Amos Challenges Injustice
The book of Amos is generally one of the more unpopular and neglected books of the Bible in the more affluent parts of the Christian world. Apparently the conditions in Israel in eighth century B.C. which Amos challenged, sound too much like what is happening in our lifetime, in our country and in our churches. The state of affairs in the nation to which Amos spoke, sounds distressingly familiar when we examine what is actually going on in our religious communities.
Some people go so far as to accuse and criticize Amos for preaching a “social gospel” (this is used in a pejorative or in other words a slanderous sense) rather than preaching the type of gospel which, allows them to live on beds of comfort and compromise with the way of the world, while others who belong to God suffer from their rejection.
On the other hand some see themselves as “an Amos” and turn themselves into today's social activists of the ‘left’, using this prophet as a model for confrontational protest against the powers of the world. In many cases however they do not follow the line of Amos in all respect.
This book addresses what God is really like and how the nature of God relates to how his people should behave and how they should treat each other. The heart of God is so significantly different from the heart of most of those who call on his name, that the message of Amos is offensive to many.
First of all it must be noted that Amos was from a little village about ten miles outside of Jerusalem in the land of Judah. Judah had been divided during the reign of Solomon's son Rehoboam from the larger section of the covenant people of God which we call Israel.
God called Amos to speak to his ethnic brothers who were politically separate from him and who certainly would not appreciate the ‘stranger’, though their kinsman, coming to straighten them out. So it was not surprising that when he spoke to them they criticized him, threatened him, told him to keep his mouth shut, go back home and did everything to run him out of town.
Amos was simply carrying out God’s instructions. He was doing the right thing by speaking the truth in a very difficult situation, outside of his comfort zone, presenting God where Satan ruled. So we can expect that the forces of hell will rise up and lead the people into opposition against God’s word. Being related by blood to someone will not protect or spare those who witness from suffering resentment and even experiencing vicious attacks.
During this period the Book tells us that King Uzziah ruled reasonably well in Judah, while Jeroboam 11 ruled in Israel. We are told in
2 Kings 14:23-27 that this Jeroboam did evil in the sight of the Lord exactly like his earlier namesake, who had led the ten other tribes into rebellion against God and deep idolatry.
Prior to Amos, God had allowed the nation of Syria, otherwise called Aram, to oppress Israel, as a warning that they should abandon the idolatry instituted by the first King Jeroboam. Consequently, there was tremendous suffering in the kingdom and the people of Israel cried out to God for deliverance. God was compassionate to their plea and raised up enemies against the Syrians, which forced them to relax their hold on Israel. This allowed the new King Jeroboam, even though he was evil, to re-establish the borders of Israel.
An Assyrian king then ruled over the surrounding nations and so Israel was protected and along with Judah, expanded its borders to almost the same extent as they were during the time of David and Solomon. One might think that Israel would have seen their turn-around in fortune as a sign of God's mercy in responding to their cries for help. Sadly this was not so!
They reverted to their evil ways of living without God and were becoming increasingly prosperous because of their expanded borders and the freedom to trade without intervention by the Syrians and other enemies. The rulers allowed a few rich businessmen and the élite to live a life of increasing luxury and ease and to squeeze and oppress the poor to increase their wealth. The ruling classes, the King, the nobility, the priests and the businessmen grossly exploited the people and justice became a causality of their corruption.
This was a high point of prosperity, peace, great economic well-being and national strength and led to an extensive building program and luxurious living; so that Amos described the people as being “at ease in Zion”. Amos 6:1.
All the sins and evils prevalent during the prosperous reign of Solomon were back in vogue. The rich were becoming richer and the poor were becoming even poorer. There was no social concern, the well-to-do did everything they could to increase their profits, oppressed the poor and lived an indulgent life of luxury.
There was apostasy and religious decay. The people did go to sanctuary regularly and put on a great show, boasted of their numerous sacrifices and even tithed three times a week. Religious ceremonies were extravagant, (Amos 4:4-5) but as one writer noted:
“They were well pleased with their efforts to sing praises to the Lord. But, by way of contrast, Amos rejected the idea that quantity, numbers, and external show was really religion”.
The covenant instituted under their father Abraham was totally discarded. In chapter 7: 8 we read the horrifying consequences of this as God gave us a startling picture of what He would do.
“Then said I, O Lord God, cease, I beseech thee; by whom shall Jacob arise? For he is small. The Lord repented for this: This also shall not be, saith the Lord God. Thus he shewed me: and, behold, the Lord stood upon a wall made by a plumbline, with a plumbline in his hand. And the Lord said unto me, Amos, what seest thou? And I said, A plumbline. Then said the Lord, Behold, I will set a plumbline in the midst of my people Israel: I will not again pass by them anymore.
And the high places of Isaac shall be desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste; and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”
God used an image of a plumb line which shows how straight a wall is, to show that Israel had moved far away from His standards of righteousness and that tragedy and horror would now come to them. There would however not be complete destruction.
We will look at how God called Amos to point Israel to the blessing that they had been given and to the example of God's love and grace that they should have exhibited.
Instead of a right relationship with God, and being a blessing to others, they had become selfish. They felt they had been given great privilege which only they should enjoy and had a right to indulging themselves in pursuing their own personal interests. They paid no attention to the mercy that God had showed them.
Note as we begin to look at the text that Amos, whose name means “burden bearer” was not a professional prophet, not one who graduated from the School of the Prophets, or was related to any prophets, but was a common man that God used to deliver His Word to His people Israel.
He tells us that his occupation was a herdsman, a word which refers to one who raises or tends cattle. He also says that he was a Shepherd, and the word used: “describes a man who tended a particular small, rugged, speckled variety of sheep which required less food and could live well in the desert, and which produced a wool of superior quality and of great value.”
Amos also tells us that he was a cultivator of sycamore figs. We are told: “This was the wild fig, which exuded a ball of sap when nipped at the right season, and which hardened into a sort of edible fruit which the lower classes were able to afford. This tree was found at a lower altitude than Tekoa, so Amos undoubtedly had to do some traveling (perhaps down to the Dead Sea region) to tend these trees.”
Amos was a tough individual, sturdy, having a personality somewhat like that of Elijah, for his personality was moulded in the harsh wilderness of Tekoa. The words that he used to describe himself does not indicate whether he was a wealthy or poor businessman. It is clear that his occupations would involve him traveling a great deal to the wool and capital markets of Israel and Judah. In that kind of situation he would have heard quite a bit about the economic conditions in Israel, the practice of the rich, the suffering of the poor and about the military and social situation.
His speech and writing which was very polished, showed a remarkable skill in poetry, composition and rhetorical principles. This suggests that he was educated and wise and had some experience in dealing with the elite.
He was however quite modest and refused to consider himself in the class of the prophets, but he had no difficulty in confronting the authority of the state and accordingly refused to compromise his message. So those were the conditions of the time and this was the man that God had chosen to stand in the gap.
The reasons for judgment had been clearly stated and the people were warned that they were not immune from judgment, simply because they were the chosen people.
-They were guilty of oppression that was probably worse than that suffered under the Philistines and others,
-the economic exploitation of the poor and innocent was overwhelming and the justice system was so corrupt that the people were being sold into slavery for small debts or pledges (See Chapter 2:6-7). Even the women had become so insensitive that they were described unflatteringly as “cows of Bashan”. They pressured their husbands for luxuries to such an extent, that the husbands could meet their demands only by oppressing the poor. (See Chapter 4:1-3).
-they were engaging in pagan religious practices.
-there was no respect for the servants of God and the people were even encouraging the Nazarites, who had taken a vow not to drink alcohol, to break their pledge.
-there was such intense religious hypocrisy and sham worship, that Amos called on the people to come to Bethel and Gilgal not to worship but to sin.
In Verses 1-4, the situation was said to be so terrible that Amos took up a lamentation at the coming destruction of Israel. There would have to be judgment and a purging and this would create wailing and mourning.
In the message found in 5: 18-27 there are five ideas stressed, with a central focus on the middle idea in 5: 23-24, while the first and the fifth match in thought, and the second and the fourth match in thought. This gives us an insight into the literary skill of Amos. This would be certainly a forceful message. Let us look at an outline of the messages.
1. Description of certain judgment (5:1-3)
2. Called for individual repentance (5:4-6)
3. Accusation of legal injustice (5:7)
4. Portrayal of a sovereign God (5:8-9) The central idea or focus.
5. Accusation of legal injustice (5:10-13)
6. Call for individual repentance (5:14-15)
7. Description of certain judgment (5:16-17)
So notice that in Amos's style what he says the Number 1 is repeated in Number 7,
what he says in Number 2 is repeated in Number 6,
what he says in Number 3 about legal injustice is repeated in Number 5 with every thing revolving around the characteristics of a sovereign God which is stated in Number 4.
In the other message there are five thoughts with the central thought in the middle Number 3 position.
1. Description of certain judgment (5:18-20)
2. Accusation of religious hypocrisy (5:21-22)
3. Call for individual repentance (5:23-24) The central idea or focus.
4. Accusation of religious hypocrisy (5:25-26)
5. Description of certain judgment (5:27)
Number 1 and Number 5 reinforce each other, Numbers 2 and 4 reinforce, while Number 3 is the focus. All this would not be lost on Amos’ hearers.
We included the preceding section to highlight the fact, that often the authors of scripture employed certain styles and structures in their writings for emphasis and to highlight particular themes.
In verse 1-2 Amos regards the fall of Israel as so certain that he laments or literally takes up a “funeral dirge” as if it had already happened.
Israel is pictured as a young woman or virgin, a helpless, vulnerable person who is in the prime of life but who tragically will die prematurely. She has forsaken her God and God will not ignore her sins any longer. She was a virgin, a prized person, but now she is down to the ground, forsaken and deserted.
Things will become so bad that a thousand soldiers defending the nation will be reduced in the fight to a mere hundred and a troop of a hundred will be reduced to ten. Their proud army will be decimated.
But note that though this disaster is “bad” there still is left a remnant. A faithful few will be preserved. God will show mercy.
Survival would come only if they sought after God. Obviously they could not say they were seeking the Lord while at the same time going to the places of idol worship. The call to seek God is a call to repentance tied with an offer of mercy.
Verse 5. Bethel, Gilgal, and Beersheba were once significant places associated with the service of God. God had met the patriarch Jacob at Bethel. It was there that Jacob had wrestled with God and God changed his name from Jacob to Israel. God's life changing power was associated with this place. (Genesis 28:11-19; 35:1-7)It was at Gilgal that God ‘took away the nation’s reproach’, as recorded in Joshua 5:1-12. Gilgal was the base of operations to conquer the Promised Land. It was a reminder to them of God's promised inheritance.
Abraham ‘called on the name of the Lord’ at Beersheba after sundry experiences, using the term “the everlasting God”. It was at Beersheba that God appeared to Isaac, renewing the covenant that he had made with Abraham and there that Isaac built an altar to God.
God spoke to Jacob there also, assuring him that he was not to be afraid of going down into Egypt to be with Joseph. There God promised to make him a great nation and to be with him throughout his stay in Egypt. Jacob also sacrificed to God at Beersheba .
So it was at all these places that God had given his promises to the patriarchs, assuring them that he would always abide with Israel.
But now all these places had been polluted and it was in these very places connected with the great spiritual heritage of the nation that the leaders of Israel had led the people into idolatrous worship.
One of the golden calves had been set up in Bethel. Idols had also been set up in the other places. God had told the people that they were to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem but instead of obeying him, for their own political reasons, they went to worship at these other sacred sites.
Politics and convenience are powerful reasons for selfish behaviour, and can certainly make those in the covenant disobey the commandments of God.
God warned that these places would be destroyed. They would come to nothing. If the people wanted to live they would have to keep away from Bethel, Gilgal, and Beersheba. He called the people who went there to repentance.
Obviously it is important where we worship God. There are times when one has to avoid places that were once associated with great spiritual heritage, but which were now places of corruption.
Verse 6. They were to seek the Lord for he was always present but he would never be found at the places of idol worship. They could not remain connected to the living God while frequenting the places of idol worship. If they did not change, he himself intended to bring a fire among them to devour the land.
There was a danger in idolatry and in not seeking God. God was a ‘consuming fire’ and it was not a good thing to be the fuel for the fire of God's wrath. When he acted no one could turn his judgment away. Israel would simply be destroyed. The idolatrous priests at Bethel who willingly accepted their sacrifices and their prayers would not be able to turn away the God’s judgment nor could they relieve them from its destructive power.
Verse 7-9. He accused the leaders of Israel as having created a corrupt legal set-up in order to enrich themselves and this was not pleasing to God. It was an unrighteous system that paid attention only to man-made principles, which might appear reasonable but which was an abomination to God.
A legal system that was not based on righteousness was like wormwood, that is, bitter and bad tasting, even though it looks good on the surface. It is hollow, a sham and a pretence.
Amos used the covenant keeping name for God it his warning that there was a God who was mighty, who was in control. God had the power to make all the stars in the sky, to control all the forces of nature for He who was sovereign over all creation. He made everything and controlled all that happened.
Amos’ point was clear, do not fool around and forget the kind of God with whom they had to reckon. He is the powerful, righteous judge of everyone in the universe. Note carefully Amos used the covenant keeping name of God in this passage.
In addition he is a God who pulls down the strong and elevates the weak. Those that are weak, who are apparently helpless, will be strengthened by God to destroy fortresses.
Verse 10. Not only did they forget who God was, but they were behaving in a way consistent with this. They treated people badly and so hated when a person pointed out that they were doing wrong. They were so far away from doing righteousness that they hated those that spoke righteously.
The ‘gate’ was the place where the law court was located and justice or community decisions were made at the gate of the city. There the heads of families and elders came together to hear disputes, listen to controversies and render decisions. The ‘gate’ was the place where righteousness should have been displayed, but the courts were so corrupt that they scorned and silenced anyone that stood for justice.
Verse 11. This was an evil time in this legal or rather illegal system. Amos focused specifically on the motive behind their evil doings.
The judges were oppressing the poor and making them poorer. Their decisions apparently always went against the poor, for in this way they enriched themselves through extortion. The poor could not resist them and the judges would vigorously squeeze repayment of debts created by the poor who had credited food and if the poor rented land the judges extracted exorbitant rents which were paid from the crops.
Then having extracted these excessive payments by ignoring the issues of justice and righteousness, they built fancy, luxurious houses out of hewn stone, to support their opulent lifestyle.
Amos warned that they would not be around long enough to enjoy their mansions and the farms and vineyards that they had stolen from the poor. There were not even going to have the opportunity to drink wine from those dishonestly possessed vineyards, for judgment would come before harvest.
The nation was deeply immersed in injustice. Since they had forsaken justice their sins had accumulated and could be well described as ‘plentiful and mighty sins’.
The judges and the powerful took bribes. Those who were rich enough to pay bribes would get their way and the poor would be denied. The poor had rights which had been enshrined in the covenant of Israel, but that did not matter to the judges and to the powerful. The commandments of God which had been designed to protect the vulnerable were discarded. These rulers were behaving worse than the rich people did in the time of the rebuilding of the walls after the exile, behaviour which had brought the wrath of Nehemiah on them.
No wonder the judges, whose heart was so set on doing evil, could not bear to hear reproof. They did not want to be reproved for perverting justice. Any suggestion that the law should benefit the poor was rejected. The law books were closed in those matters and only used to accommodate the interests of the rich and the powerful.
Verse 13. Things were so unbalanced that the people who saw what was happening and who were prudent realized that their protests would make no difference. It was an evil time and it was dangerous to complain and so they kept silent. In such situations God sent his prophets who would not keep silent but had to cry aloud.
God is clearly teaching us that we have to be wise as serpents and sometimes be cautious in whatever we say. When there are times of iniquity, good men sometimes have to be silent, for nothing they say will make any difference.
Of course God is in control and one can speak freely to God. God will then direct a person whether or not to testify against sin. So we are told that when people are joined to their idols it is often good to let them alone. Counsel or advice must often be retained for the benefit of better men and better times. (So says Ecclesiastes 3:7).
Verse 14. Amos encouraged the people to seek the Lord, to follow the ways of justice, for that had to be done before there could be any valid worship of God. Justice was preliminary to approaching God. They had to be honest in dealing with men. Hating evil and loving good meant re-establishing judgment in the ‘gate’.
If they repented God would regard their actions and they would live. They had to address the grievances of the people and rectify the abuses. They had to get rid themselves of injustice. When they did, God would recognize that they were once more turning to the ways of the covenant, and this would enable the presence of God to remain with them. God had already told them that if they repented of their evil he would abide with them. Life would be better for everyone.
In following the ways of the covenant they would love good and hate evil. The ways of justice would be followed at all times. The God of the covenant would then be gracious to them and would bless the remnants of Jacob.
This was the cure for the sins of Israel. All they had to do was to dispense with their corrupt courts and establish justice in the gate.
God loves the fatherless and widows, the helpless and the afflicted, those who are broken-hearted, those who are in prison, those who are sick and in need of help. Those that ignore them will be shoved away from God in the Day of Judgment.
Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan for a purpose. Love of our neighbour must be shown. When this is not done we are demonstrating that we do not really love God and that our worship is just an external show. We cannot say we love God who we have not seen and hate our brother that we see.
We often think that it is perfectly fine to say we have faith in God because we do not see him physically before us, but in reality put him off to the side somewhere, and pay no attention in our day-to-day living to what he wants. We should be careful.
Verse 21. This verse makes us realize that God has deep emotions. He makes it clear that he is offended by their religious ceremonies, their feasts and their sacred assemblies. It is not that he just does not like them, but he actively hates and despises their religious ceremonies.
Amos declares that anything offered to God from a heart which does not include righteousness and justice toward one another makes their religious offerings a mockery. If there is no justice or righteousness in their dealings with others, their praises and songs mean nothing.
Verse 22. All their services were hypocritical. The burnt offerings, the meat offerings and their peace offerings to obtain favor from God would not be accepted. There would be no remission of sins, no matter how many burnt offerings they made. There would be no peace with God, no matter how many peace offerings they made. Righteousness and justice for others was a nonnegotiable matter for God. God would not accept any of their offerings since they were not obeying the terms of the covenant.
Verse 23. The many musical instruments and singing praise to God could not make amends for their sins. Their singing was an abomination. Their singing and music were simply noise in the ears of God. God despised everything and considered that they were provoking him when they came before him. One writer states:
“Nothing is more hateful, more despicable, than hypocrisy. He that blesses his friend with a loud voice, it shall be counted a curse, when it appears that his heart is not with him.God will not dwell in their solemn assemblies, for there is nothing in them that is grateful to him, but a great deal that is offensive…. he will not hear the melody of their viols; for, when sin is ajar in the harmony, it grates in his ears.”
Verse 24. God desires justice. Israel would have to be reformed. Justice would have to be the basis for every decision by rulers. There would have to be no partiality or bribery. Justice should never be perverted or muddied with corruption. It would have to run like a mighty stream with no obstruction and nothing retarding its course. Judgment should never be bitter.
Religious ceremonies will often offend God. Sacrifices will often offend God. Tithing and giving offerings will offend God if our heart is not right.
Prayer and praise is no substitute for justice and honesty. God will not accept us or our offerings if we go through all the rituals without a broken heart and a love for God and man.
God will not stomach exuberant worship without justice as the standard. Justice is inextricably a part of the nature of God, and he does not accept:
-the abuse of wealth, the selling of the needy and the righteous,
-the abuse of position, oppressing the poor and putting them aside
-the abuse of authority
God will not tolerate any breaking of his covenant, including the social covenant and if leaders are corrupt, the offending nation and the offending church will be brought to an end. We are told that this is the position of the Lord God, the Sovereign God, the Covenant keeping God.
God is a God of passion. What does this mean for us? We cannot live for self. One writer who knows the truth about life and what God wants admitted in his book:
“The overwhelming majority of the time I spend thinking about myself, reassuring myself, and when I am done there is nothing to spare for the needy. Six billion people live in this world, and I can only muster thoughts for one. Me.”
It was clear that most of us when we look at the drama of life that surrounds us regard other people as minor characters that exist to make our life story better. We live for ourselves and so the call of God to express righteousness and justice to others mean little or nothing to us.
We seem to forget that we are bought with a price and we are not our own. We must organize our lives the way that the Jesus wants. Amos calls us to do just that. The way to live is to repent and seek God. If we do not, everything is all over and the judgment of God will destroy us.
We do not want to be like the ripe fruit described in chapter eight. It is instructive for Christians to listen to these words and not neglect the so-called “social gospel”, thinking that our prayers and praise are all that is required of us. We might not be doing the precise things listed, but if we think about it, we are doing comparable things that offend God. Amos says in chapter 8: 4-7
“Hear this, O ye that swallow up the needy, even to make the poor of the land to fail, Saying, When will the new moon be gone, that we may sell corn? And the Sabbath, that we may set forth wheat, making the ephah small, and the shekel great, and falsifying the balances by deceit? That we may buy the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes; yea, and sell the refuse of the wheat? The Lord hath sworn by the excellence of Jacob, Surely I a will never forget any of their works.”
Are we going to follow the ways of the world? Are we going to simply pray and praise without righteousness and justice? Are we going to pay no attention to the evil that is happening around us? Are we going to leave the fight against oppression to others and live in our little corner, enjoying the fruits of our labours?
Just remember that if we have not done what God wants ‘to the least of these the brethren we would not have done it to Him’.
God wants spiritual integrity. It is in very short supply in this world. So sadly people can without fear of contradiction say many times that Christians do not behave better than the world. They fight, they steal, they rob and they oppress.
May it not be said of us. May we live lives of righteousness and justice, so that both will flow as a mighty stream.