In this passage—which itself seems like the worse part, not the better—the people finally get what they want. God promises that they who have impatiently waited for worship and sabbath observance to be over will see it ended altogether so that they may return to their busy lives. Actually, what they want does not turn out to be a change for the better. God may seem angry and vengeful in this passage, when in reality God plans to grant the wish of the impatient in Israel. The result of worship that merely goes through the motions while minds remain fixed elsewhere is that the light of the faithful goes out, and darkness prevails.
To the people who have focused solely on crops and currency God promises a famine worse than the kind that destroys the crops. It is not a depletion of water or grain that is coming, but a total lack “of hearing the words of the Lord,” which turns out to have been “the better part” all along. Too busy to have appreciated this better part, God’s people will not know where to turn when they soon find themselves in circumstances unfamiliar to them.
It is hard to imagine what the threat of trembling earth, mourning, and darkness actually denoted for the first hearers of these words in Israel. But it is not hard for us who read these words now to look at the most recent natural disaster, act of terrorism, or systemic violence in our midst and recall the feeling of desperation and helplessness that it engenders. Sadly, we can also remember our own instances of going through the motions in worship, of relief that the preacher didn’t “get too wordy” and interfere with our plans for the rest of the day. What if, rather than too wordy, there were no words at all?
Speak your words, Lord. Amen.