Too Late Amos 8:4-14


Amos 8:4-14

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There is a great deal of repetition in the Bible. Holy Scripture hammers away at its main themes, no doubt in largest part because, sinful as we are, we have so much difficulty taking the truth to heart. There is little in the following verses that we have not heard before from Amos. Remember, we said that though these sermons were originally preached to a largely unbelieving congregation that remained impervious to Amos’ warnings, they were placed in Holy Scripture for us, not for the unbelieving world. This is part of that Scripture, God-breathed, that Paul said would make us wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. We need to hear Amos’ message in these verses and we need to hear it over and over again. We need to hear of God’s judgment; we need to hear of how easily people and even church people come to think that judgment poses no danger to them. We know that because that is the way the Bible is written. Our Heavenly Father has given us such a book. You parents tell me in how many cases you have had to speak to your children but once in regard to some important issue in their lives – once and never again!

Text Comment

v.4
“Here this…” in Amos introduces a new section. And we have heard Amos several times before on the exploitation of the poor by the wealthy and powerful in Israel.

v.6
Again we are treated to a description of Israel as religiously scrupulous, at least outwardly, – they observed the Sabbath and the other festival days punctiliously – but morally bankrupt. They didn’t do business on the Sabbath day, but couldn’t wait for it to be over so they could resume cheating their customers! They could buy the poor because the poor, paying too much for their food, were reduced to pennilessness and so, when unable to pay a debt, could be bought as slaves very cheaply.

v.7
From the very beginning of his covenant with Israel, Yahweh reminded his people that he would be a protector of the poor and would hold anyone accountable who misused them. Twice before in Amos we have heard the Lord swear – in 4:2 he swore by his holiness; in 6:8 he swore by himself – here he swears by the “Pride of Jacob” which may be another reference to him. In any case, the Lord’s promise to show no pity to those who showed none to others is a theme, you remember, that the Lord Jesus takes up again in the Gospels. In his parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18, for example, the servant who was shown mercy himself but who did not show it to another provoked his master to anger by his ungrateful hardheartedness and inhumanity and was handed over to jail and torture. The parable ends with the Lord saying, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” Israel had been poor and needy and the Lord had heard her cries for help in Egypt. But now she was being unmerciful and unheedful of the cries of the poor and needy. “How can you say you love me,” Yahweh said to Israel through Amos, “if you do not love and show mercy to one another?” No one can claim to love God and not practice mercy because God has shown himself a God of mercy, a God who loves mercy. “It is not just illogical that people should love mercy when they seek it from God for themselves and hate it when required to show it to others. The Scripture says that it is impossible. The unforgiving cannot be forgiven, the unmerciful cannot receive mercy.” [Motyer, 183]

v.8
The Promised Land will become a deathtrap for its inhabitants. [Stuart, 385] The Nile rose and fell every year and often caused great damage by its flooding. It was a useful illustration of the convulsion to come in the land of Israel. An enemy will sweep over Israel like flood waters and leave nothing but devastation behind. There is a proverbial character to the comparison with the Nile and you will notice that the same expression is used again in 9:5.

v.9
In Deut. 28:29, in the midst of the curses the Lord promises to bring upon his people if they are unfaithful to his covenant with them, we read: “At midday you will grope about like a blind man in the dark.” It is a metaphor for helplessness and confusion.

v.10
So catastrophic will be the death and destruction visited upon Israel that everyone left will be a mourner and the most bitter kind of mourner. Amos has issued this warning several times.

v.12
Yahweh will withdraw from his people and not speak to them. He will give them no word at all: not of comfort or direction; not even of rebuke. He will have spoken in his wrath. That will have been his final word to Israel. “Sea to Sea” means from the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean, so perhaps the thought is “from the south to the west” as that would form a pair with north and east. The idea would be that this will be true everywhere in Israel. [Or, Dead Sea to Mediterranean can even more naturally mean “east to west” so that the south is left out altogether: the south that represents Jerusalem and the true faith that Israel had rejected two centuries earlier.] [Motyer, 187]

v.13
The famine will be so severe that it will consume not only the old and weak but the young and strong.

v.14
Samaria’s shame is an obvious contrast to Jacob’s Pride in v. 7. It refers, as the next lines make clear, to the false gods who had been added to Yahweh’s worship at Israel’s shrines. To swear by a god, as Israel was doing by other gods than Yahweh, was to commit themselves to the reality of those gods and their power to help them. “You chose those gods over me,” Yahweh says; “let them save you now.” You will find they can’t! Devotedly religious hypocrites and idolaters who live immoral lives, especially lives without love for others, would find Yahweh implacable in his judgment.

There is a very interesting chapter in the history of the American war for independence. All of you have heard of Benedict Arnold, the able American general turned notorious traitor, who planned to deliver the fort at West Point into British hands. Some of you will have heard of John André, the British major, collaborating with Arnold, whose capture while carrying incriminating documents exposed the treachery to the Americans in time to prevent West Point’s capture. André was, by almost all accounts, an attractive person and he made a very favorable impression on his American captors. His British commander, General Henry Clinton, made elaborate efforts to secure André’s release once he had been captured, but to no avail. It is said that Clinton was devastated by André’s death. But, the fact is, André was a spy. By every convention of war then accepted by all the parties to the American revolution he was a captured spy and was guilty of a capital crime. He was caught behind American lines in civilian clothes, he was found carrying incriminating documents, he lied to his captors concerning his identity and his mission, and he was engaged in negotiations with an American general to commit an act that remains still today one of our republic’s defining act of betrayal and dishonor. General Washington is said to have regretted the necessity of it, having heard from many of the virtues of the man and even having had some of his senior officers plead for André’s life, but he signed the order for his execution as he knew he must and also refused André’s request to be shot – the accepted form of execution for a military officer – and ordered instead his death by hanging – the accepted form of execution for a spy. André himself argued strenuously for his release or his exchange, was even surprised that he was being treated as a spy. He was, at first, confident that he would somehow escape punishment; only as events unfolded did he realize that he was doomed. A nice guy, an admirable fellow who was, after all, just serving his country, was executed by hanging. That is the short form of the story.

What is quite interesting about this history as it was told and retold through the years is that André himself became something of a hero. At the request of the British, his body was eventually exhumed from the grave in which he was buried near the place of his execution in Tappan, New Jersey, and his remains re-interred in Westminster Abbey. Even Washington’s reputation was somewhat sullied by his role as André’s executioner. Some of Washington’s senior deputies thought less of their commander for his executive of Andre. I read one account of a 19th century American author, somewhat celebrated in her time, Lydia Maria Child, who made a pilgrimage to Tappan to see the place where André was executed and buried.

“I gazed on the surrounding woods,” wrote Mrs. Child afterwards, “and remembered that on this self-same spot the beautiful and accomplished young man walked back and forth a few minutes preceding his execution, taking an earnest farewell look at earth and sky.”

When a guide pointed down the hill to the small house about half a mile away that had served as General Washington’s headquarters at the time, Mrs. Child’s annoyed response was:

“I turned my back suddenly upon it. The last place on earth where I would wish to think of Washington is at the grave of André…From the first hour I read of the deed until the present day I never did, and never could, look upon it as otherwise than cool, deliberate murder.” [J.E. Walsh, The Execution of Major Andre, 1-2]

It is an almost perfect picture of what Christians encounter today as the world’s response to Amos’ warning of God’s impending warth. A man committed what he knew and everyone knew was universally regarded as a crime of the greatest magnitude. He knew precisely what the punishment for such a crime would be were he to be caught. The British had summarily executed Nathan Hale for precisely the same offense. Hale, in fact, had received no trial. Washington, though not required to do so, had convened a military tribunal to judge the evidence against Major André. He violated the law, he got what was coming to him, and yet many people throughout history since that time have condemned Washington for imposing the sentence that all military conventions imposed for captured spies. André, after all, was such a fine man!

Well, not quite so fine as he represented himself and as others represented him to be. He knew how to present himself in the best light and wasn’t necessarily careful about the facts. For example, in the few days between his capture and his execution he won over Alexander Hamilton in part with a story about his English sweetheart, whom he hoped to marry when he returned to England after his service in America. Honora Sneyd was her name, a lovely young blue-eyed brunette who lived in Litchfield, where André had courted her. They’d been torn apart by his military duties and his dearest possession was a miniature he’d painted of her before leaving England (if only he could hold it, see it now! But it was in his quarters in New York City). Hamilton, who had himself just become engaged to a beautiful girl listened to all of this with understandable sympathy. His heart went out to André, the doomed lover. That story became part of the André saga in the 19th century. But it was a lie.

There was such a young woman and André had courted her, had even asked for her hand. But she had refused him and happily married someone else. It can’t even be said that André was desolate to have lost her to another. In any case he had had no word of her for six years, the time he had been serving in America. He did not know that, in fact, she had died in childbirth two months before he told the story of his and Honora’s deathless love to Alexander Hamilton. Indeed, his supposed love for Honora had not prevented him from paying frequent attention to Yankee belles, including one Peggy Chew, the daughter of a prominent Philadelphia family. [Ibid, 60, 198] A good deal more, in fact, could be said to John André’s discredit. If you are interested, unlike Nathan Hale, who asked for a Bible and a chaplain the night before his execution, André asked for neither. He was not a Christian. He wished to die stoically, as a Roman, as Thomas Paine would later describe his state of mind.

Here was a man, considerably less worthy than people were led to believe, than he himself led people at the time to believe, who committed a crime and suffered the just punishment for that crime. But because he suffered punishment and because, in some ways, whether legitimate or not, he was a sympathetic figure, people are inclined to disparage, or if not disparage, at least to question his punishment.

And that suspicion of the justice of judgment – especially severe judgment –, that disparagement of punishment, and that tendency to think of people as better than they really are, less deserving of judgment than God says they are, form in our day a disposition fixed securely in the popular mind. Hardly anyone in our day thinks Israel deserved the terrible punishment that befell her.

Here, in our text, we have another account from Amos’ pen of Israel’s sin and the severity of the judgment God is about to bring against her, a judgment so implacable that it would effectively wipe the northern kingdom off the face of the earth and bring an end to the corporate life of ten of the twelve tribes of Israel. Many would die, the rest would become captives, and the nation would cease to exist. Its wealth, in which it took so much pleasure, would belong to another. And there is everywhere in our day a visceral unwillingness to believe that God should have done this.

One of the best and most suggestive commentators on Amos that I have been reading entitled his study of the text before us this morning, “The Impotence of God.” It is an arresting title and makes a true and very important point. God cannot show mercy to those who reject his mercy. He cannot save those who will not be saved. He cannot withhold his judgment from those who repeatedly and defiantly call down that judgment upon themselves. As he himself famously says, “God cannot be mocked.” We have already read earlier in Amos of Yahweh’s repeated efforts to call Israel back to himself. He punished her again and again to bring her to her senses but all to no avail. And now the point of no return had been passed. Israel had sinned herself into a moral stupor, she was insensible to the Word of God, and Yahweh had lost patience with her.

In reading Amos 8 I was reminded of a passage in C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain [116].

“In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell is itself a question: ‘What are you asking God to do?’… To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what he does.”

And in another place, Lewis says a similar thing:

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in hell choose it…no soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find.’ [The Great Divorce, 72-73]

And once more from The Problem of Pain [127]:

“I…believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.” [127]

Here were people who lived for themselves. They would not live for God – no matter that he was their maker, no matter that he had condescended to enter into covenant with them and promised them all manner of joys for ever and ever – they wanted their pleasures now and were unwilling to wait for the pleasures that faith in Yahweh alone could secure. Nor did they care that theirs were the kind of pleasures that dishonored and offended God. They were happy to set false gods beside Yahweh and worship them as well because they wanted to be like everyone else in the world of their day. The opinions of other men was far more important to them than the approval of the living God. No matter how many times Yahweh appealed to them, warned them, exposed their foolishness, they were adamant. They would live their own way. They as much as dared Yahweh to do something about it. He did! Believe me, there were among the Israelites of that day, even no doubt among the priests; there were even among the wealthy in Israel some likeable people. There were people among those swept away by God’s wrath with a good sense of humor, attractive personalities, even what the world thinks of as real character. They paid their bills on time; they were loyal to their country; they loved their families. But they had rejected God and the life to which he had called them. Like John André, they committed high crimes, but somehow they were always surprised that anyone thought so and they never thought they would have to answer for them.

Amos foresaw that once the first stroke of divine wrath had fallen Israel would demonstrate a belated repentance. In verse 10 we read of the Israelites mourning, wearing sackcloth, and shaving their heads. They will cry out to Yahweh then, but still not in a spirit of true repentance. They will be desperate for any help he might provide but they will not sensible of their own folly, they will not admit that they brought this judgment upon themselves by their own faithlessness, disobedience, and rebellion. That is clear from the fact, reported in v. 14, that in that same day they will still be found calling on other gods and looking to their idols as well as to Yahweh. They will be just like a husband protesting his loyalty and love to his wife, exasperated that she doesn’t believe him, all the while conducting affairs with other women. Hello!

And, again, in v.12 we read that when God’s wrath is finally unleashed against Israel there will be those that will want a word from the Lord, but they will not find it. They will want a prophet of the Lord to come then and speak to them on Yahweh’s behalf then, but none will come. The Lord will have spoken his last word to those people; he will know that they have no intention of believing what he says or obeying what he commands. They want relief from their trouble, but they still do not want to bow before the Lord God, confess their sins to him, and repent of their ways and put on righteousness according to the law of God. They will go to death or to exile still scratching their heads as to why all of this happened to them? What did they do? How come a people as punctilious in all their religious activities as they had been should suffer such a catastrophe? And, like John André, they will spin their story to make themselves look a great deal better than they really were. They won’t admit their cruelty to the poor, their deceitful and rapacious behavior as businessmen, their indifference to the suffering of others, their utter disregard for the covenant that Yahweh made with them and the law he gave to them, and their betrayal of the God of their fathers.

It is as if the whole world is John André but Yahweh is George Washington. Everyone pleading for the man’s life – he is such a fine fellow – but one implacable judge who understands the hard truth and is unwilling to bend to mere sentiment when truth and justice is at stake.

This is our task when reading the prophecy of Amos: not to permit ourselves to imagine that those people were any different from ourselves. They were human beings just as we are; they thought, spoke and lived, just as we do. There would be those among them we would admire for this or for that. We would be sorely tempted to think that such people as these should not be judged severely even if they weren’t faithful to God, even if they didn’t live their lives in obedience to him, even if in some important respects they repudiated and thought nothing of the gospel of Jesus Christ. While folk might not say it out loud, they would think like the Frenchman who said that of course God would forgive them: “C’est son métier…” It is his job.

But Amos cuts through all of that superficial and thoughtless sentimentality. Yahweh has spoken. There is a law according to which mankind will be judged, and all the more the church of God. God will not, he is not able to overlook the sins that have been committed, and, in any case, they are far weightier crimes than human beings are ever willing to admit. Like John André we are masters at presenting ourselves as too worthy to die, too good to suffer such stern punishment. But the Lord will have none of that. He knows the heart. He knows the life. And he has standards that he will not bend to suit people’s selfish indifference to him and his law.

Many years ago now, a member of this congregation and a friend of our family was abducted a few blocks from our home after an evening of babysitting. Her captor assaulted her and put her through a horrible ordeal before releasing her the following morning. He was a Fort Lewis soldier and was caught quite quickly by the military police. I was at his trial on the post. The military tribunals conduct their trials more swiftly than the civilian courts. He was tried and sentenced on the same day. I listened to the case being made against him and watched him sitting there. Angry as I was at the harm he had done to our friend I couldn’t help but have some sympathy for him, sitting there, his life in ruins, nothing stretching before him but years and years of hard time. I wondered where he came from and what kind of family life he had had. I suspect that in most of the ways we judge a person we know only casually, we might have said that he wasn’t a bad guy. But he had committed a serious crime and the judge did what he should have done and punished him severely for it.

And that is what Amos is telling us as he told Israel to no avail. You cannot rebel against God with impunity. You can seem to; you can prosper for a time in your indifference to God and his law. God is patient and his patience often gives people the mistaken impression that God will never insist that our lives – the life of every human being – be judged according to his law and his will. But the fact is, the reality is, he does insist, he will insist, and when he does he will be implacable in his determination that justice be done. And when the Assyrian arrives at your door it will be altogether too late to wish that you had paid attention when God was speaking to you!