because they are shorter than say Jeremiah or Isaiah. Each prophet has their own focus in addition to calling the people to repentance. More than any other prophet, Hosea emphasized the importance of knowing God. But Israel would ultimately be destroyed because they did not know Him. For us, knowledge often means information, facts, and concepts but in ancient times knowledge was centered in personal relationships. To know someone is to enter into a close relationship with that person. Knowing God involves much more than simply mastering facts and information about Him. It means entering into a close personal relationship with Him. It means identifying with God and learning to view everything as God does. We often say our hearts should break with the same things that break God’s heart. Knowing God will transform our thoughts and actions, our priorities and values, and our relationships with others. It is way more than simply religious rites, sacrifices, burnt offerings and any other religious activity. God does not just want us to go through the motions. When we come to Him, whether in worship or prayer, God wants all of us present with Him.
The prophet Joel is one of many prophet who speaks of the “Day of the Lord”. We first see it in the Book of Amos but it didn’t originate with him. Amos was correcting a popular misunderstanding that the Israelites already had. They believed this day to be a joyous day of salvation when God would intervene in the world to judge Israel’s enemies and reestablish Israelite rule over all of greater Canaan. Amos warned them that the day of the Lord would not be light for them, but darkness, because they were in Rebellion against Him. Self confident Israelites assumed that God was always on their side, but their sins had in fact made them God’s enemies. They deserved His full punishment. Nearly 100 years after Amos, Zephaniah said very similar things to the Judeans about the day of the Lord. The theme became part of the standard vocabulary of the prophets, often being referred to simply as “that day”. The prophet Joel interpreted the locust plague much as Amos or Zephaniah would have done. Joel saw the locust plague as a sign that the day of the Lord was near, and that God was judging the people of Judah and Jerusalem for their sins. Their only proper response was to gather in the temple and repent. But in the second half of his book, Joel foretold of a day yet to come. At that time, God would pour out His Spirit on Israel. He would restore His repentant people, vindicate them, and punish the nations that had oppressed them. In this way Joel combined both understandings of the day of the Lord. It is a day of judgement for those who rebel against the Lord, including sinful Israelites; but it is also a day of salvation for those who have listened to the words of the prophets and have turned to the Lord.
The day of the Lord describes a period of time in which God “comes down” in a dramatic way to bring wrath and judgement on the wicked and salvation to the righteous. God is the Lord of time. Thirteen of the sixteen prophets mention this day. The concept most likely originated with the conquest of Canaan, a war that was really the Lord’s war, meaning this was a day of judgement for the wicked Canaanites. The day of the Lord is not just a single event phenomenon. There have been periods in Israel’s history, both early and late, the coming of Jesus, and His second coming are all called the day of the Lord. Locusts certainly qualified as a day of the Lord but it wasn’t much later that the Babylonians defeated Judah and Jerusalem. That too was a day of the Lord. The important thing to remember is that while the day of the Lord may be filled with God’s wrath and judgement on the wicked and disobedient, for others it is a day of deliverance and restoration of the righteous.
Another issue was that of social justice. In the Old Testament, prophets often confronted evil in society and articulated a demand for social justice. An early example of this is found In Elijah’s response to the murder of Naboth, followed by his rebuke of Ahab. See 1 Kings 21:16-24. The social aspect of the prophetic message became even more prominent among the prophets of the 700’s B.C. That would be Hosea and Amos in the northern kingdom of Israel and Micah and Isaiah in the southern kingdom of Judah. Amos was the most articulate of them all regarding this issue. Amos was appalled by Israel’s abuse of the powerless. Unlike the surrounding nations, Israel had known God in a uniquely personal and intimate manner and then turned away from Him. The people of Israel had refused to worship God appropriately and had oppressed the powerless. So, God met them in judgement, and not mercy. Because God created the whole world, there was no escape, and no place to hide. God’s judgement would seek them out wherever they were. The theme of God’s universal judgement continues in the New Testament. God wants justice to flow like a mighty River but those who oppose it will be swept away.
One of the issues we have seen over and over is Baal worship. It was a pagan practice for the majority of the nations that surrounded Israel and Judah. Worshiping Baal and other gods was one of the main causes of disobedience. There were other gods; Chemosh and Molech to name a couple, but Baal had captured the hearts and minds of the majority of God’s people. By Hosea’s time, Baalism had affected nearly all of Israel and Judah. Baal was the most important deity in the Canaanite pantheon. Pantheon means all of the gods of a people or religion collectively. Baal’s followers believed that his blessing guaranteed the continuation of human life and the preservation of social order. As a fertility deity, Baal was the provider of children, a prized possession in the culture of the ancient Middle East. As the god of the storm, Baal brought rains and made the crops grow. Baal’s devotees trusted that with the elements of the storm at his disposal, he could defeat the enemies of his people. As the king of the divine realm under the ultimate authority of the high god El, Baal overcame the powerful and terrifying deities Yamn, the god of the chaotic sea, and Mot, the god of death and the underworld.
God recognized this threat for His people and He actively opposed this false religious system from the very beginning of Israel’s history. He affirmed that He is the one and only living God, and Israel’s rightful king. The Lord revealed His sovereignty over the storm. He demonstrated His authority over the chaotic sea and the realm of death. And the Lord proved that He alone could provide children to the infertile. The attack on Baalism at Mount Carmel, think Elijah and the 400 prophets of Baal, where the Lord hurled down a fiery lightening bolt, demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that He is the living God. In contrast, Baal’s prophets with their frenzied mourning rites could not provoke any response. And, when King Jehu later purged the kingdom of Baalism, the Lord’s victory seemed complete. But less than a century later Baalism had resurfaced as the religion of the people, forcing the Lord to confront Israel through Hosea the prophet. So, how can we explain Baalism’s success? Perhaps the same way we look at believers and non believers today. The Lord demanded obedience to strict moral and ethical standards as a basis for blessing. We too are called to live lives different from the rest of the world. Baalism appealed to the sensual nature of humans. Baal’s favor was gained through sympathetic magic in the form of ritual prostitution. Sympathetic magic is described as primitive or magical ritual that used objects or actions resembling the event or person over which influence is sought. Through all these “religious rites” young men and women could gain Baal’s favor and ensure their ability to produce and bear children. Because of Baalism’s attractions to the base side of human nature it persisted in Israel. It was also easier to do what everyone else was doing rather than be different and left out of what everyone else was up to. There were no moral rules or behavioral expectations either, unlike believing in the Lord. Baalism promised an easy and even enjoyable road to prosperity, while God’s way, the way of true life, demanded selflessness. Baal’s partner is usually identified as Asherah.
One of the most disturbing things about Baalism is that the Israelites identified Baal with Yahweh. Baal worship viewed from a distance was horrendous and those involved in it were so influenced by the dominant culture that they remained convinced that they were devout and orthodox followers of the Lord, even though they were really worshiping Baal. Irritating God even more, many of the people mixed Baal worship with their temple worship of the Lord. If you remember the commandments God gave to His people at Mount Sinai you know they begin with these words. “I am the Lord your God. You shall not have any other gods before me.” God was dead serious here at Mount Sinai. He is just as serious today.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W