I Despise the Excellence of Jacob – Amos 6:7-8
(7) Therefore, now they will go into captivity at the head of the captives,
And the sounds of revelry of those loungers will come to an end.
In the time of Jeroboam II, Amos observed that the wealthy Israelite elite saw themselves as leaders, as the first among the first among nations. Indeed, they will be the first, says Amos – the first to go into captivity.
(8) “The Lord Yahweh swears by his soul,” says Yahweh God of hosts,
“I despise the excellence of Jacob, and I hate his fortresses.
I will cause the city and its fullness to be shut up.
In the first six verses of chapter six, Amos condemned Israel and Judah for their confidence in their own greatness. They saw their capital cities and thought, “Who can harm us?” They looked around at their neighbors and thought, “Who is bigger or more prosperous than we are?” In short, they thought, “We are the greatest nation on earth, and nothing can harm us.”
But Amos saw things differently. He saw that the prosperity of the wealthy elite was built on injustice, on bribed judges, and on taxation that unfairly burdened the poor. Their prosperity was not built on their own hard work, because rather than working hard to make the most of their wealth (which would have benefited the poorer Israelites around them), they were spending all their time and resources in dissipation: lounging on luxurious furniture, eating luxurious food, drinking massive amounts of wine, staying clean and smelling nice, and making music. Meanwhile, they were ignoring the destruction of Joseph, which was both something present in the suffering of the poor around them and something to come in the future in the form of foreign invasion from Assyria.
While verses one through three use irony to indirectly demean the supposed worldly strength in which the Israelite elite thought they could boast, verse eight comes out directly against it: God despises the “excellence” of Jacob. He hates Jacob’s fortresses.
God’s despising the excellence of Jacob can be understood in two ways. First, “despise” can mean to think little of. Whatever strength you feel you possess that you can boast in, God does not think much of it. God is not against your strengths and talents, but when you rely on them rather than on him to secure and defend your prosperity, God says that all your excellence, all that in which you would take pride, is nothing next to his power. Your mighty fortress will not secure you against his justice. If God were determined to do so, he could reduce a billionaire to nothing in an instant in any number of ways. The wealthy elite of Washington D.C., who seem to have the system fixed in their favor so they can break the law whenever they want and get away with at most a slap on the wrist, are not safe against the wrath of God if God decides that judgment is overdue.
The other way to understand God’s “despising” Jacob’s excellence is more in the emotional sense. While the point of the word ge’on is, in my opinion, more concerned with the prestige and power in which Israel takes pride rather than the pride itself, Jacob’s godless pride is, in fact, what is being described throughout chapter six. And God hates pride. It disgusts him.
Now, what do I mean by pride? Language is a problem, here, because we use a single word, “pride”, for a number of very different things. Do I mean the feeling of joy I have when I think about my son and want to tell everybody how smart and funny he is? No. Not at all. Do I mean the sense of satisfaction I feel when I finish a big project or receive an award for something. Not really, no. At least, not exactly. Do I mean the sense of dignity and work ethic that makes me want to earn what I receive and also makes me resist being enslaved to anyone. Perhaps, but not necessarily. It all really depends on whether whatever we are feeling that could be called “pride” is in submission to God and motivated by love, honesty, thankfulness, and humility. The kind of pride that God despises is one that puffs up and promotes self. My “work ethic” can actually conceal a sense of self-protective insecurity more than a commitment to honesty. My sense of satisfaction with an accomplishment can turn into a sense of superiority over those who have not accomplished the same thing. Even my joy in my son can turn into a “my child is better than your child” attitude. In each case, something good has been turned into something toxic.
I think one key aspect of pride that determines whether it is the healthy kind or the toxic kind is whether or not it is based on genuine thankfulness to God and on the realization that every good thing is a gift from God, including that sense of satisfaction I feel when I work hard to achieve something. Because the fact is that there is no guarantee that my hard work will produce a reward. Nothing about the universe in itself says that hard work must produce rewards. Rather, whether we are willing to admit it or not, the world often seems to punish the hard workers and reward the wicked and the lazy. But when we are submitted to God and trust in his provision, hard work becomes not about proving my value over against that of everyone else around me or about proving that my life decisions are superior to those of everyone else, but about serving God with all of my being in whatever I happen to be doing. Whatsoever I do, I do it with all my heart as if it were for God and not for myself or for others. Then, and only then, the sense of pride that we feel, which is very natural and which is actually created by God within our human psyches, is good, serving to strengthen the emotional bonds of relationship between humans and between us and God. Toxic pride destroys and devalues relationships.
So in response to Israel’s pride, which is here particularly directed toward the strength of their strongholds, God says, “I will cause the city and its fullness to be shut up”. This is describing a siege, and there is irony in it. Israel’s pride and faith is in its strongholds, so, God says, he will make their strongholds to become their prison.