Did you ever pray and hear no answer from God?
A man from Ivory Coast called Toualy Bai Laurent, who became a Christian in 1958, wanted to learn more and began to pray that God would send someone to translate the Bible into his Kouya language. By 1980 he was still praying with no sign that God had heard his prayers…
Francois Sare, a man from Burkina Faso became a Christian in 1989, the same year we went with Wycliffe Bible Translators to next door Ivory Coast.
“During all those years I haven’t been able to read the Bible in my own language. I’ve got my own French Bible but my first language is Bissa Barka. If the Bible was in Bissa Barka then I would be able to understand more than I can now. I think about how long it will be until we have the New Testament. I’m in a hurry to have it.”
Did you ever try to tell someone something, but they wouldn’t listen? That’s the same as the Old Testament prophets, like Amos, from Judah, whom God sent to “prophesy to my people Israel”. The prophets spent years proclaiming the Lord’s message, but nobody listened.
In the opening chapter of his book, Amos proclaimed God’s judgment on Israel’s neighbours – Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon and Moab – for what they had done to Israel. God would relent no longer: he would send fire to consume fortresses; kings and peoples would go into exile. Can you imagine Amos’ hearers enjoying this? Good for the Lord! They’re going to get what they deserve!
But in chapter two, Amos proclaimed judgment on Judah and Israel. Judah had been led astray by false gods just like their ancestors before them. They rejected the law of the Lord and did not keep his decrees. It was a chicken and egg situation: their rejection of God’s law led to worship of false gods which prevented them obeying God’s law… and so it went on.
Judah gets it quick and sharp, but the judgment on Israel lasts for almost five chapters. Israel is condemned for pressing into slavery those who cannot repay paltry debts; trampling on the heads of the poor; sexual immorality and drunkenness in the temples of false gods.
God said, “I will crush you!” You will not escape my judgment. You have been warned and you have continued to disobey. God said, “I hate, I despise your religious feasts.” Their token sacrifices failed to stop their wallowing in complacent pride and self-centred prosperity. “They do not know how to do right,” declared the Lord.
Interspersed in all this are appeals to “seek the Lord and live” – but no! Israel’s leaders, her priests and her king don’t like what they are hearing. If Amos could just be persuaded to go away.
So Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, accused Amos of conspiring against King Jeroboam. Imagine him spitting invective in the face of Amos as he says, “Get out, you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Don’t prophesy any more at Bethel, because this is the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom.”
Amaziah confirmed the rejection of God. The ancient sanctuary of Bethel was not God’s. It belonged to king Jeroboam and his kingdom. Amaziah accused Amos of trying to profit from his prophecy. Amos responded that the Lord would surely send Israel into exile.
And so we arrive at chapter 8 with Amos’ vision of a basket of ripe fruit. A positive harvest image? But no – the fruit was Israel ripe for punishment. Israel had rejected the invitations to seek the Lord; Israel had evicted Amos because they didn’t want to hear what he was saying.
They continued to do what the Lord had deplored:
“Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, saying, ‘When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?’ – skimping on the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat.”
The judgment was serious: the earth darkened in broad daylight; joyful religious feasts turned to mourning; temple songs to wailing. But the bit that really hit me was verse 11!
“The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign Lord, “when I will send a famine through the land - not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord. People will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the Lord, but they will not find it.”
The awful silence of God!
If you won’t listen to me, the Lord said, I won’t speak to you. It had been prophesied before. Amos prophesied over 300 years before Malachi, the last of the Old Testament prophets. There were several times when there seemed to be a famine of hearing the words of the Lord, but the big one came in the inter-testamental period – those 400 years or so between the Old and New Testaments.
So what broke the silence? Gabriel spoke to a flabbergasted Zechariah and to an astonished Mary. Thirty years later, John the Baptist called out in a voice from the desert to prepare the way for the Lord, the arrival of the Messiah, fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus, his cousin. The Lord chose to speak to his people again. Would they listen this time?
The modern famine of hearing the word of the Lord is double sided. One side is the majority of the world’s population who have access to the Bible but, like the people of Israel, many refuse to listen. Twenty first century people see the Bible and Christianity and even God as irrelevant, outdated, and often badly represented by Christians.
The other side is the millions who want to listen and hear, but they cannot – because the Bible is not available in their heart languages.
Toualy Bai Laurent from Ivory Coast had his prayers answered in the 1980s and, before he died a few years ago, he had his copy of the Kouya New Testament.
Francois from Burkina Faso is encouraged because a translation into Bissa Barka has begun thanks to fundraising during the 2011 Biblefresh year.
They still experience the famine of hearing the Word of the Lord.
This piece was first published on my blog on 20 December 2012 when I flagged it up as a draft. Now the article has been printed in the current edition of Presbyterian Women’s Wider World magazine..