Sermon preached on Amos 1:3-5 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 8/20/2017 in Novato, CA.
“For Three Transgressions of Damascus”
When the church faces regular affliction by its enemies, we can wonder if they are just going to get away with it. Yes, in the short term, sometimes God has permitted such for a time. But then we remember various Scriptures that remind us that the pagan nations will not go unpunished for their rejection of God. God will not overlook the ways such have persecuted the church of Jesus Christ. This section of Amos is such a warning to the nations. It stands at the same time as an encouragement to God’s people. God will act in justice and judgment against the pagan nations. As we look around and see different groups afflicting God’s people, we need this passage. Think of ISIS in the middle east murdering Christians. Think of here on the home front atheists speaking out against Christianity, ridiculing us. Think of how much of our culture brands Christians today as ignorant, backward, and even immoral for our beliefs. Much of our culture has become intolerant of biblical Christianity and I fear the persecution in our country against Christians is going to get worse before it gets better. We need a passage like this to tell us that God is not unaware of these evils against his people. They will be dealt with according to God’s perfect timing and his own ways which are just and good.
Well, today’s passage deals specifically with Damascus which was the capital of Syria, also known as Aram. It’s an oracle of judgement against these Syrians. And yet I want us to notice first today that this is actually the first of seven oracles against other nations. I want us to notice some important and interesting aspects of these oracles of judgment against the nations. You see, Amos was a prophet to Israel. And yet Amos begins his prophesying to Israel by first speaking judgment against Israel’s enemies. I’m sure this would have encouraged Israel to know that God took notice of what these enemy nations had been doing to them. And to clarify, six of these seven nations where specifically pagan nations. After those six come the seventh, which is actually Judah, the southern kingdom of God’s people. They too have been sinning against God and God puts them on notice here via the prophet Amos.
I think this is important to notice that God holds these pagan nations accountable in a way similar as he would God’s people in Judah. He repeatedly calls the evil conduct of these other pagan nations as “transgressions.” That’s a fancier word for what we call sin. It means that they have broken God’s laws. That’s an interesting concept since it was Israel and Judah who had received God’s laws written on stone tablets at Mt. Sinai. But this teaches an important point. It’s what we find in Romans 2. Even those pagan nations that haven’t received God’s written law via the Bible, are still guilty of breaking it when they do. We can still call it sin. Romans 2 explains that every human has God’s law written on their hearts. Yes, it says how many try to suppress and ignore that law. But, nonetheless it’s there such that they can transgress it and then be guilty for doing it. These 7 oracles against the nations demonstrates that. An application is that non-Christians today might think the Bible doesn’t apply to them and thus they aren’t sinning when they don’t keep it. But the Bible would disagree. Sin is sin; God sets the standards; and he will hold all people accountable.
Another interesting aspect to this is the reference to Kir in verse 5. There we see that God threatens to send these evil Syrians into captivity in Kir. What’s so interesting about Kir? Well, in chapter 9, verse 2, God mentions how he had brought the Syrians up from Kir, as well as the Philistines up from Caphtor. In the same breath he mentions bringing up Israel from Egypt. So, though Israel had this unique relationship then with God, unlike the other nations, that didn’t mean God wasn’t working in these other nations. No, there is something with the Syrians coming up from the land of Kir that God finds similar with how God brought Israel up from Egyptian slavery. That adds new meaning, by the way, to how God threatens the Syrians here with sending them back to Kir. It’s like if he threatened Israel to send them back to Egypt as slaves. But this only furthers the point here. Though these pagans like the Syrians don’t have the special covenantal relationship with the one true God like Israel did, God had still worked in their lives, gave them blessings, and demanded righteousness from them. But they had disobeyed and thus God was declaring them guilty here and deserving of judgment. In fact, that God had given such blessings to the pagans, like bringing the Syrians out of Kir, only makes them all the more guilty for their sin.
What’s even more interesting is that God can hold these pagan nations accountable for sin even while making use of their evil as a form of chastening on his people. These Syrians are a great example of this. 2 Kings 10:32 reports this. It speaks of how God began to cut off parts of land from Israel via the Hazael mentioned in verse 4. In context of 2 Kings 10, this was divine chastening for Israel’s disobedience. Yet, God can use their evil to chasten Israel without approving of their evil; instead, as we see here, God condemns their evil and will ultimately judge them for it. What an amazingly complex yet wonderful way that God providentially works in human history.
The last thing to notice collectively about these 7 oracles against the nations is the repeated refrain that comes here. The repeated refrain uses a common rhetorical or literary device of graduated numbering; it starts with a certain number and then goes one higher. Here it’s with the numbers of three then four: “for three transgressions of this nation and for four.” Pagan literature at that time used this same literary “technique”; other parts of the Hebrew Bible do too. Proverbs 6, for example, speaks of the “six things the Lord hates, yes seven are an abomination to him”. Or, similarly, Proverbs 30 speaks of “three things that are never satisfied, four never say, ‘Enough!’.” In these different graduated numberings, the idea is that the first number of items are more than enough to warrant whatever outcome is stated, but then there is an additional item added to the list. The last, highest, number is typically the most exceptional item in the list. So, in the case of a judgment oracle, the first numbered items would be things that would be bad enough to warrant judgment, but then the last item is especially egregious. Well, in the case of today’s judgment against Damascus, only the fourth sin is even specifically identified, after referencing the first three. The point seems then to be that there were already sufficient sins of Damascus to warrant its judgment, but then they did this last sin which was especially evil. Thus, they are under this condemnation by God. We’ll see this similar refrain with graduated numbering through all these oracles against the nations.
So, let’s turn now to consider more specifically this oracle against Damascus and the Syrians. The Bible records in 2 Kings 13 that these Syrians had a history of afflicting God’s people. There, we find specifically the kings mentioned in verse 4, Hazael and Ben-Hadad. It speaks of how the Syrians had been oppressing Israel for an extended period of time. Though, most recently under King Joash, Israel experienced victory over them and began to regain their previously lost cities. As we see referenced in verse 3, this conflict between Syria and Israel focused east of the Jordan river, in the area of Gilead. Gilead was south of the Syrian territory, so it was an obvious target for Syrian expansion. The Syrians focused their affliction against Israel in the Gilead area, east of the Jordan.
But to say that these Syrians had afflicted Israel wouldn’t say enough. We see the Syrians’ specific sin described poetically in verse 3. It describes threshing Gilead with iron implements. At that time, people would use iron sledges with spikes at the end to thresh grain. Amos says that this is essentially what the Syrians did to the people of Gilead. Likely the Syrians didn’t literally use threshing equipment like this. But it was surely a poetic way to describe the atrocities they did do against Israel. We get a window into these evils in 2 Kings 8:12. There the prophet Elisha predicted how Hazael king of Syria would kill Israelite men and children with the sword and how they would rip open the wombs of their pregnant women. In fact, when you think of the threshing analogy referenced here, it especially calls to mind the ripping open of wombs. When you thresh, you rip open the husk of the grain to get to the new seed inside. Though sad to think about, that’s a fitting analogy for slicing upon a pregnant woman’s womb to expose and kill the unborn baby. This was sadly a practice sometimes done back then as a way to try to annihilate a people. If you could stop all the babies from being born from Israel, there would be no more Israelites in the next generation. It was an effort toward genocide. And so, this was such a horrific thing, that when the prophet Elisha prophesied it in 2 Kings 8, it brought him to tears. Verse 3 surely reflects these wicked acts that Elisha had prophesied about. The Syrians didn’t just defeat the Israelites in war. They treated them brutally, executing man, woman, child, and even ripping unborn babies from their wombs. They were trying to permanently cut off God’s chosen people.
In light of this great evil, God announces through Amos that they were under divine condemnation. The judgment is specified in verse 4. Fire will destroy them and their palaces. This is likely a war reference, that Amos is predicting how they will be conquered and destroyed in war. Though, to hear of fire, surely reminds of the judgment God elsewhere describes as coming upon God’s enemies. I’m thinking of the fires of hell, where the fire will never be quenched. Surely, the kind of devastation prophesied for these Syrians should make us think of that final judgment to come for all those who have not been saved from their sins by the blood of Jesus Christ. If the evil these Syrians committed deserved such destructive fire, this should instill in all people a fear of the judgment fires of the holy and avenging God.
Verse 5 then gives another description of this judgment. There it involves two other places or possibly groups of people: those of the Valley of Aven, meaning the valley of wickedness, and Beth Eden, meaning the house of pleasure. Scholars don’t know of any definitive locations with these names, and so they are probably poetic ways to further describe these Syrians. They were people who lived in wickedness and carnal pleasures. But they are under judgment. Verse 5 speaks of how the gate bar of their capital city would be destroyed. This is a threat that God would destroy the bar that kept the gate closed and thus enemies out of their city. If they did face the threat of military defeat, we can presume that the Syrians would ultimately retreat back to Damascus as their refuge and final hope. But God says here that he’ll destroy that refuge. They won’t find safety there. They will be destroyed and exiled back to Kir, as we previously discussed.
Well, Scripture goes on to tell us that God fulfilled this judgment. Though God says that he would destroy them, we find in Scripture that God uses Assyria to accomplish this. 2 Kings 16:9, “The king of Assyria went up against Damascus and took it, carried its people captive to Kir.” Thus, a very literal fulfillment of this judgment oracle against Damascus and these evil Syrians. This judgment by God is also poetic justice by God. If any ancient civilization was known for its brutal treatment for the people it conquered, it was the Assryians. The Assyrians even wrote poems that celebrated things like how they would slit open the wombs of pregnant women. In other words, this was God giving the Syrians a fitting punishment. It was the lex talionis principle, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. The brutal treatment the Syrians gave the Israelites came back upon them in the full.
Tying this all together, we come back to the question we asked at the beginning. What will happen to those who oppose God and afflict his people? What will happen to those today who persecute his church? Today’s passage reminds us that God is not blind to his people’s sufferings. He will vindicate them and judge the nations for their sin. One application that comes then for today is to ask who’s side you are on. Yes, we are all here sitting today in God’s church. But are you part of his church? Or are you here today as an outsider looking in? Are you here as someone who is, biblically-speaking, part of the pagan nations? If so, these words of judgment should serve to warn you as well. You know, today, our culture doesn’t want to think this way. Outsiders to the church tend to want to hold Christians to our own standards, but they don’t think the Bible’s words apply to them. Yet, this passage is clear that what God calls sin is sin for every human, whether or not you personally subscribe to the Bible. If you are have not become part of God’s people through the saving work of Jesus, then this judgment oracle threatens you today as well. In a similar vein, if you are outwardly a part of God’s people today via your membership in the church, but your heart is actually far from God, then this judgment oracle also warns you too. It also brings the threat of judgment to you as well. The point is, there is a coming a judgment against the nations for sin. Jesus Christ is the one who will come to judge the nations when he comes again. Jesus himself warned about this. People forget this too often. Yes, Jesus came proclaiming love and grace, but he also came warning of the fire which won’t be quenched where the worm will not die, Mark 9:48.
That’s the two-edge nature of revelation. One the one hand, the Bible proclaims judgment. Jesus Christ is coming again to judge the nations for their sin. On the other hand, Jesus came at his first coming proclaiming himself as the hope for the nations. I love how we see in the gospels that Jesus’s message even came to these areas east of the Jordan proclaiming such hope. Matthew 4:23-25, “And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people. Then His fame went throughout all Syria… Great multitudes followed Him — from Galilee, and from Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan.” Jesus proclaimed the gospel and his message came even to this judged area of Syria across the Jordan.
Thus, we are not surprised to see in the book of Acts that the gospel took root in these areas. And not just among Israelites in those areas, but also among Gentiles. For example, Acts 15:23 addresses the Gentile Christians who were already in Syria at that time. They actually do this after quoting Amos 9:12 which predicted the Gentiles coming to know the Lord. Amazingly as we considered today, Gentiles in Syria had at one time tried to cut off God’s people by ripping open wombs. If they had succeeded in completely doing this, then the Messiah would never have come. But God intervened. He brought judgment about those Syrians and at the same time saved his people from complete annihilation. In this, God preserved the line of promise until finally Jesus Christ could be born. And then, even to the remnant of such Syrians, Jesus brought a way of salvation. Christ is the hope for the nations. He offers forgiveness for sins; not just for two or three sins; not just for seven; but for seventy times seven, for all who truly repent and flee to the cross of Christ! Though Jesus’ wrath threatens to the destroy the bar gate of pagan strongholds, he also declares himself to be the door for his sheep and the way to salvation and life. So then, I implore us all today. Heed the gospel call of Jesus which has come to the nations. Find forgiveness of sins in Jesus. Put your hope in him as your covenant Lord.
If you do, then you can find peace knowing that your hope is safe and secure in him. Nothing the world can do to you or us will change that. And he is not unaware of your afflictions. But he is coming again to bring his people to a place of righteousness and life (to a Valley of Zadok); a true paradise from the troubles of this world (to a good Beth Eden). Let us trust in Christ! Amen.
Copyright © 2017 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.