« Prev Chapter IX. The False Peace of Ritual Next »




Amos iv. 4-vi.

The next four groups of oracles287287   See p. 141.—iv. 4-13, v. 1-17, v. 18-27 and vi.—treat of many different details, and each of them has its own emphasis; but all are alike in this, that they vehemently attack the national worship and the sense of political security which it has engendered. Let us at once make clear that this worship is the worship of Jehovah. It is true that it is mixed with idolatry, but, except possibly in one obscure verse,288288   v. 26. Amos does not concern himself with the idols. What he strikes at, what he would sweep away, is his people's form of devotion to their own God. The cult of the national God, at the national sanctuaries, in the national interest and by the whole body of the people, who practise it with a zeal unparalleled by their forefathers—this is what Amos condemns. And he does so absolutely. He has nothing but scorn for the temples and the feasts. The assiduity of attendance, the liberality of gifts, the employment of wealth and art and patriotism in worship—he tells his generation that God loathes it all. Like Jeremiah, he even seems to imply that God never157 instituted in Israel any sacrifice or offering.289289   v. 25. It is all this which gives these oracles their interest for us; and that interest is not merely historical.

It is indeed historical to begin with. When we find, not idolatry, but all religious ceremonial—temples, public worship, tithes, sacrifice, the praise of God by music, in fact every material form in which man has ever been wont to express his devotion to God—scorned and condemned with the same uncompromising passion as idolatry itself, we receive a needed lesson in the history of religion. For when one is asked, What is the distinguishing characteristic of heathenism? one is always ready to say, Idolatry, which is not true. The distinguishing characteristic of heathenism is the stress which it lays upon ceremonial. To the pagan religions, both of the ancient and of the modern world, rites were the indispensable element in religion. The gifts of the gods, the abundance of fruits, the security of the state, depended upon the full and accurate performance of ritual. In Greek literature we have innumerable illustrations of this: the Iliad itself starts from a god's anger, roused by an insult to his priest, whose prayers for vengeance he hears because sacrifices have been assiduously offered to him. And so too with the systems of paganism from which the faith of Israel, though at first it had so much in common with them, broke away to its supreme religious distinction. The Semites laid the stress of their obedience to the gods upon traditional ceremonies; and no sin was held so heinous by them as the neglect or infringement of a religious rite. By the side of it offences against one's fellow-men or one's own character were deemed mere158 misdemeanours. In the day of Amos this pagan superstition thoroughly penetrated the religion of Jehovah, and so absorbed the attention of men, that without the indignant and complete repudiation of it prophecy could not have started on her task of identifying morality with religion, and of teaching men more spiritual views of God. But even when we are thus aware of ceremonialism as the characteristic quality of the pagan religions, we have not measured the full reason of that uncompromising attack on it, which is the chief feature of this part of the permanent canon of our religion. For idolatries die everywhere; but everywhere a superstitious ritualism survives. It continues with philosophies that have ceased to believe in the gods who enforced it. Upon ethical movements which have gained their freedom by breaking away from it, in the course of time it makes up, and lays its paralysing weight. With offers of help it flatters religions the most spiritual in theory and intention. The Pharisees, than whom few parties had at first purer ideals of morality, tithed mint, anise and cummin, to the neglect of the essence of the Law; and even sound Christians, who have assimilated the Gospel of St. John, find it hard and sometimes impossible to believe in salvation apart from their own sacraments, or outside their own denominational forms. Now this is because ritual is a thing which appeals both to the baser and to the nobler instincts of man. To the baser it offers itself as a mechanical atonement for sin, and a substitute for all moral and intellectual effort in connection with faith; to the nobler it insists on a man's need in religion of order and routine, of sacrament and picture. Plainly then the words of Amos have significance for more than the immediate problems of his day. And if it159 seem to some, that Amos goes too far with his cry to sweep away all ceremonial, let them remember, besides the crisis of his times, that the temper he exposes and seeks to dissipate is a rank and obdurate error of the human heart. Our Lord, who recognised the place of ritual in worship, who said, Thus it behoveth us to fulfil all righteousness, which righteousness in the dialect of His day was not the moral law, but man's due of rite, sacrifice, tithe and alms,290290   Another proof of how the spirit of ritualism tends to absorb morality. said also, I will have mercy and not sacrifice. There is an irreducible minimum of rite and routine in worship; there is an invaluable loyalty to traditional habits; there are holy and spiritual uses in symbol and sacrament. But these are all dispensable; and because they are all constantly abused, the voice of the prophet is ever needed which tells us that God will have none of them; but let justice roll on like water, and righteousness like an unfailing stream.

For the superstition that ritual is the indispensable bond between God and man, Amos substitutes two other aspects of religion. They are history as God's discipline of man; and civic justice, as man's duty to God. The first of them he contrasts with religious ceremonialism in chap. iv. 4-13, and the second in chap. v.; while in chap. vi. he assaults once more the false political peace which the ceremonialism engenders.

« Prev Chapter IX. The False Peace of Ritual Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection