After a Sunday away for Pentecost, we return to Amos. The prophet began, you remember, by condemning the nations that surrounded Israel for their sins and promising God’s judgment. All of that, however, was not so much for their sake but to underscore his condemnation of Israel herself for the same sins her pagan neighbors were guilty of. If those nations would not escape God’s wrath, how much more must Israel face – who has sinned against God’s grace and God’s covenant with her – face God’s judgment. Indeed, as Amos makes a point of saying in chapter 3, it is precisely because Israel is God’s people that her judgment will be so severe. In chapter 4 Amos recounted the many times the Lord had sought to call Israel back to himself, all to no avail. Indeed, Israel had passed the point of no return. There was no longer hope of her restoration. She has dinned herself into a moral stupor so profound that she could not see nor hear the truth. She could not see herself for what she had become. She was happy, confident and self-satisfied in her rebellion against God and could not be made to see that God’s wrath was about to befall her.
But, as if the Lord, and his prophet Amos, could not bear to contemplate this outcome, they call upon Israel one last time. The message of this next chapter that we are about to read is: “Repent and turn to God before it is too late.” To be sure, there is no expectation that the nation as a whole will do so, but perhaps some will. As we read in v. 15: “Perhaps the Lord will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph.” Chapter 5, verses 1-17, is an eloquent plea addressed to the nation of Israel as a whole in hopes that at least some of her people will hear it and respond.
- A lament is a dirge, a sad or melancholy song. In the ancient world laments were songs composed to aid in mourning. This was Israel’s funeral lament, but sung before her death by one who knew what was to come. The commentators point out that the poetry of these three verses has the typical form of Hebrew laments. That is, it would sound to Hebrew ears like a funeral dirge. The idea was to impress Amos’ hearers with the fact that they were hearing their own funeral dirge. The idea is that of having living men see their own funeral procession and hear over themselves the “dust to dust and ashes to ashes…” [Pusey in Motyer, 108n] We must remember, throughout our reading of this prophecy, it makes all the difference to remember that all that the prophet predicted came true. Catastrophe overwhelmed Israel and wiped her from the face of the earth just a few decades after this.
In any case, there is not simply the tone of angered and righteous offense in Amos’s preaching; there is as well the tone of sorrow and deep regret. [Motyer, 119-120]
- The virgin daughter is a young woman who ought to have her entire life ahead of her – marriage and children – but instead is alone, deserted, and fallen. Her future is in ruins. Remember that when Amos preached this prophecy Israel was at the height of her prosperity under Jeroboam II. No one imagined the Götterdamerung that was so rapidly approaching and soon to befall her. Of course we can think of that in respect to many things. The Titanic made it most of the way across the Atlantic just fine, but now no one thinks it important to say how well the voyage was going before the iceberg was struck! It was the sinking of the ship that defined its life.
- Israel’s vaunted military strength will be wrecked. Her soldiers will be slaughtered in battle. This is another of the covenant curses threatened for covenantal unfaithfulness in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Amos has already make clear that Israel’s destruction would come through military conquest.
- Israel has sought the favor of Yahweh by a ritual he did not value or respect [Driver, 176] and all of her sanctuaries will suffer his wrath.
- Bethel, Gilgal, and Beersheba were important sites in Israel’s history and the history of the covenant and apparently in all three cities were shrines to which Israelites were then making faithfully pilgrimage, even to Beersheba, which lay at the southernmost end of the southern kingdom of Judah. But, of course, none of the three was Jerusalem where the temple was and where the true worship of Yahweh alone could be offered. Amos is once again pointing out the futility of Israel’s religious life and zeal. They make pilgrimage but to the wrong place; they offer worship but worship that offends the Lord rather than pleases him. Everything they are doing is making matters worse not better.
- “House of Joseph” is another name for the northern kingdom because Ephraim, Joseph’s son, was the northern kingdom’s principal tribe. Destruction by fire is another of the covenant curses. [Stuart, 347]
- Amos has already described the extent to which injustice and unrighteousness now characterized Israelite life.
- The account of Israelite injustice is interrupted by two verses that remind the Israelites of the power and majesty of the God whom they have offended and the impossibility of her standing up to his wrath. Amos did the same thing in 4:13.
- They come back from the pilgrimages unaltered, as unrighteous as they were before. Their religion does not touch their living.
- Another account of Israel’s unrighteousness: they are heedless of the claims of justice and God’s law. But the Lord knows all that she is thinking, saying and doing. It never ceases to amaze me as a minister that people really do think that somehow or other God doesn’t know what’s going on in their lives; but God does know.
- Farmers will have to be summoned to wail because there will not be enough professional mourners to go around!
- Yahweh will pass through Israel as her destroyer, as he passed through Egypt long before.
It is an odd but fundamentally important fact that the majority of Israelites in Amos’ day thought that God was with them and that they were the beneficiaries of his favor. They were confident that their religious activities – their sacrifices and their pilgrimages – pleased God and disposed him to bless them. As Amos acknowledges in v. 14, the Israelites were saying that Yahweh was with them! As Amos will describe them in 6:1 the Israelites of his day were “complacent in Zion” or “at ease in Zion,” as the old King James version has it. They thought all was well. They felt fine before God.
But repeating his indictment of their unbelief and disobedience, Amos summons Israel to repentance. That is what the editors of the NIV call it. They give this paragraph the title “A Lament and Call to Repentance.” Now the term repentance does not appear in the chapter, but “repentance” is an accurate summary of what Amos is after. To be sure, the editors could have titled the paragraph “A Call to Faith.” That too is what chapter 5 is about, Israel’s lack of faith in Yahweh and her need to believe. Indeed, as general terms, faith and repentance are virtually synonyms in the Bible. In the Gospels, for example, sometimes Jesus tells his hearers to repent and sometimes to believe. In Acts, on one occasion, Peter tells a congregation that wants to know how to be saved that they should repent. On another occasion Paul tells a man who wants to know how to be saved to believe. They are two sides of the same coin. The ideas can be distinguished, but in a heart and life they exist together in a single fundamental disposition of the heart and life toward God. But then what is this disposition? But what is this repentance (or, for that matter, this faith) that Amos is urging upon Israel? What does it consist of? Amos will tell us very clearly here. In fact the great importance of this chapter of the Bible is the very straight forward account it gives of what it is that God is looking for from us.
It is very important that we answer that question as the Bible answers it. It is very easy for Christians to fall into ways of thinking about spiritual things that though they might be incorrect and may be very well-meant they are nevertheless not entirely faithful to the Bible’s teaching. It is not only very easy for Christians to mistake and to misrepresent the Bible’s teaching about such fundamental things it has happened many, many times.
For example, in our modern Protestant evangelical world, faith and repentance are often defined they are often thought about as a particular kind of experience, which is a way the Bible does not define them. Many of us, for example, grew up very familiar with the “altar call.” We were taught to think that salvation usually came to someone in an experience of crisis: a recognition (often quite dramatic and quite sudden) of one’s sin and guilt and then a sudden impulse often accompanied with great joy to surrender one’s life to Christ. People described their conversions to us in these terms and we came to think that conversions happened in pretty much the same way for everyone, with only the measure of emotion or the superficial details being different from case to case. It was this understanding of conversion of faith and repentance, so common in evangelical Protestantism over the past 250 years, that led many to suspect the genuineness of the faith and the repentance of people who did not have experiences like these. That tendency for evangelicals to think of faith and repentance in terms of a particular kind of feeling, a particular sort of experience, a certain set of emotions goes back very far and is deeply rooted in the evangelical mind, and is still very much with us today in an even more debased form. It was a problem in the time of the Great Awakening and sometimes led even very good and very wise men astray.
To put it bluntly, this concentration on experiences and emotions and feelings when it came to faith and repentance led to a great deal of nonsense and a very great deal of confusion. Many of you have heard all the life about Susanna Wesley, the mother of John and Charles. She is universally admired by evangelical Christians for her piety and her faithful mothering of her large family. She is by both professional biographers of the Wesleys and by the evangelical world as a whole given most of the credit for producing the sons who were to be such a blessing to the world. But did you know that according to her sons, John and Charles, their mother did not really become a Christian until three years before her death at 73 years of age, after all the work of her life was complete. In the unfortunate poem that Charles wrote for his mother’s gravestone her entire life “as mother, wife, teacher, and disciple, was summed up as ‘a long night of griefs and fears, a legal night of seventy years.” Why? Why would her own sons think that their mother was not a genuine Christian until virtually the very end of her life? Why would they think that even though throughout their own lives they often spoke warmly of her evangelical piety? She believed in Christ as God, she knew herself a sinner, she would have gladly said she trusted Christ for her salvation, and she lived by all accounts a distinguished Christian life. Why should she not be regarded as a Christian? Because she had not had what had come to be regarded in early Methodist circles as the defining experience of true faith – an emotional experience of dread in the recognition of one’s guilt before God overcome by ecstasy in the recognition of her forgiveness in Christ. She didn’t have that, apparently, according to her sons until during a Lord’s Supper three years before her death.
But the Bible never says that real Christians will always have such experiences or have such feelings. The largest part of believing Christendom is the product of Christian homes and vast numbers of such believers never had such experiences of sudden crisis and radical, immediate and powerfully emotional spiritual transformation. Think of how little we know about the spiritual experience of many of the heroes of faith in the Bible and how many of them, so far as we know, were believers from very early in their lives. There are a great, great number of Christians who never had a conversion experience; I am one of them and some of you are among them as well. There is nothing more wonderful than to see an unbelieving life suddenly and powerfully shaken and transformed by the grace of God, but most Christians do not become Christians that way.
There are reasons why the Bible does not place great emphasis on inner experiences or feelings or emotions when it teaches us the meaning of faith and repentance and the true nature of spiritual life. One is that those experiences can be shared by people who are not truly transformed by the grace of God and who do not last as Christians and who for that reason we know never, ever came to live the Christian life in a sincere and legitimate way. One of John Wesley’s sisters married Westley Hall, one of the brightest lights among the early Great Awakening preachers. John Wesley himself admired Hall and even on several occasions in his journals admitted that he craved to be like him. He said that every day Hall seemed to have achieved all the holiness possible in one life, but every evening had gone unimaginably further. Wesley had a tendency to exaggerate. He gushed on one occasion, “O may I be a follower of him as he is of Christ!” But after some years as a leading Methodist preacher, and after a string of seductions of his women hearers, he turned away from the gospel, became a deist, and after deserting Martha, John Wesley’s sister, took another woman with him to the West Indies. Hall had all the experience in the world; so much so that he was for sometime virtually worshipped by other Methodists, but he had neither living faith nor a Christian life. [I could gather these illustrations from anywhere they are thick on Christian ground. I happen to be taking them from the life of the Wesleys because I am reading a fascinating new biography of the great man by Steven Tomkins. (S. Tomkins, John Wesley, 41)]. The Bible prepares us for this, of course. Nothing in anyone’s experience revealed Judas to be a traitor ahead of time, and the Lord Jesus tells us in his parable of the soils that some would receive the word with joy only to fall away in due time.
As I said, I do not doubt that there are powerful experiences of sudden, dramatic and deeply emotional conversion. We know people who came to Christ in that way and we know of many in the history of the church whose spiritual experience included a sudden crisis of illumination, deep feelings of contrition, and thrilling, joyful acceptance of new life in Christ. Think of Zaccheus in Jericho, or the 3000 on Pentecost Sunday, or the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus, or the Philippian jailer, or Augustine in the garden of the villa in Milan, or Luther in the Tower, or Pascal’s heart on fire that long ago night in 1654, or Spurgeon that snowy Sunday morning in that almost deserted church. But the experiences of such people are by no means the norm, still less are they a law for everyone else. A great many more believers came to faith in Jesus Christ in other ways either when they were very small in their Christian homes or in their adulthood but not in such powerful experiences of dread overcome by ecstasy. For many conversion is more like the coming of dawn in northern latitudes when it is almost impossible to tell when the night has become the day. Cesar Malan, the convert of the 19th century French revival said, “God awoke me as a mother wakens a child with a kiss.”
Another reason why experience, emotion, and feeling do not loom large in the Bible’s account of true conversion and genuine faith and repentance is that experience is easily faked and when it becomes the measure of true life there is a reason to fake it and many do wittingly and unwittingly. And in such a situation there is an almost irresistible temptation to exaggerate one’s experience, even to lie about it. To one’s self as well as to others. John Wesley always had to pare down the membership of his Methodist societies, culling out the ones whose experience gained them entrance but whose lives showed no signs of change. Wesley himself, who regularly made people’s feelings and experiences far too much the measure of their faith and holiness, did not always resist the temptation to exaggerate and, regrettably, even to misstate the facts about peoples experience. When experience is the proof of your position you need the experience to be everything that it’s supposed to be. For example, real Christians, Wesley thought, would meet death with calm, peace and joy. And, accordingly in his published Journal his account of his mother’s death includes the information that she met her death “without any struggle, or sigh, or groan.” John had been at her bedside and wrote his brother Charles after she died that Susanna had been the entire time “struggling and gasping for life.” [Tomkins, 104] We have enough trouble telling the truth about ourselves without being encouraged to make up stories about our feelings, stories that, told often enough, we can come to believe ourselves! The fact is there is nothing Christians find it easier to misjudge or to exaggerate than their feelings and their inner states. We all think we love more than we do, we all think we are sadder for our sins than in fact we are. Now I say all of this because in our post-modern day feelings and emotions and inner states are still more the measure of things. Even for Christians these last 250 years, at least, you had to be strongly emotional about the depth of your sin and guilt and strongly emotional about the love of Christ and the forgiveness of sins. In our debased and superficial emotionalism in this post-modern day, you just have to feel nice thoughts about God. People assume that if they are well disposed toward and have no hard feelings toward him, he must be well disposed toward them. In a world of feeling and not of truth, which is the world in which you and I are living today, anything else would not be fair.
But you will notice that there is very little of this in the Bible. In defining faith and repentance the Bible does not speak of it as a particular kind of experience or feeling or emotion. In describing the particular experience of someone who comes to faith and forsakes his sins, the Bible sometimes says something about his emotions, and his feelings, but usually does not. Most conversions in the Bible are reported, they are not described. In fact, amazingly so, the quintessential conversion of the New Testament, the conversion of the Apostle Paul, is reported four times in the New Testatment, and never once are we told what the Apostle Paul felt when he encountered Christ on the Damascus road. Paul, later on, in recounting that history, about himself, never tells us what he felt about it all on the Damascus road. Baptism, we think, should be a powerful experience. People should have deep feelings at that time if no other. But we are not told even once what anyone thought or felt at his or her baptism. In the Bible the question is not so much how Christ came in but that he is in. Not how we feel about it, but what we are doing about it. And when the Bible teaches us how to test for true faith and true repentance, it never teaches us to look for particular kinds of experiences, doesn’t ask us how we feel about this one thing or another. It points us rather to our theological commitments and to our behavior, our conduct. When the Apostle John writes his first letter to tell a community of Christians how to be sure they really are the children of God and are not simply temporarily or outwardly or hypocritically so, he teaches them to examine their commitments to God and to Christ and their behavior, but he says nothing about and shows no interest in what experiences they might have had when they came to faith in Christ or how strong their feelings may be about their sins or about their salvation.
I say all of that to help you see how typical this passage in Amos is in what it says about faith and repentance and how important it is. The great value of this text for us is precisely the clear account it gives us of what it is that God requires of us. It tells us in a very homely way what it means to believe and to repent. And that is a supremely important thing to know. Amos does not dwell on what he wants Israel to feel about her sin and her relationship to God. He does not describe what true contrition and sorrow for sin will feel like. Rather, he tells Israel what she must do.
He wants them to forsake their misguided confidence in their false worship and to look to Yahweh himself for their peace, their hope, and their salvation. They were looking to rituals not to the Lord himself. They were counting on their religious activity, their religious deeds – their sacrifices and their pilgrimages to the holy places – but had forgotten that the Lord had offered himself to his people directly and had called on them to know him. Israel was doing every manner of thing so as not to have to deal with Yahweh directly, personally! They were keeping him at arm’s length when they ought to have been seeking him! That is what is required; that and nothing else! So what does the Lord say? “Seek me and live, do not seek Bethel!” “Seek me, not Bethel!” The whole world around us is seeking Bethel everyday not seeking the Lord himself! You are putting your trust in the wrong place; you are counting on the wrong things. “Seek the Lord and live.” Make the Lord himself the destination of your pilgrimage. Israel was like a bride on her honeymoon, enjoying all the sights, eating marvelous food, sunning herself on a pristine beach, all the while ignoring the groom she came with. She is all about marriage but she is not about her husband. I’ve known spouses like that. They were all into marriage, but they weren’t much into their husband or their particular wife. But it cannot be so in this relationship between bride and groom! Israel was assuming that if she felt right about God, she must be right with God, and it was not so.
This living God, so dramatically described in terms of his power and majesty in vv. 8 and 9, this Creator and Judge: you must turn to Him, you must count on him, you must look to him, you must seek his forgiveness, and ask for his mercy, says Amos. You have to know him. He alone can save you from the disaster that looms over you. The situation is far more serious than you think.
That is the first part of the definition of true faith and true repentance: a living conviction that your life is in God’s hands, that he and he alone can deal with your sins, that he and he alone can give you what you need, can protect you from the consequences of your life, sinful life as it is, and that he will save those who turn to in him. True faith in the heart is the conviction that the first and last thing in a human beings existence is peace with God, the favor of God, and the presence of God. The meaning of life is this: we were made to live with God but our sins have driven us away from God, and the only way back to God is by God’s mercy which he extends to those who look to him. That is why Christ, the Son of God, came into the world for no other reason but as he says “to save his people from their sins” and why he says that he is the way, the truth, and the life and that no one comes to the father but by him. We’ve got to get to the Father, this is man’s problem, we’ve got to get to the Father, and the only way to the Father is the way the Father himself provided in his Son, Jesus Christ. Israel like so many other generations of religious people, and all people are religious in one way or another, was seeking some other way than the way of living faith in the living God; some other way in the life that had to be lived with this concentration on two self evident and luminous persons, God and you. Amos was calling her back to Yahweh himself. “Seek the Lord not Bethel!”
And, then, said Amos, you must live according to God’s law. That is the second part of true faith and repentance. If you really are reckoning with the Living God, if you are really counting on Yahweh himself to show you his mercy, to forgive your sins and grant you peace with him, if you really expect to receive favor from the hand of the Lord himself, if you have been wonderfully impressed by the greatness of God and believe that he will be merciful to you a sinner, then you will, in the nature of the case, as we read in vv. 14-15, not only “seek good and not evil” but you will “hate evil and love good.” Anyone who reckons with the Lord and is looking directly at him as the living God, the holy judge, who is also the savior of his people, anyone who confesses that the Lord is known by his people and is merciful to them who call upon him, will in the nature of the case accept that his will, his law is right and good and will want to keep that law. Such people always have these two interests: to know God’s will and to do it.
Feelings be damned if you are not willing to do what God says. That is what Amos is calling upon people to do. I don’t care over much about your inner experience; your feelings or your emotions. I won’t count up the tears you shed when you turn to God. There is a real emotion in true Christianity and I fully expect that real Christians will know that well enough. There is sorrow over sin and fear of God’s just judgment and there is joy in believing and a delicious thrill in the knowledge that your sins are forgiven and that you have been granted a place in the family of God forever. But people will feel these things differently and in greater or lesser measure at one time or another. And some people will have these feelings very powerfully only to have them dissipate and disappear over time.
But a real Christian will have his or her eyes locked on the Lord himself, high in majesty and wonderful in mercy and love, and will seek to offer his or her life in obedience to God. He will not think very much about why: he will simply know for a certainty that this God should be obeyed, must be obeyed, and that in obedience to him a human being will find the true fulfillment of his life.
The problem with Israel was not that she didn’t have a certain kind of experience or emotion or feeling. The problem was not that she did not feel well-disposed toward God, she did, and she thought God was blessing her. She was happy with Yahweh, she liked Yahweh. The problem was that she was not counting directly on Yahweh for her salvation and the proof of that was she was not willing to do his will as he had revealed that will in his covenant and law. True conversion to God, true faith and true repentance always has these effects: it makes a person conscious of the Lord himself as the object of his hope, his trust, his confidence, his love, and his loyalty and it makes a person eager to do God’s will and live as the Lord would have him live. Trust and obey for there’s no other way!
Israel had piled a great many things between herself and God – her prosperity and pleasure, her religious life, her busy life of work, – and the Lord had slipped out of her view. He no longer dominated Israel’s horizon. He himself was no longer the focus of her thoughts and her interests, her intentions, her loves and her hatreds. And having lost sight of him, she lost interest in his law. The law of the Lord is important to people only because it is the law of the Lord. If he is not important to them, his will won’t be either. If they have lost sight of his love and goodness, his justice and judgment, his majesty and glory, they won’t see those things in his law either.
“Perhaps the Lord will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph.” Who belongs to that remnant? It is those who seek the Lord himself, not Bethel, and those who seek good and not evil. A chapter of the Bible like this one should be read by serious Christians, by people who regard themselves as serious Christians, as a summons to a simple self-examination. Am I really seeking the Lord, not religious activities, but the Lord himself in those activities? And am I seeking good, not evil in my daily life? You cannot put that question to yourself too many times, once a day is a minimum. Ask it and answer it. And make these two seekings – the Lord and the good your marching orders every day. It is the way, always and it is the only the way of those who do not perish but have everlasting life.