In their recent book Sing Keith and Kristyn Getty begin with the following words, “When singing praise to God, so much more than just the vocal box is engaged. God has created our minds to judge pitch and lyric; to think through the concepts we sing; to engage with the intellect, imagination, and memory; and to remember what is set to a tune.”From this beginning they go on to reveal the beauty of how God has made us. He has created us to sing, He has commanded us to sing, and because of His grace to us in Christ, He compels us to sing. God loves the praise of His name on the lips of His people, there is no doubt about this. But have you ever asked yourself if there is a time when God does not love our songs to Him? More so have you ever asked yourself if there is a time when God wishes or even commands that we stop singing? There are over 400 references to glad hearted and whole souled singing to God in Scripture, but there are a few times and a few occasions when, because of our sin, God would rather have our silence than our songs. Our passage today is such a text.
Thus far in our summer series on Holiness we have covered much: Our Holy Godin Isaiah 6, His Holy Peoplein 1 Peter 1, and David’s Longings for Holinessin Psalm 101. Today we continue looking at holiness from the viewpoint of the prophet Amos. In the book of Amos God is concerned with His people’s unholiness and specifically in Amos 5:18-27 we find God Rebuking Unholiness. Before we arrive at 5:18-27, allow me to explain the context of this book first.
Amos is considered to be a minor prophet, not because of his unimportance, but because his book is shorter than the books of the major prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. His ministry, around 750 B.C., places him in the same time as Hosea, Isaiah, and Jonah. And as with most of the prophets we only know a little about Amos. 1:1 gives us some insight as his book begins saying, “The words of Amos, who was among the shepherds of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of Uzziah king of Judah and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel, two years before the earthquake.”
At this time Israel had already been split into two kingdoms, Judah in the south, Israel in the north. Uzziah reigned in the south and Jeroboam reigned in the north. Amos wasn’t a prophet from birth, but was a simple shepherd in the country town of Tekoa. And being that Tekoa was a city in the southern kingdom of Judah and that God called him to preach in the urban capitol of the northern kingdom of Israel means Amos wasn’t quite what Israel expected. They treated him as an outsider, a foreigner even…perhaps similar to how someone living in New York City would view someone from rural Mississippi. We’re also given the detail that he brought these words to Israel two years before the earthquake. We don’t know which earthquake this was exactly, but we do know that this region was then and still is today prone to having very large earthquakes. For example, the historian Josephus wrote of an earthquake in 31 B.C. that killed 31,000 people. That Amos refers to this one as just ‘the earthquake’, and that Zechariah does too in Zechariah 14:5 means this quake was one for the record books. Some even believe Amos’ words to Israel and Jonah’s words to Nineveh (maybe the same quake?) reverberated louder than originally given because the great earthquake came after it.
This is Amos the prophet, but what about the people he was sent to? What about the northern kingdom of Israel? Well, when God sent Amos to them even though they had one of the most wicked kings of Israel’s history the nation was experiencing it’s largest period of peace and prosperity since Solomon’s day. 2 Kings 14 mentions this as it describes Israel’s border growing and expanding to the largest it’s ever been. Into that context God sends Amos, one of the shepherds of Tekoa, to awaken His people from their prosperous ease. Hence, 1:2 probably would’ve sounded like an earthquake coming to them when Amos said, “The Lord roars from Zion and utters His voice from Jerusalem; the pastures of the shepherds mourn, and the top of Carmel withers.” You may not think of a lion’s roar as something to cause much trembling because today we mostly look at them safely in a zoo. This was not the case for Israel. They roamed free throughout the nation. So they knew the power, the speed, and the mere force of a lion and to hear its roar would have filled them with terror reminding them how such a beast could quickly destroy them. Such is the manner of the Lord’s proclamation through Amos. God doesn’t merely talk to them, or share what’s wrong with them, no. He roars as a lion in judgment.
More so this Lion roars from a specific location. From Zion, or from Jerusalem. This matters because after the nation split into two kingdoms Jeroboam I built fake Jerusalem’s all over the northern kingdom so the people would never have to go to the southern kingdom to the true Jerusalem for worship. And what makes it even worse is that in some of them he placed golden calves! Clearly, these altars are false. Hearing Amos say the Lord is roaring like a lion in judgment is enough by itself to frighten them. Hearing Amos say the Lord is roaring like a lion in judgment from Zion, from Jerusalem, would’ve been enough to terrify them and bring to mind all their past sins.
But what are their sins? God is clear on that as well. After rebuking the nations around Israel for their many sins in chapter 1 and the first half of chapter 2 you can imagine Amos’ hearers would’ve been in agreement with him. ‘You’re right Amos, you’re southern accent may be strange but preach on, these pagan nations are wicked and they deserve to be judged by God!’ But then a hush would’ve come over the crowd as he begins rebuking Judah in 2:4, and then Israel in 2:6 for their many sins. Then for the majority of the book God through Amos takes direct aim, not so much at the people in general (which He does some of) but mostly at the leaders of the people and specifically the leaders false religion. What makes their religion false? In chapters 3-5 God says He’ll destroy the altars at their fake Jerusalem sites, He’ll destroy their vacation homes (both summer and winter), and all their mansions or great homes will come to an end…calling them cows who drink wine in bowls, laugh at the needy, oppress and trample on the poor, build massive homes with large vineyards while passing by the needy and then after doing all of this they come to the altars at Bethel to make offerings and sacrifices to God of all kinds. God had been good to them, He’d blessed them, restrained much of the evil that could’ve come on them, but His goodness to them did not produce gratefulness in them. Five times in 4:6-11 one phrase is repeated “…yet you have not returned to Me.”
One such example is that while the nation was experiencing vast blessing, the wars that bought their peace had exhausted the lower classes of people and brought many of them to poverty. Once this occurred the wealthy in Israel swooped in to save the day handing out loans. But the loans were intentionally un-payable, so the poor were forced to give over their land and eventually themselves to settle these debts, reducing them to slaves to the rich. The political and religious leaders did nothing to stop this oppression. They only kept reminding the people that they had no reason to fear, that things were going well, that their armies were victorious, and that their city had high walls. They were the chosen people of God and are forever in the clear from God’s judgment.From allowing evil they forsook what is good. Rather than loving good they showed how they truly loved evil. Rather than establishing justice they forsook justice and by doing so they upheld oppression. Because they did these things God says in 4:12, “Prepare to meet your God, O Israel!”
Charge 1 – Eagerly Awaiting Future Salvation Wrongly Believing It Will Bring Redemption
v18-20 says, “Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! Why would you have the day of the LORD? It is darkness, and not light, as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him. Is not the day of the LORD darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?”
Many of the prophets spoke of the great ‘day of the Lord’ including Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Obadiah, Zephaniah, and Malachi. But Amos was likely the first prophet to use the term. Most of the hearers of these prophets believed ‘the day of the Lord’ was the day when God would intervene in the world’s affairs, conquer all His enemies, and put His chosen people Israel at the head of the table, if you will. It was to be a day of great power, where the sovereign God of Israel would show Himself to be unmatched, unrivaled, and unequaled in all power, might, and glory. It took many years for Israel to win their current peace, it would only take God one moment to permanently defeat all His foes. Because of this the people greatly hoped and wished for the dawning of this day, yet surprisingly Amos (as the rest of the prophets do) spoke of this day as a woe. They think it will be light for them but it will be darkness. They think it will mean ultimate salvation and redemption for them, but it will be judgment. Amos describes their misplaced anticipation by speaking of surprises in v19. Their hope for this day will be like a man who escaped from a lion, thought he was safe, but turned around and saw he was face to face with a bear. Or as if a man went into his house to rest, leaned on the wall in relief and was bit by a snake. By speaking this way Amos agrees with them, that on the day of the Lord God’s enemies will be judged and destroyed, but he implies that God’s people and God’s enemies are one in the same.This would have been a stunning and surprising reversal.
This kind of sudden surprise reminds me of the time when the young Martin Luther was deeply angered by the abuses of the Roman Catholic church and deeply desired to warn the Pope but ultimately found that the source of all these evils and more was the Pope himself. For Israel…disaster, darkness, gloom, trouble, distress, misery, and death will abound on this day they desire to see, not rescue. This first charge is clear. They should not desire the day of the Lord; it is endless devastation not eternal deliverance.
Charge 2 – Indulging in Worship while Ignoring Injustice
v21-24 says, “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer Me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from Me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
While God’s first charge warned them of what was to come on the day of the Lord, His second charge told them why that outcome would be certain.
v21 is an interruption of God’s voice. Amos was speaking in v18-20 and as v21 comes there is a glaring omission. Usually when we hear from a prophet they begin with the standard refrain “Thus says the Lord” to prepare the people to hear from God. Not here. God just begins speaking about His hatred. Hatred of what you may ask? Everything in this middle portion pertains to God’s hatred of their worship. Feasts and solemn assemblies in v21. Burnt offerings, grain offerings, and peace offerings in v22. Songs, melodies, and instruments in v23. Notice there’s no mention of a sin offering in v22? It’s either implied here in these other offerings, or because they had given themselves over to a lavishness and luxurious ease it’s likely they had done away with the sin offering long ago to remain in ease and comfort.All of these things are integral to the worship of Israel whether they were participating in a special yearly celebration, a festival, or the weekly Sabbath. v21-22 are strong, but when we get to v23 God notches it up a level when He says not only that He won’t listen to their songs or the melody of their harps, but that He desires them to stop because rather than pleasing Him they disturb Him.
We know from other parts of Scripture that they’re worship was false. They wrongly made fake Jerusalem temples, and they wrongly put idols within them and encouraged false worship. On top of all of this there is v24. “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
In the religious activity of the nations around Israel one was allowed to be privately wicked and immoral as long as they were present and enthusiastically engaged pagan worship.God did not allow such a contradiction to be present among His people. Faithfulness to Him looked like a steady commitment to righteousness and justice. One could not be occasionally obedient to God. One could not obey only when it was convenient for them or safe for them. One could not worship rightly while living wrongly. That would be like committing adultery every now and then while claiming to be faithful to your spouse.God commanded a consistent covenant keeping from His people. That’s why it’s likened here as an ever flowing strong stream in v24. It’s doesn’t start here and stop there like most streams in the desert, running in rainy season and dry for the rest of the year. Rather, life rightly lived before the face of God continues flowing in obedient directions day and night, never going dry.
This was the foundation of these three charges in chapter 5. This was the reason why God hated their songs and told them to stop singing. This is why the day of the Lord would be darkness and not light for them. This second charge is clear, if they continued in their current path God would ensure that on the great day of the Lord He will cause justice to roll down like waters over them and carry them away in His own righteous judgment.
Charge 3 – Carrying on Their Religion while Refusing to Repent
v25-27 says, “Did you bring to Me sacrifices and offerings during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? You shall take up Sikkuth your king, and Kiyyun your star-god—your images that you made for yourselves, and I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,” says the LORD, whose name is the God of hosts.”
God brings up their past wilderness wanderings to further rebuke them. Not much went right in the wilderness for them. It was a time of grumbling, complaining, and sinning…even when they made sacrifices to God. It was by doing these sacrifices that they thought they were doing right by God and living in an obedient manner, but were they? Of course not! Like these Israelites their hearts were far from Him while their hands offered up sacrifice after sacrifice. And to make matters worse now, these northern Israelites had progressed to a more modern and sophisticated religion by adding visual representations on top of their altars.Not only did they have a few golden calves, they had images of two pagan astrological deities (Sikkuth and Kiyyun) in their temples. Sure they made sure to keep practicing certain covenant rituals but they neglected they weightier matters of the Law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23). Because of this, God hates, God rejects their worship and will uproot them allowing them to be carried off by their Assyrian enemies into exile.
So there’s our text for today. Perhaps you’re thinking it already so let me go ahead and ask the question for you. What does this passage have to do with holiness? Answer: everything…God shows us here what can happen to His people when they become content in living unholy lives. Worship continues but in reality is little more than a show because their day to day lives contradict their worship. This is unholy and those who live like this need to be rebuked.
The call of Amos for this original audience is clear. The wealthy people of Israel tried to worship God while keeping the mistress of money happy on the side. They oppressed the poor, and crushed the needy, while living in wealth and luxury. Because of this their worship became a weak, empty ritual. You hear the call for us today? People who truly worship God above them sacrificially work for justice around them. That’s what holiness looks like. It shouldn’t surprise us that Martin Luther King Jr. quoted Amos 5:24 quite often. In his letter from the Birmingham jail he rebukes some of the white churches in Birmingham for not coming to their aid even though they thought this cause was true. They knew oppression was rampant, they knew it wasn’t right, and he pleaded with them asking justice to roll down like waters using Amos 5:24 to join the cause. But they didn’t join him. Instead they kept on worshiping week in and out unwilling to reach out to their brothers and sisters being treated unjustly.
In many ways the state of affairs in Israel during Amos’ day is very similar to the state of affairs in America today. Donald Trump’s motto ‘Make America Great Again’ could very easily be applied to Jeroboam II’s aims to ‘Make Israel Great Again.’ Wealth and prosperity flowed easily and brought with it an idolatrous promise of ease and security that produced spiritual sloth of all kinds, especially related to matters of justice and oppression. They were quick to sing with their mouths, they were quick to raise their hands in worship, but they were slow to speak for the oppressed and slow to work against injustice. “Praising God above them while ignoring justice around them. God hates ‘worship’ like that.”
Church, holiness doesn’t look like trying harder to be a better person, it looks like saturating ourselves with the gospel more and more everyday until our lives begin to reflect it’s truth. Jesus Christ has been put forward by God to be the wrath bearing sacrifice for sinners. God will now gladly welcome the poorest and dirtiest sinner into his arms who comes by faith. Do we believe that? That gospel, that good news, ought to move us toward a humble service of others not a prideful posturing over others.