(21) I hate, I despise your festivals. I do not accept your solemn assemblies.
(22) Even if you offer up to me whole burnt offerings, I will not be pleased by your offerings, and I will not show any regard for a peace offering of your fatted calves.
(23) Take away from before me the noise of your songs. I will not listen to the music of your harps.
(24) But let justice flow down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing river.
(25) Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings during the forty years in the wilderness, house of Israel?
It is clear in Amos that the Israelites of the northern kingdom continued to engage in some form of Yahweh worship after their split from the southern kingdom of Judah and after the introduction of the official endorsement of Baal worship under king Ahab. While both kingdoms became increasingly polytheistic and syncretistic over the course of their existence, Baal worship never supplanted Yahweh worship entirely. It continued to be an important part of the Israelite religious and cultural identity. In fact, much of the book of Amos makes no sense unless we suppose that the Israelites of the northern kingdom continued to draw confidence from their unique ancestral traditions even while worshiping other deities alongside Yahweh.
In fact, notice that Amos never seems to share the Priestly concern for the specific manner of cult worship. In other words, Amos never says, “You’re doing it the wrong way.” As far as Amos is concerned, the problem with the festivals and solemn assemblies of the Israelites isn’t that they are directed to someone other than Yahweh, and it isn’t that they are performing the festivals in a fundamentally incorrect order or manner. The real problem, according to Amos is that their worship, which may have been technically correct and legitimately directed to Yahweh, was empty because it was performed within a deeply unjust society. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the Israelites had good intentions. In fact, I think Amos’ point is that even though they are performing the technically correct actions, their intentions invalidate those actions.
What we do for God is important and God appreciates it and takes it seriously. When we offer to God tithes and offerings, or gifts of service, or songs of praise, or whatever practical things we do to honor God, if we act out of a faithful and loving heart God is very pleased with our gifts and good deeds. However, what Amos says here is that unless there is righteousness is our hearts, unless we are treating our fellow humans with fairness, kindness, and generosity, God doesn’t have any use for our tithes and offerings.
Because the thing is he doesn’t need our tithes and offerings. He has a universe of limitless resources at his disposal at any given moment, and if he doesn’t have precisely what he needs he can create it out of nothing. Our tithes and offerings and our gifts of service are valuable only in being the practical expression of a right relationship between a righteous human heart and a loving God. If we have the greatest musical skills in the world or the most beautiful voice and we use those assets in praise on Sunday, but on Monday we are abusive in our speech or are using our skills to cheat customers, our Sunday praise is repugnant to God. It isn’t just a little less valuable. God wishes we wouldn’t do it at all because he finds it disgusting. “Take away from me the noise of your songs.”
I am not saying that we have to be perfect to sing to God or to offer tithes or volunteer to clean the church. Indeed, the blood of Jesus covers us. I guess the key question is, whatever mistakes we make during the week, are we owning up to them and trying to do better? Or are we refusing to admit that we are doing anything wrong when we speak abusively or cheat our customers? Are we coming to God acknowledging our tendency to be bitter and jealous, or are we singing to God with bitterness and jealousy in our heart, using our singing to try to make a point to someone or to one-up a rival? Am I thankful every time we come together to worship because of how gracious God is to accept the praise of someone as unworthy as me, or am I saying in my heart, “Thank you that I am not a sinner like those people over there”, being under the delusion that God is really impressed by my praise?
On the other hand, praise that comes from a righteous, humble, and loving heart is a delight to God. If it were possible, it would make God’s life happier and fuller. He regards a people who worship him in righteousness and love as a special treasure, and he is pleased to dwell among such a people. Acts of service that are offered to him out of a humble heart are pleasing to him, but he doesn’t need them any more than a mother needs the gift of a half-depetalled dandelion from her young child. But that loving mother will take the meager offering of her child, arrange it, and put it in a vase, and suddenly that little flower of the field has become a dining table centerpiece. She values the gift even though she didn’t need it, and the way she shows her value for it is by taking it and making something more out of it with the child still having a part in the final product. This is the way our gifts are to God. Anything we offer, regardless of our skills or talents or resources, is just like that pathetic flowering weed. But God treasures it because it comes from our heart, and he shows his appreciation by taking our meager gift and making something so much better with it. What he makes of our gift is something only he could make, but the reason he made it is because we offered it, so we in turn get a special joy from the end product because we have a share in it.
This is what Israel’s sacrifices were to God. He didn’t need the sacrifices. In fact, he seems to say in verse 25 that Israel didn’t even offer sacrifices in the wilderness. Now, other parts of the Old Testament seem to indicate otherwise, but we may be able to harmonize these various passages by envisioning sacrifice in the wilderness as a not-fully-realized system: some parts were in place, but others, because of a lack of infrastructure and facilities, were not. Regardless, the point is that God is saying “My relationship with you has nothing to do with your sacrifices and festivals, and it never has. That’s all secondary. Your sacrifices are only meaningful to me as a gift emerging from our love for one another.” When offered in obedience and righteousness, the meagerness and ugliness of animal sacrifice was transformed by God into a rich and beautiful image of forgiveness as it was fulfilled in Jesus. But without obedience and righteousness, animal sacrifice was meager, ugly, and empty of meaning.