Amos has finished his prophecies about the surrounding nations and now reaches his main message – his proclamations against Israel itself. Interestingly, his initial condemnations are similar to the charges made against the pagans. The people of Israel are no longer distinguishable from the people without the law.
As noted before, Amos’ listeners could very well expect him to proclaim victory, peace and prosperity for years to come now that God promises judgment on Israel’s enemies. His actual decrees are likely a shock.
Amos begins his prophecy in the same format as the previous seven. The nation is beyond saving and nothing can happen now to forestall God’s punishment (I will not revoke its punishment). God has extended His mercy long enough and the time of His mercy is over (For three transgressions of Israel and for four).
Note the present tense of Israel’s transgressions. All other sins listed for the other nations were in the past tense. Israel’s are in the present. They continue their godless ways even as Amos speaks.
Like the pagans, Israel’s sins center on injustice and oppression. The first transgression listed is that they sell the righteous for money and the needy for a pair of sandals. The exact meaning of this sentence is difficult to determine. It could mean that the rich are bribing judges such that even though the needy are in the right, judgments are passed against them. It could also mean that the rich are using their power to take the poor to court and will do so for the smallest of amounts – even a pair of sandals. Regardless of the actual interpretation, the sin described has to do with the wealthy and powerful oppressing the poor and weak for gain – they don’t care about people, they only care about their own power and wealth.
The second transgression is that they pant after the very dust of the earth on the head of the helpless. This is another difficult passage to understand, but it could mean that the rich are so hungry for land that they begrudge the poor the dust they cover their head with in times of mourning. It may also simply mean that the powerful trample the poor into the dust.
The Israelites also turn aside the way of the humble. This is a further description of general oppression of the weak and hurting.
Along with injustice and oppression, the people of Israel practice immorality that profanes the name of God. A man and his father resort to the same girl could describe ritual prostitution (where sexual union is used to manipulate the gods to provide fertility for the crops or the people) or possibly adultery with a slave girl. In either case, not only is the marriage vow broken but also the laws against incest and purity (Lev 18:6-18). Even more, trying to manipulate God as if He were a pagan god profanes His name. At the root of all sexual sin is an indifference to the honor of God’s holy name. There are many people today who, in the Lord’s house, talk as if God is real, but in their sexual lives do not ask the question: Does the holy God approve of my behavior and delight in my sexual habits? That kind of compartmentalizing of God is a forsaking of God, and a preparation for judgment. – John Piper
The Israelites also do not follow the law in regard to creditor/debtor relationships. A man who gives his garment as a pledge for a loan is to have it returned each night so he has something to provide warmth (Ex 22:26). The Israelites keep the garments and do not return them and even bring them (or wear them) to religious events in the temples. The welfare of others never enters their mind. The text could mean that they actually use the garments in the ritual prostitution at the temples (they stretch out beside every altar). Not only are the poor left with nothing, but God’s name and worship are defiled.
Finally, the people drink wine they demand as payment of fines. No way to know what type of fines is referred to here, but it again shows the powerful profiting from abuse of the poor and helpless. They drink the wine in the house of their God. They practice injustice and celebrate it as part of their worship.
Note that Israel is condemned for almost the exact same sins as the pagan nations. Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, and Moab all abused the weak, put a small price on human life and welfare, and took advantage of the helpless if it served their selfish purposes. Israel is no different. They do not hesitate to ruin the afflicted if it profits them. Though they are God’s chosen people, they look exactly like those who have never had the law and who are not under the covenant.
Observation: If it walks like a pagan, talks like a pagan, and acts like a pagan, it should not be surprised to be judged like a pagan. The Christian who looks just like the world cannot claim to be a citizen of God’s kingdom. Jesus made this crystal clear in the Sermon on the Mount – His followers are DIFFERENT.
To show the Israelites’ behavior in its true light, God reminds them of His actions toward them when THEY were afflicted. (The passage pivots on the opening words of verse 9 (Yet it was I) and 12 (But you). The element of contradiction can be seen by observing the structure of the verses: Israel’s deeds (6-8) contradict the Lord’s deeds (9-10); the Lord’s words (11) were contradicted by Israel’s words (12) (JA Motyer. The Message of Amos, The Bible Speaks Today; 56)) Instead of leaving them to their oppressors in Egypt or letting them be destroyed by more powerful enemies, God throughout their history has delivered them and ministered to their needs.
He drove out the Amorite (Amorite is likely representative of all Canaanites) from the Promised Land. The people who caused the ten spies to claim that they were like grasshoppers in their own sight by comparison (Numbers 13:33) were the same people God defeated on Israel’s behalf. He destroyed them utterly (fruit above and root below).
He delivered them from Egypt and led them in the wilderness for forty years (even though they were there because they sinfully rejected Him!) and brought them to the Promised Land. (Note the change in verse 10 from third person to second person – I brought YOU up…I led YOU in the wilderness…That YOU might take possession – God wants them to understand the personal nature of their betrayal.) They were completely helpless in Egypt and stood no chance of defeating the Canaanites on their own. God delivered them and fought for them.
During Israel’s history in the land, God has also raised up prophets and Nazirites (ones set apart for service to God – they are to abstain from strong drink, never cut their hair, never go near a dead person – Num 6:1-21 – [Samson was an example of a Nazirite]) to proclaim His words to the people and live lives exemplifying God’s grace. In both cases He wanted to instruct the people in both word and deed. But the people (But you – verse 12) want nothing to do with these servants of God. They force the Nazirites to violate their vows of abstinence and they silence the prophets (as they will try to do to Amos – 7:10-17). They refuse to listen to the words of God and force those who are to be examples of holy living to forsake their separation. They, like Judah, reject God Himself by rejecting His words and His messengers. If you love Me, you will keep My commandments – John 14:15. This is potentially the most appalling of Israel’s sins.
If there is one thing which (dare we say it?) amazes God more than anything else in the life of His people, it is that He should make His way plain to them, in word and deed, and that they should reject and deny it. Israel wanted neither the example of holy living nor the declaration of divine truth. (JA Motyer; 63)
God delivered and fought for and ministered to His afflicted people. He provided strength when they were weak and provision when they were poor and light when they were ignorant. In return His people take advantage of the afflicted, oppress the weak, and profit at the expense of the poor. How will Israel fare before a God who has shown He is a friend of the weak and an enemy of the oppressor?
As a result of its rejection of God and oppression of the weak, Israel will be destroyed (the exact translation of verse 13 is difficult – either it means that God is weighted down with Israel’s sin or that God is about to press them down with His wrath). No one will escape the coming destruction. The swift will not run away. The strong will not maintain his strength. The mighty man will not save his life. The archer will not stand. The one on the horse will not save his life. Even the bravest warrior will flee naked before the sword of God. The God who has always fought FOR Israel will now fight against it. And as Israel should be aware, human strength and prosperity and skill and might are of no use when God enters the fight.
The Israelites forget what God taught them through the law and how God treated them in their times of need. As a result, they mistreat the poor and take advantage of the helpless. They do not treat others as God’s law commands nor as God’s treatment of them demands. Since they forget the grace they received and the forgiveness they enjoyed and the law they learned, their treatment of others depends solely on what others can do for them. Treating others as God treats them is no longer even a thought.
Our behavior toward others – especially the weak and the poor and the unlovely and those who can do nothing for us – reflects our love of God’s Word and our understanding of His mercy extended to us. We love others when we love God. We are merciful to others when we understand and appreciate God’s mercy in our lives (Matt 5:7, 22:34-40, James 2:12-13, I John 4:17-20). This is why a life of grace extended to others is ultimately a life of thanksgiving to God. Thankful people are gracious people.
When we neglect God’s Word and stop communing regularly with Him we inevitably stop treating others as He treats us. The less familiar we are with God’s grace in our lives the less apt we are to extend it to others. We cannot give others what we do not possess. We cannot teach others – through word or behavior – what we do not know. If I forget what God has done for me (remember that for the Israelites, the deliverance from Egypt and the defeat of the Canaanites were centuries in the past) and stop noticing Him in my daily walk, I no longer have before me an illustration of love and grace and mercy to use in my relationships with others.
A short memory and the neglect of God’s Word lead to a universe with me in the center and a perspective that values others based solely on their ability to enhance that universe.
Ultimately, the neglect of God’s Word leads to the rejection of God’s Word. The rejection of God’s Word is a rejection of God. The rejection of God leads to destruction.
In effect therefore these four verses (13-16), in which Amos asserts that God’s people have forfeited His favor, are profoundly significant in their message to us. They speak of our first practical duty and our continuing basic concern: are we right with God? Can we with credibility believe that He is on our side? Everything hinges on the answer to these questions. (JA Motyer; 66)