Amos 5

Have you ever tried to read the Old Testament from cover to cover, from Genesis through Malachi? Some get bogged down in all the legal technicalities in Leviticus. Others lose it in the book of Numbers. Numbers 3:27 says, “Of Kohath were the family of the Amramites, and the family of the Isharites, and the family of the Hebronites, and the family of the Uzzielites; these are the families of the Kohathites.”

And that’s right about where you start looking for something good on TV.

Some will make it to the section we talked about last week—the stories about Samuel, Saul, David and Solomon. That’s pretty readable stuff– David and Goliath, David and Bathsheba and so on. You think you’ve got it made.

Then comes the time period we cover today. It starts with 1st Kings, chapter 12, just after the death of Solomon, and goes through the end of 2nd Chronicles. But it also covers a number of the prophets as well, as in our reading from Amos 5. So many old-fashioned names and ancient places! Pretty soon it all sounds like gobbledy-gook.

Once upon a time, some German families had a morning devotion. The father would open his Bible, point to a random verse, and talk about it. Now, suppose you hit 1st Kings 22:48: “Jehosaphat made ships of Tarshish to go to Ophir for gold; but they did not go, for the ships were wrecked at Ezion-geber. Then Ahaziah the son of Ahab said to Jehoshaphat, “Let my servants go with your servants in the ships,’ but Jehosaphat was not willing. And Jehosaphat slept with his fathers, and was buried…”

Well, there’s an inspiring thought to kick off your day! Then you get to Chronicles, and it feels like you’ve already read it. And you have: Much of 1st and 2nd Chronicles repeats what was already in 1st and 2nd Kings.

So it’s not light reading. Now don’t get me wrong: There’s important material here—but it doesn’t jump off the page. It takes time, and even if you have the time, you may not have the patience and concentration. So maybe the best thing I could do today is just summarize it. Hit the highlights. What’s the big picture here

Historically, this section begins in 922 B.C., just after the death of Solomon. Solomon was an ambitious king, and ambition costs money. He had raised taxes, and many people felt like slaves, working not for themselves but for the rich bigwigs. When Solomon died, people assumed his son, Re-ho-bo-am, would lighten up. But he went the opposite way, and pushed them even harder.

The ten tribes in the northern part were sick of it. They declared Jer-o-bo-am their king, and the kingdom was split. The ten tribes in the north became the kingdom of Israel, and the two tribes in the south—Judah and Benjamin–became the kingdom of Judah.

The northern kings faced an immediate problem. No one liked the southern king, but Jerusalem was in his territory, and everyone wanted to worship at the huge, beautiful temple built with their tax dollars under Solomon. So Jer-o-bo-am built his own attractions –new temples at Bethel and Dan, and put golden calves in them.

Now you know that wasn’t going to fly. Sure enough, God pulls the plug on his protection, and that northern kingdom went into a long, painful decline. Within 50 years, they hit bottom with Ahab. Ahab married a pagan princess named Jezebel, became a Baal worshipper, and built a temple to Baal.

That’s when the prophet Elijah came along, to preach against Ahab and his Baal worshipers, followed by Elisha, who continued the fight. Amos was another one. In our lesson today, in the last two verses., Amos declared God’s judgment on Israel: “You have lifted up the shrine of your king, the pedestal of your idols, the star of the god, you made for yourselves. Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Damascus.”

Israel staggered along for nearly 200 years, but sure enough, in 721 B.C., it was overrun by the Assyrians. The land was depopulated. Anyone who was any kind of mover or shaker was moved to Assyria and replaced with Babylonians setters. Thus, Israel became known as the “Ten Lost Tribes,” and many have speculated about what happened to them. In all likelihood, the people simply blended in with the Assyrians until they were completely absorbed.

Meanwhile, the southern kingdom of Judah was a little more stable. The transitions from one king to the next were less violent. Judah also had some good kings, like Hezekiah and Josiah. But Josiah was killed in battle against the Egyptians and his sons were useless. The Babylonians overran Jerusalem, and in 587 B.C. they burned the temple and sent all but the poorest peasants to Babylon in what is known as the Babylonian captivity or the exile—which is where we’ll pick up the action next week.

That’s the history in a nutshell, but it skirts the theological question: Why did God let this happen? Why did God let both kingdoms fall to their enemies? After all, in everything we’ve read so far, from Abraham onward, God promised that his chosen people would number as the stars in the sky and would have the land of Canaan as their own. Then in 721, one chunk falls to the Assyrians, and about a hundred and fifty years later, the rest falls to Babylon, and the people were carted away, many to disappear into history.  What went wrong?

First, we need to talk about fairness. The Biblical word for this—the word that Amos uses several times—is “justice,” but I like “fairness” better. Fairness is broader, less legalistic, and makes more sense. In our system, “justice” may mean nothing more than that the same laws are applied the same way to everybody. Fairness goes beyond that. Even little kids know what’s fair and what’s not fair.

Anyway, Amos complained that the people of the northern kingdom were treating one another unfairly, unjustly.

In verse 10, he says, “You hate the one who reproves in court and despise him who tells the truth.” Amos sees a legal system turned upside down, a system where the prosecutor is the enemy and the perjurer is the hero. Again, in verse 15, he says,” Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts.” This is a fundamental principle. The only way we can begin to have justice in the courts is if people are willing to tell the truth. Without that, justice in the courts breaks down and justice in the streets takes over—mob rule, the savagery of the lynch mob, the personal vendetta—civilization unraveled.

In verse 11, he says, “You trample on the poor and force him to give you grain.” The powerful soaked up the resources of the powerless. The kings from Solomon on had created an ever-growing bureaucracy, an ever-growing class of pencil—pushers who themselves produced nothing but plans to spend more, but who nonetheless needed to live better than the people who actually worked for a living. The great kingdom of David had been split in the first place over the north’s refusal to make Rehoboam even richer.

Now the northern kingdom was falling apart over the greediness of their own ruling class. Amos sees it spells doom. Verse 16 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.” The unfairness of the system would bring it down. When courts or governments play favorites, the stage is set for the whole society to fall apart.

But Israel and Judah fell not only because of their unfairness and injustice, but also because their faithfulness fell short. In verse 21, we read a startling thing. God says to the people, “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies.”  In too many places, the true worship of God had been reduced to a formality—saying the right words, going through the right motions—while what was really important was following the crowd, following the false gods.

Baal was the main god of Israel’s neighbors; a fertility god, symbolized as a calf, or bull. Even, today, we think of the bull as a symbol of virility, the one who gets the job done. To worship Baal is to worship the mystery of life. Why did one guy’s farm get hailed out but his neighbor was unharmed? Baal hated one and loved the other? Why!!? The best crop insurance would be to pay Baal his protection money—pay your sacrifices upfront at planting time, and maybe he’ll leave you alone through harvest time.

In our own way, we still worship Baal. We’re always focused on production and success, and we sacrifice our best to get it. But as Amos says in verse 26, this god we’ve created will kill us, in body and soul. If all that matters is how to spend the next dollar as fast as possible, you’re worshiping Baal, and Baal will never let you live happy. Baal is a cancer, a parasite who lives only by feeding on your soul.

Any society—whether Israel and Judah long ago, or America today –will thrive and survive only when people are fair and faithful. If not, Without these, God might pull back his protecting hand. Then if somebody stronger comes along, we may be overrun, and disappear into the warp and weave of history, just as the Ten Tribes disappeared.

That’s why it’s our job to preach Jesus Christ. Only Jesus can teach us the full truth about God’s love –the truth about unconditional love, forgiveness, and sacrifice—which is the truth that allows us to overcome our selfishness and practice fairness, the fairness that comes to life with the Golden Rule. Only Jesus can rescue us from slavery to parasites like Baal, and free us to live for fairness and decency.           Amen.