Sermon preached on Amos 8:11-14 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 1/14/2018 in Novato, CA.
“Not a Famine of Bread”
I saw a sign for sale on the internet that had the saying, “You never know what you have until it’s gone.” It was meant to put above the toilet paper in the bathroom. You never know what you have until it’s gone. That’s some proverbial wisdom that has all kinds of applications. You can certainly apply it to today’s theme of famine in our passage. In a typical famine you sure appreciate food a lot more when there isn’t any left. Well, the prophet says that would especially be true for Israel and God’s Word. When a famine of God’s Word comes to them, then they will greatly miss what they had.
So, we’ll be thinking about this famine of God’s Word today. Amos prophesies against Israel that they will have a famine of God’s Word come upon them. But before we think specifically about that, let’s remember for a moment the background imagery at work here. For Amos to talk about a famine of God’s Word, he makes us think of a typical famine first. It’s the famine mentioned there in verse 14: a famine of bread. And similarly, a drought where people thirst for water. Yes, this passage is going to talk about a different kind of hunger and thirst. But it uses this imagery of physical hunger and physical thirst to make its point. So, let’s think in our first point about that: a physical, earthly famine and drought.
This was in fact, one of the covenant curses that God had threatened to give Israel if they disobeyed God and broke the covenant. God promised that he would send famine and drought; physical famine and drought on the land if they weren’t faithful to the LORD. Deuteronomy 28 lists many curses God would bring on them if they didn’t keep the covenant. 28:18 lists one that the produce of the land would be cursed. 28:13 speaks of how God would make the heavens bronze and the earth iron, basically meaning that there wouldn’t be rain and that land wouldn’t be workable. A similar list of covenant curses was in Leviticus 26. In 26:26, God threatened to cut off their supply of bread, and how they’d end up having to eat their sons and daughters. How horribly gruesome to think about. And think of the contrast in all this. In the Torah, God was threatening them with these curses as they were just entering the Promised Land. The Promised Land was to be a land of milk and honey for them. It was supposed to be a place where bread and fresh water abounded exceedingly. As Israel first settled in the land, God said it would be such a land of bounty, if only they were faithful to the terms of their covenant. But if they weren’t, they should expect curses instead of blessing. Those curses included famine and drought in the land.
Well, sadly, Israel had to endure such cursing more than once because of their sin. One very memorable example was recorded in the Book of Ruth. That was during the time of the judges were Israel was chronically unfaithful to the Lord. And so, the book of Ruth records how a family who lived in Bethlehem had to leave Bethlehem and wander over to Moab in search for food. Ironically, Bethlehem means house of bread, but there was no bread in that house of bread. So, they had to wander in search for food, leaving the Promised Land, and finally finding food in the foreign land of Moab. That wandering to Moab for food sounds like what’s described in today’s passage in verse 12, the wandering from sea to sea, from here, to there, looking to meet their need amidst the famine. Well, the book of Ruth shows just one of a number of physical famines God sent on his people. These covenant curses were used by God to chasten Israel. They were meant to get Israel’s attention to show them their need to repent of their sin and return to the LORD.
But of course for today’s passage, physical famine and drought is not the real topic. The physical famine and drought become the imagery to explain a far greater curse. God would send upon Israel a famine of the Word of God. The people would no longer have God’s Word coming to them. They would hunger for it. They would thirst for it. But this famine would remove it from them. That’s what verses 11-13 declare. Amos says this is a prophetic word of the Lord. It’s a Word from God that they will lose the Word from God. Amos says this is something that is coming upon them.
What a lex talionis punishment: the punishment fits the crime. We’ve seen in this book that Israel hasn’t wanted to hear God’s Word. Back in chapter 2, verse 12, it records that Israel told the prophets to not prophesy. Last chapter, we saw this with the priest Amaziah specifically forbid Amos from prophesying in Israel. And so God says through Amos here that he one day will give them what they think they want. He’ll silence the prophets. He’ll remove the Word from them. And yet, that’s when they’ll apparently realize what they are missing. Again, it’s the “you never know what you have until it’s gone,” idea. Because then it speaks here of how Israel will want God’s word. During that famine of God’s Word, the people will search for it and seek it out, everywhere. But alas, they will not find it in that day.
In case it is not clear, this is a far worse curse that that of a famine of bread. The Word is superior to bread; more essential to humanity than bread. Humans don’t always recognize it, but it is what God has taught us. Here, Israel should remember the lesson God taught them through Moses. During the wilderness wandering, Deuteronomy 8:3 records that God taught Israel a lesson through physical hunger. Listen to that verse. Deuteronomy 8:3, “And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” To be without bread is bad. To be without the Word of God is far worse.
Part of the idea here is that the presence of God’s Word is closely related to the presence of God. When God is present with his people, it is for their good, and that includes his Word being given to them, because they need his Word. And so, we are not surprised to see in Scripture, this close connection to God’s favorable presence with his people, and the presence of his Word with his people. For example, King Saul. It was by the prophetic word of God by Samuel that God spoke to Saul and called him to be king. It was by that prophetic Word and the written Word in the Torah that God directed Saul in how to act as king. Yet, when Saul repeatedly disobeyed the Word of God, God rejected him as king. This meant that God was no longer with Saul. And how was that lack of God’s presence seen with Saul? One major way that was seen was by Saul no longer having access to the Word of God. For example, in 1 Samuel 28, Saul is faced with a huge Philistine force assembled against him. Saul tries to inquire of the LORD, but the Lord will not answer him. Saul recounts there how God has turned away from him and won’t speak to him either through prophets or by dreams. And so, Saul in fool hearty desperation goes to a witch at Endor to try to get a word from the deceased prophet Samuel. Amazingly, God allows Samuel to speak to him through the witch, who only reiterates that God has forsaken him and will no longer help him. The point is that in this example with Saul we see that the Word of God is closely connected with God’s favorable presence and blessing. For God to bring a famine of his Word to Israel surely reflects that like how Saul became God’s enemy, so too Israel had become God’s enemy. Not only would God not speak to Israel, surely his favorable presence and blessings would also be removed. All of this contributes to how great of a curse this is for them to have a famine of the Word. It means God has forsaken Israel, abandoned them, since Israel had become God’s enemy.
Verse 14 reminds us why they would experience such a horrific curse. In short, it’s because of their idolatry. In ironic contrast, he speaks of those who swear by the sin, or guilt, of Samaria. This is in contrast to God who has previously in this book sworn by his holiness and by himself. These people swear by their guilt, surely a reference to their idolatrous worship, based on the context. It mentions the god of Dan, describing the idol worship going on there. (The Book of Judges mentions idolatry going on all the way back during the time of the judges even). It also mentions the way of Beersheba, which likely refers to how the people of Israel would make a spiritual pilgrimage to worship in Beersheba, since that was a former holy site during Abraham and Isaac’s day. Of course, as we’ve said earlier, under the Mosaic Covenant it wasn’t where the people were to worship any longer, and so it was a perversion of true worship and thus became idolatrous too. This is why God was forsaking them like this in giving them a famine of his Word. Of course, Israel shouldn’t be overly surprised that they no longer have God speak to them when their idolatry is asking mute idols to speak to them God’s Word. That wasn’t going to happen!
And so, to lose the Word of God and God’s favorable presence could only spell disaster for Israel. As it says in verse 14, they will never rise again. This again repeats what we’ve seen recently in Amos. God had declared a certain and terrible judgment upon the people. Though as we’ll see next chapter, God will ultimately preserve and raise up a remnant, that doesn’t change the fact that Israel in general will be destroyed in judgment. If only Israel had heeded the warnings of the earthly famines. If only the famine of earthly food and drink woke them up and caused them to change their ways. But they did not. And so, Amos declares the judgment that is about to befall them. This greater curse, this famine of God’s Word was coming, and it would result in them falling and never rising again.
So, when did this famine come upon Israel? Well, we can think how this would have come at least in part when Israel was destroyed and exiled. The two common sources for God’s Word was from the prophets and the priests. The prophets especially would bring new revelation, and the priest would teach the people the revelation that had already been received. Well, we know when the southern kingdom of Judah was conquered and exiled by Babylon that such a famine of God’s Word came to them. For example, Lamentations 2:9 and Ezekiel 7:26 described this. Those passages spoke of the destruction of Jerusalem and how the law was lost from the priest and how the prophets no longer received any visions from God. Presumably a similar experience would have been the case for Israel when the Assyrians conquered them and exiled them.
And yet we can also look back at history and see an even greater experience of famine of God’s Word. It’s what has been referred to at the 400 years of silence. This refers to the timespan between the Old and New Testament books in the Bible. There is about 400 years of time where there were no new books of the Bible because there was no new prophecy being given. This was an interesting time, and certainly a time when the people began to finally thirst to hear from God. Think about it. On the one hand, during this time, they did have God’s Word accessible again. This 400 year period was after the Jewish people had been able to return from exile. A new temple had been built in Jerusalem, and the Levitical priesthood resumed its work and teaching the law. Yet, after that return from exile, things were never as glorious for the Jews as before. As an example, they were generally ruled by some foreign nation, either the Persians, or the Greeks, or the Romans.
You see, what made the people especially hunger and thirst to hear from God during that 400 years of silence is because of what they had already been told by God. As the people were able to hear again from the Bible, which would have been the Old Testament, it told them of grand and glorious promises. The prophets had spoken of how God would wonderfully restore the people of God after the exile. The prophets had spoken of how a glorious kingdom would be established for them with the Messiah, a son of David, reigning over them. By the time the New Testament opens, that’s what they are hoping for, but its still not come. So, they were desperately looking to hear from God with some sort of update. And yet there was during that time this 400 years of prophetic silence.
We see this thirst when God finally breaks the famine by sending John the Baptist. The people go to him and want to know who he is. Is he the Messiah? Is he the promised return of Elijah? Is he the promised Prophet? Well, as we learn in the New Testament, he was the last of the Old Testament prophets, who came in the spirit of Elijah. He came, as prophesied, to prepare the way for the Lord to come to his people. John the Baptist came to prepare the way for the Messiah.
And that’s when the silence was especially ended! That’s when the famine for God’s Word especially came to an end. Jesus was the eternal Word of God come to his people. He brought the favorable presence of God back to his people, as that Word of God who delivered the Word to the people. Jesus came to those hungry for God’s Word as the living bread come down out of heaven. Jesus came to those thirsty for God’s Word as the one possessing living water, of which whoever drinks would never thirst again. Jesus came as the living bread with the living water so that all who come to him would be filled, quenched; satisfied.
And yet how would that be possible? How would that be possible because us humans still had the problem of sin? It was the curse of sin that brought the famine of God’s Word in the first place. Yet, Jesus solved that in his coming too. Jesus, righteous Jesus, solved our problem with sin so we wouldn’t have to experience its curse any longer. Jesus himself was without sin, and even rightly valued God’s Word as we saw in his hour of temptation. Recall that even in Jesus’ hour of temptation in the wilderness, he didn’t prize earthly sustenance as more valuable than God and his word, saying “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” It is this righteous Jesus who became accursed for us, on the cross. We said that a famine of God’s word was a worse curse than a famine of bread. We said it reflected the very loss of God’s favorable presence. Surely, that is the sort of horrendous curse Jesus took on the cross for us. That is what was reflected as Jesus hung on that cross and cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Surely, it was reflected as well, in his ironic words of “I thirst.” The one who said to be able to make it so that no one would ever thirst again – on the cross he himself thirsted. But that was exactly the point. He thirsted for us. He hungered for God and his presence and his Word, for us. That’s what the cross was all about. He took on the curse of this kind of famine, so we would never have to again. He hungered and thirsted for God and his Word and his presence so that we would never again have to lose these things. This then is what we have as Christians through faith in Jesus Christ, the living bread and the one with the living water. And so, in the words of Isaiah 55, “Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat. Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” Receive this by receiving Jesus in faith!
So then, I have a question to help us further think through the implications of all this. Are we now in another period of silence? The last book of the Bible was written almost 2,000 years ago. Did we enter into another famine of God’s Word? No, not at all! Not in the least. Let me explain. First off, I’m not saying what the charismatic and Pentecostal Christians would want to say. They would want to say that there are still new words from the Lord being received. Some have even recorded books with these supposed words. Well, if these were legitimate we should probably add them to our Bibles! But there is good reason that we don’t. I want to clearly affirm that we as Christians are no longer in a famine for God’s Word. But I also want to say that this is not because of the claims of such charismatic Christians. I don’t believe we are receiving any new prophecies or any new books of the Bible.
Rather, Christians today are right to affirm that the canon of Scripture has been closed. It’s closed because it is complete. Think of just a few passages that come together for this. 1 Peter 1:10 speak of how the Old Testament prophets spoke of a salvation that would come in Jesus Christ. Jesus’ own parable of the wicked tenants in Matthew 21 paints himself as the one coming after the prophets. In 2 Corinthians 1:20, Paul says that all the promises of God are yes and amen in Jesus. And in Ephesians 2:20, Paul says that the foundation for our Christian faith has now been laid with the apostles and the prophets, with Christ Jesus our cornerstone. What’s the point? The foundation has been given, we don’t build another! The Word of God in the Old Testament spoke of Christ to come. The Word of God in the New Testament has now testified that the Christ has come. We have the full story now. We have the Word of God to us. We don’t expect new books of the Bible because we have the complete Word of God already. What’s our job now then? It’s like what it says in Jude 1:3, we pass on what has already been delivered to us. Let me say this all one more different way. We don’t have to hunger for any more revelation, because we have the living bread who is Jesus. And he has given us his Word right here in the Bible. How can we believe Jesus and yet live thirsting for new revelation? Jesus says we don’t need to thirst anymore if we have him.
Trinity Presbyterian Church, Amos here was God’s gracious warning before this famine of God’s Word came upon them. So, too, in these last days, God has spoken a warning to humanity through his Son. There is coming a final day of judgment, when God’s Word and his favorable presence will be completely removed from the wicked forever. That’s what hell is. May all repent now and find grace and forgiveness through Jesus.
So then, for all who have such hope, let us rejoice as those who have the Holy Scriptures. The Bible is not some mere ancient book from antiquity. No, for us who have received its truth, for what it is, the very words of God, for us the Bible is to us the power of God. And for us as his people to have his Word, means we also have Him. Isn’t that what Jesus said in the Great Commission – make disciples, teach them his word, and that he will be with us, forever! Even now, as those who are in Christ, we have the power of his Word and presence within us already. We have that hear and now, and we will have it unto eternal in all the greater glory.
Therefore, may we love and cherish our Bibles. May we not let them collect dust on our shelves. Let us rather lay them up daily in our hearts. May we see how we too are called to be prophets and priests in bringing his Word to the world, even today. Amen.
Copyright © 2018 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.