The book of the Twelve for Lent 2016
Idolatry and Injustice – Amos (1)
With Amos, a shepherd from Tekoa, a southerner called to preach to the northern kingdom of Israel, we enter a different world. Hosea and Joel have set the table (as it were) for reading the book of the Twelve with their exposure of i-dolatry as the people’s basic problem, the necessity and urgency of their “return” to God, and God’s sovereign rule over every nation and all history. The preaching of these first two prophets of the Twelve gives us a framework and the essential presuppositions for reading the Twelve. With Amos, however, the book of the Twelve goes from preaching to meddling! Now the prophets “name names” so to speak with a specificity that makes it almost impossible to deny the prophetic accusation or avoid the realization that we today are implicated in similar such perverted behavior. Or that we have normalized such attitudes and behavior as “the good life,” “our just reward,” or “the American Dream.”
Amos was called to prophesy at a time when the Northern Kingdom was at the top of its game. Expansionist, prosperous, and religious, it seemed to have it all. And they took it none too well when an upstart “herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees” (7:14) comes to tell them they’re in big trouble with God and lays out a lengthy litany of faithlessness they have practiced (see 7:10-17)!
Many North Americans know Amos, though they may not know it is Amos, through Martin Luther King’s eloquent and evocative use of Amos 5:24, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” during the Civil Rights struggle of the fifties and sixties. Others may also know Amos as the great prophet of social justice. And such he is!
But he is far more than a social critic. Amos is an ambassador for the “God of Hosts” (Amos’ favorite name for God). He makes it a point to highlight this name so that makes it worth a bit of reflection. These phrase points to God’s power and authority. Eugene Peterson’s The Message translates it “God of the Angel Armies” - Divine commander of heavenly forces!
This designation of God as “God of Hosts” serves one of Amos’ chief points in his message. This is particularly clear in the first two chapters which we will focus on today.
Amos begins by announcing God’s judgment against other nations as well as his own people. Each announcement is sealed by the divine claim “I will not revoke the punishment (1:3,6,9,11,13; 2:1,4,6). And when you read what these nations have been up to, you can understand God’s anger. Paul House in his Old Testament Theology gives us a rundown:
-Syria excessive cruelty and violence in war (1:3-6)
-Gaza captured unprotected cities and sold them into their people into slavery. This cowardly and vicious activity is found in 1:6-8.
-Tyre has turned on its allies and sold them into slavery (1:9-10). Deceptive foreign policy here.
-Edom exercises never-ending anger and no compassion towards others (1:11-12).
-Ammon practiced injustice and terror in war (1:13-15; e.g. ripping open pregnant women).
-Moab desecrated graves in their desire for revenge against their enemies (2:1-3).
-Judah and Israel: the former served other gods (which we have met before in the Twelve). The latter, though, gets a specific bill of complaint listing their many sins from God (a feature we will see over and over in Amos (2:4-11).
Remember Joel ends with God’s judgment against the nations. And Amos begins with that and also a phrase from the end of Joel (Amos 1:2 parallels Joel 3:16). This seems a deliberate strategy to link the two books together.
The sovereign power and authority God over all nations is Amos point in these opening chapters. All nations are accountable to him for his standards (whatever their own laws may be). Judah and Israel, God’s own people, who are supposed to live by God’s own standards, are critiqued along with the pagan nations.
God cannot be presumed on or trifled with. He is love, to be sure. But his love is such that he passionately desires all humanity to experience it. He called and equipped his chosen people to show everyone else what that love looked like in real life. His disappointment and anger over failure to live by his standards along with all the destruction and chaos such failure caused called forth his holy judgment.
As we noticed earlier, such images of God do not always set well with people these days. They prefer a “kinder and gentler god” (as they judge it). But Tim Keller is right when he says, “If there's nothing about who I believe God is that bothers me or upsets me or makes me uncomfortable, then the God I believe in is just a personal construction, a projection that I've made to suit myself."
Once again, C. S. Lewis helps us with his description of the great Lion and Christ-figure Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The four Pevensie children who have entered Narnia through the magic wardrobe are about to meet Aslan.
“Is— is he a man?” asked Lucy.
“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion— the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he— quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy. “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
“I’m longing to see him,” said Peter, “even if I do feel frightened when it comes to the point.” “That’s right, Son of Adam,” said Mr. Beaver, bringing his paw down on the table with a crash that made all the cups and saucers rattle. “And so you shall. Word has been sent that you are to meet him, tomorrow if you can, at the Stone Table.” (79-80)Not safe, but good. Or as Lewis puts it elsewhere in his Narnia stories, Alsan is both good and terrible at the same time.
I think that’s about as close as we get to a proper description of the biblical God, our God. In his sovereign authority and power, which is his love, he both lavishes tender affection and intimacy along with all manner of gift and goodness and insists that his way be followed because any other way leads only to destruction and chaos. He judges our failures because he wants us to experience the fullness and abundance of life he intends for us and it breaks his heart to see us scrabbling around the mess we often make of things. So the “tough love” of judgment is his way to get our attention, especially those of us who claim to belong to him and live by his will and way!