The people who had gathered at the steps of the king’s sanctuary had no idea that they had come to hear their funeral sermon. They were under the impression that everything was going well. The economy was booming. The military was thriving. The streets were filled with children singing songs and playing games. The churches were filled to overflowing. If a poll would have been taken to get a sense of the pulse of the nation then you would have found out that things just could not have been better. Yet, Amos raises his voice and says, “Hear this word, O house of Israel, this lament I take up concerning you:” (Amos 5:1 NIV) The word, “lament,” is a funeral hymn or a dirge in the Old Testament. Maybe you have heard of the Book of Lamentations, the funeral hymns written by Jeremiah about the fall of Jerusalem almost 200 years after the time of Amos.
You can only imagine how shocked, absolutely stunned, the people of Bethel would have been to have heard these words coming from Amos’ mouth. Just imagine if you showed up for church this morning, dressed in your Sunday best, and I began to preach your funeral with you sitting in the pew. You would never anticipate something like that happening would you? And neither did the people of the northern kingdom. Let’s read our Scripture this morning found in Amos 5:1-17.
1 Hear this word, O house of Israel, this lament I take up concerning you: 2 “Fallen is Virgin Israel, never to rise again, deserted in her own land, with no one to lift her up.” 3 This is what the Sovereign LORD says: “The city that marches out a thousand strong for Israel will have only a hundred left; the town that marches out a hundred strong will have only ten left.” 4 This is what the LORD says to the house of Israel: “Seek me and live; 5 do not seek Bethel, do not go to Gilgal, do not journey to Beersheba. For Gilgal will surely go into exile, and Bethel will be reduced to nothing.” 6 Seek the LORD and live, or he will sweep through the house of Joseph like a fire; it will devour, and Bethel will have no one to quench it. 7 You who turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground 8 (he who made the Pleiades and Orion, who turns blackness into dawn and darkens day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out over the face of the land– the LORD is his name– 9 he flashes destruction on the stronghold and brings the fortified city to ruin), 10 you hate the one who reproves in court and despise him who tells the truth. 11 You trample on the poor and force him to give you grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine. 12 For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins. You oppress the righteous and take bribes and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts. 13 Therefore the prudent man keeps quiet in such times, for the times are evil. 14 Seek good, not evil, that you may live. Then the LORD God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is. 15 Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts. Perhaps the LORD God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph. 16 Therefore this is what the Lord, the LORD God Almighty, says: “There will be wailing in all the streets and cries of anguish in every public square. The farmers will be summoned to weep and the mourners to wail. 17 There will be wailing in all the vineyards, for I will pass through your midst,” says the LORD. (Amos 5:1-17 NIV)
Our Scripture for this morning can be broken down into five different sections. First of all, in verses 2-3 we have a description of the tragedy. Secondly, in verses 4-6 we have the call from God to seek Him and live. Third, in verses 7-13 those who have fallen are addressed by God. Fourth, in verses 14-15 we find another call from God to seek Him, to seek what is good and turn from what is evil, so that they might live. Last of all, in verses 16-17 the people of the northern kingdom are called to mourn.
What Amos was saying to the people of the northern kingdom was unimaginable, it was incomprehensible, given their present state. Amos was speaking during the “hay-day” of the northern kingdom. There was no shortage of money, there was no threat coming from Israel’s old enemies, and the future looked brighter than the present for those who called the northern kingdom their home. Yet, God had enabled Amos to see beneath the surface of what was taking place in Bethel and all across the northern kingdom, so he speaks.
2 “Fallen is Virgin Israel, never to rise again, deserted in her own land, with no one to lift her up.” 3 This is what the Sovereign LORD says: “The city that marches out a thousand strong for Israel will have only a hundred left; the town that marches out a hundred strong will have only ten left.” (Amos 5:2-3 NIV)
There is something that I have noticed this week which I believe we need to take very seriously as we go about our daily lives here in our own community. Amos was called by God to go to those who had forsaken God, those who had been deceived, and those who were very religious, but had no relationship with God. Amos doesn’t hold back from telling them the truth of what God has called him to say, but Amos takes no delight in the destruction that is coming to the people of the northern kingdom. He “laments” their demise. He is heart-broken about what is taking place.
As I studied Amos 5 this week and thought about the lament of Amos, I was reminded of Jesus weeping over the city of Jerusalem. In Luke 19:41-44 we read about Jesus’ final ride into the Holy City. Read along with me.
41 As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it 42 and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace–but now it is hidden from your eyes. 43 The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. 44 They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (Luke 19:41-44 NIV)
You do remember how Jesus had been treated throughout His time in Jerusalem don’t you? And you have to know what will take place in the week following Jesus’ weeping over the city? He was run out of town in the past and He will be hung on a cross before the week is over and yet what did Jesus do? He wept over the city. He knew the opportunity that the people of Jerusalem had missed, He knew the destruction that would follow within 40 years, and He wept. He wept over the city.
Do we weep over the brokenness, the sin, the injustice and waywardness of our own city? We who have been called by God to be “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20), called to be the “aroma of Christ,” (2 Corinthians 2:15), and the “fragrance of life” (2 Corinthians 2:16) have, in many ways, become a stench, a pungent odor, in the nostrils of many of those around us. They see us as self-righteous, as arrogant, rather than humble servants. We are more than willing to pronounce judgment, but do we weep over the sins of our city?
Amos could weep because he knew the tragedy that was taking place right before His eyes. In times past, Bethel, Gilgal, and Beersheba had been such important places where God had met with His people, promised His presence to His people, and reaffirmed His covenant with His people. God had given the land of Israel to His people as an inheritance and now Amos was announcing, “Fallen is Virgin Israel, never to rise again, deserted in her own land, with no one to lift her up.” Back in Leviticus 26:3-9, God’s people, during the days of Moses, had been told that if they would follow the Lord and be careful to obey His commands, that God would provide for them in unmistakable ways. He said,
7 You will pursue your enemies, and they will fall by the sword before you. 8 Five of you will chase a hundred, and a hundred of you will chase ten thousand, and your enemies will fall by the sword before you. 9 I will look on you with favor and make you fruitful and increase your numbers, and I will keep my covenant with you. (Leviticus 26:7-9 NIV)
Many years had passed since that day. Some of God’s people had abandoned Him. Others had been careless in the way they had gone about serving the Lord. As a result of their carelessness they had mixed God’s guidance with the wisdom of the gods of the other nations. Now, many years later, rather than five Israelites chasing a hundred or a hundred Israelites chasing ten thousand of their enemies, they were being told,
The city that marches out a thousand strong for Israel will have only a hundred left; the town that marches out a hundred strong will have only ten left. (Amos 5:3 NIV)
This is a complete reversal of what God had promised. How could this change have happened? What a tragedy! The people of God had been told that the promises of God came with a condition, “If you serve Me then I will…” Take a look at Deuteronomy 28:1-2 so that you can see what I mean.
1 If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. 2 All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the LORD your God: (Deuteronomy 28:1-2 NIV)
“If you fully obey the LORD your God…” God doesn’t say, “You are My Chosen People and you can live under My grace and mercy regardless of what you choose to do from this moment forward.” In Deuteronomy 28:15, God let’s His people know what will happen if they choose to disobey Him and dismiss His commands. Read along with me.
15 However, if you do not obey the LORD your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come upon you and overtake you: (Deuteronomy 28:15 NIV)
What you will find in the verses that follow are consequences which follow disobedience. They are the same consequences that God brings upon the other nations of the world that reject Him. They are the same consequences that God still brings upon people and nations that reject Him.
Amos is lamenting the destruction of the people of God, but their destruction is the work of their own hands. They have rejected God. What is really interesting is that, as Amos is describing the destruction that is coming to the people of God, he offers an invitation from the Lord to His people. Read Amos 5:4-6 with me.
4 This is what the LORD says to the house of Israel: “Seek me and live; 5 do not seek Bethel, do not go to Gilgal, do not journey to Beersheba. For Gilgal will surely go into exile, and Bethel will be reduced to nothing.” 6 Seek the LORD and live, or he will sweep through the house of Joseph like a fire; it will devour, and Bethel will have no one to quench it. (Amos 5:4-6 NIV)
“Seek me and live;” Amos was preaching the funeral of the people of the northern kingdom and yet, as the funeral service was well under way, he speaks up for God and delivers a message: “The Lord says, seek Me and live!” The people have been going to Bethel, Gilgal, and Beersheba to worship God, but now God says, “Don’t go to those places, come to Me!” We’ve talked in weeks past about how the worship of God at the temples in the north had been altered. I don’t want to spend too much time on that subject except to reiterate that Jeroboam and the leaders who had come after him had transformed the temple of the Lord into a more “user friendly” worship center. They were still going to the worship centers, but their worship had only served to multiply their sins. God said in Amos 3 that He would tear down their worship centers.
We need to hear this message loud and clear my friends. What makes a church a church? Is it the cross on top of the building? Is it the presence of people who call themselves followers of Jesus? Is it songs that contain religious or spiritual words? Is it stained glass windows, a communion table, and row after row of pews filled with people? None of these things make a church a church. What makes a church a church? It is the presence of God. God was not present at the temple of Bethel any longer. God had long departed from First Church of Gilgal. He was no longer holding services at Beersheba. I’m afraid that there are many churches across our city today where there may be crosses, hymnbooks, and beautiful stained glass, but God is not present.
I will tell you this though; God is always present for the hungry person who seeks to know Him. For those who thirst to know Him, God is present and active in unmistakable ways. I’m sure there were many in Bethel, Gilgal, and Beersheba who would have said that they knew God, that they loved God, and served Him with all of their hearts, but God said something altogether different. God said, “Look at your community. See how you treat people.” If you read through Amos 5:7-13 you will get a picture of what I am talking about. Let me just list what they were doing.
• They turned sweet justice into bitterness.
• They cast righteousness to the ground.
• They hated those who sought to correct the court system.
• They despised those who told the truth.
• They trampled on the poor and levied unfair taxes on them.
• They oppressed the righteous.
• They took bribes and deprived the poor of justice in the courts.
These are issues of justice and righteousness. These are actions that contradict the very nature and character of God. Throughout the Word of God we find these, “justice” and “righteousness,” as the mandate of God for His people. David Alan Hubbard has written,
The coupling of justice and righteousness is repeated by Amos (5:24; 6:12) as the best summary available to define the covenant responsibilities of God’s people. Just because justice and righteousness are essential activities of Yahweh, they must become prime duties of his people, especially of the leaders. One purpose of worship is to come to know God so well that who he is and what he does becomes concrete realities in our persons and behavior. Where such imitation of divine activity is not present, worship is deemed worthless. (Hubbard, David Alan. Joel & Amos. pg. 167.)
Why should the people of God be so concerned with justice and righteousness? Because God is just and righteous. When the Hebrew slaves were coming out of Egypt God taught them what it meant to be His people, how they were to live, how they were to relate to those around them, and He said,
17 Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. 18 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this. (Deuteronomy 24:17-18 NIV)
How God treated those who were slaves, who were mistreated, who suffered injustice at every turn, became the model for how they were to treat others. God reminds them, “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this.” Someone will immediately say, “Well, sounds to me that you are talking about ‘works righteousness,’ that we are made right with God by what we do.” You would be wrong to assume that is what I am saying. What I am saying is that once you encounter the Lord, once you truly experience the grace and mercy of God, your life will begin to undergo a change that will continue for the rest of your life. That change will produce fruit and the fruit of the change will be justice and righteousness. Tim Keller, in his book, Generous Justice, writes,
The logic is clear. If a person has grasped the meaning of God’s grace in his heart, he will do justice. If he doesn’t live justly, then he may say with his lips that he is grateful for God’s grace, but in his heart he is far from him. If he doesn’t care about the poor, it reveals that at best he doesn’t understand the grace he has experienced, and at worst he has not really encountered the saving mercy of God. Grace should make you just. (Keller, Tim. Generous Justice, p. 94)
I can see how some would call this “works righteousness” given the times that we live in. For many people today our faith is nothing more or nothing less than what we believe. As long as your beliefs, your doctrine is right, then you can go about your business. Having a sound theology, a thorough understanding of the Scriptures, and an ability to recite the doctrines of the faith may impress people, but it doesn’t impress God. Jesus told the most religious people of His day, the teachers of the law and Pharisees that they were hypocrites. Listen to His words.
23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. (Matthew 23:23 NIV)
They got their doctrine right, they fully understood the Law of Moses, but they failed in practicing what Jesus called, “the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness.” Long before Jesus stepped onto the scene, the prophet Isaiah delivered a message from God to His people. In Isaiah 5:7-9 we read,
7 The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress. 8 Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land. (Isaiah 5:7-9 NIV)
What was God looking for? He was looking for justice and righteousness, but instead He found bloodshed and heard cries of distress. As a result the judgment of God came to His people. Why did it come? Because how they lived was a reflection of whose they were. If they were God’s people then their lives would reflect God’s heart.
How we live matters to God. Is your life a reflection of the heart of God? I think that is a question that we must ask ourselves on a regular basis. Do I love the things the Lord loves? Do I hate the things the Lord hates? Is my life a reflection of the heart of God? If not, then God has a remedy for you and me. He says, “Seek Me and live!” There is great hope for sinners like me. If I will seek the Lord I will find forgiveness for my sins, I will find forgiveness for my sins! Isn’t that phenomenal news?! Not only will my sins be forgiven, but God will begin a work in me that will lead to inevitable and unending change throughout my life. I will begin to see this world the way God sees it. I will begin to see people the way God sees them. I will begin to see opportunities to serve and help others that I’ve not seen before. I will be given the courage to speak up when I see injustice taking place. I will begin to look for ways to share God’s mercy and grace with others, especially those that others would say are undeserving of His mercy and grace. All of these things can happen as long as I seek Him.
There were times in Israel’s history when they sought God. The problem they faced and the problem I face is that it is so easy to forget to seek Him. It is so easy to get busy doing other things, to get distracted, or to become selfish and turn inward rather than look upward. When that happens then I begin to die. When I seek Him I live, but when I forget Him I begin to die. I might not notice it, but neither did the people of Bethel, Gilgal, or Beersheba. I told you that when Amos spoke it was the “hay-day” for the northern kingdom, but J.A. Motyer writes,
The last twenty years of the kingdom of Israel saw its domestic policies in ruins, one political coup after another until in 722 B.C. Sargon II of Assyria put an end to the kingdom of Israel for ever, deporting the remnant who survived the siege and slaughter and sowing the land with an alien population. It is against this backdrop of realism—the realism of historical fulfillment—that we read the words of Amos. (Motyer, J.A., The Message of Amos. pg. 109)
Those who were listening to Amos were dying and they didn’t even know it. They had the offer of life if they would just seek Him. I want to urge you this very morning to seek Him and live! Tell Jesus you are dying apart from Him, but you want to live.
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
March 13, 2011