I will pass through the midst of you
The day of YHWH
On previous web pages, we noted that, when YHWH spoke about the judgment that was to come upon the Israelites, He spoke in terms of an external army that He would raise up and be with that would come into the land and be undefeatable wherever the armies of Israel went out to oppose them.
However, we also noted a shift in the scope of the judgment when we got to Amos 5:6 for we saw how the prophet himself spoke of a fire that would begin in the midst of the nation, finally destroying the sanctuary at Bethel upon its completion. This final conclusion of the judgment was to find a fulfilment in the desecrating act of Josiah (II Kings 23:15-20) which, in itself, was also a fulfilment of a previous prophecy given in the reign of the first king of Israel, Jeroboam (I Kings 13:1-2).
With the destruction of the sanctuary of Bethel, therefore, the fire that had been kindled upon the death of Jeroboam was finally extinguished. In between the commencement and conclusion, however, the Assyrian invasion and Israelite exile took place in 722BC.
As we approach this next section, we have to decide whether the verses are referring to the gradual decline in Israel’s strength and prosperity or to the final conquest of the Assyrians that removed Israel from being an autonomous nation. That God was going to sweep through their nation is stated unambiguously here (5:17) but we need to be careful to place that visitation into the correct context.
The ‘therefore’ that opens this passage stands as YHWH’s conclusion to the prophet’s discourse (Amos 5:6-15) - we aren’t considering a final word from God that’s the culmination of reason and observation that He’s had delivered to the people - rather, Amos himself has observed the nation, appealed to them to turn round their lives and warned them of the consequences of both positive and negative decisions.
One would expect that, if there was to be any ‘therefore’ that it would be found on the lips of Amos, not YHWH. That God Himself is adding a conclusion to the message shows us not only that God approves of the personal pronouncements that His servant has just delivered but that, as we saw in the introduction, the man and the message are so inextricably united that, even when God doesn’t give him a direct and specific word to deliver, he’s burdened with what he sees and can speak authoritatively.
And God will add to His prophet’s message to uphold it by adding a concluding judgment that sits at the close of His discourse. The prophet is so caught up with God and His message that to reject the man is to reject both God Himself and the words spoken in YHWH’s name. This conclusion, then, shows us that God will establish the decisions of His servants, but with the clear warning to us who would expect such a thing to happen to ourselves also that, for it to happen, we must be caught up with God’s will so that it’s become a part of us. As Jeremiah observed (Jer 20:9)
‘If I say “I will not mention Him or speak any more in His name” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot’
Such an experience is not a position of material gain and wealth in this world for the prophets frequently - if not always - found that the people of God to whom the message came were violently opposed to it, the prophet Jeremiah going on to record the voices of the hearers (Jer 20:10) as
‘Denounce him! Let us denounce him!’
‘Perhaps he will be deceived, then we can overcome him, and take our revenge on him’
It’s no wonder that prophets today are also violently opposed - either by theology that undermines their authenticity (the ‘prophets died out with the early Church’ doctrine), by ignoring the message as being ‘prophesied out of the prophet’s own imagination’ or even by shouting them down in the meeting to ‘protect the young believers from being deceived’.
It’s true that many would be God’s mouthpiece and are deceived into thinking that what they proclaim is nothing less than the mind of God - that’s why all messages from ‘prophets’ must be tested first before being accepted (I Cor 14:29) not simply rejected because it comes from the person ‘who never prophesies good concerning me’ (I Kings 22:8) or even because we don’t like the content.
But Scripture testifies that a prophet who speaks to God’s disobedient people will normally be rejected by them, even to the point of being violently opposed.
So, whatever function in the Church that you aspire to, don’t even joke about wanting to be a prophet.
I will pass through the midst of you
One of the dangers that confronts every commentator is that of being swept along on the tide of what’s accepted as the correct interpretation of a matter and not to think carefully whether the text under consideration actually means those things that it’s taken to be teaching.
If denominations had been careful to take the Scriptures at face value, they wouldn’t now be in such a dilemma of not having the full counsel of God and of being lacking in their knowledge and experience of God.
I shall give only one example here.
John 7:37-39 has long been taken by the Assemblies of God churches to be speaking about the infilling of the Holy Spirit. Now there are plenty of Scriptures in the NT that teach about this, the baptism of the Holy Spirit as it’s most normally called, but such a doctrine has, unfortunately, been wrenched from elsewhere and applied here so that, instead of the passage speaking about the outflowing, it’s distorted to be ‘just another Scripture’.
It’s a bit like a bird with a broken wing. The poor creature might well be able to provide sufficient uplift to raise itself off the ground a short distance but for it to be able to fly as it was designed, it needs to have both wings beating in time.
The baptism of the Spirit, the infilling, is one of those two wings that will do a lot for the believer but unless the outflowing of the Spirit from a believer’s life begins at the same time as the infilling, the result will be stagnation and, ultimately, spiritual death (see my notes on the ‘Feast of Tabernacles’ under the header ‘Simchat Beth ha-She’ubah’).
And that’s the problem with a lot of fellowships today - many receive the infilling but aren’t allowed to demonstrate the outflowing through signs and speech. They simply sit in the pew from week to week, receiving constantly whatever’s presented to them and never function as God intended them to.
In Amos 5:16-17, we’re confronted by a verse that’s immediately taken by most commentators to be a word of judgment, a fulfilment of God’s various other words that have been spoken prior to this and which point towards the judgment of God in sending an army against the land of Israel to conquer and to exile it’s inhabitants.
The problem with this interpretation is not that it isn’t right (as we’ll see below) but that we need to think through why it’s the best interpretation and whether, perhaps, there’s an alternative that might teach us something new about the way YHWH deals with His people.
Nowhere in these two verses do we ever read that what’s taking place is the result of an invading army but, rather, that God Himself will pass through their midst (Amos 5:17). When we read the exact details of what’s happening, there’s no doubt that there’s a grieving over something, the details of which, again, go unmentioned.
All that seems right to say is that those in the city and those in the country are mourning and lamenting a state of affairs that they find unacceptable. While the context of an advancing enemy army would fit the context well, the presence of God in their midst in convicting power would suit it with equal relevance.
In other words, God could be taken to be saying that He was about to come into their midst to change His people through repentance, where their knowledge of their transgressions is the first step to coming to the place of receiving forgiveness (see my notes on ‘Repentance’).
It’s possible that God’s response to Amos’ own words to seek Him (Amos 5:14-15) are, therefore, to provide the compulsion needed that would give opportunity for the nation not to be judged but forgiven and restored.
Even though this scenario would fit the words, there’s good reason why it seems less likely to be right than seeing the message to be the realisation by God that a call to repentance wouldn’t take place (Amos 5:14-15) and that, ultimately, the judgment prophesied earlier must inevitably fall.
The only other occasion I can find when God is spoken of as passing through a land or people is back in the Exodus and in that place it speaks only of judgment. Therefore YHWH declares (Ex 12:12)
‘...I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will smite all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments...’
and (Ex 12:23)
‘...YHWH will pass through to slay the Egyptians...’
But, in order for God’s people to be spared, He assures them that, instead of passing through their midst, He will pass over them (Ex 12:13,23,27). Indeed, in Micah 7:18, if God is to restore His relationship with His people then He must commit Himself to
‘...[pass] over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance...’
and, finally, Jesus Christ’s death on the cross was to demonstrate (Rom 3:25)
‘...God’s righteousness, because in His divine forbearance he had passed over former sins’
Therefore, in Scripture, the difference between God passing through and passing over is one between judgment and forgiveness. Because God is declaring that He will pass through their midst, the only way it seems possible to be able to take His words is as one of judgment where the wailing and lamentation are a response to the destruction of God’s army that’s come against the land.
However, there’s sufficient in these two verses to make me think that both meanings are intended - that is, because there’s no cause mentioned that describes why the mourning has taken place (in natural terms), God seems to be leaving the way possible that His presence in their midst could be one of repentance where the changing of their ways to live righteously (Amos 5:16-17) provokes God to convict them for true and full repentance.
We should, then, not take Amhub’s words (and also Amstu and Ammot’s conclusions) as correct when he writes that
‘So patent is it to Amos that Israel will ignore the admonitions that he [does Amhub mean God or Amos?] proceeds immediately with the announcement [of judgment]’
because the interpretation of the two verses depends entirely on Israel’s response - that they responded negatively to the message means that they became words of judgment but, had they taken to heart Amos’ discourse, they would have been transformed into words of repentance and, subsequently, restoration.
It seems uniquely strange that, through sin, God removes His presence from a people’s midst but, through judgment of that same sin, God returns. His withdrawal prevents Him from having to judge immediately while His advance makes it inevitable.
What Israel had declared as a reality (Amos 5:14 - that God was with them), was about to become a reality (Amos 5:17 - He was to pass through them) and then they would see what His presence in their midst actually meant.
Hence the prophet’s words about the ‘Day of YHWH’ that follow immediately on the heels of the conclusion of this direct message from God.
The day of YHWH
These three verses seem to be a reversion to the prophet’s own dialogue, inspired by the message he’s just delivered from YHWH (Amos 5:16-17) although it’s entirely possible that, even though no attribution of authorship is given (there’s no ‘says YHWH’), we shouldn’t think of these as originating with Amos.
But as I’ve said on numerous previous occurrences, the message given to the prophet and the thoughts of the prophet Himself are so closely tied together that they’re almost seamless.
This is the first time the phrase ‘Day of YHWH’ has ever been used, historically speaking. It exists in Books that have been compiled prior to the position of Amos in the Canon but the Book is chronologically the first recorded prophet (with the possible exception of Joel) and it’s therefore the one that defines what the label means.
There’s only the one possible reference to a ‘Day of YHWH’ prior to the prophet in Job 20:28 but we read there of the ‘day of God’s wrath’, a phrase which needs the descriptor ‘wrath’ to give it definition. It seems certain, then, that Amos’ use of the phrase is the first of its kind.
All the prophets that come after Amos and who speak of the Day of YHWH define it as being a time of judgment and destruction (Is 13:6,9, Ezek 13:5, 30:3, Joel 1:15, 2:1,11,31, 3:14, Amos 5:18,20, Obad 15, Zeph 1:7[-8],14, Mal 4:5 and Jer 46:10 which speaks of the Day of the Lord YHWH) - I have declined to use some of the occurrences of the phrase as they occur in the AV because the RSV renders them somewhat differently (Is 2:12, 34:8, Lam 2:22, Zeph 1:18, 2:2,3, Zech 14:1).
Of those seventeen occurrences, nine are directed against either Israel or Judah, God’s own people (Ezek 13:5, Joel 1:15, 2:1,11, Amos 5:18,20, Zeph 1:7,8,14), five against the nations of the entire world (Is 13:9 - but the header to the passage defines the word as directed against Babylon, Joel 2:31, 3:14, Obad 15, Mal 4:5) and three others against specific people or nations (Is 13:6 - Babylon, Ezek 30:3 - Egypt, Jer 46:10 - Egypt).
Although the Day of YHWH is a time of vengeance and judgment, the present day believer is more likely to think of it as being one when he’s safe and secure, when God is going out against His enemies and, because he’s ‘saved in Christ’, the work of God can’t possibly be directed at Him.
The OT says something different, of course, for around 50% of the references have to do with an action of God directed against His own people and, as the testimony of Amos 5:18-20 shows, God’s people in the OT thought that they also would be safe on that day when God was going to act.
When we come into the NT, we first have to realise that the Divine name, YHWH, was never used and, in its place, the word ‘Lord’ was employed - a word that meant ‘master’. This seems to have been the practice of most Jews because of the fear they had of taking God’s name on their lips ‘in vain’.
It also means that, when we read the word ‘Lord’ in the NT, we should consider well whether the meaning or intention of the person using it is to speak of the ever-present God, YHWH, for it has fairly important consequences - none more so when the early Church is seen to declare Jesus consistently as ‘Lord’.
To a Jew, that meant that Jesus was being held up to be none other than YHWH.
But the references to the ‘Day of the Lord’ in the NT seem to be referring to one specific time in earth history when numerous events will take place (it seems best to take the label to be referring not to one single 24-hour period but to a period of time that’s certainly brief but longer than one day), the most notable of which is the return of Jesus to earth (Acts 2:20 - which quotes Joel 2:31, I Cor 5:5, II Cor 1:14, I Thess 5:2, II Thess 2:2, II Peter 3:10, Rev 1:10. See also II Peter 3:12 and Rev 16:14 which both speak of the ‘Day of God’ which appears to be a slightly different label to denote the same thing).
Old and New Testaments, therefore, use the phrase in different ways and we should safeguard ourselves from thinking that only one ‘Day of YHWH’ is ever being referred to. The truth is that the phrase could be used to speak of any visitation of God on the earth where the outcome of His presence was one of judgment or vengeance - it’s extremely rare for the ‘Day’ to be spoken of without these connotations, though there are a couple of places where it simply stands as a label with no explanation of what will take place.
To speak of the ‘Day of YHWH’ in the NT invariably means Jesus’ return but there have also been many ‘Days of YHWH’ in history when God has entered time and space to judge and destroy, laying low civilisations and nations. We may experience many ‘visitations’, therefore, many ‘Days of YHWH’ before the full and final fulfilment of the phrase which still lies in the future.
The Church, quite obviously, thinks that the future Day of YHWH is something to look forward to - just as the OT children of God thought. But what they eagerly longed for was actually going to be their downfall (Amos 5:18) and we’d be better advised to be sober in our assessments of that Day rather than to be running towards it with open arms (after all, in the parable of the ten virgins who represent believers, only five were welcomed by the bridegroom upon His return - Mtw 25:1-13).
But, returning to this first historical use of the phrase in Amos, it seems a fair assessment to conclude that it must have been one that had been ‘invented’ or ‘created’ in the nation of Israel and that they saw the time as being one when they would find favour before YHWH. That’s not to say that they thought it would be a time of unparalleled blessing for all but a time, presumably, when God would move amongst the nations to lay them low and cause Israel to inherit both their land and prosperity. As Amhub also points out
‘…[Amos] was correcting an old misunderstanding, not introducing a new notion’
but how or why the phrase ever came about isn’t certain, even though the commentator goes on to link it with God’s past interventions in Israelite history in which He’d intervened to either fight on behalf of His people in war or to deliver them from the hand of an oppressor.
It’s easy to perceive how the remembrance of God’s past victories could have persuaded them that it would simply be ‘business as usual’ when a future time of need fell upon them - even more so because God had caused them to stand before their enemies in fulfilment of the word through Jonah in the current king’s reign (II Kings 14:25-27).
But, if this is where the phrase comes from, they’d failed to realise that continued help needed to be founded upon a moral lifestyle, not simply upon the legalistic observance of the festivals and sacrifices (Amos 5:21-24). Although Amhub proposes this association, however, the point isn’t proven as to the origin of the saying but, as Amstu writes, the concept of what would happen on the day is fairly well accepted as being the time when
‘…Yahweh would intervene militarily to demolish His foes on behalf of His people’
Even though the nation’s sin was to make the day of YHWH one of judgment against them, they must have presumed that by their persistent offerings of sacrifice and their adherence to the annual festivals (Amos 5:21-23) that God was so pleased with them that He’d pass over rather than through (see the previous section above), already being in their midst as they were proclaiming (Amos 5:14).
And so they desired it (Amos 5:18)!
They earnestly longed for it!
The truth was that the Day would be (Amos 5:18,20)
‘…darkness and not light…gloom with no brightness in it’
an association that occurs in just over half of the OT occurrences of the phrase (Is 13:9-10, Ezek 30:3, Joel 2:1-2,10-11,31, 3:14-15, Amos 5:18,20, Zeph 1:14-15), a description that’s surely meant to be taken more figuratively than literal (and which makes one question whether Jesus’ words also in Mtw 24:29 are to be taken this way).
What Amos actually means by the terms ‘darkness’ and ‘light’ has various possibilities and it’s fairly easy to grab at the use of such concepts elsewhere and impose them upon the text at this point. However, I feel that it’s better to allow Amos 5:19 to define for us what the contrast between ‘darkness’ and ‘light’ actually means in context.
It seems plain that the man in the verse is attempting to flee danger and yet, each time he thinks he’s found salvation and safety, he runs into yet more trouble, ultimately being confronted by an enemy from which there’s no escape (Ammot is best followed here who sees that the RSV’s ‘or’ is best ignored and the entire verse taken to be one series of events rather than two - the Israelite flees a lion only to run into the path of a bear. Finding a house, he goes in and barricades the door and, recovering his breath, he leans against the wall only to be attacked by a venomous snake. It’s just not his day, is it?).
Therefore, as Amhub notes, darkness and light could be substituted by
‘…disaster and safety’
or, as Amstu concludes, Amos’ words teach the listener that
‘The northern kingdom was awaiting devastation, not deliverance’
from which there was absolutely no natural means of escape. The only possibility they had to turn back God’s hand of judgment was to change their ways by seeking Him now (Amos 5:14-15 - see my notes here as to why ‘seeking God’ in this context doesn’t mean to pray but to live righteously).
The shock (or, rather, the disbelief) of Amos’ hearers must have been stunning - especially when everything seemed to be going so well with their observance of the festivals and their keeping of the sacrificial service.
We need to put this into a present day context, of course, to realise the impact of the prophet’s words. Imagine that you’re standing in a fellowship that’s just beginning their service with songs of praise and worship (Amos 5:23 - whether choruses or hymns, it doesn’t really matter), the numbers swelled to the building’s capacity because it’s Easter again when Jesus’ death and resurrection are remembered (Amos 5:21 - or imagine Christmas or any other festival you care to choose).
Hands are outstretched towards Heaven and the lyrics elevate God to the highest place in your midst (Amos 4:13, 5:8-9). As the music dies down, the leader steps forward and shares a word about the need of the fellowship to build an extension to accommodate the multitudes that are joining themselves to the organisation, men and women raising their hands to pledge ten thousand, twenty thousand - even fifty thousand! - as a sacrificial offering ‘to the Lord’, many giving even beyond their own means (Amos 5:22).
God, as evidenced by the rich dedications to the work, has obviously been blessing the members materially (or, at least, the ones who are making the donations) when, suddenly, from way at the back of the meeting, that old guy who you’ve never really been happy with (I mean, he always smells of moth balls and doesn’t seem to have a kind word to say about anything the church does) begins to shout out
‘You’ve sung much about wanting God to be in your midst. You’ve proclaimed in song that He’s welcomed to take His place, enthroned in your lives. You’ve exhorted Him to take up His sword and to fight against His enemies. And God will fight against you! There will be no escape! You will try to flee when darkness comes upon you, but you won’t find the light of deliverance anywhere…’
Now can you imagine the dilemma you’re in?
All the evidence you’ve seen with your eyes tells you that God is doing something - that He’s with the congregation. Only the old man has actually seen God’s word (Amos 1:1) and He’s unlikely to be heeded - especially not by the leadership (Amos 7:10-13).
Now, I’m not saying that every situation as I’ve outlined above is ‘of God’ - the problem is, rather, that we think that never a situation such as that could be ‘of God’. The shock is too much, the witness of our eyes too conclusive. But such was the message of Amos. Amstu tries to put the shock of disbelief into natural words and does well. He notes that the ‘bolt from the blue’ is like
‘…the student who receives an F for a paper he thought was brilliant, or the employee fired after doing what he thought was excellent work, or the person whose spouse suddenly announces that he or she wants a divorce when the marriage seemed to be going so well…’
Another part of the shock is because we spend much of our time talking about the sin that’s ‘in the world’, condemning them for their transgressions of God’s will as we see it - as if we should expect the world to be following God!
And therefore we miss out on the real issue that’s important to the One we serve - that is, what’s the Church doing? We don’t judge ourselves because we see men and women who are worse than us and, falsely, think that that must make us righteous.
Amos’ message, then, is simply unbelievable in just about every sense possible.
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