Their ease and security
Their lack of concern
These four verses are based upon Amos 6:1-3 and shouldn’t be thought of as standing independently for they naturally follow on and expand what’s already been spoken. The reader should, therefore, read the discussions on those verses before trying to come to terms with the message here.
The descriptions here naturally follow on from Amos 6:1 where Zion and Samaria’s rich and influential were named, although it seems that from what’s written in the final part of verse 6 only those of Samaria in the northern kingdom of Israel must be in mind (the designation ‘Joseph’ is initially attributable to the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh and then, by extension, to all those who dwelt in the land that was part of the kingdom of which they were included as two of the tribes).
I noted on the previous web page that it was difficult to determine whether Amos 6:3 belonged as a conclusion to 6:1-2 or as the opening observation of the passage 6:3-7 and chose the former. This seems the best way to understand it because Amos 6:3 stands as a summation of their general attitude that refuses to accept that the day of judgment is imminent and yet, all the while, they bring that day ever more quickly to a fulfilment by their actions.
So, although Amos 6:3 has summated their attitude, from 6:4 we get specific traits that YHWH finds unacceptable with them being the children of God. This is something worth noting for all too often we ascribe condemnation to the world for being like those who are described here.
We should, perhaps, expect those in the world who are without God to live lives of decadence and self-interest but it’s when these traits exist in the people of God that YHWH raises up prophets to call them back to a sincere and pure devotion that outworks His love for them into practical responsibility towards fellow believers.
Their ease and security
There’s nothing wrong with owning a bed - with or without a mattress - or possessing a couch upon which you sit to watch the tv or to rest - you can even have cushions on it with bright patterns and washable covers.
Neither is there anything wrong with eating lamb or beef (and, for that matter, we should include chicken, fish - and pork if you’re a Gentile), with singing songs written by Graham Kendrick or Bob Dylan - or doing a bit of d-i-y to make a guitar to play them on.
Even opening a bottle of wine and drinking its contents isn’t going to be considered a sin (unless you’re in one of ‘those’ denominations who shall remain nameless) - and neither is splashing on some after shave or eau de toilette going to offend the Almighty.
It’s the excesses that are mentioned here that are the problem - excesses that are being lived out when the poor of Israelite society are going hungry and ill-clad. And, worse, when the rich who live such inappropriate lifestyles are funding their decadence through the exploitation and oppression of those who are less fortunate than themselves (Amos 4:1, 5:10-11).
In the current passage, however, mention of unrighteous ways of acquiring wealth are only briefly in mind. We’ve already seen how some of the extravagant lifestyles of the rich were nothing but the fruits of robbery but, here, YHWH turns His attention only to the lifestyle itself regardless of how the wealth has come about.
Having said that, because they brought near ‘the seat of violence’ (Amos 5:3), the idea of oppression and robbery can’t be far from an understanding of the means with which they were able to fund such lifestyles. For the present verses, however, it’s better that we see the message to be calling all the wealthy children of God to give an account of how they’re using their resources and not just the ones who’ve founded it on unrighteousness and injustice.
The contrast, then, is between the excesses and trappings of wealth (Amos 6:4-6a) and the lack of concern for the ‘ruin of Joseph’ (Amos 6:6b) rather than seeing God objecting to their actions on the basis of how the opportunity to do such things has come about.
By ‘wealthy’ we shouldn’t imagine that God’s only concerned with those in our own churches that are excessively rich, for true wealth is to have more than you need to survive in the world - and, by contrast, poverty is to have less.
But to be ‘poor’ is probably best understood to be a situation in which it’s difficult to survive even though one might ‘get by’. Many believers have to go into the world to secure loans for items that are essential to their survival (and I mean ‘survival’ - not improvement), paying rates of interest that take from them much more than they borrow. It’s a much wiser use of common resources for believers to lend to their own, swallowing their own expectation of annual interest with the bankers and increasing the total financial resource of the Church (that is, the loss of interest on savings for the lender will be less than the loss of money through interest rate charges for the borrower - the Church, therefore, sees a net gain).
Those of us whose income exceeds our expenditure must be careful to deal with the excess wisely, not getting too hung up on thinking that God would take from us every single penny so that we’re not able to buy a few luxuries (but a ‘few’ is a subjective word, as I’ve all too often discovered).
The point is, though, that if we have an excess and our brother has insufficient for his needs (as opposed to someone who spends excessively over and above his income on wants and fads), we’re obliged to meet his need, for all that we have belongs to God and an increase of material blessing lays upon us an increased responsibility (see on the previous web page).
This passage, then, takes the mention of the ease and security that’s spoken of in Amos 6:1 and describes it with specific examples to highlight the problem amongst the wealthy and influential.
Firstly, the ‘couch’ and the ‘bed’ have already been encountered in Amos 3:12 where it’s been observed that the people of Israel will be
‘...rescued with the corner of a couch and part of a bed’
the identical two Hebrew words occurring in the verses. When we discussed the significance of these two items, I asked the question as to what they pointed to, if the
‘two legs or a piece of an ear’
were indicative of the former existence of a sheep. I concluded that
‘...the bed and the couch must be indicative of Samaria’s life, of the type of lifestyle that it characterised and which God had come against in judgment...symbolic for the prosperous ease of the rich believers...instead of rejoicing in their prosperity, they should have concerned themselves with the sin that was everywhere at hand and which had ruined the nation before God’
It isn’t just that the rich have beds but that they have beds of ivory, a decadent addition to an otherwise practical piece of furniture - and, if you sleep in the bed at night, can you actually benefit from the decoration (something that always makes me wonder why people lavishly decorate their bedrooms)?
The idea of the ‘couch’ may not immediately be seen to be indicative of the people’s decadence but the Hebrew word translated ‘stretch’ (Strongs Hebrew number 5628, M1543) is defined by TWOTOT as giving the concept of overflowing so that, here in Amos, the idea is one of
‘...overflowing excess [that] makes Amos’ condemnation of the citizens of the northern kingdom as sprawling over their beds of ivory at banquets most picturesque’
Even more so because the word is used again in Amos 6:7 where it’s associated with their ‘revelry’, a word that’s translated by the word ‘banquet’ in the AV (Strongs Hebrew number 4797) and which, as Amhub points out, may be connected with a type of pagan religious festival at which the participants drank and ate often for days, engaging in other pursuits that were an affront to God.
Whether this is what God had in mind is impossible to know for we only get the bare bones of the label, but it’s equally possible that such a label was picked up and put upon their banquets because it gave the sense of what YHWH felt about them, even though they weren’t, strictly speaking, of this type.
If the wealthy people of Israel despised the ‘banquets’ of the heathen and saw in their own festivities something that was pure and undefiled before God, what better way than to use the label that came out from their own mouths for something that was despised and hated and put it upon their own celebrations and excesses?
It’s not possible, then, to be certain that the pagan celebrations were followed to the letter - only that that was what YHWH thought of them. The bottom line, though, was that they were living a life of luxurious ease while the poor amongst them were working industriously for a mere pittance.
The abundance of their possessions and prosperity is also seen in their participation in the meat dinners of lambs and calves. As Amhub observes
‘The general population lived on wheat and barley and whatever fruits and vegetables were at hand and, if they had meat at all, reserved it for times of high celebration’
Amstu notes that meat was probably only financially accessible three times every year at Passover (when eating meat was obligatory), Pentecost and Tabernacles, the compulsory festivals - though Jeroboam’s institution of a festival in the eighth month may have undermined the need for the Israelites to take part in the latter of these three (I Kings 12:32-33).
The idea that the calves eaten were taken ‘from the stall’ causes Amhub to decide that they were doing so
‘...to fatten them, undoubtedly on grain wrested from the poor by cruel taxation...’
which is going too far with the text before us. As I’ve said above, God’s point isn’t that the foundation of their lives was built upon robbery and oppression (which He’s already brought to their attention previously) but that their excessive lifestyle is undermining their need to be grieved over Joseph’s ruin (Amos 6:6b).
The GNB even sees the keeping of the calves in the stalls as evidence of veal production (which, again, is going too far). That calves were kept in stalls is known in the OT from Mal 4:2 although this text was probably composed around four hundred years after Amos.
It seems to be, therefore, not the production of the animals that’s being declared as excessive but their ability to be able to choose whatever they wanted, to take it for themselves and to eat richly when their fellow Israelites were suffering want.
From food, YHWH moves on to their hobbies - a word that I’ve used because it seems that the rich and influential had so much time on their hands that they needed something to occupy them.
There’s a choice in the translation of this verse which makes very little difference to the overall message but, even so, it’s worth noting. Amstu counts the syllables up and suggests that, in order for both lines to retain the same number, the reference to ‘David’ should be appended to the end of the first half of the verse and not transposed into the second.
So, his first line objects that the rich
‘...improvise to the sound of the harp, like David’
while, in the second, he chooses to repoint one of the Hebrew words for he feels that the writing of songs is more likely than designing and building musical instruments, giving the translation
‘...[they] invent for themselves all sorts of songs’
If both are possible, both could equally be correct - and neither makes much difference to the overall thrust of God’s message to His people even though it has to be said that a new variation on an old instrument calls for a new degree of expertise in learning to master it and it seems more likely that new songs rather than new instruments should be preferred.
Whatever the precise meaning, it appears as if these people had just so much time on their hands that they got bored if they didn’t find something to do - what a shame to get so wearied with the tedium of their existence! Amhub is perceptive when he notes that
‘Whatever creative energies the Israelites had, they were not challenged into care for the poor among their countrymen...’
probably because such a ‘work’ would obligate them to have to put their hands into their pockets and become less rich. So some of them who had the ability filled their lives up with the development of music that fed no one, but which brought them personal satisfaction. This
‘...high living in an idle lifestyle’
as Amstu labels it, was offensive to God for not only was their laziness apparent on their beds and couches (Amos 6:4) but, when they did put their hand to something, it was irrelevant to the plight of those who most needed their attention.
Finally, we read about wine and oil - both of which aren’t inherently evil. Wine was drunk because the water supply wasn’t always safe, and oil, as Amstu observes, was used to kill lice (oil had a great many different uses although anointing with oil is, perhaps, what’s being alluded to in Amos where the substance would have been expected to have been perfumed).
The problem with both these phrases, however, is in the descriptions that surround them for wine is drunk from ‘bowls’ not ‘cups’ (implying over-indulgence and drunkenness - Amstu understands the bowls to be the storage basins that held vast quantities but the word [Strongs Hebrew number 4219] was normally used to denote a ‘bowl’ that was used in the service of God in either the Tabernacle or Temple and Amstu’s interpretation seems unlikely) and oil is spoken of as being the ‘finest’ (the first pressings of the olive were the most expensive product and contained the best oil - the word [Strongs Hebrew number 7225] means ‘first fruits’ or the ‘beginning’ and so conveys this meaning).
Ammot sees the two items as being summated by the phrase ‘drink and deodorants’ but the principle seems to be that they spared themselves no excesses - both in the quantities (the bowls of wine) and the qualities (the finest oils).
Here was a people who were luxuriating in their wealth and position, taking for themselves the best of everything and using it for their own ease and well-being. Perhaps we should also point to Luke 10:34 as being indicative of the contrasting uses of oil and wine for in that verse the hated Samaritan pours into a wound both oil and wine to bring healing while the richly indulgent here in Amos use it for increased luxury even though such products, spiritually speaking, could have been used for the healing of the nation before God.
I’ve repeatedly contrasted the Israelites’ excesses with the poverty of the ordinary Israelite even though this isn’t the way that God uses the passage. For example, we don’t find Him saying
‘You lie upon beds of ivory but your brothers have not so much as a cloak to sleep in’
‘You stretch yourselves out upon couches but My people lie down upon the dirt of the ground’
which would be expected if the comparisons had intended to be made. My imposition of this interpretation is similar, therefore, to my objection that the ‘seat of violence’ (Amos 6:3) isn’t meant to be understood as being the background to this passage (I’m falling foul of my own objections!).
In truth, the decadent lifestyle is being contrasted with their lack of concern (Amos 6:6b) over
‘...the ruin of Joseph’
which we’ll define in the subsequent section.
But, even so, it was in the Israelites’ poverty that sin was being demonstrated and it was this that would bring judgment upon their heads - that’s not to say that sin was the means whereby they’d become rich (even though this has been observed previously in Amos and it would have applied to many) but that the poverty of their brothers condemned the lifestyle of the wealthy because they were doing nothing to provide for the poor and destitute - this was the sin that was condemned by the brothers’ poverty.
For this reason, therefore, it seems correct to use the comparisons between rich and poor above. Whenever there are excesses and needs amongst the people of God - whether in the Old or New Testaments - God expects those with an abundance to supply those with the lack (II Cor 8:14 - though it must also be pointed out that in meeting a person’s financial need it might be necessary to give instruction on management rather than to bail them out with excessive amounts of money that could be frittered away - the point is, though, that something must be done).
Whenever there are poor amongst the people of God, condemnation rests upon those with an abundance - poverty is therefore seen to be an instrument of either justification before God or of judgment.
Their lack of concern
As I’ve said above, the reason for this passage is not to condemn the lifestyle of the Israelites because it was founded upon extortion and oppression, but to contrast that lifestyle with their lack of concern for the ‘ruin of Joseph’. Their wealth may well be the result of sin and transgression but it’s the effect of the wealth that’s here in view.
Just as Jesus taught that a man can’t be committed to acquiring wealth for Himself and serve the purposes of God (Mtw 6:24) so, too, the point here is that their desire to maintain the affluence they have naturally excludes them from being concerned with those matters that lie close to God’s heart.
This is true even more in the NT, of course, because the life of the believer is generally the lot of the disadvantaged, and a wealthy follower of Christ is called upon to support their fellow believer who’s in need - even to the point of forsaking his wealth when it becomes a stumbling block to following after Jesus (Mtw 19:16-22).
Those who would be rich cannot follow Christ and, even though some imagine (I Tim 6:3-5) that
‘...godliness is a means of gain’
if they ever achieve wealth in this life they will have lost the One they proclaim to be following. Let’s not be mistaken at this point - wealth has more responsibilities than it does privileges and those who grow rich by serving Jesus Christ are obligated to use their wealth to promote the same message that has brought them their position and resources.
Financial excess doesn’t mean that the time has come to move into bigger and better homes (Amos 3:15), to fill it with luxurious furniture (Amos 6:4) and to eat the best available (Amos 6:4). Excess is simply an indication that distribution is one’s calling to demonstrate God’s love for His own, that as they’ve received so now they must function as God Himself has done towards them.
But to live in the abundance of one’s resources is to forsake God and to fail to be
‘...grieved over the ruin of Joseph’
- that is, to be concerned about the wrong things. The word translated ‘grieved’ here (Strongs Hebrew number 2470) is more usually rendered ‘sick’ and the idea of growing ill and weak is surely meant to be implied, for their continued health in having the best - in not over-exerting themselves - is being contrasted with the disease of the nation.
But what exactly’s meant here by the description ‘ruin’? What exactly did God have in mind that they were turning their backs on by their selfish attention to their own empires? Amhub’s understanding is to imagine that the reason for God’s description of their lives is to highlight both their own sin and the coming judgment so that he writes that
‘...what should have made them sick were the evils they had done to their own people and the crushing fate that yet awaited them...’
but they are hardly likely to be the ruin of the nation because they’re more personal than corporate. What’s being described here is surely meant to be a malaise that’s swept through Israel - and, besides, as I’ve previously observed, the founding of their wealth on sin isn’t what’s in mind here (even though it’s hinted at in Amos 6:3 and stated plainly elsewhere).
Ammot, on the other hand (Amstu fails to define the concept), sees Joseph’s ruin to be the
‘...failure to care for the break up of the state and the broken lives of its people...’
where the word ‘ruin’ is taken to mean
‘...whatever breaks the spirit and breaks the heart’
This is much more relevant to the situation at hand for it contrasts their individual concerns for their own welfare with the need to be concerned for the corporate health of the nation. Although they were at ease and secure, the nation of Israel was languishing in turmoil and anguish, ready to disintegrate because of the extremes to which those at the lowest level were subject.
As I commented on a previous web page that dealt with ‘beds and couches’
‘...instead of rejoicing in their prosperity, they should have concerned themselves with the sin that was everywhere at hand and which had ruined the nation before God’
It’s incorrect here to insist that sin had produced their wealth (as I’ve previously noted, this isn’t the burden of the passage) and that, as a result, they were unconcerned with sin - but that their wealth however it had been acquired was what was blinding them to the need to right wrongs, to support the poor and destitute and to strive to bring back righteousness and justice into the land.
After all, they were ‘at ease’ and ‘secure’ (Amos 6:1), what concern was it to them?
In the previous section I noted that the Israelites’ poverty condemned the affluence of the rich - where the latter only became a sin because the former wasn’t dealt with. Although an expository step in the dark, it appears to be correct that the rich would have been free to enjoy their wealth so long as the poor weren’t ignored. In other words, they were entitled to some prosperity for themselves but not all.
The consequence of having their heart in their affluence and material wealth was blindness to the spiritual state of the nation that was being wracked by injustice and unrighteousness at every turn. Even if the rich had acquired their wealth by righteous or morally neutral ways, the obligation remained to stand up as beacons in the midst of a spiritually dark nation that had upon them the name of God (not to stand up in a secular society but in God’s own).
Those who have much to lose in the Church are also very often the last to see the state of the fellowship, denomination or national group of believers as God sees them. Amos certainly had nothing to lose in the society into which he was sent for his home was in Tekoa, away from the direct interference of the northern king of Israel, amongst the shepherds who farmed there (Amos 1:1). When he spoke against the nation, he wasn’t speaking against the foundation of his own life and that, in part, must be the reason why someone like him was chosen by God.
People with no heart in anything other than God and His will are the more likely to declare the full counsel of God as they hear it, not watering it down or amending it where they feel it’s too harsh or damning.
If a leader or leadership’s heart is so caught up in their own personal welfare or importance (however much they seek to spiritualise it to make it appear as if they have God’s interests at heart), you can be assured that they’ll be oblivious to the ‘ruin of God’s people’ even if YHWH raises up men and women to speak forthrightly against the excesses that are all too common a phenomenon in their midst.
It may even be found that, because they can’t see the sin, they’re the ones who are first to speak out against the message as being the product of a deluded mind.
Again, we aren’t asserting that the leadership have become materially wealthy through unrighteousness, injustice or flagrant sin (just as we’ve maintained throughout our consideration of this passage that this isn’t what’s primarily in mind) - simply that, because their heart is caught up with what’s earthly, they’re in no position to assess what originates from Heaven.
In my assessment of this passage, therefore, I understand the affluent’s lack of grief over the ruin of God’s people to be the result of spiritual blindness because the fixation on earthly, material affairs closes their eyes to the things of Heaven - they fail to be able to witness the affairs of earth from God’s perspective.
Finally, God speaks concerning His reaction to their lifestyle.
The judgment that will fall upon the wealthy of God’s people is entirely consistent with the way they’d also regarded themselves, for we read in Amos 6:1 of the description of Israel as being the ‘first of the nations’ and in Amos 6:6 of them taking for themselves the ‘first-fruit of the oil’.
Therefore, when the exile was to come upon the people, they also would be the ‘first of those to go’ from the land.
Their self-assessed pre-eminence is the very thing that causes them to be the first to have judgment fall upon them - when God’s people are come against by God Himself, it’s much better to be sitting on the pew furthest from the front than to be standing before the masses assembled as ‘head over all’.
As Amstu observes
‘…the present high living simply will not be allowed to last’
but not because the rich and their lifestyles are always set against God and His will. Rather, it’s because they’ve not dealt with those resources at their disposal to further the advance of the kingdom of God through His people and have used it to further their own ease and security.
And we must safeguard ourselves from thinking that many of the great donations that have come from the rich demonstrate their primary concern for the things of God. Monetary donations can buy leadership positions or, at worst, influence amongst those who oversee the fellowship.
Besides, true giving is done in private with no one witnessing the gift - not as tax-deductible sums that have the person’s name recorded for posterity’s sake (Mtw 6:2-4) and perhaps even on small plaques once the building fund project has been completed.
The true test of the rich’s spirituality is not whether buildings can expand but whether the poor are lifted out of the pit in which they live, whether the oppressed have others standing by them in defence and whether the bonds of the destitute are removed.
If these things are done, God will favour the rich and influential, the leaders and leadership, and the judgment that commands them to be removed from being the head will not come to fruition. But, if the people won’t remove their decadent living from before God, He’ll come against them to remove it Himself.
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