Don’t trust successful leaders
The greatness of the land
Putting away and bringing near
I’m somewhat bewildered by the dividing sentences and verses at this point and am puzzled as to whether it’s best to draw a line under verse 2 and move verse 3 to sit at the head of the following section or, like the RSV, take the verse as being a descriptor that’s relevant to the people spoken of in verse 1 and include it here (the RSV, Amp, NASB and GNB all have v.3 attached to v.2 and v.4 begins a new section while the AV, LB and NIV have v.3 attached to v.2 but v.4 continues the observation).
Commentators aren’t helpful at this point - as very often they aren’t at the really difficult points in the text! Amstu simply accepts the former option without any seeming awareness that others take an alternative view (although it may be that he follows the path of the AV noted above. His divisions aren’t helpful and neither are his comments) whereas Amhub speaks of the verse as being a careful use of ‘an address’ that
‘...carries on the woe formula of verse 1’
To me, it seems best to accept that verse 3 is an address to those who are at ease and secure in Zion and Samaria and that, having described the paradox of their life (they push the day of evil into the future and hasten its coming by their lives), YHWH continues to speak in a more detailed fashion about the decadence of their lives, for it hardly seems appropriate to take Amos 6:4-7 and to attach it to Israelite society in general.
Therefore, although I’ve divided this passage up to make the web page end at Amos 6:3, the reader should realise that God’s condemnation continues from verse 4 and that, to gain a fuller picture, the subsequent web page should also be read.
Don’t trust successful leaders
‘He’s gone off his head’ some will be saying.
Others will object ‘Everyone knows that success is evidence of God’s blessing’
I admit that the title of this section was deliberately chosen to shock - I have no excuses nor apologies to make. But the problem with such an objection is that it contradicts the testimony of Scripture or, perhaps better, it tells only half the story.
We’ve already seen that there can be no objection raised to the fact that YHWH had intervened in the affairs of the nation of Israel in Jeroboam’s reign through the fulfilment of the word of Jonah the prophet (II Kings 14:25-27). God had seen that
‘...the affliction of Israel was very bitter, for there was none left, bond or free, and there was none to help Israel’
‘...He saved them by the hand of Jeroboam the son of Joash’
a king of whom it’s recorded (II Kings 14:24) that
‘...he did what was evil in the sight of YHWH; he did not depart from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat which he made Israel to sin’
So, although God might give the prophetic word to a disobedient people because he takes pity on them, and fulfil it through a man who’s living in opposition to His will, that doesn’t mean that the resultant success and prosperity that was brought to the nation was evidence of the righteous life of either the people as a whole or of the people’s deliverer.
Indeed, in the same reign, Amos’ word of judgment came to the nation to announce their responsibility for not using their increased prosperity to the entire nation’s advantage. When material wealth increases, therefore, personal responsibility goes hand in hand.
Or consider the reign of Solomon who was promised by God (I Kings 3:13) that He would give him
‘...both riches and honour, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days’
and who found the fulfilment (I Kings 10:27) that
‘...silver [was] as common in Jerusalem as stone, and...cedar as plentiful as the sycamore of the Shephelah’
all because God was watching over His word to bring it about. Such material blessing, therefore, could quite easily be taken to be an indication that Solomon’s life was right before God and that he was only receiving the outworking of his own righteousness. But this simply isn’t so, for Solomon rebelled against what was clearly correct for him to do.
His politically astute marriage alliance with Egypt (I Kings 3:1) was a spiritual disaster that’s spoken against in I Kings 11:2 where we read a list of all the foreign women that he married with the scribe commenting (I Kings 11:3) that
‘...his wives turned away his heart’
from being sincere in His devotion to YHWH (I Kings 11:4) for he followed after the gods (I Kings 11:5,7) of
‘...Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians...Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites...Chemosh the abomination of Moab...Molech the abomination of the Ammonites...’
After God’s rich blessing upon him because of his obedience (in Jeroboam’s case above, God’s blessing came ‘in spite of’ his disobedience), the Bible is forthright in its description of the king (I Kings 11:6) that he
‘...did what was evil in the sight of YHWH...’
a phrase that became almost the catchphrase of many of the kings that came after him. God’s anger burned against him (I Kings 11:9) and He raised up enemies against him (I Kings 11:14,23,26), deciding to divide the kingdom away from Solomon upon his death because of his sin (I Kings 11:29-40).
Even though Solomon’s great wisdom has helped others down through time (I Kings 4:32-34, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes), it seems to have singularly failed to help its owner (Eccles 2:9). Instead of taking to heart what God would have had him do, he forsook God’s way when he became rich and secure (although I Kings 3:1 shows that the rot had already set in even before his increased prosperity).
In both Jeroboam (the king under whom Amos prophesied) and Solomon, therefore, we see two different examples where men and people were made prosperous for different reasons. In the former, God had pity upon His people even though they were in a state of constant and continual sin against Him and, in the latter, God multiplied a man’s prosperity because of his devotion, only for him to go astray.
In both cases, the leaders didn’t perceive that material prosperity from God’s hand carried with it additional responsibility. For Jeroboam, it was an opportunity to repent and acknowledge the One who’d given him the increase, for Solomon, it was to continue living faithfully to God.
But both failed.
When we turn our attention to the successful churches, then, do we have the right to say that prosperity is a sign of the leadership and congregation’s continuing obedience and faithfulness to God?
The answer, unfortunately, is ‘no’ - or else the rich of this world could be held up to be the most righteous men and women on the planet and we should elect Bill Gates as pope.
But, wouldn’t you know it? Who do we run to when we want to know how to be successful leaders and successful congregations? It’s always the ones who’ve ‘made it’ in our own eyes - and they’re never, in my experience, the men or women with small fellowships (Ammot notes that the ‘notable men’ of Israel are to be understood as ‘well-known men in leadership positions’).
Success in the Church’s eyes is still on the basis of material blessing - whether it be an increase in numbers or wealth. That’s also a reason why the ‘well-off’ are more likely to find themselves in positions of leadership than the poor - because, perhaps subconsciously at times, we equate wealth with God’s blessing.
And so it may be - but the rich have more of a responsibility to use their wealth wisely for the sake of the people of the Church. As James was quick to point out (James 2:5)
‘...God [has] chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom...’
If you want to see those who are strong in Jesus Christ, search the materially poor out and rub shoulders with them, but don’t be fooled into thinking that wealth proves spirituality (see also Mtw 19:16-20:16, my exposition of which starts on the web page here).
So, when you find a large church, you find men and women clamouring to learn from it. When you find a successful leader who’s significantly increased the numbers under them, you can be assured that they’ll be invited to speak more often than the people leading smaller fellowships.
We shouldn’t find it surprising when it happens in the world - but we should be horrified when it happens in the Church for it’s exactly the same thing that happened with Solomon for, recognising that what He had was ‘from God’ (I Kings 10:24-25)
‘...the whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom...Every one of them brought his present, articles of silver and gold, garments, myrrh, spices, horses and mules, so much year by year’
where the second half of the quote shows also why we also tend to ‘do things’ for the successful leaders rather than to support the poor believers as we’re called to do. We get ‘known’ by our gifts and, hopefully, we can ‘buy’ favour - or, in Solomon’s case, they hoped to buy wisdom.
And it was the identical situation as YHWH observed in Amos 6:1 (my italics) of those in positions of power for He pronounces a woe upon those
‘...who are at ease in Zion and to those who feel secure on the mountain of Samaria - the notable men of the first of the nations, to whom the house of Israel come’
God has expanded His words of condemnation to include all those in both the northern and southern kingdoms - those who are at ease in Jerusalem and those who have earthly security in Samaria (the capitals of the kingdoms). Amstu gives good background here in commenting that
‘...people from all over the country came to them as the pre-eminent people of the “leading nation”...which in that region Israel indeed was by now. Jeroboam II had, by God’s design, even subdued Syria, Israel’s often more powerful rival to the north...
Although we aren’t told why the children of Israel came to these two similar groups of people (that is, what exactly was it they were hoping to gain?), the vagueness gives us the ability to see a multitude of possible reasons. But the primary one is surely that by their association they were hoping to either learn how to achieve what they themselves had or to find influence given to them in their personal situations.
If you can’t be rich yourself, after all, be favoured by those who are rich and you may find that some of their wealth and influence rubs off on you. As Amstu notes
‘Association with the monarchy, whether by birth, marriage or employment, or even proximity, afforded the opportunity for gaining wealth and prestige, but at the risk of abandoning the old original values of the covenant’
And, to bring it up to the present day, if you can’t be a leader in the congregation, try and associate yourself with those who are to gain popularity and prestige. You never know - you may find that, when positions are being handed out, the leader will throw one your way.
I hate having to write what I have, but I’ve seen this happen all too often in churches. Those who are friends with the leaders are the ones who generally find themselves put into positions of authority while the ones who’ve simply got on with serving God and listening to Him are consigned to be lower down the pecking order.
Even when it comes to giving, those who get their cheque books out and contribute large sums of money are the ones who are given the ‘honour’ in the list of givers to the project where we conveniently ignore the principal of Luke 21:1-4 that the rich
‘...contributed out of their abundance but [the poor] out of [their] poverty put in all the living that [they] had’
(perhaps we should put the people who contributed a dollar at the top of the ‘list of honour’ and hold them up as the real powerhouse of meeting the final target, ignoring the large contributors as not deserving a mention? It would certainly show us who’s more concerned with the honour than the project to which they were giving).
But we should return to the text to note that these ‘heads’ were both at ease (Amhub calls it ‘cavalier carefreeness - or carelessness...’) and secure (Amhub says they were ‘...lulled into an irresponsible sense of security’) in their own empires. After commenting on the political situation that lay round the land and noting that there were none at that time who could effectively come against either Israel or Judah (hence the prophet’s words that they were the ‘first of the nations’ is politically accurate), Amhub notes that the rich and influential believed that
‘...Yahweh’s next move was...to be vindication and blessing, not invasion and judgment’
going on to comment that the sacrificial system simply supported such a view for they were able to increasingly give to YHWH to earn favour, to give more time to singing His praises and to celebrate the festivals (Amos 5:21-23). But Bethel was to come to nothing (Amos 5:5) or, perhaps better, nothing was to come from all the celebrations that were being performed at that sanctuary or any other.
That’s why Church programs are so deceptive for they show the fellowship to be active for God when God’s true plumbline is one of how justice and righteousness are being outworked in their midst (Amos 5:24).
Is the choir the best it’s ever been? Are the funds flowing in for more expansive projects? Have the weekly and annual celebrations of God’s goodness become perfect and personally uplifting? Are the leaders more renowned than they ever have been and are exerting more influence both in the fellowships around them and in their own specific denomination? Are people coming to the fellowship because they’ve heard of its success?
None of these things are how a church should be assessed.
‘Vindication and blessing’ may well be what just such a fellowship are expecting, but if the prophets have been silenced (Amos 2:12) or been told to speak what’s acceptable to the leadership and congregation (Is 30:10), how can it be sure that God’s next great move in their midst won’t be ‘judgment’?
The Israelites’ failure to own up to the fact of the nation’s sin before God caused the additional failure of any belief that such a ‘day of evil’ (Amos 6:3) could ever come upon them, pushing the day of judgment into the distant future and yet hastening its coming by their lives. The same is true of the fellowships who sit both secure and at ease, who aren’t judging their state before God by right considerations.
One final point is made well by Ammot and I quote him at length here for he’s put into words something that should stand on its own rather than for me to try and paraphrase or précis it. He writes of Amos 6:1 as speaking
‘...first of all to leaders, and leaders never live or die to themselves, any more than anyone does, but in a particular sense they mould the destiny of those whom they lead; they involve others in the shape their leadership imposes on the organisation or community or whatever it may be they lead; and just as, if their leadership comes under the blessing of God, they are never blessed alone but bring into blessing those who follow them, so also, if their leadership commands His wrath, they never go to their doom alone...’
and goes on to cite Amos 6:11 as supporting his conclusion for it says that
‘...the great house shall be smitten into fragments, and the little house into bits’
It’s also plain that many who have ‘fallen’ from leadership through sin have also taken large sections of congregations with them. In my own experience, I know of one such leader who spent so much time building a fellowship around himself that, when he stumbled, so did the congregation to such an extent that it has, maybe, a quarter of the people it had in it’s ‘heyday’.
But, if the leadership is making the congregation in their own image, it also means that the judgment that comes upon them can’t help but come upon those under them, for they’ll be exhibiting the same traits that have caused the leaders to be condemned before God.
In conclusion, I should note that prosperity and security, especially amongst Church leadership, are not signs that the person or people are in a right relationship with God. Although this might prove God’s blessing upon them, it says nothing about their spirituality for both the wicked (Jeroboam) and the righteous (Solomon) can receive from His hand.
Rather, material wealth and success carry with them responsibility that the possessor doesn’t exploit their position and power to become unjust and unrighteous, primarily outworked in the way that they treat the children of God over whom they can exert some influence.
The greatness of the land
This is a difficult verse to integrate into the prophet’s argument because there are a number of possibilities of meaning. Amhub sees the words as being a quotation of the
‘...boastful, self-reliant leaders of Samaria’
mentioned in Amos 6:1 - although it’s plain that we must also include the leaders of Zion. They appeal to the proverbial greatness of places of their own era and consider themselves greater and better.
Even the final two questions recorded for us here are considered to be on their lips by the commentator who sees them as words of condemnation directed against the prophet because they’re appealing to the pre-eminence of both kingdoms of Israel and Judah and the assumed impossibility of judgment falling upon them.
The Message Bible (which is always a law to itself) understands the verse differently as the words of YHWH through His prophet, saying
‘Well, wake up and look around. Get off your pedestal. Take a look at Calneh. Go and visit Great Hamath. Look in on Gath of the Philistines. Doesn’t that take you off your high horse? Compared to them, you’re not much, are you?’
which turns the meaning around in almost the opposite direction for now God is saying that there are greater places than either Samaria and Zion and that, if they considered their natural position more perceptively, they’d realise that they’re not that great.
Another translation would see Amos’ appeal to be resting upon the assumption that all the three places mentioned - Calneh, Hamath and Gath - had already been judged by God and that they were much better than either Samaria or Zion. Therefore, if the great have been humbled, how could they be complacent in the security of their own kingdoms?
This interpretation is objected to by Amhub because it
‘...presumes that the three cities had already been sacked by Assyria and shorn of all power and glory, when what we know of the history indicates that such catastrophes did not take place till a quarter of a century or so after Amos’ time’
It could be reasoned that the acquisition of Hamath had already taken place (II Kings 14:25) and that the Philistines (including Gath) were subject to Judahite control (II Chr 26:2). It’s difficult to see how Calneh (a location that hasn’t been positively identified but is generally thought to have been much further north than Hamath) could be thought of as having fallen, however, but Amstu opts for this interpretation.
Although not without its problems, it seems to me that the most likely interpretation is one that takes these words as being on the lips of the ‘secure and at ease’ leaders of Samaria and Jerusalem (Amos 6:1 - although God could well be paraphrasing the sorts of objections that were being mouthed against his message of judgment and using sarcasm in the declaration in much the same was as Micaiah did before Ahab - I Kings 22:15-16) so that the verse should give the sense
‘Pass over to Calneh, and see; and thence go to Hamath the great; then go down to Gath of the Philistines. Are these three places better than the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah? Or is their territory greater than ours?’
where Ammot sees it as a
‘...comparison with others less fortunate...’
When the rich and famous ‘soberly’ thought upon the state of their nations in the world’s eyes, they really did think, as Ammot puts into words, that
‘Things surely could not be better; they [have] reached a zenith’
This complacency of Amos 6:2 is reflected well in Amos 6:1, the evidence of their eyes being used to justify the impregnability of their culture and life. When they looked around those ‘outside’, they saw nothing that compared to where they were, they saw nothing that was possible to do them harm - after all, with the continued sacrificial centres at Jerusalem and Bethel securing favour for them before God, who was able to stand against in opposition?
Such reasoning, however, was deficient - just as it is in today’s Church.
The size and influence of a fellowship doesn’t determine the impregnability of its continued existence. And the service offered to God in the midst of such a people does nothing but delude the believers into thinking that’s all well and rosy in the garden (just as it did when the Israelites thought of Bethel and Gilgal).
When a fellowship of over a thousand attendees in an affluent western country - and I’m using an example from one I know - can allocate just $6,500 for the welfare of the poor in its midst (which is just $125 per week. Can anyone live on $125 per week who doesn’t live in the Third World?!) but over $12,000 for ‘recreational activities’ (and over $300,000 for the salaries of their six ministers, I note) then you just know that there’s something wrong, something very seriously wrong.
Even more so when the current church building project runs into millions.
The defence is always that ‘God has blessed us’ which may, as we’ve seen, be correct - blessing carries with it responsibility, however, not just initial privilege. The observations may come that ‘we’re greater than those denominations who are round about us’ and that God will continue to support their continued existence.
But God’s voice is as plain today as it was back then through Amos - all these matters don’t concern Him but, rather, He looks at the way the believers interrelate to see if there truly is justice and righteousness being demonstrated in their midst, if the poor are being supported and the weak made strong.
If the rich stay rich while the poor still struggle, no amount of comparisons with other fellowships will ever justify the complacency of seeing ourselves as being God’s special people in the midst of others who aren’t being favoured as much. The size of a fellowship doesn’t safeguard it’s continued existence, for here the saying holds true that
‘The bigger they are, the harder they fall’
Putting away and bringing near
Amos 6:2 has stood almost as a parenthesis interjected into the middle of the flow of thought. Here in 6:3, the message returns to picture the ‘secure and at ease’ of Zion and Samaria and to summate both what they were attempting to do and what they were actually doing. I’ve summarised this above already but, paraphrased, we could render this verse as claiming that the rich and influential were
‘...pushing the day of judgment into the distant future and yet hastening its coming by their lives’
What will come upon them as judgment from the hand of God, they try desperately to ignore and consign either to a far distant future or a far distant land but, all the while, their oppression and exploitation of the poor brethren among them and their robbery from the less fortunate are the very actions that are bringing the judgment ever closer, ever quicker.
We’re not told exactly how they were denying the coming judgment but the word used (Strongs Hebrew number 5077, M1302), from which the RSV translates ‘put far away’, is a bit stronger than those words make out for TWOTOT defines it in Amos 6:3 as meaning to ‘refuse to think of’ and the only other occasions where it’s used are in II Kings 17:21 where Jeroboam is said to have ‘driven’ the nation of Israel away from following YHWH and Is 66:5 where those who have been ‘cast out’ by the unrighteous will ultimately be vindicated by Him.
There’s a violence inherent in this word that should be neither missed nor fail to be applied. The people who put the evil day far away from themselves were aggressive in their rebuttal of Amos’ message - and the words of anyone else who brought something similar. They refused to accept the testimony being spoken and justified both Israel and Judah’s continued existence by an appeal to the security of the nations in the current political climate.
In Ezekiel’s day (the prophet who was commissioned by God to speak to the exiled Israelites and Judahites long after the fall of Samaria - that is, after the fulfilment of Amos’ words upon the nation), the people also refused to accept that the days in which they lived were to be the days of fulfilment. Their proverb (Ezek 12:22-23) that
‘The days grow long and every vision comes to nought’
was as good as saying that there would be no fulfilment of the prophetic words, although YHWH reminded them that
‘The days are at hand and the fulfilment of every vision’
Again, when Ezekiel spoke of judgment that was about to come upon them (Ezek 12:27-28) they countered its imminence by declaring
‘The vision that he sees is for many days hence and he prophesies of times far off’
Yet again, though, YHWH retorted that
‘None of My words will be delayed any longer but the word which I speak will be performed’
There’s always danger in refusing to accept that what God has said is for the days in which one lives for it means that nothing is ever thought of as being necessary to be done to revoke the judgment. What matter is it if the next generation will be judged for their sin so long as we escape with our own lives (II Kings 20:16-19)?
And so the rich and influential continued living in opposition to the will of God and brought near the outpouring of wrath because they continued to sit on ‘the seat of violence’ (Amos 2:6-8, 3:10, 4:1, 5:7,11-12) - the violence that they sit upon will also, therefore, rise up and bite their bum (if you’ll excuse the expression). They behave, as Amhub perceptively observes
‘...as though justice had been erased from the vocabulary of the universe’
Ammot is also insightful in his words at this point (although I’ve added some interpretation within the square brackets) for he observes of Amos 6:1-3 that
‘...complacent leadership [that saw itself as ‘of God’] was in fact simply the incipient form of anarchy [against God]...’
a fairly dramatic statement if applied to the present day for it’s often been the case that those who have hidden behind the label of being ‘God’s anointed leadership’ are the very ones who are doing the most to undermine the will of God from taking root in their midst through the continuance of those structures that safeguard their own empire.
These words through Amos aren’t idle and fitting only for application to the world - these were directly given to the children of God whose calling has now fallen upon the NT Church of Christ (Rom 11:27-24) and we ignore them at our own peril.
Pushing away the ‘evil day’ when judgment will fall upon God’s own people who are living opposed to His will can only encourage us to bring before us the seat of violence against those who need our mercy and support.
Leadership must be sober and watchful, therefore, neither priding themselves on being the success stories of their peers (Amos 6:1), nor thinking that God’s blessing secures their continued existence before Him (Amos 6:2), nor ignoring the signs that all’s not well in their midst and that judgment is imminently to fall (Amos 6:3).
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