Sermon preached on Amos 1:6-8 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 8/27/2017 in Novato, CA.
“For Three Transgressions of Gaza”
The people of God had many enemies back during the time of Amos. Last week we started in on the first of seven judgment oracles given to Israel’s enemies. We looked at the oracle given against the Syrians with their capital in Damascus. They were under judgment for their harsh treatment of Israel, brutally slaughtering man, woman, and child, and even ripping open pregnant women’s wombs to kill the unborn. It was effectively an act toward genocide. God saw this affliction of his people and he responded with that judgment oracle against the Syrians. But that was just the first nation. Now, today, we come to the second nation to receive an oracle against them. Today it is the Philistines. The Philistines, like the Syrians, were also engaged in great sin, and this sin had not gone unnoticed by God. God would bring judgment upon them as they persist in their sin and rebellion against him. Their specific sin, as we’ll see, has to do with slavery and their exploitation of people. That’s a sin that in some sense is less common today, but still exists. And of course, the exploitation of people still happens today in various forms.
We begin then today with some background on the Philistines. You’ll notice that verse 6 begins by calling out to the city of Gaza but the oracle then goes on to mention 3 other cities: Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Ekron. In fact, the Philistines were specifically a people of five main cities, the fifth being Gath, where Goliath was from. It’s unclear why Gath isn’t mentioned here. So, the Philistines had these five main city-states, each one having its own lord or king. You can find this described in Scripture in Joshua 13:3. According to Scripture, the Philistines were originally from a place called Caphtor. Ancient sources describe Caphtor as being on the eastern side of the Sinai Peninsula. By this time, they had settled in these five city-states southeast of Israel, along the coast. They would have been directly west of the southern kingdom of Judah. Also, by this time, Gaza may have taken on a greater prominence among the five city-states since verse 6 addresses that location first.
The Philistines were a pagan people, worshipping the false god Dagon. Like most people at that time, they tended to connect their military battles with their religion. The biblical history has several colorful examples in the books of Judges and 1 Samuel in that regard. It’s in those same books that we find quite a bit of history of conflict between God’s people and the Philistines. The first reference of conflict with them actually occurred in the book of Genesis. There in Genesis 26 we find Philistines stopping up the wells that Abraham had dug, causing trouble for Isaac. But then in the book of Judges we find the memorable story of the judge Samson and his conflict with the Philistines. There’s a rather protracted account of the conflict there, culminating with them finally capturing Samson and gouging out his eyes. Yet, God granted Samson one more momentous victory when God gives him the strength to push down the temple to Dagon, killing himself but also hordes of Philistines at the same time.
Again, we find more conflicts with them when we get to 1 Samuel. That’s when Israel thought they could finally get the upper hand against them if they brought the Ark into battle, only to temporarily lose it in war to the Philistines. The Ark brought them trouble and curse, however, so eventually the Philistines send it back to Israel. 1 Samuel then shows Samuel, and then Kings Saul and David having many conflicts with them. Don’t forget about David killing Goliath, who was that giant from the Philistines. So, the history of conflicts with the Philistines was great, especially in that early history of Israel as a united kingdom. After King David’s time, the amount of recorded conflict with the Philistines reduced significantly. Likely, God had used to David to greatly reduce the Philistines as a threat to Israel.
That being said, the troubles with the Philistines had not gone away completely. This oracle against them is proof of that. And so, let’s turn now to see the specific sin that Amos prophesies against. Verse 6, “For three transgressions of Gaza, and for four, I will not turn away its punishment, because they took captive the whole captivity to deliver them up to Edom.” So, here, like last week, we get the same repeated refrain of three sins then a fourth. This says that the Philistines had already committed enough sins to warrant divine judgment. But, then they committed this latest one, especially sealing their guilt and condemnation.
So, what was this latest sin of theirs that God was speaking against? The language here might seem a little confusing when it says that they took captive the whole captivity. The pew Bible is translating the Hebrew a little too woodenly here. Sometimes in Hebrew they use a verb and a noun of the same root word to describe something. That’s what’s being done here. When it says that the Philistines captured captives, it means that they became captives when they were captured. And so then, the word “whole” refers to the group of people they captured. They captured a whole group, the complete group, and made them captives. In other words, they would do some raid or attack on a place, a town or city, and take everyone in it captive. Every man, woman, and child of a place would be taken prisoner in these Philistine strikes.
Who are these captives? In other words, who are the victims of these Philistine strikes? Interestingly, the text doesn’t specify. Presumably, the Israelites listening to Amos would have known. We might assume it was against Israelite towns that the Philistines were doing this. Though, unlike in the previous oracle against the Syrians, we aren’t told who the victims were. Last week we saw the Syrians afflicting the Gileadites who were Israelites on the eastern side of the Jordan river. But here the victims aren’t mentioned. Surely part of the reason for this is that this sin is not simply because they are doing this to God’s people. Surely, this evil of the Philistines would have been wrong in general, regardless of who the victims were. Though, we do know one of the victims, per 2 Chronicles 21. Shortly before this time, 2 Chronicles 21 records the Philistines raiding Judah and carrying away some of its people into captivity. Maybe this is why Amos doesn’t mention the victims here. Maybe it was primarily against God’s people who were living in the southern kingdom of Judah, and not directly against the northern kingdom of Israel. But the northern kingdom of Israel should remember the ancient conflicts with the Philistines. And they should also have compassion for their brothers in Judah who were experiencing afflictions by the Philistines. Even if the Philistines were only causing trouble against Judah, Israel should have been concerned that justice came to the Philistines.
So then, what would the Philistines do with these captives once they captured them? The oracle says they would deliver them to Edom. In other words, they’d sell them as slaves to Edom. By the way, that is horrible to think about in itself. Edom is a distant relative to the Israelites. The Edomites are Esau’s descendants, the brother of the patriarch Jacob. If anything, the Edomites should have bought these captives from the Philistines in order to redeem them to freedom – think of kinsman redeemer principles. But that’s not what happened. But I digress. Edom’s sins will not go unnoticed. Edom gets an oracle against them later in verse 11. So, for today, we’re thinking of the sin of the Philistines. They would capture whole communities and then sell them to the Edomites as slaves.
Realize that this is basically describing man stealing and slave trading. That’s why I said that even if the Philistines’ actions were not against God’s people, they would still be sinful. The capture of innocent people and forcing them into involuntarily slavery is a transgression of God’s law. 1 Timothy 1:10 specifically saws that the law of God exists to speak against things like slave trading. This law is found in Exodus 21:16, saying, “He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death.” The Philistines were essentially kidnapping whole groups of people and selling them into slavery. This, God condemns as sin.
It’s interesting to compare and contrast this sin with the previous oracle. In the last oracle, evidently the Syrians didn’t want to be bothered with the people. They conquered the peoples and ruthless slaughtered them, man, woman, and child, even the unborn ones. Presumably, they just wanted the land, and the people who currently inhabited were in the way. So, they got rid of them. But, here with the Philistines it seems that the people are what they wanted. They were a commodity to them; they exploited these people for profit. Both horrible sins, of course, and something incurring God’s judgment.
Let’s turn then to our last point for today and consider God’s judgment that’s pronounced here against the Philistines. Again, in today’s oracle, we see God threatening fire to come upon the condemned. Verse 7, God says, “I will send a fire upon the wall of Gaza, which shall devour its palaces.” As I said last week, this is imagery that would have implied defeat in war. Some military force would come and destroy them. As God further describes the punishment that would come upon then, he speaks three times against the leaders. In Gaza, fire will destroy the palaces. With Ashdod, he says he will cut off its inhabitant, literally the one who sits, likely referring its king who sits in rule over that city. With Ashkelon, the same is threatened against the one who holds the scepter, i.e. its king. So, the different lords of these city-states are especially called out by God. They will lose their power. They led their people in this sin and now they will be judged because of it.
But this judgment will befall the people as well. When speaking of Ekron it mentions a more general judgment that God’s hand will fall upon it. Then the final punishment mentioned is the most general: “the remnant of the Philistines shall perish.” That’s a sobering statement. Think about last week’s oracle. God said that after the Syrians were defeated in battle, they’d be carried off to exile in Kir, from where they had originated. In other words, a remnant would be left of the Syrians. Similarly, we’ve talked in the past of how he’s regularly dealt with the Israelites. That among his people he at times brought judgment against them, but he would always preserve a remnant among them. But not here with these Philistines. There would be no remnant of them. The remnant of the Philistines would be wiped out. Again, this is some poetic justice. The Philistines would conquer whole groups of people and take every single one of them away to captivity. So then, God would destroy every single one of the Philistines. None would be left to save.
When was this judgment fulfilled against the Philistines? Well, 2 Chronicles 26 describes how King Uzziah had major victories against Ashdod and Gath. Since Amos prophesied during the reign of King Uzziah, we don’t know if Uzziah’s victories over the Philistines happened before or after this oracle against them. Be we do know that later both the Assyrians and then Babylonians conquer the Philistines and destroy them.
As we think about this judgment coming upon the Philistines, we should do the same thing we did with last week’s passage. It is often helpful when looking at such Old Testament judgments against the nations to think about the final day of judgment against the nations. These Old Testament judgments become typological. They are a picture of that final judgment that will come upon the nations at the end. We should consider that again today as we think about the unique aspects of today’s passage. For make no mistake, there is coming a day when Jesus Christ will return to this world. On that great day, he will capture each and every person who has continued in their sin and rebellion against God. None will escape. Jesus will lead these captured captives and deliver them ultimately to the lake of fire. There they will be enslaved to an eternal punishment. But unlike them, this will not be a sin for Jesus to do this. Because before Jesus delivers these captives to that hell-fire punishment, he will first lead them before the judgment seat of God. There they will be found guilty for their sins. The law will stand to condemn them for all their sins. Justice will come as it says in Revelation 13:10, “He who leads into captivity shall go into captivity.” And so, then these will be delivered unto that lake of fire along with those fallen angels who also have waited in chains of darkness for that final judgment.
Sound terrifying? It should. It is supposed to. It’s the bad news of what our sin has earned. It’s what every single person has earned by their sin. The Philistines probably thought very highly of themselves when in their sin they took people captive. But the reality was that they were actually the real captives. They had been taken captive by their sin, like all humanity has. They like all humanity stand condemned to eternal punishment as such captives to sin. And yet the good news is that God in his great mercy has provided a way of salvation from this certain doom. It’s in his son, the Lord Jesus Christ! Jesus came into this world declaring that he came to set captives free! Even Amos ends in 9:14 describing how the Messiah would bring back God’s captive people!
I especially love the imagery of how he does this in Ephesians 4:8. There it describes how after the cross, Jesus ascended on high, leading a host of captives and giving gifts to men. It’s actually speaking there of Christians. In other words, Jesus deals with sinners by conquering their hard hearts and taking them captive. But these such captives are his captives that he brings to freedom. That he redeems from their former slavery of sin to make them freedman in Christ. Christ then bestow gifts upon these “conquered Christians” to be used in the building up of Christ’s kingdom. I love that imagery.
So then, I urge us all, find salvation in Jesus Christ. The prospects of hell should terrify us. But it should lead us then to embrace the free offer of the gospel as Jesus delivers now to the nations. Repent of your sins. Believe and trust in Jesus. If you do, then rejoice that in fact Christ has taken you captive in order to give you the greatest kind of freedom and liberty.
In closing, our passage reminds us of a truth. Kidnapping innocent people and forcing them into slavery is wrong. It’s less common today, but human trafficking of various sorts still exists. Recent estimates count over 20 million people worldwide, with some of it happening right here in the U.S. Even if you don’t explicitly engage in such human trafficking, it’s possible you are indirectly supporting it. For example, the clothing you wear that was made overseas or the coffee or chocolate you enjoy may have involved slavery in its production. To clarify, I’m not saying that this passage means that we each need to quit our jobs and start working full time in a non-profit that fights against human trafficking. That being said, it is certainly a commendable thing for someone to decide to labor against such practices of sin in this world. Certainly, as a church we prophetically declare the evil of such sin, even as Amos did in this passage. Let us make sure we are not committing sin in this area in any of its various forms.
This passage then encourages us that God is not unaware of how humans sin against other humans. God has reminded us his people of this sin again today as well. May we never treat other humans as mere commodities to exploit instead of recognizing them as people created in the image of God. We have been redeemed from the worst kind of slavery. Let us never desire to enslave others but to help them know of the best sort of liberties we have come to know in Jesus. Amen.
Copyright © 2017 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.