Seek Me and live
Seek God, not the House of God
This chapter isn’t easy to divide into sections that need dealing with on their own for there seems to be a flow of thought, digressions and a return to themes that are intersected by passages that need individual treatment.
However, I’ve decided to take Amos 5:4-5 as a unit because, after it’s conclusion, Amos 5:6-15 seems to be a direct speech from Amos the prophet to his hearers, his own reflection upon the message that had been entrusted to him by YHWH.
Even though we’ve seen on previous pages that some commentators have been at pains to try and introduce a note of ‘grace’ - an opportunity given to Israel to repent of their ways and deeds - it’s been lacking. Although some would take the words and explain them as having alternate meanings, the context of God’s overall message has been one of condemnation from a description of the sin of the nation followed by details of the judgment that’s about to fall upon them.
Nowhere has either God or the prophet given Israel an opportunity to turn from its ways, back into an obedient relationship with YHWH. That is, until Amos 5:4 when God Himself exhorts them to
‘Seek Me and live…’
the prophet himself going on to echo the message by encouraging them (Amos 5:6) to
‘Seek YHWH and live…’
before God once more takes up the call to the nation (Amos 5:14) to
‘Seek good, and not evil, that you may live…’
This passage, therefore, marks the beginning of God’s appeal to His people and demonstrates to them that the judgment previously described can be averted if they take it to heart and change their ways.
There’s a contrast here that needs noting carefully. We shouldn’t think that YHWH has spoken words that He’s going to leave hanging in the air for their own interpretation and application - in Amos 5:5, He spells out what seeking Him is not because the way they may try and find Him is a way that’s diametrically opposed to His will.
He tells them not to seek Bethel, Gilgal or Beersheba because what takes place there will only lead to destruction, it will lead them only to emptiness.
It’s quite something when God says to His people ‘stop worshipping me the way you’re doing’, isn’t it?
We saw on a previous web page what the significance of both Gilgal and Bethel were and how, even though they’d been generally Scripturally sound, their service was rejected. No matter that they were tithing properly or giving freewill offerings to God, no matter that they were sacrificing frequently and giving thanks - these were rites that were pleasing to the nation but they were a foul stench to YHWH (Amos 4:4-5) who desired justice and righteousness in their dealings with their fellow believers (Amos 5:24), who wanted (Hosea 6:6)
‘…steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings’
Therefore God gives them an opportunity to repent - to leave behind them religion and, instead, be restored into a relationship that would overflow into righteousness before Him.
Seek Me and live
Just what does ‘seeking God’ mean in this context?
We saw above that God has taken great care to inform the Israelites that seeking Him is not religious activity at Bethel, Gilgal or Beersheba for such activities are empty and meaningless and will lead them into a fulfilment of the judgment that’s already been spoken against the nation.
That’s all well and good - and an integral part of the exhortation to return to Him - but what does God expect them to do to seek Him in order that they might gain life?
This verse doesn’t say.
There’s a parallel passage in Amos 5:6 where the prophet speaks and exhorts his listeners to
‘Seek YHWH and live...’
but he goes on from there not to outline either what they should or shouldn’t do but to observe that, if they don’t seek God, judgment will fall upon them. The solution, though, is found in Amos 5:14-15 where the prophet is again speaking, telling the Israelites to
‘Seek good - and not evil - that you may live...’
where ‘good’ is a substitute for God Himself here and ‘evil’ is a summary of all those things that the Israelites are doing that has turned Him against them. Notice that ‘Seek YHWH and live’ is identical in meaning to ‘Seek good and live’ and the ‘evil’ is specifically outworked in the details of Amos 5:5 which tells them not to go to the recognised worship centres both within and outside the land of Israel.
Amos continues in the next verse by saying virtually the same thing but using different terminology. He declares
‘Hate evil and love good...’
before going on to explain himself, encouraging the Israelites to
‘...establish justice in the gate...’
Whereas the children of God had not only failed to give true justice but had oppressed the poor and weak (Amos 2:6-8), they’re now commanded to change their ways and to render true judgments and give justice in all their decisions. What God expects them to do is no more or less than what they’ve already done the opposite of (Amos 5:7) – having turned justice into wormwood, they’re now expected to turn it back.
What that means is that seeking God and seeking good in this context is righteous living. It doesn’t mean getting down on one’s knees and petitioning God - just as it wouldn’t mean that to Isaiah in Is 1:15-17 where God declares that He refuses to hear their prayers but, rather, that they’re to
‘...cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow’
Seeking God in this context also doesn’t mean spending more time in the places where God is said to inhabit, giving to God more than one is wont to do, thinking pure spiritual thoughts, meditating on the Scriptures or making sure that you’ve done all the religious rites as they’re laid down in the Bible.
To return to God is to start doing good.
Because the nation had forsaken God by oppression and robbery, seeking God can only be achieved by correcting that oppression and giving back what’s been stolen - it’s a totally different idea than we’re used to but it’s the only way that opportunity might be made for God to turn from pouring out the judgment upon them (Amos 5:15) and to
‘...be gracious to the remnant of Joseph’
God, therefore, has just become practical.
In Eph 4:28, Paul outworks this principal into the life of the thief who’s been converted to Christ. He exhorts the Ephesians that the thief should
‘...no longer steal, but rather let him labour, doing honest work with his hands so that he may be able to give to those in need’
In other words, where he’d once made a need, he’s now being expected to meet one. One of the ways for his salvation to be outworked in their midst is for him to make amends for the wrong and to do the exact opposite of what you’d expect him to have done before he was saved.
So, if a fellowship should be in the same position as was the Church of Amos’ day, the same ‘rules’ apply. God doesn’t necessarily expect for the leadership to proclaim a fast to seek God’s face because ‘evil’ has come upon them. He doesn’t expect some great outward show of emotion and exuberance to demonstrate to Him that they want to change.
What YHWH expects is for there to be practical turn round.
Have the leadership been putting down the people who have the anointing and authority from God upon their lives? Then they must make an opening for them to declare His message. Have they honoured the rich and put down the poor? Then they must elevate each and every believer to the same place and respect every individual as God’s own handiwork. Have they been taking from the congregation for their own ends and profit? Then they must put their hands into their pockets and begin to meet the need of those who have insufficient resources.
Seeking God, then, in the context of a church that’s about to be judged by God, is to change - to do those things which are the exact opposite of what it’s been doing to bring the judgment upon them. And it’s this that’s a true reflection of what it means to ‘repent’.
The commentators aren’t without their own interpretations of what it means to seek God, however, but their illumination is generally so ambiguous as to fog the details. After all, if Israel were going to be able to ‘seek YHWH’, it’s important that we understand what that actually meant in real terms.
Amhub defines ‘seeking God’ as
‘...to call on Him for help and to cling to Him in loyalty’
but this fails to tell us just what sort of reaction Israel was expected to demonstrate - they’re fine words but they’re mere generalisations rather than specifics. Is the nation to call upon Him to help them live righteously or to help them against the judging army that will come upon them? Is clinging to Him in loyalty meant to be a reversion to the sacrificial centre in Jerusalem or to serve no other gods except YHWH alone?
Amhub doesn’t say - his words are too vague. What’s needed is to know what he thinks the practical outworking of these are but they go unmentioned in his text - although, because of the discussion above, we could add explanatory notes and render the sentence that seeking God is
‘...to call on Him for help to live righteously and to cling to Him in loyalty by helping the poor and needy’
On the other hand, Amstu states that Israel (my italics) is being
‘...adjured to conform their actions in some way to the severity of the loss being lamented...’
but even he doesn’t spit out what that ‘way’ might be. He further goes on that
‘God invited a reaction: the choice between Himself and mere cultic activity. It is not the process of religion but the person of God that Israel must seek...’
All this does, however is to affirm what seeking God isn’t (it isn’t worshipping at Bethel, Gilgal or Beersheba) and to say that the alternative is to go after the ‘person of God’. In other words, he hasn’t defined what the attitude is that would fulfil the command to seek God.
Ammot doesn’t address the issue head on but comments on the two verses (my italics) that
‘There was something about the whole Bethel syndrome which inhibited the pilgrims from experiencing the reality which Bethel was supposed to be all about, the life-giving presence of the Lord’
The problem here is that ‘seeking God’ is being paralleled with ‘the life-giving presence of the Lord’ but there’s no details as to how both the prophet and God Himself was expecting the people to go about receiving it.
As we’ve seen above, however, seeking God is practical - not mystical and certainly not religious. When His people have set themselves to do evil in His sight, to transgress what’s plainly obvious to be His will, He expects them to seek Him by living right - by changing their ways and to start doing those things which were diametrically opposed to what has caused the announcement of judgment.
The bottom line, then, is that seeking God is doing His will in practical righteous living.
On a previous web page, I dealt with the worship centres of both Bethel and Gilgal, including articles on each of the places for the reader to understand their significance.
The reader should access those notes for the relevant background but, in summary, the religious importance of each of the places was as follows.
Bethel’s was that it was a place that had extreme significance in the life of Jacob, the patriarch who was renamed ‘Israel’. It was here that Jacob had had the vision of the ladder extending up to Heaven upon which the angels of God were ascending and descending (Gen 28:10-22), renaming the place ‘Bethel’. It was here also that he came offer sacrifice upon an altar that he built for the purpose years later (Gen 35:5-7). That Jacob had vowed that the place would be ‘God’s house’ must surely have stayed with the Israelites who may have seen a fulfilment in their own lifetime when Jeroboam originally sanctified the place for the worship of YHWH in opposition to the Temple in Jerusalem, some 12 miles south.
Gilgal’s significance, on the other hand, was that it was the place of encampment when the Israelites had first set foot in the land (Joshua 4:19), from here they went out on military missions against the land (Joshua 9:6, 10:15,43), it was here that Canaan was parcelled out to the tribes (Joshua 14:6) and here that the Tabernacle must have stayed for a great amount of time (Judges 2:1 has the angel of YHWH coming from Gilgal - that is, from God’s presence).
So, Bethel and Gilgal were extremely important historically as places where God had once moved and, without which, Israel wouldn’t have been the people they were at the present.
However, it isn’t just Bethel and Gilgal that hold significance for the Israelites, for here in Amos 5:5 we see the first mention of Beersheba in the context of it being a place of pilgrimage to which the Israelites were travelling.
Indeed, it’s of an unusual significance simply because they were ‘crossing over’ to the place, going over the boundaries of their own land into the territory of Judah whereas both Bethel and Gilgal lay within the territorial boundaries of the northern kingdom.
Not only this but the round trip from the southern borders of Israel represented a journey of about 100 miles, a significant journey in the ancient world and one that would have taken the best part of a week to complete even if one could travel quickly - if you were physically injured, impaired or had family to bring with you, the journey would have taken significantly longer.
Why didn’t they simply go to Jerusalem where God had caused His name to be remembered and where the ‘official’ centre had been built? Indeed, the most logical and easiest route to get there for the majority of the settled Israelites seems to have been to travel through Jerusalem, following the hills due south from Shechem and then south-west from the capital until the sanctuary was arrived at.
They could neither have ignored nor avoided Solomon’s Temple, but their faces seem to have been so set towards Beersheba that they saw only the destination of their pilgrimage and continued without distraction until they finally reached it.
But why was Beersheba so significant?
Because it had very close associations with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (later renamed ‘Israel’ from whom they took their national name).
It was here that Abraham had a dispute with Abimelech over a well (Gen 21:22-33) and, because of this, the area got its name ‘Beersheba’ which means, by translation, either ‘Well of seven’, ‘Well of the oath’ or even, because of a later incident, ‘Well of abundance’ (Gen 26:33). It may have been that one of the wells that was being used in Amos’ day was still thought of as being the one that Abraham dug but the significance of the place to the Israelite is probably better explained in the fact that it was here (Gen 21:33) that
‘Abraham planted a tamarisk tree...and called there on the name of YHWH, the Everlasting God’
It was here also that he appears to have dwelt a considerable length of time (Gen 21:34, 22:19).
Isaac also came to Beersheba after some squabbling over who owned wells (Gen 26:17-22) where YHWH appeared to him in the night (Gen 26:23-24) and, significantly (Gen 26:25), he
‘...built an altar there and called upon the name of YHWH...’
dwelling there for a while and entering into covenant with the scheming Abimelech. Isaac’s servants also dug a well here (Gen 26:32) and it was here that the disputes between Jacob and Esau took place (Gen 27:1-28:9) that resulted in Jacob fleeing for his life towards Haran (Gen 28:10).
When Jacob’s family set themselves to migrate to Joseph in Egypt, they stopped at Beersheba (Gen 46:1-4) where he
‘...offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac’
It would seem, then, that because Isaac had set up an altar here because God had appeared to him, Jacob felt constrained to offer sacrifice to the God that he’d worshipped - it’s possible that he had the idea that He was limited to the geographic location (or so runs the inference of the text for it’s said not that he worshipped his own God, the God of Bethel, but his father’s, the God of Beersheba), but it’s perhaps better to understand the statement that Jacob was simply honouring the revelation his father had had here and that he recognised that Isaac’s God was his own.
But Jacob received a personal revelation (Gen 46:2-4), assuring him that He’d be with him in Egypt and keep him safe until he arrived for
‘...Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes’
So, then, it was here that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob/Israel all had experiences before God, the first two both setting up an altar on which to offer sacrifice while Jacob offered sacrifice in passing and received a vision, reassuring him that YHWH would be with him.
Beersheba then disappears from Scripture until the Israelites return to the land and the city is apportioned out for an inheritance to Simeon (Joshua 19:1-2) who were given territory within the land of Judah (Joshua 19:1) which is why the city originally appears listed as belonging to them (Joshua 15:20,28).
The phrase ‘from Dan to Beersheba’ was used to denote the full extent of the land upon which the Israelites had settled because the latter was the largest city of the south and the former the largest in the north (Judges 20:1, I Sam 3:20, II Sam 3:10, 17:11, 24:2,15, I Kings 4:25, I Chron 21:2) though, after the division of the nation into two, Judah would speak of its own territory as being extended ‘from Geba to Beersheba’ (II Kings 23:8 - under king Josiah) for a mile or so north of Geba lay the Israelite border which was controlled by the settled Assyrians (II Kings 17:24).
Before this in Jehoshaphat’s day, the phrase seems to have been ‘from Beersheba to the hill country of Ephraim’ (II Chr 19:4).
When Hezekiah tried to bring back all the Israelites to a pure worship of YHWH, he sent his messengers from ‘Dan to Beersheba’ (II Chron 30:5) which would have encompassed foreign territory but was aimed at all the Jews who were resident within the accepted boundaries of the ancient inheritance.
Upon the exiles’ return, the territory of Judah in which they re-settled (Neh 11:25) was described as being an area from ‘Beersheba to the valley of Hinnom’ (Neh 11:30 - the latter valley bounds the city of Jerusalem on the south), from south to north. It would appear that Beersheba was always used figuratively for the southernmost expansion of the allotted inheritance.
But nothing much is actually said to have happened in this place from the time of settlement under Joshua to the re-establishing of the Israelites after the Babylonian exile. It’s occasionally mentioned (I Sam 8:2, I Kings 19:3, II Kings 12:1, II Chr 24:1) but there’s no indication that the place had any real significance in the affairs of the nation.
Perhaps it was because the city was more of a ‘backwater’ than an integral part of Judahite life that the Israelites felt safe to journey here, though the reason for their pilgrimage seems to be the events that had taken place in the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
It seems impossible to imagine that there wasn’t an altar here upon which the Israelites would have offered sacrifice even though Amos 5:5 doesn’t say as much. When Beersheba is mentioned again in Amos 8:14, however, the phrase employed shows that oaths were taken in the name of the deity who was considered to inhabit the place (and it could well have thought to have been YHWH for we’ve no reason to suppose otherwise) - it’s inconceivable that sacrifice wouldn’t have been offered.
Besides, archaeology has been able to recover a substantial altar here made of sandstone that measured 63 inches high, wide and deep, a cubed structure that had a horn on each of its four corners (although the altar may have extended to approximately 108 inches in length as other stones were recovered). In the May/June 1995 edition of ‘Biblical Archaeology Review’ in the article entitled ‘10 Great Finds’, the author notes that, instead of it being found in tact but buried, the excavators found
‘…several large, carefully dressed stones…incorporated into the walls and fill under a rampart dating to the late eighth century BC. When gathered together, these stones formed a cubical altar… Sacrifices had apparently been burnt on the altar, for the top stones were blackened’
Because the altar wasn’t found in its archaeological context, not much can be understood about the setting in which it was used but that it couldn’t have been used after the close of the eighth century points to the date of its destruction as being in the reign of Hezekiah (726-697BC - taken from my dates here) included only vaguely in the descriptions of his reforms (II Kings 18:4 Cp v.22).
Although a more specific reference to the defiling of altars occurs in the reign of Josiah (II Kings 23:8 - and it mentions Beersheba specifically in the extent of his work), his reign is too late for him to be thought of as responsible for the discovered altar (640-609BC).
The problem with Beersheba was that the Israelites imagined that God’s presence in the past was a guarantee of His continued presence in the present. As I commented on my previous web page that dealt with the sanctuaries at Bethel and Gilgal (see there for a development and application of this observation to the present day Church at the end of the article ‘Gilgal’)
‘Both sites (Bethel and Gilgal) reminded the Israelites of what God had once done in times past and, thinking upon this, they would have reasoned that the place was “holy” and that there was every indication that God would also be there in the present...’
God appears to stop short of pronouncing judgment against Beersheba because it was located in the southern kingdom of Judah. Although he talks about Gilgal going in to exile and of Bethel coming to nothing, the time has not yet come to judge Beersheba. Instead he just urges them not to cross over the border to go there.
Seek God, not the House of God
If we translate the name of Bethel in these two verses, we hear God urging His disobedient children
‘Seek me and live - but do not seek the House of God…’
a timely word for today’s generation of believers for we tend to think of our attendance at services as being a religious duty that contributes towards our salvation - indeed, to make the point more important, we label our buildings as ‘Houses of God’ and insist that God comes to take up residence there to meet with the gathering together of His believers.
Of course, this is far from the truth and is simply a reversion to OT principles that have been fulfilled and abolished in the new. It was during the time of the Old Covenant that God took up residence within the Tabernacle, in the Holy of Holies where no man was allowed to come except the high priest once a year to atone for the sins of the nation (Leviticus chapter 16).
When the Temple was built under Solomon, God’s presence took up residence there so that worshippers were expected to come to Him in Jerusalem to offer sacrifice (Deut 14:23, 16:6, I Kings 8:12-13). But, when Jesus breathed His last on the cross, the veil of the Temple was torn in two (Mtw 27:51) indicating not just that there was freedom of access into His presence but that God was not going to be limited any more by being constricted to a single location where worship would be offered.
Instead of men and women coming to a Temple where His presence dwelt, they would be temples themselves inside whom the presence of God would take up residence (I Cor 3:16-17, 6:19, II Cor 6:16). To think of the believer in the NT as coming to a place where God dwells isn’t just a fallacy, it’s a denial of the work of Christ on the cross and through the resurrection and ascension, a lie that’s either satanic or fleshy in origin.
And how badly it’s misled the Church, too!
People feel compelled to come to the ‘House of God’ for their ‘fix’, as a rite of passage instead of receiving from God what they need in their own houses or in the supermarket when they meet a fellow believer by the frozen peas (though I must point out that there’s nothing inherently spiritual about frozen vegetables).
Most fellowships will announce that God’s presence dwells in the individual believers (though some people confuse just who is and who isn’t saved by thinking that the confession of mere verbal formulae is what makes a person a disciple of Christ) but their insistence that the building is the ‘House of God’, that the front of the seated area is ‘the altar’ where God meets with His people (and various other OT labels), only deny it.
And how we pamper the building, too, with decorations renewed frequently, chairs removed if they look shabby and, sometimes, entire seating plans scrapped to make way for something ‘better’. Pulpits are replaced with more acceptable styles and materials, and carpets that wouldn’t look out of place in palaces and laid out for all to see.
And all because we think that it’s right to beautify ‘God’s House’ - and so it is.
But the building where we meet isn’t God’s House at all.
Instead of the building being subservient to the will of God, it becomes of prime importance and, if anyone should ever speak of using it for an alternate function other than ‘worship’ or of selling it and moving into private houses, it’s taken to be on a par with selling God for financial gain.
Not so when we cheat our brothers, of course - when we undermine how God wants to use them, when we put them down and favour others who are more appealing. Or when, as leaders, we use their contributions to further our own aims and to build the Empires upon which we take our place as kings.
The truth is, though, you could drive a JCB through the building and God wouldn’t turn an eye - you do something similar to a believer and God’s anger will burn because you’ve attacked His Temple.
God’s message to the Israelites of the OT to seek Him by living just and righteous lives from day to day rather than to go after the House where religious rites were performed is particularly relevant to the present day Church - our current false belief and practice could easily be rectified, of course, by abandoning our love affair with bricks and cement and, instead, turning to a love of the brethren.
But we’re so caught up in the building that, perhaps, the only realistic option we have to cut ourselves away from the idolatry is to take the JCB spoken of earlier and level the place.
GO TO AMOS PAGE