Amos 5:21-27

Gimme that old time religion
   1. Festivals and solemn assemblies
   2. Sacrifices
   3. Praise times
Do what?
Sacrifice in the wilderness
   1. In the wilderness
   2. Beyond Damascus
   3. God of Hosts

There’s a huge danger when we approach the Book of Amos, something that I’ve hinted at on previous web pages. We can consign the sayings of the prophet to a time that’s devoid of any parallels to our own, so condemning it to ashes and making it irrelevant to our own experience.

Although few - if any - people I know would do this, there’s a second, more damaging, peril that seems to be taken up by a great many - and that’s to identify ‘minor’ sins in the text that we know we aren’t doing, elevate them to be the major lines of complaint that YHWH has against His people and, therefore, find ourselves, once more, effectively consigning the message to the rubbish bin.

One such ‘minor’ sin is that of literal idolatry for it appears fairly insignificantly in Amos’ message compared to the immoral practices of the nation that seem to pop up their head throughout. Although we may elevate the nation’s sin to be that of the worship of false gods and idols (and, therefore, consider ourselves ‘safe’), God doesn’t particularly call Israel to account for either incorrect or idolatrous worship.

Comments are certainly there, however, and it would be wrong to think that they’re never mentioned.

The first such reference is only an inferred one in Amos 3:14 where the prophet speaks about the altars of Bethel, rather than the single ‘altar’ as would have been expected had there been just the one god worshipped. It is, perhaps, significant for the plurality of their religion is hinted at, if not forthrightly announced.

The next suggestion that all’s not well in their worship practices is in Amos 4:4-5 where the one word ‘leavened’ points to the inclusion of an inappropriate substance offered to God on the altar of burnt offering. Even so, the suggestion is fairly minor and, as I noted on the web page that dealt with those two verses, the burden of the passage is not to highlight a Levitical transgression but to point at their religious fervour and hold it up as insufficient.

The directly condemning verses against idolatry are found in Amos 5:26 (if we take the generally accepted interpretation as being the correct one - there’s ambiguity in the Hebrew at this point) and 8:14.

At the most, then, there are five verses that condemn idolatrous or incorrect practices although there’s only two that we can stand secure on as certainly having been meant to be taken that way (as the reader will see below, however, the mention of the two idols in Amos 5:26 is more to undermine their dependence upon religion for acceptance before God). When we compare these to the words spoken against the ‘secular’ sins (as opposed to those connected with religion) we find Amos 2:6-8,12, 3:9-10, 4:1, 5:10-12 in the passages that have occurred before this point in the text.

And the words of condemnation continue in Amos 6:4-6,12, 8:4-6.

What we need to realise, therefore, is that idolatry isn’t the main cause for concern but, rather, the way that fellow Israelites interrelate by robbery and oppression, deceit and treachery. The religious centres at Bethel, Gilgal and Beersheba are mainly mentioned because the Israelites’ heart lay in them, thinking that they would win favour with God through the offering of sacrifice.

In other words, Israel was religiously zealous but morally corrupt.

When we come to a passage like Amos 5:21-23, it’s too easy for us to shout ‘idolatry!’ and excuse ourselves from examining our own lives, both individually and corporately. We think, perhaps, that there’s a corruption in the festivals or, perhaps better, that the feasts were held in honour of foreign Gods such as Baal or Ashtoreth and that the sacrifices and praise was offered up to a god whose name wasn’t YHWH.

But Amos 5:22 is fairly plain that this wasn’t the case because God says (my italics)

‘…you offer Me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings…and the peace offerings…’

and what’s stated here must naturally refer also to the festivals that occur before (Amos 5:21) and the songs that are mentioned after (Amos 5:23). We’re called to consider, therefore, how a people who were religiously zealous in being outwardly conformed to the letter of the Law concerning the need to celebrate the festivals, to offer sacrifice and praise, could ever have been condemned.

What it means for us in the present day is that we shouldn’t judge the spiritual health of a congregation or denomination (ours or any others) by its conformity when it gathers together as a Body but, rather, by how they deal with their fellow believers both before and after the meetings have ended.

Such is the message of Amos.

A people can justify their lifestyles by ideas that they’re being religiously ‘pure’ when they come together, of ‘feeling’ the presence of God in their midst or of growing in number and influence, all the time being ignorant to the way their dealings with their fellow believers are condemning them.

No amount of religious observance can ever offset the sin that Amos reveals as being widespread amongst the nation.

Gimme that old time religion
Amos 5:21-23

I don’t like the ‘Message Bible’, even though there really are some hilariously funny renditions in there. I don’t mean to mock but it does seem to me that, in their attempt to make the original Hebrew and Greek texts more understandable to the ordinary man in the street, they’ve removed a lot of the words for easier ones and have thereby changed the meaning substantially.

Take Amos 5:6, for example. When I dealt with that verse, I noted that the RSV’s rendition of

‘Seek YHWH and live, lest He break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel’

was particularly difficult to understand towards the end and I preferred to simplify it by reference to Amstu’s translation to give the reader the much easier

‘...lest He break out like fire in the house of Joseph and consume Bethel with no one to quench it’

But the Message Bible - for whatever reason, I have no idea - translates the end as the conclusion (my italics) that

‘...God will send just such a fire and the firefighters will show up too late

Where these firefighters come from, I have no idea - did the nation of Israel ever have such a thing in the OT? Or was it simply ‘all hands to the pump’ when a local fire broke out so that friends and neighbours gathered together to do the best they could?

People reading this - who didn’t know any better - might well imagine that Moshe Cohen could dial 911 whenever there was an emergency and, if they weren’t too busy, the boys in blue with their red fire engines would turn up on the scene in a matter of minutes.

Perhaps all the telephone lines would be down on the day that the Israelites were to most need them?

Even the Living Bible with it’s bad reputation for being a bit too liberal with it’s translations (Ecclesiastes 9:8 is one of my favourites for it takes the verse as exhorting its readers ‘Wear fine clothes - with a dash of cologne!’) speaks of God sweeping through Israel and consuming the nation with fire so that

‘...none of the idols in Bethel can put it out’

But, having said that, I really do love their rendition (I hesitate in writing ‘translation’ because it simply isn’t even near what one would accept as capable of being included in that label) of Amos 5:21-23. The RSV deals with it simply by translating

‘I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer Me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon. Take away from Me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen’

where the three areas of mention are the festivals and special occasions, the sacrificial offerings and, finally, the praise that’s sung and played to God. It’s all easily understandable.

But that was just too obscure for the translators of the Message Bible, it appears. They decided that it would be better to apply it to the church of their own experience, I presume, and immediately turned it into not a translation but a commentary for they’ve written down the meaning as

‘I can’t stand your religious meetings. I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making. I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. When was the last time you sang to Me?’

Great, huh?

Totally irrelevant to the actual text, of course, but it condemns most of the really ‘go ahead’ fellowships I know of in the States while only lightly applying the message with any relevance to the congregations in the UK.

Although I do object to the way that the verse about ‘sacrifices’ is rendered, there’s a lot going for this paraphrase because it speaks to a present day organisation or fellowship who would think itself safe simply because it doesn’t observe the feasts of Leviticus 23 (definitely not! That would be legalism!), doesn’t kill the odd animal to give to God (Of course not! They were all fulfilled in the cross!) and doesn’t use harps (why ever would we want to?).

Each of us need to face up to the words of YHWH here and not to run away from them.

1. Festivals and solemn assemblies
Amos 5:21

Firstly, then, God had no pleasure in the service they were paying to Him by observing the annual festivals and special meetings of the people (Amos 5:21). Indeed, the Scripture actually says something far worse - instead of simply not enjoying them, it says that He ‘hated’ and ‘despised’ them before toning it down just a fraction to say that He took no delight when they came together (the first two descriptors are rightly applied to the annual festivals and the last one to the solemn assemblies).

The ‘festival’ in the Scriptures is normally meant to refer to the feasts that took place annually. Therefore, there’s mention of the feasts of Passover (Ex 12:14,18, 34:25, Ezek 45:21), Unleavened Bread (Ex 13:6 - seventh day, 23:15, 34:18, Lev 23:6, Num 28:17, Deut 16:16, II Chr 30:13,21, 35:17, Ezra 6:22, Ezek 45:23), Pentecost (Ex 23:16, 34:22, Deut 16:10,16) and Tabernacles (Ex 23:16, 34:22, Lev 23:34,39,41, Num 29:12, Deut 16:13,14,16, 31:10, I Kings 8:2,65, II Chr 5:3, 7:8,9, Ezra 3:4, Neh 8:14,18, Ezek 45:25, Zech 14:16,18,19).

There were considered to be three annual feasts (II Chr 8:13 - Unleavened Bread, Weeks or Pentecost and Tabernacles). Although Passover was originally called a feast, when it was extended into the feast of Unleavened Bread, it was the latter which was more rightly referred to as such, even though Passover was considered to be an integral part of it.

There are also general, unspecified, festivals mentioned in Scripture (which may not all be linked to the annual festivals of Leviticus chapter 23 - Judges 21:19, Ps 81:3, Is 29:1, 30:29, Ezek 45:17, 46:11, Hosea 2:11, 9:5, Amos 5:21, 8:10, Nahum 1:15), a feast inaugurated for the eighth month in the northern kingdom of Israel by Jeroboam to try and prevent the people from attending the Temple in Jerusalem (I Kings 12:32,33) and also a one-off special festival (Exodus 10:9, 32:5) that wasn’t meant to be continued.

The phrase ‘solemn assembly’ comes from a single word (Strongs Hebrew number 6116, M1675c) and has, as its root meaning, the idea of something that’s being restrained. There are a number of other possible meanings but this appears to be the only one that has particular relevance to it’s religious interpretation. The idea behind the ‘solemn assembly’, therefore, is that there’s a restriction placed upon those who are expected to take part which ‘solemnises’ the coming together to give it added significance or, perhaps better, to make it recognisable as ‘special’.

Therefore, the added eighth day of the Feast of Tabernacles is spoken of as one such assembly with the clear instruction that the nation was to do ‘no laborious work’ (Lev 23:36, Num 29:35, II Chr 7:9, Neh 8:18), a similar instruction being recorded for the seventh day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Deut 16:8). Joel’s message to the Israelites instructs them to call a solemn assembly when a national calamity was either about to take place or had already transpired (Joel 1:14, 2:15) while Jehu calls for a nationwide special meeting for the prophets of Baal to fool them to be gathered together to be slain (2 Kings 10:20). It would appear that what Joel prophesies was an integral part of Israelite culture - perhaps more often local than national.

Not only Amos but Isaiah, too, notes that the special assemblies of the people were a thing of distaste to YHWH because of the sin that existed within the nation (Is 1:13).

The Church, too, has its ‘restrictive’ or ‘special’ assemblies, usually at least once every week when members of their particular congregation are expected not to work but to attend the meetings, insisting that Sunday has become the ‘christian sabbath’ (with no justification from Scripture for such a position, it has to be said - see my notes here).

But there are also dates when, for example, special speakers come to the building, the church being called together as one man to listen - even, perhaps, when calamity strikes the place or when a new project is to be considered, a prayer meeting will be drawn together to ‘seek the Lord’ and His will.

Both Amos and Isaiah were careful to point out that such meetings were a waste of time - both for the people who have the name of God on them and for God Himself - if the congregation was continuing in sin. Indeed, God says specifically that He takes no delight in them no matter how much we offer ourselves or our possessions as sacrifices for His service, singing praise to Him with exuberance and enthusiasm (Amos 5:22-23).

Another phrase is also used in the OT, the ‘holy convocation’, which comprises of two words in the original manuscripts (although they’re not used here in Amos, it’s worth briefly considering it before we move on). The second word (Strongs Hebrew number 4744, M2063d) comes from a root meaning a ‘call’ or a ‘call out’, and it seems to hold the meaning of an assembly that was brought together by the specific summoning of the people together, presumably by the blasting of the trumpets or the ram’s horn (see Num 10:2).

It’s used to refer to the natural sabbaths (Lev 23:3), the festivals as a whole (Lev 23:2,4,37) and, more specifically, the special or ‘God made’ sabbaths that fell within the annual festivals (Ex 12:16, Lev 23:7,8, Num 28:18,25 [Unleavened Bread - 1st and 7th days], Lev 23:21, Num 28:26 [Pentecost], Lev 23:24, Num 29:1 [Trumpets], Lev 23:27, Num 29:7 [Day of Atonement], Lev 23:35,36, Num 29:12 [Tabernacles]).

Isaiah uses the word ‘convocation’ as one of those types of assemblies that YHWH hated (Is 1:13) so that we should consider it as being included in the more concise speech of God recorded in Amos 5:21. In the present day Church, these special days within annual festivals would be something akin to the UK’s Bank Holidays, days when, until fairly recently, it was expected that nearly all the nation would be free not to work.

But whether it be the annual festival, the solemn assembly or the holy convocation, God isn’t pleased with our participation in them if our lives are structured to promote and commit sin. Even if we get the letter of the commandment perfectly interpreted and do all that’s required of us in the Scriptures, precisely and exactly, crossing the i’s and dotting all the t’s. All this is of no pleasure to God - indeed, He doesn’t just consider it a waste of time, He actually hates and despises it.

As an example, let’s consider for a few moments the celebration of what’s known variously as ‘The Lord’s Supper’, ‘Communion’, ‘The Eucharist’ and probably a million and one other labels. That many ‘celebrations’ are so vastly different (even within the same denomination - and yet there are a great many who are assertive that they’re doing it ‘as Scripturally as possible’) should alert us to the fact that, perhaps, there’s a freedom of interpretation that’s been deliberately allowed to stand so that the celebration becomes creative and not conformed to a rigid and unbending ceremony devoid of life.

For some will use only unleavened bread while others see no problem with leaven - still others use biscuits or wafers and others will only use Jewish matzah to make it as authentic as possible. Some believe that the bread really is the Lord’s body, others that they’re simply symbols with no magical properties and others that, although symbols, the celebration has a certain ‘blessing’ intrinsic to its performance.

The wine can be alcoholic (and some will insist on wine that’s been shipped from Israel), non-alcoholic, grape juice or even some sort of blackcurrant cordial. And some congregations will celebrate it strictly once a week, once a month, when they feel the Spirit leads them to do it or rarely, if ever. Still others will point out that Jesus commanded it to be celebrated at the Passover festival once a year and that that’s the correct way to understand how often and when it’s to be eaten and drunk.

Some will sing joyfully as they eat while others will sit quietly contemplating ‘God’ (or fall asleep if they’ve had a hard week or a late night). Others will forbid non-christians to eat it while others will allow anyone present. Very few denominations follow the celebration as it was developed in the church at Corinth (I Cor 11:17-34) which may have been daily, but it was certainly a meal or incorporated into one.

What’s God’s opinion on all of these structures? He doesn’t give two hoots - even though some of the more outlandish understandings of the ritual actually deny the need for faith in the cross.

What is God concerned with, then, when we think about Communion?

He looks upon the fact that the participation in the body and blood of Jesus Christ by faith in the lives of every individual present is being lived out in reality so that the bread and the wine isn’t eaten ‘in an unworthy manner’ (I Cor 11:27).

That’s caused many a denomination to warn the individuals taking it to examine their own lives quietly to make sure they’re not sinning before God (though, if you believe that once you’re saved you can’t go back, I fail to see the point of such an exercise).

But Paul spells out what ‘an unworthy manner’ means in the same passage for the rich will go ahead and eat to overflowing while the poor, who can’t afford such a sumptuous feast, will go hungry. People who claim to be united through Jesus Christ should have all things in common and distribute their possessions as any has need (Acts 2:45, 4:34-35). The ‘sin’ that they’re to examine themselves concerning isn’t on a par with ‘adultery’ or ‘armed robbery’ even though the consequences can be physical death through a judgment of God (I Cor 11:29-32) - rather, they’re not to sin against their brethren by withholding the resources they have that could meet their need.

And that’s what God’s concerned about in our communion celebration - not whether we use wine or cordial, leavened or unleavened bread. He expects righteousness to be practised amongst the people who have been made righteous by the blood of Jesus Christ, He expects the reality to be lived out. It’s far too easy to celebrate the Lord’s Supper to the letter and yet miss out on living out the reality of it in our lives.

And it’s as much true in the present day as it was in the time of Amos - God hated the assemblies and festivals because, in their daily lives, the Israelites weren’t just failing to meet the needs of their fellow Israelites, they were keeping them poor by transgression (Amos 3:6-7, 4:1, 5:11-12).

2. Sacrifices
Amos 5:22
Some of these notes are taken from my web page here.

The acceptance of individuals before YHWH was often achieved through the sacrificial offerings laid out in the Law of the first few chapters of Leviticus. It provided a framework for the Israelite to be able to find atonement for transgression, restoration of their relationship with God and opportunity for them to give freely, as their hearts prompted them, when they were under no compulsion.

There are three types of offerings mentioned here, the first two of which YHWH states that He will not accept (a word that occurs both here and in the Levitical instruction of Lev 1:4) while the third He refuses to look upon, presumably, with favour. Even though the legislation expressly stated what the worshipper needed to do to secure acceptance, God revokes the idea that legalistic offering could be sufficient (as, indeed, it never was) because the lives of those who are offering sacrifice are transgressing what’s clearly perceivable as being required from them.

The first sacrificed mentioned is the burnt offering (Leviticus chapter 1, 6:8-13) which was to secure atonement (Lev 1:4) and give the offerer renewed acceptance before the Lord (Lev 1:3). The offering had the effect of removing and nullifying the effects of sin and averting God’s wrath from the offerer. In short, it restored the relationship of the offerer with God.

Whereas the sin and guilt offerings dealt directly with the sin and ‘covered’ them, the burnt offering dealt with the effects that sin had brought about. We should, perhaps, not read too much into the non-appearance of both these offerings here in Amos and understand the mention of the three as being indicative of the entire sacrificial system.

It is, perhaps, more pointed that what the Israelites did freely (as epitomised in the cereal and peace offerings) had found rejection, for it was ‘out of the goodness of their own hearts’ that they drew near to God to offer something that was voluntary, not under compulsion but willingly and with eagerness.

The cereal offering (Leviticus chapter 2, 6:14-23) secured no atonement because there was no shedding of blood. The offering of a gift to God (by translation of the Hebrew name) was a result of the inner moving of a worshipper’s heart. It may have had overtones of acknowledging God as sovereign in the cultural setting of a tribute payable by a vassal to a greater king than himself but the underlying motive for such an offering was freewill.

The same was true with the peace offering (Leviticus chapter 3, 7:11-36) in which, again, no atonement was achieved. There are three reasons given for its offering in Leviticus - thanksgiving to God (7:12), a vow to God (7:16) or a freewill offering to God (7:16). All three were offerings that the offerer was under no obligation to make (the vow would have been made voluntarily even though the fulfilment of the conditions meant that the offering became compulsory) and therefore represented a gift presented to God, but with the renewal and reminder of the covenant made with the nation present in the participation of part of the sacrifice at its conclusion (see Exodus 24:1-11 as the parallel).

These last two offerings freely ‘overflow’ from the worshipper’s heart and yet God stills find their use in worship to be unacceptable, refusing to receive from their hand something that they’ve been prompted to bring to Him because of their perceived relationship before Him.

If anything in these three verses should scare us to the core of our being it’s this for Amos is prophesying that, even when we give to God something that we’re not obligated to give, He’ll take no pleasure in it - even that He’ll reject it - if we live lives that are unacceptable before Him. God’s acceptance of our life comes first before His acceptance of our offerings.

God would rather a believer give £100 to a needy brother in Christ than £50,000 to a project to expand the size of the building or to beautify the internal fixtures and fittings. God would rather a person who has ‘faith’ in Him support and provide for the poor of His own spiritual (or natural) family than to bring tithes and offerings to present before Him (see also Amos 4:4).

Unfortunately, our view of what’s acceptable to God is often warped and we can function ceremoniously perfect, thinking that God’s in our midst and causing us to expand and grow when, all the time, His voice is actually calling us back to the first principles that we’ve never learnt.

3. Praise times
Amos 5:23

This hits home with even greater clarity than the first two verses for we have no need to either spiritualise or translate it into the New Testament - we sing songs, lots of them. Whether it be the choirs of the American churches who seem to have taken the need for individual praise away from the congregations or the more individually expressive times in English churches when the band at the front is only there to ‘lead’ and ‘guide’ those present.

The Church enjoys singing - just like the world does. Music seems to be one of those human expressions that, if we were to have to give it up, the world would surely be a less attractive place to live.

I realise that we seldom - if ever - have harps, but melodies played on any of the modern (or fairly ancient, it has to be said) instruments isn’t a distortion of the text. God is saying through Amos that He hates it all.

I remember being in a church once where the ‘praise times’ were an integral part of the service, often stretching to half an hour. Being a part of the music team, it was great to be able to lead a people who wanted to give voice to their commitment to and love for God but there came a time when I pointed out that there might come a time when God would tell us to put our instruments down and not to play at all one meeting.

Well, I might as well have suggested that we all wife-swapped on a regular basis.

How could God do that? He wanted the praise of our hearts and there was no way that He’d ever say - not even once - that we shouldn’t sing to him.

My point wasn’t that we should, of course, but that we must be willing to be obedient to God in anything that He commands us to do even if we enjoy doing it. Obedience to God means even doing the things that He wants us to do but that we would rather avoid (for example, writing a commentary on the Book of Amos or travelling to Nineveh to declare a word against the place - for me, the former was the most difficult, for Jonah it was the latter).

When anything is found to be in a position where we’re unwilling to cast away it from ourselves, you know that it’s become idolatry - it’s not just the images of false gods that fall into this category but anything that becomes more to us than God Himself. Friends, family, possessions, religious ceremony or whatever - if we wouldn’t give them up or stop doing them should YHWH command us so, we’ve simply turned them into an idol that’s challenging the right for God to be Sovereign in our life.

That’s why a message such as Amos 5:23 would probably be laughed at in the present day Church - or else it would be angrily opposed. And it’s probably also the reason why the Israelites of Amos’ day would have ignored the words of the prophet as being dreamt up out of his own imagination.

God’s offended by the declarations of praise that elevate Him in our midst? Get real!

But words offered to God - whether in song or prayer (or both together) - are offensive to God when the life of the singer isn’t right before Him. Specifically, when the person cares more about their own Empire and self-interest than they do about the needs of those amongst them who struggle to make ends meet or when oppression, exploitation and manipulation are the order of the day. The latter are traits that are normally more demonstrative in the leadership than they are in the congregation.

Do what?
Amos 5:24
Some of these notes are taken from my web page here.

One of the better modern ‘hymns’ of supplication and intercession (in my opinion, of course) is ‘O Lord, the clouds are gathering’ by Graham Kendrick, a song that seems to have been first ‘released’ over 15 years ago (a lifetime in the history of modern songs).

It opens with observations about the state of the world and how men’s lives are demonstrative of sin in an ever-increasing fashion before going on to a fourth verse that speaks about God’s triumph in the nation through the cross and Jesus’ Church moving as it should.

The chorus is the really interesting piece, however, for it quotes Amos 5:24 towards the end but begins with the cry of the Church imploring God to

‘Have mercy, Lord
Forgive us, Lord
Restore us, Lord
      Revive Your Church again
Let justice flow
Like rivers
And righteousness
      Like a never failing stream’

The first four lines put the foundation of change in the world in the right context. Without a strong, restored Church, there can’t be the salt and light that’s needed to put the brakes on society in general, but the following four lines are an appeal to God to cause justice and righteousness to come back into society.

But therein lies the problem (sorry, Graham) because the word of God through Amos isn’t about the world, it’s about the Church - it was the believers who were living lives of unrighteousness and injustice and not only this but God doesn’t proclaim that He’ll bring these back into their midst but that they have to do it themselves.

Instead of a work of God, it’s being announced to God’s people as their own necessary ‘work’ in order that they might find acceptance once more before Him. Because they’d been the ones who’d removed justice and righteousness from their midst (Amos 5:7), they were also the ones who were being expected to restore it.

And God’s command here isn’t that there might be a trickle of justice in a dry valley bed or a shower of righteousness upon a parched and dry land. Rather, He speaks about justice rolling down like waters (although the Hebrew for ‘rolling’ is more rightly associated with the rolling of rocks and stones, I take the prophet’s intention here to be speaking of torrential rain) and righteousness flooding a place like an ever-flowing stream.

The idea is in the form of a contrast.

The Israelites would come to the sanctuaries for a time, offer their sacrifices that took a moment and sang their songs which lasted a few minutes. But God wanted the torrential outpouring from their lives of justice and the constancy of righteousness flowing out from them into the nation.

God moves from the temporal to the eternal, from those things that are fixed in a moment’s time to others that last for eternity - and, even though this isn’t stated in the text, we shouldn’t miss the point that transience doesn’t inherit the eternal (I Cor 15:50, II Cor 4:18).

What’s over in a fixed time is surpassed by those things that echo down the corridors of history, that continue to be remembered by God Himself when all that we see around us will have worn old and been removed.

Justice and righteousness are like that - the experience of church services, ceremonies and praise times aren’t. Although we all too often major on the minors, God continually raises up His way as being the only route on which a disciple can find life.

But what do these concepts of ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness’ mean? I defined the two words on my previous web page where I noted that the words overlapped in meaning and could be used interchangeably - although, when they’re used in the same sentence, some differentiation between the two should be expected to be present.

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, where instead of it being a dead letter, it becomes a practical expression of what it means to obey God.

Sacrifice in the wilderness
Amos 5:25-27 Pp Acts 7:42-43

This three verse passage is problematical.

Not because it’s impossible to offer an interpretation of what’s plainly before us but because it’s difficult to be sure what exactly it is that Amos is quoting God as saying, there being a number of options and emendations possible with the Hebrew text.

In the early days of the NT Church, Stephen quoted these verses (Acts 7:42-43) and interpreted them as being a record of what had transpired in the wilderness at the time of the manufacture of the golden calf, his interpretation seeming not to understand them to mean that this was what the Israelites of Amos’ day were doing - for both before and after the quote we have descriptions of the wilderness wanderings.

His quotation, then, seems to infer that, because the Israelites made for themselves the golden calf, God gave them up to worship the ‘gods of the heavens’ which, ultimately, led to their exile away from the land. But it could equally be an inference that the worship of both Moloch and Rephan occurred at a later date and that the judgment upon their sin was at that time exile - the verses being used to show the progression of unfaithfulness.

As Actsmar notes, however, the translation is almost entirely drawn from the LXX which changes Amos’ ‘Sakkuth’ and ‘Kaiwan’ (as translated in the RSV) to ‘Moloch’ and ‘Rephan’ who were entirely different gods (perhaps the LXX translators were the direct descendants of those who did the recent Message Bible?). Stephen also takes it upon himself to alter the place of exile in the LXX from Damascus to Babylon because his listeners can associate with his argument much easier and it will then broaden the scope of the exile to include both the northern and southern kingdoms (there may also be a good reason for changing it to Babylon in Stephen’s mind because the next verse, Amos 6:1, speaks of the people of Zion, the southern kingdom).

Instead of helping us with a better understanding of the original, therefore, it seems to simply cause us more problems and it’s best to stick with the Hebrew text as it’s come down to us and try to make sense out of that.

1. In the wilderness
Amos 5:25

Amos 5:25 causes unnecessary problems because we find it difficult to reconcile what it is that YHWH is actually saying with the previous history of Israel’s wilderness wanderings. But the text is plain here that God is questioning the relevancy of their relationship with Him as if it’s solely based upon the offering of sacrifice as they seem to have been equating it.

The point isn’t that no sacrifice was offered to God on the altar of burnt offering (for the Biblical record clearly points out that there were times at which sacrifice was made - the answer to the question asked, however, should be a ‘no’ rather than, as Ammot, a ‘yes’) but that the covenant that God had made with the people wasn’t based upon the continual renewal of the covenant in this way.

Indeed, as should be recognised when one reads the record of the nation’s encounter of God at Sinai, the covenant was based upon their willingness to observe the written ‘words and ordinances’ (Ex 24:3) that, until that point in time, had only dealt with right living. Even though sacrifice was offered to seal the covenant (Ex 24:5-8), it wasn’t until the Tabernacle was constructed that there was a need for legislation to detail the right and wrong way to approach Him.

Besides, the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness wasn’t a time of unparalleled blessing which saw the numbers of their cattle grow substantially. While the nation suffered no want, their possessions didn’t significantly grow until they began to draw near to the banks of the Jordan some forty years later, taking possession of nations that had come to oppose them and multiplying their resources on both their fertile land and that of Canaan after the conquest.

The statutes regarding the sacrifices (Leviticus chapters 1-7) were, therefore, predominantly intended for the settlement of the land - not the wanderings - because it depended upon God materially blessing the nation. The mention of ‘forty years’ may also be a phrase that’s intended to convey the period of time after the incident of Numbers chapters 13-14 when the people were exiled away from the land to wander for an additional 38 years.

So, reasons YHWH with His people, were you accepted by Me because you correctly offered sacrifice? Or was it on a different basis?

Although the nation in Amos’ day looked to the sacrificial system and thought that their acceptance was founded in the correct offerings and procedures, a consideration of their history would have shown up that belief to have been a false one. As Amstu writes

‘God’s point via the rhetorical question…is simply that offerings are not really what make His people right with Him. In the absence of a regular sacrificial program, the people were still covenantally His during the forty years in the wilderness’

Even the commands that were presented to the nation regarding the three annual festivals (Ex 23:14-17 Pp Leviticus chapter 23) are seen to be at least two-thirds applicable to the land they were supposed to shortly possess for ‘Weeks’ or ‘Pentecost’ was to do with the first fruits of the harvest while ‘Ingathering’ only had relevance once the harvest had been reaped.

Instead of ‘sacrifice’, God could just as easily have said ‘festivals’, therefore. And he could just as easily have said ‘circumcision’, too, for the Israelites had failed to circumcise their children throughout the wilderness encampments (Joshua 5:2-9). And yet Israel were still God’s special people.

What the nation could point to as evidence of the continued observance on their part of the covenant and, therefore, of their continued favour before God was totally worthless.

Amos 5:25 should be allowed to stand as it does in the RSV, therefore, and to state that the sacrificial system wasn’t generally practised in the wilderness (even though there were times when such offerings were made and there are extensive passages that deal with the correct way to offer sacrifice) - otherwise, God’s reasoning here becomes worthless and even contradictory.

The Church also needs to get away from thinking that any structure or format is what gets them Divine approval and acceptance. Most churches would poo-poo such an idea and hotly resist the suggestion that such a thought would ever be held by them.

But you just try changing the format of their Sunday morning service (as I’ve done on a few occasions in my life)! Then you can be assured that you witness first hand the nature of the beast.

At one place, I was even told off for sitting on the communion table - not while the bread and wine were on it, I hasten to add. And I once changed the communion from one person handing out a single piece, to everyone handing out a piece to one another to symbolise the need for sharing what we have with others - the elders were not amused.

But what’s the basis of our acceptance before God?

Jesus Christ and Him alone - everything else is purely superfluous.

If that’s the case, structure becomes an irrelevancy and we’re left with being burdened with the need to respond to His acceptance of us in right living before Him (living that isn’t based upon the type of songs you sing, the type of festivals you observe or the size of the sacrifice you make).

And, if everyone gets the denarius because of the kindness of the Householder (Mtw 20:1-16), how can we object to the type of structure that those of a different denomination use so long, of course, that they don’t deny the One who’s laid down His life for them?

The call to the Church today, just as it was to the Israelites in Amos’ day, is to think correctly about the things it does or else it may find itself being led astray by the lies it believes (Amos 2:4).

2. Beyond Damascus
Amos 5:26-27

Amos 5:26 is so problematical, with so many different possible arrangements of the words, translations and interpretations that, to avoid a long discussion of why I’ve opted for one instead of another, it’s best I simply give the reader the translation that I’m most happy with before offering some explanation of its meaning. It seems best to follow Amhub here who gives the translation

‘And did you (in the wilderness…) take up Sakkuth your king and Kaiwan your star-god, your images which you made for yourselves (as you are now doing)?’

turning the verse into a question as opposed to the RSV’s statement which causes God to be telling them that they will take up the images of their gods but with no direct application of what was to happen once this had taken place.

By allowing it to be a question, it parallels closely the preceding verse and, whereas there God is questioning them as to the validity of the offering of sacrifices in the wilderness for acceptance before Him, He now observes the idols that have been set up in their midst and asks them whether these two were set up at the time of their wanderings, inferring that these, again, weren’t the reason for Israel’s acceptance before Him.

As I’ve already discussed above, this is one of the rare occasions when YHWH actually denounces the children of God for their idolatry and I suggested above that the reason was that God’s case against them wasn’t on the basis of false worship but upon immoral living. Even so, He does take time to mention this sin but in the context that Israel were still continuing to offer sacrifice to Him alongside (Amos 5:25).

Indeed, if I understand the Israelite practices correctly, YHWH was definitely the God who was served/sacrificed to the most - it was in Israel’s dealings with their brothers, however, that the reason for their judgment and exile was fundamentally based.

The mysterious names ‘Sakkuth’ and ‘Kaiwan’ are identified by Amhub in Mesopotamian texts as labels for the planet Saturn so that the gods being mentioned here seem to have been those borrowed from the Assyrians and assimilated into the sanctuaries’ worship and service. Just how important they’d become to Israelite religion is impossible to say but Amhub appeals to Mesopotamian art, commenting that there are depictions

‘…of the gods attached to standards and carried aloft. One such picture features an eight-pointed star above the head of the deity’

The RSV’s text ‘you shall take up’ shows that this appears to be the interpretation of the matter and the relevance seems to be certain.

It could well be that festal processions were incorporated into Israelite worship and it wouldn’t be too great a stretch of the imagination to see this sort of ‘march’ to be used to exemplify the wilderness wanderings during which time they followed God in the cloud or the fire (Ex 13:21-22, Num 9:17-23), the standards of Sakkuth and Kaiwan going on before them at their head.

There’s no evidence to suggest that this is what actually did happen but it does demonstrate how a foreign god could have become an integral part of Israel’s religious service. Their march ‘following’ the idols would lead them not into deliverance and freedom, therefore, but exile as the gods returned back from where they belonged (that is, ‘beyond Damascus’).

The concluding words assure the Israelites that their exile will be ‘beyond Damascus’, a city that appears to be used for two reasons.

Firstly, it showed them the direction that many of them would be travelling (as opposed to ‘beyond Beersheba’ which would have pointed towards a southern exile) - it’s true to say, however, that the Israelites were scattered far and wide on account of the Assyrians but the Scriptural record’s testimony (II Kings 17:23) infers that the majority of the population who were exiled found themselves taken along that route, north-eastwards.

Secondly, Damascus is mentioned to indicate the distances involved as being significant. While it’s true that somewhere such as ‘Haran’ could have been used, II Kings 14:28 may be relevant to the time in which the prophecy was being delivered. Damascus - at some point in Jeroboam’s reign - became one of the boundaries of Israel so that exile could be spoken of here as being completely away from their territory.

The point appears to be not that their idolatry was causing judgment to fall but that their reliance upon sacrifices and offerings (whether to YHWH or other gods, it doesn’t matter - both are mentioned here) to gain Divine favour and acceptance was what was being judged.

Instead of living as God intended them to, their reliance upon religion was about to be shown up for what it was - empty and impotent.

3. God of Hosts
Amos 5:27

For a brief discussion of the phrase ‘YHWH of Hosts’, readers should access my web page here under the header ‘Lord of Hosts’.

My conclusion there is that the phrase

‘…seems to have been coined to denote God’s Sovereignty over all the multitudes and groups of the world, whether they be nations, tribes or armies. Instead of the nation of Israel looking at their God and seeing Him purely as a ‘local’ god who was over themselves alone, they envisaged Him being supreme over the nations (and angelic hosts) even though the nations may not be recognising it’