Amos 5:18-6:14

Amos continues his condemnation of Israel by pointing out the people’s ignorance of what is coming and their ignorance of their true standing before God.

This is the first mention of the day of the Lord in the Old Testament (chronologically speaking).  Apparently the people hold to a tradition that there is a coming day when Yahweh will destroy all the pagan nations of the world and Israel will reign supreme in peace.  In one sense, the judgments proclaimed on the nations surrounding Israel in Chapters 1-2 could signify a miniature day of the Lord.

Amos does not dispute the idea of the day of the Lord.  He simply asks them why they are looking forward to it.  If Yahweh is going to destroy the nations that do not know Him or obey Him, then He certainly will include Israel on the list.

The day will allow no one to escape.  If someone escapes one danger they will be caught by another.  Like when a man flees from a lion and meets a bear, or flees to his home only to have a snake bite him when he leans his hand against a wall (the picture is of someone exhausted from running finally being able to rest in his home and leaning his hand against the wall).

The day will bring only darkness to Israel – not light.  Darkness is associated with danger and a lack of divine protection.  Israel will be Yahweh’s enemy on that day (6:14), not under His protection.  The day itself will offer no hope at all for the nation.

This is another example of the people having no idea of their standing before Yahweh.  Their commitment to themselves and to wealth and to comfort leads to a complete ignorance of the ways of God.  This ignorance allows them to live happily self-absorbed lives with no understanding of impending judgment.  It illustrates again that the danger of only pursuing ourselves is we almost always are successful.

God now lays out in no uncertain terms what He thinks of their man-centered (4:4-5) worship in Bethel and Gilgal.  Note the emphatic statements – “I hate”, “I reject”, “I will not accept”, “I will not even look”, “I will not even listen.”  What is supposed to be God-glorifying does not just come up short, it invokes His hatred.  Remember God’s words to the Israelites at Sinai after the golden calf incident: “…for you shall not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God…” (Ex. 34:14).  The people of the northern kingdom worship a golden calf to represent Yahweh but really what they worship is themselves.  Their worship is not for the sake of God but for the sake of their reputations and standing.  God hates what they do because He will not share His glory with any other.  The same point made in 4:4-5 holds true here – bad worship is NOT better than no worship (note He tells them, “Take away from Me the noise of your songs”).

He elaborates further on what He told them in 4:4-5.  All that they do to show their piety and to earn His favor God rejects and hates.  He hates their festivals.  He finds nothing to delight in when they assemble.  He does not accept their burnt offerings.  He does not look at their peace offerings.  He does not listen to their music (which they are known for and which is likely beautiful – from man’s perspective).  They are pious and religious and faithful – and completely doomed.  They are proud of their worship and their adherence to the ceremonial law – and God hates it all.

Verse 24 gives us more insight into God’s reaction.  They not only worship insincerely, but their lives show their worship has no meaning.  They are rank hypocrites.  God tells them their worship is worthless if they practice injustice and unrighteousness in their daily lives.  Worship born out of hearts that have no concern for obedience is loathsome to God.  Instead of making sure their religious practices are perfect, they should concern themselves with treating their neighbor justly and obeying God’s law.  Obedience to the ceremonial law is no substitute for obedience to the moral law.  As Samuel told Saul after he disobeyed in his fight against the Amalekites, “Has the Lord as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord?  Behold to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams” (I Sam 15:22).

Thought: People who appear one way on Sunday and live another way Monday through Saturday should have no confidence that anything they do on Sunday pleases God.  Religious practice that has no effect on our daily lives is loathsome to God.  Hypocrites have no place in the Kingdom (Matt 24:51).  Worship for any purpose other than for glorifying God is better left undone (and, in fact, is not worship at all).

Note – Martin Luther King quoted Amos 5:24 in his “I Have a Dream” speech:
As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

The exact meaning of verses 25-26 is difficult to know.  Verse 25 is a rhetorical question answered ‘yes’ by some commentators and ‘no’ by others.  Verse 26 could reference the past or the present, the accoutrements of idolatry or the gods themselves, and the gods of Moab or the gods of Assyria.

What seems to make the most sense – and what goes along with Stephen’s quoting of this passage in Acts 7:42-43 – is that Amos is making the point that the people have a long history of idolatry.  Even in the 40-year wilderness wanderings – after they rejected entering the land – the people carried along idols that they worshiped while still bringing sacrifices to the tabernacle (or, alternatively, their sacrifices were for the false gods and NOT for Yahweh – Acts 7:43 = It was not to Me that you offered victims and sacrifices forty years in the wilderness, was it, O house of Israel?).  Assuming this is correct, it gives a new glimpse into the generation of people who were sentenced to die in the wilderness.

Just like their history, the Israelites of Amos’ day also worship gods other than Yahweh (or mix in other worship along with their worship of Yahweh).  As a result, God will send them into exile beyond Damascus.  Without naming the country, this is a direct allusion to Assyria (as in 6:14).

The results of their improper, misdirected, and idolatrous worship are rejection and exile.  God sees through their worship.  God hates their worship.  God rejects their worship.  God pours out His wrath on them as a result of their worship (the very thing they think pleases Him).

Amos begins by mentioning Jerusalem along with Samaria.  Leaders in both capitol cities are warned about their ease and sense of security.  Both the southern and northern kingdoms are enjoying unprecedented periods of peace and prosperity, but Amos tells them they are ripe for destruction.

He mockingly refers to them as the distinguished men of the foremost of nations – men that all the people of Israel defer to and come to for guidance.  He seems to quote them in verse 2 by comparing their territory and cities to three cities in the area around Israel.  They are proud of their wealth and their military accomplishments – they compare well to the nations and cities around them.  Amos mocks them by effectively quoting their boasts.

He turns serious in verse 3 when he says they refuse to think about a day coming when God will judge them, but they eagerly embrace the seat of violence by which they oppress the poor and take advantage of the powerless.

In verses 4-7 Amos describes a type of feast or ritual that the Israelites practice.  The noun used for the feast in verse 7 could refer to a type of funeral feast (as it does in Jeremiah 16:5).  The people gather to supposedly mourn the death of someone but really gather for the purpose of gluttony and drunkenness.

Note the descriptive terms.  They recline on beds of ivory (presumably in their houses of ivory – 3:15), they sprawl on their couches (“sprawl” carrying with it the idea of drunkenness), they eat lambs and calves (meat is rarely eaten by the common people, but the wealthy of Israel can afford to eat it regularly at their parties and eat it from the choicest livestock – not mature sheep and cows – and even fatten the calves in stalls – vs. 4d – for just this purpose).  They fashion themselves to be modern-day Davids who can compose music (or invent instruments) for themselves (not for God as David did).  They drink wine not from cups – those are too small – but from bowls (possibly bowls meant for religious use – either meaning they defile the bowls when they drink from them or the bowls themselves are part of the cultic ritual).  They do all this while anointing themselves with the finest of oils.  The overall picture is of a people completely lost in their commitment to luxury and hedonism.

What they do not do at these feasts is grieve over what they have done to the country (part of the irony if in fact these are supposedly funeral feasts) and its impending judgment.  As he did in 5:6, Amos refers to the nation as Joseph – referring again to the two main tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim (Joseph’s sons).

Because of their oppression and their disregard for all things that do not please them or provide for their comfort and ease, they will go into exile.  Note, as befitting their station as the distinguished men of the foremost of nations, they will go into exile at the head of the exiles.  When this happens, their drunken banquets will cease (another irony if they are indeed funeral feasts since the ultimate funeral will have happened with the destruction of Israel, yet the people will not be able to hold a feast to memorialize it).

God elaborates on the promised judgment of verse 7 by swearing on His own life that He will deliver up the city and all it contains (city = Samaria).  Again Amos points out that the God who swears this is the Lord God of hosts – not the mini-God the Israelites worship.

God uses similar language here to what He used in 5:21.  He says I loathe and I detest – referring to Israel’s arrogance and complacency.  It is noteworthy to see how God reacts to pride in His people (James 4:6).  God does not respond well to those who do not understand their dependence on Him.  Independent people ultimately glorify themselves, and, as mentioned above in regard to Israel’s worship, God does not share His glory with anyone.

Verses 9-11 are hard to fully understand.  The message is clear enough – the coming military devastation will leave many people dead and the city destroyed.  But the exact meaning of the verses is unknown.  What they could refer to is the coming siege of Samaria (which will last three years) when people will die and their bones will have to be taken out of the house and burned.  The wrath of God will be so great that people will dread even speaking His name for fear they will invoke more destruction.  The section ends with a promise that God will destroy the very houses the people count on for security and pride.

Verses 12-13 show the absurd situation the people have placed themselves in.  Amos asks two rhetorical questions that have obvious answers – you do not run a horse over rocks and you do not plow the sea with oxen.  Just as absurd, however, is the turning of justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood (5:7).  They have taken what should be sweet and wonderful and perverted it for their own selfish gain.

Another absurdity is their boasting of their strength.  They apparently conquered two cities – Lo-debar and Karnaim – both on the east side of the Jordan.  They boast of these conquests and give no credit to God.  God mocks them for these boasts and uses the names of the cities as puns – Lo-debar is within one letter of a word meaning “nothing” and Karnaim means “two-horned” (very strong).  He basically tells them they are boasting about conquering nothing and a town that was strong in name only.

God now plainly predicts what will happen to Israel.  He will raise up a nation (note that God is not passive here – He will actively fight against Israel – the same Israel who looks forward to the day of the Lord) – again unnamed – that will afflict Israel from its southern border to its northern border.  Interestingly, the landmarks mentioned (Hamath and the brook of Arabah) are the exact same landmarks listed in II Kings 14:25 to show the extent of the conquests of the northern kingdom under Jeroboam II.  Israel will be overrun throughout its entire length – even its extended borders that it is so proud of.

Those who feel secure in the mountain of Samaria will go into exile beyond Damascus, have their great houses smashed to pieces, their small houses to fragments, and be afflicted from their southernmost point to their northernmost.  But impending judgment is the furthest thing from the people’s minds as they drink wine from bowls, recline on their beds of ivory, and anoint themselves with the finest of oils.

Two themes come out of this passage and throughout the whole book of Amos:

  • The people have no idea they are in danger of judgment. They are wholly committed to themselves and their pleasures – nothing in their life is more important.  People committed to themselves have no idea of reality.  People committed to prosperity and comfort in this world have no idea of the values of the next.  Self-absorbed people cannot see others and cannot see God.  There is no way to love God with all of a heart, soul, and mind committed to self.  There is no way to love others when there is no love for God.  Where there is no love for others and no knowledge of God, there is no understanding of judgment because all behavior is justified if it leads to comfort and prosperity.  Pride goes before destruction because it blinds us to reality.
  • The people’s God is too small. They have God in a box and they only think about Him when it is convenient.  Their God exists to provide peace and prosperity but not to demand obedience and justice.  Their God does not worry about anything that takes place outside the temples.  Their God does not worry about what happens on days other than religious days and feast days.  They turn righteousness and justice into wormwood and poison because they themselves are big and God is small.  Nothing is more important than our view of God.

Perverted notions about God soon rot the religion in which they appear.  The long career of Israel demonstrates this clearly enough, and the history of the Church confirms it.  So necessary to the Church is a lofty concept of God that when that concept in any measure declines, the Church with her worship and her moral standards declines along with it.  The first step down for any church is taken when it surrenders its high opinion of God.

The gravest question before the Church is always God Himself, and the most portentous fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like.
(A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy; 4,1)

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