Fire in the house of Joseph
1. Amos 5:6
2. Amos 5:7
I know your transgressions
1. Israel’s sin
2. Israel’s judgment
3. The prudent
Trying to determine the correct divisions for chapter 5 of Amos so that the teaching isn’t fragmented has not been the easiest of tasks. I decided to use this ten verse division because, in the end, it seemed to me that they were more likely to be the words of the prophet and, as such, needed to be kept together.
Even within this section, it’s difficult to deal with the message verse by verse because of the way it’s structured. For example, the exhortation to seek God occurs twice (Amos 5:6,14) separated from one another by many different ideas - is it best to deal with them separately or as two aspects of the one message? And the ‘hymn’ that occurs in Amos 5:8-9 seems to be a parenthesis inserted in between two passages that would have flowed better together without it. Should the ‘hymn’ be dealt with on its own and the two passages harmonised into one passage?
These are difficult matters to decide upon when it comes to writing a commentary because the last thing one wants to achieve is a dichotomy of the same teaching under two different headers that are separated widely apart - it’s better to keep themes together if they’re meant to be one.
Other commentators seem to also have difficulty trying to divide this chapter up into manageable chunks.
Amhub sticks Amos 5:6-7 onto the end of the previous two verses and treats them as one specific passage and there’s good reason for this - the sanctuary at Bethel is mentioned in both places as well as the exhortation to seek God and live (even though God speaks personally in 5:4 while the third person is used in 5:6 indicating a change in the one who’s speaking).
Ammot, on the other hand, divides the chapter at this point into a section which encompasses Amos 5:6-13, thus cutting away the final two verses of the prophet’s discourse to attach them to the next direct speech from God (5:16). Amstu simply uses the first seventeen verses of the chapter as one section with no attempt at subsections.
Amos the prophet has only ‘spoken’ for himself in Amos 4:13 and 5:1-2 - three consecutive verses that are an integral part of the message. The same can be said here for we aren’t just looking at affirmations of the message that he’s already delivered but he takes the time to pronounce judgment (5:6,11), to judge the nation for what they’re doing (5:7,10-12) and to exhort the Israelites to change from their ways into right living (5:15).
In short, the personal message of Amos is every bit as full as God’s and it isn’t meant to be disregarded because it’s second rate or only ‘supporting’. As I said in the introduction to the commentary, the prophet is one with the message of YHWH so that he speaks out not only what God says but what he himself also feels about the nation.
As such, whether we read the words of the prophet or the direct voice of God, we’re hearing God’s full message where each would be incomplete without the other.
Fire in the house of Joseph
These two verses contain an exhortation by the prophet to the Israelites to seek God and choose life (5:6), a conditional consequence in case his words aren’t heeded (5:6) and a description of the character of the people to whom the message is coming (5:7).
I’ve dealt with what it means to seek God in the context of Amos’ message on the previous web page under the header ‘Seek Me and live’ where I used all the commands to seek God in chapter 5 to attempt a definition of what it was that God expected as a response. The reader should access that article for a further discussion.
1. Amos 5:6
I prefer to use most of Amstu’s translation of Amos 5:6 (with my changes noted in the square brackets) for the RSV seems unintentionally difficult to understand at this point. He simplifies it down to be saying that God is to be sought
‘…lest He [break out like fire in] the [house] of Joseph and consume Bethel with no one to quench it’
where the fire that starts in the nation is seen to have its ultimate end of destroying the sanctuary at Bethel. The prophet isn’t saying that only Bethel will be destroyed but that the concluding act of destruction will be what takes place at the sanctuary in Bethel (for background to the importance of the sanctuary at Bethel, see here under ‘Bethel’).
Amstu points out that the label ‘house of Joseph’ should strictly be taken to incorporate only the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh (the two sons of Joseph who became tribes with distinct geographic inheritances in Canaan) and this is the way it’s used, for example, in Joshua 17:17.
However, the ‘house of Joseph’ could also be used to refer to descendants of Israel who weren’t born into the tribes of either Manasseh or Ephraim. When Shimei the Benjaminite comes to David as he returns to Jerusalem (II Sam 19:16) he declares himself to be
‘…the first of all the house of Joseph’
even though he’s plainly nothing to do with Joseph’s lineage.
And, in Zech 10:6 (see also Ezek 37:19), we read of the house of Joseph that’s contrasted with Judah where the two standing together makes one understand that the prophet means the entire northern and southern kingdoms and not simply three tribes of the twelve descended from Jacob (the two from Joseph and the one of Judah).
The first king of Israel was an Ephraimite, Jeroboam the son of Nebat (I Kings 11:26, 12:20), in fulfilment of the promise made to all the descendants of Joseph (Deut 33:16) that the blessing of YHWH would come upon
‘…the crown of the head of him that is prince among his brothers’
It seems logical, therefore, that even though non-Ephraimites succeeded to the throne, that the northern kingdom was thought of as being specifically that which belonged to Joseph. It would seem better, therefore, to accept the label ‘house of Joseph’ to refer to all the northern kingdom of Israel, rather than to limit it to the descendants of the two sons of Joseph.
Amstu’s reason for seeing it as a reference only to the two tribes, though, is clever for it would incorporate the two sanctuaries at Bethel and Gilgal within their boundaries (both of which are mentioned in Amos 5:5) but exclude Beersheba which lay within the southern kingdom and the tribal allotment of Simeon.
However, whether we take the label to mean all of Israel or just Ephraim and Manasseh territory, the point is the same.
Up until this point, God’s judgment upon His people has been prophesied as being external to the land - that is, when it’s about to be fulfilled, they would see the advance of an enemy army who would be unopposable as they swept the length and breadth of the nation destroying whatever stood in its way (Amos 2:13-16, 3:11, 4:2-3, 5:3).
Even when internal destruction is mentioned (such as the judgment against the altars of Bethel - Amos 3:14), the context of the message to date is that such a time will be brought about by an external enemy amongst whom God marches against His own people.
While it’s true that God’s already indicated that He’s been at work within the nation in previous years to attempt to wake them up to their spiritual state before Him (Amos 4:6-11), the judgment that’s about to fall is described in terms that sees their origin as being external to the land.
Amos 5:6, however, changes all that for the prophet sees a fire that’s kindled within the nation that will consume it with none able to extinguish the blaze (the translation I’ve chosen states that the fire will be kindled ‘in the house of Joseph’ - I’m aware that there are a multitude of different interpretations of the correct meaning of the phrase, from seeing the fire as starting outside the land, of moving through the land or of beginning within it, but that God starts fires within a place is verified by other Scriptures - Jer 17:27, 21:14, 43:12, 49:27, 50:32, Ezek 20:47 though see especially Lam 2:3 and 4:11).
Whereas God had proclaimed that He was kindling a fire within the strongholds of the nations (Amos 1:4,7,10,12,14, 2:2,5) so as to remove their protection from them, He turns to kindle a flame in the very heart of the nation of Israel.
What’s important to the current verse is to try and understand what sort of ‘internal’ fire was meant by Amos. We can be certain from what’s already gone before that God was planning to judge the nation by an army who would come upon the land and carry the people away into exile but their descent upon the land wasn’t to be from within - there’s no way that they could have been considered to have been a fire that had been kindled within the nation that burnt through it consuming everything.
In the reign of Jeroboam II (the king in whose reign Amos was prophesying), the nation of Israel had been able to both expand its territory and grow more prosperous due to the weakening of those nations round about her (I’ve mentioned the significance of Jeroboam’s reign on my web page here under the header ‘Jeroboam’) and to the king’s recovery of certain territories.
Both this and his extensive 41 year reign (793-753BC) caused Israel to develop international trading links and to become more politically secure upon the land than it had ever been in its history.
However, when Jeroboam finally died, the next four kings reigned for a total of no more than 13 years, the first two not being able to see out a year between them. Indeed, until the fall of Samaria in 722BC, a total of six kings reigned in 31 years (an average of 5.16 years) and represented five different dynasties (83%).
We’ll consider this period in a moment but, if we ignore Jeroboam’s reign, the first twelve kings of Israel had reigned for a total of 143 years (an average of 11.92 years) but were only represented by four dynasties (33%).
Even if we didn’t have more details to hand, we’d have to conclude that, politically, there was unrest in the land after Jeroboam’s death. Jeroboam’s son lasted just six months and was overthrown by his murder (II Kings 15:10) while the new king, Shallum, fared even worse by lasting a single month before he, too, was murdered when Menahem took over the rule (II Kings 15:13-14).
We may look upon Menahem’s reign and think that ten years (II Kings 15:17) is a sufficient time in which to settle a nation and to continue the policies that had seen Israel’s expansion under Jeroboam, but the king of Assyria invaded the land and was paid off with fifty talents of silver to secure the throne (II Kings 15:19) evidence enough that there was no real stability in the land and that another political coup was probably constantly feared.
Even so, he taxed the rich to pay for his rule (II Kings 15:20) thus making the kingdom financially poorer - with Assyrian backing, however, his throne continued for ten years. Pekahiah, his son, managed to succeed his father but only lasted two years until he also was murdered by Pekah (II Kings 15:25) who installed himself as the new king, reigning for twenty years.
Even though this was an extensive reign and one in which we might imagine there was a recovery of stability, this doesn’t appear to have been the case for II Kings 15:29 relates how the Assyrian king Tiglathpileser
‘...came and captured Ijon, Abelbethmaacah, Janoah, Kedesh, Hazor, Gilead and Galilee, all the land of Naphtali; and he carried the people captive to Assyria’
In other words, the extremities of the land over which Jeroboam had established his rule and from which his throne had become more prosperous were annexed into the control of Assyria. His twenty year reign, therefore, couldn’t have been one of security, for the people must have been expecting - at any time - news to reach them of the enemy armies advancing further into their land and removing their brethren.
He did attempt to overthrow Jerusalem with the help of the king of Syria (II Kings 16:5) but that ended in defeat, for the Assyrians were hired against them (II Kings 16:7-9) and took possession of Damascus, the capital of his ally, after which, it’s presumed, Pekah found himself on his own and with insufficient military strength to consider that his continued siege of Jerusalem would be likely to gain him victory.
It would be logical to think of the conquering of Syria to have preceded the taking of Israelite land for Syria would have been a good base from which to gradually overthrow Israelite control.
Finally, Hoshea rose up and murdered Pekah (II Kings 15:30) and reigned in his place for the final nine years of Israel’s existence (II Kings 17:1). Although it might be thought that Hoshea was able to reign independently of the events around him, II Kings 17:3-6 informs us that the reason for the conquest of the kingdom (or, rather, of what was left of it) was that Hoshea rebelled at paying tribute to the Assyrians.
In other words, Hoshea was simply ruling a vassal state that was being taxed heavily by the Assyrian kingdom. Instead of being able to increase its own wealth, it’s more likely it was growing poorer.
From the evidence we have in the Scriptures, it seems correct to accept that civil unrest and regnal instability broke down the security and prosperity that had come in Jeroboam’s reign, the king under which Amos prophesied.
And, therefore, the fire that’s spoken of in Amos 5:6 as breaking out in the house of Joseph was this turmoil that removed prosperity and security in such a short space of time that the final 31 years of the kingdom of Israel were times of increasing anguish and poverty.
The fire that began upon Jeroboam’s death continued throughout the years until the final Assyrian conquest of the land and was extended for a significant amount of years afterwards until, finally, the sanctuary of Bethel was desecrated by Josiah during his reign.
There’s no evidence, either, to suggest that the altar of Bethel was destroyed but, rather, it may simply have been abandoned when the Assyrians invaded and, as I stated on a previous web page, the statements about the horns being cut off has a more symbolic meaning than literal where the Israelites are being warned that they’ll find no protection in YHWH on the day that the judgment was to fall. When God warns the Israelites in Amos 5:5 that
‘…Bethel will come to nought’
He means just that - there’ll be nothing of any relevance or importance to come from their seeking after Bethel when they most needed it. If emptiness was to be the result of their service of YHWH there, then there was no point in running to the place and thinking that God’s favour was being won. For all their religious zeal and fervour, emptiness would be the result. Both the place and the service at Bethel would be shown up for what they were - devoid of any real substance that was able to deliver them in their time of greatest need.
It seems best to think of Bethel’s altar as being destroyed under Josiah (II Kings 23:15-18 - 640-609BC) although it could have been no more than a destruction of the rebuilt altar and sanctuary here which had been restored after the Assyrian invasion (II Kings 17:28).
It certainly was a fulfilment of the word declared by the prophet who God raised up to pronounce judgment against it (I Kings 13:1-2, 23:16-18) whether we think of it as defiling the Israelite, the restored Israelite or the new Israelite-Assyrian altar.
As we saw above, the crowning judgment of the fire that would begin within Israel (and that we’ve interpreted as having been kindled upon the death of Jeroboam) would be the destruction of Bethel and this defiling of the sanctuary took place years after the Assyrian invasion.
Although this conquest of the land was what YHWH had proclaimed through His prophet, the concluding act of wrath was still sometime in the future after the site continued to be used.
2. Amos 5:7
After having exhorted the people to return to YHWH and warned them of the consequences of their actions if they don’t, Amos moves on briefly to address them with words that describe what they’ve done that had caused them to stand condemned before Him.
Amstu insists that the Hebrew from which the RSV has translated ‘wormwood’ should be emended to follow the LXX so that the parallel is that justice is thrown upwards (that is, turned upside down) while righteousness is cast downwards (that is, trampled into the dust of the earth). Although it causes the verse to become more poetic and striking, there’s no need to force the different meaning when ‘wormwood’ works perfectly well. As Amhub comments, the meaning is simple enough - that the Israelites have turned
‘…the sweet words and deeds of justice…into the bitterest substance nameable…’
so that what should have been pleasant to God becomes foul. The point is, though, that both of these have been not just ignored but overthrown within Israelite society and replaced with contradictions of the Law.
Although commentators see ‘righteousness’ and ‘justice’ to be so similar in meaning as to be simply two different spellings of the same concept, we should make a distinction when they’re used together.
Righteousness, then, is taken to portray doing what’s right in God’s eyes in day to day living, speaking of an individual’s moral conduct and the way they deal with fellow men and women. Amhub defines it as
‘…the relationships that covenantal society entails and insists that each partner in the covenant do all that is necessary to keep the covenant working right’
which places more emphasis on the fulfilment of the Law. But this is an integral part of it for the manward aspect can be summated in the command to love your neighbour as yourself (Lev 19:18, Mtw 19:19, 22:39, Rom 13:9-10, Gal 5:14).
Justice, on the other hand, is interpreted as being concerned to make sure that the good is upheld and the evil is destroyed where the obvious outworking is that the innocent is supported against the guilty and decisions in law are based upon right and wrong rather than bribes and lies. Amhub gives the definition that justice
‘…puts some slight emphasis on establishing and preserving order in society by righting wrongs and punishing the wrong-doers…’
In short, the phrase ‘justice and righteousness’ could be thought to be a good description of the outworking of the Mosaic Law into society.
Ammot inserts a defence to retain Amos 5:7 here instead of moving it to immediately prior to Amos 5:10 (that is, to take the doxology of Amos 5:8-9 as an insertion into the flow of thought that’s out of place - there are many commentators who do this very thing) by insisting that the passage shows us both what the worshipper was before his trip to the sanctuary at Bethel (Amos 5:7), the worship that was experienced there (Amos 5:8-9) and the resultant state of the individual who shows no difference in his life from his assumed encounter with YHWH (Amos 5:10 onwards).
Although this interpretation of the structure just doesn’t work - the ‘before and after’ scenario is purely imaginary - the points he makes are still worth noting for he comments that
‘They go [to Bethel], they sing, they come away and nothing, simply nothing, has changed. Justice is still turned sour…and righteousness is still overthrown…’
and, further, that the Israelites take part in
‘…a superb spiritual experience and…emerge on the other side exactly the same person’
This, in part, was what was wrong with Bethel or, if we translate the name of the place, what’s very often wrong with present day attendance at the ‘House of God’ (see also my comments on the last web page under the header ‘Seek God, not the House of God’) - because God isn’t there, there can be no real change of life even though the ‘service’ goes well enough, is enjoyed and worshippers come away feeling as if they’ve achieved something or, perhaps better, that they’ve blessed God.
God didn’t move in Bethel - the same as God isn’t on the move in a lot of places where the people who are called by His name meet together. And you can tell because there’s very little change - true, we might alter the service round, introduce new songs, invite different speakers, pray for people at the front who subsequently fall over or recommit ourselves to God’s work.
But when the people who come to the meetings leave in the same spiritual state as when they arrive, you can be sure that God didn’t actually do anything in the meeting and possibly that He didn’t even turn up (se on Amos 5:14 below).
The same was true in Bethel in Amos’ day - the Israelites came to sacrifice to YHWH but their manner of life remained the same. They still refused to give justice and denied themselves from living righteously before God. In such religion there’s no worth. Even worse, though, it becomes deceitful - for what you think you’ve achieved or are achieving you never can.
The contrast between right living and religious ceremony is made even more plain later in this same chapter (Amos 5:21-24) where God’s hatred of legalism is placed back to back with His demands of righteousness and justice - the latter is important to God, not the former. As Amhub comments
‘Where such imitation of divine activity is not present, worship is deemed worthless…’
And, even worse, when righteousness and justice are trampled into the dirt within the Church meeting rather than simply outside the services in one’s ‘private’ life (though, when one becomes a believer, nothing any longer is ‘private’), God’s condemnation is even louder.
Although the last ‘doxology’ (or ‘hymn fragment’) didn’t seem out of place (Amos 4:13) this one’s placement in the passage is positively bewildering seeing as it seems to cut across the general thrust of the prophet’s message. It’s no wonder, then, that Ammot comes out with a fairly radical interpretation (outlined above) - even though it remains an unlikely structure to impose upon the passage.
The constellations of ‘Pleiades’ and ‘Orion’ are probably the best interpretations of the Hebrew words even though there still remains some dispute as to their precise identification. These words are similarly translated thus in Job 9:9 and 38:31 although the reason for this rendering is more because of the LXX’s identification of one as Orion in Job 38:31 and the other as Pleiades in both Job passages.
The reason for their use seems to be that they’re being used figuratively to denote the seasons. JFB observes that the prophet
‘...names the stars well known to the shepherds (to which class Amos belonged), Orion as the precursor of the tempests which are here threatened and the Pleiades as ushering in Spring’
Although I’ve tried to determine the precise dates to which the witness of both these constellations applied, I’ve found it impossible - but Bickerman adds a note that
‘...neither the given agricultural work nor the setting of the Pleiades occurs everywhere and always at the same Julian date. The setting of the Pleiades happened for Agathocles on 6 April and in Diodorus’ time on 8 April. But the stellar or agricultural reference gave a universal and undisputed, though approximate, indication of time within the year’
Therefore, we may accept that, for the Jew, the Pleiades heralded the advent of Spring or, perhaps better, the coming of the droughts when no significant rain would be expected to fall until after the Festival of Tabernacles around October.
Orion appears to have heralded winter when heavy and torrential rains would be expected to provide sufficient water for next year’s crops to grow.
Therefore, Amos’ words point towards the One who sits behind the signs in the stars (Gen 1:14) and, if this truly was taken from a recognised hymn or psalm, it shows us that Israel did recognise that YHWH was the God over the created order rather than one god amongst many.
The prophet is saying that God has set the universe in order and not merely that after His initial Creation, He’s stood back as an absentee landlord and expected it to continue on - his subsequent words demonstrate that He’s actively involved in the continuance of the cycles.
Amos goes on to speak about the oversight of ‘dawn’ (He turns deep darkness into morning), of ‘sunset’ (He darkens the day into night) and observes how He brings precipitation to the land (He calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out upon the surface of the earth) - all activities of the One who’s personally involved in the maintenance of the created order.
Some commentators see this last description to be speaking of more violent natural phenomena, so Ammot describes it as descriptive of
‘...when the sea wall is breached and the land is inundated’
But the Israelites knew that the water of the sea evaporated from the Mediterranean, condensed, formed into clouds and then rained upon the land for, in I Kings 18:41-46, Elijah prays for rain on the top of Mount Carmel and when he hears from his servant (verse 44) that
‘...a little cloud like a man’s hand is rising out of the sea’
he realises that rain’s about to come, telling Ahab to prepare his chariot to return to Samaria
‘...lest the rain stop you’
All the descriptions that occur in Amos 5:8, therefore, are employed to demonstrate that YHWH takes an active role in the continuance of the Creation and isn’t slack in His responsibility to sustain it from day to day, season to season and year to year.
In the NT, the observation is the same for, speaking about Jesus, the writer to the Hebrews notes (Heb 1:3) that he continues
‘...upholding the universe by His word of power’
getting actively involved in sustaining and providing for all that He originally brought into existence. YHWH is identified as the One at the end of the verse to whom all the statements can be truthfully applied before the prophet moves on to develop the idea of involvement in two specific areas that would have countered anyone who’d objected that God wouldn’t get involved to the extent of doing something in their midst.
So, having laid that foundation of God’s reliability, Amos 5:9 cuts across the idea of God’s daily ‘grind’ at the helm of Creation and announces that He’ll directly intervene against the stronghold and the fortress (‘stronghold’ is possibly better than ‘strong’ in the RSV. Amhub notes that the alternate reading is supported by the LXX and it parallels nicely with the concluding ‘fortress’. However, by retaining the ‘strong’ with the ‘fortress’, one thinks both of the structure and the people within. The logic of the verse causes me to favour ‘stronghold’, however).
The change of tack is surprising but it has the effect of basing the fact that God will get personally involved in judgment against His people (Amos 5:9) through the appeal that He’s already well known to be getting actively involved in the affairs of Creation (Amos 5:8).
Even though these two verses don’t sit in the midst of a lengthy discourse that deals much with judgment (it’s more concerned with its appeal to the nation to start living right), they do serve the Israelite to flash into his mind the fact that the behaviour being outlined must be dealt with by YHWH.
If they rejoiced that God continued to be the sustainer of the universe through active involvement, it implied that He must also be actively involved in the affairs of His people and, therefore, that He was both able and willing to judge.
I know your transgressions
As we read this passage, we have to remind ourselves that they’re the words of the prophet and not of YHWH. It’s Amos who takes it upon himself to pronounce judgment that he seems to have expected God to have honoured, announcing in words that are too easily taken to have overflowed from God’s omniscience. We read his declaration that
‘...I know how many are your transgressions...’
and think that the ‘I’ must refer to God - but they’re none other than those of the prophet. This isn’t the observation of one who’s detached from the nation but one who’s seen and witnessed the things that God’s people have been doing and who’s concluded in his own mind that Israel is abounding with such offences to God.
Such words as occur in this passage can only be truly spoken by someone who’s become one with God’s message, where what’s being spoken out to the people is already felt within the heart of the prophet for, although we’d have a right to claim that Amos is being presumptuous in his declarations because he isn’t using the authority of YHWH to reinforce his statements, these words are weighted with the same Divine authority as when he claims them to be from God.
Indeed, it seems fairly obvious that these are personal reflections that he’s added into the message - yet they’re still words that must be accepted as authoritative - words that, unless the Israelites give heed to them, will surely be outworked in the fulfilment of judgment. We need to realise, therefore, that simply standing up and declaring
‘Thus says YHWH’
in the midst of the present day Church doesn’t make words into a message from God. Neither does failing to use them mean that the person speaking is prophesying out of his own head. When a believer is so in tune with the burden of God so that the message is part of him - rather than him being simply a channel through whom it comes - it doesn’t matter what the messenger says because it will be in agreement with any specific word that comes directly from above.
We should wake up to the fact, therefore, that God can speak just as much through a fellow believer in conversation than he can within the setting of a Church meeting (though, because prophecy is often declared to have died out in the early Church, it may be that God only gets the opportunity - naturally speaking - to speak His message to individuals after the service has ended).
1. Israel’s sin
The ‘gate’ - that is, the city gate - was the place where justice was dispensed in ancient Israel and where the elders sat to make decisions that affected everyday life. Although, judging from the excavations of city gates that I’ve seen, one would wonder how a court might be able to sit to judge and men and women be able to pass in and out of the place, for the space seems to be somewhat limited.
However, Amhub notes that
‘The space on the inner side of the gate together with rooms or alcoves in the gate area itself were used as courtrooms’
so that we shouldn’t think of the roadway into the city as being the place where justice was dispensed but, rather, the area that immediately surrounded it and that lay on the city side. Obviously, in times of siege, decisions still needed to be made and there would be little opportunity to meet ‘in the gate’ when it would have been given over largely to the military.
We find mention of events that took place ‘in the gate’ in several of the earlier Books of the Bible although the frequency of the mention of courts decreases as one moves through the OT. The first occurrence is in Gen 23:1-18 (esp v.10,18) where Abraham manages to buy a field in which to bury Sarah, his dead wife. The transaction was completed
‘…before all who went in at the gate of the city’
and, although one wouldn’t be obliged to think that as many as entered the city stopped to bear witness to the transaction, the point is that the agreement that was made was ratified before the elders who sat there. Also, when Hamor and Shechem were persuaded to listen to the sons of Jacob to get Dinah in marriage (Gen 34:1-24 esp v.20,24), they went to the gate of the city to speak to the men - not only as they passed by on their journey but because there the elders of the city sat who had a significant influence over all the inhabitants.
The gate as a place of judgment and justice is mentioned in the Law in two specific places (Deut 22:13-21 esp v.15 and Deut 25:5-10 esp v.7) where the elders of the city who sat there are given the responsibility to judge in the cases of a woman charged with not being a virgin and of a man who refused to raise up children in the name of a deceased brother.
They had the right to inflict corporal punishment on the false accuser and to fine him (Deut 22:18) but, if the accusations were true, they were also empowered to pronounce the death sentence (Deut 22:20-21).
In both these cases, the decision required should be cut and dried - the legislation isn’t expecting investigative criminology or a need for deductions based upon shreds of fragmentary evidence. It’s strictly a no-brainer which makes one wonder whether more complicated cases may have been assessed ‘in the gate’ but were expected to be handed over to an individual or group of people who were more experienced in such matters.
This seems to be the reason why the prophet Samuel went on an annual circuit to Bethel, Gilgal and Mizpah, judging the Israelites there (I Sam 7:15-16) and it seems to have been a principal that had bled over from the times of Moses (Ex 18:13-27). Straightforward cases would, therefore, have been dealt with by the elders of the city in the gate while the complicated would be passed on to those more gifted or experienced, mentioned in the command of Deut 16:18 that the Israelites were to
‘…appoint judges and officers in all your towns which the Lord your God gives you, according to your tribes; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment’
(the elders in the gate and the appointment of judges in all the cities could have been one and the same, however).
Prior to this set up under Samuel, Boaz had approached the elders in the city gate to secure Ruth as his wife (Ruth 4:1-12) and they seem to have sat there more in the role of witnesses than judges. It may be, however, that when Saul approached Samuel ‘in the gate’ (I Sam 9:18-19) that he was there judging the people.
Because the elders sat in the gate, it was a figurative way of referring to wisdom (Prov 24:7) so that, when Jerusalem finally fell, Jeremiah bemoans the fact that the elders have ceased to meet together (Lam 5:14). It also follows, then, that when the people who sit ‘in the gate’ speak evil of you, it’s likely that that reputation will cascade down into all corners of society (Ps 69:12).
When I discussed the judicial systems of Israel here, I made very little mention of the justice that was handed out at the gates of the cities and preferred to deal with the appointed judges who seem to have travelled to different cities and locations to decide upon cases. The reason is that it’s very rare that we get any mention of the judicial system operating here after the two cases that were handed over to the elders of the cities to judge (detailed above).
Even when the book of Job speaks of justice being dispensed here (Job 5:3-4 - words of Eliphaz, 31:21 - words of Job), the setting is probably of a time prior to the Exodus and it certainly occurs in a place outside Canaan (Job 1:1). Trying to prove what type of justice continued to be given here in the years of the established kingdoms is difficult, if not impossible, for we only get the barest of details which are normally words that condemn the evil practices (Is 29:20-21, Prov 22:22, Amos 5:10,12,15).
Perhaps we’re on safe ground if we propose that judgment continued to be given ‘in the gates’ but that it became not a simple case of having the elders making the decision because different eras seemed to demand different set ups and structures.
We can be certain, however, that in Amos’ time some sort of legally binding court sat in the gates of the cities and that they were largely corrupt (Amos 5:12) for they afflicted (gave the decision against or persecuted) the person who they knew was innocent, took a bribe to make a decision one way or the other and rejected the just claims of the needy (presumably because they had nothing with which to pay for justice to be done).
Not only did they pervert justice for their own financial gain and social standing, but they detested those elders who were committed to give impartial judgment to God’s people (Amstu calls them ‘…the elder in the jury that renders a verdict…’) and also all those witnesses who were careful to speak only the truth (Amstu - ‘…the upright witness…’) - both of whom would have detested the idea that their judgment or testimony could be altered for financial reward (Amos 5:10).
These transgressions have all been general in scope so far in Amos but also far-reaching, for they encompass the entire judicial system that was corrupting society instead of cleansing it. In Amos 5:11, however, the prophet mentions two specific sins that will lead the people on to be judged in a way that’s outlined in the second half of the verse (see the next section).
The word from which the RSV translates ‘trample upon’ (Strongs Hebrew number 1318) has an uncertain meaning and interpretations abound. One seems to be as good as any other, it has to be said, except that the RSV couches the terminology in more general language than would be expected. It’s possibly best to follow Amhub who simply interprets it as a technical term meaning something like ‘you receive rent from’ but, because of the uncertainty of meaning, it’s not right to develop the thought much further.
But it certainly seems to parallel the following phrase so that what’s being condemned is both extortionate rates of rent disproportionate to the ability of the tenant to pay, along with levies of the harvested crop that left the poor with insufficient.
This is no more than a guess, however, and shouldn’t be relied upon.
We might expect such judicial systems to operate in the world, outside of the Church - and, to be honest, some of the decisions that are handed out in the courts of this land make you wonder whether there aren’t come strings being pulled ‘on high’ to get the decision that’s required. And that the unrighteous triumph over the innocent is seen probably all too frequently when it comes to compensation claims by the ‘victims’ who, in effect, were actually the aggressors in the first place.
We might expect this sort of decision in the world, it has to be said - but not within the Church. That such corruption also occurs within the people of God, however, isn’t just deplorable but an abomination to God.
In one such fellowship I was in, there was a fairly bad church split that came to a head when a row broke out in a Sunday morning meeting between the elders and the pastor - the outburst had been on the cards for some months, it has to be said, but the pastor had been told by God through a prophetic word that he shouldn’t concern himself with what was being done but to serve Him and leave any opposition for God to deal with.
He didn’t seem to want to do this and so contrived a situation in which he knew the elders would respond vocally in the meeting.
So, a council was called - that meant that three pastors were appointed by the Pentecostal denomination to which the fellowship was affiliated (my wife told me to withhold the actual name - but, if you can guess it, answers on a postcard...) to come to the place and judge between the two parties. However, before the day came when the church was to meet with them, I spoke to the pastor by phone who assured me that it had all been ‘fixed’ - the impartial leaders knew the score and were going to give the decision in his favour, trying to buffet the elders to give up the control of the building.
Well, you can imagine how I felt.
An impartial group of leaders sent to help us reach a settlement? It was going to be more of a show trial than a court of justice and I felt sorry for the elders (even though they’d been largely in the wrong) - they didn’t have a chance.
When the elders refused to let go of the building, the pastor set up on his own in the village and we followed neither. A fellowship founded on such unjust principles was never anything I wanted to get involved in and we went elsewhere, even though I did offer my help to the elders if they needed it (as they never wrote back, I guess they decided not).
But this happened in the Church of Jesus Christ not in the world. What chance can there be for us if we don’t give true justice to every brother no matter whether they’re the recognised leader or the group of elders who have the oversight for the building? And how can God ‘bless’ us if we arrange for our own men to be the judges, who already know the decision they’re expected to give?
In another place we were in (one of these events is enough for a person to stomach in a lifetime but I seem to be particularly blessed!), I’d been asked by the musicians to lead the praise one week when the main leader was away and we introduced a song at that time which seemed to go down well (this was the same respected, main-stream Pentecostal denomination as above - which must again remain nameless).
The following week, the main leader came back and he led. However, towards the end of the meeting, the one at the front of the meeting turned to the music leader and asked for a song, but his mind must have gone blank cos he seemed to be bewildered by the request.
Unwisely, to stop there being a large pause and embarrassing silence, I struck up the new tune from last week and the musicians followed - but the congregation remained silent. As it petered out, I realised the problem and shut up.
Well, that was embarrassing - and I made a mental note to be wiser.
However, when the meeting closed, the lead musician started pointing his finger at me, accusing me of usurping his authority. Another guitarist turned red in the face and clenched both fists at his side as he came towards me and shouted me down.
I hadn’t actually killed anyone, it has to be said, but it certainly felt like it.
Next week, I was summoned to appear before the pastor and his chief elder to give an account of myself - I was quite willing to do that cos being threatened by the believers was just a little bit too much an over-reaction to what I’d done. After all, I knew what had gone wrong and it was just a matter of learning by experience.
But, the church had been talking behind my back, hadn’t they?
That first week when I’d led the praise, it was now clear that I’d only done so because it was an ego-trip (I’d actually been asked by the musicians to front it). Not only that but I’d gone out of my way to deliberately choose choruses that the stand-in female piano player didn’t know (now how am I supposed to know what choruses she didn’t know? I’d never seen her before in my life) and I’d turned up my guitar so loud to dominate all the others (a very easy thing to do, of course, when I didn’t have control of the mixing desk).
Oh, and I also had a really big problem with submitting to authority which is why I’d started up the chorus in the subsequent Sunday morning.
It all made sense to them.
The case was proven against me, too - whatever defence I offered, they refused to believe it. My punishment was that I had to submit to the leadership in everything in order not to be possessed by satan - yep, honestly. That was the leader’s sermon the following week which had been put together for my return. It should have been fairly exciting to think of it as a personal message but, somehow, I didn’t feel all that encouraged.
So, what’s God going to do with churches such as this? Bless them? Say to them that they’re faithful when they’ve gleaned false counsel against a fellow brother and won’t believe truthful responses? How can God ever hope to do something great in that place when whatever happens will be maligned by malcontents and those who gossip and deride behind people’s backs, undermining true justice for all?
Just as Amos said in the eighth century to God’s people, so God says to His people today when justice is trodden in the dirt and the innocent are declared guilty (Amos 5:12) that
‘…I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins’
If these events have been experienced by me, you can be sure that they’re repeated time without number, for a leadership that accepts that this is the right way will perpetuate and multiply it into the people who come after them.
Unless God’s words are heeded (Amos 5:4 - God’s words and 5:14-15 - the words of the prophet) to start seeking Him by doing right (see my notes on the previous web page under the header ‘Seek Me and live’), judgment cannot help but fall upon the people who profess to know Him but whose deeds deny it.
2. Israel’s judgment
Amos 5:11b Pp Micah 6:9-16 esp v.15
As I mentioned in the introduction to this section, that these words are spoken by the prophet himself is strange for we see that Amos is able to pronounce judgment himself not in the name of YHWH but according to how he sees the nation’s dilemma - and yet they’re every bit as much a message from God as anything else he declares to them.
This is only possible, of course, if Amos and the message that God declares to him aren’t in conflict - that is, if Amos were just the channel through whom the message came, we could think of the prophet as no more than someone, for example, who reads words from a book, faithfully speaking all that’s before him but not necessarily agreeing with a word of it.
However, when the words are echoed in his life, they take on new meaning for the exhortation becomes not just the message of God but the burden reflected with assent in the servant.
Therefore Amos can declare ‘his own’ message and it’s the same as God’s.
It’s because Israel has exploited the poor through the extortionate rent placed upon the land of the tenant (see my suggestion of the meaning of the first part of verse 11 in the previous section) and taxed them with levies of the harvested crop that have left them with barely sufficient resources for survival that the prophet declares the message to them that the increased prosperity that’s caused them to build houses and plant vineyards will never be realised.
Even though their wealth has increased so that their life becomes one of ease and luxury (notice that the houses are built of ‘hewn stone’ instead of adequate clay bricks and that their vineyards are ‘pleasant’ or ‘well situated’ rather than carved into any land spare to make some profit. These both speak of practices that weren’t strictly necessary to survival while the poor were being exploited by taking from them their only means of existence), because it’s been founded upon extortion, they’ll never experience the blessing of having either the luxury accommodation or of drinking the wine made from their vineyards.
Amhub develops the theme of the judgment by commenting that
‘The prescribed judgment is exile, resulting in the ultimate loss of land’
and Amstu also that
‘[The words] predict that what one has toiled for, another (that is, implicitly the conquering enemy) will enjoy’
but this goes too far with the text and projects the fulfilment forward to a time at least thirty years into the future when Israel was to be conquered by Assyria. The text doesn’t demand that any external force be given the land over into its hand (though a military conquest seems to be demanded by the parallel passages in Deut 28:30 and Zeph 1:13) and it’s much better to accept the political decline that I discussed in the first section on this web page and to see in it the inability of those who were extending themselves through robbery to be able to continue to do so.
In the sudden change of economic climate that fell upon the nation with Jeroboam’s death, the continued income needed to plan for wine production and to maintain extensive residences would have dwindled away until the land was finally overthrown with the fall of Samaria or the annexation of regions that were currently under Israelite control (see, for example, II Kings 15:29).
The excessive taxation of the rich (II Kings 15:20) would have had a knock-on effect to those below them and would have restricted the extent of the luxury that they could subsequently afford. As Ammot comments correctly
‘This is not the threat that others will possess their labours but that such labours will not bring the expected rewards to those who have done them’
Micah 6:9-16 also doesn’t seem to demand a military conquest for the fulfilment of similar words and, besides, after condemning the treasures of the wicked, the prophet declares God’s word (my italics) that
‘...I have begun to smite you, making you desolate because of your sins’
The impoverishing of the evil rich (that is, the rich who were evil and not all the rich) had already begun to take place and the labelling of their sin as having kept the statutes and laws of Omri and Ahab (Micah 6:16) point towards this as being a word to the northern kingdom of Israel (Cp Micah 1:1 - the prophet spoke to both kingdoms) to whom Amos is also speaking.
What Amos declared as the judgment to fall, Micah saw as the judgment that was falling. Therefore, it seems best to see the former as declaring imminent judgment upon the oppressing rich.
3. The prudent
Before we can attempt an interpretation of this verse, we need to determine what context is needed in which to understand them - that is, should we think of them as being applicable to the days in which the prophet himself was living and, therefore, they’re a comment upon what was the taking place in Israel?
Amhub thinks not. He explains that the word ‘therefore’
‘...should ordinarily signal an announcement of judgment...[so that] “in such a time”...must reach forward to the time of judgment by exile announced in verse 11...’
even though I’ve noted above that verse 11 is better understood to be an imminent judgment upon the oppressing rich who were to see their wealth diminished in political turmoil and unrest upon Jeroboam’s death and long before Samaria’s overthrow.
Going to speak of that ‘future day’, however (which we can take as referring to the final judgment or the one which was imminently to come upon Jeroboam’s death), he writes that
‘In that future time [of exile], the prudent person will quietly acquiesce to the judgment, since the prophetic word has so fully demonstrated both its certainty and its necessity. They who have silenced the claims of the innocent in court shall themselves be silenced by the inevitability of their own punishment’
Likewise, Amstu follows the thought that what’s being mentioned must be something that was to be associated with the final judgment upon the nation and writes that
‘So great will be the horror, the thoughtful person...will then either wail...or be stunned to silence...’
But neither of these, it seems to me, gives the correct understanding of the verse which, I believe, should be left to sit in the same day as the one in which the prophet lived. He’s saying, then, that the present time is evil because the prudent person finds it more advantageous to keep silent than he does to speak out against the injustice and oppression (the ‘prudent’ are, therefore, still behaving in a sinful manner but they can be cited in much the same way as Jesus used the parable of the unrighteous servant to teach His disciples what they should be doing righteously - Luke 16:1-8).
Not so Amos, of course, who’s declaring this message of Himself and not as passed on from YHWH. The prophet is courageous, therefore, and should be understood to be observing the faults of anyone who felt that it was more in their interests to let the practices go unopposed.
It’s not that the ‘prudent’ are choosing the righteous response to what’s going on in the nation, but that they’re cowering away from raising their voices, realising that their silence actually puts them into a greater position in the corrupt society just as, even today, turning a blind eye can win you the favour of the person who you deliberately don’t see doing what it is that they don’t want to be seen doing. As Ammot explains
‘The word translated “prudent” could well mean “anyone who wants to get on” or “succeed”’
so that it was much wiser - worldly wise - to be silent when the poor went hungry and the rich became wealthier through sin. If you wanted to live as peaceable a life as you could, you learnt not to question those who were stronger and more influential than yourself. TWOTOT defines the word (Strongs Hebrew number 7919, M2263) as implying
‘...the process of thinking through a complex arrangement of thoughts resulting in a wise dealing and use of good practical common sense’
so that the ‘prudent’ are the people who have carefully thought about their position and have chosen the best way through their predicament.
Therefore, instead of the Law being upheld and justice given so that the wicked might stand in fear, Ammot is correct to state that
‘It was a society which encouraged wrong-doing and discouraged standing for principle’
Silence was the order of the day against sin - not proclamation. It was purely a matter of self-preservation.
For a discussion of what it means to seek God in the context of the prophet’s words, see my previous web page under the header ‘Seek Me and live’.
As I concluded there, God is practical in His commands to seek Him which is explained here in the prophet’s own words - namely, that because of the Israelites’ sin, to seek God was to seek good, to re-establish those things in both their own lives and in that of the nation that was supposed to have reflected the character of God.
So, instead of going to the House of God (Bethel) to seek Him (that is, instead of performing religious acts), they should do justice, correct oppression and care for the poor. When God spoke through Isaiah, His will was exactly the same - don’t bother praying (Is 1:15) but, rather, forsake what’s evil and do what’s right (Is 1:16-17).
If the Israelites do this, Amos observes (my italics) that
‘...YHWH, the God of hosts, will be with you as you have said’
an indication that God wasn’t with them no matter how much they liked to think about Him drawing alongside and dwelling in their midst. Indeed, the italicised words show that the declaration that God was with them was already being voiced in the nation - the people firmly believed that, despite all their sin, God was in their midst.
Can you ever imagine such hypocrisy and presumption?
Whether Old or New Testament, whether OT children of God or NT Church of Christ, we delude ourselves to think that God is in the midst of our meetings if we continue in sin. This might be a fairly radical approach to some but that’s exactly what Amos says at this point.
He says that seeking God and rejecting evil will bring the people life and that, as a consequence, God Himself will be with them (Amos 5:14). It was a fallacy to think that God was present with them when they met together because they did the sacrifices ‘right’, honoured the festivals and rejoiced before Him (Amos 5:21-23).
To have His presence in their midst was to do right - nothing less.
A church that continues to oppress their fellow believers - whether it be the leadership who build their own Empires at the expense of those below them or individuals who exploit those who sit next to them in the congregation - does not have God in their midst.
It doesn’t matter what programs you run, service structures you employ, monetary contributions you receive - Amos’ words are unambiguous. To have God in your midst, you must be living righteously and, under the New Covenant, that means an outworking of the new creation that’s been birthed within you when you were born again by the Spirit of God for salvation.
If you rely upon ‘being saved’ and think that you can live the way you want, you’re sadly mistaken. To have God with you, you must live righteously.
Amos doesn’t give the Israelites any middle ground to be saved and delivered, either. He doesn’t say
‘Don’t do wrong and everything will turn out okay’
but exhorts them to both turn from evil and to do good. Therefore, although the NT condemns men and women for thinking that initial salvation can be achieved by doing good works (see especially Paul’s argument in Romans chapters 3 and 4), it expects that, once salvation has been received by faith in the completed work of Christ, the believer will then outwork his own salvation (Phil 2:12-13).
Paul writes about God’s purpose in saving people and integrating them into His Church, noting (Eph 2:10) that
‘...we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them’
and James also comments that faith is not the be-all-and-end-all, the point at which a man may stop and consider himself saved regardless of what he does in the future. Rather, in his lengthy discussion of the relationship between faith and works (James 2:14-26), he concludes (James 2:26) by writing that
‘...as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead’
When a person is born again, they must demonstrate it by working out their salvation so that what’s been planted within them is demonstrated externally. Material prosperity is not a sign of salvation and righteousness before God just as it wasn’t in the Israel of Amos’ day. Indeed, when we read the prophet’s words, it seems to have been exactly the opposite.
And yet, all the while, the nation was declaring that God was with it (Amos 5:4) when He was far removed. It was quite true that God was about to come into their midst (Amos 5:16-17) but that wouldn’t be to their advantage and, although it was something they earnestly desired (Amos 5:18-20), it was something that would find them lacking.
So, doing what’s right in God’s eyes was a demonstration of the nation’s seeking of God and the consequence would be that God Himself would be with them. However, in the next verse (Amos 5:15), although the prophet says virtually the same thing, he concludes (my italics) by saying
‘...it may be that YHWH, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph’
There’s no definitive statement here that God will be gracious if they choose to do good, only a conditional hope that they will have made it a possibility.
Although we can read this and fully comprehend the intention, it doesn’t often hit us with the full force that it’s supposed to - for Amos is saying that God’s grace might be directed towards them, not will. In the New Covenant, we tend to expect God to be gracious to us - after all, that’s part of His character, isn’t it?
But here the prophet is saying that God may be gracious if they turn from their sin and start doing good throughout their land. I really don’t have any further words of explanation to offer the reader at this point except to say that God’s own people who turn their back on Him must begin again to do what’s right in His eyes in order for God to consider whether He will turn from His anger and be gracious to them.
Ammot should be read here (and his discussion of these verses is very good - pages 123-6) but his concluding observation is worth noting for he writes that
‘Grace must never be a matter of presumption...We ever want the blessing first and the duty second but Amos says that it is those who set themselves in the way that delights their God who receive life, power and grace from and in Him...Let us get on with obeying and God will get on with blessing!’
Amstu sees the mention of the ‘remnant’ as being an indication that Amos is speaking about the time after the judgment has fallen upon the nation - that God is saying that He may be gracious to the small portion of their society who will remain after the enemy army has swept through their land in conquest.
But this seems to be doing an injustice to the text for it’s more likely that God is speaking about the Israelites who are left in the land at that present time. As Amhub notes, the word
‘...is a recognition of the present frailty of Joseph’s sons and daughters in the northern kingdom...’
although he goes on to think of their plight in having already been judged (Amos 4:6-11) and their position as being small amongst the nations that surrounded them. I disagree with these two ideas because it appears to me that God is speaking purely on the basis of how He sees the nation rather than how they appear to be politically or numerically.
They’re only the remnant of a nation that was once devoted to serve Him, with a small handful of positive things that could be said about them. God won’t think of them as numerous, prosperous or influential even though they were - He sees them as pitiable, poor and corrupt.
Therefore, he speaks of them in reduced terms, hinting that their greatness can only be re-achieved if they turn from their sin to do those things that are pleasing to Him.
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