Sermon preached on Amos 7:1-9 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 12/17/2017 in Novato, CA.
“So the LORD Relented”
In Sunday school, the adult class recently completed a section on intercessory prayer. Well, here today we see Amos involved in intercessory prayer. Confronted with the justice of God, he pleads for mercy. We see this here with a series of visions. This passage actually begins the last major section in the book of Amos. It is a section of five visions. The first two visions are clearly stylistically a pair, and we’ll study them together today. The third and fourth visions are also clearly a stylistic pair, though we won’t get the fourth vision until we get to chapter 8. The fifth vision stands stylistically on its own, and we’ll study that in chapter 9. So then, today we’ll study the first three visions and see how Amos responds when he sees a visible picture of the God’s justice.
We’ll begin then in our first point dealing with visions 1 and 2 together. Vision 1 is the vision of the locusts starting in verse 1. Vision 2 is the vision of the fire beginning in verse 4. I trust the similar style is obvious from our reading of the passage. So, it will be easy to deal with them together as we work through the common elements of them both. Notice then how both visions begin with the words “Thus the LORD GOD showed me.” That’s vision language. Amos receives revelation from God where he sees something. He’s not the only one in the Bible to get such visions. Many prophets have similar prophetic experiences. An easy to think of example is the book of Revelation which is full of John seeing one thing after another. Well, realize that visions are not the same thing as reality. When Amos sees here what he sees, it’s not like God is taking him up in a helicopter and giving Amos an aerial view of locusts and then fire actually ravaging Israel at that very moment. Rather, what is very clear here, is that these first two visions are visions of what could be. To explain it in terms of an analogy; think of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Amos’ visions are not like what the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Ebenezer Scrooge. They are more like what the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come shows Scrooge; they are what reality will be if things are left to their current course. Basically, both visions present a massive devastation sent by God upon Israel as a judgment for their many sins.
So, in the first vision, it’s the locust eating everything. In various places in Scripture, we see God using an army of locust for judgment. Interestingly, in the vision God forms and sends the locusts after the King already has taken in his crop. As we glean from the vision, at that time the first round of harvest throughout the nation of Israel all went to the King; probably some form of taxation. The people would be able to keep second harvest for themselves. But the vision shows that after the first harvest for the king, the locusts come through and devour anything green. The problem is compounded by what the word in verse 1 is for the “late crop”. The word has to do with the rains, referring to the crop taken after the rainy season ends. So, that would be a huge problem if the locust do their devouring after the rains have stopped for the season; there won’t be any more rain to give any more growth for the year. Amos recognizes that this would be devastating for the people. It would destroy them.
Similarly, in the second vision, we see fire destroying everything. As in the first vision, God is the one who sends the fire. This seems like no ordinary fire. Though, of course, we’ve seen so much lately about how destructive fire can be; first here in Sonoma county. Now, again, here in Southern California. But notice the language of how destructive the fire is. Not only does verse 4 say it destroys the land, translated as the “territory” in the pew Bibles. But it also says the fire consumes the “great deep”. The language of the great deep refers to a body of water. It could refer to lakes or seas being dried up by the fire, or even to underground waters being affected; the water that would feed the springs. It’s my understanding that huge fires can have major effects on watershed processes. You could imagine how such a huge fire could not only burn so much land and structures, but actually affect the availability of water in that region afterward. This is what it seems Amos sees in this second vision. Amos recognizes that this would be devastating for the people. It would destroy them.
And so, Amos intercedes. For vision 1, he pleads that God would forgive. For vision 2, Amos pleads that God would cease. For both, he then cries, “Oh, that Jacob may stand, for he is small!” That’s the reason Amos gives God for why he should forgive Israel and turn from this judgment. Amos’s justification is simple: Lord, if you do this, you’ll utterly destroy Israel. Israel is too weak to survive such a judgment. So, Amos appeals to God’s mercy. He asks God to pity Israel; to show them compassion. What a different perspective. We’ve seen in this book how Israel had become so prideful at that time. They didn’t think they were small. In fact, on the international scene at that time, they were pretty big and powerful. But, that’s in comparison to other nations. Compared to God, and God’s powerful judgment, they wouldn’t’ stand a chance. Israel might not have wanted to recognize that. But the prophet Amos does on their behalf. So, he intercedes for Israel.
Amazingly, God grants Amos his petition in these first two visions. Verses 3 and 6 both report the same response. “So the LORD relented concerning this.” God says that this won’t be. It won’t come to pass. Amos saw what the future would have been, but in light of Amos’ intercession, God relents and doesn’t send the threatened judgment. Amos’ intercessory prayer was effective!
A question that might come up here, is this: “Does God change?” The orthodox answer is “no.” We affirm the immutability of God; that God does not change. I ask this question knowing that recently there have been debates on this very subject. There have been some well-known pastors even in reformed circles that have wanted to change the traditional understanding of God’s immutability to essentially a position that would say that God does change in certain ways. Such proponents might even point to a text like this to make their case. But we have to understand how language works in how God chooses to reveal himself to us.
In terms of how language works, we have to appreciate that those verses 3 and 6 which says the LORD relented, sometimes even translated as the LORD “changed his mind”, we have to remember how this same wording is used in Numbers 23:19 which plainly states God does not relent or change his mind. The reason given in Numbers 23:19 is that because he is not a human. In other words, in one place of Scripture, it uses a verb that says God will never do that thing; and in another place it uses that same verb and says that God does that thing. Well, what do you do with that? The simple response is to understand how language works. Language can use a word one time in a certain way and use the same word a little differently at another time. Put together it might seem like a conflict, but context and usage can help us see that it isn’t necessarily a conflict. So, in the case of this idea of God relenting or changing his mind, in the Numbers passage, the context helps us see that it is making a definitive statement about the very nature of God; God is divine and not human, and one quality of being divine is an essential unchangeability. Other verses in the Bible also contribute to this doctrine that God does not inherently change. Yet as we look at other verses like here in Amos we see God use language that sounds like he changes. Scholars have traditionally understood such usages as what we call anthropomorphisms in literature. The Oxford dictionary defines anthropomorphisms as attributing human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal, or object. That’s essentially what God does here in passages like this one in Amos. In his majesty and glory he decides to condescend to our level to reveal something to us. He does so using language that we can relate to. He explains how he is answering Amos’ prayer in terms of turning from his judgment. Of course, in God’s immutability, this was always the ultimate plan. God planned to not bring fire or locust upon Israel because he planned to grant Amos’ prayer request. But God describes his activity in this way in order to show Amos that his prayer had real meaning and value. Had Amos not prayed, presumably the judgment would have come. And so, God uses this anthropomorphic language to explain to Amos and us the value of prayer. We learn the need to call out to God and ask for mercy for he might just give us that mercy, if we ask. God had it planned out this way all along, but he planned it to happen this way, and to explain it this way to us, so we can understand that we need to go to God to find such mercy. It teaches us to pray and to seek such things from him.
Moving on to our second point, let’s look briefly at the third vision. This is a challenge to teach on because there is a major translation question here. Most translations present the vision as being about a plumb line. A plumb line is a weight on a line used to line up a wall to make sure the wall is vertically straight, and not leaning to one side or another. The problem is that this Hebrew word translated here as a plumb line only appears here in the Bile. It’s an obscure word for us today, though presumably not in Amos’ day. Translators early on believed the word meant either tin or lead, based on a similar word in the Akkadian language. Because of the reference to a wall here, those translators surmised this must be a case where a part of an object is used to refer to the object itself. That’s a literary technique sometimes used. For example, I think in fishing today we might refer to the sinker as the lead. And so, these translators thought the word tin or lead here refer to a plumb line made from that metal. If this is the right meaning here, then the application would be simple. God would be comparing Israel to a standard and showing that they are falling short of the standard; thus God announces their judgment and destruction. That’s what you’d have to do with a wall if it’s measured with the plumb line and found to be slanted or leaning. You’d have to tear it down and start over. So, if that’s the proper meaning of this word here, then that’s the application.
The problem is that such a translation was only ever a guess. As said, the literal word likely means simply tin or lead. Tin is probably the best choice. In fact, when the LXX translated this verse over two thousand years ago into Greek, they used the Greek word adamantinos which was a word for some metal alloy or steel. If you remember the Marvel X-men series, you remember they said Wolverine’s metal claws were made of adamantium; a fictional alloy but a made-up word derived from that similar sounding Greek word. At any rate, the point is that Greek translators way back then didn’t translate this as a plumb line; they used a metal term just like how this word is literally a term for some metal; again likely tin.
So, if this vision is best understood like that, it means that Amos saw a tin wall, with God holding tin in his hand. The challenge with that becomes the application God gives in verse 8. God would be saying that he is placing “tin” in the midst of Israel? Why would he do that and what would it mean? Well, the best answer seems to be found when we look at what vision 4 will say. Remember, I said visions 3 and 4 are stylistically the same. Well, vision 4 will show a basket of summer fruit to Amos, and God will say that the application is that the end has come upon Israel. That might not sound like it follows from the visual of a summer basket of fruit. But the Hebrew is clear; there is a play on words based on the fact that in Hebrew the word for summer fruit sounds like the word for the end. So, vision 4 makes its point with a play on words. That seems to be exactly what is also going on here in vision 3. The word in Hebrew for “tin” sounds like the word for “groaning” or “mourning”. It’s one letter different, but the letter difference is like the difference between a “c” or a “k” in english; the pronunciation would be almost identical. So, comparing this with vision 4 which is otherwise identical in style, says we should expect a word play for the application.
So then, the vision is God standing next to a tin wall, holding tin, and God gets Amos to say the word “tin”. God then turns the word play which means he is going to give groaning and mourning to Israel because of their judgment for sin. In both visions 3 and 4, the thing that is seen is irrelevant other than it sparks a play on words. It’s not about a tin wall or a basket of summer fruit. It’s about the play on words that God uses to speak a truth. I came up with one in English that makes the same point. I, of course, had to use a word other than tin. But here it is. Imagine Amos seeing a vision of God holding a ball. God asks Amos what he is holding. Amos says a ball. God then says, I will make Israel bawl because of their sin (bawl as in B-A-W-L; a play on words). That’s essentially what God is doing here in visions 3 and 4. That seems to be the best interpretation.
At any rate, I digress. The bigger point that comes out in vision 3 and will also be seen in vision 4 is that God says this: “I will not pass by them anymore.” This is God saying that he’s not going to overlook their sins any more. He’s not going to spare them any longer. He’s not just going to pass by and ignore all their evil. Notice the word “anymore”. It acknowledges how God has shown them lots of mercy. But visions 3 and 4 will say that there will come a time when he’ll stop doing that. Notice what doesn’t appear in this vision, nor will it in vision 4. There is no record of Amos interceding. In light of God’s statement here about him not overlooking their sin any longer, it evidently silences Amos. God says that the judgment is now unchangeable. So, in the final verse he announces specifically judgment against all their wrong places of worship, and against their evil King.
Okay, I’d like to move quickly now to a third and final point and spend a few moments contrasting visions 1 and 2 with vision 3. There is progression here. In the first two visions, God shows mercy. In the third and as we’ll later see in the fourth, God says he won’t show them anymore mercy. It’s not said, but the sense you get is that God’s mercy will only go so far for Israel. God had been patient, but his patience had run out by the time you get to visions 3 and 4. You could imagine being in Amos’ shoes. The people sin, God threatens judgment, you, Amos, plead for mercy, God gives it. But then it happens again, and you do the same. You could imagine a lot of that. But at some point, if you are Amos, you might feel like you just don’t know how you can go back to God yet again for mercy. You probably assume God’s patience is running thin. Especially when God then essentially says that. What more could Amos have said? What more could he plead?
This is a sobering thought when you start to try to apply all of this to us today. We look at our lives and we know our own sin after sin. We’ve sinned so much, even after we’ve repented so much. We especially know our struggle with certain chronic sins; it seems all of us have some chronic sins of one sort or another. We probably are tempted to feel like how long can we keep going back to God for mercy? If you are Amos, you might not know what to say on behalf of such chronic offenders. We might struggle to know how to keep praying after such repeated sin as well. Well, Israel was blessed here to have Amos. He did a good job of intercessory prayer for him. But we are here today to rejoice that there is an even better intercessor for God’s people.
I present again to you Jesus Christ. The Scriptures reveals to us that Jesus Christ intercedes on behalf of his people. And his intercession is far superior to Amos’ intercession. Think about that. What could Amos say on behalf of Israel? How could he plead their case? All he could do is come in humility and plead for mercy. “Lord, they are so weak! Have pity on them!” Faced with the justice of God, all Amos could do was ask for mercy. Well, God is merciful, but he is also just. Amos’ plea isn’t a good long term solution. It is not a sufficient grounds to interceded for permanent clemency. So, contrast that with Jesus as intercessor. Yes, Jesus can intercede for with a call for mercy. But, Jesus can also confront God’s justice with justice. For Jesus stands before the father as the lamb that was slain. Jesus can plead our case with the words, “It is finished.” Jesus can plead our case with the reason that justice has been served; our sin has been paid for at the cross; our guilt has removed. Jesus’ intercession is far superior to Amos’ in so far as Jesus himself came as the Son of God to make purification for sins, something Amos could never have done.
This is the hope for wayward sinners. Yes, there yet will be a day when the offer of forgiveness and grace is no longer available. But today, the Lord’s return, there yet remains an offer of salvation. Come to Jesus and know that his atonement and his intercession will be for you. Come to Jesus by faith and know that he pleads to God that you would be forgiven and God says you are forgiven. Come to Jesus by faith and know that he pleads to God that judgment will be ceased and God says it is ceased. Praise the Lord for the effective intercession of Jesus.
Saints, having such an intercessor as Jesus, let us never sin that grace would abound. But let us look to cease from sin by that same grace. Let us look to live in godliness. May that even include a vibrant prayer life. This passage reminds us of the value of intercessory prayer. We are commanded as Christians to be intercessors. What power and privilege that is. That God even pictures it like he does here; that it even has the appearance of changing God’s will! Realize the power of such prayer. Of course we are in great company to join with Amos and moreso with our Lord in such a ministry of intercessory prayer. Amen.
Copyright © 2017 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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