Only people who sincerely seek the LORD and who act with justice and righteousness can offer true worship that is acceptable to God. What is worship? For some church members in our culture today, worship is an onerous obligation that takes place once each week, or maybe a couple of times each year. That obligation is too often exercised by a scenario similar to the following:
· The event of worship starts with the family getting ready for church on, usually, a Sunday morning, with all the fussing and fuming that comes with trying to get the family out of the house on time, dressed in their “Sunday best.” The hollering and arguing somehow stops when the car enters the church parking lot. “After all, everyone at church expects us to be such wonderful people.”
· Dinner might be placed in the oven prior to leaving home, assured that the worship event will not interfere with its cooking time.
· Upon arrival to church, the worship center is entered by the family. “Nobody had better be sitting in my pew, or World War III might break out.”
· A few songs might be sung, half-heartedly, with little genuine interest, and nobody really knows why. “We have just always done it that way.” Those with a good voice who want to be heard are noticed by everyone. Most are too timid to allow themselves to be heard by others who will compare them with the better singers. It’s easier not to sing at all. It’s even easier if one does not pick up a hymnal.
· “I hope that Fred doesn’t catch my eye. He is a real jerk and has stiffed me one too many times. I’d like to really tell him off.”
· Here comes the offering plate. “Surely the church already has enough money. We don’t give what we should, we know that. Maybe we will give more next week. Here’s my dollar. That’s all I can afford this week.”
· Someone or a choir is singing now. “They are pretty good, not too far off-tune. I’ll applaud them if I am really entertained.” “That Soprano in the choir wears too much makeup and I can’t believe how short the skirts are on those youth girls! Don’t their parents have any sense?”
· “Here comes the Pastor. I hope he doesn’t run too long today. He is usually so boring. My pot roast will be pot toast. He is preaching about worship, and that we do not know how to do it. Surely he is not talking about me. If he starts stepping on my toes I will take my family to another church.”
· The service ends. “Finally, now we can get out of here. A quick drive home, chug down dinner, and maybe I can get in a few holes of golf. I know they have an evening and Wednesday service, but once through this in one week is enough!
What is wrong with this picture? Is there any true worship going on here? How do you think that God honors such “worship.” I would hope that this is a worst-case scenario. However, in reality, many people do think of worship as a God-themed social event that takes place once (or maybe as many as several times) each week. Usually there is very little real worship going on in those services, though the faithful, sincere, and dedicated core of the church struggles to do so amongst all of the worldly distractions that are thrown at them by the more worldly church members.
What is first required for a person to worship God in a way that honors Him? The person must have, at some point in their life, turned their heart to God in faith, accepting him as Savior and LORD through His Son, Jesus Christ. When that happens, the Holy Spirit, the seal of God’s covenant with believers comes to be part of the life of the believer. Without that resource, true worship is absolutely impossible. Without a faith relationship with God, any attempt at worship is simply hypocrisy.
It is likely that only an individual without faith in the LORD would typify a worship scenario such as that described above. However, what about the worship that is done by believers? Most believers seem to think that worship is a God-themed corporate event that takes place one or more times per week, intended to please the audience, and when taking part in the services, very little true worship takes place. There is a lot of room for improvement in our lives in this very important component of our faith. We can get some excellent instruction from the “funeral dirge” written by the prophet Amos in Chapter 5.
Amos 5:1-3. Hear ye this word which I take up against you, even a lamentation, O house of Israel. 2The virgin of Israel is fallen; she shall no more rise: she is forsaken upon her land; there is none to raise her up. 3For thus saith the Lord GOD; The city that went out by a thousand shall leave an hundred, and that which went forth by an hundred shall leave ten, to the house of Israel.
Amos is using a “lamentation,” a literary form that is typically recited at the funeral for one who is dead. Consequently, we should be careful to realize that Amos is writing about those who are clearly outside of the fold of grace, those who are already spiritually dead, eternally separated from any fellowship with God. We must be discerning of how we apply these words to our own lives, since Amos is not referring to a pattern of behavior of the faithful, as many who are reading this study certainly are. However, even the faithful may identify with some of the shortcomings that Amos describes of the nation of Israel and apply the teaching in our own lives in some of those areas.
Amos’ prophecy is quite accurate here. He is referring to the death of the nation, Israel, the northern kingdom of tribes (those that exclude Judah and a portion of Benjamin) that were blood descendents of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Described as a virgin, the loved child of God who has yet to establish the relationship with Him that He intends, Amos refers to the nation as fallen, never to rise again. Soon after Amos’ proclaimed his message, Israel was dispersed by the Assyrians with the bulk of the population taken away from their tribal homelands, geographically scattered around Assyria and its conquered neighbors. Unlike the southern kingdom of Judah that was restored only as a community under the authority of Syrian King Cyrus, the northern nation of Israel did not receive such restoration. The closest we can come to any restoration of Israel as a nation took place in 1947 when European Jews, followed by Jews from many other nations, migrated back to the Holy Land to establish the modern country of Israel, a nation that shares the heritage of the forefathers, but little of the faith and grace of its earliest patriarchs.
Amos speaks specifically of that dispersion when he refers to the decimation of the city populations, stating that nine of ten will be taken away.
Amos 5:4. For thus saith the LORD unto the house of Israel, Seek ye me, and ye shall live:
The fundamental error of the people of Israel, as well as that of the negative scenario above, is illustrated by Amos’ first-person prophecy here. What is YAHWEH, Jehovah God, saying? If the nation of Israel is, indeed dead, separated from God, what is needed for them to be alive? Israel puts all of its faith in itself, failing to seek after God. Failure to sincerely worship the LORD is fundamentally a failure to actively seek after Him. What are some of the things that we seek after, rather than God?
Seeking after God is not something that takes place during a one-hour event, one or more times each week. Seeking after God is an attitude, a insatiable desire, a yearning that dwells in the heart of the believer during every waking moment, (and even possibly in one’s dreams.) Every manner in which that yearning is exercised is an act of worship, one that draws us to God, one that God honors. This verse is the most fundamental truth of the Gospel: Place your faith and trust in God, and you will live.
One cannot understate the importance of that word, “seek.” Those who do not experience true worship fail in the endeavor because they, simply, are not seeking. Israel was not seeking the LORD. If they were, God’s promise of salvation would have immediately brought peace and restoration to Israel.
Amos 5:5. But seek not Bethel, nor enter into Gilgal, and pass not to Beersheba: for Gilgal shall surely go into captivity, and Bethel shall come to nought.
Bethel was a primary center of worship for the people of Israel. Gilgal and Beersheba were also secondary centers of worship. People would come to the synagogues in these locations to worship, much as we come to a church building to worship. The ancients had a belief that God was localized to specific areas, and each nation had its local God. Many of the ancient Hebrews also ascribed to this concept. This is why Jonah thought he could escape from God by catching a ship to Tarshish, assumed by many to be on the coast of what is now Spain. Many believed that they needed to travel to the synagogue to find God there.
Why is God telling the people not to seek these places? Thinking that these areas were the location where the LORD abode, those same centers of worship had become centers for pagan idol worship, as they added the pantheon of pagan gods to YAHWEH. In these places they sold pagan sacrifices, and held to many traditional practices that were in no way worshipful to God. In fact, man of these practices were contrary to God’s command to love and worship Him, including some such as pagan temple prostitution that were repugnant to true worship. The tabernacle, its icons, and its dogma became the one revered, not God Himself. Religion was about the synagogue, not about the LORD. Bereft of the LORD’s influence, the synagogues quickly became places of pagan religious activity.
We likewise are in danger of falling into a similar trap ourselves. When we come together to worship, we should be doing together (corporately) what we are already doing when we are not together: loving and worshipping God in our innermost spirit and in honesty, sincerity, and truth. There is something special about worshipping together when doing so encourages and edifies the believers. Corporate worship can be a time of replenishing and strengthening that comes after a period of exhausting ministry that takes place when we are separated. It is an opportunity to learn from each other more of God’s truth through Bible study and testimony. It is an opportunity to share our needs with one another so that God can use us to minister to one another.
However, when the church usurps the Lordship of Christ and becomes the center of authority, when tradition stifles the expression of worship, something is lost. The words of God recorded here by the prophet Amos are a command for us to refrain from reaching out to the church as our source of spiritual purpose. Just as the worship centers of Bethel, Gilgal, and Beersheba would one day fall, the bricks, mortar, and icons, as well as the power plays and politics of the organized church will be left behind when we pass into Glory, (or pass into eternal separation from God if unsaved.) There is no lasting security in the resources of the church, its leaders, or its icons. Only God can provide true spiritual resource, and only God is worthy of our worship.
Amos 5:6-7. Seek the LORD, and ye shall live; lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and devour it, and there be none to quench it in Bethel. 7Ye who turn judgment to wormwood, and leave off righteousness in the earth,
God is a Holy and Just God. He will not accept those who reject Him into His fellowship. All they are, and all that represents them, along with this world, will be ultimately destroyed. The church cannot save a single soul. God’s true justice is not in the heart of the lost. It is demonstrated in His people in an unforgiving and accusing spirit. Even those who are saved can be tempted into harboring ill-will toward one another, and when that ill-will enters the place of worship (whether personal or corporate) the quality of that worship is always diminished or utterly destroyed. We cannot lift up God in worship when our mind is focused on bitter feelings toward one another. Jesus own words state,
Matt. 5:21-24. Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: 22But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. 23Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; 24Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.
God does not honor our worship when we harbor anger or bitterness against one another. God declares Himself as the only just Judge, and calls upon us to turn judgment over to Him, leaving us free to forgive one another without regard of the nature of the event that produced the spirit of bitterness.
Furthermore, Amos’ prophecy describes those who cast righteousness to the ground. They consider true righteousness, defined by the LORD to be faith in Him, to be something of no value, to be discarded, replacing it with their own version of truth. God calls upon us to be righteous with a righteousness that He defines. Though we will never be free of sin in our lives, short of the end of our days, He sees those who have placed their faith in Him as righteous because of the Holy Spirit’s defense of the voracity and sincerity of our faith. That same Holy Spirit reveals to us the character and truth of righteous living. When we choose to ignore the prompting of the Holy Spirit concerning those areas of unrighteousness in our lives we again place an obstacle between ourselves and God. We have yet another obstacle blocking true worship.
Amos 5:8. Seek him that maketh the seven stars and Orion, and turneth the shadow of death into the morning, and maketh the day dark with night: that calleth for the waters of the sea, and poureth them out upon the face of the earth: The LORD is his name:
If there is one characteristic that describes every pagan god, it is that they are, without exception, myths that have been created by man’s own imagination, and mythical objects do not exist: they have absolutely no substance, and no power. They do not create anything. They do not do anything. Such ignorance equates the One True God with these mythical stories, creating an obstacle to true worship: truly recognizing the awesomeness of God. When we look to God, do we look to some obscure non-person, or to the true creator of the universe? Those who lived in the ancient near-east knew very little about God’s creation, yet came to understand a small part of His greatness through it. God created the stars, set in motion the rotation of the earth and its tilt that creates the days, nights, and seasons. That same set of physical properties causes the weather that provides the necessary physical properties for life.
The ancients could only see the world around them and the lights that shone overhead. That was about the extent of Amos’ understanding of the size of the physical universe. Today we have an ever-expanding understanding of a universe that holds billions of galaxies, each with trillions of stars, all created by God for His own good pleasure. It is this same God that seeks personal relationship with us, and failing to recognize His greatness, we also fail to seek and cherish the relationship with Him that He offers. When we truly begin to understand the greatness of God, we begin to understand our humility before Him, and we can begin to worship Him for who He is. God is not our peer, He is not our buddy, nor is He our co-pilot. He is Great and Wise beyond anything we can imagine. We should be completely awed at His Power, and thoroughly humiliated in His presence. When we truly worship Him, it should be in such humility and praise for who He is. When we understand that, those barriers to worship become trivial and easily discarded.
Satan is empowered in our worship services when we allow his spirit of self-will and arrogance to interfere. Instead of looking to God in love and praise, we often look at each other in judgment. We are often afraid to express ourselves in true worship for fear of what others might think. As a result, our worship can be dull, uninspiring, and fruitless. Let us not forget the Greatness of God, and the inestimable privilege we have been granted, being invited by God to come before Him in worship.
Amos 5:9-12. That strengtheneth the spoiled against the strong, so that the spoiled shall come against the fortress. 10They hate him that rebuketh in the gate, and they abhor him that speaketh uprightly. 11Forasmuch therefore as your treading is upon the poor, and ye take from him burdens of wheat: ye have built houses of hewn stone, but ye shall not dwell in them; ye have planted pleasant vineyards, but ye shall not drink wine of them. 12For I know your manifold transgressions and your mighty sins: they afflict the just, they take a bribe, and they turn aside the poor in the gate from their right.
Here Amos is describing the life and works of the unsaved “worshippers.” The LORD first states that He stands in defense of the downtrodden, a stand which pits Him against them. Since they are not people of faith, they are people of the world. As citizens of this fallen world they fail to show sincere compassion for the poor, and side with the wicked against them. Ignorant of it, they fail to stand for the truth. They successfully oppress the righteous by their greater numbers and greater spirit of malevolence towards the godly remnant. They are a worldly people who wander into the place of sanctity. The lost are completely immersed in their worldly nature.
Likewise, a barrier to true worship is our own worldly nature. Many Christians demonstrate a commitment to God that is so minimal that it is very difficult to discern the difference in their nature than that of those lost people in the world. By attempting to be accepted in both places, they are like spiritual schizophrenics who try to live two personalities depending upon their audience. When they come to church they try to play the church game. However, the game is clearly known by the LORD, and visible to those discerning people of faith. When we bring worldly views into the sanctity of the church, we are standing against the God we profess to come to worship. As a worship leader I have often seen the worldly nature of people as they stand in worship services, failing to take part because they are so much a part of the world. Like baggage that is chained to their ankles, they drag the cares and values of their carnal world-view with them into their worship, and like blinders, those sins disable them from seeing God. Is it any surprise that they often leave the service (or their time of personal worship) unredeemed, unfulfilled, and critical.
It is very easy for us to become absorbed in this sinful world that presses upon us from every direction. When we do so, we might not so easily shed it when we seek to worship God. The solution is to maintain a desire for righteousness every moment of our lives, and seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance with the purpose of shedding the demons of worldly virtue that are dug so deep into us. It hurts when I see people carrying those demons into the church fellowship because I know the barrier to love and grace that they represent. By failing to shed those demons we continue to accept our “manifold transgressions” that make us worldly.
It takes courage and grace to take a stand for Jesus that is based upon spiritual integrity. God is the source of that courage and grace. God is the only source of that integrity. Let us turn to Him with the purpose of shedding from our lives any barrier of worldliness that inhibits our fellowship with Him.
Amos 5:13-15. Therefore the prudent shall keep silence in that time; for it is an evil time. 14Seek good, and not evil, that ye may live: and so the LORD, the God of hosts, shall be with you, as ye have spoken. 15Hate the evil, and love the good, and establish judgment in the gate: it may be that the LORD God of hosts will be gracious unto the remnant of Joseph.
God calls us to seek after righteousness, being empowered by His wisdom to discern and avoid the evil of this world. It is then that God will honor our worship and have fellowship with us. It is interesting that the Israelites that Amos speaks of testify that “God is with us,” when, indeed, He is not. Today we may hear someone proclaim what they believe, prefaced by “God told me”, blaspheming the Name of God by unilaterally placing His stamp of approval on their opinion. We are in jeopardy of sharing a similar testimony when we insist that “God is with us,” when He actually is not pleased with our attitude toward Himself and toward each other when we come to Him in worship.
Certainly, God is omnipresent: He is everywhere, unbounded by space or time. The Holy Spirit is also present in any community, large or small, when even a single believer is there. However, it is almost a blasphemy to declare that God is present with us when we are living a testimony of sin and separation from Him rather than a testimony of righteousness. At the very least, it is a shallow and ignorant testimony. At worst, it is a blasphemy that makes us an enemy of the LORD. How devastating it is when we see God’s name declared as an advocate by evil and perverse people. They might find some way to rationalize their identify with Him, but they are not experiencing His fellowship. They do not truly know Him. Let us know that God is with us, honoring our worship, by seeking Him and Him alone in a spirit of humility, righteousness, love, and truth.
Amos 5:16-20. Therefore the LORD, the God of hosts, the Lord, saith thus; Wailing shall be in all streets; and they shall say in all the highways, Alas! alas! and they shall call the husbandman to mourning, and such as are skilful of lamentation to wailing. 17And in all vineyards shall be wailing: for I will pass through thee, saith the LORD. 18Woe unto you that desire the day of the LORD! to what end is it for you? the day of the LORD is darkness, and not light. 19As if a man did flee from a lion, and a bear met him; or went into the house, and leaned his hand on the wall, and a serpent bit him. 20Shall not the day of the LORD be darkness, and not light? even very dark, and no brightness in it?
Amos proclaims woe upon those who “desire the day of the LORD.” Again, we must understand that Amos is speaking to those who have not placed their faith in the LORD. He is referring to those who make great proclamations of piety and righteousness that contain many words, but because of their ignorance, contain no true power. They claim to be models of righteousness, yet they know in the center of their hearts that they are not sinless, the only definition of righteousness that they are able to apply under Mosaic Law. Amos describes the dramatic end for people who are in rebellion against the LORD: when the Day of the LORD comes, they will find darkness, not light. They will find wailing, not praise. There is no escape from God’s judgment. Amos paints a visual vignette of one who is being chased by a lion and a bear, who in seeking shelter finds it, only to be then bitten by a serpent. This is the nature of the reward that such hypocrisy can expect.
This hypocrisy is another barrier to worship. Some of that hypocrisy is alluded to in the negative scenario at the beginning of this study. Hypocrisy is demonstrated by acting differently in the presence of the church fellowship than is done in the presence of the world. The Greek equivalent word is used to describe stage acting. Amos’ words to the hypocrites is devastating. The day of the LORD will not be one of rejoicing for the hypocrites, but one of violent and hopeless rejection.
Many, ignorant of the relationship with the LORD that is the primary character of saving faith, claim a form of godliness that they are not empowered to live. They may act like people of faith and use the same language as people of faith, and by so doing be accepted by the faith congregation. However, the LORD knows the heart:
Matt 7:21-23. Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. 22Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? 23And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.
Let us live lives of integrity, growing more like Christ every day, so that we will not be counted among the hypocrites. We surely have seen testimony of the damage to the Kingdom that is done when hypocrisy is part of the church body. It’s most devastating effect is to discourage evangelism, the primary function of the fellowship. When unbelievers see hypocritical believers “acting” righteous in church, they are often turned back from any interest in the Gospel, possibly never to have another opportunity to turn to Christ.
Amos 5:21-22. I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not smell in your solemn assemblies. 22Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your meat offerings, I will not accept them: neither will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts.
Amos’ words quite graphically describe the LORD’s opinion of false worship: He hates it. This places false worship among the most egregious of sins.
The religious ceremonies of the ancient Israelites had become an end to themselves. The people were so out of fellowship with God, their services had become meaningless repetition, and served the desires of the “worshipers” rather than serve as a true expression of humility. Their actions had become so steeped in tradition that the tradition was now the authority among them. Tradition became the God they worshipped, though not even realizing it. Consequently, since their efforts were not sincerely dedicated to the LORD, those efforts and sacrifices are not acceptable to Him.
Another barrier to worship is fruitless tradition. There is nothing wrong with maintaining a tradition that truly helps worshippers to remember and honor God, and many such traditions exist. The ordinances of the Lord’s Supper (the Eucharist) and baptism by immersion are examples of fruitful traditions. Many traditions have provided a stable foundation of worship strategy and process through the ages. We simply need to maintain God as the entire focus of the expression of our traditions, and when a tradition is revealed as empty and counterproductive, we should have the discernment, wisdom, and courage to drop it. It is often difficult to break with tradition when the people cry “We have never done it that way before.” Similar attitudes make change difficult when change is needed. Let us not become so steeped in tradition that we empower that tradition to be a barrier to worship. When we do so it is a tradition enjoyed by satan, not a tradition ordained by God.
Amos 5:23-27. Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols. 24But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream. 25Have ye offered unto me sacrifices and offerings in the wilderness forty years, O house of Israel? 26But ye have borne the tabernacle of your Moloch and Chiun your images, the star of your god, which ye made to yourselves. 27Therefore will I cause you to go into captivity beyond Damascus, saith the LORD, whose name is The God of hosts.
As we read Amos’ words, we might envision a crowd of people singing songs of worship, but doing so without any true desire to sing to the LORD. Martin Luther penned the words, “Music is a fair and glorious gift of God.” This is a gift that the LORD gave us that we can return to Him in a way that brings us inspiration and draws us closer to Him as it helps us to draw our focus away from the world and towards the throne of God’s grace. Yet, even the words and the music are rejected by the LORD when they are not expressed in true worship. Such faithless music may entertain the singers and the audience, producing arousing applause from the audience, but it is not accepted by God. To the LORD the faithless songs and the music are just sin-saturated, worldly noise.
Because of their failure to seek God, the people of Israel faced utter destruction as a nation, a nation that God had promised to Abraham. Consequently, the blessing that was given to Abraham that through him the world would be blessed would fall to the lower Kingdom of Judah, and would be ultimately fulfilled in the village of Bethlehem. Their worship did not honor God, and it was rejected.
By observing the faithless worship of the ancient Israelites, we can learn much about the character of our own worship of the LORD. Recognizing, again, the Amos is not prophesying against the faithful, those who seek the LORD can still find profit in applying this portion of scripture to their lives as it illuminates some of the errors that we often experience in the worship experience, errors that build a wall of separation between where we are and where the LORD desires us to be.
Let us be sensitive to those barriers that would hinder our true worship of the LORD, and seek ways of applying the wisdom of God to overcome them as we seek to honor God in our lives and in our worship, so that God can indeed bless the world through us.