Thursday with Tabitha
3. Amos by Tabitha Smith
Welcome to the second podcast in this series about the books of the minor prophets. This week we're looking at the book of Amos.
Amos was a prophet during the time of King Uzziah of Judah and King Jeroboam of Israel. His prophecy came somewhere roundabout the year 760 BC, give or take a few decades! At this time Israel and Judah were enjoying an unusual spell of prosperity and political stability. This was especially the case in Israel, where the land was very fertile and abundant crops were growing. The threat from the kingdom of Assyria seemed to have lessened, at least for the time being, so life was pretty good.
Unfortunately the people of Israel and Judah had wandered far from the standards of holiness that God had intended for them. Idolatry was rampant, the rich were getting richer and more corrupt by the day and the wealthy were exploiting the poor. The Israelites falsely concluded that their prosperity was a sign of God's obvious blessing. They were looking forward to “the Day of the Lord” when God would finally crush their enemies.
It is into this environment that Amos was called to prophesy. We're told that Amos came from Tekoa, a small village in Judah, south-east of Bethlehem. He is identified as a shepherd or maybe a sheep breeder. A rather unlikely choice for a prophet on the face of things!
Amos begins his message in chapter 1 with a series of proclamations of God’s judgement on the neighbours of the Israelites. He has words of judgement for Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, the Ammonites and the people of Moab. These people groups were enemies of the Israelites. The charges against them relate to their violence, cruelty and abuse of other human beings, particularly during times of war and conquest.
The Israelites would probably have been nodding along happily until the beginning of chapter 2. At this point Amos suddenly turns his attention to Judah and then to Israel. The judgements leveled against God’s people are of a different order altogether. God accuses them of violating the terms of his covenant with them - they are called to a higher standard of moral and spiritual living than the pagan nations around them.
Amos doesn’t hold back! The sins of the Israelites include oppression and exploitation of the poor, sexual sins, idolatry, misuse of God’s temple, abuse and silencing of the prophets, and empty, ritualistic worship.
God had patiently tried to warn his people, by sending them prophets and providing examples of holiness in the form of people like the Nazirites, who took vows of holiness and of abstinence from wine. But God’s people had not listened and now God would judge them. The main message in the book of Amos is this: God’s judgement is universal; Israel and Judah are not immune.
Chapters 3 to 6 expand on the initial judgements outlined in the first two chapters. Even the women of Israel are exposed as people who oppress the poor - God likens them to the fat cows that graze in the fields of Bashan! God is appalled at the nature of the people’s idolatrous worship. The people had started to offer sacrifices in places other than the temple in Jerusalem and they had appointed priests who were not Levites. These things were deviations from the instructions that God had provided for worship. They had even turned to worshipping golden calves and other idols. The Israelites thought that they were offering worship that was pleasing to God but it was actually detestable to him. In chapter 4 God summarises a series of warning shots that he gave to the people, which were intended to bring them back to him, but the tragic refrain is repeated over and over again: “yet you did not return to me”.
In chapter 5 Amos entreats the people to turn back to God, telling them that it’s perhaps not too late. God laments over Israel like a father whose virgin daughter has been raped or become a prostitute.
In chapter 5 God declares the following:
“I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them.
Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
(Amos 5:21-24 ESV)
God calls the people to repent and come back to him and seek justice. In chapter 6 further sins are described which include the complacency of the people in the self-indulgence of the rich at the expense of the poor. Chapter 7 to 9 contain a series of visions which Amos has. These visions declare that God’s judgement is unavoidable if God is to be just, which he must. The judgement is imminent. The final vision pictures God standing by the altar of the temple shaking it to its foundations. This is a prophecy about the final downfall of Israel. The prophecy was fulfilled very soon after this. Assyria gained power again and conquered Israel in 722 BC.
After all the serious judgements and the terrifying reality of the impending downfall of Israel, the book of Amos ends on a tantalizing note of hope. Despite the people’s willful disobedience and the depth of their depravity and sin, God is a God of mercy and deliverance. There is a promise of future restoration of the Israelites. God promises to repair the dwellings of David and preserve a remnant of his people for the future.
So what can we learn from the book of Amos? Firstly, we learn that God is always just. God is a God of love and he is mercifully patient but he has to judge sin, otherwise he is not really loving at all.
Despite appearances to the contrary, nobody is getting away with anything. Every human being who has ever lived or who will ever live must stand before God to be judged. And the truth is that none of us can stand before him with a perfect account, with an unblemished record of our own. However, the message of hope at the end of Amos hints at the salvation that would eventually come through Jesus.
God never meant his judgements on Israel and Judah to be the last word. In mercy he preserved a remnant through the line of David through which the Messiah would come. Through Jesus, God has provided the means of our deliverance and restoration. Those who’ve trusted in Jesus’ perfect, sinless record and accepted his payment for their sin (the sacrifice of his own life) will be able to stand before God without fear.
Amos’s message also shows us that the knowledge of God comes with responsibility. Those who know more of God and his standards of holiness will be held more accountable than those who have never heard about him. God chose the people of Israel out of all the peoples of the earth, but not because they were better or more numerous or more powerful. Quite the opposite in fact! They were chosen by grace alone.
God made his covenant with the people of Israel and gave them clear boundaries of ethical and moral conduct and instructions for their spiritual worship. These were for their own protection and their own benefit.
Today, as the new covenant people of God we are no longer required to keep all the requirements of the original old Testament law that God gave to Moses. However, Jesus did not come abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matt 5:17). Just because we have been freed from the demands of the law we are not simply free to do whatever we want. In fact as Jesus pointed out we are called to go above and beyond the requirements that the old law demanded. Rather than restraining ourselves to proportional revenge on our enemies we are called to love them. Instead of simply giving the bare minimum required we are called to give extravagantly. Jesus teaches us that the standard of holiness we are called to is so much higher than we would think. We should view sin with such seriousness that hating somebody should feel as bad as murder and lusting after another person should be regarded as adultery in the heart.
Amos’ words need to speak to us today, reminding us that God’s standard of holiness is so much higher than we realize. Instead of passing our own judgement on the sinful Israelites we need to look honestly at our own lives and realize just how similar to them we can be. God calls his people to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with him (Micah 6:8). Are we doing that? Do we actively look for opportunities to defend the rights of the poor in our society and our world? Do we think carefully about how we worship God? God is so merciful and patient with us – he calls us to come back to him, to abide in his love, to learn from him and to be his hands and feet in the world we live in.