Idolatry, Social Justice, and Religious Ritualism

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“The Old Testament prophets spoke for God.  They believed they were sent by God with a specific message.”[1]  Since the time of Moses and Aaron, prophets were “holy men of God”[2] to the Israelites, and they were on par with the priests as offices of absolute authority.  Their words were not to be taken lightly.  God said, “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed,” (Deuteronomy 18:22, NIV).  However, the predictive accuracy of the major and minor prophets was fulfilled repetitively, yet the people of Israel continued to fall short of God’s statutes, causing Him to judge them righteously.  The themes for these prophets covered a slew of topics, but more often than not, they were concerned with idolatry, social injustice and religious ritualism.

Even though the Israelites had witnessed the supernatural hand of God as physical proof that He was sovereign over all things, they continued to fall into idolatry and religious syncretism.  Incorporating idol worship into their religious system, or outright adopting pagan rituals as their own, they disregarded the covenant they had made with God.  From the Golden Calf during the Exodus to Micah’s household idols in the time of the Judges, God strictly forbade them saying, “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below,” (Exodus 20:4, NIV).  “The veneration of golden-calf gods in the sanctuaries at Dan and Bethel and various forms of religious syncretism also corrupted their worship of the Lord and blurred important distinctions between Yahweh and the pagan gods.”[3]

This carelessly continued on for hundreds of years until the prophet Jeremiah proclaimed the “Lord would send His people into captivity for 70 years as punishment for their persistent disobedience and idolatry.”[4]  Jeremiah said, “I will summon all the peoples of the north and my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon,” declares the LORD, “and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants and against all the surrounding nations.  I will completely destroy them and make them an object of horror and scorn, and an everlasting ruin,” (Jeremiah 25:9, NIV).  Even after the destruction of Jerusalem, its temple and culture, resulting in Jeremiah being taken away to Egypt, he predicted that God would also destroy the Jews living there “because they persisted in the sinful ways of their fathers and refused to turn from their idolatry.”[5]  “I will punish those who live in Egypt with the sword, famine and plague, as I punished Jerusalem,” (Jeremiah 44:13, NIV).   God leaves no room for any worship of idols, whether in His land, or in another.  The Israelites were selected as His people, and in this covenant, their disobedience “will be a sign and a wonder to you and your descendants forever,” (Deuteronomy 28:46, NIV).  As a result, “the glory of the Lord departed from the Jerusalem temple in response to the people’s idolatry (Ezekiel 8-11).”[6]

“The wealthy had a special responsibility to care for the poor and the needy.”[7]  However, this was not the case during the prophetic ministry of Amos. “The privileged group not only controlled economic life, but the legal system as well.”[8]  This upper crust likewise manipulated the theocratic office of the Judges to the point where they took little notice of the pleas for help from the poor.  “They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed,” (Amos 2:7a, NIV).  Amos continued to appeal to the Israelites that this kind of behavior was unacceptable and preempting judgment from God.

The Lord commands His people to enact justice, to love, have mercy and to walk in tandem with Him.  “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God,” (Micah 6:8, NIV).  Yet the opposite was true in Micah’s appeal to the leaders of Jacob during his ministry.  Even so, the ruling elite and their lack of justice is “described in images of butchering and cooking meat, implicitly equating the rulers with cannibals, as a metaphor for their abuse of the people.”[9]  Without love, justice and mercy, there can no relevance to personal salvation, nor can there be any God-fearing characteristics visible in man, and for the Israelite, the Law was forward looking to the One that would have absolute mercy on all mankind.

 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me.  Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them,” (Amos 5:21-22, NIV).  Because the Israelites disregarded the needy, the poor, lacked love and social justice, God ignored the system of worship He meticulously developed for them.  “Religious ritualism, detached from Godly living, is vain.”[10]  Even if the Israelites worshipped God specifically according to details described in the book of Leviticus, it was fruitless without “practicing justice toward the poor and needy.”[11]

The people of Israel had a habit of falling short from the theocratic significance their national standard was meant to convey.  Idolatry and social injustice coupled with religious ritualism profaned the covenant of God and caused Him to ignore “their worship so the Day of the Lord would bring death, not great joy.”[12]  “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings,” (Hosea 6:6, NIV).  Without the attributes that surround God’s love, Israel’s religious system was nothing but empty rituals that lacked character, wisdom, and righteousness.  Their faith was erroneous, powerless, and defective.  “But ritualism, in connection with the religion of man, must be the effect, the expression, and the medium of inner righteousness. Without “mercy” and the “knowledge of God” in the soul all ritual observances are as worthless and as revolting as the motions of a galvanized corpse.”[13]

Faith becomes institutionalized, and the means of seeking God become formalized.”[14] Christians can learn from the Israelites’ failures on how to not act, and instead live for love, justice and properly worship God, so that their lives can exemplify the mercy and righteousness in which Jesus Christ’s sacrifice had pleased Him so that we can commune together with the Lord without separation.  Because of His faith, we have faith, and the Holy Spirit will convict us so that we are continuously reminded how important it is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,” (Luke 10:27, NIV).  Paul says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here,” (2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV).  This “new reality conveys inclusion in one universal body with shared life in Christ that is nurtured by the Holy Spirit.”[15]  Now that we have the Holy Spirit, we can be sure “He will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment,” (John 16:8, NIV), and we can forever walk in the light, providing justice, mercy, love and righteousness for our neighbor.

[1] Hindson & Yates, The Essence of the Old Testament: A Survey (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2012), 289

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 370.

[4] Ibid, 321.

[5] Hindson & Yates, The Essence of the Old Testament: A Survey (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2012), 327.

[6] Ibid, 341.

[7] Ibid, 389.

[8] Sarras, Niveen. “Amos 2:6b: A Map of an Ancient Israelite Legal System, Or a Hyperbolic Indictment of Social Injustice?” Order No. 3588401 (Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, 2013), Page 11, In PROQUESTMS ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global, http://ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1427852917?accountid=12085.

[9] Troxel, Ronald L. 2011. Prophetic Literature: From Oracles to Books. Hoboken, NJ, USA: John Wiley & Sons. Accessed October 13, 2015. ProQuest ebrary, Page 64.

[10] “Amos 5:21,22 – Vain Religion,” Christian Courier, Wayne Jackson, accessed October 13, 2015, https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/1097-amos-5-21-22-vain-religion

[11] Hindson & Yates, The Essence of the Old Testament: A Survey (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2012), 389.

[12] Ibid, 389.

[13] “Righteousness and Ritualism,” Bible Hub, The Pulpit Commentary, Thomas Hood, accessed October 13, 2015, http://biblehub.com/sermons/auth/thomas/righteousness_and_ritualism.htm

[14] “The Colors of Hope,” Richard Dahlstrom, (Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 2011), 78.

[15] “Drinking from the Wells of New Creation,” Kerry Dearborn, (Eugene, Cascade Book, 2014), 48.

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