Amos worked full-time for much of his life as "a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees" (Amos 1:1; 7:14) in the village of Tekoa in the southern kingdom of Judah.
One day God called this rancher and arborist to leave his vocation in order to become God's mouthpiece and prophet to the people of the northern kingdom of Israel. Amos came as an outsider with strong warnings of God's imminent judgment upon the king, the politically powerful, the wealthy and well-connected, and the religious establishment.
A Funeral Dirge: Israel Is Already Dead!
Amos chapter five begins with the prophet singing a mournful funeral dirge, a lamentation for one already dead. The opening lines of the chapter set the stage for the lectionary reading for this Sunday. The funeral dirge is not for a person but for a whole nation:
Fallen, no more to rise, is maiden Israel;
Forsaken on her land, with no one to raise her up (5:2).
Amos spoke at a time when Israel seemed to be flourishing. The economy was prospering, at least for some. The king maintained law and order, however skewed to the rich and powerful. Worship attendance at the king's houses of worship was high. The prophet, however, shattered this veneer of prosperity and religiosity. If you look deeply into this society and system, all God sees is death, not life, the prophet said. No hope for a turnaround here: Israel is "fallen, no more to rise." To add insult to injury, Amos delivers this shocking and dispiriting news at the doorstep of one of Israel's holiest sanctuaries, the king's favorite place of worship at Bethel.
Maybe a Chance to Turn It Around
It is in this context of inevitable death that Amos' next words in the beginning of our lectionary reading are equally jarring. Amos exhorts his hearers, "Seek the LORD and live" (5:6). Wait a minute! Didn't Amos just tell us we are all as good as dead and without any hope? Now Amos insists that God may still be open to consider a deep and heartfelt repentance followed by dramatic new ways of living in accord with that repentance. Of course, Amos' audience thought they had been "seeking the LORD" by attending the worship house at Bethel. Clearly, they must learn a new way of "seeking the LORD."
Justice into Wormwood
True worship profoundly influences what God's people do during the rest of the week. That was not happening in Amos' day. Supposedly religious Israelites had been "turning justice to wormwood" (5:7). Amos-style justice had a special focus on the city gate (Amos 5:10, 12, 15). The city "gate" was the area just inside the main entrance to the walled city, a public gathering place for all kinds of hearings and disputes (Ruth 4:1, 10-11). God was very interested in what happened "in the gate" because it was the key public arena for negotiating fairness, compassion, and social order in accord with the values, nature and history of God and God's people. The Torah reminded Israel that God "takes no bribe," "executes justice for the orphan and the widow," and "loves the strangers." Israel was to be a mirror of God's justice in its own life and social relationships (Deuteronomy 10:17-18).
God's justice, Amos said, had been turned to "wormwood." Wormwood was a plant in Palestine that had an exceedingly bitter taste and was a frequent metaphor for the poison and bitterness of disaster and destruction (Amos 6:12; Jeremiah 9:15; Lamentations 3:15). Israel had turned justice into a bitter and destructive poison of greed that trampled on the poor, stole their grain, afflicted the righteous, took bribes, pushed aside the needy, and resisted "the one who speaks the truth" (Amos 5:10-12).
Seeking God = Seeking Good
The lectionary text continues with an exhortation, a plea from Amos that parallels his earlier plea to "Seek the LORD and live" (5:6). This time Amos gives some content to what such seeking for God looks like. It is not just attending worship at Bethel on the Sabbath. No, seeking God means seeking "good and not evil, that you may live" (5:14). Seeking God means doing good for others, especially the poor and vulnerable in the community and the society at large. Loving God and loving neighbor are an inseparable pair.
Moreover, doing good and loving neighbor are not just for God's sake but for our own sake: "that you may live." It is ultimately in our own long term self-interest to turn around, radically change our ways, seek the wellbeing of our neighbor, "love good," and "establish justice in the gate" (5:15). Seeking good is the key to seeking God: only then will Israel have any hope that the LORD "will be with you" (5:14).
Hope for a Remnant
Our text ends with a hopeful word, however tentative: God "may be . . . gracious to the remnant of Joseph" (5:15). "Joseph" is another name for northern Israel. Amos offers a glimmer of hope that a small remnant may yet respond to the prophet's call and be spared the wholesale destruction and exile of the nation that seems all but inevitable. The prophet's warnings eventually did come true with the Assyrian invasion and exile of northern Israel in 722 BCE. A small remnant preserved the prophet's words and came south to Judah where the words of Amos were again read, reinterpreted and applied one hundred thirty four years later with the Babylonian invasion and exile of southern Judah in 587 BCE.
Amos' words and warnings have continued to speak powerfully and truthfully across the centuries even, wherever the poor are trampled, the distribution of wealth is out of whack, and justice is perverted. In a world like ours threatened by economic collapse, global warming and disparities in which twenty percent of the world's population uses eighty percent of the world's resources, the words of Amos continue to bear witness. Is there a glimmer of hope for us as well?