Poison and wormwood
The overthrow of the land
Stand up! Stand up for Jesus, ye soldiers of the cross!
Lift high His royal banner, it must not suffer loss.
From victory unto victory, His army He shall lead
Till every foe is vanquished and Christ is Lord indeed.
One of the problems all individuals and groups can fall into is to think that recent success is a guarantee of future victories - not just within the Church but in the secular world as well. It’s all too easy to be swept away on a wave of optimism and to see yourself marching on a wave of unopposable grandeur and pomp as you turn your attention to other situations.
Victory, however, does not inevitably follow victory - even though the hymn writer did write those words and we take them upon our lips thinking that they must apply to us. When we’re bestowed a time of particularly great deliverance or victory, the danger is to then go onwards, thinking that the first battle proves that all the others that lie in front of us will bow down, roll over and submit.
As Joshua was quick to find out, just because you have the promise of God that you’ll never suffer defeat and have already won a particularly crushing victory over your first enemy, the next one may rise up and cause you to run away (Joshua 6:1-7:15) if you haven’t learnt the principle that victory is sustained only through righteous and just living.
And that’s where Israel stood.
God had given them more land to possess and they were rejoicing in the victory, thinking that they were now in a position where God was on their side and that nothing could ever come against them that would cause them to suffer harm (Amos 6:13).
They totally disregarded the need to live right before Him (Amos 6:12) and to continue to depend upon Him for strength and power in the face of the trouble that was shortly to descend upon the land as God’s tool of judgment against them.
If they’d truly sought good and hated evil (Amos 5:14-15), then victory surely would have followed close on the heels of their past conquests but, because they’d turned their backs on God’s will for their lives, even though they offered sacrifices, observed the festivals and sang praise to Him (Amos 5:21-23), defeat was to be the inevitable result.
Poison and wormwood
For a definition of the difference between ‘righteousness’ and ‘justice’ see my notes here under the header ‘Do what?’ (the quotes below are from that page) but, very simply, when the words co-exist in the same context, the former
‘...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’
while the latter
‘...is interpreted as being concerned to make sure that the good is upheld and the evil is destroyed’
Although they can be used to speak of overlapping concepts when they occur on their own, their use in the same place would indicate that their more narrow concept is intended. The phrase ‘righteousness and justice’, then
‘...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...’
Amos seems fairly keen on bringing these two words together (Amos 5:7,24, 6:12) and, even where ‘justice’ stands alone (Amos 5:15), the command to ‘Hate evil, love good’ is an instruction to be righteous. Amos 2:6-8 is also a place where both concepts can be identified as being lacking in Israelite society - although they go unnamed.
As I’ve said in other places, the unrighteousness and injustice that was all too prevalent within Israelite society was the main reason for God’s anger against His people. While there are minor references to idolatry, these aren’t the major themes that have directed God’s judgment towards them. Even the hatred of sacrifice, festival observance and praise (Amos 5:21-23) is only mentioned because it’s impossible to reconcile with a people who’ve forsaken those things that God would rather have had them do (Amos 5:24).
The rhetorical questions in Amos 6:12 could be thought of as laughable - Amos states the obvious for his hearers to realise the impossibility of the actions being mentioned. Indeed, the reason for the questions seem to be to have them focus on the absurdity of the possibility, of the stupidity of anyone who would even consider that such a thing could succeed.
Immediately, he counters with the observation that the nation has done exactly the same thing, figuratively speaking. They’ve turned the needful characteristics of God’s people into items that have both poisoned and embittered the land.
The word ‘Poison’ (Strongs Hebrew number 7219, M2098) is defined by TWOTOT as
‘...probably a Babylonian plant name which originally meant [the] “head” of some kind of plant’
but it’s use in a wide variety of contexts makes it likely that the word was employed to denote a range of plants that were considered ‘poisonous’ or even ‘deadly’ (Deut 29:18, 32:32-33, Hosea 10:4), going on to be used in connection with ‘poisonous’ water (Jer 8:14, 9:15, 23:15), food (Ps 69:21) and suffering in general (Lam 3:5).
The fact that it’s the word used to denote the venom of the asp (Job 20:16) should make us realise that it was a substance that caused untold suffering or death and, then, that it was applied to the suffering itself. As Amhub observes
‘The life-giving stability of justice has been turned...into a death-dealing poison...’
We saw Amos use the word translated ‘wormwood’ earlier in Amos 5:7 (Strongs Hebrew number 3939, M1121) as a description of what justice had been turned into within the nation (although here in Amos 6:12, it’s righteousness that’s associated with it) and we noted there Amhub’s description that it was
‘...the bitterest substance nameable…’
so that what should have been pleasant to God becomes foul. These twin concepts of ‘poison’ and ‘wormwood’ are used side by side in a few places in the OT (Deut 29:18, Jer 9:15, 23:15, Lam 3:19, Amos 6:12) and, where they do occur, the concepts intended to be conveyed seem to be suffering and bitterness - and such are the fate of those who uphold justice and live out moral uprightness as the prophet has already observed in Amos 5:10, for to speak the truth brings the abhorrence of others and to reprove at law brings hatred. In such a society (Amos 5:13)
‘...he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time...’
and will alter their ways to bring themselves favour rather than condemnation. Therefore, Amstu’s development of the theme is correct here for he interprets the verse to mean (my italics) that
‘Israel had made justice and righteousness, here depicted metaphorically as food, into things to be avoided rather than eaten. The people have no taste for justice any more...Their attitude toward proper behaviour is the exact opposite of what it should be’
Amos isn’t just saying that there’s no righteousness and justice in the land anymore. He’s saying that the society is actually promoting the exact opposite because to do what’s right is attacked and maligned - a bit like when you’re given too much change and you hand it back or when the people who you’ve bought a product from forget to send you an invoice and you tell them about it, only to be laughed at by your colleagues or friends for not pocketing the profit.
Such a trait, unfortunately, is also prevalent in the Church, even literally as I’ve mentioned. On a previous web page (under the header ‘Israel’s sin’), I mentioned a situation in which I’d found myself being falsely accused of all sorts of things following my unwise decision to strike up a chorus in a meeting on my own initiative (laughable though it now seems).
Where was the justice here? Although my accusers were believed (their identity was kept hidden, too, something that even the Mosaic Law didn’t see fit to impose upon the legal system. If a witness wanted to make an accusation, they needed to declare it before the judges and the defendant) what could I have come out of that ‘trial’ actually deciding to do?
For truth hadn’t been accepted and the testimony of those who’d invented a transgression had been believed. Why shouldn’t I invent ‘attitudes’ in actions, persuade others that such things were ‘true’ and then have others pulled down while I was raised up? Of course, I did none of this, but injustice pushes those who suffer at its hand to get equal - if we would but dispense justice and live righteously, men and women would be more encouraged in the Church not to malign and gossip.
Incidentally, as a follow up to the above incident, I should point out that a couple of months later, a person in a leadership position was delivering a message at a home group meeting and shared how Jesus had not been perfectly sinless, but had had to be ‘pruned’ to have his imperfection and sinful traits removed from Him so that, on the cross, He could be the perfect sacrifice.
After having quizzed him publicly to make sure this was what he believed (cos you can always misunderstand a person’s words), I laid out the truth of the Scripture that Jesus wasn’t just always sinless but He was God come in the flesh - then I went to the pastor and objected that this sort of doctrine was damaging and needed sorting out.
But the leader retained his position and no public teaching on the matter was ever delivered to the congregation to remind them of the Gospel. What did that tell me? That justice was only a commodity that was limited in its scope and application.
When those sorts of things happen in a fellowship of Jesus Christ (that is, when there are double standards), YHWH despises it, hates it and finds it an abomination - not only because it means that His people are not reflecting His own character but because those who fall foul of the ‘justice dispensed’ are more likely to be encouraged to ‘play the system’ and become both unjust and unrighteous themselves.
Amos’s objection is worthy of full acceptance here - absurdity in the natural order of life in general is just the same as not dispensing justice and living out righteousness and it’ll prompt the man or woman who receives evil instead of good to consider carefully their way and to be tempted to conform their lifestyle to that which brings them less heartache and difficulty.
A leadership that doesn’t do what’s right and just, therefore, is one that’s hell bent on destroying God’s church from the inside and will find God’s hand of judgment directed against them and the congregation under them who conform their own lives to the ‘path of least resistance’.
Attention turns, it appears, to the military successes of the kingdom of Israel in subjecting areas in Gilead and near Damascus under their control. One may ask why these two ‘cities’ or villages are mentioned (the fact that Lo-debar is known in this area but has been unable to be positively located may indicate it’s relative small expanse or importance - however, Amstu calls it an ‘important border town’) and not, for example the more popular cities that had come under Israelite control during the time of king Jeroboam (II Kings 14:25,28).
The point is that they can be used as a play on words to contrast the boasting of their military successes with something that needs to be said about them.
Therefore, it seems puzzling when first read for a more literal translation would have the verse run
‘...you who rejoice in a thing of nothing, who say “Have we not by our own strength taken horns for ourselves?”’
which could, actually, be a reference to some idolatrous practice and God’s condemnation of it. It could also be thought to have been originally intended to stand as represented above and be no more than another general word directed against the people.
However, by seeing it as a play on words, the Israelites’ rejoicing over their military conquests and territorial expansion takes on a new meaning at the hand of the prophet.
Lo-debar is a lengthened form of Debir which is presumed to be the same place as is mentioned in Joshua 13:26, situated in the territory of Gad beyond the Jordan in Gilead (and rendered as Li-debir in the Masoretic text of the passage according to the RSV’s marginal note). Amos has chosen to deliberately misspell the place name, retaining the consonants but adding his own vowels to give the meaning ‘nothing’, Amhub noting that
‘...by punning, [the prophet] turns their boast into a joke...Far from a military trophy, it is a place of no consequence at all’
So, Amos has heard them declare
‘Our armies have taken Lo-debir in Gilead’
and he responds that they’ve taken, in effect, absolutely nothing. Where was the point in boasting of their military conquests when their advances would soon be swept away before the approach of God’s own conquering army that would oppress them throughout their land (Amos 6:14)?
And he chooses Karnaim (this time not needing to misspell it - the site lay further north than Lo-debar) to add irony to their claim for the word means ‘horns’ or, perhaps more specifically, ‘two horns’, used by an observation of the way in which goats and wild animals used them, no doubt, to push around those who were considered to be competitors and adversaries.
This is the way it seems to have been used in I Kings 22:11 (see also Deut 33:17) when Zedekiah made for himself iron horns (the same Hebrew word being employed here as in Amos 6:13), announcing to king Ahab
‘With these you shall push the Syrians until they are destroyed’
So, says Amos, you’ve taken horns in your advances, but what good is that going to do you when YHWH comes against the land (Amos 6:14)? Both these places - indeed, they’re only being singled out as examples because of the way that Amos is able to incorporate them into his message - were part of the successful acquisition of Jeroboam’s military campaigns and were something, as Amstu observes, that
‘...Israel saw as evidence of her own greatness’
seeming to have forgotten that they’d only captured the land because God had made it possible, announcing His intention through His servant, Jonah (II Kings 14:25). As Amhub rightly comments
‘All sense of Divine providence has been squeezed from their thinking by their heady ease which their troops and weaponry engender’
although we could well imagine that, in God’s provision of the new territory, they’d found evidence to suppose that God would be with them no matter what they were to turn their hands against. If God was with them to conquer land and people, what could possibly now stand against them? Surely, therefore, their armies really had horns - Divinely given, it was true - and nothing any more that sought to oppose them could be thought to stand in their way.
This seems to be just as good an interpretation for, as we’ve already seen, it’s exactly what they were saying (Amos 5:14 - my italics), the prophet exhorting them to seek good so that
‘...YHWH, the God of hosts, will be with you as you have said’
Their military prowess, therefore, appeared to have been something that had been Divinely given and that it would be theirs regardless of moral uprightness. And, because of that, they were confident enough to claim that their advances, based upon God’s provision, were evidence of their own strength as it says in Amos 6:13.
I should point out that I’m not saying that they didn’t suppose that they were strong (for the verse clearly states this), only that they may have seen it as a Divine provision. When people receive God’s strength, it’s very easy to forget that it’s supernatural in origin and to, eventually, claim that strength as being a part of their own natural ability.
The Church has also fallen into the trap of thinking that by their spiritual warfare structures and formulae that their enemy will simply pack up his bags and go home, but James 4:7 was written for just such a false assumption. Many believers will announce that part of the Church’s calling is to
‘..Resist the devil and he will flee from you’
not being careful to read the opening sentence that urges readers
‘Submit yourselves therefore to God...’
for you can’t have the first before being confident that you’ll achieve the second. So it was with the nation of Israel. Their advance into enemy territory had been a gracious deliverance from God (II Kings 14:25-27). To continue to hold that land and to advance further, they were expected (Amos 5:24) to
‘...let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’
- that is, to submit their wills to God’s. Whether the Church uses the presumption that either God has made them strong or that it’s inherently strong (using both possibilities of interpretation from Amos here), the point is the same - believers cannot continually stand against their enemies unless they’re submitted to God and that submission means living out justice and righteousness.
God may well graciously give the Church advances but, unless they submit themselves to the will of God, all that they hold will slip like sand through their fingertips or, perhaps more realistically if Amos 6:14 is fulfilled in type, sudden destruction will come upon them as God opposes His own people because of their unrighteousness and injustice.
The overthrow of the land
The opening ‘Look’ (RSV ‘Behold’) is a word that cuts through the Israelites’ complacency and could be rendered with more force by the paraphrase (and continuance of the verse)
‘Look here! Wake up, will you? You’re rejoicing in your military strength at taking some land but consider what God is about to do - how are you going to stand against God’s invading nation?’
a paraphrase that wouldn’t be out of place in the Message Bible, I suggest, although my interpretation seems just a bit too ordinary. The idea behind this dramatic announcement is to contrast their own pride in their military strength and prowess with the fact of God’s advance upon the land before which they’d be unable to stand.
There’d already been clues as to the direction from which their attackers would descend upon them (Acts 5:27) for the route of their exile would naturally be taken to be the same place from which they’d come, but here we read for the first time that the army would be a nation and not just a raiding party.
This indicates the strength of the force so that, even if they should make little of YHWH having turned to be on their enemies’ side, they should face up to the relative fragility of their own military prowess. The oppression is described as being
‘...from the entrance of Hamath to the Brook of the Arabah’
a label probably drawn from what the Israelites were already saying to summarise the extent of their land for it’s recorded in II Kings 14:25 that Jeroboam had
‘...restored the border of Israel from the entrance of Hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah...’
the former description being a point furthest north while the latter refers specifically to the Dead Sea, a few miles away from the site of Gilgal. It certainly appears that Israelite territory extended not just south to touch the tip of the region but encompassed some part of both the northern and eastern shores.
Amos’ label of the ‘Brook of the Arabah’ rather than the ‘Sea’ will refer to a stream or wadi of the area that Amstu takes to be the brook Zered (which ran to the south of the Dead Sea) although the precise identification is uncertain.
The phrase, however, notes Israel’s widest expanse from north to south and seems to have been something that summarised the extent of their land as much as ‘from Dan to Beersheba’ did in times past (for example, Judges 20:1). In the time of Solomon (I Kings 8:65), however, the phrase
‘...from the entrance of Hamath to the Brook of Egypt’
was used for the area in which the Israelites had both settled and over which they exercised control and the similar phrase on the prophet’s lips (the ‘brook of Egypt’ may well have been the same as the ‘brook of the Arabah’ in reality or in the mind of the Israelite of Amos’ day) may also have served them as a reminder of the extent to which YHWH had already blessed them with expansion under Jeroboam. Although he’s willing to speak of the land in terms similar to those used of the extensive influence of Solomon, it only serves his purpose as a testimony to the extent of the destruction.
Nevertheless, the area contrasts itself with the cities mentioned in Amos 6:13 and they announce to the Israelites that whereas they’d taken so little (Karnaim and Lo-debar), they were going to lose so much (from the entrance of Hamath to the Brook of the Arabah).
Amos chapter 7 begins with a series of visions and the conclusion of chapter 6 serves as a natural division of the prophet’s message to the nation of Israel. It’s fitting, therefore, that it should end with the warning that a nation was to descend upon the land and oppress it ‘from north to south’ (something that began shortly after Jeroboam’s death - II Kings 15:17-20 - and continued until the final overthrow of Samaria).
Although it may be that the visions of chapter 7 were given shortly afterwards, the way the text stands it seems unlikely and we should see, perhaps, not just a break in the text but in the prophet’s declarations that were renewed with the onset of the new prophetic insights that were shortly to be given to him directly from YHWH.
For an explanation of the title ‘God of Hosts’ see my previous notes in part 6 of the article entitled ‘Doxology’.
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