Read: Amos 2:6-12, Amos 3:2
Listen with me to the stern message that God’s spokesman Amos delivered to a people who were prosperous, powerful, and proud.
There is an old saying: “Don’t kill the messenger for bringing bad news.” It isn’t fair, of course, but it still happens. Someone honestly and without malice relays news we don’t like, and we become angry with them. Our anger may be unjustified, completely unreasonable, totally misdirected, but it’s still very real. And if the news is especially unwelcome, and the person receiving it particularly explosive, the consequences for the unfortunate messenger can be unpleasant indeed!
That’s the situation the prophet Amos faced in Old Testament Israel. Though a native of the southern kingdom of Judah, Amos had been called by God to preach in Samaria, the capital of Israel (the northern half of God’s divided people). His audience not only didn’t like the news he brought; they didn’t much care for this outsider bringing it to them. But Amos was only the messenger. The message came from God and the sinful lives of God’s people had prompted it. If the citizens of Israel didn’t like what Amos was telling them, they had only themselves to blame.
Amos tells us a little bit about himself. He was a shepherd from Tekoa, a small village about six miles south of Bethlehem on the edge of the Judean desert. He also relates that he was an agricultural laborer, “a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees” (Amos 7:14). Whatever sort of work he had been doing, it didn’t have anything to do with religion. Amos was a layman, “neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet,” as he put it. Israel and Judah had many prophets and priests attached to various shrines and sanctuaries, as well as to the royal courts. These religious professionals could generally be counted on to uphold and defend the status quo. They depended for their support upon the favor of the people—particularly the king and the upper classes—which made it unlikely that they would say or do anything to offend any powerful person. But Amos was just a peasant, a farmer. He was no professional preacher. He had never spoken to anyone in public until God called him to declare his Word, and Amos became a prophet, a spokesman for God.
When the Lord sent Amos to speak to the people of Israel, it was one of the most peaceful and prosperous periods in the kingdom’s history. During the first half of the eighth century before Christ, King Jeroboam II was in the midst of a long, untroubled reign in Samaria. But it was the calm before the storm. Disaster was shortly to strike. Israel had only a generation or so before the Assyrians would sweep down to destroy the nation and scatter its people to the four winds. Such a prospect seemed utterly impossible when Amos first began to preach.
The society to which the prophet brought his message of God’s displeasure and impending judgment was at its very peak. Trade had rapidly developed during a generation of peace, causing a rich and powerful merchant class to emerge. Together with the property owners and the royal court, they made up an exclusive elite—a small group of wealthy, proud, luxury-loving, self-indulgent people. On the other side were all the little people, the masses of the poor, the deprived classes. And while these marginalized folk were being mistreated, the rich were “amusing themselves to death.”
If Amos had condensed all his preaching into one “Spiritual State of the Kingdom” address, his main points would have been these:
- In addition to being prosperous, Israel was soft and greedy. The rich led lives of idleness, thinking only of how to satisfy their various appetites and indulge themselves with more luxuries. “Cows of Bashan,” Amos calls them in one memorable passage, “who lie upon beds of ivory and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat lambs from the flock . . . who sing idle songs . . . who drink wine in bowls and anoint themselves with the finest oils” (4:1; 6:4-6). Sounds like a modern holiday resort or spa!
- Israel was corrupt. Sexual immorality was always a problem, especially in connection with the pagan shrines where prostitutes did a brisk business (cf. 2:7b-8). But Amos was primarily concerned with a different kind of corruption. He singles out for special condemnation the social and economic sins by which one group preyed upon the other. The money that supported the extravagant life of the wealthy class had been taken from the common people through cruel or dishonest means. The poor were the victims of inhuman treatment. They were being systematically cheated, oppressed, and even sold into slavery, all to profit the few.
Here is God’s indictment of Israel’s social and economic sin, spoken through Amos:
They sell into slavery those who do what is right. They trade needy people for a mere pair of sandals. They grind the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground. They refuse to be fair to those who are crushed. . . . They treat my name as if it were not holy. (Amos 2:6-7, NIrV) Listen to me, you who walk all over needy people. You crush those who are poor in the land. . . . You raise your prices. You cheat others by using dishonest scales. You buy poor people to make slaves out of them. . . . you are proud that the Lord is your God. But . . . He says, “I will never forget anything Israel has done. (Amos 8:4-7)
As if all that weren’t bad enough, the justice system had also become corrupted. When a poor man came to court to seek justice for a complaint, he found the system stacked against him. His cry for fair treatment went unheard as the rich elders of the community bought and sold verdicts among themselves (Amos 5:12).
- To this description of Israel’s society as being soft and greedy and corrupt, Amos added one more characteristic: Israel was religious. It seems strange, but side by side with all this sin and injustice, the worship of God was very popular throughout the land. Services were crowded. Festivals were faithfully observed with lavish and beautiful arrangements—copious offerings, well-tuned orchestras, melodious choirs, correct liturgies. No expense was spared, no detail overlooked, to make the services exciting and theologically correct—even biblical!
This is what the prophet Amos saw when he looked over Israel—a pampered, callous upper class, living off the misery of the poor, and thinking on their comfortable beds only of how to indulge their expensive tastes, while at the same time crowding into church week by week to praise God loudly in the belief that their prosperity must be an indication that God was pleased with them. But God was not pleased, nor did he care for their hypocritical worship.
The Lord says, “I hate your holy feasts. . . . You bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings. But I will not accept them. Take the noise of your songs away! . . . I want you to treat others fairly. So let fair treatment roll on just as a river does! Always do what is right. Let right living flow along like a stream that never runs dry!” (Amos 5:21-23)
God sent Amos to identify the sins of which his people were guilty, to reveal God’s hatred of those sins, and to announce the punishment that would come upon them. Amos’s message is mostly about judgment.
What do we learn about God and ourselves, from listening to Amos?
For one thing, we learn that God holds each of us responsible for how we treat other people. One remarkable feature of the book of Amos is that it not only catalogues a long list of sins that are offensive to God, but that the list includes the sins of Israel’s neighboring countries. In the first three chapters of Amos, six different countries are mentioned. No one is excluded from responsibility before God. God does not excuse anyone from judgment, including even those who don’t have his Word. Even people without a Bible still have a conscience that should guide them towards the will of God. God holds everyone responsible for living according to the truth that they do possess. What is especially significant is that the six nations that Amos mentions in addition to Judah and Israel are condemned and judged by God, not for idolatry (they were certainly guilty of that, but perhaps they didn’t know better) but for the violation of basic human rights. You should know that the first thing God is looking for in your life is compassion, honesty and fair treatment of others, and when he does not find those things, his anger is justifiably aroused.
Second, we learn from Amos that God is concerned about all sin. Most of us suffer from a sort of spiritual tunnel vision: we can focus very clearly on certain kinds of sins (usually the ones we are not guilty of) while conveniently ignoring others. For those of us who are evangelical Christians it’s fairly easy to get worked up over sins like pornography or abortion or drug abuse or crime, and those are very real sins indeed. But what about social sins? What about institutional and corporate sin? What about sins such as racism or greed, excess consumption, environmental pollution, denial of basic human rights or mistreating people on the basis of class or cultural background or religion? Are we bothered by the evil of those things?
And what about sins of omission? The people of Israel were called to account for their lack of compassion toward those who were suffering, and their failure to help those in need, as much as for their active mistreatment of others. I remember hearing Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity, once say that there were too many people in the world who were “over-housed” while so many others were “under-housed.” Do we as Christians wrestle with our conscience over these kinds of sins? Do we regularly confess them and repent of them? Do we change the way we are living in order to do something on behalf of others? This isn’t a liberal or a conservative issue; it’s not about socialism versus capitalism. This is a biblical issue.
Finally, Amos teaches us that the Lord expects more from people who know him (or claim to know him) than he does from people who don’t. Privilege always brings responsibility. With the revelation of God’s will in Scripture comes the corresponding need to do more and live more righteously than people who don’t worship the Lord. Because Israel belonged to God, they should have known better; they should have done better. “You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your sins” (3:2), announces God through Amos. If you and I are Christians, especially if we’re “Bible-believing” Christians, then we simply must live by a higher standard. Does the church’s often well-deserved reputation for hypocrisy bother you? It should! How about the fact that so many who profess to know Christ live no differently from those who don’t know him? Did you know that the great majority of those who are engaged in tribal genocide in and around the country of Rwanda are professing Christians? If that doesn’t cut us to the heart, it ought to.
But this message isn’t just for believers. The whole world needs to hear today what God says through his servant Amos: “Seek the Lord and live. . . . Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord will be with you. . . . Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream” (Amos 5:6, Amos 14, Amos 24 rsv). This is God’s word in particular to those who have power or position or influence. Every political and religious leader, every teacher, every business executive, everyone with money or resources must know what the Lord God expects of them. You can learn all about society’s problems on the news broadcasts, but you’ll only hear the solutions to these problems in this word of the Lord: “Let justice roll down like waters.”