The Warning of Outrage
Sermon Theme: Our outrage about the sins of others is often God’s gracious warning to us.
God employed a shepherd, a herdsman, to reprove and warn the people. Those to whom God gives abilities for his services, ought not to be despised for their origin, or their employment. Judgments are denounced against the neighboring nations, the oppressors of God’s people. The number of transgressions does not here mean that exact number, but many: they had filled the measure of their sins, and were ripe for vengeance. The method in dealing with these nations is, in part, the same, yet in each there is something peculiar. In all ages this bitterness has been shown against the Lord’s people. When the Lord reckons with his enemies, how tremendous are his judgments!
The evil passions of the heart break out in various forms; but the Lord looks to our motives, as well as our conduct. Those that deal cruelly, shall be cruelly dealt with. Other nations were reckoned with for injuries done to men; Judah is reckoned with for dishonor done to God. Judah despised the law of the Lord; and He justly gave them up to strong delusion; nor was it any excuse for their sin, that they were the lies, the idols, after which their fathers walked. The worst abominations and most grievous oppressions have been committed by some of the professed worshippers of the Lord. Such conduct leads many to unbelief and vile idolatry.
[From Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary]
- How were people and things thought of or valued in Amos’ time? Is it any different in today’s society? It is not difficult to think ourselves into the frame of mind cultivated by the war effort of Hazael and his Syrians (Amos 1:3-5). Would not Hazael had undoubtedly thought: “There’s only one way to make war: you hit the enemy with all you’ve got and do anything you can to win an absolute and unconditional victory!” And if anyone raised a voice of humane protest against carrying the war to the extreme of the deliberate torture of captives, sooner or later the reply would have come, “There’s a war on. Didn’t you know?” Exceptional circumstances justify exceptional measures and remove conventional limitations. Man may think so, but God does not. War or no war, Hazael had no liberty to treat people as if they were things. It is the first absolute moral principle for which Amos campaigns ― people are not things. Let us suppose that the description of Hazael’s conduct as a metaphor and then ask what the metaphor means. Threshing is what a man does to a thing, a grain crop, in order to extract profit from it. This is what Hazael did in Gilead. He treated people as things. Thus, the principle in these oracles dealing with general human relationships is the priority of human welfare over commercial profit (Amos 1:6). Gaza was a hive of commercial activity, a great trading center. Buying and selling was its life-blood, maintained at the cost of many a life. And no-one was in business for philanthropic reasons. Where money talked loudest it was often best to learn to hold your tongue, and where the margin between solvency and bankruptcy depended every day on making a profit-margin over your nearest rival, or finding a market for what was saleable, why not turn a blind eye and get on with it. If life is hard, business is even harder. And, as we can well imagine, nowhere was this philosophy more thoroughly known and practiced than in the emporia of the slave-trade. They carried into exile a whole people — young, old, men, women, married, single, rich, poor. Only one question was asked: Will they sell? And God took notice, as He always does when things are valued more highly than people. For no matter their land of origin, their race, their color, their language, their past history, all people still represent God’s highest creative accomplishment — the image of God himself. They must be respected as people of value and not be reduced to the role of things (Exodus 21:16).
- When should your word be kept and when should it not? What are the principles of human conduct in the inviolability of the pledged word? In the case of a convent pledge by Israel with God, no act in breach of Israel’s obligations should occur ― Israel’s word had been given and Israel’s word shall not be broken. On a personal level, this is not, of course, to say that in every case we are bound irretrievably to keep our word. Some promises can be honored only by repenting of them. We cannot, for example, foresee the future, and it could well be that a promise might be given to take a certain action, or to support another in taking a certain action within the year, yet when the time for standing by the promise comes it is clear that the action in question involves a greater breach of honor, a more shameful and blameworthy course than to break the original promise. In such circumstances it is the action of a fanatic to insist on keeping the pledge. Did not Herod commit a greater sin by keeping his word than he would have committed by breaking it (Mark 6:26)? We may ask what Herod should have done — for, after all, had he not promised up to half his kingdom? Herod should have replied, “I’m sorry. I’m afraid John the Baptist’s head is in the other half of my kingdom!” And if we, moralistically, think that such a course is an evasion, let us at least recognize that it is an evasion which sides with righteousness. The course of absolute honor for Herod, as for us, would simply be the words “I’m sorry.” The path of abject repentance of the whole thing is often the highest moral good in a world of sinners. All this is certainly true, and Amos is not to be thought of as advocating some unreal moralism. Yet however true it is that some promises should be honored by repenting of them and taking the consequences, nevertheless no pledged word should be treated as negotiable simply for self-interest and self-advantage. This was what Tyre had done and it was an unforgivable transgression.
- Are you holding a transgression concealed in your heart whether it be against a person or nation? In Edom’s case, they had a long history of antagonism against the people of God and it was yet to culminate in their joy over Jerusalem’s downfall (Psalm 137:7). Behind all this Amos discerns an anger which tore at Edom perpetually and a wrath guarded lest it evaporate. This hidden thing, this spring from which flowed the outward acts of aggression and spitefulness, this was seen and known to God, and it was this which He could not overlook. By contrast to this sin of Edom what principle can be deduced for a God-pleasing life? The inadmissibility of hatred nourished in the heart. If there is anything lying patently on the surface of Scripture as a candidate for being the unforgivable sin it is this, for nothing could be plainer than that in the absence of any outflow of forgiveness on the human level there can be no inflow of forgiveness from God. Edom’s was an unreasoning hatred, but by whatever rationalizations it was buttressed, the Edomites could find no means of putting it aside, and it lay there poisoning the heart of their life with its bitterness. In principle God said to them through Amos what Jesus says to us: “If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:15) — and how can He? For those who cannot forgive have forgotten their own position as guilty sinners (Matthew 18:32-35): How then can they plead for forgiveness? For those who allow old sores to fester proclaim that they are not interested in forgiving, they do not see it as having anything to contribute, it is not important to them: How then can they ask for it? Hatred maintained in the heart is a transgression without peer.
- What reasoning can be used for God’s judgment on the pagan nations? For if they are pagan nations and if they have not received Israel’s blessing, including the Old Testament law, then how can they be held responsible for failing to do those things they did not know they were to do? The answer to this question is that they are not judged for failing to do what they did not have knowledge of but for failing to do what they knew was required of them. The one common denominator of the oracles against Syria, Philistia, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, and Moab is that each involves a sin against basic human relations. It seems that the nations are condemned here not for idolatry nor false religions but for offences commonly judged as evil by the prevalent standards of the day: cruelty to civilians in war (Amos 1:3; Amos 1:13), selling of war prisoners into slavery (Amos 1:6; Amos 1:9), violation of treaties (Amos 1:9; Amos 1:11), ripping open pregnant women (Amos 1:13) and mistreatment of a fallen king (Amos 2:1). These are not violations of any specific provision of the law of God, though the Old Testament law covers these as well as other items. They are violations of that basic code of human decency written in the hearts of all people and expected of all, whether friend or foe, kinsman or stranger, neighbor or member of a distant nation. God holds even the pagan nations responsible for merciful behavior, but these nations acted without mercy to their foes with repeated violations, atrocity upon atrocity. The wrongs noted are all acts of inhumanity. The Lord’s concern for human rights and human decency in the conduct of the family of nations is an obvious thrust of this passage; even where war is deemed necessary, it must be waged with restraint. Even the law codes of foreign peoples, such as the Code of Hammurabi and the Nuzi texts, set limits on the treatment of captive peoples (cf. Exodus 23:9; Nehemiah 5:8; Job 31:13-15; Joel 3:6). The helpless were not to be misused and abused as mere material objects to profit the mighty.
- Are we not to limit our personal ambition so that the rights of the helpless are upheld? It is not that personal ambition is itself wrong. It is indeed necessary to life, and is part and parcel of the constitution given us by the Creator. But suppose ambition leads a man to gain a better job by conniving at the unjust dismissal of the man who at present holds that job? Suppose ambition to build up his business makes a man deprive his wife of his husbandly company and his children of their father’s care? Suppose ambition acquiesces too readily or too thoughtlessly in the maxim that the weak go to the wall? Does it not matter when private holdings are squeezed out, without redress, by the juggernaut of compulsory purchase? The issue may be clouded and glorified by much talk of progress, when the real motivation is Ammonite ambition. But, Amos taught us how to think about the future, keeping ambition within the bounds of mercy and kindness.
- What is your accountability in this life for your knowledge of God’s will granted to you? For the Gentile neighbors were held responsible for standards of human treatment of one another, not just damage done to Israel; Judah (Amos 2:4-5), on the other hand, was judged in terms of its response to Yahweh’s law, since it had the advantage of that special revelation. More than anything else, the judgment speeches highlight Israel’s terrifying accountability. They are a kind of a fortiori argument: if the lesser breeds without the law are to receive harsh recompense for their failure to abide by the accepted norms of international law, how much more culpable is God’s people, to whom have been granted the blessings of covenant and law? The catalogue of oracles in Amos 1:3-2:5 serve, then, as a preface to the poignant yet damning announcement in Amos 3:2: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” For they were much more culpable, for “from everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48). Do we reject the laws of our God? We say, “No, we wouldn’t do that. We love the laws of our God. Don’t we sing, ‘O how love I Thy law; it is my meditation all the day’?” Well, we may sing it, but it probably is not true that God’s law is our meditation all the day. Our minds are too filled with other things. What is more, we probably also often reject it, just as Judah had done. We reject it by equivocation. Whenever we come across something that requires a change in our behavior or lifestyle, we say, “I wonder what it says in the Hebrew.” Or we argue, “That must have been written for another age.” Failing that, we just refuse to read it. One preacher said of God’s Word, “This Book will keep you from sin, or sin will keep you from this Book.” Many have rejected the law of God because they do not want to relinquish sin.
- Are we always aware that God has a watchful eye on us? It is a constant aspect of the Bible’s view of life that earthly relationships have a heavenly dimension: actions directed towards men provoke reactions from God. The words of Amos were his own, reflecting his own intense fervor for social and personal righteousness, but they come to us under the heading, six times repeated, “Thus says the Lord.” God watches the whole career of our sinfulness, the first, second and third transgressions; it is He who has annotated the six deadly sins, noting them as the fourth transgressions, so that we might avoid them and adopt on His authority the six corresponding governing precepts of life. Nothing has escaped His eye: He sees the past, the sin of Hazael (Amos 1:3) already half a century old; He sees the individual act, every single monstrosity of Gaza’s slave-trading (Amos 1:6) as if He had counted the heads of their captives; He sees the broken promise (Amos 1:9) and the hidden enmity of the heart (Amos 1:11); He sees the emotions, and observes when ambition swallows up pity (Amos 1:13); He sees the memory and what it cherishes and its lurking, treasured sins (Amos 2:1). But the one sin which runs like a thread through the six aspects is the sin of self-pleasing ― the self proudly trampling on others, intent on its own profit, sitting loose to troublesome obligations, indulging its secret motives, careless of all so long as it has its way, and bitter to the last against all who dare to say nay! But the particular way in which this sin has been manifested is in the context of human relationships and its origin in ignoring the voice of conscience. Thus, we learn the pressing ambition of Amos — and hence any true Christian — always to take pains to have a clear conscience toward God and toward men (Acts 24:16). For all sins are sins against the majesty of God. To sin against other human beings is to reject the rule of God, as surely as following after other gods or lies. The foreign nations and Judah are equally guilty, as Israel will also be shown to be guilty in the oracle of Amos 2:6-16. All rebellions against God’s will are offenses that try to make God less than God and Lord of all.
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