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Sermon preached on Amos 6:1-7 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 12/3/2017 in Novato, CA.
“As the First”
It’s a natural tendency to want to put ourselves first. Our pride wants to make ourselves god. Beyond any idol of the heart, we can make “self” an idol. Two expressions of that in this passage are a faulty self-confidence and a sinful self-indulgence. Yet, notice that self-confidence and self-indulgence both have the word “self” in them. And that’s what we see in today’s passage. Amos speaks to a self-confident and self-indulgent people who had set themselves as first and foremost in society.
In our first point then for today, let’s see how Amos speaks to those who had set themselves first in leadership and status. We see this in verses 1-3. Amos begins by addressing the leading citizens in Zion and Samaria. Interestingly, this widens Amos’ scope. Before he’s been primarily speaking to Israel, with its capital of Samaria. I’m sure that’s still his primary focus. But here he also brings in people of a similar class in Zion, in other words in Jerusalem in the kingdom of Judah. He addresses both Judah and Israel in this oracle. Specifically, in verse 1 he addresses those notable people in society; the people with power and privilege, who are able to live lives of ease. This would be the people who are in control in society. They’ve got the power and position to make society serve them, and that’s what they done. The end of verse 1 says that these are the people in Israel whom all the people come to. That’s language typical of solving legal disputes. All the people come to them to have their matters handled, because they are the ones in control. That’s whom Amos is addressing here. To these people who have set themselves as first in society, Amos declare “Woe!” Woe upon them because they think things are going so well, but Amos is here to tell them otherwise.
In this first point, we see some of the faulty self-confidence coming through. It’s hinted at first in verse 1 when we see this reference to the “chief nation.” That’s a reference to Israel in context, because it’s connected with the notable in Mount Samaria, Samaria being the capital of Israel. Well, where did that title “chief nation” come from? Surely, it’s what these leaders were saying about their country. With all the success they’ve been having, they must have become increasingly cocky and proud. They evidently have started to declare their nation to be the best. This is more than just national loyalty. This is the self-confidence that says we’re the best and we are invincible. Not only have they set themselves as first in their nation, they in their minds have their set their nation as first among all the nations.
This further comes out in verse 2. Amos tells these leaders to look at three city-states. He draws their attention to Calneh, Hamath, and Gath. Calneh and Hamath had been great city-states of Syria, but by this time they had been conquered and controlled by Israel. Similarly, Gath was one of the city-states of the Philistines but by this time have been conquered and controlled by Judah. In this woe oracle that confronts the leaders of both Israel and Judah, the message is clear. Amos shows that these other places had been conquered. They had been great and powerful peoples, but Israel and Judah had conquered them. Amos asks if they are really better than them? The implication is that what Israel and Judah had done to these example city-states can just as easily happen to them. As the saying goes, “There’s always a bigger fish.” Israel might have thought they were the first of nations, but God can bring them destruction. Pride comes before a fall, and Amos uses these three city-states to get Israel and Judah to think of how they could become fallen just like them.
Amos finishes this point against those who had set themselves as first in leadership and status in verse 3. There he addresses the people again with two more contrasting descriptions. On the one hand, they are people who have put far off the day of doom. On the other hand, they are people who have caused the seat of violence to come near. To put off the day of doom means that they have rejected the idea. They have evidently heard oracles of judgment against them, but they’ve rejected them. These leaders won’t believe, won’t consider, that there would come a day of reckoning for them. They don’t believe that what happened to Calneh, or Hamath, or Gath, could ever happen to them. They don’t believe there will ever come an end of their prosperity. But, of course, the point of Amos here is that their self-confidence is misplaced. They are on a trajectory to judgment and destruction as this pronouncement of woe is telling them. And so, they really seal that when we hear that they are bring near the seat of violence. Or as the NIV has it, they are bringing a reign of terror. In other words, in their leadership, they are ruling by violence and evil. That’s how come they have the ease and luxury and power that they have. They’ve done it by exploiting the poor and the needy and the weak. And so, it’s bad enough that they pushed off any fear of God’s judgment; but then they’ve compounded that by increasing all the more their evil leadership that afflicts the humble.
So, Amos confronts these who would be first in society with their faulty self-confidence. It’s faulty because their days of being first in society are coming to an end. There so-called first of the nations status will also be coming to and end. Yes, today we might hear people encourage people to have self-confidence, but the reality is that the kind of self-confidence you want to have is confidence that is in accordance with truth. It’s all well and good to encourage people to have self-confidence in the abilities that they have but have been too timid to use. But there is no virtue in calling people to have self-confidence in abilities they don’t have. Here, Israel and Judah had been putting their confidence and trust in themselves as if they really were gods among men and nothing can take them down. But God says they will have a day of reckoning for their evil pride and their violence they have dealt on others.
Moving on to our second point, let’s see how Amos speaks to those who have set themselves as first in luxury and leisure. To be clear, surely this is the same group of people that we described in our first point. The point is that these same people who in their faulty self-confidence had set themselves first in power, also have been self-indulgent, setting their comforts first before others. We see this in verses 4-6 with various examples of their self-indulgence. In verse 4, we see their idleness as they lounge around on beds, and not just beds, but extravagant beds of ivory. Continuing on the theme of being “first,” one commentator imagines them saying, “Only the best for us;” that’s their slogan for life. In verse 4 we see a reference to them eating lambs and calves. The idea here is probably that at that time eating meat was normally not that common for everyday people. You’d likely have meat at the big annual feast days and maybe on other special occasions. Most people couldn’t afford to just eat meat all the time. You’d save the “fattened calf” for special occasions. It’s like we just celebrated Thanksgiving; most of us don’t typically eat a big roast turkey every week. Well, these rich people of power did, it seems. That seems the point there in verse 4. They were constantly filling their stomachs with the best of the best in terms of food.
In verse 5, the reference is to making music and musical instruments, with a reference to King David. These people who have set themselves first have fancied themselves like David and spent their time in song and the arts. To clarify, I don’t think this is saying that they are professional musicians or artists. I think it is simply saying that instead of actually working hard, they are just living in idleness filling their time with their hobbies and pleasures. Their music making is not a job, it’s their recreation, and that’s what they are spending their time on.
In verse 6, their self-indulgence becomes even more clear. It says that they drink their wine in bowls. To clarify, that’s not referring to some cultural practice that you aren’t aware of. People normally drank their wine back then in cups just like today. But not these people of indulgence. They drank their wine in excess, figuratively stated here as by the bowl. Similarly, they anoint themselves not just with oil, but with the finest of oils; literally the first or chief of oils. That would be some expensive stuff. Think of when Mary anointed Jesus with that expensive oil made of pure nard in John 12. The sense of verse 6 is that such was their common routine among these indulgent people.
But then look at end of verse 6. This ties together this whole section. While living in all their indulgence, they are not at all grieved by the ruin of Joseph that is going on all around them. Interesting that Amos refers to Israel as Joseph here. Remember how Joseph cried from the pit for help but his brothers ignored his cries why they ate lunch and further plotted Joseph’s demise. Joseph’s brothers further profit when they sell him into slavery. How could brothers do that to one another?
You see, that’s the issue here in Amos’ day. There is nothing inherently wrong with being rich. But that’s not the issue here. Their self-indulgence was problematic for several reasons. One, they fueled their life of leisure and opulence at the expense of their fellow Israelites. They bribed judges, afflicted the weak, and made the poor poorer while they the rich got richer. They set themselves as first above the rest, and made their leisure their chief end. They committed evil and violence against their fellow Israelites in order to accomplish this. That makes their self-indulgence wrong. A second problem here is their idleness in general. We were created by God for work. We are to honor and serve God in our daily callings, by doing all our labors to the glory of God. Even in the garden before the fall into sin, God had Adam tend the garden and oversee the animals. We were meant to be productive people. But the language here is that these people in their indulgence were just lounging around. Verse 4 calls them “stretching out on couches.” The same word appears in verse 7, with the pew bible translating it as “reclining.” The point is their indulgence gave birth to a sluggardly lifestyle.
A third and related problem here is that in all this, they ignored how they could have helped others in need. For them to afflict others would be a sin of commission. But when they ignored the many people in great need around them, when they could have helped, was surely a sin of omission. I think of how Judas Iscariot spoke of how that expensive oil could have been sold to help the poor. Now granted Judas was a thief and didn’t want to really help the poor. But his statement gave the appearance of righteousness. It certainly is a righteous thing to see people in need and try to help them with your wealth. It’s like Ephesians 4 says that we should work hard not just to meet our own needs, but so we can share with others. That too is missing from these self-indulgent people who only seem to care about themselves.
Let’s turn now to our third point and see how Amos says they will be first in judgment. This is verse 7. In the spirit of lex talionis, God’s punishment on these people will fit the crime. We’ve seen here how these people wanted to be first in everything. First in power, position, and leadership in society. First in luxury, leisure and wealth. They put themselves in front of others in everything. These are the kinds of people who would always grab the best seats in the banquets and jump in front of others to be the first in line. Well, at the end of the day, when the day of judgment comes that they’ve tried to ignore, Amos says God will have them go first. These who always made themselves first, would be the first to go on judgment day; the first to go into exile.
In the case of the nation of Judah, the Biblical record explicitly describes this. In 2 Kings 24 and 25 we see that when Babylon conquered the capital Jerusalem, the first round of deportations to Babylon was generally among the elite and wealthy. Surely many of those included the types of people Amos were describing here. The poor, Babylon actually largely left behind in Jerusalem; a remnant. As to Israel, we don’t have the same level of detail recorded, but from what we do know, including from Assyrian records of the deportation from Samaria, it certainly seems like something similar happened there too. So, in other words, verse 7 was not simply a figurative description of their judgment, but a rather literal one that would befall Judah and presumably Israel as well. Those who made themselves first in everything, God would hand them over first to judgment and exile. Their punishment would fit the crime.
Well, when we come to the light of the New Testament, we learn from Jesus that this principle applies beyond the types and shadows of the old covenant. Jesus declared repeatedly that the first would be last and the last would be first. Jesus declared that in his coming kingdom there would be a great reversal. To the proud of heart who have wickedly sought to exalt themselves over others, Jesus taught such people will find themselves last on the final day of judgment. In other words, the message of verse 7, to the degree it was realized with the Assyrians exiling Israel and the Babylonians exiling Jerusalem, that was only a type of the final judgment to come. Jesus has taught of a final reversal. It is coming.
How can you be first on that last day? Acknowledge here and now before the Lord that you are least and last. That you are a sinner deserving the wrath of God. Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord and he will lift you up. For those who exalt themselves in pride and self-sufficiency, the Lord will give you an awakening at the end that you self is not sufficient. For who can stand on that day by his own merit? In the same way, make not this life your ultimate pursuit. Yes, you can have times of rest and break in this life; the Lord knows we need it. But let us be people seeking to labor unto the Lord in this life, seeking to bear treasure for eternity.
And so, in your humility and dependence on the Lord, heed the call of Jesus. He says to sinners in Matthew 11:28, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” The gospel calls us to have the humility to call ourselves last and least and in desperate need of a savior. Don’t be self-confident for your salvation and ultimate success into eternity. Find your confidence in Jesus Christ whose righteousness is yours by faith. Don’t be self-indulgent trying to make this earth your final rest and reward. Look to labor now unto Christ as you bear fruit unto eternity and ultimately taste of that heavenly treasure in the age to come. Instead of being making earthly rest and leisure your chief end today, find a far better rest in Jesus, even here and now in this life.
As a final application, one of the things that Jesus helps us to rest from now, is our sin. As we come to him, let us look to put away these sins of self. Put away the idol of self-indulgence. Put away a fault trust in yourself. Put away putting others last so you can go first. Let us daily deny ourselves and take up our crosses and follow Christ. Show this in a renewed desire to love your neighbor. In all this, Jesus grants us grace as we strive for new obedience. On the one hand, this will surely seem hard as we war against our old man. On the other hand, such a life of putting others first is freeing, rewarding, and refreshing in so many ways, even in this life. May we begin to enjoy this greater rest we find in Jesus, even as we work hard for him in this life. On that last day, we will enjoy it in the full and he sets you with the first to enter into glory.
Copyright © 2017 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.