Are We Listening?
Sermon Text: Amos 5:1-17
Sermon Theme: Are we listening to the clear wisdom of Biblical lamentation?
The convincing, awakening word must be heard and heeded, as well as words of comfort and peace; for whether we hear or do without, the word of God shall take effect. The Lord still proclaims mercy to men, but they often expect deliverance from such self-inflicted forms as make their condemnation sure. While they refuse to come to Christ and to seek mercy in and by him, that they may live, the fire of Divine wrath breaks forth upon them. The same almighty power can, for repenting sinners, easily turn affliction and sorrow into prosperity and joy, and as easily turn the prosperity of daring sinners into utter darkness. Men may make an idol of the world, but will find it cannot protect. Evil men in evil times will not bear plain dealing. And these men were evil men indeed, when wise and good men thought it in vain even to speak to them. Those who will seek and love that which is good, may help to save the land from ruin. It behooves us to plead God’s spiritual promises, to beseech him to create in us a clean heart, and to renew a right spirit within us. The Lord is ever ready to be gracious to the souls that seek him; and then piety and every duty will be attended to. But as for sinful Israel, God’s judgments had often passed by them, now they shall pass through those judgments.
[From Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary]
- Are you hearing a dirge, a lament, a funeral song from our LORD? Are you getting a sneak preview of your funeral? God placed a dirge or lament, a funeral song, in the prophet’s mouth. Israel, a nation that believed they were enjoying the prime of life, had to reflect on death. This was not death in general but their own death. God said the nation had fallen, never to rise again. Party-loving, prosperous Israel saw none of this. They were God’s elect people enjoying God’s protection. Oh, not so said the prophet. You are a nation deserted in her own land, with no one to lift her up. God did not guarantee them his protection forever. A disobedient nation must face the music — the music of a funeral dirge for themselves. Although Israel prided themselves in their victorious armies, God would let them march out to battle once more, but this would bring disaster. Nine of every ten soldiers would not return. This did not represent a remnant with hope. This represented defeat and destruction. The Romans had thirty epithets for death; and all of them were full of the deepest dejection: “The iron slumber,” “the eternal night,” “the mower with his scythe,” “the hunter with his snares,” “the demon bearing a cup of poison,” “the merciless destroying angel,” “the inexorable jailor with keys,” “the king of terrors treading down empires” — some of them were these, the bitterness of which is indescribable. But, many of our common conceptions concerning death are false and unreal. We have mistaken figures of speech for facts represented by them. Of death as a physical evil little need be said ― often it appears sadly painful. Death is viewed as essentially evil, because it is assumed to be the direct result of sin. It is a penal infliction — the shame and curse of life, the outcome of our guilty rebellion. Can Christians have as much fear of death as the heathen? This cannot be true. It is contrary to the laws of reason and it is opposed to the very spirit of Scripture. For Scripture, rightly interpreted, gives it no support. Death for the believer, instead of being retribution, is diminished; instead of a curse, a blessing. Whatever of death Adam by his wrong-doing introduced, Christ by His work has thrust out. The revelation which the New Testament furnishes breaks like beautiful sunshine through the unutterable gloom. Our Lord Jesus came to bring life and immortality to light in the Gospel. For only the one who is abusing life need fear death — death awaits those who seek personal pleasure and success rather than justice and eternal life.
- Have we considered that nothing can be done against the truth or against people that is not done directly against God? They left Bethel bearing abundant rebellions on their consciences and still gripped by sins, but unconcerned to be transformed. He who changed Jacob to Israel could have dealt with this situation, but unfortunately they were unconcerned. Outwardly they sinned; in their inner motivations there was a heart of rebellion. But there was no concern to be different. There can obviously be no assurance of sins forgiven where there is no concern about sins. God makes the seasonal changes but Amos’ references are to a people who resist change. They come to Bethel and they go from Bethel totally unaltered. The failure, therefore, lay not in the Bethel promises, nor in the God of Bethel, but in the willfulness which would not be transformed from lawlessness and transgression. Amos exposed a religion which leaves life untouched. They go, they sing, they come away, and nothing, simply nothing has changed. Justice is still turned sour and righteousness is still overthrown. For the worshippers has a superb spiritual experience with their religious practices but they emerge on the other side exactly the same people. We can see the truth straight away. A new life is primary evidence for having had credible dealings with God. Where there is no change, then we are saying that God makes no difference! Remember that sin blinds men’s eyes. The god of this world has no hope of retaining his power save by blinding the eyes of them that believe not. Remember that warning voices are God’s messengers. For the sinner must meet his Judge, whom he had despised and refused to seek, and meet Him alone.
- Is it not a bitter event to discover that it is one thing to know a promise but quite another to be an inheritor of it? It is one thing to be around to hear the promise proclaimed but quite another to be able to have a valid claim to possess it for oneself. For the promises of which the shrines spoke were not irrelevant to the people of God then, nor are they irrelevant to us now. Life, peace and security are precious things, all the more so when we speak of life from God, peace with God and security in God. As we have seen, when the Bethel priests proclaimed “God is here” the tradition taught that He was there as the giver of hope and life; Beer-sheba stated “God is with you,” nothing stands between Him and you, you have peace with God; and Gilgal pointed to a God-given and inalienable inheritance. These are the very promises of God in Christ. Hearing and knowing them is not enough ― only inheritance itself will suffice. Can we be certain that we possess them? Nothing is more certain in Scripture than that when once the Lord has actually bestowed His promises on anyone He will never withdraw them, allow them to be withdrawn or in any way do or tolerate anything other than bring that person into eternal glory. But who can claim and sense this assurance? To Amos, the people had only themselves to blame that they failed to inherit. Because in time, the people forgot about the LORD that had made all of these great promises and lived as an entitled people that wanted to claim the promises of the LORD without full obedience to the LORD. Scripture requires us to believe that there is such a thing as assurance and that in God’s ordinary providences it is intended to be the common experience of His people. May our prayer be that we shall see clearly the grounds for humble assurance, take our stand upon them and thus confirm our call and election as the people of God.
- Has Yahweh forgotten to be gracious to Israel? In the seven verses (Amos 5:14-20) only one fails to refer in some way to God by name or title. Three different addresses are used: the God of hosts occurs three times, the Lord (Sovereign) once, and the LORD (Yahweh) seven times. How is it possible to say that Amos is the prophet who preaches without a note of hope when he is such a preacher of Yahweh? The question is not “Has Amos a message of hope?” but “Has Yahweh forgotten to be gracious?” God whose name reached in covenant faithfulness to a miserable, lost and thankless people, came down to Egypt because he had identified Himself with their sorrows (Exodus 2:24-25; Exodus 3:7-8). So, in this oracle, the divine name drops again and again, a continual dropping to wear away hearts of stone. The “may be” of grace (Amos 5:15) rightly rebukes complacent human hearts, but in the divine heart there is no “may be.” The God of grace cannot forget to be gracious. Surely it is for this reason that Amos addresses the people as the remnant of Joseph. Why Joseph here? Joseph was the man about whom the Beer-sheba promise was asserted to be true, even when every evidence available suggested that it had been forgotten. When he was first sold as a slave, the Lord was with Joseph (Genesis 39:2), when things went from bad to worse and he was imprisoned, the Lord was with Joseph (Genesis 39:21) and as the days of imprisonment went by the Lord was with him (Genesis 39:23). Finally, when hope had sunk beyond the horizon, Joseph was taken from the prison house to the throne room because Pharaoh looked at him and said, “Can we find such a man as this, in whom is the Spirit of God?” (Genesis 41:38) — the Lord was with him. But no matter how much our hearts speak to us of failure, failure to discern the greatness and wonder of our God, failure to walk in the way of holiness, complacency, self-satisfaction, whatever it may be, grace has brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home. However, for Israel, they needed to remember the mighty power of the God whose covenant name is Yahweh, whom they are either to seek in repentance or meet in battle.
- How dependent are we on the sovereign One who controls the seasons, the constellations; the rise and fall of nations? Amos argues that God rules in the midst of the nations just as He rules in the midst of nature, and we must see His hand in human affairs as we see it in the rising and setting of stars, in the ebbing and flowing of seas. He sets up kings and captains, and brings them down; He smites the splendor of nations into desolation; and again He restores their greatness and joy. The argument of Amos proceeds on the assumption that a Divine purpose, a vast design, runs through all of nature and all the movements of history. Though many people see in nature and history nothing more than a story artistically developed; a picture exquisitely balanced and harmonious; an organism complete in all its parts and functions; but they miss the real heart of the thing, that the universe is the intellectual working out of the purpose of the holy God. For Amos’ view of the design of the universe did not merely satisfy their logical sense, their aesthetic sense, or their scientific sense, but their moral sense. Amos wished to teach that God rules the universe with a view to reveal His righteous character; His government is wholly moral; and the end of all His rule in heaven and earth is to instruct His children in righteousness, and to discipline them into holiness until they are perfect, even as their Father who is in heaven is perfect. The religious and moral idea is subtly interwoven with the universal fabric, but it is only spiritually discerned, only the devout soul follows the golden thread that runs through nature and the long, mysterious story of history. “We are nothing but the playthings of Fate,” says the pagan mind; but we refuse the verdict of this miserable atheism. For He calls us back to Himself, to His moral government and righteous laws. God has often “made the day dark” to us, and again He has “turned the shadow of death into the morning.” We live with the consciousness that any day, any hour may witness mighty changes. These changes, so extreme and searching, are to remind us that life does not exist either for pleasure or pain, but for the perfecting of the soul in love and nobleness. He who makes the seven stars and Orion, who turns the shadow of death into the morning, will not permit caprice and chaos in the world of human history — souls are more than stars. For every change is good that unsettles us in the world to settle us in God. And every variation of fortune is blessed that drives us to the central reality, and makes us richer in spiritual feeling and moral fruit. So, if we seek Him who makes the seven stars and Orion, and who orders so strangely the days and nights, the summers and winters of human life, these bewildering changes shall only discipline us into more perfect strength, and make us rich in the fruits of righteousness and peace.
- Do we have an assumption of peace with God? Do we know the God that Israel says they are at peace with? Do we know what peace means? It is a state of shared objectives among other things, and no-one can walk with God except he is giving himself to a determined pursuit of the good. Amos says, “Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you” (Amos 5:14). This is a call to genuine moral aspiration. A commitment to holy living being both positive and negative ― a seeking and also a shunning: Seek good, and not evil. With holiness being concerned with both actions and emotions: Seek good, and not evil … Hate evil, and love good (Amos 5:14-15). There is a profound truth in the fact that Amos puts the action before the emotion, seek (i.e. settle upon it as the target of your daily life) before love. Ordinarily the Bible represents holiness as starting in the “inner man” and working outwards. But there is also this truth that if we were to wait for emotion to prompt action, we should wait in vain because we did not feel any stimulus to perform them. It is our tendency to exalt emotion over duty, to think that it is more godly to “feel led” than do something because “I ought,” when Amos puts “seeking” before “loving.” It is abundantly true that to act lovingly towards a brother or sister Christian will bring in its wake the emotion of Christian love for that one, and that if we give ourselves to obeying, God will graciously add the bonus of prompting in us the corresponding feeling. But even if we were never to feel the emotion we are still bound by the duty. Right must be done because it is right and not because there is emotional satisfaction in doing it. Which leads us to pursue holiness both for self and for society: Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate (Amos 5:15). Its outflow is in terms of a society founded and run on principles of justice backed by sanctions for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of them that do well. When he calls the people of God to be concerned with justice in the gate, Amos makes it their duty to be concerned basically with social ethics, social welfare, the protection of and provision for the poor, the weak, the potentially exploited. If we do not labor to establish justice in the gate, we shall be accused from this passage in Amos of a one-sided morality stopping short of the biblical concern for society, we shall be exposed of playing around with a useless religion while society rots. So, let us have the pursuit of holiness as the means of life — not just a way of life or a rule of life, but a means of life: “Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you … Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord … will be gracious” (Amos 5:14-15). The teaching is that when the people of God set themselves in the way of holiness, the way which accords with the will and heart of God, they come into possession of life, with the reality of the presence of the omnipotent Yahweh and of a fresh experience of His grace. But, grace must never be a matter of presumption. If it can be commanded or taken for granted, then it ceases to be grace. Let us walk humbly with our God! Jesus put things the same way when He promised that those who hunger and thirst after righteousness would be filled (Matthew 5:6). We would rather have it in reverse: Lord, fill me and then I will aspire after righteousness with my whole heart. But no, first the aspiration and then the satisfaction. The way of holiness is a means of life. Let us get on with obeying and God will get on with blessing!
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