There were fat cows, the best of the breeds, grazing on fertile land in the Northern Transjordan region during the time of Amos, the prophet. At this time the Israelites went to worship at Bethel, which means House of God. The problem? It wasn’t God’s house; God was in Zion or Jerusalem! At Bethel the higher echelon of the Northern Kingdom would burn incense and present their sacrifices at the altar. By the way, this is where Jeroboam, the first king of the North, set up golden calves. He felt he had to do such so that his people wouldn’t defect to Jerusalem, or the South. Sounds like our churches today who are afraid their offerings will fall off if “their” people visit another church. Pastors have been known to say: “better not go there, they teach lies, they are false prophets, they don’t preach the Word” and on and on. So Jeroboam commissioned his own priests and instituted his own feasts. He told his people they could worship where they pleased and how they pleased, as long as they stayed in the North. In Gilgal Jeroboam’s people presented their thank offerings with leaven (a symbol of sin in the Scripture) and even worshiped other gods. If it were today, they would be singing Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way!”
At this time Israel was prosperous (the Dow was over 15000) and politically secure, a time of successful military ventures. It was the golden era. Jeroboam II came to power and the entire kingdom believed that God was pleased with them; after all, they were prosperous. In the midst of this, the prophet Amos appeared on the scene and the Word of Lord came forth. Amos spoke about 2800 long years ago, but his prophecy reads like today’s newspaper.
God’s people during this time were intensely and sincerely religious. But theirs was a privatized religion that ignored the poor, the widow, the alien and the orphan, and that degraded faith to culturally acceptable ritual (you decided if that speaks of the church today). Worst of all, Israel’s religious leaders sanctioned the political and economic status quo; they pimped their religion for Jeroboam’s (Obama’s) empire.
Enter Amos. He preached from the lunatic, pessimistic, and unpatriotic fringe. He was blue collar rather than blue blooded. He claimed he was neither a prophet nor even the son of a prophet in the professional sense of the term. He was a shepherd, a farmer, and a tender of fig trees, a small town boy who grew up in Tekoa, about 12 miles southeast of Jerusalem and 5 miles south of Bethlehem. The cultured elites of his day despised Amos as a redneck. Furthermore, he was an unwelcomed outsider (not from inside the Beltway). He was born in the southern Kingdom of Judah, yet God called him to thunder a prophetic word to the Northern Kingdom of Israel (the name Ted Cruz comes to mind).
Amos’ fiery rhetoric opposed the powers of his day. With graphic details that make you wince, he describes how the rich crushed the poor, how sexual debauchery was prevalent, how the legal system was corrupt, how justice was sold to highest bidder, and how predatory leaders exploited the vulnerable. Worst of all, Amos told how the religious leaders aided and abetted all of this. To the priests who defended, legitimized, and justified Jeroboam’s political power, Amos delivered an uncompromising word of warning (Amos7:7-17).
In the midst of prosperity; Amos, out of step with his time, predicted failure, war, and devastation. And the most startling of all, Amos said it was God who would bring this upon the people. Amos’ words spoke of moral failure in every level of society: the law, the leadership, the economic life, and even worship (church life) Amos saw luxurious living for the rich, exploitation of the poor, loose moral standards, corruption in public life and religious life. He saw a religious life based on ritual rather than piety.
For Amos, there was no “Mishpat” (justice) and no “Tzedakah” (righteousness or right standing with God). In the Hebrew, Tzedakah is an attitude which is needed to produce Mishpat. One needs right standing with God in order to be just. Because one is righteous, justice is done. Tzedakah is a condition of the heart. It is a relationship with God that allows justice to flow through you. Has anything changed today? Just asking!
Amos spoke about injustice in the courts, no justice for the poor or weak. There was debt slavery (human trafficking). The upper class was exploiting the lower classes. There were burdensome interest rates on loans or no loans at all. People were being cheated at every turn. Furthermore, sexual morality and respect for others had completely broken down. Yet the leaders, the rich, were confident God as with them! The religious ceremonies were conducted with euphoric almost drug-like singing, dancing, etc. The priests, the prophets, and judges were intimately associated with all of this.
For Amos, Israel were God’s chosen people, a covenant people; and should be held to a higher standard than other nations. What about us in America? We hold ourselves out to be a nation chosen by God and morally superior don’t we? When justice (mishpat) is ignored, society suffers according to Amos. In fact, it dies.
One last thought. As long as the church (God’s called out people) looks like the rest of the world, what do you suppose God thinks of our worship?
I hate, I reject your festivals,
Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings,
I will not accept them; and I will not even look at the peace offerings of you fatlings
Take away from Me the noise of your songs;
I will not even even listen to the sound of your harps. Amos 5:21-23
It is not the worship that is wrong; it is rather, the condition of the heart.
Lastly, Amos’ words were preserved because he addressed them to the people as a whole; not just to a leader. God’s covenant is with all the people individually and equally. All must bear the task of keeping that covenant. No longer will God punish only the king or leader for the nation’s evil, but He will hold the people as a whole responsible. God have mercy on us and on America!