REFLECTIONS ON SOCIETY?
THE KANSAS SENATE PRAYER
Many people pray when they begin a sermon. I’m not going to do that! Instead, I’m going to read a prayer that first saw the light of day 4 years ago (23rd January 1996). It was a prayed at the opening of a new session of the Kansas Senate. It’s suggested that in such circumstances, clergymen should follow the "Guidelines for Civic Occasions", written by the National Conference of Christians and Jews which calls for the use of universal terms for the deity and for the recognition of the pluralism of American society. But what Pastor Joe Wright prayed that day didn’t conform. Let me read some of it:
Heavenly Father, we come before you today to ask your forgiveness and seek your direction and guidance. We know your Word says, "Woe on those who call evil good" but that’s exactly what we’ve done. We have lost our spiritual equilibrium and inverted our values. We confess that:
We have ridiculed the absolute truth of Your Word and called it moral pluralism;
We have worshipped other gods and called it multiculturalism;
We have endorsed perversion and called it an alternative lifestyle;
We have exploited the poor and called it the lottery;
We have neglected the needy and called it self-preservation;
We have rewarded laziness and called it welfare;
We have killed our unborn and called it choice;
We have shot abortionists and called it justifiable;
We have neglected to discipline our children and called it building esteem;
We have abused power and called it political savvy;
We have coveted our neighbor’s possessions and called it ambition;
We have polluted the air with profanity and pornography and called it freedom of expression;
We have ridiculed the time-honored values of our forefathers and called it enlightenment.
Search us, O God, and know our hearts today; try us and see if there be some wicked way in us; cleanse us from every sin and set us free... I ask it in the name of your son, the living savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. (Senior Pastor Joe Wright of Central Christian Church, Wichita, Kansas.)
How do those words strike you? Do they reflect what you’ve seen of the world, or what you’re read in the papers, or seen on TV? Perhaps you think they reflect only a part of life - that they describe the exception, rather than the rule.
AMOS AND SOCIAL JUSTICE
Perhaps so, and yet they partially echo the words that were spoken by God through a guy called Amos around 2,800 years ago. What God said through Amos was, "They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor ... and deny justice to the oppressed." A little later, he writes, "You have lifted up the shrine of your king, the pedestal of your idols, the star of your god- which you made for yourselves."
We see parallels between these words as they reflect a society that is less than ideal. Two-and-a-half millennia separate those pronouncements, yet the prayer uttered in the Kansas Senate echoes the words of Amos to the nation of Israel.
THE PLACE OF AMOS
Tonight we start to focus on that message from Amos. Tonight we look at the past - Israel’s past in the days of the divided kingdom with each nation turning from God to try to shape their own destinies. Tonight we hear what God had to say and how He was planning to shape their future - and ours. The way Israel and Judah responded to God two-and-a half thousand years ago had consequences for them, and how we respond to God today has consequences for us.
One purpose of tonight’s sermon is to provide some background to help you understand the book of Amos - to provide a framework for what you’ll hear in the next five sermons on Amos. To do that, we’ll need to know some history and geography with a bit of sociology and covenantal theology thrown in. A dash of horticulture and zoology wouldn’t go astray either.
But the primary aim is for us to know God better and so to grow in our Christ-likeness.
A POTTED HISTORY OF ISRAEL
Before we zoom in on Amos, we need a broad view of the history and geography of the Promised Land to get some perspective on what Amos had to say.
THE GOLDSWORTHY COATHANGER
Israel and Judah had a somewhat chequered past - to say the least. Graham Goldsworthy put together a chart outlining their joint and separate histories. This is the Goldsworthy coathanger (© Graham Goldsworthy, from Gospel and Kingdom)
The chart spans from creation to the new creation and so it doesn’t have too much detail - but it does contain an outline of the major events of the last three thousand years as we see God forging a people for Himself.
It starts with creation through the fall. Through Noah and the patriarchs to Egypt and the exodus under Moses. We hit the Promised Land under Joshua and the judges, and then see the people calling for a king like the nations around them. We have Saul, and David and Solomon, and then there is division in the kingdom into Judah under Rehoboam in the south; and the northern kingdom of Israel under Jeroboam which occurred in around 930 BC.
The nations prosper periodically through the next 200 years. Israel always has kings who do evil in the sight of the Lord, whilst Judah has a mix of those who do evil and a handful who do good. Because of the evil that is always existent in the north, God sends his mouthpieces - his prophets to warn and encourage the people to repentance. Amos was one of them and was around at the same time as the sea-faring Jonah, better known for his cowardice than his compassion. He was a contemporary of Hosea who took a prostitute for his wife to demonstrate that God still loves Israel despite them sleeping with the enemy. To get a bit ahead in the story, the people of Israel don’t repent and so in 722 BC the Assyrians ethnically cleanse them.
MAPPING THE DIVIDED KINGDOM
With that historical perspective in mind, it would be useful to see a map of the Promised Land in the time of the divided kingdom. It will represent the Middle East when both nations were at their peak. You’ll see the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. The southern kingdom had subdued the Philistines; the Ammonites and the Arab states further south. The north under Jeroboam II had subdued Syria and so controlled the trade routes.
On a sideline Judah doesn’t consist purely of the descendants of Judah one of the 12 sons of Jacob. There were also some Benjaminites and Levite priests and other defectors from the north. It is only people from the tribe of Judah who are called Jews, whereas the northerners were called Israelites.
AMOS - THE PROPHET AND THE MAN
TIME OF WRITING
Given that historical and geographic backdrop, we can get to the book of the prophet Amos. He was one of the so-called "minor prophets" - not because of his stature, or his place in history, but because he didn’t write as much as the major prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel or Daniel. He begins, "The words of Amos, one of the shepherds of Tekoa-what he saw concerning Israel two years before the earthquake, when Uzziah was king of Judah and Jeroboam son of Jehoash was king of Israel."
We know that Uzziah was king of Judah from around 790 to 739 BC, and that Jeroboam II was king in Israel from 793 to 753 BC. There is some archaeological evidence of an earthquake in Samaria around 760 BC and so a placement of around 762 BC for Amos is accurate to within a few years either way. That date is significant when you bear in mind that forty years later, Israel was gone
AMOS - THE MAN
But what about Amos the man? In his own book, he tells us a few things about himself - very few things. He was a shepherd from the town of Tekoa; it’s a town, which is in Judah near Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Amos was from the southern kingdom, and yet his words are addressed to his brothers and sisters in the north. He was a shepherd and sycamore-fig farmer who was called by God to prophesy to the Israelites. Since the division of the kingdom Israel and Judah didn’t see eye-to-eye, but because they each had to be wary of their other neighbours, they tolerated each other.
We can glean that Amos was a part-time prophet who wasn’t in it for the money. Around those days, there were prophets who were paid to say what the king wanted to hear - Amos was no such man. In Amos chapter 7, we hear an exchange between Amaziah who was the priest of Jeroboam II, and Amos, "Amaziah said to Amos, ’’Get out, you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there." to which Amos replies, "’I was neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore-fig trees. But the LORD took me from tending the flock and said to me, ’Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’"
And yet despite being a shepherd and sycamore-fig tenderer, he was obviously an educated and intelligent man. He’s well versed in the covenant and he knows his history. He’s a man who knows God and his northern brothers and sisters.
Yet being a man of the land, Amos uses some language that is fairly descriptive and colourful. To give you a flavour for what you’ll hear and hopefully read in the coming weeks, here are some samples:
As a shepherd saves from the lion’s mouth only two leg bones or a piece of an ear, so will the Israelites be saved. (3:12)
The time will surely come when you will be taken away with hooks, the last of you with fishhooks. (4:2)
The time is ripe for my people Israel; I will spare them no longer. ‘‘In that day,” declares the Sovereign LORD, ‘‘the songs in the temple will turn to wailing. Many, many bodies - flung everywhere! Silence! (8:2, 3)
It’s good stuff! Direct, to the point, perhaps befitting a shepherd and sycamore-fig tenderer. But what circumstances could evoke or justify such language?
THE SOCIOLOGICAL SETTING OF AMOS
Well, the 8th century BC may have been a great time to be alive. In both Judah and Israel, there was great wealth and unparalleled optimism. The tribal system was being replaced by a class system. It must have seemed like the golden age under Solomon had returned. Many Israelites could afford summer and winter residences, and houses were adorned with ivory - no plaster flamingos there!
Religion flourished, people thronged to the annual festivals, sacrifices were made and God (they thought) was on their side.
Life was good! Basically the rich were ripping off the poor. Corruption was the norm and the justice system was a joke. Sounds familiar - hey, what goes ’round comes ’round.
Amos spoke against this oppression and injustice - no wonder he didn’t prove too popular with the cream of Israelite society.
As you’d expect, these social conditions were reflecting religious habits. Israel was religious, yet it was a perverted, ritualistic observance. It intertwined the Law with religious practices from neighbouring countries and promoted immorality and godlessness. Not surprisingly, God pronounces judgement on such religion (Amos 5:21-24, 27): "I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them."
Whilst Israel seemed to be prospering from the outside, inside it was decaying. It has been suggested that the antecedents to this decay were in the division of the kingdom because the Israelites failed to recognise the sovereignty of God, and had sought to develop their own centres and styles of worship outside Jerusalem.
Hosea and Amos in particular underline the relationship between false worship and social injustice; between empty faith and moral decay.
THE LORD ROARS - AMOS 1:1-2
THE LION ROARS
Given some of the history and geography of Israel and Judah, and knowing a little about the man Amos, what does he have to say? We’ve already heard the first verse where Amos tells us about himself. Now he tells us about God, "’The LORD roars from Zion and thunders from Jerusalem; the pastures of the shepherds dry up, and the top of Carmel withers.’"
This second verse sets the scene and theme for much of the book. This is where the geography, economics, sociology and zoology kick in. As we’ve seen, God was not happy with the Israelites - their religious practices were perverted formalities and they oppressed and exploited the poor for their own gain.
"The Lord roars from Zion and thunders from Jerusalem", and in Amos 3, the analogy is further explained: "Does a lion roar in the thicket when he has no prey? Does he growl in his den when he has caught nothing?" The lion roars only when there is no opportunity for its prey to escape. The lion has roared from Zion and Jerusalem and it has Israel in its sights.
ZION, JERUSALEM AND MT CARMEL
But why pick on Mt Carmel, and what is the significance of the roaring from Zion and thundering from Jerusalem?
Carmel - in the north-west of Israel holds horticultural and religious significance because Carmel was one of the better crop-growing areas in Israel. It was on Mount Carmel that Elijah and God defeated the prophets of Baal. Both Elijah and Elisha sought refuge in the many caves on the Mount. As such, it symbolises material prosperity and false worship and so is a ready target for the wrath of God. In recent millennia (1156), there was a monastery on it, not unreasonably full of Carmelite monks.
Even more interesting are the recent developments on Mt Carmel. There is a new estate called Vardia Heights. The advertising on the net suggests the apartments "are all intended to fulfil every residents every wish. Some people know how to take full advantage of life, to enjoy the best of what life has to offer."
But the best part about the estate is "the view from the Vardia Heights residential hotel displays the Carmel in all its glory." What the advertising doesn’t mention is that this includes the world headquarters for the Bahai faith. Today, Carmel is still representative of idolatry and false worship.
But back to Amos 1:2 with the Lord roaring from Zion and thundering from Jerusalem. Zion is the hill or mount in Jerusalem where the citadel or fortress of the Jebusites stood. In Amos’ time, it was the location of the temple and the Ark of the Covenant and so symbolises the dwelling place of God. The roaring from Zion to Carmel is metaphorically the pronouncement of God’s judgement from his dwelling place on earth against the Israelites false worship, material greed and social oppression.
In that one verse we have the reason for Amos’ prophetic message - that the God of the universe including the Israelites is pronouncing judgement upon them. It is a warning to Israel of God’s impending judgement. And because it’s a warning, it’s a message of mercy and grace. But it’s a warning that went unheeded and so forty years later the Israelites were exiled to Assyria and have not been heard of again. Today’s nation of Israel is a political nation, not a religious one. It is propped up by US foreign, trade and defence policies and bears no relationship to God’s chosen people.
AMOS’ MAJOR THEMES
With that somewhat cursory view of Amos aside, and having seen something of the geographical, historical, social and religious background, I’d like to make comment on some of the more significant themes of the book.
Social Justice Stemming from the Character of God
As you read it, the ones that jump out are some of those I’ve mentioned - social oppression, prosperity, false worship - and the judgement that is coming on Israel for fostering these things. Amos has been accused of being the prophet of social justice, but as you read the book, it’s not justice for its own sake that is at issue, but the justice that stems from the very character of God.
Social justice is a secondary theme in Amos - secondary to the character and nature of God - that he is sovereign - the sovereign judge of the nations, the sovereign God of morality and perfection. The sovereign God who demands absolute loyalty and trust.
A COVENANT AND A REMNANT
Yet, too, we see the special relationship that exists between God and Judah and Israel. I suspect part of the problem for Israel was that they knew they were in a covenant relationship with Yahweh - that he would be their God, and they would be his people. Yet Israel was presuming that this relationship would continue despite their behaviour. In Amos 3:2, we read "You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth", and because of that, Yahweh continues, "therefore I will punish you for all your sins."
But the covenant will remain and a remnant of God’ people will be built. From the concluding verses of Amos, "In that day I will restore David’s fallen tent. I will repair its broken laces, restore its ruins, and build it as it used to be ... I will bring back my exiled people Israel; they will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them ... I will plant Israel in their own land, never again to be uprooted from the land I have given them,” says the LORD your God."
The so-called prophet of doom ends his message with hope. It is a hope that God will and does preserve a people for Himself - a remnant. The relevance for us is that WE are the remnant. We are God’s chosen people.
GOD IS SOVEREIGN AND RELENTLESS
Over the next month or so, the message of Amos will be explored in greater detail. Tonight has been to provide some of the background to the events and the book.
Over the next two weeks, it would be helpful to read Amos at least twice. The first time is to get the overall gist of the message. With the second and subsequent readings the message becomes louder and clearer.
The book of Amos is not a call to action to restore social justice. It is not a call to full employment, an equitable welfare system, medical benefits for all, truth in sentencing and a GST. It is a call to repentance and faith in the sovereign God of Israel.
Amos’ words are of words of judgement that end in hope. The lion has roared, Israel will be exiled; yet a remnant of God’s people will be called.
Just as Joe Wright’s prayer echoes the words of Amos, and just as Mount Carmel today symbolises the same things that it did two-and-a-half thousand years go, our God is the same now as he was then - that God is sovereign, God is relentless, and God will not compromise. He demanded absolute loyalty from Israel. He is relentless with us too. He does not compromise with us and he excepts the same from us. An integral part of his relentlessness is his mercy, grace and love - that he calls a people to himself.
- Yet how do we view God’s sovereignty?
- How do we repay his relentlessness?
- How do we respond to His mercy, His grace, and His love?
What Amos could only glimpse at, but we can see clearly is that our sovereign God who demands much from us has already given us so much more through his Son. We need to respond to him with gratitude, obedience and faith.
© Gary Bennett February, 2000
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version.
Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission.