It seems to me that for as long as humans have been sinful we have looked down on each other. We have elevated ourselves in our own minds. We have placed others beneath us in our imaginations. The Egyptians certainly thought themselves very superior to the ignorant Hebrews. So did the Babylonians.
With the development of cities we created a new division. The ruling class and people of power and education moved into the cities. They saw the people of the countryside as ignorant and worthless. When the country person goes to the big city he is despised for his lack of fashion and knowledge. The city people laugh at the ignorant peasant (무식한 농민) and the country bumpkin (시골뜨기).
What God’s people have to remember is that God has a different view. When we look at a person with poor fashion sense, how do we feel? When we see a person who mixes colours and fabrics in ways that clash, what do we think of them? What is our attitude to the person with less education or a lower wage? How do we treat those people who are different?
We remember that one of the most despised jobs in Palestine at the time Jesus was born was ‘shepherd’. Yet it was shepherds who God went to first with the good news of Jesus’ birth. It was fishermen who Jesus chose as his first disciples.
Imagine a person of most lowly status from a part of your country that is poor and backward. Imagine that person going to the place of power in your country and trying to speak to the leaders of your nation. Imagine that person claims to have a message from God. It isn’t going to work, is it. But God keeps choosing that kind of person. God keeps choosing the person who will deliver his message best according to God’s standard.
Such a person was Amos. Amos was born around 40 years before Hosea, who we heard about last week. He was a shepherd, a lowly country bumpkin who took care of sheep and sycamore fig (Ficus sycomorus) trees. Amos lived all the way in the south of the southern kingdom of Judah. God sent him all the way to the north of the northern kingdom, to people who would despise his accent, his dress and his occupation. Amos was from the village of Tekoa, 12 miles south of Jerusalem, on the edge of the jungle where wild lions roamed.
God sent him to Bethel. Many people in the northern kingdom were very wealthy, and were able to lead a luxurious life. In Bethel they had set up a golden calf that they worshipped.
What a blatant violation of God’s laws and instructions to his people. God wanted desperately for them to come back to him, so he sent them a message. Stop what you are doing.
And as his messenger, God chose a poor and ignorant farmer from a distant village.
When Amos stood on the steps of the temple of Baal and delivered the message from God, he spoke in a thick accent. He must have looked like a beggar after his long journey. The people would have instinctively hated him.
Can you imagine how you would have reacted? I can imagine how hard it would have been for me to accept that I should listen to him. I think it is unlikely that I would have believed he could have a message from God. How easy it is for me to miss God’s message when I don’t have a humble heart.
The book of Amos is written as poetry. There is an important reason for that.
God sometimes wants to convey information or facts. God sometimes wants to tell us things. At other times, God wants to share his heart. He doesn’t want us to focus on the words and what they mean. God uses the words to paint a picture that moves our emotions. So God writes poetry that will touch our feelings and help us understand his heart. Poetry in the Bible is important. And when we read poetry it is important for us to open up our hearts to God’s heart. God’s poetry makes us feel happy or sad, and it can change us.
In chapter seven we come to an interesting part of the poetry.
Unusual prosperity had brought a collapse of moral standards in the northern kingdom of Israel. The great ideals and commandments of the Torah to help the poor, and to practice justice and loving kindness were being ignored. The rich oppressed the poor; might was right; it was an age of corruption. Hand in hand with this degeneration of the morals of the people went increased idolatry.
In verse 1 Amos says he saw the Sovereign Lord “preparing to send a vast swarm of locusts over the land.”
Amos says the main crop was coming up and he saw the locusts eat every green plant in sight. We would probably think that was fair. God knows best and they deserve it. Isn’t God always right? They were probably happy when Amos prophesied against their enemies. In chapter two Amos said, “The people of Moab have sinned again and again, … I will send down fire on the land of Moab.”
He similarly prophesied against Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, and Ammon.
Amos has a surprise for us in 7:2. He asks God to change his plans for Israel. Amos, the ignorant peasant, the shepherd from Tekoa, is disagreeing with God. Amos prays, and God changes his plan. “So the Lord relented from this plan.”
A small person with a big heart can get God to change his plan. God listens to our prayers. Are we less than Amos the tender of sycamore figs? Of course it is important to recognise that God wants to have mercy. Amos isn’t pressuring God to do something God doesn’t want to do.
So there will not be destruction by locusts. But in verse four God shows what he will do instead and it isn’t any nicer. The Sovereign Lord will “punish his people with a great fire.”
God is going to send a fire that will devour “the entire land”. Isn’t that what God said he would do to Moab? Amos doesn’t like this any better than God’s first idea and he quickly prays for mercy.
“O Sovereign Lord, please stop or we will not survive, for Israel is so small.”
The nobody from Tekoa is arguing with God. Instead of striking Amos with lightning, God changes his plan. Amos wins. God agrees not to send fire on Israel.
Exodus 32:14 says that when Moses prayed, “the Lord changed his mind about the terrible disaster he had threatened to bring on his people.”
I think we don’t mean that God changed his mind in a human sense. God didn’t acquire new information that required a new decision. It’s that love and compassion in prayer influence God in the direction he already desires to go, but wouldn’t go without our prayer.
God listens. God loves to listen to prayers from even the lowliest of his children. We don’t have to be holy to pray. We don’t have to be great. Moses was disobedient when he prayed and God listened. Amos was a shepherd. God saw people who desired justice and mercy, and he listened. God doesn’t change his mind for greedy or selfish prayers. But God teaches us to petition him to grant mercy for others, and shows that he will answer these prayers.
We note that the people didn’t listen. Amos protected them from locusts and fire, but they were still destroyed because they didn’t repent. God measures us according to his standard, Amos says in verse 8. If we are not straight by God’s plumb line, he will not ignore our sins.
If we repent, God will forgive. When God forgives, he forgets. When we refuse to repent, God cannot forget. He tests us with his plumb line. If we are not straight, we will suffer the consequences. Because God loves us he hears our prayers. He sends us messengers to show us we need to repent, so that he can save us.
God reveals his heart at the end of the prophesy. In Chapter nine he says,
“I, the Sovereign Lord, am watching this sinful nation of Israel. I will destroy it from the face of the earth. But I will never completely destroy the family of Israel.”
Thus he sent Jesus, and so he sends us, to restore his family if not his nation. We are God’s family, saved by love from destruction. The warning of Amos ends with a message of hope.