Religion and Holiness
"The Lord God has sworn by His holiness" (Amos 4:2). Although not in the habit of swearing oaths—His Word is sufficient—God sometimes does so to focus on the seriousness of a pronouncement. As the writer of Hebrews says, "For when God made a promise to Abraham, because He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself" (Hebrews 6:13).
What does God see in Israel that so affronts Him that He has to swear "by His holiness"? Israel had every opportunity that the Gentiles did not have: His calling, His promises, His Word, His laws. He gave the Israelites these gifts to help them develop into His sons and daughters, but God sees them as diametrically opposite of Himself. Should not God expect to see some of His characteristics in His sons?
A simple illustration from the author's experience in visiting a family may help in understanding this point. Parents often show their pride by prominently displaying a photograph of their children, and these parents were no different. In this case, three of the four children bore a strong resemblance to their parents, but the fourth child was so noticeably different that it was obviously either an adopted child or the product of adultery.
God says, "I have children who bear no spiritual resemblance to me." He shows the cause to have been spiritual adultery—going after other gods and other ways of life.
"I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against Me; the ox knows its owner and the donkey its master's crib; but Israel does not know, My people do not consider." Alas, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a brood of evildoers, children who are corrupters! They have forsaken the Lord, they have provoked to anger the Holy One of Israel, they have turned away backward. (Isaiah 1:2-4)
A dumb ox and donkey show more sense and appreciation to their masters than Israel did to her Father! Instead, she rebelled against Him!
God gave Israel many advantages—His law, His providence, His protection—to allow His people to live His way of life, but they turned their backs on Him and followed the ways of other gods. Paul shows how illogical this is:
For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords), yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live. (I Corinthians 8:5-6)
Since we have complete dependence upon God for life as our Designer, Lifegiver and Sustainer, He has complete authority over how we should live. Among the multiple pantheons of gods, only one God lives the way a God ought to live. This particular God—the God of Israel—is holy, that is, He alone is transcendentally different, superior and separate. He has called His people to be holy (I Peter 1:15-16). It follows that a holy person must be different in the way that God is different.
From God's holiness flows His love—outgoing concern for others, His outstanding attribute. When God looked on Israel, however, He saw a whole nation, from her culture to her government to her religion, organized on the basis of human self-concern. God wanted to see clear evidence of godly living, by which He could verify their claims of being His people. In Israel, He saw no such evidence, but instead a people in opposition to Him in every area of life. Spiritual adultery had occurred.
Form But No Substance
God's complaint against Israel's religion is that it had form but no substance. The people made pilgrimages to their shrines, but they did not grieve for their nation's sins (Amos 6:6). They went to church, but they continued to cheat and steal and lie (Amos 8:5-6). They made a great show of being religious, but their religion caused no changes in their conduct.
God's Word shows that true religion is having concern for and helping the weak, as well as showing hospitality and generosity to those who cannot return the favor (James 1:27). It is sacrificing oneself in service; as Christ said, "Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends" (John 15:13). It is speaking the truth and being honest—even swearing to one's own hurt (Psalm 15:4)—not backbiting or gossiping. True religion is not exacting the last cent on a deal, or impatiently watching the sun go down on the Sabbath to do one's business or pleasure. It is not taking usury and so on. To use a cliché, Israel talked the talk but did not walk the walk.
Even after giving them His law, God did not leave the people of Israel without a witness—a right example—of how to live. While they were drifting away, He gave them the Nazirites, people who had consecrated themselves to God (Amos 2:11; see Numbers 6:1-21). A Nazirite, a "separated one," was anyone from a tribe other than Levi who dedicated himself to God for a special period of time. Nazirites were separate because of their holiness; they vowed not to drink wine, cut their hair or touch dead bodies.
God apparently called enough Nazirites within Israel to exemplify pure living before His people. Additionally, He sent prophets to testify against the nation and expose the direction she was going. How did Israel react? Probably through some kind of persecution, they forced the Nazirites to break their vow and muzzled the prophets (Amos 2:12).
The more holy we become, the greater the contrast between us and the world—and the more likely the world will seek to persecute us. When Jesus Christ, the most holy, moral and different human being who ever lived, walked this earth, His own people killed Him. They could not tolerate His holiness. Thus, He warned His disciples, "If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you" (John 15:20).
A Warning to the Church
Like ancient Israel, we can easily fall back into our former ways. The Israelites rejected the law of God and relied on the traditions of Gentile nations. Elijah had to take drastic measures to prevent Baal worship from completely eradicating the worship of the true God (I Kings 18:20-40). Some of Judah's kings spent years tearing down shrines and high places to foreign gods (II Chronicles 34:1-7).
Christ warned the Pharisees: "For laying aside the commandments of God, you hold the traditions of men" (Mark 7:8). For example, Christmas and Easter are traditions of men, but they are lies. What happens if a person, trying to establish a religion, mixes falsehood with the truth of God? Recall God's wrath when Aaron made a golden calf at the urging of the Israelites in the wilderness and proclaimed a feast to the Lord (Exodus 32:1-5). Observing Christmas and Easter in the name of Christ is no different.
Blending the lies of this world with the truth of God produces a foul mixture called syncretism (James 3:10-13). "Christian" religions of this world have mixed the traditions of paganism with some of the truth of God's Word. This is no different from what Israel was doing when Amos wrote back in 760 BC. Since their rejection of the house of David under Jeroboam I, the Israelites had practiced a syncretistic religion (Amos 5:21-26; 8:14; I Kings 12:25-33).
Today, the religious problems we face generally reside in the more subtle parts of this world's Christianity. When the apostle John tells us we must come out of the world (I John 2:15-17), he is not talking just about Christmas and Easter, but about attitudes, approaches, ideas and inclinations that we drag with us and mix with the truth of God. How many of these do we still have? We may not have identified many of them, but as we continue to grow in grace and knowledge, we become aware of them and repent.
Through human nature, Satan constantly attempts to displace the truth of God with error. The loss is usually subtle and gradual, much like the effect on the proverbial frog in water that is slowly coming to a boil. In a religious organization, the second generation of adherents tends to lack the vigor and dynamism which characterized the founding one. The church of God is following the same pattern today, as one of her largest branches adopts one false doctrine after another (see Revelation 2:18-29). Her administration, ministry and membership are quickly sliding back into the world. Syncretism is certainly alive in the twentieth century!
Paul warns Timothy, a leader of second generation Christians, "Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. That good thing which was committed to you, keep by the Holy Spirit who dwells in us" (II Timothy 1:13-14). It is the responsibility of God's church to be extremely careful not to drift away from the truth. (For more information on this topic, see our booklet, Guard the Truth.) Ancient Israel did not "hold fast" to the truth God had given her, and by the time Amos came on the scene, the people exhibited glaring proof that they were far removed from the way of life that had been revealed to their fathers.
Building Righteous Character
"Hear and testify against the house of Jacob," says the Lord God, the God of hosts, "That in the day I punish Israel for their transgressions, I will also visit destruction on the altars of Bethel; and the horns of the altar shall be cut off and fall to the ground." (Amos 3:13-14)
Israel's false religion, represented by the altars of Bethel, is at the root of her problems. The violence and injustice in Israelite society ultimately stemmed from the false teaching proclaimed from the pulpits.
For this reason, God shows that the preacher, not the civil authority, is the most vital part of the community. God set up the Levites within Israel to function as the teachers of His way of life, and He sent the prophets as watchdogs on the Levites and civil leaders. In many cases, when the king or the nation had wandered from the way, the prophets were sent to correct them (e.g., II Samuel 12:1-15; I Kings 18:17-19; II Kings 21:10-15).
At the foundation of every community is a way of life that its people live and teach their children. Does that way of life conform to the God of the Bible, or does it spring from the mind of men? If it is of men, it will not work very long. So it was in Israel. The religion of Israel began with a man, Jeroboam I, who changed the true worship of God (I Kings 12:26-33).
• He established a feast in the eighth month to replace the true Feast of Tabernacles in the seventh.
• He may have replaced the Sabbath with Sunday worship.
• He replaced the Levitical priesthood with men of his own choosing.
• Lastly, he replaced God with golden calves in Bethel and Dan.
A religion with such a beginning was doomed to fail, bringing the nation down with it.
When religion is ungodly, its power is destructive, and every institution in the nation suffers. For instance, Amos 2:7 describes a deliberate act of ritual prostitution in a pagan temple: "A man and his father go in to the same girl, to defile My holy name." What was the rationale behind this perverse, immoral act?
Because Baal was neither alive nor a moral force, his worshipers felt they could communicate with him only by ritual actions that portrayed what they were asking him to do. Since Baal was, like almost all ancient deities, a fertility god, the human act of intercourse demonstrated that they wanted Baal to prosper them. But what was its real effect on the participants and the nation? Ritual prostitution only served to erode the family, eventually leading to the destruction of the nation.
Baal was different from his adherents merely in that he was above them. God's difference from us is that He is holy; He is moral and we are immoral. After we accept His calling, He commands us to become moral as He is.
The basis of all immorality is selfishness, the exact opposite of what God is. God wants to transform us from people who are bent on pleasing ourselves to people who show concern for others. This is the crux of our salvation through Jesus Christ. In those God calls out—those who, by faith, will voluntarily yield to Him—He is building character based on outgoing love.
Immorality lies in the desire of men to live self-centered lives independent of God, as when Adam and Eve took of the forbidden tree (Genesis 3:1-19). To become moral, we must kill our selfish egos through the use and guidance of God's Holy Spirit. When we see that our thoughts and ways are not His, we should reform and repent. By submitting to Him, we take a small step in being transformed into what He is.
This process—building character and becoming holy—takes place in one's judgment period. Judgment is now on the house of God (I Peter 4:17). Eventually, God will convict the whole world of sin (John 16:8-9) and attempt to bring all men to repentance (II Peter 3:9) in the Millennium and general resurrection.
When a person swears by a thing greater than himself, it lends weight to what he says. He means that his word is as certain as the existence and power of the one by whom he is swearing. When one takes an oath by God or on the Bible, such as in a court of law, men recognize that God Himself makes the oath binding.
God swore by His holiness. "As He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct" (I Peter 1:15; see Leviticus 19:2). We find here that we are to be holy because He is holy. Holiness, like righteousness, is both imputed by God and achieved by us. Just as the vessels of the Tabernacle and Temple were holy, so are we when we are consecrated, set apart, for God's use upon conversion (I Corinthians 3:16; Colossians 1:22). Holiness, however, is more than an imputed state of being. It is a process that we must pursue throughout our Christian lives (Hebrews 12:14). That is why God admonishes us to become holy, to be holy in our conduct (Romans 12:1; II Corinthians 7:1; Ephesians 4:24; II Peter 3:11; I John 3:3).
The laws written in Leviticus 19, from which Peter quoted, are injunctions against defiling the mind, character, personality and attitudes of a person through sins like idolatry and breaking the Sabbath. God also speaks of taking care of the poor, of not reaping the corners of the fields and of being just in judgment. He warns against respecting persons and always siding with the disadvantaged (who may be wrong in his cause). He also mentions not eating anything with blood, practicing divination or soothsaying and so forth. These and other defilements make one unholy, impure and defiled.
He wants us to be holy because He is with us and in us. He does not want to be contaminated by the impurities of His people. God wants to have close contact with His people. "I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God and they shall be My people" (II Corinthians 6:16). If we want to have a fellowship with Him, we must start to become holy as He is. "‘Come out from among them and be separate,' says the Lord. ‘Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you'" (II Corinthians 6:17).
Israelites, God's people, are advised to be separate so they can avoid every possibility of defilement: "Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (II Corinthians 7:1). Flesh and spirit indicates "physical and spiritual" or "body and mind"—one's total personality—outwardly and inwardly in all relations with God and fellow man. Our sanctification, part of which we do, sets us apart to walk the way of holiness.
Holiness is what makes God what He is. It is not an attribute of God like love, joy or omnipotence. Holiness is the ground, basis and foundation of God. It is His uniqueness and totality, His deity and divinity itself. It is the perfect purity of God.
His holiness is symbolized in the construction of the Tabernacle: "The veil shall be a divider for you between the holy place and the Most Holy" (Exodus 26:33). A curtain separated the two chambers, and only the high priest could pass through the veil—and then only once a year. The phrase Most Holy is literally "holiness of holinesses." It represents the height, the top, the very pinnacle of morality. God was isolated from Israel, not because He was unapproachable, but because He wanted us to see the difference between us and Him. He really is approachable; no one in the universe is more approachable than God. But He is transcendently superior.
By the exercise of His will, He kept Himself separate from His people to impress upon them—and us—that the difference is moral. He gave His people tables of the law, the code of a perfectly moral God, so that they could become moral like He is. He also gave them the mercy seat, upon which blood was sprinkled, so they could be reconciled with Him. Both the mercy seat and the tables of stone were kept in the Most Holy.
Adam and Eve hid themselves from God only after their sin. Before that, they were not afraid of Him. We tremble before God, not because we fear the Divine Power, but because we know we are sinners. As sinners, we do not belong in the presence of an absolutely moral and pure God. Because of guilt, we feel estranged, fearful and isolated from God.
We can easily see this in Isaiah's experience with our holy God (Isaiah 6:1-5). The prophet writes that he "saw the Lord sitting on a throne" (verse 1), above which stood an unnamed number of seraphim, each with six wings. One of these angels cried, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!" (verse 3).
Isaiah's reaction is instructive. He wails, "Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts" (verse 5). In the presence of a transcendently holy God, this man of God felt completely shattered! Every cell of his body cried out its corruption! Peter felt something of this sort of sinfulness in Jesus' presence as well (Luke 5:8).
It is holiness that makes God what He is. No one is holy in the way our God is. He is holiness, the God of utter moral perfection. No man or god can claim this. He is utterly unique and different. God swears by what He is, by His very nature. It is the very strongest of oaths.
The Sin of Samaria
Israel, on the other hand, swore by "the sin of Samaria" (Amos 8:14), which actually refers to a name, Ashima, a Canaanite mother-goddess. This Ashima represents the importation of foreign cults and gods. Historically, Israel borrowed gods from the surrounding nations and combined their worship with that of the true God. By changing His nature, they destroyed the right image of the true God. This, in turn, changed the source of beliefs, ideals, laws, standards, ethics and morality. Thus, when a famine of God's Word comes (Amos 8:11), immorality swiftly sets in.
Dan was the location of one of the sanctuaries that Jeroboam I set up to imitate the Temple in Jerusalem (I Kings 12:29). His counterfeit sanctuary was made of a counterfeit Holy of Holies. Instead of cherubim, it had two golden calves arranged to form the base of a counterfeit mercy seat. Over the years, the visible presence of the calves became familiar to the Israelites, who soon were worshiping the calves as God. After a little more time, the nature of the calves became the nature of God.
Beersheba, with its false shrine associated with the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, was in the southern part of Judah. People made pilgrimages to Beersheba, a very long and arduous trip. Over time, they came to believe that righteousness accrued to them simply by going there. They walked "the way of Beersheba" (Amos 8:14), thinking to put God in their debt.
But God owes no one anything! He blesses those who are in the right attitude, who are following His way, who are growing and overcoming.
Amos also warns modern Israel of a future famine of the Word (verse 11), when a very strong movement will arise to syncretize or join all the religions into one. Already, ecumenical movements, like the "Parliament of the World's Religions" held in Chicago in August and September 1993, are working "to promote and encourage religious tolerance and interfaith cooperation." During the Parliament, 6,000 representatives from all the world's major religions discussed common ground and signed "The Global Ethic," a code that condemns environmental abuses, sexual discrimination, social disarray and military aggression. Attendees watched or participated in New Age, Baha'i, Buddhist, Confucian, Muslim, Native American, Shinto, Sikh, Taoist and Christian rituals.
Those who worship these abominations, God warns, "shall fall and never rise again" (verse 14). How final! It truly behooves us to "stock up" on God's Word now, before this spiritual famine—already in its early stages—reaches its peak, so we will be sustained to endure the hard times just ahead.
Leaven in Religion
"Come to Bethel and transgress, at Gilgal multiply transgressions; bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three days" (Amos 4:4). Transgress means rebellion, not just sin. As we have seen, God considered Israel's syncretistic approach to religion to be an outright rejection of His way of life.
Amos is speaking sarcastically when he suggests that the people sacrifice and tithe more often. "If you bring your tithes every three days instead of every three years," he says, "maybe your god, Baal, will respond." This sounds somewhat like Elijah's sarcastic comments in I Kings 18:27.
"‘Offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving with leaven, proclaim and announce the freewill offerings; for this you love, you children of Israel!' says the Lord God" (Amos 4:5). Leaven was not allowed to be in any sacrifice: "No grain offering which you bring to the Lord shall be made with leaven, for you shall burn no leaven nor any honey in any offering to the Lord made by fire" (Leviticus 2:11). Only one offering, the wave loaves on Pentecost, was made with leaven (Leviticus 23:17). A sin offering preceded the offering of the wave loaves, the leavening in them representing the sins still in the congregation of Israel.
In Amos 4:5 his sarcasm continues. The Israelites might as well have been making all their sacrifices with leaven because all their traditions, doctrines, customs and religious duties were nothing but vanity. Even though they were sincere in doing them, they were nevertheless a leaven brought in from the world. In like manner, Jesus tells us to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 16:6-12), that is, of their doctrine and their traditions.
Even a quick glance at modern religious practices reveals how thoughtlessly people accept the doctrines and traditions they have learned—without proving them. Millions of sincere people attend church every week, celebrate the holidays and send their children to church schools without ever proving their beliefs. They sing in the choir and donate generously when the plate is passed, but they do not really know—have an intimate relationship with—the god they worship. They just blindly accept the leaven they were taught while growing up.
God Transforms Us
God threatens to send fire, symbolizing divine rejection and purification (Malachi 4:1), upon Israel because of her false religion (Amos 5:6). The Bible, though ultimately written for His spiritual children, focuses on ancient Israel because she is comprised of God's chosen people. We can see our own lives in their examples. Amos proves through the Israelites' disobedience and corruption that they had no relationship with God. They had not allowed their privileged position under the covenant to transform them into godly people. Thus, God must send a purifying destruction upon them.
Bethel, Gilgal and Beersheba were places of pilgrimage, places people went to observe the feasts. But God says, "I hate, I despise your feast days" (Amos 5:21)! Verses 22-23 show that the Israelites loved all the rituals and entertainments of the feasts, but they did not leave the feasts better people (verse 24). They returned to their homes unchanged, unrepentant, after what was supposed to be a rededication of their lives to God!
Our attitudes in attending the feasts today tell God just as much as the Israelites' did during Amos' ministry. Do we go to the Feast of Tabernacles to seek God and learn to fear Him, as He says in Deuteronomy 14:23? Our reasons for attending God's feasts are very important. Do we go to get love and enjoy ourselves? The feasts should be enjoyable, but those who go there to give love and serve others profit the most from them. Those who go to get love usually become offended and leave the feast, telling anyone who will listen how "cold" others were to them.
From the biblical events that occurred in these places, Bethel pictures reorientation and hope; Gilgal, possession of the promises; and Beersheba, fellowship with God. We can have these things in Christ if we abide under the terms of our covenant with Him. In the example of Israel, we can see that hearing and knowing the way of God intellectually is not enough. The lives of the people of Israel did not match what they knew.
The lesson we can learn from the events in Bethel are particularly illustrative of God's transforming influence. At Bethel, Jacob had his dream of a ladder reaching to heaven and angels walking up and down on it (Genesis 28:12). When he woke up from his dream, Jacob reckoned that God was surely in that place and named it "Bethel" or "house of God." The ascending and descending angels, messengers of God, depict God, not man, initiating communication. In other words, the ladder brought God to Bethel. When God arrives on the scene and descends to communicate with a man, He makes a difference in his life.
Certainly, Jacob's life quickly began to change, especially his attitude. He had been fleeing for his life, but when he got to Bethel, his future changed dramatically because God made contact with him. God reconfirmed to Jacob His promises to Abraham and Isaac. A transformation began then that did not end as long as he lived.
On the run from Esau, a man to be feared, Jacob felt at any moment his brother would appear around the next rock. He arrived at Bethel hopeless, but he left a man with a future—God said that He would be with him. So Jacob arose and made a covenant with God that if He would bless him, then he would give a tenth, a tithe, to God (Genesis 28:18-22).
When Jacob returned to Bethel after serving Laban for some twenty years, God appeared to him again, changing his name to Israel (Genesis 35:1-15). In the biblical record, a name change, normally occurring during a period of crisis in a person's conversion, signifies a change in his heart. Undoubtedly, a significant change happened here and another at Peniel where Jacob wrestled with Christ (Genesis 32:24-30). Peniel was a stepping stone to what occurred at his return to Bethel and between them, we see Jacob's spiritual conversion.
To Israel and Amos, then, Bethel represented reorientation and hope. There the old life and the old man became new. This idea is later reflected in New Testament teaching about our spiritual transformation into the image of God (II Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 4:12-15, 20-24; I John 3:2).
Contact with God causes transformation, and Bethel represents this hopeful reorientation. Israelites may have journeyed to Bethel, but Amos shows that no transformation occurred. There was no change in holiness or morality. They enjoyed the fellowship and good times of the feasts, but they returned to their homes, and it was "business as usual." Unlike Jacob, they had not repented.
The illustrations in Amos 5:8-9 picture the process of change and transformation of character that God is looking for. The Pleiades and Orion represent the change of seasons when different constellations dominate the sky. Though He does not really change the Pleiades or Orion, God makes them appear to shift around the heavens because of the earth's revolution around the sun. "The shadow of death into morning" means He turns darkness into light. "The waters of the sea" describes the process of evaporation and condensation that produces rainfall upon the earth.
Notice the changes in these pairs: the Pleiades to Orion, shadow of death to morning, day to night, waters from the sea to the earth, ruin to the strong and fury (destruction) to the fortress. God is a transforming God; He changes people for the better. When we seek God, He will make a difference in our lives.
I hate, I despise your feast days, and I do not savor your sacred assemblies. Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them, nor will I regard your fattened peace offerings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs, for I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments. But let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream. (Amos 5:21-24).
Israel's religion was going nowhere. The people were not righteous, moral or just in their dealings with one another, so their playing at religion, though sincere, was despicable to God.
When Noah offered a sacrifice after the Flood, God was pleased with its fragrance (Genesis 8:20-21). But the Israelites made sacrifices that did not please Him. They offered the same sacrifices, but there was a vast difference between the offerers, between Noah and the Israelites of Amos' day. Ezekiel 14:14 lists Noah as one of the most righteous men who ever lived. But these Israelites were corrupt, unjust, merciless and hypocritical.
In the list of sacrifices in Amos 5:22, the sin offering is not mentioned, suggesting that the Israelites felt they had done no sin that required forgiveness. This shows that they were not in contact with God; they had no relationship with Him. If they had, they would have been aware where they had fallen short, and they could have repented.
Amos includes three other offerings that the Israelites gave but God would not accept. Knowing what they represent gives us insight into how the people were falling short in their spiritual lives.
The burnt offering teaches total devotion to the Creator. It was completely burned up on the altar, typifying the offerer being completely devoted in service to God. This offering corresponds to the first four commandments, which show love and devotion toward God.
Similarly, the grain offering, also called the cereal offering, meal offering or meat offering, teaches total dedication and service to man. It was offered in conjunction with the burnt offering. The grain offering typifies the last six commandments, which regulate our relationships and love toward our fellow man.
The peace offering represents one's fellowship upward to God and outward to man. It was primarily given in thanks for God's blessing. When this offering was made, God, the priest, the offerer and his family and friends shared in a common meal and fellowship, as all these parties ate part of the sacrificed animal.
But from God's reaction to their offerings, it is clear that the people of ancient Israel were not devoted to God or to their fellow man. Nor were they in true fellowship with either God or man, and therefore they could not see their sins. They did not see the holiness of God and compare themselves to it. If they had, they would have seen that they needed to make changes in their lives, but in judging themselves solely against other men—an unwise thing to do (II Corinthians 10:12)—they felt no need for repentance.
They did not understand what God really wanted of them. They may have appeased their own consciences with their church attendance, hymn singing and sacrifices, but they went home and continued to oppress and cheat and lie. True religion is
1) A relationship with God (Matthew 22:37). Without a relationship with Him, we cannot know Him or understand His purpose for us.
2) Submission and obedience to God as our part of the relationship (James 4:7-8). In offering to make the covenant with the children of Israel (Exodus 20-24), He proposed to them. They accepted their obligation—to obey Him—but they were unfaithful in fulfilling it. As the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16) and the future Bride of Christ (Revelation 19:7-9), the church must not fail as ancient Israel did.
3) Real love for God's truth (II Thessalonians 2:10). Israel neither loved nor sought God's truth.
4) Moral integrity (I Peter 3:8-12). Living in righteousness and holiness shows love toward God and man.
5) Social responsibility (James 1:27). Israel, as a nation of this world, had a responsibility to ensure that their care of their fellow Israelites was acceptable in God's eyes. The church, a spiritual organism, is not of this world, and as a body, has no responsibility at this time to change society—only ourselves. We must take care of our brethren within the church now, and we will have our chance to help this world in God's Kingdom.
These five points will not "buy" us into the presence of God, but rather they are five proofs that we follow true religion. Remember Jacob's dream. God chooses us and meets us at the foot of the ladder, making a difference in our lives. He gives us a way of life to follow, and we pledge to follow it. Thus, true religion is not a way to God but a way of living from God.
Grace and Law
The giving of the law at Mount Sinai was the climax of a series of events that began at Passover, the moment and the means of the Israelites' redemption. At Passover they killed a lamb and put the blood on their doorposts. When the death angel passed through to slay the firstborn, those who had blood on the doorposts were spared. God was saving, redeeming, buying back His people.
Mount Sinai adds the other half of the equation. Though redemption through the blood of a lamb (Christ) freed them from sin's dominion and death, the giving of the law at Mount Sinai shows that freeing them is not all that God had in mind. Israel came to Mount Sinai after being redeemed, heard the law and assented to keep it. God gave the law to show the pattern of life, the principles of righteousness, for the redeemed.
On one side of the coin is grace and on the other is law and obedience. They are harmonious; they cannot be separated. They are both vital parts of the process of sanctification leading to salvation. Grace is given upon repentance from sin, but after repentance, what is a Christian to do with his life? Obedience to God and living a life of holiness become his first priorities, and these work to produce character in the image of God (II Corinthians 3:18).
Amos 5:25 reconfirms that the sacrifice, offering and shedding of blood is a foundational necessity for a relationship with God. "Did you offer Me sacrifices and offerings in the wilderness forty years, O house of Israel?" The answer is, "Yes." The people were sacrificing, but is that all that they did? He implies that though they were sacrificing, something was missing—obedience to the law.
God told Israel that He would dwell in the Tabernacle, specifically the Holy of Holies, the symbolism of which we need to understand. The most important piece of furniture inside the Holy of Holies was the mercy seat, a wooden chest overlaid with gold. Its lid functioned as the seat. Inside the chest, under the seat, were stored the two tablets of stone, symbolizing God sitting on His law, the basis of His judgment.
When a man sins, he begins to separate himself from fellowship with God (Isaiah 59:1-2). He is no longer permitted, as it were, to come into the Holy of Holies. What means did God provide to heal the broken relationship, to restore the fellowship?
One might think that the giving of a sin offering would appease God, and He would forgive the sin. However, Hebrews 10:4 is very clear: "For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins." Then why did God have the Israelites make these sacrifices? "But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year" (verse 3). As Amos does not mention the sin offering in Amos 5:22, it seems that Israel did not even make the attempt to be reminded of sin.
So how was fellowship restored? On the Day of Atonement, once a year, the high priest entered the Holy of Holies to sprinkle the mercy seat with blood. God's intent in this ritual was to show people that their transgressions of His law were covered by the blood. The redeemed were again in fellowship with God.
The blood and the law are essential parts for maintaining the correct relationship with God. The law is permanent and codifies the nature of God in precepts to help us understand Him clearly. Obedience to His law is a perpetual requirement, with blood available to cover any transgression of it.
Application for Today
The New Testament application is found in I John 2:1-2:
My little children, these things I write to you, that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.
Propitiation is "an appeasing force." The law spells out the perpetual requirements of obedience to God, and blood pays for sin.
God desires sacrifice and obedience, not a religious game. It must be emphasized that our obedience is not for the purpose of saving us—salvation is by grace—but to assist us in perfecting holiness (II Corinthians 7:1) and to provide a witness of God working in our lives (Matthew 5:16).
Israel's purely ceremonial religion could never safeguard the truth because the people were not living it. By being used in the worship of man-made deities, not the Creator God, the rituals of their shrines were completely divorced from the truth found in the law. God will not be mocked (Galatians 6:7). The evidence of true religion is that through His correction in mercy and love, it will touch and purify every area of life. If we are really in contact with the true God, change will take place gradually as we grow.
To determine if our profession and practice of religion is pleasing to God, we must consider two questions: 1) Are we covered by the blood of Jesus Christ? and 2) Are we obeying God to the best of our understanding?
We never obey to the extent of our knowledge because knowledge, knowing what God expects, always outpaces ability. We gather knowledge before we have the ability to live it, and that makes us feel guilty because we realize we are not applying what we know. This guilty feeling is not really wrong, for without guilt we would not change. It is good if it makes us change, but when guilt becomes neurotic, it becomes destructive and wrong.
Today, psychologists are trying to remove guilt from our every thought, word and deed—a sure sign of widespread spiritual poverty and complacency. But God says we can worship Him with a pure conscience because we know we have been cleansed of our past sins through Christ's sacrifice, and because we know God is faithful to us as we live by faith in Him (Hebrews 10:19-23).
Zeal Without Truth
Amos was conscious of having a message from God. He wanted his message to have as powerful an impact as possible. He wanted to get the entire truth to these people so that they could repent. The apostle Paul had a similar desire:
Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God. (Romans 10:1-3)
The Israelites were zealously religious. However, they erred in isolating sincerity and ceremony away from the truth as revealed in God's Word. Sincerity and ceremony are only parts of what makes a religion. The people attended services, flocked to the shrines, performed the rituals and offered the sacrifices. But they did not worship according to knowledge or cultivate the righteousness of God. David writes, "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart—these, O God, You will not despise" (Psalms 51:17). God despised Israel's sacrifices because the people did not offer them in spirit and truth (John 4:21-24).
In the United States people are generally religious too. American money bears the motto, "In God we trust." Churches seem to rise on almost every corner, and a great deal of talking about religion goes on. Many get caught up in the "spirit of the holidays." Radio stations play Christmas music constantly for weeks prior to the holiday. Polls indicate that a high percentage of Americans consider themselves religious. Eighty-four percent of Americans view God as the heavenly Father of the Bible who can be reached through prayer (The Princeton Religion Research Center, "Religion in America: 1992-1993"). But as a whole, we do not worship God in spirit and truth.
Worshiping in truth is knowing and following God's way of life. Worshiping in spirit can mean two basic things: 1) through and by means of the Spirit of God, and also 2) with sincerity, enthusiasm and zeal. Jesus intends us to understand His words in John 4 in the same respect. Those who worship God must do it in truth through His Spirit with sincerity and zeal. They follow a way of life and practice a religion that pleases God. And their lives reflect the great transforming power of God.
Complacency and Laodiceanism
"Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall," writes the apostle Paul in I Corinthians 10:12. In different words Amos issues the same warning to the Israelites of his time. A dominant theme in his book is that past performance cannot compensate for a present lack of spiritual and moral commitment. Though outwardly religious, the people of Israel were not seeking God, but were relying solely on their privileged position under the Old Covenant.
In his day John the Baptist attacked this same problem in the attitude of the Pharisees, a group that was outwardly religious but inwardly corrupt and self-seeking (Matthew 23:25, 27-28).
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, "Brood of vipers! Who has warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.' For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones." (Matthew 3:7-9)
Christ frequently lambasted the Pharisees for their hypocritical religion exhibited in a fondness for ritual and pomp with little or no regard for true righteousness. A similar attitude of neglecting one's spiritual condition crept into the church quite early, spurring the apostles to caution Christians about its dangers (Hebrews 2:1-3; 5:12). These warnings are just as suitable to our age. With such a complacent attitude prevalent in the society around us—and the return of Jesus Christ just around the corner—we need to heed them as well.
God and the Prophet
Amos, a small-town Jewish herdsman, faced certain rejection and persecution for his message, yet he denounced the Israelites from the beginning to the end of his book. Prudent people were afraid to speak up for fear of retribution (Amos 5:13), but Amos feared no one but God. When the people shouted, "Who are you to come into Bethel and Samaria and preach against us?" he boldly replied, "The Lord God has spoken! Who can but prophesy?" (Amos 3:8). He had good reason to expose their corruption and complacency, and God had given him the authority to censure them.
The roaring lion (verse 8) had stimulated the voice of prophecy in Amos because repentance for the people of Israel was still possible. Thus, the prophet's responsibility is to stand in the gap—to deliver a clear warning message to reconcile the people to God. In like manner, a pastor has the same responsibility to his congregation. He must, "Cry aloud, spare not; lift up [his] voice like a trumpet; tell My people their transgression," so they can be reconciled to God (Isaiah 58:1).
The prophet must address the present while considering the future. As God says in Deuteronomy 32:29, "Oh, that [My people] were wise, that they understood this, that they would consider their latter end!" God holds the prophet accountable for speaking out and providing His people with a witness of what the consequences of their actions are.
How does the prophet know what kind of witness to provide to God's people? "He reveals His secrets to His servants the prophets" (Amos 3:7), those with whom He has a special, close relationship. God walked and talked with Abraham, whom He called His friend. Moses' fellowship with God was so close that He revealed His hinder parts to him. He also revealed Himself to other prophets through this close fellowship, and they came to know the mind and will of God.
God did not dictate His relationship with His prophets so that their personalities disappeared from what they said or wrote. In Amos' case, the book begins with "The words of Amos," but he immediately writes, "The Lord roars from Zion" (verse 2) and "Thus says the Lord" (verse 3). God and the prophet cooperate.
God inspires but does not dictate, as if the prophet were simply a tool like a typewriter or loud speaker. He makes the prophet aware of Him, and helps him observe his environment and reminds him of his own experiences in relation to His way. Thus, the prophet's personality surfaces in what he speaks and writes.
Amos' censuring approach brings up a few questions: Is it always a prophet's (or preacher's) duty to infuse people with faith, confidence and positivity? No. Is there ever a time or a circumstance when it is right for him to fill people with doubt about their lives? Yes! What kind of circumstance? When people are doing wrong and do not realize it.
How, then, should he correct them? Normally, the best way is to be gentle and ask questions. He sows doubt by making them think that perhaps the future is not as rosy and secure as they imagine if they continue in the direction they are going. Then he gives them space to think it through.
Now consider modern America. Are we not the greatest "Christian" nation that has ever graced this earth? Have we not distributed Bibles all over the world? Have we not given more money for charitable works than practically all the nations in the world combined? We feel we are a separate, distinct and greater nation than others. The Bible was deeply ingrained in the thinking of our people until this last generation or so. Surely the Lord is with this nation!
But Amos injects an element of doubt into this line of reasoning for both us and ancient Israel. "It may be that the Lord God of hosts will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph" (Amos 5:15). God was with their father Joseph, but was He with his descendants? They went to church and the feasts, but such actions do not necessarily impress God.
Because of his earlier reference to Beersheba (verse 5), Amos mentions Joseph, whom God blessed even in slavery. God told Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in Beersheba, "I will be with you." To Israel, the shrine in Beersheba represented God being with them, an idea that is equally important to us. Does God really walk with us as He did with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph? Can we look forward to the future with great hope? Will we sail right through this life into the Kingdom of God and avoid the Great Tribulation? If God is really with us, do we not have His promise, "I . . . will keep you from the hour of trial" (Revelation 3:10)?
Or are we, as a nation or as a church, complacently assuming that He is walking with us? Have we considered that He may not be? The people of Israel assumed it, and Amos announced very plainly that God was not walking with them. They were deceived!
The Israelites were wallowing in wealth and power. They were supporting their religious institutions and attending worship services and festivals. But in God's eyes, they were "wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked"—just like the Laodicean church (Revelation 3:17). In reality, God was not in their lives, though He wanted to be. Through Amos, He was knocking on their door (verse 20).
Should we allow ourselves to relax because we are part of God's true church? The Jews in Jeremiah's time relied on the presence of the Temple to give them security (Jeremiah 7:1-4). Not long thereafter, Nebuchadnezzar's army carted the nation into slavery in Babylon. The Jews of Jesus' day felt secure because they were born under the Old Covenant and could trace their ancestry back to Abraham (John 8:33). Within forty years Rome reduced Jerusalem to a pile of rubble.
Is it possible, then, that even though we consider ourselves Christians, our future may not be a time of serenity and hope, but of great testing? Are we not fast approaching "the time of Jacob's trouble" (Jeremiah 30:7)? Now is no time to rest either on our oars or our laurels!
First of the Nations
Amos 6 is written in an interesting way. The first verse corresponds to the last verse, verse 2 to verse 13 and so on. This correspondence is not exact, but it does show cause and effect from God's perspective. We will look at several verses in this chapter that reflect the complacent attitudes in Israel, especially among the leadership.
Woe to you who are at ease in Zion, and trust in Mount Samaria, notable persons in the chief nation, to whom the house of Israel comes! . . . "But, behold, I will raise up a nation against you, O house of Israel," says the Lord God of hosts; "and they will afflict you from the entrance of Hamath to the valley of the Arabah." (verses 1, 14)
In these two verses, Amos addresses the nation's leadership about the way they were living. Chief means "first." They felt Israel was the chief nation on earth, and no other could withstand it. But God says the leaders of Israel were complacent, "at ease," and the nation was following their examples.
The common Israelite looked to people of wealth, power and influence for models of their own behavior, and they saw self-indulgence, unfounded pride, moral degeneracy and self-satisfaction. Another nation, the real "first nation," would show Israel its true state by destroying it. Israel would be attacked from Hamath in the north to the Arabah in the south.
Go over to Calneh and see; and from there go to Hamath the great; then go down to Gath of the Philistines. Are you better than these kingdoms? Or is their territory greater than your territory? . . . You who rejoice over Lo Debar, who say, "Have we not taken Karnaim for ourselves by our own strength?" (verses 2, 13)
Israel's leaders boasted that these nations are no match for the power and wealth of Israel. "They may have had their day," they said, "but Israel will not be troubled by them anymore!" They felt so secure in themselves!
Twice in verse 13, Amos makes a play on words. Because these cities were recent victories of Jeroboam II, Israelites were extolling their military might. In Hebrew, however, Lo Debar means "no thing" or "nothing." They were rejoicing over nothing! Karnaim means "horns," a symbol of strength. To paraphrase, they say, "Have we not overcome strength with greater strength?" God's view, however, is that their strength, in which they boast, is of little consequence. A nation of even greater strength will completely conquer them.
Woe to you who put far off the day of doom, who cause the seat of violence to come near. . . . Do horses run on [the face of a cliff]? Does one plow [the sea] with oxen? Yet you have turned justice into gall, and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood. (verses 3, 12)
In their false security, none of the people worried about the collapse of the nation, even though the signs of it were all around them. In fact, put far off literally means "drive out" or "cast out" (see Isaiah 66:5). They did not just ignore the danger signals, they utterly rejected any notion of an imminent downfall. In doing so, they had done a very stupid thing, as foolish as running horses upon crags or trying to plow the sea. They had allowed violence, corruption and exploitation to mount in their midst (verse 12).
Verses 4-6 and 9-11 form another corresponding pair of passages. The earlier verses show the people's wanton use of their prosperity and their utter ignorance and heedlessness of the coming destruction of Israel. The later verses show the same people after a plague, one of God's judgments, kills whole families. Amos contrasts and connects their giddy complacency with their future wretched despair.
"The First of the Captives"
Therefore they shall now go captive as the first of the captives, and those who recline at banquets shall be removed. The Lord God has sworn by Himself, the Lord God of hosts says: "I abhor the pride of Jacob, and hate his palaces; therefore I will deliver up the city and all that is in it." (Amos 6:7-8)
Now God exposes the root cause: Pride brought forth their self-pleasing religion, their overconfidence in their strength and their self-indulgent lifestyles. Where were their trust and faith in God? Pride causes people to resist and reject Him.
God saw this unwarranted pride most acutely in Israel's leadership. As we have seen, most of this chapter is aimed directly at the leaders, upon whose conduct the nation's destiny is largely dependent. God shows in the Bible that the leader of any institution—nation, church, business, family—can make or break it. If a leader because of righteousness comes under the blessing of God, then the people are also blessed. But if the leader is cursed by God because of his wickedness, his people likewise come under the curse.
When Judah had a good and righteous king like Josiah (I Chronicles 34-35), the nation prospered, but under evil Manasseh (I Chronicles 33), the nation declined. In this century, England experienced a year of turmoil in 1936 over the determination of Edward VIII to marry the American divorcée Wallis Simpson. Yet, his brother, George VI, refusing to leave London during World War II, rallied the nation during its darkest hour. This principle of leadership holds true in any enterprise from large to small.
We can also see this in the second commandment: "You shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children" (Exodus 20:5). The fathers—the leaders—and the children both suffer. When the fathers are blessed or cursed by God, so are the children. The difference is only in the measure of responsibility that each bears.
In life, everyone is a leader as well as a follower, depending on the circumstance. Amos shows that a leader should never be complacent and content with the way things are because pride follows—and shortly after it, a fall (Proverbs 16:18). Leaders of nations bear a great responsibility because, if they allow morals to collapse, all their military prowess and vaunted technology will not save them. Above all else, the first consideration of a leader is to be moral.
But the Israelite leaders of Amos' day were people who first considered their own reputation and condition. They compared themselves with others instead of God (II Corinthians 10:12). In ignoring their spiritual health, they could neither lead and guide the nation, nor help and counsel others. Since they had failed so horribly in their duty, God says the leadership would be among the first to be led away as captives.
Laodiceanism—Then and Now
Amos avoids calling the Israelites "God's people" to make sure they understand their peril in breaking the covenant. In contrast, he calls God "the Lord God" (Amos 6:8), the Sovereign Covenant God who saves. To save them, He will either destroy the complacency or cause repentance.
Like the ancient Israelites, some people today take God's commitment to save too far. These people believe in "eternal security," or in Protestant terms, "once saved, always saved." They think they can do just about anything and remain under God's "grace." Some believe they can "get away with murder"! But they are wrong! Yes, God will follow through with His part of the covenant, for He has promised never to forsake His people (Hebrews 13:5). But there is a point of no return.
Knowing that He promises to remain with us through all the calamities, changes, opportunities and even the failures that we experience is very encouraging. He is there, determined to carry through with His promises (I Peter 1:3-9). He fervently wants to share His creation with us for all eternity. But we have a responsibility not to abuse the privileges of the calling of God, for His calling requires us to obey and submit to Him and grow in holiness, without which we cannot be accepted by Him (Ephesians 1:3-6; Hebrews 12:14). The Israelites, though, abused their calling, failed to be holy and found themselves on the brink of grave peril.
Jesus faced a similar attitude in Roman Judea. In a discussion with the Jews of His day, Jesus says, "‘And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.' They answered Him, ‘We are Abraham's descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone'" (John 8:32-33). They believed that they were secure in God despite their manner of life, taking the covenant for granted, and relying on their ancestry to placate God.
In the same vein, we might say, "I'm a member of the true church. Are we not Abraham's seed, those with whom God has made the covenant?" We may attend Sabbath services and the feasts, sing in the choir and give tithes—all good things—but God wants more. He wants us to have a zeal for obedience to Him because it will produce in us His mind, heart and character.
Amos proclaims the whole house of Israel to be complacent, just as our nation is. God prophesies that the church will also be spiritually complacent at the end time (Revelation 3:14-22. Read our booklet, The World, the Church and Laodiceanism, for further information). New members bring it into the church as part of the world that they need to overcome, but older members can also bring it in by gradually absorbing it as a way of life.
Accusation Against Amos
Evidently, Amos' teaching was effective because the people responded—at least it caused a reaction (Amos 7:10-17). He was a good strategist; he preached at the shrines where the people were. His influence radiated out as the word spread that a prophet from Judah was proclaiming doom for the nation. The people listened and spoke to each other about his preaching. When Amos accused the religious leaders of Israel of failing to teach God's way of life, Amaziah, a high religious official of the shrine in Bethel, felt he needed to respond.
As we see in Amos' case, a person can obey God and still receive public persecution. God will not protect us from all persecution, partly because it affords an opportunity to witness for and glorify Him. Amos' answer to Amaziah's charges makes this witness and enables him to prophesy further. Additionally, his response instructs us regarding the nature and function of a prophet.
This also shows a clear example of the biblical use of a plumb line, a building tool used to determine if an object is upright (verses 7-9). Does God hold the plumb line against Amaziah or Amos? Actually, He judges both. Amaziah represents the false religions and Amos represents the true religion. The content of their conversation reveals how God would judge them. Primarily, though, God was evaluating Amos.
We need to apply the plumb line to ourselves. Are we taking the grace of God for granted? Could God be angry with some of us in His true church? Revelation 3:14-22 shows that the Laodiceans are sincere when they assert that they are spiritually complete, but God is ready to vomit them out! Obviously, the Laodiceans are not judging themselves against God's plumb line, or they would have known they were out of alignment with His will.
Because they feel so secure in their own spirituality, they probably think it incredible that God would single them out for punishment. It is clear, however, that God punishes those who forsake their part of the covenant with Him. Revelation 12:17 shows that, on the other hand, Satan persecutes those who keep the commandments of God and live godly lives.
God's religion is more than keeping the basic Ten Commandments. The Pharisees kept them, but our righteousness has to exceed theirs (Matthew 5:20). One difference between Christ and the Pharisees was that Christ's righteousness was positive while the Pharisees' was negative. Though both kept the commandments, the sincere Pharisee was righteous by avoiding sin, but Christ was righteous by always doing good as well.
The problem of the Laodicean is selfishness, self-concern. His opposite, the Philadelphian (which means "brotherly love"), is commended by God for his obedience and for doing good. His religion is outward in practice because he has prepared himself to give and serve through his relationship with God. The Laodicean is too busy gathering his wealth and indulging himself to give much thought to his fellow man.
Like the Laodiceans, the ancient Israelites concentrated on self-advantage, self-pleasing and covetousness. This resulted in their being very hard on the needy and the poor. They ignored doing good works and serving their brothers. Amaziah apparently felt he needed to speak out and defend "that old-time religion."
The Prophet Tested
In Amaziah's accusations against him, Amos was tested in several ways. The accusations were very pointed, designed to raise his anger and hatred so that he would respond in a way that would "show his true colors." In reality, Amos' true colors did surface—that he was a true man of God!
Amaziah misrepresented him as disloyal, often the first accusation made against a true servant of God. The Jews accused Christ of rebellion against the Roman government, a totally unfounded accusation. In Amos' case the accusation was equally unfounded.
The priest accused Amos of saying that Jeroboam would die in battle (Amos 7:11). He was really tricky. To prove that Amos had said this, he quoted something the prophet really did say: "Israel shall surely be led away captive" (Amos 5:27; 6:7). In reality, the prophecy made no mention specifically of Jeroboam. Amaziah's false accusation was supported with something that was true.
The Jews tried this with Christ too. They used, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up" (John 2:19), as proof that He would destroy the Temple (Mark 14:58). They misrepresented what He said because He did not refer to the physical Temple. This is one of Satan's frequent ploys.
A second way that Amos was tested is in his motivation for serving God. Amaziah charges Amos with preaching for selfish reasons, for money, represented by, "Flee to the land of Judah. There eat bread" (Amos 7:12). Amos, a Jew, was preaching in Israel. To paraphrase, Amaziah said, "If you go back to Judah and tell them what you have preached against Israel, they will love you. They like hearing bad things about Israel! They will fill your basket with big offerings, and you'll be rich!" If Amos were not a true man of God, he might have swallowed this enticement.
Third, Amos was tested in his personal security. A threat implied that if he did not leave Israel, he would get hurt: "Never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is the royal residence" (verse 13). This test evaluated Amos' ability to confront authority. In referring to "the king's sanctuary, and . . . the royal residence," Amaziah warns him: "This is the national cathedral! What you say shouldn't be uttered in a hallowed, sacred place like this. It is dedicated to the welfare of Israel. In saying such things, you are challenging the king's authority." His ploy failed, though, since Jeroboam seems to have taken no action against Amos.
The Prophet Responds
When Amos answers, "I was no prophet, nor was I a son of a prophet, but I was a herdsman and a tender of sycamore fruit" (Amos 7:14), he contends that God Himself commissioned him to "prophesy to My people Israel" (verse 15). Amos was simply a faithful servant of God, with no formal training for the job God sent him to do. "So," he says, "don't tell me not to prophesy when God tells me to!" The apostles said much the same to the Sanhedrin (Acts 5:29).
Then he utters his prophetic denunciation of Amaziah:
Therefore thus says the Lord: "Your wife shall be a harlot in the city; your sons and daughters shall fall by the sword; your land shall be divided by survey line; you shall die in a defiled land; and Israel shall surely be led away captive from his own land." (Amos 7:17)
Amaziah's wife and children are included in the curse for two reasons. First, as shown earlier, a leader determines the course of those under him. Any curse that fell on Amaziah would also, to one degree or another, affect his family.
Second, it is a biblical principle that families are often unified in belief. The saying, "Blood is thicker than water," concedes that family ties often prove stronger than the influence of God's Holy Spirit. Frequently, if one leaves the church, others in the family will leave too.
As one member of the family rises or falls, so do the others. Because of his bold denunciation of God's prophet, Amaziah would suffer, and his family would suffer with him. God would see to it that this priest of Bethel would witness in a personal way the coming destruction of the nation as it fell upon his family with a vengeance.
This example, the only narrative section in the entire book, graphically illustrates the fruits of complacency and pride. God sends His prophets to ring as many warning bells as they can to wake His people up to the urgency of the times. The window of opportunity to avert the prophesied disaster is a small one, and God wants His people to use that time to seek Him and change their ways.
The prophet depicts a Laodicean society, like the United States today, from the top echelons to the lowest of beggars (Isaiah 1:5-6). Such a nation prefers form over substance, words over deeds and tolerance over righteousness.
A sober glance around this nation speaks volumes about the downward spiral already in progress. Crime is rampant on our streets and in our homes. Government scandal and corruption are common news items. Our families are falling apart while we make speeches about "family values."
We also see Laodiceanism creeping into the church as the people begin adopting the lifestyles and attitudes of the world. When they equate material prosperity with spiritual acceptance, they become satisfied with themselves and their spiritual progress (Revelation 3:17). Seeing what Laodiceanism produces, we should never let ourselves become spiritually complacent.
The signs of the times are all around (Luke 12:54-56). It is not good enough just to see them, though. We must act upon this knowledge and truly seek God. Isaiah writes,
Seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon. (Isaiah 55:6-7)
Now is the time!
The Prophesied Blow Falls
By refusing to repent of their apostasy from God's way of life, the Israelites could only expect the coming of God's fearsome punishment.
Hear this word which I take up against you, this lamentation, O house of Israel: The virgin of Israel has fallen; she will rise no more. She lies forsaken on her land; there is no one to raise her up. For thus says the Lord God: "The city that goes out by a thousand shall have a hundred left, and that which goes out by a hundred shall have ten left to the house of Israel." (Amos 5:1-3)
The people of Israel would recognize these words as a funeral dirge, a lamentation said over the dead. Amos speaks, not as if it were yet to occur, but as if it had already happened. This death came when Assyria conquered Israel from 721 to 718 BC and deported her people to foreign lands.
Israel is pictured as a virgin, though not a spiritual virgin. God frequently calls her an adulteress, harlot and fornicator (Jeremiah 3:1-13; Ezekiel 16; Hosea 2:2-13), but He uses "virgin" here because Israel was cut off seemingly in the bloom of youth—before she could produce what she had the potential to produce. In a literal family, God could have expected a happy marriage and children from her (Isaiah 5:1-2). Israel, surrounded by luxury and prosperity, should have produced God's personality and character, but she failed miserably.
Proof of Their Destruction
Thus says the Lord: "As a shepherd takes from the mouth of a lion two legs or a piece of an ear, so shall the children of Israel be taken out who dwell in Samaria—in the corner of a bed and on the edge of a couch!" (Amos 3:12).
Amos refers to part of the Old Covenant: "If it is torn to pieces by an animal, then he shall bring it as evidence, and he shall not make good what was torn" (Exodus 22:13). If a lamb was stolen from the flock, the shepherd had to repay the owner for it. If a lamb was attacked and devoured by a beast, however, he had to bring proof that he had not stolen it himself. He had to show evidence that what had previously existed had been destroyed.
Whenever Israel is destroyed, the evidence of her demise will not be a leg or part of an ear, but bits of furniture like couches and beds. When others look for proof of this great nation's fate, they will find all the accouterments of opulence, luxury, self-indulgence, indolence—products of their self-concern and self-satisfaction. But they will find no effects of godly spirituality—righteousness, justice and mercy.
The illustration of the bed and couch may be an ironic reference to Israelite sexual exploits with temple prostitutes and other ritual sexual practices (Isaiah 57:3-9). Additionally, God shows Israel committing spiritual adultery by trusting in other nations rather than God (Isaiah 31:1-3), and the destroyed bed and couch would depict His destruction of the nation for her unfaithfulness.
"For behold, the Lord gives a command; He will break the great house into bits, and the little house into pieces" (Amos 6:11). "The great house" refers to the noble or wealthy family in society, and these "big names" will certainly be destroyed along with the common folk. The rich and powerful will not be able to escape the dreadful punishment God promises. God makes it clear that He has given the command to destroy them.
We should never forget that God's punishment falls upon Israel because of disobedience, rebellion and sin. America and the British nations are rapidly following ancient Israel's example as they spiral downward to their destruction. We can see this pattern in the murder on the streets, bloody crimes like rape and mutilation in our once peaceful towns, AIDS and other sexual diseases rampant among all sectors of society, as well as sexual deviancy, perverse music, self-indulgence, drugs and alcohol abuse. Wealth is being funneled into the hands of the few, and the poor and weak keep becoming poorer and weaker. These nations may look fine on the outside, but the cancer has spread from head to toe, and they have only so long before the disease proves fatal (Isaiah 1:5-6).
Visions of Total Destruction
Amos warns Israel of the coming destruction in three visions recorded in Amos 7:
1) The vision of the locusts.
2) The vision of the fire.
3) The vision of the plumb line.
The first two have two points in common: Israel's total destruction and Amos' intercession.
Thus the Lord God showed me: Behold, He formed locust swarms at the beginning of the late crop; indeed it was the late crop after the king's mowings. And so it was, when they had finished eating the grass of the land, that I said: "O Lord God, forgive, I pray! Oh, that Jacob may stand, for he is small!" So the Lord relented concerning this. "It shall not be," said the Lord.
Thus the Lord God showed me: Behold, the Lord God called for conflict by fire, and it consumed the great deep and devoured the territory. Then I said: "O Lord God, cease, I pray! Oh, that Jacob may stand, for he is small!" So the Lord relented concerning this. "This also shall not be," said the Lord God. (Amos 7:1-6)
Given insight into what God would soon do, Amos was distressed over whether Israel could survive. God relented both times, probably as a result of Amos' prayer. But because of His earlier pronouncements and the people's lack of repentance, there is a sense that God would not postpone Israel's punishment much longer.
The first vision of Amos 7 may be a natural calamity of locusts rising out of the earth and destroying the crops and the grasslands "after the king's mowings," a practice akin to our income tax. Without the late crop, the first cutting for the king would be sparse, and without produce for their personal needs, the people would starve. God decided that Israel would be protected from natural calamity in the main, but a few people may suffer very badly and may even die.
The second vision, a divine fire, could literally be fire on the earth. "For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God" (Deuteronomy 4:24; 29:20). Fire, in biblical symbolism, is a purging and purifying punishment against sin (Malachi 3:2-3; Hebrews 12:29). To save and turn the people back to morality and obedience, God decrees a purifying fire to come upon Israel, probably in the form of a divinely inspired war. Again, God relents, giving the nation another chance to repent.
This exchange between Amos and God illustrates a wonderful method He uses to teach us what we need. God sometimes leads us into situations that force us to decide what we really need. We ask Him for it, and then He gives it to us. We think He answered our prayer—and He did—but He also led us to pray the prayer (see Romans 8:26)! He guides these situations so that we come to think like Him! When He wants to produce character in us, He will work in whatever way is necessary to build it.
We can learn much from this technique. In our earnest prayers, we cry out to Him, believing we truly need what we have requested. We should also pray to understand how God is working, molding, shaping and leading us to grow and overcome. When we finally see things from His perspective and pray that prayer, He will respond.
That is what He wanted from Israel: He desired the Israelites to understand that they should return to Him. However, Amos 7:9; 8:3, 10; and 9:1 indicate their destruction would be total because the people did not respond.
The example of ancient Israel's shortsightedness has present-day implications for spiritual Israel—God wants His people to look through the coming crisis and see that He brings it to pass, controls it and sets its limits. He will use it to bring about His purpose in individual lives or in the life of the nation. In the near future, conditions will become so difficult that, if possible, even the elect will be deceived—"but for the elect's sake those days will be shortened" (Matthew 24:24, 22).
The Plumb Line
The two previous visions, depicting devastation to Israel, offered no test of her people. God turns to a third vision that contains a test to detect if they are really His people.
Thus He showed me: Behold, the Lord stood on a wall made with a plumb line, with a plumb line in His hand. And the Lord said to me, "Amos, what do you see?" and I said, "A plumb line." Then the Lord said: "Behold, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of My people Israel; I will not pass by them anymore. The high places of Isaac shall be desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste. I will rise with the sword against the house of Jeroboam." (Amos 7:7-9)
In construction the plumb line tests whether what was erected is perpendicular to the square, that is, if it is straight up and down, if it is upright. It provides a standard against which one can measure what he has built. Metaphorically, when God draws near with the plumb line, He is looking for those people who are living and abiding in His grace and His law. The Israelites' moral standards had degenerated, so their religious profession was not verified by the right kind of works. They were not upright; they failed the test.
Amos has no opportunity to intercede at this point. God will no longer relent. "I will not pass by them anymore" means that God would not overlook their sins any longer. And, if He will not pass by them, He must pass through them. The plumb line shows that He will pass through "with the sword" in judgment; His patience and forgiveness have finally ended. He could no longer defer the punishment for their sins—the time had come to destroy them.
God passes through by destroying "the high places of Isaac," the altars and idols of the false religions responsible for the moral, spiritual and ethical decline of the people. They worshiped Baal and a host of other foreign deities (Judges 10:6). They set up sacred pillars and idols throughout the land (I Kings 14:23; II Kings 17:10-13). Some of them even burned their sons in the fire to Molech (Ezekiel 16:20-21). Through their spiritual harlotry, they abused grace—the free, unmerited pardon of God—and rejected His law.
"The sanctuaries of Israel," the religious shrines of Bethel, Dan, Gilgal and Beersheba, would also be among the first to fall. They were the fountainheads of the attitudes of the nation. In them the people were taught to seek the material prosperity that characterized the nation, and in part they sought this physical abundance through cultic fornication and fertility rituals done in the name of the eternal God. The religions taught the people how to sin and do it religiously.
Next, "the house of Jeroboam" would fall through war. Amos refers to Jeroboam I, after whom Jeroboam II was named, and worse, after whom he followed in his sins. God selected Jeroboam I to become king of the northern ten tribes of Israel after Solomon (I Kings 11:29-31), however He made the continuance of Jeroboam's dynasty contingent upon his obedience (verse 38).
But Jeroboam did not trust God. He thought that the religious festivals and sacrifices would entice Israel to return to David's line in Judah (I Kings 12:25-27). To counter that possibility, he set up counterfeit shrines in Bethel and Dan and changed the Feast of Tabernacles from the seventh month to the eighth (I Kings 12:27-33). Jeroboam turned away from the law of God, causing the people to sin.
Historians examine economics, social conditions and military strength to determine what causes the rise or fall of nations, but God shows that His purpose and the morality of the people are the true causes. Thus, God makes sure that the two major motivators of Israel's spiritual decline, the religious and political leadership, would feel His wrath first (Isaiah 9:13-16).
A Basket of Ripe Fruit
Amos 8 begins with a fourth vision:
Thus the Lord God showed me: Behold, a basket of summer fruit. And He said, "Amos, what do you see?" So I said, "A basket of summer fruit." Then the Lord said to me: "The end has come upon My people Israel; I will not pass by them anymore." (Amos 8:1-2)
Because we read the Bible in English, puns and other wordplay are lost in translation. Understanding this vision depends on a play on the Hebrew words translated "summer fruit" and "end." Amos answers God's question by saying he saw ripe fruit. But, when God responds, He uses a similar sounding word to suggest the time was ripe for His people.
The fruit represents people. If ripe, they were ready either to be used or to rot. God says the time is ripe for picking Israel. God had tried to get the people to repent, but in their hardheaded and hardhearted way, they would not. John the Baptist uses a different metaphor for the Jews of his day: The ax is about to fall (Matthew 3:10). God's patience had run out. He would "not pass by them anymore." In their spiritually oblivious state, disaster would take them by surprise.
Could we be taken by surprise?
But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, "Peace and safety!" then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape. But you, brethren are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. (I Thessalonians 5:1-6)
This passage sounds strikingly similar to Amos 8. Could we be lulled into complacency? Is God's hand involved in world events, while we think we have plenty of time before the end? Are we motivated to make use of the time left to us? God says the time is ripe. He gives us time to repent, but that time grows shorter daily.
Joy Turned to Grief
Now that He has announced Israel's imminent calamity, God begins to show how His punishment would alter the lives of the people. "And the songs of the temple shall be wailing in that day. . . . Many dead bodies everywhere, they shall throw them out in silence" (Amos 8:3). Notice the dramatic change of attitude in the people. The songs of His Temple would ordinarily be happy and joyous songs of praise to God, but He will turn the songs of their temple—sung to Baal in the name of the Lord—to wailing, for the numbers of the dead will be unimaginable.
Because of their self-absorption, God's "sudden" punishment will stun the people of the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia and the other nations of modern Israel, including some members of the true church. In their spiritually unaware state, they will be incredulous at God's punishment for "such a little bit of sin." But God has a different perspective; He says they are wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked (Revelation 3:17).
Because of their self-procured wealth and affluence, they think they are being blessed with material things. They see themselves as following the way of God, but their religion has deceived them by failing to teach them His truth. They think that what they are doing is right, but they are deceived. However, God still holds them responsible because the truth is available. He views them as personally rejecting Him and His Word.
Today, some evangelicals attempt to prepare the people for what is to come, but their teaching is a mixture of right and wrong. Jesus says, "They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch" (Matthew 15:14). In their ignorance, the people do not realize the terrible calamity that is coming soon upon modern Israel. It will be far more terrible than anything ever seen on this earth!
Pride and Instability in Israel
God squarely places the blame for their punishment where it belongs, on Israel's pride:
The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: "Surely I will never forget any of their works. Shall the land not tremble for this, and everyone mourn who dwells in it? All of it shall swell like the River, heave and subside like the River of Egypt." (Amos 8:7-8)
In Amos 4:2 God swore by His holiness, all of His moral integrity, His very nature. He also swore by Himself (Amos 6:8), indicating everything that He is and His sovereignty over all creation. Israel was not impressed. So God says, "Look, I have sworn by My holiness and by Myself, and that didn't carry any weight with you. So now I will swear by something so great—your own pride—that you can't refuse!" What irony! God says if He swears by something of theirs, it may mean more to them than if He swears by something of His!
This passage also shows that when man gets out of step with God, then nature too begins to suffer. Beauty begins to be replaced by ugliness. We begin to see huge piles of slag, polluted rivers, foul-smelling garbage dumps, expanding deserts and denuded forests. Finally, when the land begins to vomit the people out (Leviticus 18:24-28), they may show a belated interest in God and His truth, but it will be too late to stop the destruction. The time is right—the fruit is ripe, so God will punish them.
Consider what is currently happening in our Western nations of Israel. God shows a connection between nature and human morality; "natural" disasters are acts of God in response to the moral condition of the people. If men will treat other men, created in the image of God, in an immoral way, how will they treat the land, forests, rivers, lakes and oceans? Because these things seemingly cannot fight back, man will abuse them with no fear of reprisal. But God says that the environment will fight back and vomit them out!
Instead of rain falling in a gentle mist, it will roar like an avalanche until the inhabitants cannot cope with it. The rivers will swell and flood the land in anger, washing the topsoil into the sea. In other areas, fire will sweep over forests and farmlands, destroying everything in its paths. Windstorms like hurricanes and tornadoes will devastate the cities and countryside, endangering the lives and livelihoods of the people. Earthquakes will increase in both frequency and power, costing thousands of lives and billions of dollars of damage. These disasters will mount to such an intensity that the people of modern Israel may seek repentance, but it will be too late. God will not pass by anymore.
"And it shall come to pass in that day," says the Lord God, "that I will make the sun go down at noon, and I will darken the earth in broad daylight; I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on every waist, and baldness on every head; I will make it like mourning for an only son, and its end like a bitter day." (Amos 8:9-10)
These are subtle signs of a "ripe" society. When an earthquake strikes, one feels very unstable because he is not sure if the building will collapse and kill him. A similar type of instability occurs when society is rocked by crime, violence, immorality and injustice. Amos describes the insecurity, bitterness and death that result from failing to hold to the absolute standards of God.
One of the first signs of ripeness that society shows is instability. Just a few decades ago, most of us could leave our houses unlocked. But when society began to become unstable, we had to start locking our doors. In the recent past, we did not read a great deal about violence on the streets. Now society is so unstable that violence fills our news reports, and this constant source of worry produces more instability.
Within such a nation, all kinds of unstable factors constantly increase because everyone is running here and there in confusion. The confusion results from the lack of absolute standards of what is right and wrong, moral and immoral, ethical and unethical. Thus, everybody does his own thing. Violence, divorce, suicide and mental illness increase. We see this in our societies every day.
Terrors of the Day of Judgment
What will the time of Jacob's trouble—the Great Tribulation—really be like? Amos describes their reaction to the coming punishment to make the ancient Israelites aware of what their mental state would be—the torment, fear and hopelessness. This made the prospect of having to experience God's judgment much more terrifying than just knowing what will happen.
Therefore the Lord God of hosts, the Lord, says this: "There shall be wailing in all streets. And they shall say in all the highways, ‘Alas! Alas!' They shall call the farmer to mourning, and skillful lamenters to wailing. In all vineyards there shall be wailing, for I will pass through you," says the Lord. (Amos 5:16-17)
The farmer, accustomed to facing all the vagaries and insecurities of nature, like flooding and drought, is less likely to cry and mourn. The professional mourners, who cry at the drop of a hat, typify the other extreme. In their grief and despair, people will wander from one place to another looking for water, food, stability, hope, an organized city or a functioning society. All they will find is anarchy. Will God be walking beside them? No, He inspired Amos to say, He would walk right through them!
Amos is not argumentative with them; he is not trying to prove anything to them anymore. He merely shows them what the Day of the Lord will be like. He paints a vivid and stark picture of the horrors in their future to make them evaluate the present status of their relationship with God.
"Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! For what good is the day of the Lord to you?" (Amos 5:18). It is always a prophet's responsibility to remind the people that the future is inextricably bound to the present. What one does today affects the course of events as time marches on.
Malachi asks, "But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears?" (Malachi 3:2). No such doubts assailed these people at all. They were confident that things would be all right. They felt they would march right through the day of their judgment because they were His chosen people.
But when Amos looked at his times, he became frightened. "It will be darkness, and not light. It will be as though a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him; or as though he went into the house, leaned his hand on the wall, and a serpent bit him" (Amos 5:18-19).
There is no escape! People, living in their complacency, think that everything is fine. But the day of judgment will come upon them unexpectedly, and in utter hopelessness they will start running for their lives. They will escape one terror only to confront another! And just when they think they are finally safe, they will receive a mortal wound!
But, the prophet is not yet finished! "Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light? Is it not very dark, with no brightness in it?" (Amos 5:20). Wailing and inescapable judgment are followed by darkness. In their complacency, the people think it logical to conclude that, since everything is presently all right, they must have overcome those things which plagued them. With that behind them, they think their future is full of gladness and good times. Amos disagrees! He accuses them of feeding themselves false hopes. When God comes, he says, He will be their enemy!
Famine of the Word
Unfortunately, during these terrible times when God's Word is most needed to help the people come to repentance, it will be almost impossible to find. "‘Behold, the days are coming,' says the Lord God, ‘That I will send a famine on the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord'" (Amos 8:11).
When the people finally realize that God wants them to repent, it will be too late. The seeds of their destruction have been sown, and the crop is already ripe. The only truth available to them in the tumult of God's judgment is what they can remember. It is for this reason that God warns us in these times to "[redeem] the time, because the days are evil" (Ephesians 5:16).
If our hope in the Kingdom of God, the resurrection of the dead and sharing life with God eternally are not sufficient to motivate us to repent, perhaps fear of a terrible calamity, the Great Tribulation, the Day of the Lord or being spewed from God's mouth as a Laodicean will move us to use the present to secure the future. God prophesies to motivate us to cling to Him and His Word right now, and He is willing to scare us nearly to death in order to save us.
During this famine, "They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but shall not find it" (Amos 8:12). Amos probably refers to the Dead and Mediterranean Seas, east to west, and adds "north to east," describing a triangle with the south direction left out. Why would he do this?
On a map of Palestine, the Dead Sea lies to the east, the Mediterranean to the west and the nation of Israel to the north. What lies to the south? Jerusalem, where the truth was! In Amos' day, the truth was taught in God's Temple in Jerusalem.
Israelites wanted to be known as seekers of the truth, but in reality they did not want it. Their pride would not allow them to pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the truth, for that meant they would need to humble themselves before the Word of God.
Wander can be rendered "stagger" like a drunk or "tremble" like lips quivering in agitation because one is so angry or fearful he is unable to speak. It shows the people in a state of panic and intense agitation. They are desperately searching for what they had regarded so lightly: God, the Bible, His truth. But they cannot find them anywhere!
Thus they will seek any kind of religion, and many will fall prey to false ones. This scenario is already happening in modern Israel. New Age, mystical and Eastern religions are growing steadily, and many "Christians" feel free to borrow "truth" from other religions. Additionally, recent years have seen the rise of ecumenical movements within a broad spectrum of religious bodies.
In that day, the fair virgins and strong young men shall faint from thirst. Those who swear by the sin of Samaria, who say, "As your god lives, O Dan!" And, "As the way of Beersheba lives!" They shall fall and never rise again. (Amos 8:13-14)
When the famine of the Word of God occurs, the youth of Israel will fall most readily into the trap. There will be a tremendous revival in false religions, especially of the great false church. Where else can the young turn? They will be more susceptible because their parents failed to provide a solid foundation of truth on which to base wise spiritual decisions. The young only know what the older generation has taught them.
The Punishment Descends
The vision in Amos 9 is different from the four visions in chapters 7 and 8. There is no conversation between God and the prophet. The time for talk is over; God simply acts. The situation has moved beyond Amos' ability to intercede—God's time to act has come, and He will not relent.
The background of this final vision is interesting. To make his rule more secure, Jeroboam I devised what the Bible calls "the sin of Jeroboam," the use of religion in the service of politics. Using the system in place in Judah, he counterfeited the holy days, the priesthood and the temple ritual. On his altar his priests offered sacrifices to the two golden calves, and the king stood by the altar to burn incense (I Kings 12:26-33; 13:1). It apparently became a custom for the king to stand at the right-hand side of the altar at his counterfeit feast in the eighth month.
Who is standing beside the altar in Amos 9? Not Jeroboam, but the Lord!
I saw the Lord standing by the altar, and He said: "Strike the doorposts, that the thresholds may shake, and break them on the heads of them all. I will slay the last of them with the sword. He who flees from them shall not get away, and he who escapes from them shall not be delivered." (Amos 9:1)
Instead of officiating, God is destroying everything in sight!
Amos also draws on the story of Samson destroying the temple of Dagon by toppling the supporting pillars. If a man tries to pull a house down with his bare hands, he has to undermine it from the bottom, but God is not restricted like a man. He strikes the house down from the top! God, as the Supreme Omnipotent One and the Sovereign Lord, has every right to crush the house of Israel. Since the people had ignored all the numerous warnings He had sent for them to repent, He is now fulfilling His promise.
In the type, the temple of Dagon fell on everyone's head; no one survived (Judges 16:30). The same holds true in this destruction. No matter where the people of Israel flee in the day of calamity, they will not find any rest, ease, safety or security (Amos 9:2-6). They had tried to get security by building multiple homes for themselves, but God will wipe away this assurance by smashing their houses to bits. Anything that they thought would provide them security in the day of punishment God will destroy.
God is omnipotent. When He decides to judge His people in this very painful way, there is no escaping it. He reminds His people of the covenant they made with Him, that He called them to His service, yet He is also the God of all the earth and Lord of every nation (verse 7). In other words, He has the same responsibility to judge and punish them as He has to the other nations of the world. The Philistines and Syrians, by the way, are two of the nations He judges in Amos 1. God is judging Israel in the same manner.
We find a manifestation of Israel's problem—false reliance that the covenant would save them—in modern-day "Christianity." Many professing Christians believe in eternal security, commonly called "once saved, always saved," a devastatingly subtle deception of Satan the Devil. It is a belief that one can never fall out of favor with God, no matter what one's behavior or attitude.
As members of the true church, we need to beware lest we bring this false idea into the church with us. When God called us, chose us and granted us repentance, we were baptized. But that does not exclude us from His scrutiny. He is no respecter of persons; He will judge us as justly as He does anyone else on earth.
That we chose to follow God's way of life is good, but having that fact on our spiritual resumé is not enough. God is not interested in past actions but in present performance. What is happening today? Are we living righteously each day? Or, have we fallen from our past performance and profession? What God did in the past to give us the opportunity for salvation does not absolutely bind Him to work everything out to our benefit, if we do not produce the corresponding good works, character growth and obedience He expects (Ezekiel 18).
He wants us to see that we should not make the same mistake ancient Israel made—that is, take His salvation for granted. We can rely on Him and trust Him, but we also have a responsibility to submit to and obey Him. We must strive to produce the best character possible and be a light so He can say of each of us, "That's My son! He looks and acts like Me! He is definitely part of My Family."
The Hedge Removed
A prophecy in Isaiah 5:5 parallels this last vision of Amos: "And now, please let Me tell you what I will do to My vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it shall be burned; and break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down." The vineyard is Israel, and "its hedge" is whatever protects it, anything from material resources to God's Word. What happens to a nation when it loses its defenses? It becomes subject to invasion, since the wall that protected it from marauders, wild beasts and evil influences is now gone. The Bible depicts the Gentile nations as beasts that rush in when God's people look weak (Isaiah 30:6-7; Jeremiah 50:17).
Amos paints a stark and terrifying picture of life during the time of Jacob's trouble. On one side, natural disasters play havoc with the land and society becomes unstable. On the other side, foreign armies invade, destroying cities, killing indiscriminately and taking the survivors into captivity. Though the physical necessities of life are scarce, the real famine is of the Word of God—truth cannot be found and repentance is all but impossible.
It appears to be an utterly hopeless situation. God is passing through and His anger is just and terrible. But He promises an end—His anger will be spent, and He will spare a remnant. He "will show mercy on whom [He] will show mercy" (Exodus 33:19, KJV).
The Plumb Line: A Test Against the Standard
A major proof of false religion is that it cannot validate its effectiveness before the witness of man, but God can and does validate the true religion. He produces evidence of His righteousness, power, purpose and way in many forms. God has performed miracles, signs and wonders in the sight of thousands of witnesses.
Without objective assurance from time to time, we would be living in a world of religious make-believe. God sometimes validates Himself before man by advertising His power through an undeniable occurrence like Jesus' resurrection (I Corinthians 15:1-8). Men have verified the truths of God through observation and experimentation (I Kings 18:30-39). Man is thus without excuse (Romans 1:18-25).
On occasion, God also verifies our personal relationship with Him by immediately answering a prayer or miraculously saving us from harm. On the other hand, if He needs to get our attention, He will shake us awake by allowing a test or trial to warn us that the relationship is degenerating. Because we are assured that God is with us, the testing is good. It keeps us from sinking into complacency and pride, both of which will separate us from Him.
This is what God is addressing in the principle of the plumb line. Amos understood that God was using it to test the spirituality, morality and genuineness of the people against the standard. The test answers the question, "Are they really God's people?" God wants to know if they are exhibiting His characteristics.
This idea of a spiritual standard of measure transferred directly into the New Testament church. God uses similar imagery, a measuring rod, in Revelation 11:1. To the Laodicean church (Revelation 3:14-22), God uses fire to refer to a test instead of a plumb line.
As we can see from these examples, the end-time church will be tested. How are we going to build? What will the test reveal about our Christian growth (I Corinthians 3:9-16)? We are commanded to grow "to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:13). From this we see that the plumb line is God's revelation of Himself as the standard.
At first, God's revelation of Himself was direct, visible and personal, but later, as Israel grew, He revealed Himself more verbally through the prophets. They recorded His revelation for all time and all people, and we read it today in our Bibles.
God's law is the primary vehicle He uses to reveal His nature; it defines how He lives. If we want to be in His Kingdom and live as He does, we must obey His law, but obeying God's law in no way minimizes grace. God revealed Himself to Israel first as Redeemer and then as Lawgiver. He freed His people from their slavery in Egypt before He gave them the standard of His law. Grace precedes law. God gives grace first, but He does not leave His people ignorant of the life that pleases Him, which is revealed in His law.
The plumb line combines grace and law, and God will test us against both. If we rely on His grace without law, or on His law without grace, we will not pass the test. If either is abused, we will not measure up to the standard.
Leviticus 19 shows that the revelation of the law is important because it is a verbal description of God's nature. Our God is a holy God (verse 2), and He expects His representatives to be holy also. But how do we become holy?
After God redeems us from sin and extends to us His Spirit and grace—His free, unmerited election, He expects us to follow His instructions. The remainder of Leviticus 19 fills in the details—we become holy by doing these things. These actions reflect God's nature. Since God is holy, His law is holy, and if we follow His holy law, we can—with the indwelling of His Holy Spirit—grow to be holy like our holy God.
God chose Israel and extended the offer for a relationship with Him, to walk and fellowship with Him. After Israel's rejection of it, He has now extended this offer to those He has specifically called and chosen (John 6:44; I Corinthians 1:26-29).
God loves His people and gives them redemption, grace. He expects it will result in obedience to His law, the reflection of His nature, so on occasion, He holds a plumb line against them to check their progress. But when He sees that they have rejected His way of life, He has no choice but to try to guide them to repentance—by any means necessary.
Seek Me and Live!
The name Amos means "burden" or "burden-bearer," and the message he proclaims to Israel is surely one of doom and destruction. In that gloomy, heavy warning is little room for hope, for good news, for happy days. Yet at the end of his prophecy, Amos sets down his oppressive burden and describes the wonderful future Israel can have if the people turn back to God.
We find in the last chapter that the nation's destruction will not be total: "‘Behold, the eyes of the Lord God are on the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the face of the earth; yet I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob,' says the Lord" (Amos 9:8). Although not bound by His past commitment, since Israel had broken the covenant, He will not completely wipe out the nation. He will show mercy to a few (Micah 7:18). He will spare a "remnant of Joseph" (Amos 5:15).
Other prophets expound further on the idea of a remnant being saved to carry on God's way of life to new generations. Remnant brings to mind a scrap of cloth cut out from a larger piece of cloth. The basic concept is smallness. A remnant is a tiny representative of the original whole, in this case, of the entire nation of Israel.
Ezekiel pictures a remnant as a pinch of hair hidden in the fold of his garment (Ezekiel 5:1-4). Isaiah shows the remnant of Israel scattered to "the four corners of the earth" and having to be gathered one by one (Isaiah 11:11-12; see Jeremiah 23:3; 31:7-11; Micah 2:12). They are just a few grains of sand compared to all "the sand of the sea" (Isaiah 10:22), maybe only a tenth of the original population of the nation (Isaiah 6:13).
When Israel was conquered and enslaved by Assyria in 721-718 BC, many of the survivors were resettled "in Halah and by the Habor, the River of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes" (II Kings 17:5-6), that is, in northern Mesopotamia. Few, if any, of these transplanted Israelites ever returned to Palestine. Instead, they migrated primarily to the north and west into Europe and from there around the globe (Isaiah 43:5-6; 49:12; Jeremiah 3:12, 18; 31:8; Zechariah 2:6; 8:7). Thus, the prophesied return of the remnant is still future.
The regathered remnant of a future destruction will return to the land of Israel a beaten, broken, humble people, having suffered horribly at the hands of captors and oppressors all over the world (Jeremiah 31:8-9; Micah 4:6). Through their sufferings they will have come to understand the reasons for their slavery and captivity: their forsaking of God and His way of life. They will now be ready and willing to listen and obey the instructions of their God (Isaiah 10:22; Zephaniah 3:13), and reap the wonderful benefits of following Him (Isaiah 37:31; Zechariah 8:4-8, 11-15).
Jeremiah shows what a wonderfully joyous time this will be.
"Hear the word of the Lord, O nations, and declare it in the isles afar off, and say, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him, and keep him as a shepherd does his flock.' For the Lord has redeemed Jacob, and ransomed him from the hand of one stronger than he. Therefore they shall come and sing in the height of Zion, streaming to the goodness of the Lord—for wheat and new wine and oil, for the young of the flock and the herd; their souls shall be like a well-watered garden, and they shall sorrow no more at all. Then shall the virgin rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old, together; for I will turn their mourning to joy, will comfort them, and make them rejoice rather than sorrow. I will satiate the soul of the priests with abundance, and My people shall be satisfied with My goodness," says the Lord. (Jeremiah 31:10-14)
"Sifted in a Sieve"
God truly desires this bountiful, happy life for His people. Yet the terrible punishment that He inflicts upon the people of Israel—war, famine, pestilence, captivity, slavery, exile—is in itself a necessary and painful test of their professed faithfulness. "For surely I will command, and will sift the house of Israel among all nations, as grain is sifted in a sieve; yet not the smallest grain shall fall to the ground" (Amos 9:9). This parallels Romans 11:26 where Paul says, "All Israel will be saved." God wants to give salvation to all Israelites, and these calamities are His last-ditch effort to get their attention and turn them back to Him.
The smallest grain would be better translated "a pebble." God puts His people through a sifting process, and the sieve is designed to catch the stones and other things that are not grain. In the metaphor, what passes through the sieve—the grain—will be saved. The pebbles caught in the mesh of the sieve are those God will destroy.
"All the sinners of My people shall die by the sword, who say, ‘The calamity shall not overtake us nor confront us'" (Amos 9:10). Their words echo those of the Laodiceans in Revelation 3 who will be spewed from God's mouth. Those caught in the sieve see no cause for alarm, no reason God should judge them. They are apparently unaware of what constitutes sin, of the penalty that falls on the sinner or of the need of a remedy. They are complacent, careless sinners, living in a fantasy world of their own self-deception.
Turning to God in Faith and Deed
How can this calamity be averted? The solution is so simple and obvious that God seems to spend very little time on it within the book of Amos. In reality, every word of the book screams what Israel needed to do then—and needs to do today.
"Seek good and not evil, that you may live; so the Lord God of hosts will be with you, as you have spoken. Hate evil, love good; establish justice in the gate" (Amos 5:14-15). A person does not need to seek God if He has already revealed Himself to him. Thus, seek means "to turn" to Him in repentance, not necessarily "to look for." This is a way of saying, "Set aside your time and life for God."
Seek in the Hebrew is imperative and has the force of a command. Seeking good, or seeking God (verse 4), is an act that we have to set ourselves to do; it is not a natural inclination (Romans 8:7). But it is worth the effort, for its product is life—not just physical existence, but life as God lives it (John 17:3). If we determine to seek good, and continue in it, the result—truly living!—will follow. Seeking the Lord produces godly life.
In living by every word of God, we should notice the order in which He lists these commands: "Seek good and not evil. . . . Hate evil, love good" (Amos 5:14-15). The action of turning to good precedes the emotions of hating evil and loving good. Holiness involves action and emotion: seeking and shunning, loving good and hating evil. He wants us to turn to the good and make it a target in our daily life. If we wait for God to infuse us with the right kind of feeling before we try to do good, then we will wait a long time because it will never come. We have to take action first by faith and the corresponding right feeling will follow.
If holiness does not involve both action and emotion, it becomes something that we can put on and take off. We could hypocritically live one kind of life during the week, and on the Sabbath put on our holy look and go to services. Action and emotion combine to make a whole way of life.
Holiness is not just a way of life or a rule to live by. It also produces the very best quality of life—the way God lives eternally. God's people have to think constantly of holiness, appreciating that He has chosen us out of this world and given us grace to be holy.
A major theme of the book of Amos is that we cannot take the grace of God for granted (see chapter 1, "The Responsibility of the Covenant People"). The Israelites complacently assumed that God wanted their companionship, but we must set our wills to seek Him daily, not just once a year during a pilgrimage or a feast. By nature we would rather do the opposite and wait for God to fill us with a desire to do His will. But only one who sets himself to seek the Lord and His holiness will receive from Him the infusion of grace by His Spirit. Bolstered with the Spirit of God (Ephesians 3:16), he can seek God in spirit and in truth (John 4:24) and truly live.
Peter says in Acts 5:32, "And we are His witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit [which] God has given to those who obey Him." The Scripture clearly declares that God gives His Spirit to those who obey Him! One obeys first, and then the Spirit is given. God leads us to repentance by means of His Spirit, but if we do not begin to obey Him, He will not put His Spirit in us.
Also, what use is faith if we do not have to step out into the unknown before He answers? If we really trust God, then, in a sense, it is not the unknown. But we must act in faith first, trusting God that it is the right thing to do, then He gives the answer or the blessing. That is how growth takes place. He educates us by telling us what is the right thing to do. He expects us to do it, and as we do it, He fulfills what He promised. As we do it, He gives us the strength to finish it.
Thus, grace and obedience work together; they cannot be separated. God calls and redeems us by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8), but requires obedience through faith (II Corinthians 5:7; Hebrews 11)—living by His every Word (Matthew 4:4)—to maintain our privileged position (Hebrews 6:4-8; 10:26-31). By living righteously and seeking God, He gives us more of His Spirit to help us grow in grace and overcome sin through the knowledge of God (II Peter 3:18).
Our Sovereign, Omnipotent God
"Seek good and not evil, that you may live; so the Lord God of hosts will be with you" (Amos 5:14). Amos introduces to his audience "Yahweh, the Omnipotent God," the God of hosts, or angelic armies. In the Bible, when a man was confronted by a spirit being, he often became unnerved and unglued (Isaiah 6:5; Daniel 10:7-8). Amos wants his audience to think about what it would be like to be confronted by God Himself.
To do this, he uses a ploy to puncture their pride, which is the real cause of their lukewarm attitude in their relationship with God. Between verses 14 and 20, he repeats God's name eleven times to emphasize to them the One they had failed to know.
Amos draws as much attention to God as he possibly can without hammering his audience over the head. In the background is the rhetorical question, "Can a person walk with God and not really be aware of His holiness, greatness and majesty?" These people carelessly assumed that they were at peace with God, but how could they really know if they were when they had no idea what He is like? Amos' ultimate purpose is to show them that the one they were worshiping is not the true God at all. If they knew the true God, it would be obvious to them! And they would repent.
Another example of repetition is Amos' use of "Lord God" twenty-one times throughout his book. One commentator translates Lord God as "Sovereign Yahweh." When "Sovereign," suggesting owner and master, is combined with "Yahweh," indicating the Covenant God, it means that He has every right to expect the obedience of the covenant people, and that He will keep His promises to them, whether blessings or cursings (Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28).
Amos wants us to have faith in God and to understand that He has the right to do as He pleases. Our salvation is important to Him. He is a merciful ruler who will bring His covenant with us to pass even if it takes a painful spanking.
In Romans 11:11-36, a section titled "Israel's Rejection Not Final" in the New King James, Paul explains how the Gentiles have been grafted into the natural olive tree (Israel). In verses 25-29, he shows that the Sovereign Yahweh is at work—He has not forgotten His people. Though He punishes them for their rebellion, His plan for them in the end is to give them salvation.
We need to apply this understanding personally. Sometimes His purpose covers thousands of years.
But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. (II Peter 3:8-9)
With us, His purpose covers the whole of our converted lives. God's will is to save us after He creates His mind and character in us. If He must cause pain and suffering through trials of our faith to produce His character in us, He will. But He prefers that we seek what is good and right, so He has no need to test us so severely.
The World Under God's Reign
Finally, after so many threats of punishment and destruction, God reminds His people that wonderful blessings and abundant lives lie just on the other side of these dark days. After their repentance, He will lead them back to the land of promise and help them rebuild their ruined cities and shattered lives. This never occurred after their expulsion from Palestine by the Assyrians in 718 BC, so this wonderful Millennium of restoration and prosperity lies ahead (compare Jeremiah 30-31 and Micah 4:1-7 with Revelation 19:1—20:6). In this future time the Israelites will quickly regain their preeminence in the world, and never again will they be devastated and driven away. They will live in true peace and security forever under God.
"On that day I will raise up the tabernacle [house] of David, which has fallen down, and repair its damages; I will raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old; that they may possess the remnant of Edom, and all the Gentiles who are called by My name," says the Lord who does this thing. (Amos 9:11-12)
In II Samuel 7:1-17 God makes a covenant with David, establishing his house, kingdom and throne forever. He adds in Jeremiah 33:17, "David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel." This latter promise comes at the end of a prophecy about "a Branch of righteousness" coming from David's line (verse 15). A similar prophecy in Isaiah 11:1-5 leaves no doubt that the "Branch" is the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
Many scriptures show that when Christ returns, He will rule forever as King of kings upon the throne of David (Isaiah 9:6-7; Revelation 19:16). He will make the resurrected David king over Israel, and each of the twelve apostles will rule a tribe under him (Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:29-30).
This reference to David would bring Israel's "golden age" to an Israelite's mind. This was the time before Israel split from Judah and David's dynasty, when her wealth, peace and power were at their heights. God proclaims that the people would not have to look to the past in longing for Israel's golden age—it is still future and will be so much more golden!
Edom (Amos 9:12) represents to Israel what Babylon does to us in the church, that is, everything that is hostile to God. It represents the world, all of mankind. Edom, it seems, never forgave Jacob for stealing the birthright from Esau (Genesis 27), so throughout her history, she constantly opposed Israel. When Edom, Israel's archenemy, and the rest of the world are humbled under the hand of God at Christ's return, then all mankind can be converted.
In Acts 15:16-17, James quotes Amos 9:11-12 as the church's authority to work for the conversion of the Gentiles, and this is indeed its sense. Amos uses possess in the sense of "conquer." The dynasty of David, and Israel in a larger sense, will conquer the rest of the world, not through arms, but through the Word of God (Isaiah 49:6), producing for those captive nations an equality with Israel. Israel can possess the remnant of Edom and all the Gentiles because, when the King from the household of David comes, He will accomplish the major conversion of the Gentiles (Isaiah 11:10). They, too, will be His people.
This is the grand purpose God is working out! He is orchestrating events so that one day in the future, all mankind—all who have ever lived—will be offered the opportunity to become members of His Family! He wants all His children to be able to have the glorious, fulfilling, wonderful life that He lives. There can be no higher purpose!
Peace and Bounty
That time is just ahead!
"Behold, the days are coming," says the Lord, "when the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him who sows seed; the mountains shall drip with sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. I will bring back the captives of My people Israel; they shall build the waste cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink wine from them; they shall also make gardens and eat fruit from them. I will plant them in their land, and no longer shall they be pulled up from the land I have given them," says the Lord your God. (Amos 9:13-15)
Jesus Christ returns in power and great glory to take up the reins of government over His people. In contrast to the calamitous natural disasters that prevail under man's dominion (Amos 4:6-10; 8:8), nature responds positively to the rule and reign of God! The curse of sin is lifted, and man begins to produce an Eden-like paradise over the whole earth. The Israelites return from the nations of their captivity and rebuild the Promised Land in beauty and splendor.
This is the end of insecurity. Peace results when people obey God's government (Isaiah 9:6-7). Never again will a man be robbed, killed, oppressed or lose his inheritance, not only in Israel, but in all nations as Christ's rule expands. We can look forward to such a wonderful world tomorrow!
In their proud affluence and self-reliant power, the ancient Israelites tried to find security in their homes and possessions, in their sincere but false religious zeal, in their mistaken conception of their standing with God. But God says that true security comes from Him. All blessings flow from Him (James 1:17), and He is eager to give them. He just has His priorities set differently than man: "But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you" (Matthew 6:33).
Are you—personally—prepared to meet your God (Amos 4:12)? If you were called before His judgment seat today, would He pronounce a positive or negative judgment upon your life? Would He say, "I never knew you; depart from Me" (Matthew 7:23)? Or would He say, "Well done, good and faithful servant" (Matthew 25:21)?
That is the crux of Amos' strong and urgent message! How well are you prepared for God's judgment right now?
For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? Now "If the righteous one is scarcely saved, where will the ungodly and the sinner appear?" (I Peter 4:17-18)
Amos has answered these questions. In the verses of his book, we can see the end of those who do not believe, and we also get a quick glimpse of the awesome blessings of those who do. How long do we have to show God whether we believe or not? Only God knows—but any one of us may die at any time. Our period of judgment will then be over. Ezekiel writes,
"Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why should you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies," says the Lord God. "Therefore turn and live!" (Ezekiel 18:31-32)
Now that we have heard the message, we have time to apply it. Though similar conditions to Amos' day are evident in our own nations, the punishments for sin have not yet fallen upon them. The warnings, however, are intensifying and quickening. Take the opportunity to act while it is still available!
"Seek the Lord and live"!
© 1995 Church of the Great God
PO Box 471846
Charlotte, NC 28247-1846
The Berean: Daily Verse and Comment
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