This is my final installment of a series of ruminations on the prophet Amos. What a challenge he has been to me. My cage has not only been rattled but it has been put through the wringer ... Previous reflections are
Amos at a Glance: Redefining Righteousness
Amos: The Crimes of Nations
Amos: Judgment on the Church's Sin
Amos: The Tragedy of Complacency, 6.1-7
For nine chapters Amos has put God's People under the microscope. He has proclaimed divine judgment for sin/crimes committed during periods of war. He has called them out for failing to love their brothers and sisters and neglecting the poor (violating the second great commandment). Amos has examined unethical business practices practiced by folks who dismiss justice. Many are wealthy and consumed with leisure so he calls them the "cows of Bashan" oppressing the needy and desiring only another martini (4.1ff). Israel had interpreted their wealth and prosperity as signs of divine blessing and approval for their way of life. After all they were very religious and even "went to church" a lot. They observed the sabbath days and feast days (5.21ff) but in "church" they were thinking ...
"When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain,
and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?
skimping the measure, boosting the price and cheating
with dishonest scales, buying the poor with silver and the
needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings
for the wheat"
Gathered worship became a mere pause in the scheme to maximize profits and reduce costs regardless of the impact on those with less power and status. It is because of the spirit exhibited by God's people here that Amos promised them nothing but heartache, and even destruction. God's people, the redeemed slaves of Egypt, were beyond hope!!! Or so it looked to the human eye. They are beyond the point of turning back Yahweh's just wrath upon their avarice. The blood of too many innocent people was crying out from the ground. One too many persons had been sold into slavery ... Yahweh had had enough!!
Judgment was coming. It was to be a severe winnowing of the people of God so much so that Amos himself plead that God relent in mercy from particular plagues (Amos 7.1-6). The amazing thing here is that God ... listened!
God is not man ... praise God that he isn't! One ancient Israelite in the nadir of destruction caught a glimpse of something ...
"Because of the LORD's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness ..." (Lamentations 3.22, NIV)
All is not as it seemed. In chapter 9 the tone of the Prophet changes dramatically. Suddenly there is a message of gracious hope. It was (and is) a message God's people did not expect nor did they deserve it. It was simply a message of God's unending grace for his people. So sudden and radical is this change in tune that some modern scholars do not believe Amos actually said it. It is contrary to the message of the whole book and is a later addition. It is hard to conceive of a message so unprecedented ...
But a couple of brief observations need to be made here. First, God's last word for his people is never judgment. Rather God's last word is always gracious hope! Second, the canonical prophets all end with a word of grace, a word of hope, not judgment! Hosea's last word to Israel is hope and blessing (ch. 14). Joel's last word is to bless God's people (4.17-21). Micah promises Israel will rise again in God's grace (7.8-20). Even little overlooked Obadiah ends with the word of grace (vv.15ff). And so the list goes. It is breathtaking indeed but it is so true to the God of the Bible that Amos ends with the message of grace for God's Sinful People. God is in the habit of doing things that boggle our human minds.
What is the Last Word? Message of Grace to Sinful People??
In chapter 9 ... to cap of his book of sermons Amos ascends the pulpit and stuns us with his poetic word ... we are not beyond hope:
In that day I will restore David's fallen tent.
I will repair its broken places, restore its ruins, and
build it as it used to be, so that they may posses the
remnant of Edom and all the nations that bear my name,'
declares the LORD, who will do these things.
The days are coming,' declares the LORD, 'when the reaper
will be overtaken by the plowman and the planter by
the one treading grapes. New wine will drip from the
mountains and flow from all the hills. I will bring
back my exiled people Israel; they will rebuild
the ruined cities and live in them. They will
plant vineyards and drink their wine; they will
make gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant Israel
in their own land never again to be uprooted from
their own land, never again to be uprooted from
the land I have given them,' says the
LORD your God."
First thing we need to let happen here with this oracle is simply "SOAK IT UP!" Let it sink into our consciousness. Let the word wash over us and overwhelm us in its unbelievable goodness. Let the grace of God take our breath away!
Once we have just sat in awe of these words we need to let their radical nature begin penetrating our psyche. This restoration blessing oracle is predicated on one thing only ... not Israel's sudden goodness, not her sudden faithfulness, not her righteousness. This blessing of grace is rooted in one thing only ... Yahweh's love for his people. It is an expression of his undeserved grace.
The oracle itself is divided into two parts. First there is the promise of restoration (exile does not end God's relationship with Israel) and power over enemies. Second there is the promise of unbelievable bounty ... a return to a land flowing with milk and honey! Yahweh bluntly states he will plant Israel like a garden, once again, in the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He has not cast them off, as Paul would later put it.
Yahweh will rebuild David's tent and repair its walls. Scholars are divided as to what this actually refers to. But the explanation that makes the best sense to me is Richardson's. The word translated "tent" is the Hebrew succoth. This was also a city on the east bank of the Jordan that served as an important base for David and symbolized the stretch of his military power. It was from here that David was able to unify (= rule) the enemies of Israel. But now Succoth lay in ruins and was a desolate place symbolic of the fallen state of the divided kingdom and the people of Israel. The rebuilding of that place symbolizes the return of the glory days of David. Reunification of the divided people of God is frequently associated with a new David who would shepherd God's people (cf. Mic 5.2-6). Edom had been a bitter enemy of God's people but in this day of grace Israel will fear Edom no more.
Notice the emphasis that Amos gives to God's divine activity in this restoration saying it is the "LORD who will do these things." There can be no misunderstanding here, says Amos. Israel, you only deserve punishment. You actually deserve exile. You have broken the covenant of love with Yahweh. Israel, don't ever dream for a second that you are somehow "contributing" to your "salvation." Amos says in essence, the only thing you have contributed was your damnation! Sometimes we talk of the divine side of salvation and the human side of salvation but in the Hebrew Bible there is only one side ... Yahweh's! Remember the prophets thunder: Exodus (salvation) comes before Sinai! Calvary comes before Pentecost! Grace comes before faith. Always has and always will!
Looking further into verses 13-15 Amos strains to communicate the bounty of God's grace to his Sinful People. Using images of agricultural bounty Amos impresses upon our minds what life in the kingdom of God will be like. Things are going to be so radically different on that day of grace that harvests will be so rich and abundant that the reaper will still be in the field trying after many months to collect the crops. Barley and wheat are harvested in early May in Palestine and grapes are picked in early September. Ploughing begins in October, followed immediately by sowing. In the day of grace sowing and reapoing will blend together in a near constant harvest. The harvester cannot keep up!
God's bountiful grace rains down the mountains in a mist of wine. This grape harvest, a symbol of richness and extravagance, covers the land in wine that gladdens the heart. Amos is of course using hyperbole to demonstrate that the day of grace is one of grace to the excess! In that day God will bring back his people from exile, they will rebuild and replant ... and BE replanted by Yahweh. These are images of life being restored to the way God intended it to be. God's People had lived far beneath what they were called to be. The Lord rescues them from their self-centered lives to ones lived to the full. He will plant them in the land like a new Garden of Eden. No one can take them from his hand.
God did redeem his people from exile and even useless self-centered lives. Peter addressing a different set of exiles along the Black Sea encouraged them with these words "you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you by your forefathers" (1 Pet 1.18). The promise of Amos to God's sinful people is, we believe as Christians, fulfilled in the Jewish Messiah Jesus of Nazareth. Yes God did bring his people back from exile in the days of Ezra but the promises are so rich and abundant that they bloom in Jesus and what he intends to do in and through Israel for the nations.
Yahweh's amazing grace brought a message of desperate hope for people under the gun. His promise allowed us Gentiles to be counted among the saints. Because of the promise we have received a name, a heritage and a purpose to live in our world. Our lives are not meaningless pursuits of self-aggrandizement but share in the mission of gracious restoration.
Amos brought a message of judgment to Israel. First on their sins of the nations in war, of injustice, for their complacency, for their abuse of the poor, and for going to "church" without their lives being radically altered by the encounter with the Living God. Yet we have seen that the last word with Yahweh is the word of hope. It is a word of grace to a sinful, a nation full of sin. Perhaps Amos 9 could serve as a wonderful illustration of the truth testified to by Paul in Romans 4.4-5 ...
"Now when a [people] work, [their] wages are not credited to [them] as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the [people] who do not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, [their] faith is credited as righteousness."
Indeed God's ways are not our ways and his thoughts are far above our thoughts. Make Amos a regular part of your Bible reading. God will bless you as you put his word in your heart.