Many preachers may shy away from this text when considering the lectionary passages for this week because upon first reading, it can be difficult to see where God’s grace is at work. The whole book of Amos carries a tough message of God’s judgment upon Israel. While it is tough to find the grace of God in this text, since it is prophesying doom, the preacher should consider why Amos is telling anyone about the coming doom to begin with. Why does God call this shepherd, a man who has no theological training, to go and preach the doom of Israel? What does God and Amos hope will come of it?
Most of the prophetic books are like this, of course, and though it can be hard at times to find the grace, the good news, in the prophetic word, they are an extremely rich source to preach from. No less can be said of this passage.
Amos was a shepherd from the southern kingdom of Judah who went to Bethel which is the northern kingdom of Israel’s primary worship cite and home of the king. Bethel is for the north what Jerusalem is for the south. At this point, Israel and Judah are both prosperous. Israel has been established and by most standards was a pretty successful nation. Many were experiencing the good life. But many more were not. This was a time when the rich were doing well while the poor were getting poorer and not being cared for. We know this not only because of what is happening behind the text but also because of what the message of the prophet was.
The fault of the leaders of Israel is not that they had turned to other gods, like the time that their ancestors made a golden calf in the wilderness. Israel was following the temple responsibilities of the Torah. Amos came because Israel was following the religious responsibilities with their covenant with God but were missing the whole point. The purpose of the covenant with God is for Israel to be a holy nation where God’s righteousness and justice reign and the leaders of Israel had made it into a vehicle of comfort and prosperity for the rich and powerful. If there was any idolatry happening in Israel at the time of Amos it was most likely by the poor people and it was because they had been led to believe that Yahweh was a God for the rich and powerful and not for the poor and needy.
Amos’ message is not to a people who found no hope in Yahweh and so turned to Baal. It is to the rich and powerful that Amos brings the Word of the Lord: “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion, and to those who feel secure on the mountain of Samaria.” (6:1, see also 6:2-14) And it is because of the treatment of the poor in the land where the Lord’s righteousness and justice are to reign: “Hear this, you who trample the needy and bring the poor of the land to the end.” (8:4, see also 5:7, 4:1) The “Day of the LORD,” Amos tells the people, is not for the leaders who trample the poor and needy, rather, it is for the poor and needy who are trampled.
In chapter 7, Amos is shown several visions as he is out and about in Israel. It is not much different than when a preacher is out an about in the world and sees something that inspires a sermon. We’ve all had a “that’ll preach” moment. There are four of these visions in the book of Amos and one of them is at the beginning of this passage. Amos sees a plumb line, a tool to make sure a wall or fence is straight, and the message comes to him: God is going to reveal the faulty construction work of the structure of Israel. Perhaps, Amos is that plumb line or the prophets who come after Amos, maybe the Torah fully understood is it. Or maybe, Jesus is that plumb line.
Israel has built a system where the poor stay poor and the rich get richer and Amos is called by God as a prophet who sees this faulty system for what it is. He goes to the main worship cite of the northern kingdom and preaches in the temple there that the “day of the LORD” is coming and it will not benefit the rich and powerful. The high priest, Amaziah, takes issue with this message.
Here is what we must know about Amaziah: he is a priest of Yahweh (hence, the “ah” at the end of his name), he is one of the most powerful people in Israel, and he stands to lose a lot if Amos’ message spreads or if it is truly from God. After warning the king, Amaziah confronts Amos about his message. It is in Amaziah’s message to Amos where the faulty construction is revealed and just a simple reading of the English translation causes us to miss the irony of it.
12 And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13 but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”
In Hebrew, Bethel means “house of God” (bayit – house, el – God). Most English translations do a disservice of the Hebrew text by using the phrase “temple of the kingdom.” The phrase in the Hebrew is “bayit memlekah” (house of the kingdom). Here it would seem that it isn’t the message of Amos, the other prophets, or the Torah that serve as the plumb line but it is the words of Amaziah that demonstrates the faulty construction of Israel’s kingdom. And Amaziah doesn’t even realize it. It seems that the rulers of Israel have gotten confused with who the source of the covenant is. Is Bethel, the primary worship cite of Israel, the house of God or is it the house of the kingdom?
Amos is not a theologically trained, professional prophet. Amaziah believes (or hopes) that the message of Amos is just a crazy prophet who needs to earn his bread. Amos responds to Amaziah telling him that his message does not come from himself but rather is the word of the LORD and it is specifically for those in the high places of Bethel. He has not been trained to go around and proclaim his own message to earn his bread. In other words, this is not a “he said, she said” but a “you say, but the LORD says.”
This message is not unique for God to send with a prophet to the people of God. The God of the Bible continually shows that he is the God of righteousness and justice. The message of the Church has not changed; the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ has not changed. Righteousness and justice are God’s concern and when comfort and prosperity become the focus of the bride of Christ, God is sure to send a prophet who speaks the truth of God and those in power who stand to lose it are sure to reject and condemn that truth.