When I worked in publishing, my boss called me into his office one day, and held up the latest issue of a magazine I was responsible for. Then he plopped it on his desk, which was not a good sign, and told me, “This cover story didn’t work. At all.” I hadn’t written it, a staff member had, but it was on my watch, so I took my lumps and left.
Two weeks later a restructuring was announced in which I was no longer over that magazine. That stung. I had a lot I wanted to say in my defense, but my boss forced me to face a hard truth. And the truth, which took me a while to get to, was this: I didn’t think the cover story was that great, either, but I let it go through because my direct report who worked on it, loved it. And I knew If I said, “Sorry, we’re just not going to run it,” there would be conflict.
It was hard to face this truth: I had been too people-pleasing to lead well. If I was going to become a better leader, I had to change.
It’s hard to face the truth about ourselves, isn’t it? Maybe you’ve had a coach tell you, “I’m sorry; you’re not making the cut.” And you had to face the hard truth: “I’m good, but I’m not good enough to play at this next level.” Or maybe a counselor or friend has said to you, “Can I tell you how you really come across?”
Throughout life, the call to face a hard truth comes at times to each one of us. It also comes to all of us as the people of God. Sometimes God has to tell his people, “You say I’m your God, but you’re actually ignoring me and doing things I hate. This has gotta change.”
And at that moment, when the word of God comes to us—through the Scriptures, through the prophets, or through the conscience God gave us—we have a choice. We can ignore what God is saying, or we can face the hard truth.
I know your hearts, and that you are here because you want to follow God. Well, here is a principle for everyone who wants to follow God. A principle we can count on: If we want to draw near to God, we must face the hard truth about ourselves. If we want to keep from being hypocrites, we must face the hard truth about ourselves. If we don’t want to come under God’s judgment, we must face the hard truth about ourselves.
We Need Amos
To help us do that, aside from Jesus himself, I don’t think there’s a better person than the prophet Amos. He stands out at making God’s people face the hard truth about ourselves. Because of that, he was rejected in his own lifetime and today, his book in the Bible often gets ignored. But we need his voice.
Here’s a quick guide to Amos’s world. The days when God’s people were united—like they were under King David—are long gone. After a civil war, the nation split into two countries—Judah and Israel.
Amos lives in the country of Judah, in a small town called Tekoa, South of Jerusalem. Which is why Amos 1:1 begins, “The words of Amos, one of the shepherds of Tekoa.” The Hebrew word for shepherds here means manager or dealer. So Amos was a middle-class businessman, overseeing sheepherders and orchards of fig trees.
Amos 1:1 continues, “… the vision he saw concerning Israel,” the country to his north. When Israel split away from Judah, it didn’t want its people traveling back into Judah to go worship God in Jerusalem. So Israel set up two altars, with golden calves inside its own country, for people to worship. And also built a temple to Ba’al and Asherah in the capital city of Samaria.
God wants to get Israel to face some hard truths about itself, to repent before it’s too late. So he has sent many prophets. They try to kill Elisha. They throw Micaiah in jail. Hunt down Elijah, as well as kill thousands of God’s prophets.
Judgment on Israel’s Enemies
Now God is saying to Amos, “You go.” And he does. When Amos arrives, probably in the capital, Samaria, he starts his sermon in a brilliant way: He announces God’s judgment n Israel’s hated enemies—the six countries all around it.
Amos 1:3 says, “This is what the Lord says: ‘For three sins of Damascus, even for four, I will not relent ….’” Meaning, there’s been a pattern of sin. “… Because she threshed Gilead with sledges having iron teeth.” Damascus invaded Israel’s region of Gilead and not just invaded, but used cruelty and overkill. So God will bring judgment on the king who ordered that: “I will send fire on the house of Hazael that will consume the fortresses of Ben-Hadad.” And Amos’s audience is cheering.
Next up is Gaza. Who “took captive whole communities and sold them to Edom.” This is not the accepted wartime practice of capturing POWs. This is sending armed thugs into defenseless villages, rounding up all the civilians, and then selling them off as slaves to make money. God will judge the people who did this. And Amos’s audience is cheering.
Tyre did the same thing by violating its treaty with Israel. So God will judge them. And Amos’s audience is starting to chant, “Pay them back, pay them back.”
Next, Edom. Edom is the country founded by Esau, the brother of Jacob. So you would expect them to show some mercy to Jacob’s descendants in Israel. But instead “he pursued his brother with a sword,” and worse, slaughtered civilians, “the women of the land.” So God will not relent; he will send fire on Edom. Amos’s audience is on its feet now.
Ammon is so horrifying, I hate to even speak the war crimes it committed. Amos 1:13 says, “he ripped open the pregnant women of Gilead.” God will judge that, and Amos’s audience is now shaking its fists.
The sixth enemy nation is Moab, which “burned to ashes the bones of Edom’s king.” It wasn’t enough to kill him. Instead, his body, created by God, had to be desecrated. If Amos had stopped his sermon here, it would be powerful enough.
We know in our gut that:
God sees the actions of all people.
He sides with those who have suffered violence, those who are most vulnerable.
God will not tolerate cruelty, kidnapping, human trafficking, or savagery.
His judgment is certain: he will “not relent” until he “sends fire” on the people who do these things.
Then Amos turns and calls out the sins of his own people, back in Judah. Amos 2:4 says, “This is what the Lord says: ‘For three sins of Judah, even for four, I will not relent. Because they have rejected the law of the Lord and have not kept his decrees, because they have been led astray by false gods.”
When I first read this, I was taken aback. I thought, “Lord, are you really equating war crimes with disobeying the commands of God?” Gradually, I realized, when we as God’s people disobey his commands to live holy lives, it always causes other people to suffer. Especially women, children, the elderly—the same people who suffer in a war.
If we don’t honor our elderly father or mother, we hurt them. If we commit adultery, we violate people. It may not be as physically savage as what some armies do, but it violates people who are loved by God.
Further, we know what God wants. We are given God’s Word. So we really have no excuse. In our own day, we might say to Christians, “God’s Word clearly says, ‘Care for the widow, the poor, the orphan, the immigrant.’ How well are we doing that?” According to Nonprofit Source, US Christians give 2.5% of their income to charitable causes. (During the Great Depression, it was 3.3%.) What could happen for the poor, if we gave more?
So Amos calls out the sins being done by his own people in Judah. The people he’s speaking to, up here in Israel, are loving his sermon. Amos has called out the seven nations around them, and they know he’s building to a climax where he will say, “Since all your enemies are going down, you are going up. You are going to win in battle and come home with lots of loot because God is on your side.”
Judgment on Isarel
But Amos now flips the mirror and makes them take a look at themselves. Amos 2:6 says, “This is what the Lord says: ‘For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent. They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed.”
This “trampling on the head of the poor” involved rich people lending to the poor, and when the poor person was struggling to make the payments, instead of giving them more time, or restructuring the loan, the lender would call it in and seize the poor person’s collateral. Some people were so financially desperate, they ended up being sold into slavery to pay their debt, which is why Amos says, “They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.”
A similar trampling of the poor happens in mobile-home communities today. A person buys a home there, but they don’t own the land. So they pay monthly “lot fees.” But the landlord raises your lot fees every year. Which means, before too long, you cannot afford them. But if you miss paying your lot fee, they can evict you from the land where your house is. What are you going to do? You can’t afford to move the house, which costs thousands. So you end up forced to sell the home, usually back to the landlord, who then sells it to someone else and repeats the process. You can see why owning a mobile-home park is so lucrative that most are now owned by conglomerates.
In Israel, all their trampling of the poor is happening despite God’s commands to not charge interest on loans to your own people, and to forgive their debt in the seventh year.
Amos continues, “Father and son use the same girl and so profane my holy name.” This is talking about sexual abuse of a household employee. Before we say, “Wicked Israelites,” though, since this is calling out God’s people, we might own up to what’s happened in The Southern Baptist Convention, The Roman Catholic Church, and many other denominations. Or consider that among conservative Protestants—we who love and study the Bible—almost one in five slept with more than one person this past year.
Amos concludes, because of all this, if you don’t change, the Lord is bringing judgment. “I will crush you as a cart crushes when loaded with grain. The swift will not escape, the strong will not muster their strength, and the warrior will not save his life.” You are going to have your worst military defeat ever. You will be invaded, reduced to rubble, and carried off into exile. End of sermon.
Amos says this in about the year 762 BC. And do God’s people listen to him? Nope. So exactly 40 years later, in 722, everything he says, happens. It was their last chance, but the people of Israel couldn’t face the hard truth about themselves.
Church and Country
So how do we apply this intense and challenging message? Amos speaks his prophetic word to nations. So we can apply his words today by applying them to groups.
First, and foremost, to the people of God. Amos saves his longest indictment for Judah and Israel. Let’s start with the church. As Peter said, “the time has come for judgment, and it must begin with God’s household.”
How many times have we seen people turned off from God by the church, because we Christians cannot face the hard truth about ourselves. Our slowness to work on justice. Our laxity with sexual sins. Our leaders who abuse power.
And to avoid looking at things like this, we use our theology, like an overstuffed pillow, to help us go to sleep. We preach, “God’s grace is amazing!” Yes it is! But God is also the just judge of all the earth. And we will all stand before him.
We sing, “God will never forsake his children.” True, but he will discipline us. Or we avoid facing the truth by saying, “Well, at least we’re not as bad as THOSE folks! Those people outside our denomination, those secular folks, those people with opposite politics from ours—Look what they do!”
Jesus, just like Amos did, takes all possibility of blame-shifting away from us. He says clearly, “The servant who knows the master’s will”—that’s us—“and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. … From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”
Is there something God has been convicting you of? His Spirit is putting a finger on that? Then I urge you, face that hard truth. Work to confess, work to change. Is there something you think God is saying to our church? Then bring that to me, so our leaders can consider it.
Amos calls out not only God’s people, he calls out six other nations that have no history with God. They are being judged for severity in their war practices, and for violence against civilians. Because as humans, they have a conscience. They know full well whether they would want that same thing done to them.
So we might ask, “Where is our own country stepping over the line by harming civilians?” Our country began sending Ukraine “cluster munitions,” which spread smaller bombs over a huge area. That seems straightforward: Russia has been using them. So has Ukraine and Ukraine was begging us for more.
But I wonder what Amos would say. We might ask why two-thirds of our allies in NATO have banned cluster bombs. We might look at what happened in Laos where we dropped two million tons of these during the Vietnam War. Many of the bombs didn’t go off immediately. They laid there, waiting for someone to step on them. So after the war, in the 50 years since, our cluster bombs have killed 20,000 Laotians. Almost half of those were kids. By one estimate, it will take another 100 years to fully clear the country.
God sees the actions of every nation. And God sees the actions of his own people. God wants us to avoid his judgment. So he’s given us a conscience. He’s given us the scriptures. He’s given us prophets. And they all say, “God sides with the vulnerable, the people who suffer, the people who get run over. And he will judge those who harm them.”
But the judgment hasn’t come yet. God is speaking to us now, so we have time to change and avoid his judgment. If we want to draw near to God, we must face the hard truth about ourselves. If we want to keep from being hypocrites, we must face the hard truth about ourselves. If we don’t want to come under God’s judgment, we must face the hard truth about ourselves.
Kevin Miller is pastor of Church of the Savior in Wheaton, Illinois,