A JUST, MORAL SOCIETY Amos 3–6
“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” (Amos 5:11).The Old Testament’s vision of a just, moral society was warped and twisted in Amos’ day. Now as then, an immoral society must and will fall.
Israel’s sins required punishment (3:1–15). Amos cried out against the pampered wives of the wealthy (4:1–3), corrupt worship (vv. 4–5), and indifference to God (vv. 6–13). The nation had to seek the Lord and do justice (5:1–15), or face the dark “Day of the Lord” (vv. l8–20). God hated Israel’s corrupt religion (vv. 21–27), and would judge her for her complacency and pride (6:1–14).
Understanding the Text
“You only have I chosen” Amos 3:1–2. God would deal strictly with “the whole family I brought up out of Egypt,” for He had established an intimate relationship with them alone. It is far worse for a people who know God to give themselves over to evil than for those who have had no personal contact with the Lord. Today too relationship with God has responsibilities as well as privileges. “Plunder and loot in their fortresses” Amos 3:3–14. In this passage Amos developed a simple theme: causes are related to effects. Thus people walk together because they have agreed to do so (v. 3), no bird falls into a trap unless one has been set (v. 5), and the sounding of a watchman’s warning trumpet causes a city’s citizens to tremble (v. 6). What cause then did God send His prophet to link with what effect? Hostile nations were called to witness a strange thing. Normally a nation loots its enemy’s fortresses. But Israel, which did “not know how to do right” plundered and looted “in their [own] fortresses” (v. 10). Because the society was corrupt and the rich unjustly looted the poor of their own land, “an enemy will overrun the land” (v. 11). The cause of the coming disaster was the injustice that was deeply entrenched in Israel’s society. Exercising his prophetic gift, Amos foresaw a day when Israel would be punished for her sins, when her worship centers would be razed, and the mansions of the rich would be left smoldering ruins (vv. 14–15). Cause and effect operate in the moral as well as physical realm. This is the impact of Amos’ teaching, and we need to take it to heart today. Any individual or nation that abandons justice as a guide to personal and social action in effect loots his or its own fortresses. One’s only sure defense against disaster crumbles, and ruin will surely follow. “You cows of Bashan” Amos 4:1–3. With pointed sarcasm Amos compared the sleek wives kept in luxury by their wealthy husbands with the fat cattle of a district famous for its cows. The charge that they “oppress the poor and crush the needy” implied that the wives’ hunger for luxuries motivated their husbands to use any means to get the money needed to satisfy their demands. It’s much like the modern fable of the young accountant driven to embezzle to keep the “love” of his girlfriend. Yet Amos established an important principle here. The person who profits from an injustice is as guilty as the person who perpetrates it. One who benefits in any way from injustice is rightly subject to judgment. Thus Amos pronounced God’s judgment. The sleek wives of the wealthy would be dragged away into captivity, every luxury lost. “Go to Bethel and sin” Amos 4:4–5. Amos pictured the wealthy of Israel, dressed in their Sabbath best, standing outside the sanctuary after a service, boasting to each other about their donations. What a modern scene! Oh, yes, you meet so many of “our kind” of people at services. And make such important business contacts. And of course it helps to be seen as an active supporter of the community by the “best people.” This is part of the reason Amos struck out at Israel’s worship. The well-to-do of Israel did “love to” (v. 5) boast about their offerings, using religion as a form of polite social competition. But the other reason for Amos’ condemnation was that God never ordained worship centers at Bethel or Gilgal. In fact, Old Testament Law required He be worshiped only at the Jerusalem temple, and that sacrifices were to be made only on its altar. If you and I truly want to worship God, our motives must be pure. And our worship must be in accord with God’s revelation of His will. “I gave you empty stomachs in every city” Amos 4:6–13. At first it seems a strange “gift.” Especially as God went on to remind Israel through Amos that He withheld rain (v. 7), struck gardens with blight and mildew (v. 9), sent plagues (v. 10), and ordained defeats in battle (vv. 10–11). We see the reason that these are a “gift” when we see their purpose. God sent these disasters in hopes that Israel would awaken to its sinful condition, and return to the Lord. The old story tells about the city fella’ who tried to drive an old mule. He shouted “Git up” and “Go.” He ranted and raved. But the old mule never moved a muscle. Finally a farmer came over, picked up a two-by-four, and hit the mule on the head as hard as he could. The farmer then told the mule, “Git up,” and sure enough, it got! Drawling, the farmer explained. “That mule will go, all right. But first you got to git his attention.” That’s what Amos 4 is saying. God hit Israel with two-by-fours. But even then, the Lord couldn’t get His people’s attention. They were too intent on doing evil to pay any attention to His voice. What a reminder for us. We can give God our full attention, and be responsive to His voice. Or God, in love, may hit us with some two-by-four to get our attention! “Seek Me and live” Amos 5:1–16. The Bible makes a distinction between God hitting His own on the head with two-by-fours in order to get their attention and divine judgment. Sometimes when we think we are being punished, all God really is doing is shouting to us in a loud voice in an effort to help us hear what He has to say. Amos now warned the people of Israel that God was about to actually judge them. Unless there was a radical change in their values and behavior (vv. 4–15, see DEVOTIONAL), the nation would be decimated (vv. 1–3) and every family would wail in mourning over the death of loved ones and of the nation itself (v. 16). We need to learn to welcome any suffering that draws us closer to the Lord. Such pain is insignificant in comparison with its benefits—and in comparison with the judgment we might suffer if we stubbornly refused to turn to Him. “Beds inlaid with ivory” Amos 6:1–7. Amos now returned to the lifestyle of Israel’s complacent rich. They lounged on expensive couches and feasted daily on meat, entertaining each other with musical instruments and drinking wine by the bowlful. Yet it was not luxury itself that was wrong. What was wrong was that they “do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph.” There was absolutely no concern for the poor; no sense of any obligation to use their wealth to aid those less fortunate. Genesis 4 reports that after being confronted by God, Cain who had murdered his brother Abel, muttered, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God’s Law had answered that question with a decisive yes! We are to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to display that love in practical ways. The complacent rich of Israel denied this fundamental principle by not only being indifferent to their poor neighbors, but also by exploiting them. The angry prophet announced God’s verdict. “You will be among the first to go into exile; your feasting and your lounging will end.” Archeologists have found pieces of ivory inlay in Samaria, the capital of Israel, from couches like those mentioned by Amos. While the poor of Israel starved, their rich exploiters continued to meet for daily banquets, indifferent to the suffering of their fellow citizens. “I abhor the pride of Jacob” Amos 6:8–11. It’s not wrong to feel good about our accomplishments. This is not the pride that Amos condemned. Rather Amos spoke against the arrogance of men and women who have prospered at the expense of the poor, and now gazed smugly about themselves at their lands, mansions, and luxuries. Individuals who live in any society marked by institutionalized injustice should weep and repent, not look with pride at what they might possess. “Do horses run on rocky crags?” Amos 6:12–14 The Hebrews, like other ancient peoples, loved riddles. So when concluding his indictment, Amos used such a saying. Do horses run on rocky crags, or do cattle plow there? The answer of course is, never. Horses would fall, and no crop could grow in such soil. Israel, in turning justice into poison, had guaranteed her own downfall, and planted a crop destined to produce bitterness. There was no explaining such a choice. And there was no avoiding its tragic consequences. The Lord would “stir up a nation against you, O house of Israel,” and that nation, Assyria, will “oppress you all the way.” Like Israel you and I are free to choose our own course. But we are not free to avoid the consequences of any choices we make. How important that we choose wisely, then, and willingly go God’s way.
Seek Me, and Live(Amos 5:1–17)
Amos 5 describes a people whose values are turned upside down. The chapter is a powerful call to God’s people to establish the just, moral society the Lord yearned to see. It’s a chapter relevant to us today, because like ancient Israel, prosperous America is confused about basic values. What is necessary for any people or society to be truly just? We are to seek God, and live (vv. 4–6). Note that the text emphasizes seek “Me.” It’s not religion that produces a just society, but personal relationship with the living God. We are to lift up righteousness (vv. 7–10). The text pictures a people who “cast righteousness to the ground” rather than lift it up. Yet God, who established the natural laws that maintain the physical universe, is the source of just as sure moral standards. Israel’s values were a reverse of the divine: the people “hate the one who reproves in court and despise him who tells the truth” (v. 10). No society that abandons biblical standards of righteousness or shows antagonism to them can build a just society. We are to care for the poor. In Israel the poor were oppressed by such institutions as the courts, and by individuals, who extorted money from them. The slumlord is guilty, but so is any social system which denies the poor the rights accorded under law to the well-to-do. No society that exploits the economically deprived can be just or moral. But what can you or I do about “society”? How can an individual have an impact on his or her world? Perhaps there is little we can do. But Amos showed us that we can do something. Amos said, “Seek good” (v. 14). The verb is active, and you and I are to actively search for any good that we can do, and do it. Amos said, “Hate evil, love good” (v. 15). Again the verbs are active. We are to be aware of what is warped in our society, and to really care. We are to hate evil and love so passionately that we act on our convictions, and take a stand. Amos said, “Maintain justice in the courts” (v. 15). Again the verb is active, and the call is clear. There may be little we can do, but we are to do the little we can! It’s fascinating that Amos gave us no blueprint for social revolution. What he did do is to call on us to care. To care so deeply, so passionately, that we do whatever we can to hold up justice as a shining ideal.
Though there may be little you can do, do the little you can.