Sermon preached on Amos 4:1-5 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 10/29/2017 in Novato, CA.
“By His Holiness”
As we look at verses 1-5 today of chapter 4, they are arguably two distinct units. Verses 1-3 deal with certain sinful women described as the cows of Bashan. Verses 4-5 describe the perverted worship of Israel. And yet I decided to deal with them together, especially around the topic of holiness. God is described as holy in a rather climactic way here in verse 2. Holiness is that quality of being set apart and distinct. God is set apart and holy in the most wonderful way. Yet, God’s people were supposed to be holy. That’s a key theme throughout the Bible. God’s people were supposed to be different because of their relationship with the Lord. And yet both sections in this passage show a failing in holiness by God’s people. And so that will be our unifying theme for today’s passage. We’ll look first at the failure of holiness in verses 1-3; then second at the failure in verses 4-5. In our final point, we’ll consider God’s response to all their failing holiness.
We begin then with verses 1-3. Here we see people living in a way that is explicitly against holiness. What I mean is we have people living immorally, profanely, worldly. They are living in violation to the holy and godly way God’s people were supposed to live. Interestingly, verses 1-3 specifically address women, surely elite women with money and power who are able to afflict others because of it. We see this beginning in verse 1 by calling these women the cows of Bashan. This is imagery that describes these women. Bashan was an area of Israel that was known for their excellent cattle; the cows and bulls of Bashan are mentioned multiple times in Scripture. It’s like how Lebanon was known for its cedars, well Bashan was known for its cattle. Psalm 22:12 for example speaks of the strong bulls of Bashan. Well, here these women are described as such cows. Living where we do, you probably see a number of cows. And what are they generally doing? Lounging around and/or eating. Here these cows are described as being on the mountains of Samaria, which would have been a lush and fertile place for these cows to become fat on all the food.
This is of course merely imagery for what Amos then accuses the women of in the last part of verse 1. Three accusations. They oppress the poor. They crush the needy. They say to their husbands, “Bring wine, let us drink.” As for the first two accusations, it shows that these women are more concerned about themselves than other people. The poor are to be oppressed so the women can have what they want. The rich women get richer while the poor get poorer. Similarly, when thinking of the language of needy – these women aren’t needy yet they crush the needy to take from them. These women evidently find themselves of such importance and status that the needy must become in greater need so that these women will not lack in the least. There’s certainly a gluttonous aspect here. The women have to have, have to feast and fill themselves, even at the expense of others. And there is certainly a lack of love and care for others in their need. This is the exact opposite description of the woman of noble character listed in Proverbs 31. There, in Proverbs 31:20, the noble woman is said to extend her hand to the poor and reach out her to the needy.
In a complementary way, these same women who exploit the poor and needy also demand their husbands to be involved in satisfying their cravings. Now, when it says that they tell their husbands, “Bring wine, let us drink!” there are at least three concerns or issues that could be involved here. One, it suggests drunkenness. These women have to have their drink. That would fit with the gluttonous theme we’ve seen already. Two, it might imply that the husbands were the actual ones doing the exploiting of the poor and needy, but it was at the pressure of their wives. Their wives so demanded what they wanted, and the husbands obediently did what they were told to satisfy their wives. If it’s true that behind every good man is a good woman, well then maybe we could say here that behind every bad man is a bad woman. It’s quite possible that Amos is calling out the wives for pressuring their husbands to do their evil work to satisfy their desire for a lush lifestyle. A third issue here is that this may reflect the wife domineering her husband. The text ironically says she speaks to her “lord” like this, but it seems to reverse the roles. She’s commanding him to bring him drink. Typically, back then, the woman would have been the one to serve food and drink, not the husband. The fact that she speaks with imperative to her Lord is the exact opposite spirit that Peter commends in a woman in 1 Peter 3:4, saying that her “adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.” If this understanding is correct, then she treats her husband like she treats the poor and needy; they all exist to satisfy her. She thus becomes this fattened cow living off of everyone else.
I hope it is clear that this is opposite of holiness. I quoted Proverbs and Peter to show that God would have these women to live differently. But they weren’t living in a set apart way. They were living with the concerns of this world, to feast in this age, to live for leisure here and now. They would sin against others to secure it. That was not holy living. Of course, this passage speaks of this against the women. But surely there were many men also living unholy lives. The Song of Moses predicted this very attitude all the way back in Deuteronomy 32:15, speaking of Israel saying, “But Jeshurun grew fat and kicked; You grew fat, you grew thick, you are obese! Then he forsook God who made him, and scornfully esteemed the Rock of his salvation.” Moses prophesied of a day when God’s people, men and women, would grow fat in their prosperity and forsake God. Amos speaks of that here for the women, but it was surely a problem for the men as well. And so, both men and women today should reflect on what it looks to live in holiness. What are the actions to be for a holy women of God? What are the actions to be for a holy man of God?
Let’s turn now to our second point for today. Let’s look at verses 4-5 and see another failure in holiness. Here it is their perverted worship. Think about this. Why does someone engage in worship of God? Theoretically, it should be an exercise in holiness. You stop your normal routine and go to what is presumably a holy place to worship the holy one. You are setting aside that time to do something that should be uniquely set apart; uniquely holy; the worship of the divine. Yet, clearly, this passage tells us that there was nothing holy about their worship. It had the outward appearance of holiness, but it was not.
So, we see God make this point beginning in verse 4. Verse 4 begins essentially with a call to worship. God might be quoting the Israelites with the start of verse 4. They likely would have spoken such calls to worship, just like we begin our services with a call to worship. But verse 4 then clearly finishes with God’s commentary on their worship services. It effectively makes the whole verse satirical. Come to worship… and sin! It uses the language of multiplying transgression so their act of worship is not just a single sin, but they are committing sins throughout their times of worship.
We should ask at this point, why their coming to worship would be sinful? At least five reasons can be identified here. First, their worship is done in a wrong location. They are offering sacrifices at Bethel and Gilgal per verse 4, but they were supposed to be worshipping in Jerusalem where the temple was. We can understand why they might have wanted to worship at Bethel. That’s where God had appeared to the patriarch Jacob. Jacob had turned the site into a place of worship. I could see why Israel might have made a case for why Bethel should be a spot for worship, with all the heritage that took place there. Similarly, Gilgal also had much heritage for Israel. By this time in Israel’s history, Gilgal had become a popular place of worship for Israel. The background for Gilgal is that this is the place where Joshua had setup 12 memorial stones to commemorate God bringing the people safely across the Jordan into the Promised Land. So, for both Bethel and Gilgal, you could imagine the reasons why Israel may have claimed they were good spots to worship God. Yet, God does not want to be worshipped according to man’s invention or man’s good intentions. God wants to be worshipped according to his own will and his own commandment. Bethel and Gilgal were the wrong locations to worship under the old covenant at that time. That made the worship there sinful.
A second reason why Israel was sinning in this worship is that they had an unauthorized priesthood. It’s clear from 2 Chronicles 13 that Israel didn’t have the Aaronic priesthood or the Levites ministering in their places of worship. Yet, that was God’s command to his covenant people on how they were to worship God. God had not authorized other priests among them.
A third reason is that Israel used idols at their places of worship. It is a well-documented fact in Scripture that this northern kingdom of Israel had setup golden calves as idols through which they worshipped God. God had forbidden the use of idols in his worship in the second commandment, but they obviously disregarded that prohibition.
A fourth reason is that when we look at the details here for how they were worshipping, it seems they didn’t follow the law carefully in terms of how the sacrifices were offered. Notice, for example, the reference to the sacrifices with leaven. There was a provision in Leviticus 7 that thank offerings should include the worshipper bringing leavened bread as part of the offering. But that leavened bread was not to be burned as a sacrifice. But the language here in verse 5 is a very specific term in the Hebrew for a burnt offering. They were burning the offering of bread as a burnt sacrifice. But Leviticus 2:11 specifically forbids that. It forbids burning any leaven as an offering to God. This too made their worship sinful.
A fifth reason, and surely the most specific reason here, is their hypocrisy. They are trusting in their outward acts of worship when their heart is actually far from God. I believe this is the most specific reason here because of verse 5 in light of the rest of the passage. There God mentions that the people love to do these acts of worship. They just love to bring their morning sacrifices, they love to bring their tithes, and they love to offer their burnt offerings of leavened bread. And then they love to proclaim and publish how they do all these acts of worship. They love to do them and then tell others about how they are doing them. But take this in context. They do all these acts of worship while they are the rest of the time afflicting the poor and needy in their midst. They love to pretend they are godly when they are living so ungodly the rest of the time. This is hypocrisy. There is a great discrepancy between their supposed confession and how they lived their life. Remember, how Jesus taught in Mathew 5:24 that if you go to worship God with an offering, but remember that your brother has something against you, that you should leave your gift at the altar and first go and be reconciled to your brother. Then they can return and present their offering. But that’s exactly what Israel was not doing here. At the end of the day, their hypocrisy shows that they love the external acts of worship instead of loving God. That’s the point of verse 5. Worship is supposed to be a holy act of loving God. But that wasn’t the heart of the people. They didn’t love God and it was reflected in their sham of worship. They may have thought their worship was a holy thing, but in reality it was a failure of holiness. It reflected that their hearts were not set apart to the Lord but still lovers of self and the things of this world.
In our third and final point for today, we see God’s response to all this failing holiness. Verse 2, “The Lord GOD has sworn by his holiness that, behold, the days are coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks.” Swearing an oath by his only holy name and character, he promises judgment upon them. Translators have struggled with the translation and meaning of some of the details here. The meaning for the word for fishhooks is uncertain here, some even suggesting “shields” as a better translation; as in the people under judgment are carried off as dead corpses on shields. That’s the other part that’s unclear here. Does this refer to people being brought out of the city already dead, or brought out of the city into exile. Regardless, what is clear is that there is such a judgment coming that the city that they take refuge in will be greatly destroyed. This comes out in verse 5 when it describes how the people are being taken out. When it says they’ll be taken out “each one straight ahead”, this is the picture that there are so many breaches in the wall surrounding the city, that the people don’t have to be taken to a gate to be removed from the city. They can just each be taken straight out of the city through the breach in the wall right in front them.
This should be a rather sobering judgment when you see this threat given by divine oath. God swears by himself to bring this judgment upon them. And yet as sobering as that is, it is that line that also gives me great hope when I read this passage. Because is the same God who swears like this here for judgment that also swore by his own name back in Genesis to Abraham. Hebrews 6 makes a big deal about that event. God made that Abrahamic covenant by swearing an oath. Hebrews 6 says that you could swear by nothing greater than by himself. Hebrews 6 says that this means God’s promises to Abraham were immutable. That means that whatever judgment he utters here in Amos 4, even when he swears by his own holiness, it can’t nullify that which he had already swore to Abraham. And that means that whatever judgment he would bring upon Israel, the promised savior and promised salvation would yet come. In God’s perfect timing, he would send the Messiah. He would send Jesus to redeem a fallen people unto himself. And so, if God’s promised judgment here was made certain by his taking an oath, then this reminds us today of that equally certain promise that God would bring blessing and salvation to the world through the seed of Abraham. You can count on God to be true to his oaths and promises. And that means we can count on God’s promise to save all those who put their faith in Jesus Christ.
This is what we as Christians have come to receive. God had sworn by his holiness to father Abraham and God kept that promise. We who have trusted in Jesus now are holy in him. We who have lived unholy lives in different ways, now have been set apart for forgiveness and grace. We have been set apart even for sanctification. We have this because God kept his oath to Abraham, the oath he swore by his own holy name. We who are Gentiles have tasted of this. Even those who are a remnant of Israel by faith in Christ, they too have tasted of this. Together, we have been made one holy people in Jesus Christ. Praise be to God!
In conclusion, brothers and sisters, we remember today our call to holiness. We have been reconciled to God in Christ. Thus, we have been called to be like the Lord in holiness. This call comes to how we live our lives. We should look to live in moral, righteous living as is fitting a child of God. But this call to holiness also extends to our worship.
As we are here today on the 500th Reformation Sunday, we are reminded that the church needs reform in holiness, especially in the area of worship. The regulative principle of worship is the principle that we saw today in terms of worship. It says that mankind is to worship God specifically in the ways he commands. We are not at liberty to invent our own ways to worship God. God is not interested in worship being about what we love, but about what he loves. Rather, God wants us to love worshipping him according to the way God loves. He wants us to love what he loves. He wants us to love him!
There are various areas of reform needed in worship today. Some churches have incorporated eastern or mystic practices of prayer and meditation into the worship services. Some have made the music and singing into a thing of performance or entertainment. The theological accuracy and substantive truth in many of the songs leaves something to be desired. I’m not an exclusive psalm singer, but in many churches, the psalms of Scripture rarely get sung. Others have made the Holy Word of God of such little prominence in the service; either by reading so very little of it, or by turning the sermon into something other than preaching God’s Word (e.g. motivational speech; comedy and entertainment focus; political soap box; etc.) Some churches have failed in terms of doing all things in good order during the service, having rather some unstructured and often random and chaotic attempt at “experiencing” God. Still some churches just go through the motions, putting money in the plate, and taking the sacraments, and thinking that going through the external acts of worship actually make you holy.
I could go on. We must not think that 500 years into the reformation that the church no longer needs reformation. No, rather if anything we need it all the more. The Roman Catholic church still in general has the same issues it did 500 years ago. We must continue to protest that and seek reform on those issues. But in 500 years something the Catholics said would happen to Protestants has in fact happened. They said that without a single central church, there would be all sorts of different doctrines and practices that would emerge, to the detriment of the church. In that, they were right. In 500 years many good reforms have happened. But in that same time, new issues have arisen. There are new areas where the church has strayed from biblical truth. In the name of reformation, in the name of the LORD and his holiness, we must continue to seek reform in the church. But God is faithful. He will not let the gates of hades prevail against his church. In that faith, and in obedience to his call for holiness among his people, we strive on. Let us strive on not in our own strength, but in the strength of his grace, using the word of truth and much prayer. Amen.
Copyright © 2017 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.