In the first seven verses of Amos 5, the prophet describes Israel as a nation that has fallen/is destined to fall because it sought help from everywhere except from the LORD. Neither political alliances nor misguided religious piety are going to be able save Israel from the coming destruction. The question the prophet poses to us today is this: where are we seeking our security? Are we, like Israel, confusing human institutions for the activity of God in the world? Are we conflating the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the earth?
5:1. Listen to this word which I am lifting up concerning you, a dirge of the house of Israel.
2. She has fallen, she will not again arise, maiden of Israel.
She is forsaken upon the ground, there is no one to raise her up.
The text says, “she has fallen”, but Amos is talking about something that has not yet happened. The song is sung from a prophetic perspective, a perspective that sees the destiny of Israel as if it has already happened. Just to put things in perspective, the destruction of the northern Kingdom of Israel by Assyria happened in 722 BC. Amos is most likely prophesying somewhere around 760-750 BC, which means that in only 30-40 years Israel would fall, never again to arise. Israelites would continue to live in the land, many would go south into the kingdom of Judah, but the kingdom of Israel was over.
Most of the nations around Israel were happy to see them fall. Israel had tried to live as a kingdom in the world, in the manner of the world. They had made alliances with the nations, sometimes against their kinsmen to the south. They had compromised their covenant with Yahweh for the sake of politics and covering their religious bases. And when destruction finally came to them, where were their religious and political allies then? Either themselves suffering destruction or actually rejoicing over the fall of Israel. Israel would be utterly forsaken and have no one to help them in their hour of need.
This is a lesson I feel the American church needs to learn again. We don’t do ourselves any favors when we make alliances with the world or with its institutions, particularly ones that pit us against our Christian brothers. Even if we think that by doing so we are accomplishing a greater good, it probably won’t end up as well as we would like. When we ally ourselves with the world, we think we are the ones in control, but we are usually, if not always, just fooling ourselves. Usually what is happening is the world is using us to accomplish its own ends, after which it will happily throw us to the side once it perceives that it doesn’t need us anymore. The world talks real nice when it wants your help. It makes its goal sound like it should be your goal too. And it makes promises, including a promise to be your friend. But make no mistake – the world is not your friend. This is a lesson Israel never learned, and it cost them everything.
Amos 5:1-13 is one of the texts lying behind Revelation 18’s somewhat more famous dirge over Babylon:
- “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” v. 2 (cf. Amos 5:2)
- “Come out of her, my people, so you will not take part in her sins and so you will not receive her plagues, because her sins have piled up all the way to heaven and God has remembered her crimes.” vv. 4-5 (cf. Amos 5:5-6, 12)
- “As much as she exalted herself and lived in sensual luxury, to this extent give her torment and grief because she said to herself” v. 7 (cf. Amos 5:11)
- “And the sound of the harpists, musicians, flute players, and trumpeters will never be heard in you again.” v. 22 (cf. Amos 5:13)
Interestingly, not only is it worthwhile to read Revelation in light of Amos, but it is also helpful to read Amos in light of Revelation. While the former method is clarifying, the latter is has a universalizing effect, helping to take Amos out of its 8th century BC context and applying it to a more timeless, cosmic vision. In Revelation’s terms, “Israel” in Amos encompasses both “Babylon” and “my people”. Israel’s sins are the same as those of spiritual Babylon, and the righteous remnant in Israel who would be willing to repent and who may be spared in the coming destruction are the same as God’s people in Revelation, whom he urges to “come out” from Babylon.
The question this raises is: what does it mean to “come out” from Babylon? How do we do this? What does it mean to be “in” Babylon. This is not a question with a simple answer, but I suggest that it is one of the chief questions with which we should concern ourselves. The problem of knowing how to come out from Babylon is precisely our inability to discern the differences between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of earth. I would suggest that so long as we are relying on human institutions to provide for our prosperity, wellbeing, and safety rather than on God alone, we are living in Babylon, and the warnings of Amos to Israel apply to us.
3. For thus says the Lord GOD:
The city that went out a thousand will be left with a hundred,
And the one that went out a hundred will be left with ten, for the house of Israel.
The verb “went out” implies “to war.” This is kind of the inverse of decimation. Instead of 10% being killed, which is technically what decimation is, 10% are all that is left. Israel is utterly devastated.
4. For thus says the LORD to the house of Israel:
Seek me and live.
5. Do not seek Bethel, and do not go to Gilgal, and do not go over to Beersheba,
For Gilgal shall surely go into captivity, and Bethel will be a sorrow.
Amos is declaring Israel’s judgement as if it is a done deal, but even now, 30 years before the final destruction of the northern Kingdom, God is reaching out. Before it was implied, but here it is explicit – seek me and live. God doesn’t want Israel to be destroyed. Even when his anger is waxing the hottest, even when he is in the midst bringing destruction, God’s heart aches for his people and desperately wants to save them. But you can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved. Even the omnipotent God has to face this reality. With us it’s because we do not have the power to save such a person. In God’s case, it is because to “save” someone who refuses to be saved becomes kind of contradictory and counter to God’s ultimate purpose for us – that we be people who choose to love and serve God.
God tells Israel, “Seek me. Don’t seek Bethel or Gilgal or Beersheba.” Bethel and Gilgal were important cult centers in the northern kingdom. Beersheba was in the far south, in Judah, but it too was an important cult center, and all the archaeological evidence we have from Beersheba reveals that it was as polytheistic and corrupt as Bethel. It is interesting to me that God does not say, “Seek me in Jerusalem.” He makes no mention of a replacement cult center. He simply says “Don’t seek help at the cult centers that you know.” Amos over and over emphasizes that the God of Israel, Yahweh, is not a God who is primarily concerned with or approached via sacrifice and cultic rituals. He is a God who is approached from a right heart, a heart that is humble and contrite before him. Seeking help at this juncture from Bethel and Gilgal is insanity – trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
Even more interesting to me is the fact that I hear an echo of Deuteronomy here. “Seek me and live” reminds me of Deuteronomy 31:19 – “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live.” In Deuteronomy, God is calling Israel to choose life by staying true to the covenant, which involved, to an extent, cultic activity, but actually included a whole lot more that had to do with just being honest, lawful, good people who served God and did not abuse their neighbors in any way. Amos is almost entirely concerned with what we call social justice and religious fidelity. The cultic aspect of that religious fidelity is, as I have pointed out, largely not in the picture. Yes, being faithful to Yahweh would eventually involve a purified cultic expression, but that is not God’s top priority – neither here, nor, I would argue, in Deuteronomy, either.
“Gilgal shall surely go into captivity” is highly alliterative; perhaps it is a pun – wehaggilgal galoh yigleh. The word for “sorrow” is aven, which Hosea later takes up and uses in reference to Bethel when he calls it Bethaven, which means either “house of wickedness” or “house of sorrow”. Don’t seek Bethel or Gilgal because their end will be no different than any other part of Israel. They too will be destroyed and will go into captivity. Just because they are holy places with a holy history does not mean that they will have any power to resist what God has decreed.
6. Seek Yahweh and live,
Lest he rush like a wildfire upon the house of Joseph,
and it will devour, there will be no one to extinguish it for Bethel,
7. Those who turn justice to wormwood,
and righteousness they leave on the ground.
Again, the invitation to repent is coupled with the threat of destruction. Here, the coming destruction is depicted as an uncontrollable wildfire breaking out upon Israel, but there won’t be anyone who can extinguish it. Who would be able to? The God of Israel could, here God is himself the wildfire. Fire is two-edged image for God and for his Spirit that we find throughout the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments. It is two-edged because, on one hand it can represent the dynamic energy of the Holy Spirit within the life of the Christian believer, but on the other hand it can represent the purifying fire, the fire of judgment.
For example, John the Baptist prophesied: “I baptize you with water, but one mightier than me is coming, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to unloose. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Pentecostals hear in that the energy and electric power of the Holy Spirit. What we don’t hear but should is John’s understanding that Jesus was bringing the fire judgment. In Jesus, the God of Israel was at last judging the earth, starting with Israel. The way we bring these two ideas, electric power and judgment, together into a single idea is by realizing that the Holy Spirit’s work in empowering us is not separate from its work in purifying and sanctifying us. We are being judged, which is why our Spirit-driven consciences smite us when we do something wrong, but we are being judged in light of Jesus, so condemnation does not also come. God is the purifying fire of judgment in the Holy Spirit. As we allow him to burn away those parts of us that are unworthy, we find ourselves energized as well to join in the work of the Spirit in calling the world to repentance and making disciples who are themselves being purified by the Spirit’s fire of judgment. There is no one to extinguish this flame, because it is God himself, so it will continue its work until it is finished and all that remains is a new heaven and new earth, with a purified people living together in unity with God himself.
So our message to the world is not one simply of forgiveness, because forgiveness without the purifying fire of judgment doesn’t solve our sin problem. It sweeps it under the rug. Our message is this: “God loves you. Therefore he is saying to you choose life. And he has made a way for you with the blood of his own son to escape the clutches of this world and of sin. In light of this, don’t choose death. Choose life.”
Verse 7 is, I think, an appositive for the House of Joseph and for Bethel. They are, it says, those who turn justice to wormwood and leave righteousness abandoned on the ground. They pervert justice for their own selfish purposes and make it poisonous. This probably has to do with unrighteous decisions in the city gate, with judges taking bribes from wealthy people, or wealthy people bending the system to benefit their own interests. Poor people rely more than wealthy people do on the governmental system rendering unbiased judgments and treating everyone in a fair and balanced way, because they cannot afford to pay people in high places for fat contracts or beneficial regulations. Amos says that when a government becomes corrupt in this way, they are making justice poison, and they are wadding up righteousness like a sheet of paper and tossing it to the ground.