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When God’s People Fail – Amos 3:9-15

Amos0615Notice how the ideas in Amos chapter 3 are organized:

  • The opening verses of chapter 3 identify the people against whom Amos is prophesying: “against the whole family that [God] brought up out of the land of Egypt.” (Discussed here.)
  • Verses 3-8 speak of Amos’s own role as a prophet. (Discussed here.)
  • Verses 9-15 speak of the destruction that will fall upon the nation.

The prophet calls the surrounding nations to witness against YHWH’s Chosen People.

Verse 9:

הַשְׁמִיעוּ עַל־אַרְמְנוֹת בְּאַשְׁדּוֹד וְעַל־אַרְמְנוֹת בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם וְאִמְרוּ הֵאָסְפוּ עַל־הָרֵי שֹׁמְרוֹן וּרְאוּ מְהוּמֹת רַבּוֹת בְּתוֹכָהּ וַעֲשׁוּקִים בְּקִרְבָּהּ
“Proclaim to the strongholds in Ashdod, and to the strongholds in the land of Egypt, and say, ‘Assemble yourselves on Mount Samaria, and see what great tumults are within it, and what oppressions are in its midst.’”

The people of God are on display. Their behavior is being judged by the nations around them. The tumults (מְהוּמֹת) and oppressions (וַעֲשׁוּקִים) in its midst shock even the nations. The witnesses are to assemble on Mount Samaria — indicating, as usual, that the Northern Kingdom is the main focus of this prophecy (though, compare verse 13). Amos chooses two nations as his witnesses — he mentions Ashdod, a major city of the Philistines, and then Egypt. It is, of course, significant that the invited witnesses are also traditional enemies of the nation. Before them, Israel is put to shame — before these nations who are not the chosen of YHWH. Yet, the prophet implies, they have a better sense of right and wrong. They become the judges.

Surely this resonates with our own day. The child abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church have shocked the world. What makes them especially shocking is the official attempts that were made at cover-up — and this, from an organization that sees itself as battling for sexual morality. Boz Tchividjian has claimed that the record of sexual abuse in the evangelical churches is worse than the highly-publicized scandals in the Roman Catholic Church. Back in 2013 I came across this item about a scandal involving the Calvinistic Sovereign Grace Ministries: “Pedophilia Ring” in Evangelical Church? Ministry Accused of Ignoring Sexual Abuse. Really, we have seen case after case. Does this damage the witness of the Church? Of course it does.

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To be a Chosen People is to be a witness to God to the nations. “You are my witnesses, says the LORD, and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. I, I am the LORD, and besides me there is no savior.” (Isaiah 43:10-11 NRSV.) It was not that God is unconcerned for the nations, it is that God has chosen Israel to be God’s witness to the nations. Th. C. Vriezen, in his book An Outline of Old Testament Theology (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1958), p. 76, (quote found here) wrote:

The truth of Israel’s election is untruth if it is rationally understood to mean that for that reason God has rejected the nations of the world, that for that reason Israel is of more importance to God than those other nations, for Israel was only elected in order to serve God in the task of leading those other nations to God. In Israel God seeks the world. . . . For in His mercy He has called Israel to the service of His Kingdom among the nations of the earth.

This idea is expressed at the very beginning: in the age of the patriarch Abram. The promise is given: “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:3.) But, the prophets saw this more clearly than anyone: God chose Israel, that through Israel God might reach the world. They were to be: “…my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.” (Isaiah 43: 20, 21 NRSV.)

Now the plan has collapsed. Rather than being a witness to the nations they have become a reproach. Even the gentile nations witness their tumults and oppressions and are shocked.

Verse 10:

וְלֹא־יָדְעוּ עֲשׂוֹת־נְכֹחָה נְאֻם־יְהוָה הָאוֹצְרִים חָמָס וָשֹׁד בְּאַרְמְנוֹתֵיהֶם
“They do not know how to do right, says the LORD, those who store up violence and robbery in their strongholds.”

They do not know how to do right (נָכֹחַ). The word signifies: “proper, right, honest, what is straight.” So, as I read this, I see them being charged with a lack of integrity: their ways are crooked. They don’t know how to take the straight path. This is especially evident in the way the wealthy and powerful have used violence and dishonesty in order to get whatever they wanted. See: Amos 2:6-8 (discussed here). They have manipulated the systems of justice and deprived the poor of their rights. The result has been social chaos: “tumult.”

Verse 11:

לָכֵן כֹּה אָמַר אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה צַר וּסְבִיב הָאָרֶץ וְהוֹרִד מִמֵּךְ עֻזֵּךְ וְנָבֹזּוּ אַרְמְנוֹתָיִךְ
“Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: An adversary shall surround the land, and strip you of your defense; and your strongholds shall be plundered.”

Their society has become morally, spiritually and economically corrupt. It will collapse. The threat of an outside adversary — and invading power — was always a very real possibility. And, the imagery here is vivid: “strip you of your defense”; “your strongholds will be plundered.”

Then Amos returns to the lion image — except now in even more grisly terms.

Verse 12:

כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה כַּאֲשֶׁר יַצִּיל הָרֹעֶה מִפִּי הָאֲרִי שְׁתֵּי כְרָעַיִם אוֹ בְדַל־אֹזֶן כֵּן יִנָּצְלוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הַיֹּשְׁבִים בְּשֹׁמְרוֹן בִּפְאַת מִטָּה וּבִדְמֶשֶׁק עָרֶשׂ
“Thus says the LORD: As the shepherd rescues from the mouth of the lion two legs, or a piece of an ear, so shall the people of Israel who live in Samaria be rescued, with the corner of a couch and part of a bed.”

lion22Once the lion has finished with them there will be almost nothing left. The image here is of the shepherd who runs to defend the sheep but is too late — only body parts are left. The last part of the verse is a little difficult to understand: but, again, the point must be that there are few that will survive. The NIV Commentary says: “As the remaining parts of the slaughtered animal attest to its destruction, so the broken remains of the wealth of Israel would be a pathetic witness to the complete destruction of that kingdom.”

Verse 13:

שִׁמְעוּ וְהָעִידוּ בְּבֵית יַעֲקֹב נְאֻם־אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה אֱלֹהֵי הַצְּבָאוֹת
“Hear, and testify against the house of Jacob, says the Lord GOD, the God of hosts:”

Once again Amos calls to his witnesses. But, now, by using the phrase “house of Jacob” he has more than the Northern Kingdom (symbolized by Mount Samaria) in mind. While the main brunt of his prophecies is against the Northern Kingdom, (as we’ve noticed before) he hasn’t really left Judah of the hook. They are also unfaithful.

Verses 14 & 15:

כִּי בְּיוֹם פָּקְדִי פִשְׁעֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל עָלָיו וּפָקַדְתִּי עַל־מִזְבְּחוֹת בֵּית־אֵל וְנִגְדְּעוּ קַרְנוֹת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וְנָפְלוּ לָאָרֶץ
“On the day I punish Israel for its transgressions, I will punish the altars of Bethel, and the horns of the altar shall be cut off and fall to the ground.”
וְהִכֵּיתִי בֵית־הַחֹרֶף עַל־בֵּית הַקָּיִץ וְאָבְדוּ בָּתֵּי הַשֵּׁן וְסָפוּ בָּתִּים רַבִּים נְאֻם־יְהוָה
“I will tear down the winter house as well as the summer house; and the houses of ivory shall perish, and the great houses shall come to an end, says the LORD.” 

The adversary will attack — but it will be YHWH’s doing. Their religion will be torn down. The horns of the altar are often pictured in the Bible as a place of refuge and safety — but it will fall to the ground. Their beautiful homes and summer houses will be destroyed.

It is the rich and the powerful that will especially suffer in the fall of the nation. The invader might ignore the cottages — but, he is bound to be interested in the “houses of ivory” (that is, houses with inlaid ivory).

The bottom line here is this: if God’s chosen people don’t get their act together morally and spiritually, they fall. They are left with desolation.

 

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