FOR THREE SINS Amos 1–2
“They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed” (Amos 2:6–7).This prophet, who spoke out against the corruption that festered in ancient Israel during an age of unparalleled prosperity, reminds us that justice, not wealth, is a measure of national health.
The era of Jeroboam II in the eighth century B.C was a time of unparalleled prosperity in both Israel and Judah. Together the two kingdoms recovered most of the territory held in the time of David’s and Solomon’s United Kingdom. Jeroboam not only extended his nation’s territory, but also took control of ancient trade routes to the East, pouring vast wealth into Israel. This wealth was not distributed equally, a fact which caused great social dislocation. Many were forced to leave family farms and move to the cities, where they struggled to exist. The newly rich used their wealth to create great estates, in violation of the biblical statute calling for families to hold their land in perpetuity. The wealthy controlled the court system, and within years the majority was figuratively ground into the dust, disdained by the rich who exploited them without compassion or concern. At the same time, religion was popular, and many fine homes were constructed at Israel’s major worship centers, Bethel and Dan. There a religion that mixed biblical and pagan rites was enthusiastically practiced—and strongly condemned by Amos and other prophets of the era. It is against the background of a prosperous and complacent society, riddled with injustice and indifference to God, that Amos is to be understood. Was Amos welcomed in Israel? Not at all. His brief months of ministry stirred up opposition and the prophet, his mission complete, apparently returned to Judah and his sheep. Yet Amos’ written words remain an unmatched legacy: a call for justice that is as important for us to heed today as it was for indifferent Israel to heed so long ago.
The biblical concept of justice finds one of its most powerful expressions in Amos. The prophet cried out urgently against those who “turn justice into bitterness” (5:7), and begged the people of Israel to “maintain justice in the courts” (v. 15). In sharp detail the prophet defined the injustice that marred Israel’s society: “You hate the one who reproves in court and despise him who tells the truth. You trample on the poor and force him to give you grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine. For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins. You oppress the righteous and take bribes and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts. Therefore the prudent man keeps quiet in such times, for the times are evil” (vv. 10–13). But what is justice? The Hebrew words are mishpat, usually used when the text speaks of doing what is just, and shapat, which indicates the various functions of government. To do justice is to act in accord with one’s rights and duties under law, and implies an objective code against which a person’s acts can be measured. In Israel, as for Christians today, that objective code was found in the Scriptures. God’s revelation through Moses defined the Israelites’ duty to God and to neighbor. This standard was more than a list of rules and regulations. It was a call to love God and others, with statutes that illustrated the practical implications of love in the social sphere. Even more significantly, the code was an expression of the loving nature of God Himself, who is committed to doing right by all in His creation. This law was an expression of God’s own character; a model for all who yearned to be like the Lord. Unredeemed human beings can never be completely just, as justice is ultimately a quality of God alone. Yet the concern we express for others is to demonstrate, in every social relationship and in every social institution, the spirit of love that infused the Hebrew Scriptures. Justice, then, is showing love by doing what is right, as right is defined in God’s revelation of Himself and of His will for mankind. It is just this that Israel in the age of Jeroboam II failed to do. There was no love, only selfishness. There was no concern for others, only a passion for personal comfort. There was no commitment to God’s standards, only social conventions that openly favored the poor. God still calls His people to do justice. We are to show concern for the well-being of our fellow human beings, and to apply God’s standards in our personal and national lives. Only by a commitment to justice can we hope to avoid the wrath that Amos announced must soon fall on Israel.
Amos of Judah traveled to Israel to announce an imminent outbreak of God’s wrath on Israel’s hostile neighbors (1:1–2:5), and on Israel herself (vv. 6–16).
Understanding the Text
“The words of Amos” Amos 1:1.
Little is known of Amos beyond what is said in this verse. He was a resident of Tekoa, in the land of Judah. He identified himself as a noqed, a shepherd, who was given a vision and called by God to a prophet’s ministry. This is not, however, a common word for shepherd. It suggests a wealthy rancher, even though Amos pictured himself actively caring for his flocks (cf. 7:15). How appropriate that God should send Amos. Someone had to be sent to the prosperous of Israel, to charge them with injustice and selfishness. The fact that Amos himself was wealthy added weight to his words—and showed that a rich man can be truly righteous. It’s one thing for the poor to rail against the rich. It’s something else again for a wealthy man to stand up and speak out against his own class. The man in rags who shouts on street corners is easily dismissed by the proper of society. But the man in a Brooks Brothers suit, the member of the club who stands up and confronts other members with the sinfulness of their behavior, can’t be as easily dismissed. Each of us, like Amos, belongs to a social class. While God may call us to condemn the sins of those in a different stratum of society, we are most likely to be heard—and to be right!-if we take a stand against the sins that characterize our own class. “For three sins . . . even for four” Amos 1:3–2:5. The phrase, found in each oracle that Amos launched against one of Israel’s hostile neighbors, means simply “for repeated sins.” We can imagine Amos, climbing up on some prominent place, speaking to Israel’s “beautiful people.” He began his sermon by pointing to the northeast, toward Syria and Damascus. Loudly he proclaimed his news: for the repeated sins of this nation, so hostile to God’s people, the Lord “will not turn back My wrath” (1:3). Then, rotating slowly, Amos continued to denounce other nations in their turn. He spoke against Gaza and the land of the Philistines, against Tyre, against the Edomites and Ammonites, against Moab. How his listeners must have nodded and smiled! This was the kind of preaching they liked! And then, when Amos had turned full circle, he pointed south and cried out, “For three sins of Judah, even for four, I will not turn back My wrath” (v. 4). And at this, the crowd of Israelites must have broken out in loud cheering! At last their alienated brethren were going to get what they deserved. I imagine the Israelites who first heard this sermon never suspected what Amos was leading up to. They never noticed that in drawing a circle around them, Amos had made Israel the bull’s-eye! Every time you and I rejoice over the troubles of someone who “deserves whatever he gets,” we follow the example of those Israelites. We never stop to think that we too are guilty of faults and failings! In applauding the judgment of others, we condemn ourselves, for we agree that sins and failures should be judged. “I will send fire upon Judah” Amos 2:4–5. Amos was from Judah, but he had no illusions about his fellow countrymen. He knew the mass of the people had “rejected the Law of the Lord and have not kept His decrees.” He knew that many had “been led astray by false gods.” Before we condemn the sins of others, we need to be ready to confess our own. We cannot pronounce judgment, as if we were judges. All we can do is to confess the righteousness of God in condemning our sins, and thus take our place with those we warn. Amos did not come from a just society to criticize an unjust society. Amos came from a society he knew was sick with sin, to urge a nation terminally ill to face the fact that it was dying, and to turn to God for healing. This is the attitude we need to adopt when sharing Christ with others. Not the “holier than thou” attitude of some. But the humble urgency of one who knows how desperately he himself needed the healing he received at Jesus’ touch. “Now, then, I will crush you” Amos 2:6–16. Amos then turned to Israel and held up a mirror so that the people could see themselves as God saw them. He began with a brief catalog of sins that revealed the injustice which marked Israelite society. God is never indifferent to sin, wherever it may be found. Yet the sin that disturbs Him most is the sin found in those who claim to be His own.
Where Cash Counts(Amos 2)
Prosperity tends to drain the vitality of any people. It happened to ancient Israel. It happened to Rome. It happened to the British Empire. And it’s happening to America too. Why? Because with prosperity comes a subtle change in the values held by citizens of a nation. This was the message of Amos to his contemporaries. Your values are turned upside down. Those distorted values doom you to judgment. Amos identified the critical values which doom a people in his first charge against Israel. Materialism replaces humanitarianism. Selfishness shoves morality aside. And secular religion replaces the revealed faith. Note how each of these is described. The people of Israel “sell the righteous for silver” (v. 6). Old Testament Law called on Israelites with money to spend it to redeem fellow countrymen who had become slaves (Lev. 25:39–52). In Amos’ Israel cash counted with the rich, while poor people did not! This is the nature of materialism. A love for things replaces a love for people as the motivating drive in a person’s life. “Father and son use the same girl” (v. 7). Men selfishly “use” women rather than value them as persons. The drive to experience selfish pleasures stretches beyond the loosest bounds of morality. Traditional moral standards become objects of ridicule and are arrogantly shoved aside. They “lie down beside every altar” (v. 8). They are religious, but practice a religion of ritual without reality. Old Testament Law commanded that garments taken as a pledge to guarantee repayment of a loan be returned at night, for such garments often served as the only blanket of the poor. Yet the people of Israel saw no conflict in being religious, and at the same time being disobedient to God and indifferent to the poor. Secular religion is a tool to oppress or a sop to conscience, while biblical faith is a call to commitment. The point of Amos’ first sermon, and this devotional, is really simple. We need to check our relationship by checking our values. Is profit more important to us than people? Are the standards we live by those of our society, or of our God? Is our faith a matter of Sunday attendance, or that plus week-long commitment to doing God’s will? The way we answer those questions, and the way our nation answers them, may well determine the future of our land.
The difference between God’s people and the world’s isn’t just in what we believe, it’s in what we value and in what we do.