God is not fooled
Sunday school lesson for the week of June 14, 2015
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson scripture: Amos 5:14-15, 18-27
Amos 5 is a collection of varying oracles that are bound together by two connected concerns: the lack of justice practiced in everyday life and worship that does not lead to right living or right action. And although Judah is mentioned in Amos 2, Chapter 5 focuses entirely on Israel.
Chapter 5 opens with a dirge, literally. We are informed that the word translated “lamentation” is a technical term that refers to the funeral song. An example of the funeral song can be found in 2 Samuel 1: 17-27, where David’s lament is raised over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan.
The remarkable thing about Amos 5:1, however, is that Israel has not been defeated yet. Israel is not “dead” and yet the funeral is already taking place. Following Amos’s lament in verse 2, “Fallen no more to rise,” he explains in verse 3 that Israel’s military forces will be decimated.
Translated into modern military terms, Amos is saying that a battalion would be reduced to a company and then to a platoon. The result of this small force would be a disaster and a statistical symbol that the nation was left with no future.
In verses 4, 5, and 6, we see what happens after the funeral song. Amos instructs the Israelites to seek the Lord and live. There is still hope! If Israel turns from its sinful ways the funeral will be called off. The key to the way out of the funeral is in the word “seek.”
It is important that we understand the context of the word “seek.” Scholars tell us that in the Old Testament this word usually means to go to a sanctuary where there are priests and prophets and ask them to inquire of God. An example is in Psalm 27:8. Here the psalmist speaks of seeking God’s face in the context of going to the Temple.
But Amos thunders emphatically that Israel should seek the Lord, but not through the typical means of the sanctuary. Sounds strange, but that’s what Amos said. Amos continues on to mention three important worship sites: Bethel, Gilgal, Beer-sheba. As scholars inform us, in these places a system of worship was established by which worshipers could pray and make sacrifices. Through this organized worship at Israel’s shrines, worshipers were offered God’s grace. But as James Luther Mays expressed it, Amos is saying that this grace offered to them in this manner was “cheap grace.” Why? Because it did not require the worshipers to change their lives.
On the subject of the sanctuaries, Amos is always consistent. They are under judgment (Amos 3:14; 7:9; 8:3), rejected by God and therefore no longer a place to seek him. To do this is not only useless but a fatal error. The devotees will bring upon themselves the same fate of the shrines.
So what does Amos mean when he says “see me” as a word of God if the shrines are excluded? What Amos had in mind as the right way to seek God appears in the similar exhortation in 5:14. Here, God is replaced as the object of the verb by “good.” Amos says, “Seek good…that you may live.” Good is the opposite of evil. Seeking good involves doing justice and acting rightly toward those who are not powerful. Amos then follows this charge with another version of it that reverses the order. “Hate evil and love good”(5:15). Thus, Amos tells the Israelites to declare their rejection of evil, but to proclaim their intent to do good.
Courts Found Lacking
Another key to understanding chapter 5 is grasping the court system. Amos says in verse 7, “Doom to you who turn justice into poison, and throw righteousness to the ground.” In this verse, Amos lays out the main offense of the Israelites that made them worthy of destruction. They perverted justice and discarded righteousness. Justice here specifically refers to the activity of the court.
The basic function of the court is found in Deuteronomy 25:1. This verse describes justice by saying simply that when two people have a dispute they take it to the court to discover who is right. If the judgment of the court is followed, justice is done. Righteousness points to a right relationship to God that produces justice. Amos 6:12 refers to justice as the “fruit of righteousness.”
The court’s process had a redemptive aspect. To judge meant to help the just party, and to protect the social order by determining where the wrong lay and correcting it. This was particularly important in the case of the weakest members of society. Without power or influence, these weaker people could not maintain themselves in the social order apart from the integrity of the court. Thus, the proper functioning of the court was essential.
But the perverters of justice set themselves in opposition to the proper function of the court in the gates. The city gate was the place of commerce and court proceedings. It was a fortified building set in the walls, which protected the entrance to the city and provided a place where the legal assembly convened to regulate the life and property of the citizens.
In Israel, however, the old institution of the court in the gate is being undermined. Amos identifies the gate as the main place where Israel’s offenses against the poor take “place” These offenses are already mentioned in Amos 2:6-8.
According to Amos, God’s punishment against these covetous, grasping people will correspond to their crimes. They have been greedy for wealth and land. From the profits of the suffering poor, they have built houses of special stone, which was used earlier only for the temple and palace. They have planted extravagant vineyards in the fields that belonged to the small farmer. But it shall all be for naught. They will not be permitted to live in the houses or drink the wine from the vineyards. As Amos states, the court has been corrupted and Israel will pay for her crimes.
The Day of the Lord
The notion of “The Day of the Lord” in verse 18 is not the creation of Amos. However, he clearly attacks the hope of those who already anticipate its coming. He declares that they should not be so anticipating it.
“The Day of the Lord” or similar expressions appear numerous times in the prophetic books. According to scholars, some references speak of the day of the Lord as a time when God will bring vengeance on Israel’s enemies (see Isaiah 24:21). In all probability, this is what the Israelites were expecting. At this time, their national enemies would be defeated and this was a primary conviction of their religion and political faith. Obviously, the Israelites thought the day of the Lord would be something that good for them.
But in verse 18 and 19, Amos thunders the opposite! He declares that the day of the Lord will be bad news for Israel. In describing the nature of this day, Amos makes two clear points. First, Amos declares that no one will be able to escape the day of the Lord. He says a person escapes from a lion, only to fall prey to a bear! A person comes home, to this place of security, and is bitten by a snake. Both examples portray a situation in which a person escapes to death. So it is with Israel. Second, Amos points out that the day of the Lord will be darkness, not light. Most moderns think this is another way of saying that the day will be “evil, not good.” But to ancient Israelites, it probably had a deeper meaning. As scholars point out, the day of the Lord will be marked by the absence of God’s order and purposes. Darkness characterizes the world’s precreation state. Thus, when the day of the Lord comes, it will plunge Israel back into the chaos of the world before creation.
So why is the day of the Lord bad news for Israel? It is bad news because they have taken God too lightly. They have not followed the lead of God’s holiness to produce their own holiness. Consequently, for Israel, the bad news is punishment and destruction.
Let Justice Roll Down
We are told that though Amos does not say it directly, he indicates indirectly that God requires justice of Israel for God’s presence not to spell destruction. Usually, the phrase, “Let justice roll down” assumes that this is a call for Israel to do justice. But scholars inform us that the word translated “justice” can also be rendered “judgment.” So it is possible that Amos 5:24 actually announces the coming of God’s judgment. That is, God’s justice (judgment) will flow down like a mighty river upon Israel.
However, the issue of justice throughout the Book of Amos is that the Israelites have a lack of justice in their lives together. Therefore it seems that Amos’s declaration is a call for justice to flow down by the Israelites changing their ways and acting justly. Just as flowing water nourishes the earth, so also justice nourishes the ground of human community.
The Case Against Formal Worship
Amos gives a number of declarations against certain worship practices. If we read Amos 5:21-27, we might get the impression that Amos is against institutional religion and its core rituals. But that would be a misunderstanding of Amos’s message. Amos is not rejecting sacrifice or formal worship per se. Rather, he is arguing against ritual that is lacking of any moral imperative.
So, if in our worship we acknowledge the true nature of God—that God is our Creator, that God is the ruler of the universe and that God provides for all our needs--then we simply cannot act in self-centered ways and take advantage of others for our own gain. Amos criticized Israel’s worship precisely because the Israelites participation in it did not change their lives.
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries.