Amos 4:1-13
Return to God

Copyright 2013 (c) American Journal of Biblical Theology 
www.biblicaltheology.com     Scripture quotes from KJV


Amos preached in the Northern Kingdom of Israel when Jeroboam II was king, a period of ministry that overlapped with that of the prophet Hosea.  Uzziah was king of the Southern Kingdom of Judah.  Though the southern nation had followed kings who were both faithful to God and those who were not, the kings of the northern nation of Israel tended to be worldly, self-driven, and godless.  There were many periods of time when these faithless kings led the people into perversion and destruction, bringing upon the nations the wrath of God, expressed in their vulnerability to their neighboring countries in whom they placed their security and trust.   

Jeroboam II was king during a time of peace, a time when the people found little persecution.  This was a time when they could worship God freely, with little concern of attack from neighboring nations.  One of the side-effects of their theology was their interpretation of this time of peace as a sign that they were in God’s will.  They lived lives that included hard work and faithful interaction with the temple and synagogues.   However, their interaction with God became tainted by indifference and pride that came from their assumed godliness.  At this point, God called Amos to preach to the people of Israel, exposing the pride and indifference that resulted in meaningless worship and the breaking of fellowship with God. 

Through Amos, the LORD described to Israel a long list of disasters they had suffered, and would continue to suffer, as a direct result of their ungodly and disobedient choices.  God often used difficult circumstances to bring people back to Himself, and still does this.  We can all probably remember instances where we ourselves or others have come closer to God after enduring times of difficulty.  However, we must not interpret every bad circumstance as a God-ordained act.  Much, if not most, of the difficulty and stress we experience is a direct result of sin’s consequence, expressed in our own lives or in the lives of others. 

I am reminded of a woman who blamed God for the tragic death of her young child.  I counseled her to transfer that blame to the drunk driver who made the choices that caused the death, and to seek the comforting hand of the LORD for help in this very difficult time.  As difficult as that experience was, the LORD still used that terrible circumstance to bring a mother back to Himself.  

During times that we feel self-sufficient we are always tempted to rely more on ourselves than on God in all areas of our lives.  When we do this our fellowship with God is diminished, our worship of Him suffers, and we risk stepping outside of His will into areas where we would otherwise choose not to go.

There is one area that we might be careful of when we read and respond to the writings of the prophets.  When the prophets were convicting people of their sin, their prophecies of doom were directed towards those who were out of fellowship with God and exhibited deliberate and determined unrepentance.  These are people who chose to turn away from God to follow the ways of the world, including the continuous practice of idolatry and sinful living.  We all have much to gain from reading these prophecies so that we see the consequences of disobedience, but we must be careful that we do not place undue criticism or guilt upon faithful Christians by projecting a similar condemnation.  Satan has great power over Christians when they allow him to discourage and condemn.  Reading Old Testament prophecy necessitates a balance of understanding the circumstances surrounding that prophecy and applying wisdom to our own circumstances to obtain application without undue condemnation.

SELF-CENTERED INDIFFERENCE

Amos 4:1. Hear this word, ye kine of Bashan, that are in the mountain of Samaria, which oppress the poor, which crush the needy, which say to their masters, Bring, and let us drink.

Bashan was a region that was considered lush with vegetation in this otherwise arid region.  Cattle that were raised there were considered pampered, not having to forage for their food.[1]  Water was always accessible, found nearby in creeks, ponds, and rivers.  Amos compares his nation of Israel with these fattened, satisfied, lazy, cows.  Having become satisfied with their current state, they consider themselves someow better than the poor and needy, and prefer to live a self-centered, egotistic, and narcissistic lifestyle that has no room for others, whether they be people of those that they consider a “lower class,” or if they are true messengers and prophets of God, Himself.

The mountain of Samaria is a reference to the traditional center Israel’s worship.[2]   Where the synagogues should be a sanctuary that is dedicated to worship of the LORD and the dispensation of God’s unconditional grace, the practice of the Israelites became quite the opposite as the synagogues were used as elite gathering places for the Israelites to practice their social and ungodly pagan rituals.  Furthermore, the synagogue was used by the Israelites to separate themselves from others, disabling any use of the resource for ministry to others.  Israel had become arrogant; actively despising anyone who was not them.

Likewise, the mountain of Samaria is also a reference to the heart of the believer.  Just as the organized religious establishment practiced prejudice and hatred towards others, that same prejudice and hatred characterized the hearts of the people who had no concern for the needs of others.  Like the fattened and lazy cows of Bashan, they find their satisfaction in being served and fed, rather than to serve others in any way.

Amos 4:2-3. The Lord GOD hath sworn by his holiness, that, lo, the days shall come upon you, that he will take you away with hooks, and your posterity with fishhooks. 3And ye shall go out at the breaches, every cow at that which is before her; and ye shall cast them into the palace, saith the LORD.

Israel’s apostasy and abuse of the holiness of the synagogue would not continue without the judgment of the LORD.  Amos speaks of the sure and certain manner of the judgment that awaits the complacent and arrogant people of Israel.  A time will come when their enemies will vanquish their cities, leading some of them out through the broken down walls as slaves into captivity.  The words that are translated “hooks” and “fishhooks” are a challenge to literally translate, each representing a different gender of the same word.  The idea is that all of them, men and women, would be carried away like one carries a string of fish on hooks away from the lake where they were taken.  Many would die in the process.  None would escape.  The LORD was communicating His sovereignty and His judgment upon the idle and idolatrous people, giving them an opportunity to repent and return to Him before such a calamity would unfold.

There is a consequence to apostasy.  God has a purpose for mankind, and that purpose cannot be changed by man’s choices or actions.  When we “shake our fist” at God, demonstrating rebellion, we do so against a power that is beyond our greatest imaginings.  When we reject His protecting hand, we open ourselves up to attack from the lord of death who will serve to bring no limit of distress into the lives of those who submit to him. 

POWERLESS WORSHIP

Amos 4:4-5. Come to Bethel, and transgress; at Gilgal multiply transgression; and bring your sacrifices every morning, and your tithes after three years: 5And offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving with leaven, and proclaim and publish the free offerings: for this liketh you, O ye children of Israel, saith the Lord GOD.

One of the dangers of a self-centered, self-controlling lifestyle is a lack of fellowship with God that extends into times of worship.  It is quite possible to introduce ungodly activity within a church fellowship when one has left the LORD out of their life.  When we fail to give God preeminence in our lives, worship becomes a traditional rite, not a loving expression toward God.  As pagan and secular as ancient Israel had become, the people still “went through the motions” as they entered the synagogues.  However, bereft of a love of the LORD, they brought in the pagan and wicked attitudes as well as the godless practices of the Canaanites.  As we approach this passage, we must recognize that Amos is not complimenting the Israelites for their acts of worship within the temple.  Rather, Amos is using an inflated compliment to expose the folly of their powerless worship as they take part in the practice of traditional religion, but deny its power. 

Instead of stating, “Come to Bethel[3] and worship,” Amos describes their calling as “Come to Bethel and sin.”  Gilgal is another community where Israelites would gather for “worship.”  These two religious centers became centers for pagan religious practices that were mixed with Mosaic traditions. 

By entering the Synagogue at Bethel with the wrong attitude, the “Cows of Bashan” are described as committing an egregious sin.  Likewise, when we enter the place of worship with the wrong attitude we also sin.  These people thought that they came into the sanctuary of the temple in obedience, and they believed they were exercising the requirements of the temple with faithfulness.  They brought their daily sacrifices, and their regular tithes.[4]  However, they took part in these practices out of a desire to follow commonly expected traditional practices, and to be seen by others rather than from an attitude of humility and praise toward the LORD.  They boasted about their temple faithfulness.  These were the people who remain after the worship services are over, who can always be depended upon to be in attendance when a group would gather.  However, their purpose for attending is not to glorify God, but to find gain for their prideful and self-centered spirit.

The vanity of their “worship” exposes them for who they really are.  If the worship of the LORD engages a relationship with Him, then vain worship is a rather obvious insult to the LORD Himself.  It is one thing to make use of the secular world for personal gain, but to use that which is sacred for personal gain places one in a quite dramatic opposition to the LORD who is to be the center of all that takes place in the church or synagogue.

This is one area where Christians could be challenged.  When we enter the place of worship we tend to bring in the filthy baggage of our lives and, instead of laying it on the altar and seeking repentance and forgiveness, we keep that self-centered focus in our hearts and minds and as a result, fail to truly worship.  Such a practice ushers in all manner of transgressions against the LORD and against the fellowship.  When our focus is on ourselves rather than on the LORD, our hearts and minds are not focused on the glory of God, but instead diverted to our concern of the state of the pot roast we left in the oven or the sports game that we hope to enjoy later in day.  When led by worship leaders to express true worship we are more concerned about what others may thing of us than what God may think of us.  Instead of surrendering our judgmental and critical spirit to God, we stand and judge others by what they wear, what they are doing outside the church assembly, or any other myriad of faults that we identify.  Some use the church assembly as a place to practice behaviors that feed their personal need for power and social significance, usurping God’s place as the “LORD of the church.”  When we enter the place of worship in such a manner, we are behaving in a manner that is similar to that of the “Cows of Bashan.”  For this we must repent, and accept God’s forgiveness, so that when we again enter the assembly we can, maybe for the first time, truly spend that time in love, worship, and praise. 

Having spent many years as a worship leader, I was always frustrated by the obvious barriers to worship that are evident in the assembly.  Consequently, I am very sensitive to the barriers that stand between us and true worship.  I see those barriers as ones that have not been placed their by God, and are consequently there only because the complacency of the worshippers has empowered satan to interfere.  I have often stated that we have a demon who is empowered in our worship services that works to diminish the true expression of worship.  Let us not succumb to that powerless demon, but enter the place of worship with the right attitude of love toward God and toward the other members of the assembly, and turn our hearts and minds to God in worship and praise.

Failure to worship the LORD, and to live a life of obedience to Him opens us up to limitless conflict and turmoil as we remove ourselves from the LORD’s promises of protection and provision.  Amos describes some of these consequences rather dramatically.

DIVINE DISCIPLINES

Amos 4:6. And I also have given you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and want of bread in all your places: yet have ye not returned unto me, saith the LORD.

“Cleanness of teeth” is simply a euphemism for hunger.  When people were experiencing hunger that comes from drought, they clearly recognized the state of their physical condition but entirely failed to relate that stress to their rebellion against the LORD who promises to provide these things to those who place their trust in Him.  Why is there hunger and starvation anywhere in the world today?  Those countries that are successful in their agricultural sciences can easily feed themselves and the remaining part of the world that is not so successful.  Most world-wide starvation is caused, not by the inability to grow and harvest food, but rather by corruption and greed in the hearts of the rich, the leadership, and in the behavior of ungodly governments.  When aid is sent to such governments, that aid often serves to fuel the corruption and further separate the poor from the wealthy.  The zeal for power, combined with the tribal hatred that characterizes many small nations, serve to keep those nations embattled, making it virtually impossible to maintain an infrastructure that supports the agricultural enterprise. 

Israel was experiencing a condition that is similar to many of these conflicted “third world” nations that this description would tend to bring to mind.  The powerless were starving while the empowered took what little there was for themselves.  God sent famine, and instead of looking to God for their provision, the people fought among themselves, with the rich looking the other way when the poor were driven further into deprivation.  The harsher the conditions became, the harsher and more bull-headed the people would become, refusing to turn to the LORD. 

Amos 4:7-8. And also I have withholden the rain from you, when there were yet three months to the harvest: and I caused it to rain upon one city, and caused it not to rain upon another city: one piece was rained upon, and the piece whereupon it rained not withered. 8So two or three cities wandered unto one city, to drink water; but they were not satisfied: yet have ye not returned unto me, saith the LORD.

The LORD sent a devastating drought on the land.  When no rain falls three months prior to the scheduled harvest, the crops die and no harvest is possible.  People must have food and water, and were forced like refugees to roam from town to town in search for sustenance, only to find that there was not enough for everyone.  Conflict over the supplies of food and water would result in violence, death, and destruction.  Yet in this time of distress people still did not turn to God.  Instead they turned to false gods and idols, seeking supply and sanctuary among the pagan peoples and nations.  They blamed their distress on one another and sought answers in myths that they believed true because of the generational reinforcement of falsehoods that ignorance and foolishness engenders. 

What do we do when we face times of drought?  Since most of us have not experienced the literal drought of these circumstances, we can consider other distresses that we have experienced.  For some people this drought might be the quicksand that is uncontrolled depression that is often inflamed by broken relationships, and universally one of those relationships that is marginalized by depressions is that with the LORD.  It might be a time of financial crisis that are brought on by unwise or foolish fiscal decisions.  It might be a time of physical suffering that is brought on by overindulgence or addiction.  There are many circumstances that come into our lives that produce a distress like that experienced by the people of Israel during the time of Amos.  What do we do in these times?  Do we whine and complain that the circumstances are unfair?  Do we place blame on one another for those circumstances?  Do we cry out to God to remove the stressor?  I recall the testimony of Christians who experienced the persecution of a communist regime who prayed, “LORD give us the strength and resources to endure,” rather than pray for an end to the trial.  This is a very appropriate way to respond to crisis.  In his first chapter, James gives advice for handling times of trial:  We are not to jump out of the trial, but allow it to work to completion, to work in us God’s purpose, seeking Him for strength, and encouraging one another during that time.[5]  Though it is overwhelmingly tempting to focus on the stressor at times of overwhelming turmoil, faith empowers one to focus on the LORD who provides the resources to overcome.   When seeking the answers to such questions, the biblical narrative is clear:

Matthew 6:33.  But seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you.

Proverbs 3:5-6.  Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding, in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.

2 Chronicles 7:14.  If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

Israel focused entirely on the stressor and left God out of any solution.  How often do we, when faced with difficult decisions, leave the LORD out of our solution?  It is personally devastating when we do this as individuals, and it is corporately devastating when we do this as a church.  We often seek the solutions to problems using our own limited wisdom, or the wisdom of man as recorded in constitutions and laws.  We find solutions that may make sense from man’s perspective but lack the LORD’s wisdom and perspective, opening up for ourselves unlimited chaos.  The decisions that Israel made as they sought solution in themselves and in their submission to pagan governments opened them up to conflicts that they could never predict if it had not been for the prophets who described their state and the only solution.  However, with only few exceptions, the words of the prophets were rejected by Israel.[6]

Amos 4:9. I have smitten you with blasting and mildew: when your gardens and your vineyards and your fig trees and your olive trees increased, the palmerworm devoured them: yet have ye not returned unto me, saith the LORD.

The annual harvest crops were not the only resource that the LORD impacted in His effort to get the attention of His wayward people.  Other food products were grown in gardens, vineyards, and groves of trees.  The LORD sent blight and mildew, most likely molds and mildews that cause the fruit and vegetable plants to wither and spoil.  Locusts were also sent to devour their foliage.  A cloud of locusts can devastate an entire region in just a couple of days.  The people suffered drought, molds, mildews, and locusts that together served to destroy their food supply, and still they would not turn to God.

How are our problems compounded when we fail to turn to God when we experience them?  Harbored anger builds to bitterness and self-deprecation.  Uncontrolled anger can turn to revenge, retribution, and even violence.  Uncontrolled fear can escalate to any number of irrational behaviors.  Unchecked self-centeredness leads to depression and isolation.  Harbored lies require a network of greater lies to maintain.  There are many ways that an incorrect response to a problem only causes the problem to get larger and more “unmanageable.”  This escalation of stress was experienced by the Israelites, who still could not remember or understand who it is that is the true source of all of their blessings.  When we get comfortable in our self-sufficiency, or find ourselves at a loss when attempting to solve our own problems, we have the potential to leave God out of our solutions, and by so doing, lead and promote the escalation of the problems.  Sometimes it is when we finally hit bottom that we will finally cry out to God.  When confronted with a problem our first source should be God, rather than our last.  Israel had not yet hit bottom, but they were doomed by their rebellion to do so.

Amos 4:10. I have sent among you the pestilence after the manner of Egypt: your young men have I slain with the sword, and have taken away your horses; and I have made the stink of your camps to come up unto your nostrils: yet have ye not returned unto me, saith the LORD.

When we consider the plagues of Egypt, we might realize that, though the opinion and lifestyle of the Pharaoh was shared by his subjects, it is clear that it was Pharaoh’s own “hard heart” that God broke into through the work of the ten plagues.  In like manner, the people of Israel were demonstrating a hardness of heart.  Just as God brought plagues to Egypt so that the pagan Pharaoh would recognize Him and His power, God brought plagues to his hard-hearted nation.  In addition to the drought and the loss of their crops, Israel suffered the ravages of sickness, ignoring the One who provides healing.  People died from deprivation, illnesses, and from the violence that such plagues engender in the sin-centered hearts of the people.  Though the nation was currently “at peace” with their neighbors, they were engaged in far greater chaos within their borders. 

Their land was overrun with injustice and violence, and the stench of the dead and dying was evident everywhere.  Yet, just as the plagues did not dissuade the hardened heart of an Egyptian Pharaoh so many forgotten years before, it was their own similar hardness of heart that would cause them to still reject God. 

The Pharaoh did not know God, and neither did Amos’ apostate Israelite contemporaries who claimed to be His children.  Unlike the Pharaoh who had no context from which to understand what the LORD was doing, these words should be very specifically understood by the people of Israel who were familiar with the content of their scripture, but had little interest in its application or power.  By his reference to Egypt, Amos was making a clear point, one that the Israelites should have been able to immediately understand and positively respond to.  God had already told Israel that He would “not afflict on you the horrible diseases you knew in Egypt”[7] if they would obey Him.  However, recorded also are the words, “If you do not carefully follow all the words of this law … He will bring upon you all the diseases of Egypt that you dreaded.”[8]  The LORD was not simply blind-siding the Israelites with some form of sudden and arbitrary punishment.  Israel had turned its back on the LORD, and had done so for generations, willfully leaving His hand of protection by placing their welfare in the hands of their warring neighbors, and brought upon themselves no little consequence to their sins of violence, hatred, bigotry, greed, and… the list goes on.  God had already told them that this would take place if they rejected His promise of blessing.

What happens when a person’s heart is wholly hardened against God?  What power does God have to penetrate the soul of one who ignores Him either in willful disobedience or in deliberate ignorance?  As we consider this, we might be able to bring to mind people who had harbored such a hardness, only to have God finally break through to their hearts in a crisis.  However, it was necessary that the crisis take place in order to pierce through that tough shell of pride and self-centeredness.  It would be better for us if we continue to look to God all the time and not become hardened, and not become in need of such a crisis. 

Even a faithful Christian can respond to circumstances in a way that hardens their heart against God.  What is the result of such a response?  The Christian loses the peace of fellowship with God, prayers seem to go unanswered, and the stability and joy that comes with the Christian experience is lost.  When we experience times of crisis we should not harden our hearts towards God and one another, but rather seek God for strength and wisdom and His comfort as we endure.

Amos 4:11. I have overthrown some of you, as God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, and ye were as a firebrand plucked out of the burning: yet have ye not returned unto me, saith the LORD.

God’s promise of blessing for faithfulness and His demand for obedience predates the experience of Moses in Egypt, going back to the original call of Abraham when God rained down judgment on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  In these events, God annihilated entire cities.  Likewise, God had overseen the destruction of entire Israelite cities at the hands of warring neighbors, yet always saving His remnant from the destruction like the pulling and dousing of burning coals from a fire.  Yet even when saved from these devastating circumstances the people did not turn to God. 

Our response to crisis is more important than the crisis itself.  Sometimes people make a one-sided deal with God that goes something like this:  “If you get me out of this, God, I will …”.  This is then followed by a litany of shallow promises that we make.  Usually, these are promises never kept, and when they are, they are often offered as an unnecessary atonement.  God is not looking for deals, He is looking for obedience.  He calls us to accept Him for who He is:  Provider, Savior and LORD.  He has given us the ability to endure anything that we must.  Furthermore, when the time of stress is over, we should respond with joy and thanksgiving towards God for the deliverance we experience.  Verse 11 refers to the remnant plucked from the fire, saved from the destruction of the cities.  Oftentimes we concentrate on condemning God for the circumstance rather than praising Him for saving us from it.  Let us not fail to thank God when He saves us from distress or “delivers us from evil.” 

IMPENDING JUDGMENT

Amos 4:12. Therefore thus will I do unto thee, O Israel: and because I will do this unto thee, prepare to meet thy God, O Israel.

The Hebrew word translated “I will” carries the concept of a continuing process rather than a single future event.  Therefore, we can understand this to state that “I will keep on doing these things” to you.  God’s judgment is certain, and is coming soon.  Such a judgment is coming for all of us.  For those who are lost, the judgment is sure:  eternal separation from God.  For those who are saved, the judgment is merciful:  eternity with God.  However Christians who have lived a life of disobedience will be judged for those acts, though not by eternal condemnation.  In this life this judgment is realized by a separation from God’s close fellowship on a daily basis.  The warning here is sure.  If we continue in disobedience to God, the stresses that God has placed in our path to turn us back to Him will continue.  If we are harboring sinful behaviors, it is appropriate that we repent immediately and seek God’s forgiveness so that his continued judgment will not be upon us.

Amos 4:13. For, lo, he that formeth the mountains, and createth the wind, and declareth unto man what is his thought, that maketh the morning darkness, and treadeth upon the high places of the earth, The LORD, The God of hosts, is his name.

Amos reminds the people of Israel just how mighty God is.  When we live lives of disobedience we are shaking our fists at a God who is more powerful than we can possibly imagine, and by doing so, declare in our own spirit that God is less than who He really is.  Amos’ descriptions of God’s power are taken from His act of creation, forming mountains, wind, the rise and fall of the sun, etc.  These were physical properties that were far more significant than they often are to our modern scientific community.  In our culture we have learned of a universe that is vastly greater than anything that Amos or any of the early Christians could have ever imagined.  We now know of a universe that is billions of times larger than all that was known a few centuries ago.  There is no limit to God’s greatness, and this is the God we choose to disobey.  It is a fitting reminder that God could choose to snuff out this entire planet just as he destroyed so much life during the Noahic flood.  When we really grasp part of God’s significance we recognize our own insignificance, and we should be profoundly humbled.  The Israelite culture of Amos’ day was not characterized by humility, nor is it today.  Our world is self-centered and shakes its collective fist at a God who has the power to destroy all life, but who also has the equivalent love that preserves life. For this we should seek a life of love-inspired obedience to God.

Since Amos’ prophecy, Jesus came to clarify this issue in a way that would forever change the face of the world.  When mankind shook his fist at God and chose to separate himself from God for eternity, God sent His Son to point us to God, and to take upon Himself the punishment that we all deserve for that sin, that through faith in Him we would not experience the eternal separation from Him that we deserve.  For this we should be grateful, we should love God with the love He has for us, and we should seek to know Him more, know His word more, and live a life that glorifies Him.  It is though that relationship with God that the chaos of Amos’ prophecy is averted.  It is through faith in Him that true peace and provision is found.  Let us be reminded of God’s great love for us, and turn to Him with the love and obedience He deserves, worshipping Him from the core of our spirit as we approach a future that is full of His blessings instead of one that is unsure and chaotic.


 

[1] Psalm 22:12; Ezekiel 39:19.

[2] John 4:20.

[3] 1 Samuel 7:16.

[4] Using the Hebrew term, yohm, this passage may also be translated, “third day,” or “third week,” “third month,” or any third period of time.  

[5] James 1:4.

[6] It may be interesting to note that one exception is the repentance by pagan Nineveh to Jonah’s prophesy of their impending doom.

[7] Deuteronomy 7:15.

[8] Deuteronomy 28:58,60.