Hear this word
Responsibility and obligation
Although I concluded Amos’ opening message at the close of chapter 2, Ammot continues the thought to the end of Amos 3:2 which seems to round off the idea and causes these two verses almost to be a summary and conclusion to what’s preceded them (Amstu envisages these two verses, however, as possibly used ‘in connection with other oracles’ so that it becomes almost Amos’ calling card to introduce his messages to the nation).
Although I’m not one for sticking rigidly to the chapter divisions as being ‘inspired by God’, I do think that the division is correct in this case for no better reason than I can’t perceive of anything further that could be said after Amos 2:16 that wouldn’t have detracted from the overall message.
It seems to me that the message of judgment and conquest of their land needed to be left ringing in their ears as a warning and that anything else would have been to provide a distraction that could have smoothed over the roughness of the words.
So, Amos 3:1-2 begins a new section - even though Amos 3:3 doesn’t appear to follow on logically from it, for the subsequent passage lays out the simple reason as to why Amos is prophesying the things he does and giving justification to anyone who’s questioning his motives.
Amhub speaks of the prophet continuing
‘...in three rather brief, jabbing speeches, each of which begins with a call to attention, “Hear this word” (3:1, 4:1, 5:1) and each of which ends with a tragic announcement of judgment’
but there doesn’t seem to be a clear reason why we should take the chapter divisions as being demarcations of separate messages that were delivered to the nation at different times for, unlike Amos 1:2-2:16, the overall thrust of each chapter appears disjointed. It seems best not to insist on this division, then, and to deal with the sections as they appear to be - self-contained units - though realising that they will inevitably interrelate.
For now, though, we need to deal with the two verses at hand.
Hear this word
The ‘word’ that YHWH has spoken against them (or, as Ammot, ‘about them’) is contained in the following verse. In verse 1 we’re simply getting an introduction to the message about to be declared - an introduction, incidentally, that’s longer than the message!
He directs the message primarily against the people of Israel - that is, to the people amongst whom he’s now declaring God’s message, but the prophet appears to confuse the issue when he goes on to announce that it’s also spoken
‘...against the whole family which I brought up out of the land of Egypt’
because he seems to widen the vision to include not only the northern kingdom of Israel but the southern kingdom of Judah as well (Judah and Israel were but two aspects, a division, of the people with whom God had covenanted and brought into Canaan - I Kings chapters 11 and 12).
There’s certainly no doubt that God has already spoken a message against the southern kingdom (Amos 2:4-5) so that there’s no reason to think that His words here have to exclude them. Even though the message of Amos is directed primarily against the northern kingdom, when YHWH talks about ‘the whole family’, He must be speaking not only about all the Jews that left Egypt and from whom both north and south kingdoms traced their ancestry, but all those people who covenanted with Him at Sinai.
For we shouldn’t think that only Jews were delivered from Egypt because Ex 12:38 notes the presence of
‘A mixed multitude [that] also went up with them and very many cattle, both flocks and herds’
and, in Num 11:4, after the covenant with YHWH had been sealed, we read that
‘...the rabble that was among them had a strong craving; and the people of Israel also wept again...’
where the rabble is being contrasted with the Israelites. Although ultimately assimilated into Israelite culture and the established nation, they still had as their origin a different genealogical source than the patriarch Jacob.
God, therefore, is speaking about all the descendants of those people who He brought out of Egypt and who covenanted with Him at Sinai (and He speaks of them singularly as ‘the family’ denoting their unity as one people) and this is the reason why the Law frequently expresses the need for the Israelites to instruct the children in the ways of the covenant that was made by the fathers (for example, Deut 4:9-10, 5:29, 6:7, 11:19, 12:25,28. Gen 17:7 establishes the Abramic covenant with Abraham and all his offspring - see my notes on ‘Covenant’).
The covenant had been made with all those present and it was as one man that the nation had responded (Ex 19:3,8), being equally binding upon the children and evidenced in Joshua 14:9 (my italics) where Moses is recorded as having said
‘Surely the land on which your foot has trodden shall be an inheritance for you and your children for ever, because you have wholly followed YHWH my God’
If the covenant had been made only with the fathers, the inheritance would solely have been theirs to pass on as they saw fit but, because the promise is given to the descendants of the fathers, the covenant is equally applicable to all those descended from them.
Responsibility and obligation
I was recently talking to a friend on the Internet and I asked him to complete a sentence for me that I’d type in text in the chat window. I typed out something like
‘I am for you, says God, because I love you and care for you. Therefore...’
It took less than ten seconds to get a response. He sent back
‘...I will bless you and provide for you’
which, logically, is the right response to the line. After all, if someone is going to tell us that they care for us and love us, the automatic idea must be one which demonstrates it towards us in ways that we find both acceptable and pleasurable. However, God doesn’t do that in Amos 3:2.
He begins with a standard word of observation that demonstrates His love for the people to whom the message is coming. He says
‘You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore...’
and they would immediately have thought about the special relationship that existed between themselves and God - how He’d come to them while they were still in bondage in Egypt and delivered them, how He’d led them for forty years in the wilderness and, ultimately, had driven out the people of Canaan so that they’d been able to possess the land upon which they now professed to serve Him.
In short, they weren’t unknowing of the history between themselves and God. So what was He going to do for them now? But YHWH continues
‘...I will punish you for all your iniquities’
Not exactly the conclusion that they would have been expecting to God’s opening words (Amhub also points out that the word from which the RSV gets the verb ‘to punish’ [Strongs Hebrew number 6485] may be equally well translated ‘to visit’ so that the exact nature of the verse might have gone unrealised until the last word ‘iniquities’ had been declared. If so, it must have been an even greater shock. Amhub calls it the ‘entrapment technique’ which is apt).
The problem lay with the ideas of the people as to what lay at the heart of the covenant. They thought that the agreement was one that had been made solely for their own blessing and spiritual uplift - they seemed to think that all they had to do was to worship YHWH in some form or another and that He’d be obliged to care and provide for them (Amos 5:21-23 indicates that they were fairly devout in their worship, too, and didn’t neglect what they felt were their responsibilities in this way).
They simply didn’t realise that the covenant was about responsibilities - both theirs and God’s - and that, even if they weren’t going to keep to their side of the agreement, it wasn’t going to absolve God of His. Being a faithful God, how could He be expected not to keep to His side (Deut 27:15-26 and all of chapter 28)? As Amstu comments
‘The oracle stresses not Israel’s covenantal accountability but Yahweh’s’
Although the Israelites might imagine that the function of a god was to protect the people who had a form of worship for him or her, Amhub is right when he speaks of the covenant made that
‘...exposes them to judgment rather than exempting them from it’
A place of privilege before YHWH isn’t a life assurance policy whose premiums are settled with sacrifices and contributions to His service so that continued prosperity and security will be assured. Rather, it demands obedience to the covenant and, if no obedience, judgment has to necessarily follow.
The Hebrew word that the RSV renders as ‘You only have I known’ (Strongs Hebrew number 3045) has such a wide range of meanings where it’s used in the OT that it defies an adequate definition here of the way that it’s meant to be understood. However, something that’s intimate is surely being implied here (though Amstu defines it as ‘specially related to’) where the idea isn’t of a god who sits separated from the nation’s life but One who gets intimately involved in the day to day affairs of the nation.
In that sense, the message has come to them from within the nation itself because God has been watching and observing the people, taking careful note of the intentions of the heart and will. It’s only out of that intimacy, then - that care for them that would be demonstrated as God moved among them - that the declaration of judgment could rightfully fall.
We may, indeed, feel sorry for the inability of the Israelites, the OT Church of God, to fully perceive these matters, but why does the Church of the present day think that the God who doesn’t change will deal with His people of the New Covenant any differently?
While we hear God’s declarations of undying love towards us, we seem to only be able to accept that the conclusion of such words has to be that He’ll do something that will thrill us to the very core of our being (Amstu is quite wrong here to equate the word directed to the Israelites as something which applies to the unsaved of the present day - the message of Amos came to the OT Church and, if to anybody it’s still relevant, it must be to the NT one. Otherwise, we should apply the words of restoration solely to the unsaved and strip ourselves of any right to participate in their fulfilment).
In all the prophetic words that I’ve ever heard delivered throughout my time of knowing Him, I’ve never once heard a message like the first two verses of Amos where the prophet equates God’s commitment to the covenant as needing a work of judgment against His people.
There may be radically wrong actions taking place in the local churches (and, believe me, there have been in the places I’ve been) but God seems to only ever be able to speak to His people in terms of blessing when He describes what He’s going to do for them next.
But I Peter 4:17 isn’t written to be glossed over. Although it stops short of saying that God is doing the judging, if His hand isn’t with His people in the judging, no benefit would ever come out of it. Speaking of tribulation directed at believers by outsiders, Peter writes that
‘...the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God?’
But Heb 12:5-6 (a quote from Prov 3:11-12) is more blatant a Scripture because it speaks of God ‘punishing’ His people, of ‘disciplining’ them because He loves them, of ‘chastising’ them because they’re His sons. In the Laodicean church also, when God seems to have no good thing to say about them, He announces (Rev 3:19)
‘Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten; so be zealous and repent’
where His love is outworked into aspects that we’d rather not think could possibly be His will for us. Ammot, quoting Mays, writes an illuminative statement that
‘To be chosen is to be put under judgment’
and so it appears, for the judgment of God that was taken for us on the cross to bring us near to the presence of God must continue to work out to its full conclusion so that we may, by nature, demonstrate what it means to be the children of God that we’re justified into.
One final NT Scripture is worth noting here for it sits at the summary of Paul’s teaching on the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (I Cor 11:17-34), a passage which has long been twisted by denominations to mask the obvious truth that God is displeased when the rich brethren (or, better, ‘relatively better off’ in case we think it’s relevant only for those who own two cars) don’t supply the needs of the poor because they fail to discern the Body of Christ (not when society doesn’t take from the rich and give to the poor, but when the rich in Christ grow fat on their possessions while the poor go hungry).
What they were doing in microcosm in their celebration of Jesus’ death (a methodology which we’ve failed to realise means that we celebrate communion every time we eat together and that it isn’t confined to ten minutes on a Sunday morning) was simply a reflection of something that was taking place on a much larger scale in their lives.
Speaking of God’s judgment of His people who’ve sinned in this manner (something that we don’t like to dwell upon for too long, it has to be said), Paul writes (I Cor 11:32) that
‘...when we are judged by the Lord, we are chastened so that we may not be condemned along with the world’
God’s hand against His people, then, is for their benefit and blessing and shouldn’t be thought of solely in terms of negativity. He will come against His people to purify them so that they might not stand condemned before Him like those who live in the world.
And that’s good news - though, to the present day Church, it’s news that no one wants to hear and, certainly, no one wants to be the channel through whom the message is to come. Indeed, very few of us ever perceive that God could proclaim His love for us and, in the same breath, announce that He’s about to judge us.
Surely all the judgment that was necessary was on the cross?
But a people who continue in sin and who don’t turn from it to be more like Jesus Christ are a people who need to be woken up to what God thinks of it. Therefore, judgment must come.
Just as it was in the days of Amos, so must it be today in the Church.
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