(14) Seek good and not evil
So that you may live.
And it will be so that Yahweh God of hosts will be with you
Just as you claim.
(15) Hate evil and love good
And put justice firmly in place in the gate.
Perhaps Yahweh God of hosts will be merciful,
Remnant of Joseph. ס
Just as you claim
Again we hear an explicit call to repentance in the middle of all the threats of destruction, and again we hear an echo of Deuteronomy’s “choose life.” The patriarchal traditions, the sojourn and Exodus from Egypt, and the Sinai and wilderness traditions are all pretty clearly in the background of Amos’ thoughts and language, even if he isn’t explicitly quoting anything or citing texts.
For God to be “with” one is a standard biblical way of talking about God’s good pleasure in blessing and protecting you. If God is with you, your endeavor will succeed. If he is not with you, whatever you are doing will not succeed, or else whatever success you appear to have won’t have the value that you think it will. The Israelites, especially the wealthy elite, were under the impression that God was with them. They were possibly under this impression because of their recent prosperity and relative peace, experienced during a time when the major military power in the world, Assyria, was engaged in infighting and civil war. They were mistaking material prosperity with God’s pleasure.
What Amos has been pointing out throughout this book is that their perception of prosperity is selective. They aren’t too concerned that the poor are suffering, or that their prosperity really comes from their dishonesty in rigging the system in their favor at the expense of others who cannot afford to bribe judges. In our modern world, even the cost of litigation can be prohibitive, making it difficult to get justice against a well funded opponent. Even if this isn’t bribing, the effect is the same. The wealthy have special protections in the legal system simply because they have the money to afford those protections.
This is part of the reason, I think, why Jesus spoke about how difficult it is for a wealthy person to enter into the kingdom of heaven. Material prosperity gives us a rose colored view of the world, making it difficult to see our need for forgiveness or our culpability. We are continually tempted, like the Israelites, to conflate material prosperity with God’s favor and endorsement.
But there is a critical difference between one’s claim to have the support of God and actually having the support of God. The partial blinding of wealth may be just another way that God has given you over to your own sinful desires. In other words, material prosperity can sometimes be the wrath of God, while keeping you from wealth might sometimes be the mercy of God.
So how do we make sure that whatever prosperity we have isn’t blinding us? By intentionally and continually seeking the face of God and trying to cultivate a contrite heart. The troubles of life are, in some ways, a blessing. They make you more sensitive to your need for God and to the troubles of others. When life’s troubles aren’t making you sensitive to your sinfulness, it is then that it is most critical that you be proactive in being self-critical and God-seeking. Material prosperity is one of the ways that God rewards faithfulness, but when he does it is because he considers you ready to handle the burden and obligation of wealth. He considers you faithful enough to manage his resources with wisdom and generosity, the way he would were he physically present among us.
If he has not yet blessed you with great wealth, then now is the time to practice the proactive contrition that wealth would require. Cultivate a continually penitent and self-critical heart. And I mean self-critical, not self-hating. There is a difference. Self-critical doesn’t make up things to be sorry about or feel the need to exaggerate. Self-hatred actually fails to be really self-critical because it is still looking at self through a distorting lens, but this one is colored by the hyperbolic condemnation of the enemy. Self-criticism on the other hand is ruthlessly realistic, and it is engaged in in dialogue with God in Bible study and in prayer, not alone in the dark with a box of tissues and only the whisper of the enemy as your conversation partner.
A ruthlessly realistic and proactive penitent heart is also a heart that makes real changes. It does not simply utter pious platitudes but actually changing the values by which one lives one’s life and makes decisions. Amos leads us to such a heart: seek good and not evil. Hate evil and love good. Don’t simply say “God is with me” or “God must hate me” and then do nothing. Change your mind. Change your values. Let your changed values change your behavior. How do we change our mind and heart? You cannot on your own. Only the Spirit of God can do that. But you can give the Spirit of God the opportunity to change you by approaching him with an open mind and heart in prayer and Bible study.
What can we expect from God?
Notice in verse 15 that there is no technical guarantee of mercy following the call to repentance. It says, “Perhaps Yahweh will be merciful.” Just because you try to make things right, there is no technical guarantee that God will be merciful. Once you have broken the agreement (which we all have – we all start in the place of the lawbreaker), God is not legally obligated to show you any mercy at all. This is vitally important to realize. I’ve said this before, and I fear that I may be beating a dead horse here, but you must realize that we never have God backed into a corner. He is never obligated to save you or to bless you. His salvation is always only an act of pure mercy.
Now the wonderful thing about this is that God is more perfectly merciful, more faithfully forgiving, more desirous of reconciliation with you than you can possibly imagine. While he is under no technical obligation to be merciful to you when you repent, his own unfathomably merciful character makes him absolutely reliable to forgive anything. He so desperately loves us that he gave his one and only son to make a way for our salvation, not because of anything we have done or any irreplaceable value innate within us but solely because he is perfectly merciful.
I am not attempting to correct Amos here, because I think this is exactly what Amos thought and was saying here. Seek good and not evil so that you will live! Only an incomprehensibly loving and merciful God would even utter this invitation after hundreds of years of the covenant unfaithfulness on the part of the Israelites and after generations of unreasonable hard-heartedness ignoring the series of calamities mentioned in Amos chapter 4. It wouldn’t make any sense for God to issue this call to repent through the prophet Amos only to say in the eventuality that Israel did, in fact, repent, “Well, I know I suggested that I might be merciful, but honestly now I just don’t feel like it.” This kind of God would have been inconceivable to Amos.
So what can we expect from God? We cannot expect him ever to be in our debt or to save us because we deserve to be saved, but we can expect that he will always be merciful when no one else would be, even when we would not show mercy on ourselves.