December 13, 2017

Amos – A Prophet For All Seasons

Layton Talbert

Whatever things were written aforetime were written for our learning . . . and they are written for our admonition” (Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:11). If theology is “the queen of the sciences,” then history is the heir apparent. It is no accident that God has given the lion’s share of His revelation to man not in the form of poetry or prophecy or epistle, but in the form of historical narrative. History is a God-given tool designed not merely to inform but to instruct. The person bored by history is like a man too disinterested to bother with a will entitling him to enormous wealth.

Despite the social, cultural, and theological chasms between ancient Israel and modern America, many chapters from Israel’s history parallel our own. There is a simple reason for this. Times change, but human nature does not. This is the unwritten truth underlying the anonymous cliché that those who fail to learn from history are destined to repeat it (or Hegel’s even more pessimistic observation, “The only thing we learn from history is that we do not learn from history”).

One such chapter comes from the heyday of the northern kingdom of Israel under the reign of a king named Jeroboam II, and under the ministry of a prophet named Amos.

Amos in Israel

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Wealth, abundance, ease, and security sat across the table from pride, presumption, and profligacy. Jeroboam II has been called “the greatest of all the kings of northern Israel”—but he has not been called the best. He reigned a total of 41 years (793–753 B.C.). Yet his entire rule is contracted into the span of a mere seven verses (2 Kings 14:23–29), a synopsis as surprising in its details as it is in its brevity.

By this point in the historical record, the attentive reader of the Books of Kings will have become wearily familiar with the predictable wickedness of each successive ruler of the northern kingdom of Israel. Launched by this king’s namesake (Jeroboam I) in defiance of the demands of the Davidic heir (Rehoboam) some 140 years earlier, the breakaway northern kingdom went only from bad to worse in every meaningful index of leading indicators— socially, morally, spiritually. Their political and economic fortunes, on the other hand, rollercoastered. That is where Jeroboam II comes in.

Only a few years before Jeroboam II ascended the throne, Israel’s international standing was downright embarrassing. Syria had militarily decimated them. Under his grandfather, Jehoahaz, Israel could field a paltry 10,000 foot soldiers, 50 cavalry, and a mere ten chariots (2 Kings 13:7)! Under the governance of Jeroboam II—and through the surprisingly gracious intervening providence of God—all that changed.

His biography begins repetitiously enough. Jeroboam II “did that which was evil in the sight of the LORD” according to “all the sins of Jeroboam” (2 Kings 14:24). Yet he was the first to restore the borders of northern Israel to their Davidic-Solomonic proportions. How did he manage this? The only explanation is that it was accomplished “according to the word of the Lord God of Israel, which he spoke by the hand of his servant, Jonah.”

Jonah? In fulfillment of some unrecorded pronouncement of God through this prophet, God graciously extended the domain of His erring people. What prompted this pronouncement and providential intervention from the Lord on behalf of so undeserving a nation? “The Lord saw the affliction of Israel, that it was very bitter” and “saved them by the hand of Jeroboam” (2 Kings 14:26–27).

Old Testament scholar Walter Kaiser notes that Jeroboam II “was able to take a nation that was just about ready to die and turn it into one of the great powers of his day.” With that God-given territorial expansion came all the side-benefits of conquest: wealth, power, prestige, prosperity. Indeed, Kaiser adds, “the wealth and economic turnaround were so dramatic that it became a matter of concern for the prophets,” who quickly found themselves having to rebuke the arrogance and oppression that arose so suddenly out of their newfound prosperity. The prophet who figures most prominently in this time is Amos. The same God who so graciously prospered His afflicted people gave to Amos a message which minced no words in addressing their arrogant ingratitude. In unadorned English it reads less like picturesque poetry and more like a sermon from John the Baptist:

Woe to those who lounge upon ivory beds, and stretch themselves out on their couches, and gorge themselves on lambs from the flock and stall-fattened calves; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp . . . who drink wine by the bowlful and luxuriate themselves with the finest perfumes and lotions—but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore they shall now be among the first of those to go into slavery, and the partying of those who laze around will come to an end. The Lord God has sworn by Himself. . . . “I hate the arrogance of Israel . . . and I will deliver up the city and everything in it (to their enemies)” (Amos 6:4–8, paraphrase). ‘ This was no idle threat. Amos prophesied near the end of Jeroboam II’s reign. In less than a generation, Israel was wiped clean like a dish by the ravaging armies of Assyria and carried into slavery. But what was Israel’s response to such preaching at the time? In the vision of the plumbline (Amos 7), God promises through Amos that “the sanctuaries of Israel will be devastated, and I will rise up against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

Then Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent word to Jeroboam king of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you right here in the territory of Israel; the country is not able to bear his treasonous rantings. For Amos has said this: ‘Jeroboam will die by the sword and Israel will go into exile away from his land.’” And Amaziah said to Amos, “Go, you prophet, flee away to the land of Judah; eat bread there and prophesy there. But never prophesy at Bethel again, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”

Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I was neither reared nor trained as a prophet; I am a farmer of sheep and sycamore trees. But the LORD took me from tending the flock, and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ Now, therefore, you will hear the word of the LORD. You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel, and do not preach against the house of Isaac.’ Therefore the LORD says this: ‘Your wife will become a harlot in the city, and your sons and your daughters will fall by the sword, and your land will be divided up and parceled out to others. You yourself will die in an unclean land, and Israel will indeed be exiled into slavery away from its land’” (Amos 7:9–17, paraphrase).

Such a response as Amaziah’s to the word of the Lord, after all He had done, does not bode well for Israel—or anyone else. When Israel rewarded God-given prosperity with impudence, the end was officially in sight.

Amos in America

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. Wealth, abundance, and ease sit across the table from pride, presumption, and profligacy. All the indexes of leading indicators that matter to most people are high. The economy is bouncing back. Technology continues to advance by leaps and bounds, providing us with more and faster conveniences.

As a nation, we continue to reap the benefits of God’s blessings on our God-honoring ancestors. Not all our founding fathers were Christians, but even the Deists among them often had a more God-fearing and God-honoring spirit than many of their nominally Christian descendants today. With all our divine blessing, Americans have grown arrogant, ungrateful, and presumptuous of the abundance we have inherited from the hand of a good God. And we have forgotten that the good God is also a holy God.

We idolize pleasure, obsessively pursue entertainment, and leisurely gorge on what in any previous age—and even in most nations of the world today—would be considered delicacies. We, like Israel, are not grieved over the spiritual ruin that prosperity and plenty—grasped after with greedy and ungrateful hands—have spawned in our generation. The ruinous moral and spiritual bankruptcy of our age scarcely receives any notice.

The abuse and oppression that attended Israel’s presumption in prosperity has infected America. Various forms of oppression and sin—pornography, pedophilia, homosexuality, abortion—are no longer merely tolerated, but officially sanctioned, publicly defended, and legislatively protected. National leaders—some professing themselves to be Christians—lie with impunity and commit adultery without shame. ‘ The nation’s rejection of all our best arguments against the moral, psychological, and physical dangers of premarital sex, or the heinous horror of abortion, or any of the other profligacies of our generation, is not out of a lack of knowledge or understanding. It is not the result of bad public relations on our part. They comprehend the arguments, they understand the issues, and they knowingly and willfully reject God’s view. Like Amaziah, they reply, “Go, flee away to your church and prophesy there. We don’t want to hear any more from you.”

This is no mere diatribe aimed at the unregenerate. American Christianity has become spiritually segregationist. Seeking “separate but equal” worldliness, we have grown preoccupied with the pursuit of “sanctified” pleasure, entertainment, leisure, convenience, popularity, wealth, and health. When questioned about whether our priorities and pursuits are Biblically appropriate, we point to all the external manifestations of God’s blessing around us as proof that God is, indeed, happy with us. The assumption that “gain is godliness” (1 Tim. 6:5b)—that prosperity and blessing apparently indicate God’s approval and evidence that we must be more godly than we supposed—is a mark of arrogant and ungodly thinking (1 Tim. 6:4, 5a).

The message of Amos is a timeless call to the humbling and grateful realization that every blessing we enjoy falls undeserved from the gracious hand of a good and holy God—a call to Biblical values and priorities, and a call to belief in the certainty of God’s Word and in the reality of God’s rule over this world.

Dr. Layton Talbert is a Frontline Contributing Editor and faculty member at Bob Jones Memorial Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina.

(Originally published in FrontLine • July/August 2002. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

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