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A Call to Accountability
Spring Quarter: Justice and The Prophets
Unit 1: God Requires Justice
Sunday school lesson for the week of March 1, 2020
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson Scriptures: Amos 5:18-24
Key Verses: Amos 5:24
- Summarize the misconceptions concerning the day of the Lord.
- Explain why the Lord detested the people’s worship rituals
- Focus on one lifestyle change that will improve your obedience to the imperative of the key verse.
The lesson today begins a new quarter of studies on the theme “Justice and the Prophets.” Unit 1 of the study, which is composed of writings from Amos, Micah, Habakkuk, and Malachi, is called “God Requires Justice.” Now, these four books make up one-third of the 12 Old Testament books that are labeled the Minor Prophets.
Important to note! The word “minor” has nothing to do with these books’ importance. Rather, the term highlights the length of these 12 books; all are much shorter than the majority of books described as “major” (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel).
Lamentation’s inclusion in the major writings reflects the fact that the book was written by the major prophet Jeremiah.
A word about Amos and his ministry
Amos was born in the early part of the eighth century before Christ. He lived at Tekoa, a sparsely inhabited town approximately 12 miles from Jerusalem. It was here that Amos had the double occupation of tending sheep and caring for sycamore fig trees on the nearby slopes.
It is interesting that Amos, the first of the writing prophets, who was from the Southern Kingdom of Judah was commanded by God to speak his message in the northern kingdom of Israel (Amos 1:1). Though Amos prophesied against several nations, he had the most to say about the sins of Israel (Amos 7:16-17).
By the time Amos began his ministry around 760BC, God’s people had been divided for approximately 170 years. In Israel, the apathy toward God’s laws had set in among the majority of the people. Life was good for them and their nation was prospering. Even the nations that often posed a threat to them (such as Assyrian and Egypt) were weak and ineffective.
So what could Amos possibly have to say to them? In the verses immediately preceding the start of our lesson text, Amos clearly points out the cause of ministry. At practically every turn, Israel chose evil over good (Amos 5:7-15). The prophet accused them of mistreating the poor (5:11). He then pointed out the people’s numerous other sins (5:12-15): they punished those who sought justice, they accepted bribes, and they discriminated against the poor in lawsuits. With these issues still smoldering in the air, Amos delivered the message from God found in today’s lesson text.
Dismal day (Amos 5:18-20)
The word ‘woe’ is common in prophetic language. It introduces messages of warning and judgment (for example, see Jeremiah 22:13). Ideally, God’s people should look forward to “the day of the Lord,” just as Christians desire the return of Jesus.
However, Amos’s audience longs for the day of the Lord for twisted, selfish reasons. Though they do not prioritize faithfulness to their covenant with the Lord, they believe that the day of the Lord will be a day of blessings for them. They have forgotten that covenant blessings are contingent on covenant faithfulness, and that faithlessness will be met by judgment (Deutoronomy 28). Now, the “day of the Lord” is a continuing theme in the Old Testament prophets (Example, Isaiah 2:12-21). The verse before us (Amos 5:18) implies that in Amos’s time, the popular thinking surrounding the day of the Lord in Israel is terribly flawed. Israel believes that the Lord will arise on behalf of his people and defeat their enemies in a mighty display of his power on that day. Here, God’s people consider themselves exempt from judgment on that day because of their status as his chosen covenant people.
The point Amos makes is that being the covenant people does not come without obligation. Thus, God’s unique relationship with Israel provides them with special blessings and privileges, but it also comes with a solemn responsibility for faithful obedience to him. Consequently, the people in Amos’s day have come to expect the privileges, but they have abandoned the responsibility.
The late Peter Marshall, in a prayer for the United States Senate, gave some much needed wisdom. He prayed, “Make us to see that our liberty is not the right to do as we please, but the opportunity to please to do right.”
In spite of their privileges and blessings as God’s covenant people, the Israelites had forgotten the “opportunity to please to do right” part.
The “day of the Lord” will not only be a delusion for the Israelites but also a day of darkness for them, “not light.” These people would have cheered the judgment that Amos proclaimed on their enemies (Amos 1:3-2:5). But tragically the darkness and judgment that the other nations will experience will also be on Israel. For, in reality, Israel is not different from the other nations (contrast Exodus 19:6).
In Amos 5:19, Amos illustrates the plight of the Israelites with two rather dark pictures. In both examples, a “man” believes himself to be safe immediately before he meets his doom.
The man in the illustration discovers that a “bear” is as deadly as a “lion” (compare Lamentations 3:10) and not even the man’s house can keep him safe from “a snake that has slithered inside” (compare Deuteronomy 32:24).
At this point, two things should be noted. First, like escaping a lion only to meet a bear, it is impossible to hide from judgment on the day of the Lord.
Second, in Amos’s illustration, the day of the Lord and its accompanying judgment come without warning. A person may think he/she is safe at home, but it’s not so. Both Jesus and Paul use the illustration of the thief in the night to describe the sudden and unexpected nature of the day when Jesus returns (Matthew 24:42-44; 1 Thessalonians 5:1,2).
In Verse 20, Amos reiterates his earlier point that the “day of the Lord” will be a time of darkness, not light. The Hebrew word translated “pitch-dark” comes from the same root word that describes the “total darkness” that fell upon the land of Egypt for three days during the ninth of the 10 plagues (Exodus 10:22).
And as you remember, the judgment delivered shortly after that day enabled the Israelites to be delivered from their enemy. They moved from slavery to freedom. However, the day of the Lord promises to be the reversal of both what Israel experienced and expected to happen (see Ezekial 7:7, Zephaniah 1:15).
Disappointed God (Amos 5:21-24)
Speaking for the Lord, the prophet Amos interrupts the busy activity at the shrine by announcing God’s reaction to all that is going on there. To say the least, God is not pleased with his people or their worship (Read Amos 5:21-23).
After the general announcement of rejection, Amos lists seven aspects of Israel’s worship that are all rejected. The “feasts” are the three great yearly festivals: Passover, Pentecost, and Booths (Deuteronomy 16:16). Though the Lord had ordained these feasts for his people, he now refers to them as “your” (the people’s) religious festivals. Simply stated, God rejects mere observance of days. The Lord then voices his disdain especially for the people’s “assemblies.” He hates how the people have twisted religion to their own ends instead of honoring the assemblies as he intends (compare Leviticus 26:30, 31; Hosea 2:11).
Israel scorns anyone who tries to correct the people’s wicked behavior and promote what is upright and good. Amos challenged the people to hate what is evil and love what is good (Compare Amos 5:15 with Isaiah 5:20).
The three offerings noted here are required by the Lord as part of the Old Testament sacrificial system. “Burnt offerings” are foundational. These offerings are completely consumed by the sacrificial fire, except for the skin (Leviticus 1:6-9; 7:8).
“Cereal offerings” are offerings of flour and oil. The best part of the grain is to be given to the Lord through this offering. This offering celebrates that the Lord is the provider of what the land produces.
“Fellowship offerings” are shared by the priest, the one who brings the sacrifice, and others. Thus, the offering becomes part of a command, or fellowship meal. The word “choice” refers to the best of the herd or flock that was used for the fellowship offering.
For God to refuse to “accept” these offerings that he has commanded indicates that something is terribly wrong with the people who are bringing them (see Isaiah 1:11-15).
Then there is the “noise” and “melody” refers to the singing, the instrumental music, all the sounds that emanate from a place busy with activity.
Now, if we understand here that the Lord has rejected the worship of the people, the listing of the seven aspects of worship indicates that the Lord rejects the totality of all that was going on at the shrine. The reason is that seven is the biblical number for totality.
Question! Why was this worship not acceptable to God? The saying in Amos 5:4-5 helps us in our understanding, “Seek me and live; do not seek Bethel, do not go to Gilgal, do not journey to Beersheba...” These sayings indicate that participation in worship at these places had become an end in itself. Those attending the services there were interested in enhancing their own reputation on inflating their own self-esteem. God’s direction is that participants in worship should seek the Lord. The other reason for God’s rejection of the people’s worship had to do with what went on outside the sanctuary. As we are told, it did not have to do with what happened on the day of worship but with what happened – or did not happen – on the other six days of the week.
A Call for Justice and Righteousness (Amos 5:24)
The climax of Amos 5:21-24 is a call for justice and righteousness. Amos says in Verse 24, “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
While the people have become quite content with shallow gestures of worship, God expects and deserves much more. Amos specifically lifts up this issue of “justice and righteousness.”
Practicing justice requires a person to be actively concerned not only with knowing what is just but with choosing to do what is just. An individual who really cares about justice will become passionate about making it a reality in his or her surroundings and in the lives of others (Jeremiah 22:3; Micah 6:8).
In the Rev. Peter Storey’s moving letter to friends after the elections in South Africa, his closing comment was, “a candle is a protest at midnight. It is non-conformist. It says to the darkness: ‘I beg to differ.’”
Righteousness is closely tied to justice. To live righteously is to make certain that God’s standards of what is right guides one’s daily decisions. Thus, when justice and righteousness are pursued consistently day after day, they flow like waters in a “never-failing stream.”
But how can this happen when people have blocked the flow through their stubborn and rebellious hearts, their contempt for God’s righteous standards and their shallow and empty worship?
The call to exercise justice and righteousness has echoed through the centuries to God’s people of every era. And that call is echoing louder than ever to God’s people today.
- According to the lesson, why is the day of the Lord an hour of darkness rather than light?
- Discuss what we as a church can do to ensure that our worship is pleasing to God? Be specific!
- Where is the most pressing need for justice in the community where our church is located?
Why do you say that?
Resources for this lesson
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 (halbradyministries.com).
- “2019-2020 Standard Lesson NIV Commentary, Uniform Series, International Bible Lessons for Christan Teaching,” pages 229-236.
- “Interpretation, Hosea-Micah” by James Limburg, pages 104-109.
- “Amos a Commentary” by James L. Mays, pages 102-110.