The Sinful Kingdom – Amos 9:5-8
Yahweh alone causes the coming disaster
Amos 9:5-15 tells us one final time that it is Yahweh and Yahweh alone who is bringing destruction on Israel, but that he will not utterly destroy Israel. A righteous remnant will be left, and from that remnant God will rebuild his people and bless them.
(5) The Lord Yahweh of hosts, the one striking the earth and it melts, all those who dwell in it will mourn, and all of it goes up like the Nile, and it sinks down like the Nile of Egypt.
(6) The one building in the heavens his upper chambers [MT stairs], and he establishes the foundations of its vaults on the earth, the one calling to the waters of the sea and he pours them out on the face of the earth, Yahweh is his name.
The recapitulation I mentioned in previous posts continues in these two verses in high concentration. The “earth melting” detail in verse five might call to mind the mourning or wilting of the pastures of the shepherds Amos 1:2, Yahweh breaking out like a fire against Israel in Amos 5:6, and the fire that devours even the depths of the earth in Amos 7:4. It also calls to mind a famous passage from outside Amos that occurs in the first chapter of Micah 1:3-4 – “For behold, Yahweh is coming from his place, he descends and treads upon the high places of the earth. The mountains melt beneath him and the valleys are split, like wax before a fire, like water flowing down a slope.”
The second half of verse five (“all of it goes up like the Nile, and it sinks down like the Nile of Egypt”) repeats verbatim portions of Amos 8:8, just one chapter earlier. Just as in last chapter, this could be either a figurative or a literal upheaval. Or it could be both. It could refer both to the coming earthquake as well as to the coming massive upheaval of the world brought about by Assyria’s new surge of international dominance under Tiglath Pileser III.
Verse six likewise recapitulates the second half of Amos 5:8, which says, “The one calling to the waters of the sea, and he pours it out upon the face of the earth, Yahweh is his name.” The similarity is both in the summoning and pouring of the waters – describing the way water rises into the atmosphere to form rainclouds and then pours back out in storms and portraying Yahweh as the master of storms – as well as in the concluding Yahweh shemo, “Yahweh is his name”, which is really the whole point of these two verses. This little phrase has occurred over and over in Amos, and wherever we have seen it the purpose has always been to describe God’s power over the elements and the exclusivity of his authority in this realm.
So here, as earlier, we see earthquakes and storms, both literal and figurative, and all of them are because of Yahweh. As in these other passages, the point of these two verses is the sovereignty of God: the fact that God alone is the one who causes these things to happen. There is no other. This implies two further points.
- If it is Yahweh and Yahweh alone who does these things, then there is no other deity to appease. You cannot get around God’s destruction by appealing to Baal or Dagan or Asherah to countermand God’s orders. Yahweh, as Psalm 95:3 affirms, is a great God and a great king over all gods. Even if other gods had some kind of true living existence, they would nevertheless be no match in power and authority for the creator of the universe. They would only exist to serve Yahweh, whether willingly or unwillingly.
- If Yahweh alone is God over all the universe, this also implies that Yahweh is not simply the God of the Israelites but the God of all other nations, as well. That’s partly what the next two verses tell us.
Sinful Israelites are No Different From the Nations of the World
(7) Are you all not like the sons of Ethiopia to me, O sons of Israel? says Yahweh. Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and Aram from Qir?
As far as God is concerned, he says here, there is no difference at this point between the Israelites and the Ethiopians. There is nothing especially significant about the choice of Ethiopia as the nation of comparison. God could have chosen to compare the Israelites to the Greeks or the Elamites or the Assyrians or any other nation. In fact, it is Ethiopia’s lack of distinction that makes it so appropriate here. The Israelites are no different from any other nation, as least insofar as it has to do with anything inherent in them. Israel were special, but what made them special was entirely that God had elected them to be his special people. Being God’s special people entailed being faithful to him and to him alone, abiding by his covenant and not trying to replace him with something else. When the Israelites were unfaithful, they no longer lived in the reality of God’s election, so there ceased to be any substantial difference between them and the Ethiopians or the Philistines or the Arameans. The point of this is not to say that there is no advantage to being an Israelite, but that whatever advantage they possessed they had forsaken when they forsook Yahweh and his Torah by worshiping other gods and by abusing the poor and weak in Israelite society.
This isn’t a new idea in Amos. We’ve been seeing this since chapter 1. The message of that initial Oracles-Against-the-Nations section is that Israel is no better than the nations around them, because their sins are at least as grievous. Then again in 6:1-2 Amos mocked Israelite feelings of superiority with sarcasm, saying you who think you are the first among the citizens of the first among nations, you will be the first to go into exile. Here in Amos 9:7 this theme is recapitulated and finally stated in its clearest form: Israelites who are unfaithful to Yahweh are no different in his eyes than any other people group. Neither their ancestry nor their nationality gave them any special privilege.
Becoming “The Sinful Kingdom”
(8) Behold, the eyes of the Lord Yahweh are on the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from upon the face of the earth, although I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob.
Notice here that Amos says “the sinful kingdom” rather than “Israel”. This is, again, because Israel has given up her identity as the people of God by forsaking their only distinguishing feature: devotion to Yahweh and his Torah. It’s almost as if they no longer even deserve the name “Israel”. They are now no different from any other “sinful kingdom”. The eyes of Yahweh are on the sinful kingdom, regardless of who that kingdom happens to be, and this is as relevant to us Christians today as it was to 8th century BC Israelites. There is no identity native to us, no privileged status that neutralizes sin other than our identity in Christ. Our righteous status is entirely derived from God himself through Jesus. We inherit it, but we never possess it independently of God himself. This means that if we live willfully in sin, rejecting God as our God and seeking out a more controllable god to replace him, we in fact reject the righteousness of Jesus, we remove ourselves from under the lordship Christ, which is the only place of safety and righteousness before God.
This isn’t to say that we have to be perfect to remain in the covenant. Not at all. An important part of our inheritance in Christ is forgiveness of sins. So long as we are “in Christ” and walking “by the Spirit”, there is no condemnation according to Romans 8:1. God forgives our sins and works within us to perfect our character and, over time, eliminate the lingering effects of sin that pervade our total being. So being “sinful” in the sense that we are all recovering sinners at different stages on our Spirit-led journey to perfection isn’t the kind of sinfulness that I’m talking about whereby we remove ourselves from under the lordship of Christ.
But there are many ways that we, corporately as well as individually, might try to replace Christ or live in our own power and authority. When we, for example, decide that there comes a point when the Christian ethic of turning the other cheek is no longer applicable, or when we decide that, yes, Jesus says you cannot serve God and Mammon but everyone knows that money is what makes the world go ‘round, so I’m just going to have to serve Mammon a little to make my Christian life possible … well, at that point you’ve entered dangerous territory, because you have declared that Jesus is not really Lord in the fullest sense. You’re saying that his lordship isn’t sufficient to provide for us or to protect us if we simply follow his teachings. You’re saying a certain degree of compromise is just going to be necessary. You’re actually saying that Christian ethics are a luxury that only the wealthy can afford. If that’s the way we’re living, we can pay lip service to Jesus and his lordship all day long but it doesn’t mean a darn thing. We have to live as if we really believe that Jesus is Lord.
Corporately, I think the example that is always foremost on my mind is the way we Christians continually try to turn the Church into something that it isn’t for the sake of gaining worldly power, wealth, or influence. Sometimes we treat the Church like a business, or a social club, or a country club. Thinking that the highest goal we can attain to is growing the Church to number in the thousands, we might start using marketing schemes that have nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus. We might start confusing publicity stunts with outreach, and outreach with disciple-making. We might decide to plant our Church in a wealthy, low-crime area so as to appeal to the right kinds of people who can give the biggest tithes so that we can support more missionaries or give more money to poor, just so long as the poor remain in a different part of town.
Sometimes we treat the Church as a political organization, and we may even do this for noble reasons. Many Christians who take very seriously their Christian duty to care for the poor, which is biblical, feel that their faith demands that they should take care of the poor by any means necessary – for example, by lobbying for legislation that raises taxes on the rich and redistributes it to the poor via government programs. Sometimes legislation may be the appropriate course of action. I don’t rule that out automatically, but too often the political course seems to become pretty much the exclusive way some Christians pursue their duty to take care of the poor. Politics, for them, has become the fundamental reality, and in such cases sometimes it’s as if the Church has become nothing more than a means to achieve an ethical end that transcends the Church. And when we start feeling that there are ethical concerns that transcend the Kingdom of God, when we try to use the Church as a means to accomplish what is essentially a worldly end, we forsake the Lordship of Christ. Because the Church isn’t a political organization and it does not exist to bring about a particular political structure or theory in the world. The aims of politics and of the Church sometimes go in the same direction, but the Church has a means of accomplishing this in a way that makes politics irrelevant. There are many Christians who cannot understand this or accept it. For them, politics really comes first, and in my opinion their view of the Lordship of Christ is deficient. What is our duty? Our duty is to proclaim that Jesus is risen and that he is Lord. Part of the way we proclaim that is by taking care of the poor. Taking care of the poor is not really the fundamental end. It actually becomes a means whereby the fundamental end, the proclamation of the lordship of Christ, is achieved.
This is some subtle stuff I’m talking about here, but it’s important because one way we might find ourselves becoming just another version of “the sinful kingdom” rather “Israel” is by trying to turn the Church into something it’s not because we misunderstand what the goal of the Church is. Our goal is to glorify God. Our goal is not to solve all the world’s problems. God is the one who does that. We partner with him in that and he gives us our marching orders, but fixing the world’s problems is ultimately God’s job, not ours. The enemy would like to get our attention on some other goal than glorifying God, like building a big wealthy social club with a big beautiful Church building, or like getting our vision of a righteous society codified in the U. S. legal code. But every single time we start pursuing these alternative goals, as noble as we might think our intentions are, it really ends up being all about glorifying us rather than God. And when it becomes about us rather than about God, we become very difficult to distinguish from any other sinful kingdom.