A Shepherd of Two Kingdoms
Sermon Theme: The book of Amos is a reminder that God speaks even when we aren’t listening.
The words of Amos burst upon the landscape of the Northern Kingdom, Israel, with all the terror and surprise of a lion’s roar. Though their main targets were the palaces of Samaria and the shrines at Bethel and Gilgal, the prophet’s words were to resound throughout Israel’s entire landscape leaving no part nor person unscathed.
Abuse of power in the social realm and compromise with paganism in the religious were the two besetting sins which Amos denounced. At particular fault were the powerful, the landed, the wealthy and the influential, in short, the leadership, who had not only seduced the underprivileged from obedient worship of Yahweh, but had conscripted their lands, confiscated their goods, violated their women and cheated them in business along the way. The lion-like roar was a divine No, shouted through the prophet at every basic component of Israel’s political, social, economic and religious life.
And the No carried overtones of finality. The divine Judge was to rap the gavel with a bang that would collapse both altar and palace. At stake were the survival of the ruling dynasty, the political perpetuity of the Northern Kingdom, the occupation of the land and the very lives of its citizens. Even more, at stake was the continuation of the covenant with its beginnings in the patriarchal periods, its powerful love demonstrated in the exodus, its specific structure revealed to Moses, its renewal in the days of Joshua’s conquest and its royal setting in David’s time. In five brief visions and a handful of short oracles, Amos saw and heard the end (cf. Amos 8:2) of all of this and had no choice but to declare it (Amos 3:8; Amos 7:15).
The denunciations of sin — whether of the neighbor nations or of Israel —and the announcements of judgment — whether by fire, earthquake or foreign army — triggered a barrage of prophetic activity which shaped and interpreted the life of Israel and Judah for four hundred years. By their message of awful, damning judgment when covenant-privileges were presumed upon, these prophets, with Amos at their van, prepared the way for the New Testament announcement of a Savior in whose blood a New Covenant would be written. The fact that Amos and the prophets who followed — prophets like Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, Zephaniah, Habakkuk, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel and Malachi — found hope beyond the judgment or, better, hope through the judgment, has added immeasurably to our understanding of forgiveness through the cross of Christ, itself history’s greatest instance of divine judgment.
In Amos’ view of God’s actions, sovereign judgment and majestic compassion are both found, though not always in equal amounts. But the grandeur of his grasp of Yahweh’s greatness frames the backdrop for biblical discipleship in every era, not least our own.
[From Tyndale New Testament Commentaries]
- What were the two kingdoms like at the time of Amos? Amos (“burden bearer”) was a herdsman and a cultivator of sycamore trees (Amos 1:1; Amos 7:14) when the Lord called him to be a prophet. He lived in the village of Tekoa, about eleven miles from Jerusalem, during the reigns of Uzziah in Judah (790-740 BC) and Jeroboam II in the northern kingdom of Israel (793-753 BC). Amos was a layman, a humble farmer and shepherd who was not an official member of the Jewish religious or political establishment. At this time, both Judah and Israel were enjoying prosperity and security. Luxury abounded (Amos 3:10-15; Amos 5:1-6), and religion was popular. Israel flocked to the royal chapel at Bethel (Amos 4:4-5), and Judah celebrated the feasts enthusiastically (Amos 5:21-22), but the sins of both nations were eroding the religious and moral fiber of the people. Making money was more important than worshipping God (Amos 8:5); the rich exploited the poor, the judicial system was corrupt, and injustice flourished (Amos 5:11-15; Amos 8:4-6). Amos declared God’s judgment not only on the Gentile nations but also on Israel and Judah. It was a call to repent of “ritual religion” and seek the Lord sincerely. He warned the aristocrats that God would judge them for the way they were abusing the poor. In spite of the nations’ peace and prosperity, Amos saw the end coming and warned the people to prepare to meet their God. One of the key verses in the book of Amos is: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24) ― a command the nations need to obey today. [From BE Series Commentaries]
- Does our piety have the one essential aim and one vital test of validity to emulate the concerns of the One whom we adore, the One who has shown himself to be the ultimate righteousness and justice, the final truth and grace? Our covenant privileges must be enjoyed with humility, since Yahweh cares for and commands the destinies of all peoples, even our enemies. Our sense of security must always be anchored in our God alone, since our days of prosperity are his blessing and our times of austerity may be his discipline. But, be on guard that there may come a time when we receive an Amos message like Israel did for their sins. For Amos was given a new and radical message from God that has never been heard before in Israel: God is coming to bring Israel’s life to an end (Amos 8:2). God will spare this people no longer. The prophet’s task is no longer simply to expose the people’s sin and call them to repentance and return to their God. Repentance is no longer possible. The nation’s sin is now so severe that it can be corrected only by their being wiped out. In short, Amos is a prophet of total judgment, announcing the death of the northern kingdom. He is not a social reformer but an exposer of rebellion against God. He is not a humanitarian but a herald of God’s coming action. He is not announcing new ideas about God but rather is proclaiming that the God of the covenant is on the move, toward the goal of the day of the Lord, when God will set up his kingdom on earth. Thus, God now comes to reject Israel and to bring its salvation history to an end. It is a simply stunning message, and we can perhaps feel the force of it by imagining that a prophet was to tell us Christians that the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ are no longer sufficient to save us.
- When the Lord roars, then the pastures of the shepherds mourn, and the top of Carmel withers (Amos 1:2) — all comes under the blight and blow of judgment. That is the metaphor. It is one of totality. The reality is spelt out in terms of nations: the whole world is under divine observation, subservient to divine assessment and subdued without refuge before divine judgment. Attacked would, in some ways, be a better translation than roared, for the roar in question is the pouncing roar, the roar of a lion already committed to the attack, the roar intended to paralyze its victim with terror. Is not roared a savage, vicious word? Can it have any relationship to the divine nature? Can God be like that? It is a word which points forward to imminent suffering, destruction and death. Can such things be the acts of God? These questions are important, for Amos comes before us as a prophet, a man with a word from God, and if the God in whose name he speaks is not the God we worship, then Amos’ book may remain for his times but not ours. Who, then, is the God of Amos, this roaring lion of a God? The first word which Amos wishes us to hear him speaking is the name of God: The Lord roars so that our gaze is first engaged with Him, and it is only when we have contemplated Him that we are allowed to consider what He is to do. Who is the Lord, Yahweh? Like the rest of the Bible, Amos associates (cf. Amos 3:1) the name of God with the revelation of Himself which He gave to His people through Moses and the Exodus. It is necessary to grasp very clearly the significance of the fact that the revelation of the name of God is bracketed about by the declared holiness of God. When God declares His name, He is offering a summary statement of His essential character. Two things, therefore, converge in the opening chapters of Exodus: the revelation of that divine attribute, holiness, which both Exodus and the rest of the Bible insist to be the fundamental truth about the divine nature, and the name, Yahweh, in which God chooses to express the eternal truth (Exodus 3:15) about Himself. The developing narrative of Exodus fills out the theme. First in the words He spoke to Moses, and secondly in the great deeds by which those words were authenticated, Yahweh, the holy God, is declared to be the God who saves His people and overthrows His enemies. Salvation and judgment are equally aspects of His holiness, and both together constitute the abiding definition of His holy character which is expressed in His name.
- Do we understand that judgment will not only come to but will begin at the house of God? Amos prepares us for this when he lays such considerable stress on the location from which Yahweh roars: from Zion … from Jerusalem. There is more to this than an implied rebuke to the northern tribes for their schism (1 Kings 12:16). So Amos portrays Yahweh as speaking from the place where He had chosen to set His altar, itself the visible expression of the wrath and mercy which together define His holy nature. It was the place of wrath, for there death, the price of sin, was paid; it was the place of mercy, for there the sinner found the comfort of divine forgiveness and atonement (Leviticus 17:11). As Amos perceived the character of his God, he saw that the lion-roar of condemnation and judgment came only when the patience of mercy had long, but vainly, waited for repentance and amendment of life. On the part of man, the cup of sinfulness has been filled to the brim; on the part of God, there has been no hasty action: the first transgression well merited divine wrath, but mercy waited and patience watched. One way of expressing this truth about God is to say that He never punishes the sinner except after prolonged personal observation and ample opportunity for repentance. Another way of stating the same truth is to say that the face which God turns to the world is predominantly one of mercy, that wrath comes, when it comes at all, late and overdue, and accompanied by the tears of God over recalcitrant and impenitent sinners (cf. Luke 19:41-42). For the God of Amos is a God of patient, moral providence. But take heart that the more we find ourselves, with grateful hearts, acknowledging the God of Amos as our God, the more we ought to bow humbly before this truth. Truly He is our God ― the holy One ― manifesting His holiness in just wrath and righteous salvation, the Lion of the tribe of Judah who is also the Lamb as though it had been slain. He is the God of the altar of Calvary’s cross, that final and eternal meeting of mercy and wrath, the one sacrifice for sins forever.
- Do we love hearing God’s message until it comes too close to home for comfort? Misrepresentation often happens when the word of God is spoken. People will allow us to speak the truth of God so long as we speak it to ourselves or to those who agree with us, or if we do it vaguely enough so that they do not understand what we are saying. But let the message be heard and understood, and immediately the opposition and misrepresentation begin. Speak about sin, and they say, “Oh, those hypocrites think they’re better than everyone else.” Speak of Jesus as the way of salvation, and they call us “narrow-minded” or “bigoted.” Speak of judgment, and they claim that you have had a bad upbringing and could not get along with anybody. Yet, nothing in Judah and Israel in Amos’ time would make the Jews happier than to see the Lord judge the surrounding nations. But when Amos denounced Judah and Israel, that was a different story. God wanted to get the nations’ attention, but people weren’t listening. You’d think they could hear a lion roar or the thunder roll and know that danger was at hand. God was speaking (“thundering”) from Jerusalem, for judgment always begins at the house of the Lord (1 Peter 4:17). He had sent drought to the land so that even fruitful Carmel was withering, but it didn’t bring the people to their knees. So God called a common farmer to preach to His people and warn them. “A lion has roared! Who will not fear? The Lord GOD has spoken! Who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3:8). For God is a righteous God who requires righteousness and truthfulness in his people. We are all good at imposing God’s standards on others, but we need to remember that God’s standards apply first of all to us. Are we righteous? Do we live as God wants us to live, particularly toward others?
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