Amos continues his condemnation of Israel. He discusses their worship and reminds his listeners that God’s coming wrath is not without warning.
Bethel is the main place of worship. It was set up by Jeroboam I soon after the kingdoms split. It is one of two places – along with Dan – where Jeroboam put a golden calf and instituted a counterfeit worship of Yahweh. Gilgal is the place where the Israelites crossed the Jordan and Joshua set up the monument of twelve stones. It apparently has supplanted Dan as the second area of worship.
In true worship the priests are to call the people to the house of God (Lev. 23:2,4) – examples are Psalm 122:1 and Isaiah 2:3. Verse 4 begins with a mocking call to worship – God calls Israel to their “temples” not to worship but to multiply transgression. The people are apparently devout – they worship regularly and observe rituals and traditions. But God says that each time they worship they actually increase their sin. Far from pleasing God, their devotion brings His wrath. In sarcasm and disgust He now effectively tells them to do it even more – “If you’re going to worship in blasphemous and hypocritical ways, go all the way!”
Note their devotion. They bring sacrifices every morning – the traditional practice is only once per year (I Sam 1:3,7,21). They tithe every three days – the requirement for the tithe of the produce of the land is only once every three years (Deut 14:28). They pat themselves on the back because they far surpass the requirements of the law. They likely compete with each other to show the greatest commitment and sacrifice.
Verse 5 gives us some insight into the motivation for their pious acts. They offer thank offerings from that which is leavened. Leavened bread is not to be burned in any offering to God (Ex 23:18, Lev 2:11) and while thank offerings (Lev 7:13) can be leavened, they are not to be burned. Along with thank offerings they also make freewill offerings. In both cases, the motivation for the offering is not to please God (since they disregard the law for the one and make no attempt to hide the other), but to look good in front of others. They proclaim their offerings and make them known – for so they love to do. Their motive for their piety is their reputation. Their worship is not about God, it is about them – the very thing Jesus warns about in Matthew 6.
Because their worship is not really worship of Yahweh but worship of themselves, the worship itself stores up more and more of God’s wrath. God will later tell them He HATES their religious services (5:21-24) because they are not focused on Him. When worship and piety become more about the person and not about God, the acts are better left undone. Wrong worship is not better than no worship. God is jealous of His glory. Man-centered worship done in His name does not receive His sympathy; it earns His wrath. Man-centered worship is ultimately a violation of the first commandment.
Thought: How scary is it to face a sarcastic God? How far gone must His people be that He cynically encourages them to keep sinning and keep filling up His wrath? Can there be anything that strikes more fear into us than this? Since they have run beyond the limits of His mercy, He tells them, “Keep running! Keep going! See how far you can go!” He has given them over. This is the Amos version of Paul’s words in Romans 1.
In Micah 6:6-8 the prophet says that God is not interested in burnt offerings or yearling calves or thousands of rams or ten thousand rivers of oil. What is good according to God is to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. The Israelites of Amos’ time are now oh for three.
Amos now explains some of why God has given up on Israel. God has repeatedly punished them with the intent of bringing them back from their sin. Just as repeatedly, however, they have refused to turn.
The dates and exact circumstances of these events are unknown. Many possibilities exist, however, throughout I and II Kings.
He gave them cleanness of teeth – famine throughout the nation so that no one had enough to eat. The famine did not turn them back to God.
He sent drought – no rains at the usual times to enable good harvest and good planting. The drought was so bad that people staggered from city to city trying to find water. The drought did not turn them back to God.
He sent scorching winds that dried up the crops and then so much rain that crops rotted from mildew. Beyond the wind and mildew He sent locusts to eat the crops. The winds and mildew and locusts did not turn them back to God.
He sent plague – probably pestilence that killed many people. He also allowed them to be defeated in battle such that many of their young men were killed. The deaths from these events were so many that the stench was overwhelming. The plague and slaughter did not turn them back to God.
He overthrew them the way He overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. This is difficult to understand. It could be that it refers to an earthquake or it could be another reference to complete military defeat. Whatever it describes, the result was that portions of the northern kingdom were annihilated just like Sodom and Gomorrah. Those who survived were barely snatched from destruction. The overthrow did not turn them back to God.
Famine, drought, devastation, plague, military defeat, natural disaster – nothing brought the people back to God or turned them from their false worship. God has tried punishing the people and He has tried blessing the people (as He does now) and neither one has changed them. They have stiffened their necks and hardened their hearts such that they no longer know how to do what is right. All these punishments should have made them aware of their status before God. The coming wrath of God is not without warning.
Note God’s sovereignty in this text. All the punishments mentioned could easily be attributed to chance or natural occurrence or political circumstances. Yet God was behind all of them. All acts were directly from God (even the “random” events like one city having rain while another had none). All events were controlled by Him to bring change to His people. The people themselves likely did not see Him or His hand – but He controlled it all. Question: How often do we see God in the circumstances of our lives?
The punishments themselves reflect the covenant curses listed in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. God told the people even before they entered the land that if they did not obey the covenant He would punish them until they returned to Him. Each curse ratchets up in intensity as long as the people refuse to repent. Notably, the final curse is the only one left and what Amos has been sent to proclaim to Israel – destruction and removal from the land.
Thought: This section of Amos is a perfect example of how God’s wrath is often a means of expressing His mercy. He sent the punishments on Israel trying to turn them back to Him. He disciplined them time after time so as not to have to bring the ultimate destruction on them. Like a good parent, God sometimes uses negative reinforcement to correct His children. This is why the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. The fear of His judgment motivates us to righteousness. We should fear His wrath but also thank Him for it. It is only an unloving parent who does not discipline his children.
Amos 4 is also a picture of how God’s grace sometimes works in our lives. The definition of grace – unmerited favor – tends to make us think of it only in positive terms and mainly in relation to covering our sins. While this is certainly true, it is not complete. Grace is what God uses to conform us to the image of His Son and make us more useful for His kingdom.
It is always unmerited favor, but the form of that favor can vary widely. In the case of the Israelites it takes the form of famine, drought, devastation, plague, etc. – not events we typically associate with grace. But God loves us and so extends His grace to us to make sure that we do not deviate from our allegiance to Him. When we become enamored with His creation more than with Him, in His grace He strips away the things that vie with Him for glory in our lives. The process is often painful – sometimes VERY painful. Ironically, it often causes us to cry out to God and ask for His grace and mercy (in the midst of experiencing His grace and mercy). We must continually remind ourselves that difficulties in life are often God’s grace at work drawing us closer to our created purpose – glorifying Him. Living out our created purpose is the only path to joy and contentment. Thus God’s painful grace is indeed unmerited favor and evidence of His great love for us. It is something to celebrate and to expect. It is why James tells us to rejoice in trials. It is why the Christian can endure.
What is going on in Amos 4? Why would God do such things to His people? What can we learn about the struggles in our own life from this startling passage? It is the refrain that begins to completely change the way this passage feels. Each section of the passage is punctuated by this phrase, “yet you have not returned to me.” As you read, it is possible to gloss over the phrase because of the power of what God has done to Israel. Yet this is what everything God has been doing is all about. Israel had been pursuing their own selfish way. In their affluence and material ease, they had forsaken the One who was the source of it all. They no longer cared about morality or social justice. They were no longer moved by the suffering of others. The physical blessings that God had provided, Israel had turned into the very idols that replaced Him. God could not be loving and good and let this go on. So God sent hardship to Israel, not as an act of punishment, but as the grace of rescue. His purpose was not punitive but restorative. These devastating things were acts of love, sent to provide the very rescue that was needed. (Paul David Tripp, Lost in the Middle.)
Because they have refused to change even in the face of His repeated chastening, they should prepare for the final curse. The God they claim to meet in Bethel and Gilgal will now truly meet them. And they are not going to Him; He is coming to them. The text does not specifically say what God will do to them, but the tone is clear that ultimate judgment is threatened.
And the One promising to judge them is not the counterfeit god they worship in their blasphemous and man-centered services. He is the One who forms mountains and creates the wind. He makes dawn into darkness and treads on the high places of the earth. And He condescends to make His thoughts known to man (or, alternatively, He makes known to man man’s thoughts – a picture of His omniscience). This is likely a portion of a hymn that Amos quotes. The judgment promised is sure to come because of the One who promises it.
The people arrogantly worship themselves and ignore not only the covenant but the fulfillment of its curses that they have experienced. They are committed to their luxury and their reputations and their power and see no reason to fear a God they have reduced to a golden calf in their worship. But the One they arrogantly ignore is not represented by a golden calf or by meaningless rituals. He is the Sovereign Covenant God. The Lord God of hosts is His name.
Final thought: How often do we remember that we live our lives in the presence of the Lord God of hosts? How often do we come to pray and worship with appropriate humility before the One who forms mountains and creates the wind? Do we understand the enormity of our arrogance when we live as if He does not exist? How often do we, like the Israelites, forget whose world we live in and who demands our obedience? Forget who and what God actually is like the Israelites and we’ll end up like the Israelites.