The Lord Standing By the Altar

Sermon preached on Amos 9:1-10 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 1/21/2018 in Novato, CA.

Sermon manuscript

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Amos 9:1-10

“The Lord Standing By the Altar”

The heathen had gouged out his eyes. They had bound him in chains. After many days they him brought to their temple to their false god. There the heathens mocked him as they partied and feasted. I of course speak of Samson, the judge. The Philistines had finally conquered him when he had revealed the secret of his strength was represented in the length of his hair. And so, the Philistines had cut off his hair and captured it. Then they were having this big religious festival or party at his expense. Yet, they must not have noticed that his hair had started to grow back. They probably didn’t think much of the fact that in his blind state that he asked the lad assigned to lead him around to put his hands on the pillars of the temple. Samson said it was just so he could lean against them. But that is when he prayed to God that God might return to him for one last victory over the Philistines. And God heard Samson’s prayer and gave him what he asked.
Samson pushed with all his might against two pillars and the whole temple came crashing down upon all the Philistines in it.

Okay, so why did I start with that story? Well, we come today to the fifth and final vision that Amos received. And the vision is about God destroying Israel with imagery that is reminiscent to how Samson destroyed those Philistines. And so today we’ll look at this final vision and see the nature and extent of its judgment upon Israel. As we get started, notice the progression here with Amos’ visions. The first two visions threatened judgment, but God ended up giving mercy; the next two visions announced that God’s mercy had ended for Israel, and the judgment was imminent. Now, in this final vision, Amos sees the judgment actually taking place.

And so we begin in verse 1. In the vision, Amos sees the Lord standing by the altar. How Amos could see the invisible God, we aren’t told, though interestingly it uses the word adonai in the Hebrew, not Yahweh, in verse 1. So, it must have been some of sort to vision of God in corporal form. And so, he sees the Lord standing by the altar. Which altar? The one in Bethel? Or in Dan? Surely not the one in Jerusalem. But I remind you that he is seeing a vision, so it isn’t necessarily an actual geographical place that Amos sees. But there is an altar and the Lord is standing by it. That’s the picture of a temple, which is further brought out by this announcement the Lord brings in the vision. The Lord calls for the pillars to be struck at their tops, at their capitals. The result will be that the foundation will be shook, and the whole temple will come crashing down upon all the people.

The fact that this is a vision, and not a video recording of history means that we should probably understand this as a judgment depicting the entire nation of Israel. Verse 8 speaks of the judgment described in this passage as being against a whole nation, and in context that is Israel. And so, in the vision, Amos sees the Lord bringing down a temple upon a whole people. Surely, it’s not so much about a specific temple in Israel being destroyed, since they had multiple temples. But it’s representative of the nation’s whole system of perverted worship coming crashing down upon them. Along these lines, I do find it telling that a temple could be described in the vision as coming crashing down upon all the people. If it had been a vision of the legitimate temple in Jerusalem, the crashing down of the temple roof wouldn’t have affected too many people, because in that temple, the people and the main altar were in the courtyard. Only the priests would go into the physical temple itself. And so, the temple imagery in this vision looks a lot more like the pagan Philistine temple that Samson destroyed, that could take out all its followers at the same time. The northern kingdom had already rejected the legitimate altar and temple in Jerusalem. They had begun to incorporate idolatry and other pagan practices into their worship. Now when their end comes upon them, all their perverted worship will come crashing down upon them.

I referenced Samson because that temple destruction back then was against pagan Gentiles. We can appreciate why God would enable Samson to have that victory. Yet, with this vision, we see Israel suffering a similar defeat, though in an even more destructive scope. Yet this is what Israel had become. As we saw back in chapter 3, verse 2, God had told them that they were special among all the nations. That they only had he known from all the nations. And yet, in their perversion of true worship, they had begun to look just like the heathen nations. God was now treating them like that. That’s a similar idea to what we see in verse 7. There God draws comparisons with Israel and other nations. He compares them to the Ethiopians who were so geographically far away, and relatively insignificant as a people. He then specifically mentions the Philistines along with the Syrians and describes how he had brought them from other places to their current homes, similar to how he had brought Israel up out of Egypt. The point is to say that despite Israel’s special heritage with God, they could not presume upon that. At the end of the day, if they were going to act in pagan ways like all the other nations, God would deal with Israel like all the other nations too. That was the point at the beginning of the book of Amos too when after giving those judgment oracles against seven nations, he then gave a judgment nation against Israel themselves. In their perverted worship they had become like the other nations, so God would bring judgment upon like the other nations. Actually, if anything, their previous place of privilege with God meant that bring an even worse judgment upon them.

I’d like to pause and give some gospel hope right here. I’ve pointed us back to how God destroyed pagan Philistines in their own house of worship. We’ve seen here how God was to destroy Israel by bringing their perverted worship crashing down upon them. I’d like to continue this imagery in a wonderful statement by Jesus about the gospel. Jesus said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” When he said that, people thought he was talking about the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. But he was really talking about himself. He took on the very judgment pictured here in Amos, in his own body of a temple at the cross. He took this on, to pay the penalty for sin, that whoever comes to him would be saved. He did this, not only, to forgive his people of their sins. He also did this so his saved people could worship God properly. Because his temple did not stay destroyed. He had the power to lay down his life and the power to take it back up again. On the third day he rose again and brings his people to God now, to rightly worship in him!

Let’s move on to our second point for today and see a related part of this judgment. In this vision, God says there won’t be any survivors. This is recounted in great detail. In verse 1, God says that if any escape this temple falling down on them, he’ll slay them with the sword. In verse 2, speaking rather hypothetically, he says even if they were to flea to heaven or Sheol, God would get them. In verse 3, he speaks of earthly extremes, saying if they flee to the tops of Mount Carmel or the bottom of the sea, they won’t escape from either of those places either. You could imagine if God used an attacking nation on Israel, some might try to flee to the mountains or to the oceans, but they still won’t escape God’s judgment. In verse 4, he says that even if they get captured and brought into exile, God still won’t allow them to escape – even from captivity he will see to their death. In other words, these references show that there would be no escape for these people who were under God’s judgment. There is no place they can hide from this judgment. There would be no escape.

Verses 5-6 give a fragment of a hymn that praises God. Some have speculated that this was a hymn Israel knew and sang themselves, but now the prophet uses it against them. The hymn describes an all-powerful God. This all-powerful God is described in verse 6 as being able to affect both sky and earth. In verse 5, he can act to bring great turmoil to this world. The might of the LORD is what will enable him to finish off these Israelites. This mighty God sees all things and controls all things. This is why there would be no escape, no hiding place for Israel. All this is related to the omnipresence of God, like what we read about in Psalm 139, which speaks positively about God’s presence, that he’s everywhere; in heaven, in sheol, in the deeps of the sea; everywhere. That’s good if you are in a right relationship with God; it’s a bad thing for those under God’s judgment.

Again, this is brought out one last time in verses 8-10. The eyes of the LORD are on the sinful kingdom, verse 8. Eyes which it had said earlier in verse 4 were on Israel, not for good, but for their harm. Verse 10, all the sinners of his people will die by the sword. When we think in Scripture about the eyes of God being on someone, we usually think of that as a good thing. Like in the Aaronic blessing, it speaks of God’s face shining upon his people in blessing. But not here. Here, his eyes will see each and everyone of these people he has marked out for judgment. He will find them wherever they go and destroy them. Though humans can sometimes evade men with secret crimes, God himself always sees. That’s what God has said here for Israel. They won’t escape.

As another gospel application, what should we humans do as those guilty of sin? What can the guilty do if there is no hiding place, no refuge from the just and mighty God who punishes sin? Well, I remember the psalms that describe God as a hiding place. Psalm 32:7, the psalmist says to God, “You are my hiding place; You shall preserve me from trouble; You shall surround me with songs of deliverance.” Faced with the terrible judgment of God, sinners need to stop trying to run away from God. That is a natural tendency if you know you are guilty. If you are a criminal committing a crime and the police show up, your natural tendency is surely to try to run away. But in terms of the judgment of God, that would be futile. Guilty sinners instead need to turn and run toward God in repentance. Thankfully, God has at this time offered grace to all who would come in faith and repentance to Jesus Christ. There is no other hiding place for sinners. No other refuge from the judgment of God. But praise God that there is yet grace for those who would humble themselves, admit their many sins, and receive God’s offer of forgiveness, now, while there is still time. Have God be your hiding place in Christ!

Let’s turn now in our third and final point for today to see the good news of a remnant mentioned in this passage. This is revealed in verse 8 and it is very good news after what we just considered. We had just considered how none would escape this judgment of God. Yet it also talks here how some would be spared. The way that reconciles it seems is that the nation of Israel is under judgment. Those described in verse 10 as the sinners among the people will by no ways escape. In similar terms, verse 9 speaks of a sifting that is going on. The NKJV translation gets the imagery backwards, I believe. It speaks that not even the smallest grain will fall to the ground. The word there for grain should actually be translated as pebble; that’s its literal translation. I think the idea is that the pebbles are caught in the sieve and the grain does fall to the ground. The pebbles are those God has decided to destroy in judgment among Israel. These “sinners among the people”. They are the ones who by no means will escape; they’ll be caught like the pebbles in the sieve. But there will be a remnant that will be spared, and they are likened to the grain that makes it through the sieve. Though instead of them being put in a bag of grain, God sprinkles them throughout the nations. That’s where the remnant will end up after God destroys Israel.

So, obviously, God is making some distinction here among Israel. There will be some he chooses to utterly destroy and for them there will be no escape. But there will be some that will be saved as a remnant, and for them they will surely be saved. Verse 10 seems to define those under the judgment as those who have rejected the warnings of the prophet, and who have themselves righteousness when they weren’t. Surely, those whom God would preserve are those who have remained faithful to the Lord through humble reliance on his grace and mercy. And yet in the process of them being preserved as a remnant, surely, he would use that to grow and chasten them too as needed.

I do find it an interesting thought that in preserving a remnant like this, that God would first scatter them all over the world. Right, that’s what we saw in verse 9. God will sift the remnant all over the nations. I think of like grain being scattered all over a field. God will be placing his remnant all over the world. When the New Testament opens, that’s what we find. God’s people had been dispersed. It was the Jewish diaspora. But from there God will gather them back up and bring them to himself and to his kingdom. We’ll see more of that gathering back up in next week’s passage in Amos. We’ll talk more about the gathering at that time. But notice how this is the opposite of those under judgment. Just like those under judgment can’t go somewhere that God can’t find them to judge them; so too with the remnant in the opposite. There is nowhere that the remnant can end up that God can’t see them to find them and save them. God won’t lose any of these scattered among the remnant.

This is interesting when we think of how God is scattering them among pagans. If Israel didn’t escape the judgment of God, we know that the evil, pagan nations won’t either. That’s how the book of Amos began, announcing judgment on the nations. Yet, that is where God was sprinkling the remnant. At first, this might seem counter intuitive. Why take the remnant from one place under judgment only to put them in another place that would also surely receive God’s judgment?

Yet, surely that shows the wonderful plan of God. We might ask in a similar way, that if God is going to ultimately gather back up this remnant anyways and save them, why would he even bother to scatter them in the first place; let alone among sinful nations like I just mentioned. Well, surely it’s so there can be salvation brought to these nations! Think about the benefit of this in light of the coming of Christ. By the time Christ would come, already the nations were being prepared for his coming through the existence of the Jewish diaspora. Remember what is noted in Acts 15, that for many generations, Moses had been preached in every city, with Moses’ writings being read in the synagogues every Sabbath. Of course, Jesus said Moses spoke of him! So, think about it. By God sprinkling this remnant all over the world, the Old Testament Scriptures start being taught all over the world. This is not to say that the Israelites were the most proactive in their evangelism in that time. Yet, clearly there was some fruit that came. We see in the New Testament that there were a number of Gentile God-fearers who had been taught of the Lord as a result of this Jewish diaspora. So, that was certainly a benefit of the Israelite remnant being scattered, even before Jesus came.

A second benefit of this Jewish dispersion is what happens after Jesus goes back up to heaven. Jesus, of course, sends his disciples out to the nations with the gospel. And where do those missionaries first begin their preaching? They typically would begin at the Jewish synagogues that were spread out throughout the nations. Those who converted would become the first Christians in those Gentile cities. Then they would bring the message to the Gentiles in those cities, and the result would be church plants of both Jews and Gentiles. And so, by God scattering the remnant like this at this time of Israelite judgment, he also laid the groundwork for a successful expansion of the gospel after the coming of Christ.

I love the wisdom and plan of God in all this! In a passage describing such judgment that God brought to apostates under the old covenant, he was still working his plans of redemption. Those plans have continued now as we continue as a dispersed people to bring the gospel to the nations. And so now, think of how this works out here and now. We live in these last days, when the end of all things has been inaugurated, but not consummated. We already have been gathered together as saints in Christ. And yet the gathering is not complete. That is why we are only gathered to Christ in one sense. Spiritually we are gathered in Christ. This is seen outwardly as we assemble in the church for worship and fellowship. Yet, we still live dispersed. We still live scattered all over this world alongside people who are under God’s condemnation and judgment. We have not yet been gathered as God’s saved into glory. And yet this is so we can participate in this work of gathering. We continue to bring the gospel to the nations. We continue to call them out of this world into the church of Jesus Christ. We continue to tell them of Christ and his salvation. That they can renounce their pagan idolatries and futile ways of worship, to come to the living and true God. That they would join with us as the redeemed the Lord, entering that heavenly Zion, worshipping in a temple made not with hands, nor one that any hands can destroy. We come worshipping in the one who yet builds his temple of saints until that final day. Then he will usher in the end of this present evil age. At that time, none will escape God’s judgment who are destined for judgment. But at that same time, none of God’s elect will be overlooked, as he gathers us his saved unto glory.

And so, with that hope, I leave us with the words of Peter in 2 Peter 2:9, “Then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment.”


Copyright © 2018 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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