A Famine of the Words of the LORD – Amos 8:11-13
(11) Behold: days are coming,
Says the Lord Yahweh,
I will send out famine in the land,
Not a famine for bread,
And not a thirst for water,
But for hearing the words of Yahweh.
(12) And they will tremble from sea to sea,
From the north to the east they will go to and fro,
To search for the word of Yahweh,
And they will not find it.
(13) In that day, the beautiful young women will swoon,
And the young men because of thirst.
Worse than famine, worse than drought, worse than natural disaster, worse terrible mourning, the day is coming, God says, when you will not be able to find me at all. There will be a famine of the words of Yahweh. You will look for me in the north, south, east, and west. You will stumble faintly from place to place trying to find one person who can tell you what God is thinking, but you won’t be able to find even a single person. You won’t even have prophets like Amos to tell you that you are doing wrong. I will abandon you completely. I have said this before, but here it bears repeating: the prophecy of Amos, which is so harsh and which only rarely offers an explicit invitation to repent, is implied here to be an act of mercy and love. At least God is speaking to Israel, this passage would say.
The “words of Yahweh” here are not the Bible per se, but the prophetic word of the Lord. The word of the Lord can be discerned in the Scriptures, including the more limited scriptures they may have had in the 8th century BC, perhaps some form of what we now call the Pentateuch, perhaps some orally transmitted songs, poems, and legends. But for the word of the Lord to be discerned in the Scriptures it requires the inspiration of the Holy Spirit on the reader. So prophecy and discerning the will of God in the Bible are closely related concepts. This passage is predominantly concerned with prophecy, but any word from God would be included in this, including life giving teaching from the Torah.
So this passage says that God is going to stop speaking to Israel, and they will suffer like it is a famine or drought. Even worse, in fact. Now, if we take the principle here and articulate it in a positive direction, what might we say? Essentially what it says in Deuteronomy 8:3 (which Jesus quotes in Luke 4:4 and Matthew 4:4) – “Not by bread alone will a man live, but by every thing proceeding from the mouth of Yahweh a man shall live.” What really sustains us, what really gives us life, is not the food that we eat or the water that we drink. I am not saying do not eat and drink, but what I am saying is that those are not the real substance of life. The Word of God in its fullest sense is the substance of life. When you eat your food and drink your water, realize that this has been provided for you by the Word of God. God spoke those things into existence and then provided them for you. So it is not bread or water than sustains you. It is every thing proceeding from the mouth of God. You can have all the bread in the world and not really be living in the fullest sense if God is not speaking life into your innermost being.
Now, I am tying Word, bread, and water together. Where else do we see this happening? Most especially in the Gospel of John. In John 4:10, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that he can give her living water which will cause her never to thirst again. Then, in John 7:37-39, Jesus proclaims that if anyone thirsts, let them come to him and drink, for whoever will believe in him will have rivers of living water flowing from his belly. John goes on to say that the Spirit is that living water, and we are to understand that Jesus himself is the source of this life-giving water. Jesus is the one who gives us the Spirit. Then, in John 6:51, what does Jesus say? “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” Jesus is identifying himself with the manna, about which Deuteronomy 8:3 is talking. The manna was given, Deuteronomy says, so that Israel would understand that it is not by bread alone that a man lives, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Finally, what does John 1 call Jesus? Who is Jesus? Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. Jesus is the source of all life. He is the one who sustains us and gives us true life. He is the Word that Amos is prophesying would depart from Israel and for which they would thirst and faint but in vain.
All these things come together to mutually affirm one key truth: God is the giver of life, and without him there is no life. This is not simply a pious platitude, the sort of hyperbole used between lovers: “I can’t live without you.” Well, technically, you can live without her. You might not have felt like living when she broke up with you, but you just kept breathing, kept drinking, kept eating, and eventually you felt like getting up in the morning and living life.
But with God, to say “I can’t live without you” isn’t hyperbole. He is not only the creator but the sustainer of all life. Stuff exists because he continues to will it to exist. We do not believe in the god of the Deists, a creator God who did his work in putting everything together, winding it up, and sending it away without any further concerns. The universe we live in does not exist in any way independently of either the will or the existence of God. This is the idea Paul is communicating in Acts 17:28, “For in him [that is the Creator God] we live and move and have our being.”
This is not to say that the universe is itself God or even a part of God, which is the way some Greek philosophers conceived of God. These two subtly distinct ideas are called respectively Pantheism or Panentheism, and they remain popular in Western pop religion. People who hold pantheistic or panentheistic beliefs might say something like this: “I believe there’s a little bit of the divine in all of us” or “You just need to bring out your inner goddess.” Notice how these kinds of statements focus their attention on us and on how awesome we humans are. Some people seem to think that thoughts of this sort are basically Christian, being implied in Genesis 1:26 when God makes humanity in his own image. But to be made in the image of God (as we believe that we humans are) is not the same thing as saying that we are mini-gods, or that there is a spark of divinity, a little piece of God within us. This is not a Christian idea but is actually warmed over paganism lite. The image of God in Genesis 1:26 is not about us being somehow genetically descended from God or sharing in his “divine nature”, but about our function in the universe. We are the mediators between God and creation. We represent God to creation and creation to God. So rather than suggesting that creation is in any sense divine or a part of God, the image of God in Genesis 1:26 supposes what Søren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth would call, “an infinite qualitative difference” between creation and the Creator. There is no sense in which we can say that creation, including us humans, is God or is a part of God.
Nevertheless, we also cannot in any sense say that creation exists without the Creator as Deism says. You may have noticed this, but Deism is also popular in Western pop religion, again even amongst people who call themselves Christians. It is really remarkable how many deeply unbiblical, un-Christian ideas sneak their way into the worldviews of many Christians through pop religion, and how many followers of pop religion actually think that what they believe is basically Christian. Deists (whether or not they realize that is what they are), will say things like, “God did his part, now its time for us to do our part, because he has bigger things to worry about than X, Y, or Z.” Again, notice how this kind of thinking shifts the focus from God and his activity to us and ours, but this time that shift is accomplished by pushing God out of the picture. You might say that both Pantheism and Deism make humans gods, Pantheism in our nature, Deism in our authority and power. This is why understanding what the Bible says about the relationship between Creator and creation is so important. Your theology does affect your actions, and this is an idea to which we will return shortly.
The biblical view of the relationship between God and the universe is that the Creator is not simply the origin of all that exists, he is the continual sustainer of it. He is actively involved in its continued existence and development. He is always and everywhere present to his creation, but he is never identical with it. His being transcends any possible created space, time, or matter. Nevertheless, he and he alone is what holds all of reality together, so if we try to live life without God, life will not work. Again, God must be God. Jesus must be Lord.
We are continually tempted to remove Jesus from the throne when we let the news and social media cause us to fret and worry that the world is falling apart and when we try to solve the world’s problems in our own strength. No, no, no. The US Government is not lord, and neither are you. Jesus is Lord, and not only is he aware of everything that is going on, he is competent to lead his Church through all the chaos. But when we try to take on ourselves the responsibility of solving the world’s problems, we are trying to live as if Jesus either is not really Lord or as if he is not really competent as Lord. And that is precisely why we start to feel like the world is falling apart when we take our eyes off of Jesus. What are we doing trying to solve the world’s problems by arguing with people on the Internet, fretfully watching or reading the news, or angrily demonstrating in front of government buildings? I cannot solve my own problems, let alone those of the world.
True, a real Christian faith demands to be publicly demonstrated through faithful acts, but those faithful acts are limited to two things: love God, and love your neighbor. Notice that neither “solve the world’s problems” nor “solve your own problems” is included in that short list. And loving your neighbor does not mean being concerned about every single human being who lives on the earth. I hate to break it to you, but you do not have it within you to be actively concerned about every human being on the planet. Try and you will exhaust your emotional energy very quickly. Loving our neighbor means treating kindly and serving selflessly those who are within our reach, people with whom we have personal contact. The Internet and television news give us the impression that more people are within our reach than actually are, and the effect is ironically to take our attention off the people who are actually within our reach. Honestly, I am not an anti-television or anti-Internet kind of guy, but this fact alone makes me wonder whether we might not be better off without either of them. Your jurisdiction, the realm where Jesus your Lord expects your faithful obedience, consists of your neighbors, meaning those you have personal contact with. Over time, if we are faithful, our jurisdiction may expand, or (in the words of Jabez) God may enlarge our territory, but chances are your jurisdiction is actually smaller than television and the Internet has led you to believe. Trust Jesus to be Lord not just of your life but of all creation, because when we do not, when we act as if we can manage things without him as Lord of all creation, it is as if we are trying to live life without the sustainer of life, to live joyfully without the source of all joy. Remember that we are merely tiny branches connected to the vine, not the vine itself.