Thirst without water to quench it is a painful experience. Hunger without a meal in sight is a torture. Think of how miserable that dryness of mouth is, or how the gnawing stomach-ache makes you feel. Now, imagine that right in front of you is water that you refuse to drink, and a feast you refuse to eat. What should we call someone like that? An insufferable fool.
“Hear this, O ye that swallow up the needy, even to make the poor of the land to fail, Saying, When will the new moon be gone, that we may sell corn? and the sabbath, that we may set forth wheat, making the ephah small, and the shekel great, and falsifying the balances by deceit? That we may buy the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes; yea, and sell the refuse of the wheat? The LORD hath sworn by the excellency of Jacob, Surely I will never forget any of their works . . .” (Amos 8:4-14)
Summary of the Text
The Israelites have come to view the festivals and Sabbath feasts as a burden (8:5); they wanted to get back to exploiting the poor and trampling the needy (8:4, 6). The judgement for this injustice and indifferent impiety? Lights out for Israel (vs. 7-9). The jubilant feasts which God had blessed them with––which they begrudged––were going to turn from joyful blessings to bitter curses, from gladness to sorrow, from feasts to funerals (8:10).
Moreover, the feasts and Sabbaths which they begrudged were to be replaced by a famine ofnothearing the Word of the Lord (8:11). The Word they had been made to hear through the covenant––i.e. “Hear, O Israel (Deut. 6:4),”––would no longer be heard. Though it would be sought for, it wouldn’t be found (8:12). This is a weighty implication. God is annulling the covenant promise of Deuteronomy 4:29: “But if from thence (the exile/scattering of Deut. 4:26-27) thou shalt seek the LORD thy God, thou shalt find him, if thou seek him with all thy heart and with all thy soul.” Amos is saying that because Israel has broken the covenant, God is no longer obliged to fulfill the promises of the covenant.
A further result is that young men and fair virgins would be weak and faint (8:13), which is precisely the opposite of the attendant blessings which were to be poured out upon a faithful Israel (cf. Psa. 144:12-13). In other words, the blessings of God’s feast––which Israel had grown indifferent to––were going to be turned “inside out”, and quite the opposite would take place. Scattering. Deafness. Frail offspring. Spiritual famine.
The final verse of the chapter is telling: idolatry is really at the root of their indifference and injustice (8:14). God swore (in Deut. 4:31) to not forget the covenant he had made with Israel’s fathers. But Israel has now swornby the gods of the nations, and worshipped the two golden calves in Dan and Bethel––which Jeroboam had set up at the founding of the northern kingdom (1 Kings 12:28-29). God’s message to His people through Amos was that the people of God would soon enter into a famine of hearing the words of the Lord, and as a result they would fall never to rise!
Amos was a shepherd and his prophecies are full of agricultural, rustic language. This passage is no different. For a herdsman, a famine is bad news. Your very livelihood is built around your herds having plenty to eat. If your crops die, your flocks will eventually die, which means in due course youwill die too. Amos uses this rustic picture of a famine to depict the horrendous judgement that was looming.
Elijah had prayed and the heavens had dried up for three-and-a-half years (Jas. 5:17). So the average Israelite might be tempted to yawn at Amos’ prophecy of a coming famine as “been there, done that.” However, Amos puts a twist on the impending famine. This famine would not affect their crops or herds. Rather, it would devastate the flock of Israel. The spiritual not the physical condition of the people would be impacted by this famine. They were about to find that the covenant they had broken was now a barren covenant.
Whereas being without bread and water would be a dreadful thing for any nation, being without the word of the Lord is a thousand times worse. By the Word of the Lord were the heavens made, and now, God’s chosen people, who were called out by His very voice, would no longer hear that life-giving Voice. They would no longer rejoice in His word “as one that findeth great spoil (Ps. 119:162).” Job once said: “I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food (Job 23:12b).” So this judgement of never hearing the words of the Lord, for the Israelite, was far worse than a famine of mere bread and water. God’s Word was life-giving food, and now it was going to be forever withheld from Israel. No wonder the young men and fair virgins would faint and fall.
At Christ’s trial, after Jesus declares Himself to be the divine Son of God (sitting in judgement over the Jews), the High Priest tore his robes (Mk. 14:63), which was expressly forbidden for him to do (Lev. 21:10). At the trial of Stephen (the first martyr), the Jews “stopped their ears (Acts 7:57).” In these two examples we see that when the Messiah (the Word made flesh) came, the Jews not only rejected Him, but they did so in such a way as to make it clear that their ears had indeed become deaf to the voice of their Lord. They spurned to hear the Word of God made flesh, and so for the last two-and-a-half millennia they have had a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.
As one insightful commentary put its, “The fulfillment of these threats commenced with the destruction of the kingdom of Israel, and the carrying away of the ten tribes into exile in Assyria, and continues to this day in the case of that portion of the Israelitish nation which is still looking for the Messiah, the prophet promised by Moses, and looking in vain, because they will not hearken to the preaching of the gospel concerning the Messiah, who appeared as Jesus.”
Indifference, Injustice, Idolatry
Why? Why such a severe judgment? All because of their indifference towards God’s covenant blessings and curses, their injustice towards the poor and needy, and their idolatry. These three sins––indifference, injustice, and idolatry––are seen in Amos’ prophetic warning, and they are inextricably linked. If we grow indifferent to the covenant obligations of God’s Word, it is likely that idols have captured our attention, and the practical effect of this will be injustice towards the poor.
When you treat God’s promised blessings with indifference it is the fruit of covenant unfaithfulness. You’ve been ogling false gods. You’ve been trusting idols to be there for you. You’ve been singing their praise, thinking that in them is life. But idols always fail. They always betray you. Notice that out of the root of idolatry grows the fruit of lovelessness towards God and neighbor. You begin to take God’s mercies for granted, and you begin to abuse Your neighbor.
God’s Word to You
God’s blessings are a two-edged sword. For those who receive them by faith, they lift you up to heaven with exceeding joy. For those who receive it with unbelieving indifference, eager to get back to using and abusing their neighbor, the blessing of God’s Word is an anvil which will sink you into the depths of damnation. The food of God’s Word is a feast to the faithful, but it is a famine to the unfaithful.
Today, God’s Word is being proclaimed to you in sermon and in sacrament. Christ is held up as a refuge for wayward sinners. So, as the Gospel writers might put it, if you have ears, hear. God is speaking His Word to you, and His Word is now a Man, Jesus the Christ.