This is part four of my series on the minor prophets. All Scripture quotations taken from the English Standard Version.
False dichotomies are the bane of 21st century discourse. All ethical choices are presented as “either/or”, with us or against us. Unfortunately, life is rarely so black-and-white, and the desire for easy answers can blind us to the nature of reality and (more importantly) to God’s will. One of the great false dichotomies in the Church is the line between personal holiness and social justice. On the one side, you have Christians who focus on individual salvation and holy living, particularly sexual ethics, and decry those who call for social justice as missing the message of the gospel (and they’re also closet communists). On the other side, those who work for social justice see those who stand for Biblical morality as selfish (and they’re also closet fascists). Amos cuts across this divide by basically saying, “why not both?” In fact, you cannot extricate personal holiness from social justice. A society where individuals reject God will by its nature be unjust. Without a commitment to God’s law, social justice is just an empty slogan, a naked power grab, and a cudgel with which to beat those with whom you disagree. Without working for social justice, individual faith becomes narcissistic, devoid of meaning, and perverted to our own ends at the expense of others. Amos is a classic “afflict-the-comfortable” prophet, and if you have become complacent, he is here to shake you up, no matter which side of the false dichotomy you find yourself on.
I’ve always loved Amos. In addition to the beauty of his language, he’s also basically an Old Testament version of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He is a simple shepherd who boldly speaks God’s word to kings and courtiers. The Lord loves to use the least of this world to humble the great. I am reminded of the words of that peasant girl from Nazareth: “[God] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1:51-53). In this election season, when so many of us feel powerless to effectuate meaningful change in our country and our world, may Amos give you hope that God works through even simple shepherds to accomplish His purposes.
Chapters 1 & 2: This book starts out just as the rulers of Israel and Judah could hope: God condemns the enemies of His people. The pagan rulers of Edom, Ammon, and Moab will be brought low by God’s justice. It is an assurance in our own day that those who persecute and oppress the people of God will be brought to account. But then in chapter two, Amos goes from preaching to meddling. He declares that the same wrath God pours out on the pagan nations will also be poured out on His own people. What is interesting to note here is the different reasons for God’s displeasure. The pagan nations are condemned for unjust conquest and what we would now call war crimes. These are sins against common morality, the sort of wrongs that are so blatant as to be decried by most people. Israel and Judah, on the other hand, are condemned “because they have rejected the law of the Lord, and have not kept his statutes” (2:4). God’s people are held to a higher standard of conduct because we bear His name and we know His commandments. The sins of Israel are greater than those of their neighbors because they know better and yet live the same way.
“For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and turn aside the way of the afflicted; a man and his father go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned” (2:6-7). Here we see how personal moral failings lead to social injustice. The desire for wealth, leisure, and sexual license result in the oppression of the poor. The sexual impropriety is not just incest — it probably is a reference to temple prostitution at pagan shrines. Thus, the unjust social order is directly related to false religion and attempts to manipulate God. Indeed, in verse 8 it specifically mentions that they drink wine in God’s temple that was purchased with unjust fines. In verse 12, this goes a step further, as people demand that the Nazirites betray their vows to God and command the prophets to shut up. This is how religion can be the most useful tool of the devil. Through empty practice, we can believe that we are serving God even as we live sinful lives, oppress the less fortunate, and reject God’s word. We ought to carefully examine ourselves and be willing to listen to words of correction brought by the Lord’s prophets.
Chapters 3:1-4:5: With thunderous, poetic rhetorical questions, Amos reminds us that the Lord is still the Lion of Judah (Hos. 5:14; Rev. 5:5). People resort to oppression and violence because they believe that such power will bring them security. But the Lord is King and no earthly power, not kings or judges or presidents, can stand against Him. Once again, the prophets remind us that is not our enemies but the Lord who brings calamity (see 3:6). The Assyrians may not have followed the Lord, but they were following the Lord’s commands when they scattered the people of Israel. As I said in the post on Joel, we like to blame others for all of our problems, but we have nobody to blame but ourselves. Verses 14 and 15 again link the problems of false religion (“the altars of Bethel”) with oppression of the poor (“houses of ivory”). Each leads to the other in a vicious cycle that breeds societal and personal destruction.
I don’t mind when God compares me to a sheep, but when he calls me a cow (4:1) He’s gone too far! In all seriousness, the really insidious aspect of wealth is how it can blind one to the suffering of others. We can sit in our comfortable houses eating our food and getting drunk all while the poor starve at our gates. It is all too easy in our digital age to only read news that comforts us and reinforces our beliefs about ourselves and the world. We can blind ourselves to oppression or, more likely, only see the oppression done by our political and social enemies rather than that which is done by those like us. This reinforces our cow-like complacency in our own moral superiority and keeps us from doing the work of loving our neighbors. Yelling at people on social media is so much more fun that seeking the Lord and serving the least, lost, and lonely that we come into contact with. Sometimes the greatest barrier to serving God and our neighbor is simple laziness.
Chapter 4:6-5:17: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” So said C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain. I cannot help but think of this quote when reading how God brought drought, blight, locusts, pestilence (!), and invading armies to His people. He was trying to shake them out of their complacency and give them an opportunity to repent. Each time, however, it ends the same way: “yet you did not return to me, declares the Lord”. But if they will not come to God, He will come to them. In a terrifying phrase, Amos declares “prepare to meet your God, O Israel” (4:12). A lot of Christians seem eager to meet God, yet I would only do so with much fear and trembling. God is love, but God is also righteous. I can only echo Thomas Jefferson when he said that “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever”. I love how both 4:13 and 5:8 demonstrate the majesty and justice of God, how His beauty and His power manifest together. To meet God is to be utterly transformed. Meeting God will kill us, but hopefully, by His grace, it will result in a new and better life.
Amos reminds us that we will never truly enjoy unjust gain: “you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine” (5:11). This reminds me of Jesus’ parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21) who builds ever bigger barns for his excess crops only to die before he can enjoy him. The moral of the story: “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
The verse that best summarizes Amos is 5:15: “Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.” This holistic spirituality of personal rectitude and societal reform reflects God’s desire to see His kingdom manifest on earth. This is what it means when we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). The Lord desires that earth reflect heaven. This is not a call to blind utopianism, but a sober and serious call to do the work that the Lord has set before us, always aware that imperfection is our lot on this side of paradise.
Chapter 5:18-27: This is probably the most famous passage in Amos and one of the most famous passages in all of Scripture. Again, Amos rebukes God’s people for desiring God’s judgment and the “day of the Lord” (more on that tomorrow). God has no time for empty religious practice. He will not accept offerings made to Him in the spirit of quid pro quo. Songs sung from mouths of hypocrisy are just noise to Him. “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”. That verse has special resonance for Americans since it rung out in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in August of 1963, which calls Americans then and now to work for racial harmony and justice for all. However, if I were to recommend one thing to read in light of our current racial divide, it would be his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” from May of that year. This letter to white Christian leaders defends the practice of “nonviolent direct action” to remedy social wrongs. My favorite passage could have been pulled straight from Amos and is worth quoting in full:
There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.
Unless we serve as a prophetic voice in the world, our religion is of little use: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (Jas. 1:27). There it is again: true religion unites personal holiness and service to others.
Chapter 6: Two quick notes on chapter six. In verse five, it mentions that Israel “like David invents for themselves instruments of music”. Sometimes we can delude ourselves into thinking that we are under God’s blessing because we’re doing something similar to a Biblical or saintly figure or simply following tradition. But we must beware of “having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:5). Keeping up religious appearances is not the same thing as pursuing holiness. Secondly, I love the scene in verses nine to eleven where a spooked person declares “Silence! We must not mention the name of the Lord” after calamity strikes. It’s like he’s the bogeyman or Voldemort. Our culture, both in and out of the Church, acts similarly. Actually preaching the gospel makes people uncomfortable. Best to just not bring Him up. Yet here is Amos calling us once again to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Chapter 7: The Lord often relents from bringing calamity, especially when we pray, but His judgments stand forever. Thus, though He does not bring fire and locusts, He holds up a plumb line to Israel to see if they line up with His commandments. We must not assume that just because we are saved by grace that the plumb line is not also held up to us. We must allow Holy Scripture and the Church to hold us accountable. Let us build our lives on the solid foundation of Christ (1 Cor. 3:11; Eph.2:20) and grow toward the Father in a true, plumb vertical.
We finally get a glimpse here of Amos the man (sadly, there is no indication that famous Amos made cookies). Israel’s king, whom Amos had said would die by the sword, wanted the rabble-rouser out. Go back to where you came from! Amos replies, with startling sincerity, that he is a nobody, but God called him to prophesy anyway. And then he goes on prophesying all the more. This is what speaking truth to power looks like. There is no pretension or defensiveness, neither false modesty nor braggadocio. He just preaches God’s word and lets the chips fall where they may.
Chapter 8: “When will the new moon be over, that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath, that we many offer wheat for sale, that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great and deal deceitfully with false balances” (v.5) How often do we “do our duty” hoping that it is good enough to appease God? We go to church and do our prayers and even volunteer, but only as much as we have to so that we can get back to what we really want to do. This is not what God means by seeking good and not evil. There is nothing wrong with recreation and making money. But our lives are to be an integrated whole, all of it sanctified to God and sacrificed to His service. By separating our lives into the holy and the secular, we can justify sinning in the secular by atoning in the holy (e.g. I can be a little dishonest at work because I tithe). However, our entire life affects other people. For example, our consumerist lifestyles are built on the back of slave labor in the third world. We know that the Chinese run literal concentration camps, but are we willing to stop buying goods from them? On a smaller scale, how do you treat those who are below you on the economic scale? The way some (alleged) Christians treat grocery store clerks and fast-food workers says a lot about their actual commitment to the gospel. If you mistreat the wait staff at your after-church meal, then I would read Amos very carefully because it’s directed at you.
The scariest judgment of God is not locusts or plague or fire, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord (v. 11). If we continually refuse to listen to God, He could decide to stop talking. If we go through life assuming God will always bail us out of the consequences of our bad decisions, we will have a rude awakening. It’s not so much that God will stop talking to us as we will be too far away to hear. The solution is, as always, repentance, turning around and running back to Him. As a sign that once hung in my dad’s office used to say: “If you don’t feel close to God, guess who moved?”
Chapter 9: “If they dig into Sheol, from there shall my hand take them; if they climb up to heave, from there I will bring them down” (v. 2). Remind you of anything? “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” (Ps. 139:7-8). In that psalm, the context is joyful — we are never too far from God. But in Amos, the song switches to a minor key. There is no escaping from God if you wish to do wickedness or oppress others. Even your thoughts and dreams are not a refuge. The day of Lord comes for all. Whether that will cause for rejoicing or terror is up to you.
The book ends with a great shaking and a great rebuilding. Like the house built on sand (Matt. 7:26-7), God will blow away anything not built on the foundation of His Son. We are going through just such a shaking now. But let us hold on to the promise of restoration. In the ruins of the lives we thought we would live we will find the building materials for a new and better life and a new and better Church. As always, God promises abundant life to those who trust in Him. So what do we do in the meantime? Simple (though not easy): Hate evil and love good and establish justice.