From Circumference to Center
God is present and active in working his justice against the transgressions of the nations.
II. A present judge
III. The price of inhumanity
IV. No neutral middlemen
Amos’ words remind us of the warp and the woof of a skilled weaver. Back and forth his words go, around the neighboring nations of Israel in the eighth century before Christ. East and west, north and south, Amos, the prophet of God, spins a web of judgment and of indictment to the nations that neighbor the people of God.
One of the burdens of Amos concerned the neighboring nations to the people of God. The thrust of the burden of the prophet spoke to their inhumanity, their barbarity, and their sometimes atrocities as national expressions, as political organizations, as governmental functions. The God of Amos was not locked up in the sanctuary in Jerusalem. He was God turned loose on the world of the eighth century before Christ. His concern was not exhausted with the order of service in the temple. He was a God whose eyes ran to and fro in the earth, seeking out injustice that needed to be righted, barbarity that needed to be turned into humanity, and atrocities that needed the address of the judgment of a living God.
In days like our days that call for concern, for justice—not only on a national level but also on an international level—the message of Amos becomes somehow suddenly contemporary. The thrust of Amos’ message is that every national expression, every governmental organization, every political body stands before a living God who weighs that expression, that body, or that organization in the balance of his own justice.
The presupposition of Amos’ message to the international scene eight centuries before Christ is Amos’ God’s belief that there is a common conscience of humanity among men in the presence or in the absence of God’s self-disclosure through biblical revelation. To contradict this common conscience of humanity is to involve one’s self in that which Amos calls transgression, which does not mean a revolt against a code of law nearly so much as it means a personal offense to a living God. As Amos looks at those ancient and obscure people—Syrians, Philistines, Phoenicians, Edomites, Ammonites, names that belong to footnotes in our generation—he sees that the living God of Israel is consumed with passion, that in the national and corporate expression of the life of people there be humanity rather than barbarity, that there be rectitude and justice rather than injustice. This was true for Amos, not only for the aged rabbi as he sat studying the law but also for the blood-curdling Ammonite in his paganism. For Amos, God’s response in the face of humanity’s national and international inhumanity is swift and is sure.
Far too often today, the judgment of God is viewed as his cataclysmic intervention at the end of history when, like lightning, God will intervene and the heavens will crack, and God will bring history to a close. But the God of Amos was not an absentee God postponing his judgments until the end of history. The God of Amos is there in the midst of the warp and the woof, in the presence of the fabric of the history of that generation, bringing about justice where it is needed, and judgment where it is appropriate in the lives of the people and in the lives of nations. Amos uses this strange phrase over and over: “For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not turn it back.” “For three transgressions of Gaza, and for four, I will not turn it back.”
In that generation, the number three spoke of completeness or of fullness. The fourth transgression was to climax insult to the living God, and Amos said that that generation rested pivoting the moment of the climax of God’s intervention in the lives of the neighboring nations of Israel. In Hebrew, there is one word that stands both for transgression and for God’s response in judgment. To the Hebrew way of thinking, in the history of nations, judgment and God’s intervention follows so certainly the rebellion of the people that they are an inseparable unit, even to the extent that one word can be used to express the complex of the people’s rebellion and God’s intervention.
A present judge
As we read our papers about injustice, anarchy, and terrorism, the evangelical Christian may sometimes want to cry out, “Where is God in a world like ours?” And the first chapter of Amos gives the answer. He is not locked into a sanctuary; he is there in the midst of his world, judging and seeing that justice and rectitude will be done within history.
Several summers ago I waded through Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. Many were the vignettes and the cameos in that book of injustice that would make one’s blood boil at the very reading of the words. I remember one in particular. Here is one vignette from those years as it actually occurred.
A district party conference was underway in Moscow Province. It was presided over by the District Party Committee, replacing one recently arrested. At the mention of the name of Joseph Stalin, everyone immediately jumped to their feet for “stormy applause, raising to an ovation.” For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the applause continued, but palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. Who would be the first to stop became the critical question. And in that obscure, small hall, unknown to Stalin, the applause went on six, seven, eight minutes. They were done for, said Solzhenitsyn. They couldn’t stop now until they collapsed with heart attacks. Who would be the one to stop? Finally, the manager of a paper factory in that province, with a business-like expression, stopped applauding and sat down after 11 minutes. The director of the paper factory assumed that enough was enough, and oh, a miracle took place, Solzhenitsyn said. Everyone immediately sat down and stopped applauding. However, the representatives from the KGB noted that man, arrested him, and he was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor in a Siberian prison camp because he was the first to stop applauding after 11 minutes.
Does that make any difference to you? Is God at all concerned in a world of injustice? Will he see to it that in history might will not always be right? The prophet of Amos gives us the assurance that the living God indeed is active in the affairs of nations to see that that is so.
The God of Amos is active when there is an attitude of cruelty that reflects inhumanity of feeling. The city of Damascus was reputed by that generation to be the oldest in the world. Amos turns his attention to the northern neighbors of Israel. The Syrians whose empire and fear of influence were symbolized by the capital city, Damascus. Muhammad was so impressed with it that he said he would not enter the city of Damascus because a person should not enter paradise twice. Amos had something of another opinion of Damascus, in the eighth century before Christ. He leveled against it a withering indictment, for he says in verse 3, “For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four,” I will not intervene to turn back the natural processes of historical judgment. His indictment: “They have threshed Gilead with threshing instruments of iron.”
Gilead was on the borderline between northern Israel and Syria. It was a buffer state, and in every battle, like Poland in modern Europe, it became the scene of battles fought by other people. It was like Alsace-Lorraine between France and Germany. A tiny place that was doomed to suffer from the inhumanity and the cruelty of other people. Where was the God of the earth when this was happening? Amos says he was there, and he was vigilant. A particularly cruel and atrocious activity is cited. In that day, grain was threshed with boards seven feet long and three feet wide. Armed with jagged stones and piercing knives, these were weighted with stones and pulled by oxen, like section harrows in a modern farm. But the Damascenes, the Syrians, had used these to rape over the writhing bodies of war refugees until they died in the sun of the Syrian dessert 2,800 years ago.
Where was God in the midst of all of this? Well, Amos informs that generation that God was not absent and neither would he be silent, for Amos informs that God will shortly speak. He will begin with a very political leadership that had led out in the atrocity. “I will send a fire into the house of Hazael which shall devour the palaces of Ben-Hadad.” Ancient names but significant in that the God of all of the earth noted those who were responsible for inhumanity. The fire in this instance means the fire of war and destruction. It would consume the palace of the ruling dynasty founded by Hazael and now ruled by Ben-Hadad the third. But that judgment which would begin with the leaders of a nation involved in barbarity would continue to its capital city and its defenses.
“I will break also the bar of Damascus.” The city of Damascus prided itself on the bronze bar that guarded the gate of the city. It was considered to be an impenetrable and impregnable defense, but the living God says that a nation that maintains itself by barbarity and inhumanity will be defenseless and the onslaught of the judgment of God worked out in history. And having passed from the leaders to the capital city, Amos culminates these words by looking at the population itself. Those who live in unconcern and in complacency in the plain of Aven, which means a plain of wealth, a wealthy suburb of the city of Damascus. And those who live in the house of Eden. The very name means the house of pleasure. In languor, ignoring atrocity and barbarity. These too will be cut off.
Those that picked up the Damascus Gazette at the breakfast table and read about the incident at Gilead and said, “Isn’t that too bad; what are we going to do to amuse ourselves today?”—they too will hear a word from the Lord. Amos informs us that when nations and their expression, when governments and their organization, when people in their corporate activities become barbaric, God intervenes.
The last word is the most striking, for we are told that “the people of Syria will go into captivity unto Kir, saith the Lord.” The city of Kir was in Mesopotamia. What this amounts to is a reversal of their history, for the Syrians had come out of that great area between the two rivers, and now because they’d become a people of barbarity, God would send them back. Was Amos a madman? Was he a pessimist? Did his words fall fruitless? Not in the least. These words spoken in 751 BC came to be fulfilled in 732 BC when that unusually named Assyrian ruler Tiglath Pileser leveled the city of Damascus and carried its inhabitants back from whence they came and canceled their history.
Such acts of barbarity may seem farfetched to Americans. The word is that God holds accountable entire nations, Christian or pagan, when they become a people who commit atrocities. We may even feel a comfortable distance from this condemnation, but the eternal principle here revealed is that God’s settled disposition in history is against inhumanity and barbarity, and he will see that in the processes of history those who live by barbarity may well perish by the same. If we cannot externalize these words, we can internalize them. Our words and our acts can have jagged edges just like those stony threshing instruments of the ancient Syrians. There’s a word to us about our own disposition, and there’s also a Lord whom Amos never knew, who taught us in his manifesto, the Sermon on the Mount, that inhumanity and barbarity not only of action but of thought is forbidden to those who live in his kingdom. Where is the God of Amos? He is right there in the midst of the international scene, working out justice on his own timetable.
The price of inhumanity
Amos turns from the neighboring nation to the north to the neighboring nation to the southwest in his next word to the nations, and he speaks a word about contempt for human personality. The ancient Philistines were the southwestern neighbors of Amos’ generation. He addresses their principal city, Gaza, a city that has given its name to a contemporary geographical location. Gaza represents the five affluent and wealthy cities of the ancient Philistines. But Amos has a word of indictment to them, and it concerns contempt for human personality. “For three transgressions of Gaza, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they carried away captive the whole captivity, to deliver them up to Edom.”
Once again, strange, ancient, obscure places. But the significance is this: The Philistines were on the slave trade route between Egypt in the south and Syria in the north, and it had become a way of life for them to raid the neighboring tiny Judean villages and to carry away, as Amos emphasizes, the whole of the population. There would be an eerie cry in the darkness of the night and the scream of innocent children and frantic mothers as villages were carried away to be sold into the slave trade.
Where is the God of Israel? Is he concerned only with the incense that burns in the temple and the sacrifices that roast on the altar? Not in the least. He is right there overseeing and involved in the history of those who exploit others and who are inhumane and barbaric and who hold human personality in contempt. Amos says that punishment will quickly and surely come for those whose nation is built on contempt for human personality.
“Fire will descend on the wall of Gaza,” and in 734 BC it did. “I will cut off the inhabitant from Ashdod,” another city, and in 711 BC, it came to pass. “And him that holdeth the scepter from Ashkelon, and I will turn mine hand against Ekron.” In 701 BC, that came to pass. And the remnant of the Philistines shall perish.” How many of you have met a Philistine lately?
The Lord has a settled disposition to judge in history those who live by contempt for the humanity of others. What is the application of this? Well, nationally there’s an application. For any nation which builds itself on a contempt for human personality will perish under the judgment of God. It was David Livingston who cried out against the slave raids into Zanzibar when peaceful tribes were baited and carried throughout jungles waiting for ships. The fathers ate sour grapes and their children’s teeth were set on edge in our own generation. If we would hear the word of Amos for us, we might need to paraphrase it like that man did who wrote a little book in the 1960s, entitled The Prophets on Main Street. “For three transgressions of Atlanta and Jackson and North Little Rock, I will not turn back the punishment thereof for they have built their greatness with innumerable indignities and contempt for others.”
We can hope that in our own national process the grace of God has intervened in time, that we will not face the inevitable rendezvous with God if we build our society on contempt for any other human beings. There is a word for this individually, for the settled disposition of God is against any individual who lives out his life in contempt for other human beings. It was said of Jesus’ generation that they walked around Samaria, but Jesus said, I must walk through Samaria. And he gave us an example that we are not to live out our days in contempt for the humanity of other people, whoever our own Samaritans may happen to be.
No neutral middlemen
Amos turns finally to look to the west. He looks at another ancient neighboring nation, the Phoenicians—the sailors, the shipbuilders. He addresses them in verse 9 by speaking to their capital city, Tyre. He knew what we have come to learn, that often the spirit that characterizes the capital city will saturate and imbue the nation. So speaking to the part for the whole, he speaks to Tyre: “For three transgressions of Tyre, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they delivered up the whole captivity to Edom, and remembered not the brotherly covenant,” or agreement.
When Amos looks to the west, he pronounces God’s judgment on people who played the middleman at the expense of others. No, the Phoenicians had not thrashed or harrowed refugees to death nor had they raided villages and carried away slaves. They simply let their place be the neutral staging ground where many of these things could take place. They played the middleman at the expense of others. The God who speaks out to those who actively are inhumane, barbaric, who perpetrate atrocities and injustices, has a word to those who say, “We were just caught in the middle of the situation.” And that word is concerning his judgment, “I will not turn it back.” It took a century for Amos’ word about Tyre to come to pass. It was not until 664 BC that the Assyrians overwhelmed that city that was built up by the irresponsibility of being the middleman at the expense of others.
There is a word here for us. Has not our generation known the drama of a middleman who would wash their hands by saying, “I was caught in the middle and I was not responsible.” Perhaps the length of a cast shadow of a Pontius Pilate caught between a Christ whom he feared and Jews whom he feared more, said, “I wash my hands of this matter.” The prophecy of Amos is a call to national and to individual responsibility. The God of Amos is not a God who will accept our feeble excuse me, “I was caught in the middle.” He is the God with a plum line in his hand, who is measuring his people to see that they always act out of responsibility.
There is another insight into this message to the ancient city of Tyre. This is the first of these words to the nations that doesn’t involve the people of God. In the message to Damascus, the Syrians were attacking northern Israel. In the message to the Philistines, Judah. Here, the living God is concerned with inhumanity, one pagan to another. The Phoenicians were blood-curdling, Baal-worshiping pagans. And yet, the living God, even there, is active for humanity. We must not disenfranchise most of the civilized world. We must understand that the God whom we meet to worship in this sanctuary is the God and the Lord of international history, and that everywhere in his creation if there is cruelty reflected in insensitivity of feeling, of contempt for humanity, where there are middlemen who exist at the expense of others, God is not silent and God is not still. It is our confession that in the processes of history and as he consummates it in our Lord Jesus Christ, he will see that justice is done among men and among nations.
Amos does not close the canon. Sometimes it would be difficult to give an invitation on that basis. Amos has spoken to us about atrocities and cruelties in ancient history, but our Lord who was very much imbued with the spirit of Amos said that neutrality and paralysis is not enough. If a man would ask for your coat, give him your cloak also. If a man would compel you to go one mile, go with him two. And if he strikes you on one cheek, turn the other. We have a mandate far more demanding and a law of love far more compelling than Amos can ever imagine. He hoped for a world where people wouldn’t thresh one another to death.
Our Lord, Lord over a kingdom where we’re commanded to have a delicacy of feeling, a sensitivity of justice, even Amos could not imagine. Who is equal to these things? Only those who acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord of history and who come to know him in the forgiveness that gives us a base from which to go out and live, setting right what is wrong, being humane where there has been cruelty, being gentle where there has been brutality. If we know a Lord like that, we can live like Amos in our generation.
Dr. Joel C. Gregory is Professor of Preaching at Truett Seminary, Distinguished Fellow of Georgetown College in Georgetown, KY, and the founder of Joel Gregory Ministries.