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Sermon preached on Amos 3:9-15 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 10/15/2017 in Novato, CA.
“See the Great Tumults Within Her”
What does the world see today when they look at the church? That’s a question to reflect upon. Does the world see in the church today what we desire them to see? What the Lord would desire them to see? That’s a question to keep in mind as we study today’s passage. You see, at that time for Israel, the world would not have seen a good picture if they looked at Israel. That’s how Amos starts off this passage. He gets the people to reflect on what the world would see if they looked at them. Sadly, the world would see much sin in Israel, especially a lot of sin directed against its own people.
So then, let’s dig into this passage and begin by seeing a call for witnesses and testimony. This reminds us that God is in covenant with Israel. Back then when covenants were first ratified, it was typical to invoke witnesses. Similarly, we see God calling for witnesses and testimony here. Specifically, God is bringing this all against Israel for the ways they have violated the covenant they have with him.
And so, this call for witnesses and testimony begins in verse 9. There, God calls Ashdod and Egypt to come and be witnesses. Ashdod, recall, was one of the five main cities of the Philistines. So, this call is going to Philistines and Egyptians. The language of verse 9 is a sort of summons to them. “Proclaim in the palaces at Ashdod, and in the palaces in the land of Egypt, and say: ‘Assemble on the mountains of Samaria; see great tumults in her midst, and the oppressed within her.” These two nations are being summoned to come to the mountains surrounding Samaria. Remember, Samaria was the capital of Israel at that time. From the mountains, these Philistines and Egyptians would have a birds-eye view of what is going on in Israel. Sadly, they would see much sin.
These two witnesses should be shocking. Neither Egyptians or Philistines are known for their righteousness. These pagan nations had themselves done many evils, especially to Israel. Why would God call them to be witnesses against them? There’s even a sort of subtle suggestion that what they would see would stand out as evil to them. That even these evil Philistines and evil Egyptians would be appalled by the evil going on in Israel. Surely it would take a lot to disgust such wicked pagans. Yet, God calls them to serve as witnesses of what evil Israel is committing.
We see this theme of witnesses and testimony again in verse 13. God says, “Hear and testify against the house of Jacob.” You might think God is speaking specifically to Amos there, but the call to “hear” and “testify” is put in the plural. In other words, it’s addressed to multiple recipients. We aren’t told who specifically. In context we might think of the Egyptians and the Philistines. Surely it could include them. Likely at this point he has an even wider net now. In light of all the sins people have observed, he invites all to come and speak against Israel. Their sin has been seen; it’s become known. He calls for legal testimony to be spoken against them. God calls for people to come and declare with him that Israel is under the divine sanctions of the covenant.
So, with this first point, all this begs the question I started with today. Today, if outsiders looked at what’s going on in the church of Jesus Christ today, what would they see? If others witness what the church is doing today, would they see things that would appall them? Would they see things that they would even say were wrong? Would they see things like pornography use, even among married men? Adultery? Disregarding the needs of our own? Gossip and backbiting of our own? Looking down on others in the church who aren’t as wise in terms of their doctrinal knowledge and understanding? I could go on. What things would outsiders witness against the church today? What evil things would they see in us, and judge us for? Certainly, there is room for application here; certainly, there is room to examine ourselves as the church of Jesus Christ.
Let’s turn now to our second point and look at what sin of Israel is being highlighted here. This is why Israel is under the judgment that is being described in this passage. So, looking here we see two main sins highlighted. One, opulence and affluence at the expense of others; that’s the implication when you connect the dots here. Two, perverted worship of God. Let’s think about each. First, the opulence and affluence at the expense of others. I’ll try to connect the dots here. On the one hand, this passage talks about how Israel is oppressing their own. Verse 9 says that the witnessing nations will see tumults in her midst, oppression within her. In other words, they’ll see Israel afflicting their own people. This is further explained in verse 10. They “store up violence and robbery in their palaces.” Within their own place they store up these things. That language of “store up” is the language of a store house. It’s the language you would use to describe how you accumulate riches; their palaces are like storehouses for their treasures. But here it talks about how they store up and accumulate violence and robbery. That at least means they are committing those things in their midst. But pairing it with the storehouse language it might have in mind the way they use violence and robbery to actually steal from others and then store up their ill-gotten gain. That’s why the NLT translates this verse as “Their fortresses are filled with wealth taken by theft and violence.” Sadly, we see here too why they sin like this. Verse 10, “For they do not know how to do right”. In their hard-hearted depravity, they’ve become jaded to their sin. They’ve forgotten how to discern between right and wrong. They are in a terrible state.
This notion of their accumulated wealth is seen in this passage by a couple specific references. In verse 12 there is mention of beds and couches. That’s probably representative of their life of leisure and rest that’s been attained by their theft and violent oppression of others. Also, we see in verse 15 reference to them having multiple great houses; houses of ivory; winter and summer houses. When you read about those you are surely supposed to connect the dots. In context, the reason they have such mansions is because of how they have afflicted their own people. And so, this is a major sin highlighted in this passage. It’s brought up throughout the book of Amos. The rich were becoming rich in Israel through evil affliction of others.
The second sin we said was highlighted here was their perversion of worship. It’s stated simply there in verse 14. It speaks of how God will punish the altars of Bethel. The issue here is two-fold. One, there shouldn’t have been a temple in Bethel. The temple of the LORD was in Jerusalem. God had told Israel before they came into the Promised Land that he would put his name in a particular place once they came into the Promised Land. There, the Ark of the Covenant would be, with the tabernacle and the altar. There the Aaronic priests would minister along with the rest of the Levites. They would offer there the sacrifices and offerings that the law required. And yet the people of Israel disregarded the house of the Lord for their own man-made substitute. They had put this place of worship up in Bethel and that wasn’t right.
Furthermore, the people had golden calves setup in Bethel and Dan and were using those to worship God. Yet, the second commandment was abundantly clear. God didn’t want to be worshipped through idols. The pagan nations around them worshipped their false gods like this. But God had said time and time again, that he didn’t want to be worshipped that way. Yet, the people persisted with this idolatry.
And so, this is a brief survey of Israel’s sin as it is described in this passage. Now, in our last point I want us to see the judgment that God is threatening upon Israel. This starts in verse 11. God says that Israel will be surrounded by an enemy and destroyed. We know eventually this will be the Assyrians who will destroy the nation in 722 BC. That is an historical fact and an historical fulfillment.
We see what some of the destruction further described in that verse when it talks about their palaces. It says their palaces will be destroyed. This is an important point. There are four references to palaces in this passage. We saw earlier how their sin included using them as a storehouse for their evils. God’s punishment will fit the crime when he destroys those strongholds. Furthermore, this was a theme repeatedly mentioned when Amos gave those seven judgment oracles against the nations. For each of the seven nations he mentions that he would destroy their palaces. Now he says the same for Israel. Their fate would be the same as all these other nations under God’s judgment.
God’s judgment against Israel is further described when verse 14 talks of the destruction that would take place in Bethel. These illegitimate altars would be destroyed. Again, we see how God’s punishments fit the crime. Verse 14 has an interesting note when it mentions how the horns of the altar will be cut off and fall to the ground. We see for example in the opening chapters of 1 Kings that the horns of an altar could be a place where someone could flee to for refuge. The idea is that if you ran into the temple and grabbed the horns of the altar you were hoping no one would dare kill you there. It was an appeal for mercy. And so, for God to talk about cutting off the horns of their altar basically says they’ll lose any hope of a refuge or further mercy. There counterfeit temple won’t give them any refuge or help. Interestingly, this initially comes to pass even before the later Assyrian destruction. 2 Kings 23 records it being fulfilled by Josiah King of Judah who destroyed Bethel and its false altar.
A last note about God’s judgment upon them has to do with the extent of it. We see this described in verse 12. It talks about how thoroughly destroyed they will be. It does this with a shepherd analogy. It describes how if a shepherd loses a sheep to a lion, he’s going to try to “rescue” some evidence that the sheep was eaten by a lion. Even if he can only get the legs or just a piece of an ear, he’ll “rescue” that amount. The reason why a shepherd would do this, is to prove to the owners of the sheep that he didn’t steal the sheep. Exodus 22:13 actually puts this practice into law. And so, here’s the analogy. Israel will be so destroyed by this enemy nation that what will be “rescued” from its destruction will be like what the shepherd rescues like this from the lion. Of course, to use the word “rescue” is satirical at best. Whatever the shepherd would rescue from the lion is only proof of its destruction; the sheep isn’t obviously saved. So too with Israel. They will taste of a thorough destruction; there will be so little left afterwards.
Verse 12 stings further when it mentions what might be left after this destruction. It mentions the corner of a bed and an edge of a couch. What’s left are remnants of their opulent lifestyle that reflects their sin. Think of when a fire destroys a home and the owner is rummaging through the ash trying to find something that survived. So, when the dust clears from Israel’s destruction, what would be “rescued” in the rubble? Bibles and copies of the law? No. Prayer mats? No. Just corners of beds and edges of couches. Things that reflect their excess in which they had put their heart and hope. This should also spark some internal reflection. If we ourselves were undone like this, what would remain behind to point to how we lived?
Brothers and sisters, there’s again a lot of judgment in this passage. How do we find grace and mercy in today’s passage? How do we preach Christ from it today? Well, certainly, I could point us again to the end of the book of Amos. I could point us to the final chapter that ends all this judgment with hope. Hope of a restoration in the messiah who would come from the line of David. Surely, that is still the greatest and most explicit gospel hope in the book of Amos. And it definitely applies to this passage.
Yet, is there anything we can point to here? Is there any hope of grace and mercy and even Christ that we could find here? In response, I would say this. Here I raise my Ebenezer. Pastor, what are you talking about? Here I raise my Ebenezer. Do you forget what Ebenezer was? Hopefully you don’t forget because Ebenezer is about not forgetting. Ebenezer was a memorial stone that Samuel put up in 1 Samuel 7:12 and named it “Ebenezer” which means “stone of help”. Samuel put that memorial stone up after Israel had again fallen into sin and been afflicted by the Philistines. In that sin, they even lost the Ark for a time to Ashdod. But then they realized that what they needed to do was to repent of their sins and call out to God for help and mercy and he would save them.
And so I say again, “Here I raise my Ebenezer”. In the midst of this great judgment of God, he sets them a reminder, a memorial, of his mercy. For by inviting Ashdod and Egypt to be witnesses against them, they also become reminders to the people of the mercy and help of God. Of all the nations God could have summoned! Egypt – God’s beloved self-description to Israel is that he is the God who brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. When Egypt afflicted them, Israel cried out to God and he became their help and salvation. And Ashdod. Ashdod and the Philistines. That very Ebenezer moment taught the lesson that when God raises up a nation to surround them, they should repent of their sin and call to God for help. Egypt and Ashdod are inherently symbols of the mercy and the deliverance from God. And so, while God places them on the mountain tops to look down as witnesses at all of Israel’s sin, think of the other side of things. Israel could then look up at the mountains and see how God placed two memorial stones right there. They could see Ashdod and Egypt on the mountains surrounding them and remember that God is their help. Ashdod and Egypt then become a testimony to them how God is Israel’s help and salvation. They could, they should, remember that they yet had time to repent of their sins and return to the Lord. The Lord is their help. This is a lesson they must not forget. And God has given the great help to his people ultimately in sending Jesus. For Jesus is the one who made the way for his people to be forgiven of their many sins and trespasses.
In the same way, when God here uses the analogy of a shepherd barely able to rescue a few parts of a sheep, what should come to their mind? What should Israel think of when they hear of such a shepherd? They should remember that the Lord is their shepherd. A good shepherd. Not a shepherd who can only rescue a piece of an ear. No, a shepherd who is able to fully save and rescue them. And we know how he’s done that. In the fullness of time, God sent his son to be the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd that laid down his life for his sheep. To clarify, the good shepherd saves his sheep. Otherwise he would just be a well-intentioned shepherd. Per Hebrews 13:20, Jesus is that great Shepherd of the sheep, who through the blood of the everlasting covenant, will make us complete in every good work to do his will.
And so, Jesus Christ is the Lord’s help to us. And Jesus is this good shepherd who saves us from our sins and their consequences. He will shepherd us and help us throughout this life. He will do this until he brings us to those mansions that he has prepared for us his people for eternity. Mansions not obtained by violence or oppression, but by God’s rich grace.
Here I raise my Ebenezer. See God’s subtle reminders in this text of his help and grace. Let us remember today again the saving works of God in his son Jesus. Where we need to examine ourselves today and see sin that we need to repent of, let us do so. Let us repent and call out to God for renewed help and forgiveness.
And so then, let us also take heed to how we live. Let us live then before a watching world as those remembering the salvation of God in Christ. Let us invite the world to see what it looks like to live as a disciple of Christ. Not a life of perfection, but a life of daily faith and repentance. The world is watching us. By the grace of God may the see lives being transformed by Christ. May our lives and our confession bear witness and testimony to them, of the gospel. May they see what life under the new covenant is like and desire to join with us in Christ’s holy city his church. Amen.
Copyright © 2017 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.