IN AMOS 7:1-9 THE PROPHET intercedes with God to avert two catastrophic judgments. In both cases, the Lord relents (Amos 7:3, 6). But then God deploys a plumb line to show just how crooked Israel is, and promises that he will spare the people no longer (Amos 7:6-9). Two reflections:
(1) If God were endlessly forbearing, there would be no judgment. A lot of people think of God in these terms. God is good, so he is bound to forgive us: that’s his job. So argued Catherine the Great. The Bible insists that such a picture of God is hopelessly flawed. On the other hand, if God executed instantaneous justice, there would be no place for either compassion or forbearing delay. This sort of tension is bound up with many virtues. Genuine courage presupposes fear that is overcome. If there is no fear at all, there can be no courage. Similarly, if there is no wrath, forbearance is no longer a virtue; it dissolves into some strange alchemy of niceness and moral indifference. Thus a large part of what these scenes are saying to the ancient Israelites is that God’s patience is running out. The reason God has not destroyed them already is that he is forbearing. But genuine forbearance presupposes that justice must sooner or later prevail: it is a call for repentance before it is too late.
(2) God here answers the intercessory prayer of Amos and relents—as in a number of other moving passages where God responds to fervent intercession (Gen. 18:23-33; 20:7; Ex. 32:9-14; Job 42:8-9). How does this square with a passage like 1 Samuel 15:29? “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his mind.” Indeed, if I were certain I could change God’s mind in some absolute sense, I would be terrified of trying, for I know far, far less than he. Yet the “prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective,” we are told (James 5:16-18). The point, surely, is that this God is not some cold, deterministic, mechanical, force. He is a personal God who has ordained means as much as ends—means that include our intercession. If we are to pray according to God’s will (1 John 5:14), then Luther was right: “Prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance. Prayer is laying hold of God’s willingness.” It is not so much a means of talking God into a position repugnant to him, as a God-ordained means of obtaining the blessings that God in the perfection of his virtues is willing to bestow. But that perfection of virtues also means that there may come a point when the collision of holiness and sin issues in implacable wrath that will not be diverted.