The Fate of Those Who Despise Truth – Amos 5:10-13
10. They hate in the gate the one judging,
and the one speaking what is complete they abhor.
Hating the One Who Speaks What is “Complete”
In verse ten, Amos says that the people of Israel are so corrupt that they hate the righteous judge (the city gate is like the municipal court building in ancient Israel). The person who rules on principle and honesty is hated by a world that is accustomed to being able to slip a little cash here or there and get a ruling in their favor. An honest judge is a powerful thing, because they not only have the will to hold the unscrupulous accountable, but they also have the power to do so. The poor and weak depend on honest judges, because without them justice is so easily perverted by those who have money and power. Wealth and power can be gotten righteously, but unrighteousness generally promises faster returns, and if human history teaches us anything it is that humans’ eagerness to have wealth and power generally outweighs their desire for justice for all. Righteous judges, then, are a critical component of a just society that does not trample the rights of the weak and poor. Because of this, dishonest judges are something God despises, and he will punish a society that tolerates them.
But this spirit that privileges the appearance of success over integrity is not found exclusively in the courtroom. It permeates the world around us. Live long enough and you will find that the workplace is often a context where the truth is suppressed for the sake of expediency or the appearance of good results. An honest person will find himself pressured from every direction to fudge a bit on a report here, to “forget” or downplay an abuse that was witnessed, to slow down his productivity so as not to make everyone else appear lazy, to treat his employees poorly in order to satisfy middle management, to go along in order to get along. When the honest person refuses to violate his principles, the unscrupulous will grow to hate him because he makes their lives harder than they want it to be. He will slandered and abused. His determination to maintain his integrity will be called “self-righteousness”. His work ethic will be called “overachieving” or “brown-nosing”. In the workplace as in the courtroom, a world that is accustomed to getting its way in darkness cannot abide a force that brings their works out into the light.
The second line took me by surprise as I was initially preparing this. They abhor the one speaking what is tamim, or what is complete. The basic idea is honesty, but I think there is more to it. It is not just the person who says what is true that the wicked hate. They hate the person who speaks the whole truth, who tries to communicate the whole idea, the whole complex reality. This, I think, describes America depressingly well. We do not have patience for the whole story. We do not want to take the time to investigate a story and get all the details. We only want the details that support our preconceived ideas, our narratives. We have a bad case of confirmation bias, and dadgummit we like it that way, because we are right, and we have neither the time nor any real need to second guess ourselves.
Case in point – when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decided to uphold a temporary stay on the Trump administration’s original immigration ban, I suspect very few people actually took the time to read the decision or to familiarize themselves with the oral argumentation. Regardless of whether one agrees with Trump’s immigration ban or not, the court’s decision seemed a reasonable decision that was well documented. Their sole role was to consider whether the temporary hold on the immigration ban that was placed by a Federal District Court in response to a lawsuit brought by the State of Washington should be lifted because either (1) there was some imminent danger of irreparable damage should the hold stay in place until the full hearing could occur, or (2) the Trump administration could demonstrate that they were likely to win the case when the hearing took place. In the opinion of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, there was no danger of irreparable damage and it was not clear that the Trump administration would win the case.
Like it or not, that is all it was about. But that was not what conservatives in our country wanted to hear. They wanted to dismiss the 9th Circuit Court as a bunch of liberals who were being petty and resisting President Trump only for political reasons. They wanted to throw angry and hateful words towards anyone who would dare to stand in the way of President Trump getting things done. Perhaps the 9th Circuit Court are predominantly left-wing ideologically, and perhaps there are political concerns here, but there was no logical or calm discussion about the issue going on online. No. Conservatives got their talking points and liberals got their talking points and they both screamed them as loudly and angrily as they could.
Now, I am picking on conservatives here, but the fact is that this kind of confirmation bias, this lack of interest in the whole truth, in hearing both sides to an argument, characterizes liberals as much as it does conservatives. Both right and left in America right now are largely uninterested in the whole truth. If someone does not agree with you, do not listen to what they say, just say what you said before, preferably louder and with a little more growl. If they do not agree with you then, call them a name or insult their intelligence and try to leave the argument in such a way that you sound like you have the moral and intellectual high ground. By and large, people in America want the version of truth that lets them get their way in Washington, and they often despise anyone who tries to say, “Wait, there is another side to this story.”
That is a dangerous place to be, and in my opinion it is not a place any Christian has any business being in. Here is what the Bible says in Revelation 18:4-5, “Come out of her, my people, so you will not take part in her sins and so you will not receive her plagues, because her sins have piled up all the way to heaven and God has remembered her crimes.” We cannot let ourselves be so hijacked by the world that we let it tell us when to be angry and when to say hateful things and when to be afraid. Being thoughtful, considerate, understanding, and non-judgmental are at the very core of what it means to have the character Christ.
Ill-Gotten Gain is Stripped Away
This deep corruption in Israelite society had one solution: destruction.
11 Therefore, in response to your levying taxes upon the poor, and taking up from them a tax on grain,
Houses of hewn stone you have built, but you will not live in them;
Delightful vineyards you have planted, but you will not drink their wine.
The power and wealth the Israelite elite had acquired by fixing the system in their favor was going to be taken away from them, after they had already used it to construct things like houses and vineyards. This idea of building things but not enjoying them is a trope in Israelite literature. We see it, for example, in Deuteronomy 28:30-41
30. You will be engaged to a woman and another man will rape her. You will build a house but not live in it. You will plant a vineyard but not even begin to use it. […] 39. You will plant vineyards and cultivate them, but you will not drink wine or gather in grapes, because worms will eat them. 40. You will have olive trees throughout your territory but you will not anoint yourself with olive oil, because the olives will drop off the trees while still unripe. 41. You will bear sons and daughters but not keep them, because they will be taken into captivity. (NET)
There are other examples of this trope, but the one in Deuteronomy is the most extensive. It is also noteworthy that going into captivity is really the climactic element in Deuteronomy’s list, corresponding to the ending of Amos chapter 5 in verse 27:
“I will drive you into exile beyond Damascus,” says the Lord. He is called the God who commands armies! (NET)
This is poetic justice in Amos 5. While Amos is concerned about covenant infidelity and the worship of other gods, he focuses a lot more time and energy on decrying the injustice of Israelite society, where the wealthy elites are trampling on the poor and denying them justice. So the punishment is fitting: you will use your ill-gotten gain to build wonderful things for yourselves, but they will be taken from you (or you will be taken from them) before you every have a chance to enjoy them.
12 For I know your crimes are great, and your sins are numerous,
Enemies of righteousness, takers of ransoms, they thrust aside the needy.
What I have roughly translated “takers of ransoms” has to do with the way the wealthy are treating the ones to whom they have loaned money. A ransom is a debt which, if the debtor cannot pay it, will result in debt slavery. We do not have debt slavery, but we do have liens, lawsuits, and other ways of punishing debtors who cannot pay up. What, I believe, is behind verse 12 is a situation where the wealthy had been loaning money (probably with interest, even though this would have been prohibited by the Torah) to the poor so that they could survive. We should not forget that Amos has already described a series of calamities in Israel’s not too distant past. The poor, especially, would have suffered from these calamities and might have required loans to rebuild their sustenance farming. But for whatever reason, the poor had found themselves unable to pay the loan back. The wealthy lenders had then responded by taking the borrowers in debt slavery.
The interesting thing about this is that from a very technical point of view, you might could say that the wealthy were in the right. The borrower had not repaid what was owed, therefore the wealthy person had the right to get their money back somehow, even through debt slavery. Perhaps there had been a new drought or blight that had killed the crops the poor farmers had intended to use to pay the loan back. The wealthy were saying, “It doesn’t matter. They knew they were taking a risk when they took out the loan.” Technically, the wealthy might be justified.
But in this kind of situation, God calls the wealthy “enemies of righteousness”. God does not care about the technicalities of the terms of loans. Should the poor have paid the loans back? Yes. But in the event that something unforeseen inhibited them from paying the loans back, the wealthy lenders should have extended grace. This is not just some bonus good thing they could have done to be extra righteous. God considers it the base level of righteousness: without extending grace, the lenders are “enemies of righteousness.” We see, again, a clear precedent for Jesus’ ethical teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. The basic level of righteousness God is expecting is not “eye-for-an-eye”, “love your friends and hate your enemies”, or “make sure to deal with contracts and business dealings in a meticulously accurate way”, but to transcend the technicalities of law through the law of love and grace: forgive those who wrong you, love your enemies and pray for them, be quick to extend grace rather than to punish every little infraction of a contract.
Amos says of such lenders, “Your crimes are great, your sins are numerous.” Revelation 18:5, similarly, says of Babylon, the personification of this worldly spirit, “Her sins have piled up to the heavens, and God has remembered her unrighteous acts.” Being technically in the right is no defense for one’s own righteousness before God. He requires something more from us. He requires love.
13. Therefore, the song at that time will be silent, for it will be an evil time.
Again, we can hear this chapter in the background of Revelation 18. Verse 22 says, “And the sound of the harpists, musicians, flute players, and trumpeters will never be heard in you again.” Bad times are coming as a result of the sins of Israel, especially the sins of the wealthy and powerful. Times have to be pretty bad to make humans not sing at all. We compose songs about sad and tragic things all the time, and part of the way we deal with grief is often in music. For the times to be so evil that the song is not just funereal but silent is an indication of how incredibly awful conditions will be.