Rebuked for Selfishness
Sunday school lesson for the week of June 21, 2015
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson scripture: Amos 6:4-8, 11-14
His name is Jerry. I haven’t known him very long. He came here from another nearby town. He said that he has to be in the shelter each evening around 6 p.m., and he has to be out each morning at 6 a.m. Jerry just sort of drifts around during the day. He doesn’t have anything to do or anywhere to go. His wardrobe consists of the clothes on his back. He is out of work and desperate. He has no money or options. He is somewhat fearful of the streets. Jerry is homeless.
Not long ago, in a Bill Kean “Family Circus Cartoon,” I saw a little boy asking, “Does love thy neighbor mean the people on both sides of the house?” There is no question that the Prophet Amos would answer that little boy’s question with a resounding “yes!” He would be quick to point out that homelessness and further plights of the poor and marginalized are nothing other than symptoms of the breakdown of human community.
Scholars tell us that the sixth chapter of Amos may be summed up by the first line of verse 1: “Alas for those who are at ease…” Here is a lamentation over the Israelites who enjoy a luxurious lifestyle. In every individual section within the chapter, Amos expresses some version of the message that those who presently live at ease will experience woe. Amos then quickly identifies wealth as the reason for the impending downfall of Israel. It is not wealth per se, but the confidence the people place in that wealth. These Israelites actually live as if their wealth has been the result of their own abilities and capacity. The fact is, however, that all they have is due to all God’s goodness, and their failure to acknowledge that truth leads to every other fault that Amos points out.
“Those who are at ease” refers to the people who trust in their own resources rather than in the power of God. These self-confident people are identified with Zion and Samaria, the two main royal cities of the Israelites. Zion was the capital of the United Monarchy of David and Solomon and of Judah after the kingdom split at Solomon’s death. Samaria was the capital of Israel, the Northern Kingdom. We are informed that it is somewhat surprising that Zion and Samaria are lumped together with no distinction since the Old Testament often associates Samaria and it’s kings with the worship of Baal (1 Kings 22:51-53). But Amos thunders against both cities as places whose people have forgotten their true God.
In addition, Amos blasts three cities as being no better and having no more advantages than other cities outside of Israel. Specifically, he mentions three cities, Calneh, Hamath (City-states, North of Israel) and Gath (an important Philistine City). Amos stresses the point that the residents of Zion and Samaria are as susceptible to God’s wrath as residents of these other cities. Why? Because they too deny their vulnerability and dependence on God.
Amos describes people who live in great luxury. Ivory was and is a sign of affluence and was typically available only to royalty. But in Amos’s time, there was an expanded upper class that also enjoyed this kind of wealth. As scholars point out, eating lambs and calves may not sound outrageous to modern westerners who are accustomed to eating meat regularly, but most people in the ancient Near East rarely ate meat. Most people in that world eat meat only once a year. However, the wealthy of Israel in Amos’s day ate extravagantly and enjoyed meat regularly. They also drank wine in excess and had time to play musical instrument (6:5). Thus, this constant celebrating and feasting is set over against the disaster that is coming. Amos makes it crystal clear that God hates the “pride of Jacob”(6:8). That is, God despises the self-reliant, over-confident attitude of the Israelites. Therefore, the human securities of the Israelites will be overrun by enemies and the weakness of their self-trust will be revealed.
Scholars declare that these two verses seem to be disconnected from what Amos has said in the rest of the chapter, but these verses are there because they illustrate what it will be like when God “delivers up” the Israelites to destruction (6:8). The picture of verses 9-10 seem to be of a plague or a disease that has struck the land and brought disaster and extreme reaction. And it is interpreted as a curse from the Lord. “Ten men in a home” probably refers to the palace where soldiers and servants live and points out how comprehensive God’s judgment will be.
The last portion of this chapter begins in verse 11 with a word that will destroy the “great house” and the “little house.” This is another way of saying that the destruction will be complete. Next, Amos presents again the reasons for the destruction. According to scholars, Amos does this by first asking ridiculous questions – do horses run on cliffs? Or is the sea plowed with oxen? And then answering, in fact, that the unbelievable has happened in Israel. Justice has been turned to poison. Here, Amos is talking about this justice that is “the fruit of righteousness” (6:11-12). In truth, it emerges from right relationship with God and right living according to God’s standards. But Amos gets very specific in his accusation. He says that in his day the poor have come to the courts as victims seeking justice and have only encountered there the very injustice they had fled. Thus, justice has become like wormwood, a very bitter plant, and no good to the victims of injustice.
God’s Use of Agents for Judgment
In chapter 6, Amos speaks several times about impending disaster for Israel. Although Amos does not spell it out, the agent of God’s wrath for Israel was the mighty Assyrian army. The Assyrians invaded Israel and destroyed Samaria, its capital, in 722 B.C. There are two references in chapter 6 that anticipate this destruction. The first reference is found in the mention of the word “exile” in 6:7, and the second reference is seen in the statement, “I am raising up against you a nation…” in 6:14.
So how should we think about God’s judgment against Israel? First, we should note that Amos and the other Old Testament prophets are not necessarily predictors of events, but proclaimers of God’s truth, including the divine critique of Israelites society. And scholars suggest that when these prophets do mention a nation, specifically, as God’s agents of punishment, the identification does not generally come out of the blue. The prophet observes the circumstances of the world, the possible tragedies that would likely come, and then interprets them for the Israelites as God’s judgment on them. Consequently, for Amos, the mention of exile in 6:7 establishes the connection between a well-known practice of the Assyrians and God’s punishment of Israel. Stating it differently, Amos did not need any special revelation to know that Israel would encounter the Assyrians and their wrath. It must have seemed inevitable. But Amos speaks of such events as a sign of something God is doing in the world. And scholars say that was Amos’s unique contribution to the observations of Assyrian action in his day.
Second, note that Amos and the other Old Testament prophets believe firmly that God’s judgment on Israel occurred in very tangible ways. Amos insists that judgment came by God using human agents who would attack Israel. Keep in mind, however, that God’s use of human agents does not mean that God micromanages the historical process. For sure, he doesn’t or the innocent would not suffer during the judgmental destruction.
Another significant note is that the kind of judgment Amos predicts for Israel is not an end in itself, but God’s way of leading Israel to new life. We are informed that though most of the Book of Amos dwells on Israel’s faults and predictions of punishment, the book ends with promises of restoration. (Amos 9:11-15). It is important to remember that Amos and the other prophets actually present punishment as part of the process of restoration. As scholar Terence Fretheim observed, “God punishes in order to correct, purge, and restore.”
On Appreciating Our Wealth
As a child, I remember my father reminding me not to leave food on my plate because there were so many people starving around the world. This parental admonition of my father, and countless other parents, has often become the subject of jokes. But truth is that the saying was intended to produce appreciation for the luxurious provisions so many of us in North America enjoy.
Now, Amos speaks to Israelites who also lack proper appreciation for what they have, but for Amos’s audience the problem goes beyond just being able to recognize their blessings. These Israelites are not just unaware of their fortune. They just overindulge to the point they cannot see the problems around them. So, the problem is not wealth in and of itself. The problem – hear me now – is the enjoyment of wealth to the of neglect human needs.
Boasting in Our Ability
In chapter 6, Amos makes clear that one of the main problems of the people of Israel is their supreme confidence in themselves. Amos 6:13 highlights the problem by pointing to two cities east of the Jordan River that the Israelites had recovered from Damascus to help secure their borders. Amos mocks the Israelites who say, “Have we not by our own strength captured these two cities?”
As scholars observed, the issue Amos addresses is not military or political, but theological. The Israelites think they have acted on their own when in fact everything they have ever accomplished was by God’s grace.
This may be a good time for the class to pause and discuss what lessons might the people of the United States learn from Amos and the demise of ancient Israel.
At any rate, according to the Old Testament, the problem Amos addresses here is one of the most fundamental problems that human beings face. As human beings, we often tend to place too much confidence in ourselves and fail to acknowledge our dependence on God. And the resulting attitude of self-reliance inevitably leads to the mistreatment of others. These same boastful Israelites are the same people who “turn justice into poison.”
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.