This morning we begin a four week study in the book of Amos – one of the twelve minor prophets.
Why do we call them the minor prophets? Is it because they are less important or seen as the second team supporting Jeremiah, Isaiah, Daniel and Ezekiel?
No, they were first called the minor prophets in the 5th century by St. Augustine and the designation has remained. Why did he call them the minor prophets? Because they were shorter in length and had more specific themes than the major prophets. There is nothing minor about them and many of the most famous quotes and illustrations we know today are from them so we probably would be wise to refer to them like the Jews as The Twelve and not the minor prophets.
Second, I am very reluctant to step into this river. It is not a pond of still water. It is not a stream that is shallow where you can step across on the rocks. It is a river that is deep, dangerous and fast moving. Even the best of teachers avoid certain books and topics because they know they have no authority to wade into them. That is how I feel about Amos and Hosea. They are bear traps for hypocrites and people whose lives do not live up to the standards of their messages.
Wendell Berry wrote in one of his essays, “If you talk a good line without being changed by what you say, then you are not just hypocritical and doomed; you have become an agent of the disease.”
The dilemma of any teacher is exactly this. Am I simply passing along what God says or does it actually play itself out in my life and give me any authority to teach? That is why I say the words of Amos are dangerous because they reflect the nature of God and his demands about injustice, greed, pride, complacency, disloyalty, and comfortable but false religion. These are fundamental issues not just for the Jews of the 8th century but for us today. God has not changed his mind about these things.
America and American Christians are not Israel. In some ways, we will not be held to the same standard because we are not God’s chosen people. We are just another secular nation that God judges as he does the surrounding nations in the book of Amos. But he judges them because they have broken what we could call the natural law of nations. We are not a peculiar people or a light to the Gentiles or a chosen people but God has expectations for how we should act toward one another. That is what these first two chapters are about. What are God’s expectations for and complaints about the Gentile nations?
Otto von Bismarck remarked, “There are no permanent enemies, and no permanent friends, only permanent interests.” We know that from experience and what Amos is calling out here is not simply self-interest. It is betrayal and intentional destruction.
Let’s look at each one of them. These are not general sins but specific sins against Israel.
The sins of Damascus are that even though God gave them the power to punish Israel they took it further than intended. They “threshed Gilead with sledges having iron teeth.” Damascus was the capital of Syria, one of the Jews’ persistent enemies. Amos denounced the Syrians for their inhuman treatment of the Israelites who lived in Gilead, east of the Jordan River. They cruelly “threshed them” as though they were nothing but stalks of grain.
God had called the Syrians to punish Israel but the Syrians had carried it too far.
The sins of Gaza are they raided Jewish villages and captured people to be sold as slaves. To add insult to injury, the Philistines sold these slaves to Israel’s ancient enemy, the Edomites. Since Edom was descended from Esau, Jacob’s brother, it was a case of brother enslaving brother.
The sins of Tyre were committing the same sins as the Philistine cities by selling Jewish captives to the Edomites as slaves (Amos 1:6-8). But Tyre’s sin was worse than that of Philistia because Tyre was violating a long-standing compact that was based on friendship and a mutual respect for humanity. Tyre was selling its friends as slaves!
The sins of Edom. Amos condemned the Edomites for their persistent hatred of the Jews, which the prophet described as “raging anger and flaming fury” (Amos 1:11; see also NIV). We don’t know when the Edomites aided the enemy by pursuing the Jews with the sword. It could have been during anyone of the numerous times when enemies invaded the land.
The sins of Ammon. The Ammonites were the descendants of Lot through his incestuous union with his daughters. They were a ruthless people who were the avowed enemies of the Jews. In order to enlarge their land, they invaded Gilead; and not satisfied with attacking the men defending their homeland, the Ammonites killed women and unborn children. To the Ammonites, land was more important than people, including defenseless women and innocent children. Such brutality shocks us, but is “modern warfare” any kinder?
Think about the atrocities of the Russian army in Mariupol and especially Bucha in Ukraine. There is war and then there is genocide. This is what Amos was saying about Ammon. They were beyond brutal. They were inhuman.
The sins of Moab. Animosity between Moab and Israel began very early when the Moabites refused to give the Jews passage on the major highway, The king of Moab also hired Balaam to curse Israel and then the Moabite women seduced the Jewish men to commit fornication and idolatry. During the period of the judges, Israel was subject to the Moabites for eighteen years.
What was the sin of Moab? Disrespect for the dead and for royalty. We don’t know which king’s remains were subjected to this humiliation, but the deed disgraced the memory of the king and humiliated the people of Edom.
The sins of Judah. This would have delighted the people of Israel to hear Amos from Judah call his own people to account and label them sinners. They had sinned by not only rejecting the law of the Lord but by being led astray, almost always willingly, to worship false gods. There was no doubt in the minds of the audience that Amos had come to affirm what they already believed.
All of them had taken advantage of Israel and I would imagine those listening to Amos would be nodding their heads, stomping their feet, waving flags, and shouting out affirmations of what he was saying about those enemies. His audience was filled with anger, resentment, grievances and the desire for God to judge those who had sinned against them. I can hear them shouting, “Lock them up!”
But then Amos turns his attention to Israel. It’s important to know that Amos was not from Israel but from Judah. He had traveled to Israel to deliver God’s message to the Northern Kingdom. As long as he was speaking against the enemies of the Northern Kingdom the people were fine with that. In fact, they probably welcomed him to the cause even though he was not one of them.
However, we know there was bad blood going back hundreds of years between Israel and Judah. While they were not in an armed conflict they were (with rare exceptions) locked in opposition to each other. Does that sound familiar? To make matters even worse, Amos had come at a time not far removed from the king of Israel (Jehoash) capturing and disgracing the king of Judah (Amaziah). Those wounds had not yet healed. It would be one thing for one of their own pronouncing judgment but for a prophet from Judah to do that would have been unacceptable. It would have been seen as just another partisan attacking them. Besides, he was not even a legitimate prophet. He had no training and no history of being in the line of genuine prophets. He said so himself. He was a nobody with no credentials. I’m sure they went from “Lock them up!” to “Lock him up!” Pick your party but it would have been almost like Tucker Carlson endorsing Biden or Liz Cheney encouraging Trump to run again. This is not what the base wanted to hear. Amos went from being a friendly outsider speaking God’s agreement with their own grievances and accusations to someone who had no right to speak at all.
And what is God’s word to Israel?
Both Israel and Judah were enjoying peace and prosperity, and divine judgment was the furthest thing from their minds. Amos first exposes their sinful present and names three flagrant sins.
To begin with, the people of the Northern Kingdom were guilty of injustice. Supported by corrupt judges, the rich were suing the poor, who couldn’t pay their bills, and forcing them into servitude and slavery. The injustice was systemic and not random. Only the rich could afford justice while the poor were left to look after themselves. .
Their second gross sin was immorality with fathers and sons visiting the same prostitute! These may have been “cult prostitutes” who were a part of the idol worship. So there was a double sin involved: immorality and idolatry. Or the girl may have been a household servant or a common prostitute. Regardless of what the act of disobedience was, it was rebellion against God and defiled His holy name. False religion and immorality are often found together.
The third sin was open idolatry. The wealthy men took their debtors’ garments as pledges but did not return them at sundown as the law commanded. Instead, these rich sinners visited pagan altars, where they got drunk on wine purchased with the fines they exacted from the poor. Then, in their drunken stupor, they slept by the altars on other people’s garments, defiling the garments and disobeying the law. The officials were getting rich by exploiting the people, and then were using their unjust gain for committing sin.
Perhaps the greatest reason for the prophet’s condemnation of Israel was that the people were ”at ease.” They were indolent, sinful, and indifferent to the Lord. All of this was at a time when great unrighteousness marked the nation.
Their religion had been twisted and distorted according to their own predispositions and to support what they wanted to believe. God was seen as giving permission for their heresies and false practices and they were promoting them in his name. They were justifying their idolatry with their convenient form of religion and turning it into a counterfeit faith. Their leaders had used their religion for their own purposes. The people had become illiterate and easily fooled.
Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.”
After describing their sinful present, Amos reminded them of their glorious past. God had led His people out of Egypt, cared for them in the wilderness and destroyed other nations so the Jews could claim their inheritance in Canaan. He gave them His Word through chosen prophets and He raised up dedicated people like the Nazirites to be examples of devotion to God. What a glorious past they had! But instead of being humbled by these blessings, the people rebelled against the Lord by rejecting the messages of the prophets and forcing the Nazirites to break their holy vows. The Jews wanted neither the Word of God nor examples of godly living.
We would say that people in ministry had been deceived into thinking their success was determined by their own techniques and skills in marketing and crowd management – not their faithfulness. They had traded their vows of calling and integrity for social platforms, followers, groupies and audiences. They had helped create celebrities instead of people of substance. They had followed worthless idols and become worthless themselves.
People with an impressive spiritual pedigree or important ministry position or years of fruitful Christian service can imagine at times that they are exempt from God’s standards. They excuse themselves when they sin – thinking they will not be held to the same high standard of righteousness or that they will somehow escape God’s judgment. Here in Amos, God demonstrates that the same severity and justice that He applied to the surrounding nations will be applied to His own people as well. God does not play favorites. In fact privilege and accessibility to God’s revelation bring greater accountability, not less.
“For to whom much has been given, much will be required.”
Amos closed his message in these two chapters with the announcement of their terrible future. Israel would be crushed by their own sins just as a loaded cart crushes whatever it rolls over. Judgment is coming, and nobody will be able to escape. The swift won’t be able to run away; the strong won’t be able to defend themselves; the armed will be as if unarmed; and even the horsemen will be unable to flee. The bravest soldiers will run away while shedding their equipment and clothing so they can run faster.
It is only a generation later that Assyria invades Israel and they are taken away and ultimately lost to history. Again, there is no easy comparison between God’s particular and peculiar people and secular nations but there are certainly principles that apply to each. Moral rot, corruption of leadership, twisted religion, systemic injustice, and a culture of celebrity driven leaders is in time fatal to a nation. Do you know the poem Ozymandias by Percy Shelley?
BY PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
It is not the fate of nations but, like Israel and Judah alike, the choice of nations. There is always hope but there is judgment as well.