Sermon preached on Amos 5:1-15 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 11/19/2017 in Novato, CA.
“Seek the LORD and Live”
Sometimes when God’s Word is spoken to a person, it can seem to them that the message is exactly what they needed to hear. For example, think of someone who had been making their career an idol. They had put all their heart and identity and value in their career. But then imagine if they get fired from their job and everything in terms of their career seems to come crashing down. Well, if that person then hears a message from God’s Word against making things like your career an idol of the heart, you can imagine they might listen up. That person might realize how timely that message is and how they need to really heed what the Word of God is saying to them at that challenging moment in their life.
On the other hand, sometimes God’s Word comes to us before something like that happens, and we just don’t believe it. You could imagine that same person who has made their career be an idol of their heart. Things maybe are going really well for them in their career. They just think they are doing so well, and are invincible. If God’s Word comes to them at that time, warning them against such idols of the heart, they might not be at a place to hear it. They might be warned from God’s Word about the deceitfulness of such idols, and how they are building on a foundation of sand. But they very well might not be in a place to hear it. To warn them how it all might come crashing down upon them might just seem unbelievable to them. Their idol has so deceived them and things seem to be going so well for them, they might be inclined to reject God’s Word at that seeming prosperous moment in their life.
Well, this is something similar going on here with Israel. Amos speaks to a people who had enjoyed much prosperity. They surely thought things were overall going so well with them. Even though we read last chapter of some of the challenges they had faced, nonetheless history records that this was in general a prosperous season for Israel. We noted that when we first started this preaching series through Amos. Israel had grown to be a fairly strong national power in the area, and they had much wealth and prosperity within them. Yet Amos startles that peace with this oracle of lament. This lament, and what is described in it, probably seemed unbelievable to many in Israel. Yet, sadly, it was about to come to pass upon them.
Let’s look first then at how this passage is a shocking lament. Verse 1 begins by the prophet getting the people’s attention. “Hear this word which I take up against you, a lamentation, O house of Israel!” The word for lamentation can also be translated as a dirge or an elegy, as in what you would sing at a funeral. This idea is repeated at the end when it closes out the passage with another description of lamenting for the dead. And so, this lamentation that Amos announces – he’s saying a song should be sung bewailing dead Israel. Of course, Israel probably wanted to shout out, “I’m not dead!” It’s like if I stood up and said I was going to give a eulogy for someone sitting right here in the church, alive and well. That would be shocking to say the least. Whatever momentary afflictions Israel was having in the form described last chapter, they surely didn’t think they were done for by any means. Rather surely they thought they were doing great and headed for even greater things.
Yet, at the center of this lamentation is a hymn embedded within this lamentation. Look at verses 8-9. There God is exalted as one who can transform one thing into another. He can turn day into night. He can the waters of the ocean and move them onto the dry land. And he can rain ruin on the strong. He can destroy the fortresses, the strongholds of men. The people of Israel may have thought their prosperity had no end in sight, but Amos declares that God is all powerful and able to turn such fortunes. And so, Amos’ call for lament here should have shocked and surprised them. They may have thought it unbelievable. But Amos said God was more than able to bring this about. And in fact, that is what is so sobering. He did. Soon enough he did bring the great death and destruction described here when Israel fell to the brutal Assyrians in 722 BC.
So then, look at how bad the judgment would be. There are several descriptions of why they should lament the death of Israel. The first comes in verse 2. It describes the virgin of Israel lying fallen on her own land. This virgin of Israel is surely poetically describing Israel: the virgin who is Israel. Think of the idea of a virgin who dies. Some young girl just about to really get started out in life; her whole future ahead of her; yet before she can, before she ever even knows a man and gets married and starts a family, she dies. With a seeming bright future before her, she dies unexpectedly. It says she is fallen; that’s strong language. To be fallen is to be put down by an enemy. Israel will be put down, on her own land, and there will be no one to resurrect her. That’s reason to lament.
How bad the judgment will be is further described when you get to verse 3. There it describes a radical form of decimation. The technical definition of decimation is having one of ten people put to death. But here God is saying that among Israel only one of ten will survive. This is describing a devastating loss among Israel. That’s reason to lament.
The judgment and destruction is further described in verse 6. There God is described as a fire that would break out among the people. It says this is a fire that won’t be quenched, a fire that will devour Israel and its places of refuge and worship. Hell is described elsewhere with similar terms. Sadly, we get that imagery here. All those homes lost in Santa Rosa; the fire fighters were just overran by the fire. They just couldn’t quench it in time, even with all our firefighting capabilities and technology. It just couldn’t be quenched before it devoured so many homes. That’s the imagery used here for Israel. That’s reason to lament.
Lastly, this judgment and destruction is described in verses 16-17 with the imagery of wailing for the dead. It’s basically saying there is going to be wailing everywhere among Israel because there are going to be so many people dead. When it mentions the skillful lamenters, it is talking about the professional mourners. In other words, back then when you had someone die in your family, if you had money, you might pay professionals to come and wail and loudly mourn for the dead loved one. This was essentially a way to honor them by showing they were mourned by many people. Well, this passage is basically saying that there are going to be so many people dead, that there will be a run on the professional mourners. There won’t be enough professional mourners available, so they’ll have to get the farmers to help out too. Again, this is showing that God’s judgment upon Israel will be so great, and therefore a reason to lament.
Let’s turn now to our second point and notice the theme here about “seeking”. There were certain things Israel was not to seek. And there are certain things Amos says that Israel should be seeking. First look at what they shouldn’t be seeking. Verse 5, don’t seek Bethel, Gilgal, or Beersheba. These were three historic sites of Israel that had become places of worship; at that time, the wrong sites for worship as they were supposed to offer their sacrifices in Jerusalem. For Amos to tell them not to seek these places, he is telling them not to put their hope in the wrong place. The irony is that these three places were full of rich religious heritage for Israel. They did have a spiritual significance to them. They had lessons to be learned. At Bethel, God had shown Jacob the need for God’s presence. In Beersheba, God had assured the patriarchs of his presence, saying “I will be with you.” In Gilgal, God had shown through Joshua that he would provide a rich inheritance for them, by bringing them into the Promised Land. The promise of God’s presence and provision should have been huge for Israel. Yet, for Israel to go these places for some religious experience when they were so far from God, was foolish. It’s kind of like if the PCUSA denomination thought they should have some really important meeting at the Westminster Abbey since that’s where the Westminster Standards were written. The PCUSA can find much historical significance at the Westminster Abbey, but the reality is that the PCUSA long ago stopped holding to the Westminster Standards. So what value would there be in such a meeting? That’s just an analogy for Israel seeking these sites with such historical significance. By trying to worship God there, they were missing the very messages originally learned by God’s people at those locations. And this reminds us again of one of the main reasons why Israel was under God’s judgment at that time. They had been perverting the worship of God by worshipping at these illegitimate locations.
The other thing Israel was not supposed to be seeking is found in verses 14-15. They were not supposed to be seeking or loving evil. They were supposed to be hating evil. Specifically, in context, we see reference to how Israel had been perverting justice and related to that, afflicting the poor. This is the other big category of sin we’ve seen Amos condemn Israel for in this book. Verse 12 is a good summary of the emphasis in this passage. “For I know your manifold transgressions and your mighty sins: afflicting the just and taking bribes; diverting the poor from justice at the gate.” The city gates were the typical place that the judges would sit to judge the disputes among the people. This passage repeatedly talks of how such judges were being bribed by the rich people to be able to exploit the poor person. As it says in verse 7, righteousness and justice were being thrown away. This is not what Israel should have been seeking.
So, on the flip side, this passage says two things that Israel should have been seeking. First, they were to seek God. This is said twice here: verses 4 and 6. They needed to turn back to God. In light of the reference to Bethel, Gilgal, and Beersheba, this seeking of God surely implied seeking God in Jerusalem. In light of their great sin, they should all make pilgrimage to Jerusalem and make offerings to atone for their sin.
Second, this passage calls them to seek good and love good, verses 14-15. Again, in context this is especially spelled out in terms of justice and not afflicting the poor. They were to establish justice in the gate, verse 15. They were to give up their bribes and to love their neighbors, even the poor ones. Surely, this would be the fruit of a renewed relationship with God. If they were truly looking to seek God then this should follow. The fruit of faith in God, the fruit of right worship of God, should be a desire to do good, to love good, to love others. For how can you say you love God if you don’t love one another, 1 John 4:20-21.
Well, in our last point for today, I’d like to point you to the wonderful gospel hope that is yet present in this passage of lament. Generally put, we see it twice in verses 4 and 6. After calling them to seek God, he adds “and to live.” Seek God and live! In a passage about their death, he tells them there is a way to yet live! Even with such a lament, Amos says there is yet a way for this judgment to be turned away from them. Sadly, they didn’t at that time heed the prophet. Sadly, there was a great death and decimation brought to Israel when the Assyrians would later destroy them. Yet, at the same time, the specifics of judgment here, imply further hope. Though this generation might not turn and seek God and live, there was yet hope for a remnant of Israel to do that in the future.
In fact, we see that language here. For example, as terrible sounding as it is in verse 3 that only a tenth would survive, that is what we call a remnant. A remnant of Israel would yet be preserved. The language of remnant is even mentioned in verse 15. Verse 15 says that this remnant who repent may yet know the grace of God. That idea of God restoring a remnant is found again at the end of Amos when that clear restoration prophecy is mentioned in chapter 9. And there of course it speaks about how God would bring that about through the Messiah.
And so, this is again where all this ends up. How could Israel be saved? How could any of us be saved? We would need to turn to God and seek him and seek righteousness. But the problem is that man has struggled to do this ever since the fall of mankind into sin. And so, we’ve needed God to save us from ourselves. Even here, God is the one taking the initiative, calling the people back to him. And as promised in chapter 9, God would one day take the initiative all the more. How would he get a people to seek him and to seek righteousness? It would be by first sending the Messiah to seek and save them. Jesus came to seek and save the remnant of God’s wayward people. And he came to seek and save even those whom he has chosen to save out of the wayward nations. He sought us to save us from our sins and from our hardhearted selves. He came to save us that we might live! That we might seek him and live! He sought us so that we would seek him! That we would know his grace.
Think about this. God even kept justice through sending Jesus like this. God as judge is able to declare that sinners are righteous who have put their trust in Jesus. God can do that in justice because Jesus paid the price for our place. He did the opposite of what the bribers were doing here. They would pervert justice so that the innocent would be declared guilty and they themselves the guilty would be declared innocent. Jesus the innocent bore the guilt due to the guilty so that they could be legally declared innocent. Jesus became the afflicted in order to save sinners. All this then enables Jesus to resurrect, to raise up, the fallen Virgin of Israel. It allows Jesus to gather up the remnant among the decimated. It allows Jesus to quench the fire of God’s wrath. It enables Jesus to be able to turn mourning and wailing into laughter and joy.
My friends, I bring you the gospel call again today. Even now, by the Word of God, Christ is seeking the lost. Maybe up to this point in life you have rested in the idols of your heart. But the Lord seeks you now in his Holy Word. Repent of those idols of your heart. Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while He is near. Seek God and live. Turn to him and find life and life abundantly.
For us who have sought the Lord by his grace, we know that we are called to seek and love the good too. We are called to seek and love righteousness. May we indeed seek these things because our God whom we have come to know loves these things. May we especially be reminded today of the poor. May we consider any ways that we have contributed to the poor being afflicted. May we look to establish justice to the degree that it is up to us. May we look to love our neighbors as ourselves. May we seek this as fruit of the grace which we’ve come to know in our Great God. Amen.
Copyright © 2017 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.