You will notice that our text runs through the first chapter division. Remember, the chapter divisions do not belong to the original text of the Bible being added a thousand years after Christ. It is not uncommon for the chapter divisions in our English Bibles to be incorrectly made and this is frequently the case in the prophets where often the principles by which the prophet divided his material were not as well understood a thousand years after Christ as they are today. In this case, the chapter division between chapters 1 and 2 is made between the fifth and the sixth similar section – each indicting a particular nation neighboring Israel for its sins and promising God’s judgment – each of the six sections having the same literary form as we will see. If the chapter division were to be properly made it would come either at the end of 2:3 or at the end of 2:5, depending upon whether Judah is to be regarded as simply the seventh in this series of oracles leading up to the one concerning Israel in 2:6 – as it certainly is – or is to be interpreted somewhat differently, Judah being not only a neighbor of Israel but her brother so that those two oracles or prophecies belong together. For our purposes this morning, we will read the first six of these oracles and take the one concerning Judah next time.
- Uzziah was king of Judah between 791 and 740 B.C. Jeroboam II (not the first Jeroboam who was the very first king of Israel after the division of the kingdom after the death of Solomon) was king of Israel from 793-753 B.C. So Amos’ ministry, which is never more precisely dated than here, fell in the first half of the 8th century B.C. Apparently what we have in the book of Amos is the preaching of the prophet over a comparatively short period of time, hence the “two years before the earthquake.” That earthquake must have been very powerful for it left its mark on Israel’s history. There is mention of it again hundreds of years later in Zechariah 14:5.
What is significant about Amos’ date is that at this time Israel was enjoying a measure of domestic affluence and international power that she had not known since the reign of Solomon. It is not for nothing that Jeroboam II is also known as Jeroboam the Great. Under these two kings the territory of Israel and Judah had expanded to the point that it almost encompassed all the land that David and Solomon had controlled two centuries before. It was a time of military conquest and economic prosperity. These days of prosperity were, however, unbeknownst to anyone but God’s prophets, to be short-lived and at the end of Jeroboam’s reign his kingdom was but a few decades away from total extinction.
Though his prophecy was directed to Israel, the northern kingdom, Amos himself was from Tekoa, a town in Judah five miles south of Bethlehem. He was a shepherd, a member of the lower classes. This is confirmed in 7:14 where he also says that in addition to his work as a shepherd, he cared for fig trees, another occupation of the lower classes. These were his occupations until the Lord commissioned him to be one of his prophets. His prophecy condemns the powerful, self-satisfied, wealthy upper class that had developed in Samaria, the capital of Israel and another name for the kingdom of Israel.
- A well-known and valuable commentary on Amos by the English evangelical scholar J.A. Motyer bears the subtitle, “The Day of the Lion.” The lion as a dangerous predator is an image of the Lord’s avenging wrath, the great subject of this book. This is the roar of a lion about to pounce, ready to lunge at its victim. And the blight of divine wrath will fall from the luxurious river valleys to the top of the mountains, from Amos’ grazing lands in the south to the far north of Israel’s realm.
You’ll notice that he roars from Jerusalem. Israel, of course, by its sinful schism, had voluntarily cut herself off from the temple in Jerusalem and its worship, but that is where the Lord’s presence was represented, not in the false sanctuaries of Samaria.
- Amos was a monotheist and an exclusivist. He had no sympathy for the pluralism of his day. There is but one God and all the nations of the earth belong to him. And all are subject to his moral rule. However, the recurring phrase, “for three sins…even for four” is an important reminder of the Lord’s mercy demonstrated in his patience. The punishment did not fall upon the first sin, or the second, or the third. There is no rush to judgment on God’s part. He waits until every opportunity for repentance has been extended. God’s face toward the world is one of mercy, until the world has too long shown itself uninterested in God or his holiness. [Motyer, 30] The six nations listed in the following verses are the principal nations bordering on Israel. So they are world as Israel encountered it. Other prophets will go still further afield in making the same points that Amos makes here.
- It is a point we will come back to, but you will notice that these pagan nations are not condemned by the Lord for their false worship, or their erroneous, even revolting religious beliefs and practices [Motyer, 37] but for their violations of the obligations they owed to other human beings. In Syria’s case, her barbarity and inhumanity in war.
- Gaza, standing for Philistia as one of its chief cities, is also accused of brutality. The first two nations are accused of the same crimes.
- Tyre was involved in the inhuman trade in slaves but the sin for which she is to be destroyed is her violation of a treaty or covenant she made with another nation, apparently with Israel: a treaty of brotherhood. That is significant because it makes a second pair with Edom who is also condemned for violations of brotherhood, as we read in v. 11.
- Edom has already been implicated in slave-trading, in vv. 6 and 9, but the fourth sin for which God’s wrath will befall her, is that of Tyre, her violations of filial and covenantal bonds. Edom was, indeed, Israel’s brother, descended from Esau as Israel was from Jacob, Isaac being the grandfather of both. But Edom had long harbored animosity toward Israel and had often done her worst to Israel.
- Teman was Edom’s southernmost city; Bozrah its northernmost, so the entire country will suffer God’s wrath.
- The last pair of nations, Ammon and Moab, are condemned for atrocities committed against the most vulnerable, fragile, and helpless of human beings: pregnant women and their unborn children in the first case and dead bodies in the second. And the Ammonites did this for temporal advantage, to enlarge their borders. They stepped on the weak to advantage themselves.
- Rabbah was Ammon’s only significant city. The account of her destruction indicates that, as before with Syria in v. 15, the Lord’s judgment will befall these nations through attack by a conquering power. That power, of course, would prove to be Assyria, whose devastating incursions into Palestine lie only a few years in the future.
- There was a vicious hatred between Moab and Edom which explains the senseless and irrational spite that drags a corpse from its tomb and subjects it to brutal indignities. [Motyer, 45] The purpose may have been to prevent the king of Edom – at least symbolically – from participating in the resurrection, the assumption being that the original body’s remains would be fleshed out at the resurrection and if there were no such remains there could be no fleshing out. [Stuart, 314-315]
There are a number of important theological truths enshrined in these opening paragraphs of the prophecy of Amos. We have already mentioned Amos’ monotheism. There is but one living and true God and all peoples are subject to him and all must stand before his judgment. This is a most important truth for us to remember when so many are being taught that there are many roads that lead to God. As in the Old Testament, so in the New Testament, there is one God, one gospel, one salvation, and one judgment day for everyone.
Further, Amos lumps the nations and the people of God together in sin and guilt before a holy God in very much in the same way as Paul does in the first three chapters of his letter to the Romans. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Everyone needs the grace of God because everyone has offended God.
Further still, the sins of the nations are sins of which they are guilty and, so it is assumed by Amos, they should know themselves guilty. We have here a study in the reality of the conscience. The Bible makes this point often and in different ways. The law of God is written on the heart of every man. He knows, at least in general, the obligations he bears to other human beings and he knows when he has failed to meet those obligations. Paul speaks of the conscience of the Gentiles, who do not have the law of God, bearing its witness, accusing and defending their conduct. Paul even says that though the people of the world know God’s righteous decree and know that those who sin against the obligations that human beings have toward one another deserve punishment, they continue to do those very things. In other places he assumes that unbelievers know that incest is wrong and that it is a sacred obligation for someone to care for his family. Well, we have the same idea here in Amos. The Philistines, the Tyrians and the Edomites would never themselves wish to be captured and then sold as slaves, the very thing they did to others. They would deeply resent such a thing and consider it a high crime were it to have been done to them. But they did it to others. The pregnant women and their unborn children in Gilead had never done anything to the Ammonites and it was utterly wrong for the Ammonites to treat them as they did. A human life is sacred—everybody knows that—and to desecrate a corpse is an evil thing to do.
In all our understanding of human life we begin with this conscience, this inner moral faculty of judgment within us that stands apart from us and will condemn us when we violate what we know full well are universal and unchanging standards of right and wrong. The conscience can be seared, to be sure. Good can be called evil and evil good. But this conscience is never fully silenced and it remains as a basis of God’s just judgment of mankind. It is a reality to which Christians can testify as surely as non-Christians, an inner judge we share with all other human beings. It unites us all as moral creatures standing before a holy God.
One of the anecdotes from Donald Caskie’s wartime experiences that I did not share with you last Lord’s Day morning concerned a young British soldier, named David, who had been captured by the Germans early in the war, but had escaped and made his way to Marseilles and Caskie’s Seamen’s Mission. At night this poor man would wake up the other soldiers screaming in his sleep. Eventually he told Caskie what was causing his inner turmoil. He was the only son of a widow and a member of a small Christian church in Yorkshire. While in the German prison camp he was amazed to discover that one of the German guards was a Christian from the same denomination as his own. They became friends. The German guard allotted David a job, but while he was supposed to be carrying out his task he seized the opportunity and made his escape.
He had not gone far when a German soldier riding a bicycle and looking for the escapee stopped to investigate David’s hiding place. It was a construction site and when the soldier drew near, holding a pistol in his hand, David beat him over the head with an iron bar he had found lying nearby. He beat him until the soldier was dead. To his horror, David found himself staring into the face of the kind German soldier, his brother in Christ, who had befriended him in the camp. Images of the man’s face continued to haunt him afterwards. [Don Stephens, War and Grace, 195-196]
Now everyone understands what haunted that man; everyone gets the brutal moral reality. You don’t have to be a Christian to understand it or to feel it.
Or consider this from a Christian friend writing me the other day. “I was in Thailand a number of times over the past 9 months. One night, while walking from a restaurant to my hotel, I saw a beautiful young girl, about 12 years old, prostituting herself. I looked her straight in the eye and saw nothing but terror. It was clear that she was new at this, unlike the older girls in the group. Maybe that was her first night on the street. I could not have helped her if I had tried. I knew that even if I had stopped and thrown all my money and energy into the situation that it would not have helped a bit. I would have only caused legal trouble for myself and been thrown out of the country. And that little girl would rapidly find herself back on the street. I wanted to burn down the whole world.”
Once again, most everyone knows the evil, the pure unmitigated evil that put that precious little girl on the street. Even the pimps who control her and the men who use her would never, never want that fate to befall their own sisters or their own daughters.
Oh yes; we know. We know very well what is right and what is wrong. But we do wrong, much wrong. Everyone does. Cruelty, indifference, hypocrisy – taking violent umbrage at the sins of others when we have often enough committed those very sins ourselves – that is the story, the sad story of every human life. The denial of that reality – in so many ways, in so many religions and philosophies of life – more than anything else cuts one off from reality. If there is no adequate answer to human sin in a religion or a philosophy of human life, then that religion or that philosophy leaves unanswered the vital question. It cannot help us where we most need help.
This is the harsh, brutal reality of human life and it lies at the base of Amos’ charge against these nations and his threat of divine wrath about to befall them – which it did, by the way. The Lion did roar and every one of those countries was shattered, multitudes were killed, many more were carried off into captivity as slaves to work for their Assyrian masters in some other part of the world. And, says Amos, the one absolutely incontestable fact is that they got what they deserved. So it is not only human sin and guilt but the reality of divine wrath that must be faced. These are facts not ideas; the stuff of history not opinion.
But the question then must be faced: why should Christians pay attention to these realities? After all, we have acknowledged our sinfulness and found forgiveness through Jesus Christ. Why should we spend some Lord’s Day mornings groveling in Amos’ relentless exposure of the sins of the unrepentant and the unbelieving? Should we not move on from such things to happier things and talk instead about how to translate God’s grace in our lives into the service of others?
Well, apparently no. As important as it is for Christians to move on from their sin and to live out of their forgiveness, the Bible spends so much of its time and space on the subjects that dominate the preaching of Amos that it cannot be the case that believers have nothing to gain from going over this ground again and again. The Bible, after all, is written to the church and for believers. It has a message that unbelievers need to hear, but it is addressed to believers, even such preaching as we find in Amos. It was preached originally to a largely, though not exclusively unrepentant church, but its place in the canon of Holy Scripture has made it part of that God-breathed message that is useful in so many ways to believers.
But the point can be put more strongly. The fact is that Israel, the church, is really the point of the judgments pronounced by Amos on the nations round about her. The purpose of this first section is precisely to demonstrate that, as none of these nations will escape divine retribution for their sins, so Israel will be subject to the same judgment for her similar or greater sins, sins she committed against light and against privilege. [Driver, 95] The fact is Amos never preached these condemnations and judgments against the Philistines in Philistia or against the Tyrians in Tyre. This is all preaching to and against Israel. Amos is preaching, as we read in 1:1, “concerning Israel.” And these oracles of judgment against Syria and Philistia and Tyre and so on take their place in his preaching in a kind of argument a fortiori. If those nations will get what they deserve for their sins, how much more will Israel suffer God’s punishment for her sins.
If the Syrians and the Philistines are guilty of treating people like things, things to use and then to dispense with, things to treat with contempt unless they have some economic use, well, that is precisely what the wealthy in Israel were doing. They too were treating people like things. Had the Syrian commander been interviewed by a modern reporter concerning the brutality of his conquests, he certainly would have said something like, “There’s a war on. In war you hit the enemy with everything you’ve got and in as many ways as you can. It’s brutal business.” But that is the kind of argument the Israelite merchants would have made to someone complaining about their treatment of the poor. “Listen, it’s business. We aren’t running a charity here. Our competitors aren’t going to relax their efforts because we need to increase salaries and cut costs for the sake of the poor. And, by the way, what’s good for General Chariots is good for Israel.” That is the way people think, but it is not the way God thinks! You cannot treat people as things. [Motyer, 39-40]
And in the same way as the nations of Palestine mistreated the weak and preyed upon their vulnerability, so the wealthy in Israel did the same thing. Amos’ point is precisely that there was nothing that the pagan nations around were doing that Israel was not guilty of herself. And what was to happen to those nations must, for the same reason and for greater reasons, happen to Israel. Her privileges as God’s people and her storied history would not protect her if she refused to honor the Lord with her obedience and by living a life of love and goodness.
And, of course, as the whole Bible teaches, the very sins that Amos will expose in Israel we find in our own hearts and in the life of even faithful churches and faithful Christians. They may not be the sins of an unrepentant and faithless people, but they are the same sins nevertheless and the way to ensure that we do not come to take those sins lightly or to allow ourselves to indulge them is precisely to hear, over and over again, what God thinks of those sins and what he does to those who commit them who do not repent and forsake them.
And we could say the same thing about God’s wrath. It is as important for Christians to remember as it is for the world to learn in the first place that the God of the Bible, the Creator of heaven and earth, the living and true God, is equally a God of love and justice, of mercy andholiness, of grace and vengeance. The fear of God is not for unbelievers only, but, usually in the Bible, for Christians. In our hearts that fear of God is tempered wonderfully by the knowledge of his grace, mercy, and fatherly affection for his people – we encounter God through Jesus Christ who suffered and died for our salvation – but the requirements of his holiness remain. Indeed, there never would have been a cross apart from the inflexible demands of God’s holy justice. It is true that, as in Toplady’s hymn, the wrath of God “with me can have nothing to do” since “my Savior’s obedience and blood hide all my transgressions from view.” But still the wrath of a sin-hating God must remain a permanent part of the consciousness of a Christian. [Motyer, 32] It keeps him from taking his salvation for granted; it keeps him hard at work killing his sins and putting on righteousness in his daily life; and it keeps him alive to the fact that the world around him is doomed and that he must live his life as an ambassador of the gospel of Christ. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” Paul writes, “knowing that it is God who is in you…”
Israel was self-satisfied. Her churches were full. People continued to be very religious. Her prosperity seemed to her to be the proof of God’s favor. Even, according to several statements in this prophecy, the musical side of worship was at a high pitch. There was a great deal of good singing. But God and his Word had been forgotten. His grace was taken for granted, his law largely ignored. People were, in fact, doing what they pleased; not studying to know what would please the Lord. And, as a result, they went gaily on their way, climbing to ever higher heights of prosperity, never imagining that the end of all that they had worked for and so much more was just around the corner. It did not occur to them that their religious, social, and economic life was soon to bring down upon them not greater wealth but God’s avenging angel who would leave the country ravaged, Israel’s wealth despoiled, and her people – rich and poor alike – clothed in rags, trudging hopelessly eastward under the unrelenting desert sun to serve as slaves in some distant reach of the Assyrian empire.
God will not be mocked, whatever man sows that shall he also reap. Or, as Amos will put it later in his prophecy, “prepare to meet your God, O Israel.”
There is a very great deal of difference between studying a lion behind bars or glass in the city zoo and encountering the King of the Beasts all alone and defenseless, on the plains of the Serengeti. In the one case we enjoy the encounter, safe and secure in our confidence that the great cat cannot reach us. That is the way Israel was thinking about God. In the other case, finding ourselves alone with the cat not far away staring at us, the heart races, the pores open and run with sweat; terror grips the mind because it is perfectly obvious that if the cat decides to strike there is nothing that can be done. He is too fast to evade and too strong to overcome. The lion is death itself stalking us – and not just any death, but a vicious death as our flesh is torn and our limbs ripped from our bodies – the lion is death and we cannot escape.
Well the Lion roared in Amos’ day and has roared many times since and one can hear that roar wherever he goes in the world today. The fact that man so easily and readily ignores the sound is the index of his peril. But no one should hear the Lion’s roar more clearly or interpret its meaning more accurately or take it more to heart than those people who know God, who love him, and who, precisely because we came to understand and appreciate his justice and his holy wrath have put our trust in him for our salvation. We are the ones, we are the ones who, of all men, should take life most seriously because God is not mocked and he is angry at the wicked every day, and he does not clear the guilty. Writ large over this entire world is that banner, the very same banner that Amos strung up over the streets of Samaria:
“Prepare to meet your God, O Israel.”