The destruction of the religious
YHWH has spoken about a day of judgment that was to come upon the traders of Amos 8:4-6 and, from His opening words of judgment in 8:7-8, He continues by noting that ‘on that day’ other judgments would be poured out, not just upon the traders but upon the land (8:9-10).
But should we now think of Amos 8:11 as a continuation of this theme and that YHWH is describing more of what will happen on that day or time period in the future? The opening
‘Behold, the days are coming...’
would point us against such an interpretation for it seems to speak of a totally distinct time that, I surmise, was to come upon the nation close to - but not beginning at - the time of the destruction.
The identical phrase occurs in Amos 9:13 and there it also marks a change of continuity in the time of fulfilment - although the ‘in that day’ that opens 9:11 attaches the ‘positive’ restoration of the Davidic kingdom to the time of the final outworking of Israel’s judgment, a strange thing to do when it was used in the NT to speak of what God was doing in the Church - Acts 15:16-17. However, from Amos 9:13 onwards, the time is obviously of a future day after the judgment had been poured out.
I agree that this idea of there being a famine of the word of God would continue into that time of God’s wrath against His people for the words at the end of Amos 8:14 seem to demand this but, nevertheless, an initial silence on the part of God seems to be the forerunner of the final judgment and something that, when it took place, would have forewarned the people that the end was soon to come.
As noted in the introduction, this judgment fits into the time before the final outworking of the judgment declared against the land but would also continue into that period (as seems to be indicated by Amos 8:14).
God, then, calls for a famine of the word of God upon the land where no specific message would be able to be identified as coming from YHWH (even though it seems likely that there would have been many willing to stand up and speak in YHWH’s name, even though their words were not from Him).
The word of God is being likened to food that the Israelites need to satisfy their spiritual hunger, though the lack of provision drives them far and wide in a search for true knowledge.
It’s not the first time in the OT that God’s word has been likened to food for Moses pointed out that the provision of manna in the wilderness was given only by their obedience to the word that had been spoken by Him (Deut 8:3 Pp Mtw 4:4) - that is, it was their observance of the clear commands through Moses that had caused them to find food to satisfy their bodies. This fulfilling of a life by reception of His word is also noted in Is 55:1-3 where God bids the believer to come to Him to
‘...Hearken diligently...eat what is good and delight yourselves in fatness. Incline your ear, and come to Me; hear, that your soul may live...’
where spiritual wholeness can’t be imagined as being founded upon anyone other than YHWH. But, more than this, life is seen to come directly upon the receiving of the message from God, just as it was in the story of Creation where God spoke a word and life came into existence (Gen 1:20-30). Amstu asks the question
‘...what is “Yahweh’s word”? Is it the Mosaic Law? Is it prophetic revelation?’
‘...Since prophetic revelation is based in and on the Law, the best answer is both’
but this is to misunderstand the word that comes directly from God for what Amos has delivered isn’t a cunningly devised prophecy that’s rooted in his study of OT Law that he’s developed and added a few ‘Thus says YHWH’ phrases to give it authenticity. Rather, the message has come directly to him via no intermediary so that what he speaks out to the nation of Israel is a direct revelation of the mind of God.
The word of God, then, although not against Scripture must never be thought of as being based upon what’s been written for it comes directly from the presence of God with the provision of His presence upon the declaration to accomplish all that He intends (Is 55:10-11). Scripture does come from the word of God (or else it wouldn’t have authority) but never does the prophetic word come from Scripture but directly from the presence of God in heaven (see my notes on the ‘Word of God’ under the header ‘The creative word of God’).
Besides, it seems problematical to insist that the Israelites would run every way possible and yet not be able to find a scroll of the Torah to read. The simple and plain meaning of the prophetic announcement to the nation here is that God will cease speaking to His people through the prophets, that He will cause there to be a famine of the word of God. As Amhub notes
‘No one could live without the power and guidance of the divine words any more than anyone could live without the nourishment of bread and the refreshment of water’
so the parallel holds true. But the famine that was to come was largely a conclusion to a process that had continued in the past and was going to continue long into the future amongst the nation of Israel. They were rejecting the word of YHWH through Amos now so that they wouldn’t be able to hear the word of God then when they need it. As Amhub goes on to say, the
‘…rejection of the prophetic word…forced withdrawal of that word’
and we can already see the problem raising its head in the nation where Amos observes that the people have commanded the true prophets of YHWH not to prophesy (Amos 2:12) and in the incident in which Amos found himself standing before Amaziah, the religious chief of the nation, and being told not to prophesy with YHWH’s words except when he went back to Judah because there was no place for such a message at Bethel (Amos 7:12-13).
But we can’t pick and choose when to hear God’s word, the only option we have in the matter is to obey or rebel when it comes to us - it’s God who chooses the time of delivery and, even if it should catch us at a time when we’ve other matters on our plate, when our prosperity has increased and we’re not willing to forsake everything to follow Him (as it had in Israel in the days of Amos), the message still demands to be received and acted upon if we’re to continue to follow after YHWH.
The people were to truly be in desperation to hear God’s word at a later date when God had finished speaking but the time of their visitation was now. Ammot speaks of this future desire to know the word of God as
‘…a belated concern for the truth’
They should’ve listened when God had spoken in their prosperous times, not turned to hear His message only in their calamity. Here the saying holds true that we seldom appreciate what we have until it’s gone from us – but, by then, it’s too late.
Their disobedience to the current word, then, was what disqualified them from hearing a future word. The same was true of king Saul who refused to follow both the clear commandments of the Law (I Sam 13:8-15 - although Samuel’s words seem to indicate that he’d been given specific instruction to follow by the prophet that he’d chosen to ignore) and the specific instruction by the word of God as to how to deal with the Amalekites in battle (I Sam 15:1-31).
When the time came for him to need a specific message from God to instruct him as to what to do, it’s recorded (I Sam 28:6) that
‘...YHWH did not answer him, either by dreams or by Urim or by prophets’
while the resuscitated Samuel noted that what was coming upon the king was a direct result of his disobedience (I Sam 28:18). Disobedience, then, to the word of God can destroy the availability of the word when it next needs to be heard.
This idea of withholding His word from His people is by no means a rare one for the prophet Ezekiel also noted the end of God’s people (Ezek 7:1 closely parallels Amos 8:2 where both speak about the end coming upon the land and the people) and, in a message prophesied after the fall of Samaria in the early part of the sixth century BC (Ezek 7:24-27), he notes that the people would
‘...seek a vision from the prophet...’
but, presumably, there would be none, YHWH going on to comment that all this would happen
‘According to their way...and according to their own judgments...’
What they’d done, they were simply receiving the consequences of. Micah, who spoke to both the cities of Samaria and Jerusalem (Micah 1:1) observed a time (Micah 3:1-7 - my italics. This message is specifically against the northern kingdom of Israel) when
‘...they will cry to YHWH but He will not answer them; He will hide his face from them at that time, because they have made their deeds evil. Thus says YHWH concerning the prophets who lead My people astray, who cry “Peace” when they have something to eat, but declare war against him who puts nothing into their mouths. Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without divination. The sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them; the seers shall be disgraced and the diviners put to shame; they shall all cover their lips for there is no answer from God’
Disobedience (here God’s action comes about simply because their ways are ‘evil’ and because the prophets make up the word they speak according to the money they receive) means that God will close His mouth and refuse to speak to His people.
It’s worth noting Ammot at this point for he sees Amos 8:11-12 as being not a prophetic prediction set in stone but a warning that can still be heeded. He writes that the message
‘...says “the days are coming” in order that the interim before they come may be filled to the utmost profit and the threatened dangers may not strike home upon an unsheltered, unready people’
Or, God’s telling His people that He’ll be silent soon so they should make the most of it now - they should heed His word as they hear it in the present or else they won’t know what to do in the future. Although this is an important observation that has some limited application, obedience to the word of God now may well have put away the day that was prophesied when God’s word would have been withheld.
It seems to be the case that silence was only a result of their refusal to hear and not an inevitable future event regardless of their response.
And they’ll be frantic in their seeking out the word of God when the time when they could have listened has ended. The RSV translates a word as ‘wander’ (Strongs Hebrew number 5128, M1328) when a much stronger one would have been better employed. TWOTOT notes that the idea behind the word
‘... is of a repetitive to and fro movement. These movements can be on a relatively small scale expressed by ideas such as shaking, reeling or swaying. Or they can be on a geographic scale...’
although they then use the same word as the RSV to define it! Something a bit more energetic is meant here rather than the possible misunderstanding of a gentle meandering about the land and beyond - what YHWH is speaking about through Amos is a concerted effort, a desperate thirst and hunger to find out what God’s saying to the nation, paralleled in the next descriptive phrase that they’ll run ‘to and fro’.
This isn’t a Sunday excursion trying to find the Yellowstone Park picnic area - it’s a mad dash any which way you can to leave no source unquestioned or unenquired (Amhub writes that the search ‘sent the population scurrying’, a phrase that conjures up in my mind the way small rodents run about in their search for food).
The extent of their searching is also universal in scope for they travel
‘...from sea to sea and from north to east...’
where the first of the two phrases is probably best taken to be representative of the two points of the compass not mentioned by the second. These two ‘seas’, then, are best understood as the Mediterranean (west) and the Red Sea (south) although Amstu thinks that the southern point is better interpreted as a reference to the Dead Sea.
The problem is that the southernmost tip of the national boundary encompassed about half the length of the sea so the four ‘points’ would be naturally taken to refer only to searching within the land of Israel. As Beersheba lay south of their southernmost boundary - and this was a sanctuary that the Israelites travelled to on pilgrimage (Amos 5:5) - a larger geographical range is surely meant to be understood by it, Amhub seeing in the descriptions the meaning of the
‘...absence of any geographical limits, [embracing] the whole earth...’
In spite of the most concerted of efforts both personally and geographically, they still wouldn’t find the word of God. Sure, they can pick up a copy of the Torah and read about the covenant that they entered in to at Sinai, but the specific word from God that gives them direction and purpose won’t be available to them because God has long since stopped speaking.
And where does the present day Church stand in all this?
Strangely enough, although we claim to have direct individual access to the Father through Jesus Christ (after all, this is one of the unique provisions of the New Covenant) so that we can converse directly with God ‘face to face’, we’re still people who ‘run to and fro’, scurrying about ‘from sea to sea and from north to east’, in search of the word of God.
Some people take issue with my statement but the fact that congregations journey to special meetings is proof enough that belief that God’s presence is in their midst isn’t a sufficient enough experience.
When the ‘Toronto Blessing’ came to the fore (whether the reader accepts God’s work there or denies the relevancy of it is not important), many a believer travelled overseas to experience the ‘blessing’ and to receive from God something that they’d been unable to receive in their home fellowships (when UK fellowships started receiving similar phenomena, believers travelled to places here if they couldn’t afford the airfare!). A few congregations actually sent their leaders over to learn and to bring back what was being poured out in their midst.
Many wondered at why men and women should go halfway round the world to receive from God but we rarely ever put it into the words of Amos – the reason God’s word is being sought is because it’s not being spoken where they’re gathering together to serve God.
Travelling to where God’s speaking (for example, the Tabernacle or the Temple) is definitely Old Covenant and not part of the New in which each believer has the ability to hear from God and to declare His word. It’s only if God isn’t speaking in our midst or directly to us that we’d contemplate travelling elsewhere to hear what He has to say to us.
Instead of thinking that God was able to empower and anoint those who attended the fellowship so that they could bring back what He was doing, we should look at it as a comment on what God isn’t doing elsewhere and as a demonstration of the hunger and thirst with which believers are actively seeking an experience of God’s presence.
But, even more than this, how often believers travel to ‘special meetings’ where visiting speakers are considered to be bringing with them something that’s worth ‘having’. Men and women raised up by God are often looked to as being the people who can declare the ‘word of God’ into a meeting and we run there to hear what He wants to say to us, not realising that, instead of testifying to our commitment to seek God, it’s actually witnessing that God has ceased speaking to His Church in general.
When Reinhard Bonnke visited Westminster Chapel in London (almost two decades ago now), many in the fellowship I was attending at that time, clamoured to make it into Central London to hear what God’s word was through him. I realise now, of course, that although we were hungry to hear what God had to say, it was evidence that God wasn’t speaking through anyone in our own fellowship.
And there is a great hunger in the midst of God’s people to know what the word from God is – the problem is that we aren’t hearing it where we are (or else there are so many voices declaring what God’s word is that they become self-contradictory and we feel it impossible to distinguish the right word from those delivered from the person’s own mind) and so we look elsewhere to try to receive it.
Does that tell us that we’re hungry for God’s word? Yes – but it also serves as a word of condemnation upon our own fellowship that we regularly attend. We go to hear because God isn’t speaking in our midst. We book up annually for the great Bible Weeks and Summer Camps for the same reasons. We go where God was once doing something to try and experience the presence of God that we assume must still be there. We go on religious retreats (whether personally organised or corporately, it doesn’t matter) to put time aside to seek God.
Why? Because He isn’t speaking either where we are or in the situations in which we find ourselves.
Places such as Iona, Lindisfarne, Glastonbury, Philippi, Israel (the church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Garden Tomb, the Temple platform and so on) - or even the scenes of the old revivals - will always hold an appeal to believers because it’s where God did something and where our hearts are drawn to in case, perhaps, we might hear His voice once more in those places.
All this is simply a comment on our failure to receive from God in the regular, almost mundane, places in which we live and breath and have our being.
Some denominations - probably because they’ve long since stopped hearing God’s word - have rationalised this silence on God’s part into the doctrine that prophets were only necessary in the NT Church and, parallel to this, that the spiritual gifts of I Cor 12:4-11 are also no longer relevant (note that ‘prophecy’ is one of the gifts). These belief structures are actually mentioned in II Tim 3:15 where Paul speaks of a day in which believers would be
‘…holding the form of religion but denying the power of it…’
before he goes on to advise Timothy to ‘avoid such people’ who hold to that belief.
People who undermine the relevancy of the gifts don’t seem to be too backward in praying for God to heal the people they know who are sick, though, a clear case of double standards in doctrine for, if the miraculous has ceased, what exactly are we supposed to be praying for that could possibly happen?
But it’s because God is no longer speaking that we invent the doctrine that God no longer speaks. Why? Because otherwise we’d have to conclude with Amos that God’s silence is evidence that we’ve refused to listen to God in times past and that now He’s refusing to speak as a judgment upon our past, corporate sin. In other words, judgment hangs over the Church of God just as it did in the days of Amos.
I must also note here that there are many fellowships that have people speaking in the name of God, but there isn’t too much that’s anointed (and certainly very little that ever comes to pass). In other words, the messages prove themselves not to be from God.
I occasionally hear of fulfilled prophecies after the events have taken place (anybody can claim fulfilled prophecy after the event) and there were many messages that were claimed to have been given before the events surrounding September 11 2001 but none of which ever seem to have made it to the international church until after the event.
An infinite number of monkeys typing at an infinite number of typewriters must eventually come up with something intelligible - so, too, when an infinite number of prophecies are declared in an infinite number of fellowships must something resembling a fulfilled prophetic word be pronounced.
But is God declaring His prophetic word to His people? And does that word confirm what the others are hearing? And do we continue to run to and fro to hear God’s voice or do we hear Him plainly enough speaking in our midst?
The hunger and thirst that many have for the word of God can’t be denied, I believe. That many disciples of Christ are seeking after a word direct from the Throne to guide their lives seems to be plain in many a western fellowship. But that the desire goes unsatisfied in the local churches and causes them to run to the meetings where they feel that God’s word might be heard is evidence that we’re living in the days about which Amos spoke (Amos 8:11-12).
And, if we’re living in those days, we’re living under a judgment of God, a preliminary work before a full judgment will be poured out upon His people to cleanse them to be the people that they were meant to be – obedient to His voice and moving in love as He always intended them to do.
How are we to understand both this verse and the one that follows? Are to think of it as totally distinct and separate from the two verses that have preceded it or should we consider it as a message that follows on?
The interpretation seems to be dependent upon the way we take the phrase ‘in that day’ (or, as Amstu, ‘at that time’) that opens the passage. Amstu comments that
‘Because [the Hebrew phrase translated] “at that time” normally functions stylistically to introduce new oracles or sections...here it provides enough of a break from v.11-12 that the present mention of...“thirst” must probably be taken as a literal starvation/famine prediction...’
The phrase occurs five times in Amos (2:16, 8:3,9,13, 9:11), the first three being used to signify ‘the day in which these previous events have taken place’ and there’s nothing that would indicate to the reader that a change of time period is being introduced - let alone a change of theme.
Therefore, even though it might be preferable to take the phrase ‘in that day’ both here and in the final place (Amos 9:11) as being indicative of a totally different time than the one that’s previously been mentioned, the evidence appears to be to the contrary.
Even though Amstu justifies this interpretation by insisting that the final phrase of Amos 8:14 confirms it, we should, rather, accept that the two verses are tied into the time of the fulfilment of the drought of God’s word and interpret it in that context.
Therefore, the unusual phrase ‘nor a thirst for water’ that seems interjected for no apparent reason in Amos 8:11 is seen to be briefly expanded here, the drought about which it’s speaking being the lack of the word of God (where see on my comments in the previous section).
Amstu sees ‘fair virgins’ of the RSV to be, rather, ‘robust young women’ but, either way you look at it, the point is, surely, that they’re the people of God who are in their prime, the ones who’ve inherited the consequences of their fathers’ actions and who may well be culpable themselves for the judgment that’s fallen upon the land.
As there’s no indication of the people’s moral state who are being mentioned here, it’s impossible to say whether what they’re experiencing is purely a consequence of what’s happened in past years or whether they’re equally responsible for it. With Ammot, we should agree that
‘The coming generation is the hope of the future but it comes as heir to the present generation...’
but it seems best to understand that the next generation’s actions are based upon the errors of their fathers (even if we remove the idea of immorality from the observation) so that their religious preferences are seen to be perpetuated at Bethel, Gilgal and Beersheba that have been previously mentioned.
Ammot further notes that Amos 8:14 should be understood to be a comment on the actions of the fair virgins and young men of the current verse but there doesn’t appear to be a direct connection between the two types of people and the identification of them as such should be only tentatively made, if at all.
The destruction of the religious
Amstu is right to note here (against Ammot and Amhub) the change of subject, writing that
‘...the focus [of the verse] broadens from the youthful to all Israelites whose religion distorts or abandons orthodoxy’
even though ‘all Israelites’ is an all-inclusive phrase that’s unwarranted. It’s those of the nation who do what’s described in the following lines that the message is being broadened to speak against.
However, because Amstu accepts the pointing of the Hebrew letters in the opening phrase to give the translation
‘Those who swear by Samaria’s shame...’
the mention of any foreign or false God in this verse is lacking and, if this is correct, we should note that, as I said above on a few occasions, God’s main word of condemnation of His people Israel was not their idolatry but their immorality (Amstu’s translation is in keeping with the Masoretic text as it’s come down to us and not a repointing of the letters as the RSV assumes in its rendition ‘by Ashimah of Samaria’, the gods of Hamath, that were certainly brought here following the fall of Samaria - II Kings 17:30. Whether they should be thought of as being present before the fall of the nation is another matter, however).
That’s not to say that this verse is meant to be referring to the worship of YHWH by their use of objects that were associated with Him but that the basis of God’s message in Amos against His people has never been fundamentally about any worship of false gods, even though they’ve been mentioned and their service able to be inferred.
What’s caused Israel to stand before Him in a place of judgment has been their immoral lifestyle that has attacked the poor, undermined the position of the righteous and generally exploited anyone around them for their own personal benefit.
Amstu continues to attempt to identify the gods by which the Israelites were swearing in the three phrases, noting the ‘shame of Samaria’ is more likely to be
‘...the Baal-Asherah idols at Samaria...’
citing I Kings 16:32-33 in support of his proposal. These gods were constructed and put in place during the reign of Ahab but the real problem with such an identification is that, before Jeroboam came to power, Jehu (the father who’d begun the dynasty and from whom Jeroboam had descended) had destroyed the gods.
In II Kings 10:12, he headed out for Samaria and, when he arrived, summoned together all the priests, prophets and worshippers of Baal, murdering everyone who was happy to associate themselves with it, the Scripture finally recording (my italics) that
‘...they demolished the pillar of Baal and demolished the house of Baal and made it a latrine to this day’
an indication that the place wasn’t restored under any successive king (although it’s entirely possible that a centre of worship was built for Baal after Jehu’s death). It’s impossible to be certain, therefore, that the ‘shame of Samaria’ should be taken to refer to either the temple of Baal or to the Asherah that had been erected there under the direction of king Ahab.
It seems better to understand the ‘shame of Samaria’ to be a generalisation of the state of the entire northern kingdom (because ‘Samaria’ can be thought to be representative of the entire nation) that’s exemplified by the two specific declarations of oaths being uttered by the people in the following phrases. It’s also possible, though, that YHWH refuses to mention the name of the god and, instead, simply denounces it as ‘shameful’.
The ‘god’ of Dan can easily be associated with the golden bull that the first Jeroboam had placed there (I Kings 12:28-29) to prevent his new kingdom from going continually to Jerusalem to serve YHWH and, subsequently, for him to find that their hearts might also be drawn back to reunite with the nation (I Kings 12:26-27). But, having said that, we don’t know that when an Israelite mentioned the ‘god of Dan’ that there was any other deity in his mind other than YHWH. He may well have pictured the golden bull but it could equally be true that the association was that this was a representation of the God who’d brought the nation up from Egypt (I Kings 12:28).
The ‘way of Beersheba’ (Amstu retranslates this as ‘the power at Beersheba’ but there appears to be no good reason) is a reference to the pilgrimage to the sanctuary located in the southern kingdom of Judah (see my notes here) which Amstu describes as
‘...some sort of syncretised [service of] Yahweh’
a fairly accurate description in all probability, even though the label could have been placed on both Bethel and Gilgal as well if our understanding of those places was that, although YHWH was worshipped as the head of the gods, others were also sacrificed to. But the oath is being taken not in the name of a foreign or false god here but upon the pilgrimage itself.
What we end up with, though, is not a clear cut denunciation of oaths taken in the name of gods other than YHWH but, rather, the labelling of two oaths based upon the god of Dan and the pilgrimage journey itself, both of which are summated in the phrase ‘the shame of Samaria’.
The verse seems to stand as a contrast to the thirst for the word of God in 8:13. They thirstily search for the word of God but they continue to swear by the places and objects that are offensive to Him. In other words, the reason why some of them (but not all of them) are failing to hear God’s word is because they aren’t doing the things that demonstrate themselves to be God’s people.
As such, God pronounces the judgment upon them that, just like those things by which they swear
‘…they shall fall and never rise again’
where, upon this section of Israelite society, no hope of restoration can be thought possible. Although the people are religious (whether committed to the ‘god of Dan’ – who could well have thought to have been YHWH - or to spiritual pilgrimage to where God had once done something in times past), they’re still under the judgment of God.
No amount of christian religion or religiosity can win the favour of God, only a true relationship with Jesus Christ that outworks itself through a life of righteousness and justice.
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