Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Amos - a Prophet for our Time

Distance may lend enchantment, but in reading the Old Testament in our English translations it muddies the waters.

Read the story of Elijah and Elisha in I and II Kings and you see how their story is set against the background of a succession of Kings in The Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The stories of the Kings follow a set pattern – their reign is dated very precisely with reference to the king in the other kingdom. Turn to page 380 of the church Bibles and we have arrived at Jeroboam II of the Northern Kingdom of Israel – in these few verses you can see the set pattern.

alongside the reign of the king in the other kingdom, a verdict is given on their reign – practically all of the Kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel are condemned as doing evil in the sight of the Lord. And then,
Turn to page 380 of the church Bibles and we have arrived at Jeroboam II of Israel …

First the date …

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Amaziah son of Joash as king of Judah, Jeroboam son of Jehoash became king of Israel, and he ruled in Samaria for 41 years.

Second, the verdict

24 He sinned against the LORD, following the wicked example of his predecessor King Jeroboam son of Nebat, who led Israel into sin.

It’s a qualified verdict in this instance because under Jeroboam II there are extensive conquests, the suffering of the people is alleviated and there is considerable prosperity.

And third, remembering that Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings are regarded as Prophetic writings in the Hebrew scriptures, those interested more in history than prophecy are directed to other works of history

Everything else that Jeroboam II did, his brave battles, and how he restored Damascus and Hamath to Israel, are all recorded in The History of the Kings of Israel or as the NRSV puts it a little better – The Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel.

Then in II Kings 15 the prophetic historian moves on to King Uzziah of the Southern Kingdom of Judah …

Date in verse 1, much better verdict, though not without critisim in verse 3-5 and the cross references in verse 6

What a pity that these books are so far away from the later prophets of the Old Testament. In the Hebrew Scripture they are nicely balanced – the four books of former prophets Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings are followed by four books of later prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Book of the Twelve.

What’s fascinating when you read through those later prophets is that Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and at least six of the Book of the 12 can be linked into the story.

Turn to page 363 of the church Bibles at the end and you can see this works in a time chart.

The first of the writing prophets is one of the best known names from the Book of the 12 shorter prophets, Amos.

Verse 1 gives us the precise location for Amos, the Prophet’s words.

These are the words of Amos, a shepherd from the town of Tekoa.[which is in the Southern Kingdom of Judah} Two years before the earthquake, [which sadly cannot be dated, but with the Arabian tectonic plate sliding past the African tectonic plate on either side of the Jordan rift valley this is an area prone to moderate earthquakes] when Uzziah was king of Judah and Jeroboam son of Jehoash was king of Israel, God revealed to Amos all these things about Israel [that must be after the 27th year of the reign of Jeroboam II and so you can date these words of Amos somewhere between 756 and 743 BC]

Go to the British Museum and from that kind of period lavish ivories have been found that indicate a level of prosperity that is hinted at in II Kings and spelled out by Amos in 3:15 where Amos speaks of people having winter houses and summer houses and lining their walls with ivories.

No cost was spared as houses were furnished ostentatiously with luxurious couches (6:4, 3:12) and people indulged in feasting at every turn, feasting on veal and lamb (6:4) Obesity is a problem among the women as well as men and there is a major over-indulgence in alcohol (4:1) and as for perfume: an obscene amount of money is spent on cosmetics (6:6).

“On the other hand, the poor were really poor and were shamelessly exploited: they suffered from property rackets” and sexual abuse

They sell into slavery honest people who cannot pay their debts, the poor who cannot repay even the price of a pair of sandals. 7 They trample
down the weak and helpless and push the poor out of the way. A man and his father have intercourse with the same slave woman, and so profane my holy name. 2:6-7)

“they suffered from legal rackets (5:12)

know how terrible your sins are and how many crimes you have committed. You persecute good people, take bribes, and prevent the poor from getting justice in the courts. 13

“And they suffered from business rackets 8:5)

You say to yourselves, “We can hardly wait for the holy days to be over so that we can sell our corn. When will the Sabbath end, so that we can start selling again? Then we can overcharge, use false measures, and tamper with the scales to cheat our customers

“Money-making and personal covetousness ruled all: the men lived for the offices, the women lived for excitement, the rulers lived for frivolity.”

The task of the prophet is to speak truth to power. He knows the society he is speaking to inside out. He does not hold back. More than that, he knows what’s going on in neighbouring countries. And he speaks out powerfully.

By now you cannot have avoided spotting the connections that it’s possible to make with society today. There is something un-nervingly up-to-date and relevant as you read the words of the Prophet Amos. In pointing the finger at the neglect of the poor at a time when the excessively wealthy get even wealthier he is pointing the finger at our society. These words speak across the centuries to us.

You people hate anyone who challenges injustice and speaks the whole truth in court. 11 You have oppressed the poor and robbed them of their grain. And so you will not live in the fine stone houses you build or drink wine from the beautiful vineyards you plant. 12 I know how terrible your sins are and how many crimes you have committed. You persecute good people, take bribes, and prevent the poor from getting justice in the courts. 13 And so, keeping quiet in such evil times is the clever thing to do!
14 Make it your aim to do what is right, not what is evil, so that you may live. Then the LORD God Almighty really will be with you, as you claim he is. 15 Hate what is evil, love what is right, and see that justice prevails in the courts. Perhaps the LORD will be merciful to the people of this nation who are still left alive.

But lest we feel complacent, Amos turns his attention to those in his day that are religious. And what he identifies should give us pause for thought. He noticed that religious people were very religious. This was a period when people did attend worship, when they did carry out their sacrifices. But something was not quite right, for Amos it was significant that the worship was centred on shrines that had been put in place by the wicked Jeroboam 1st as the king had bent religion for his own purposes and power. But more un-nervingly for us he points the finger at a worship that uses all the right words but is not lived out.

The LORD says, “I hate your religious festivals; I cannot stand them!
22 When you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; I will not accept the animals you have fattened to bring me as offerings. 23 Stop your noisy songs; I do not want to listen to your harps. 24

Instead, let justice flow like a stream, and righteousness like a river that never goes dry.

That, for Amos, is the nub of the matter. That is what must make us sit up and take notice.

But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream

When Jesus lays claim to have fulfilled the whole law and the prophets this is what he is laying claim to. In his indictment of the religious in Matthew 23 he homes in on exactly the kind of justice envisaged by Amos as the very heart of the law …
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!
The parable of the Rich fool gets to the nub of the matter and homes in on the selflishness that is concerned only to build up wealth.

The challenge is for us to live out our faith and put it into practice. But thee is another challenge too. There is still a place for ‘prophets’ in our day – who analyse the ills of society and appeal for justice and righteousness, and we in the church need to take those challenges very much to heart.

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