Commentary on Amos 5:18-24
How would a typical congregation feel if the members truly heard these words of the prophet?
God as a wild, predatory animal? God turning the divine back on the church’s liturgy, holding the divine nose, plugging the divine ears, clamping the divine eyes shut to ignore the acts of worship offered up by the people? Which image would prove more devastating? Would the fearful image of God as a dangerous lion or God showing disdain for the worship of the church hurt more deeply?
If the prophet intended these words to gain the attention of the hearers, he certainly chose startling scenes. One can assume that the original audience felt beleaguered by the threat of the Assyrians, so that they anticipated the now mysterious “Day of the Lord” as vindication and triumph. Amos turns their expectation on its head. The day of the Lord will not see them cheering on as God crushes their enemies. The day of the Lord will have them stumbling in the dark, trembling in fear. The animal images present an unrelenting picture of a danger one cannot escape. One threat simply gives way to another. The “prey” for the animals cannot find safety even after finally reaching home.
A common statement among contemporary Christians affirms that the “fear of the Lord” involves respect, not knee-shaking terror for one’s safety. Yet, Amos’s images evoke just such terror. The God to whom one turns for comfort, for protection now becomes the threat. What might these heart-pounding scenarios accomplish? At a minimum, they shake the listener out of complacency. They communicate that one cannot take God’s love, care, and comfort for granted. The fear of the Lord involves awe, but perhaps also the recognition that one does not trifle with God.
As commentators typically note, God reacts to the worship of the people in total rejection. With anthropomorphic metaphors, Amos portrays God blocking every sense from enjoying or even acknowledging the worship offered by the people. God will not look on the worship, will not smell the offering, will not listen to the songs. At the beginning of the passage, God attacks. Here God ignores. The God who considered the people a “treasured possession” in Exodus 19:4 now feels repulsed and disgusted by their worship. If the animal imagery sought to frighten the people, the words about God’s rejection seem intended to shame them.
The reading ends with well-known words about justice and righteousness. Interpretations differ about the exact message the words should convey. Does the call for justice rolling down like waters describe the sudden destruction of Israel? Do the waters wash away the northern kingdom as a demonstration of divine anger? Although that interpretation has some plausibility, the passage more likely calls Israel to enact justice as the expected result of genuine worship. The concepts of justice and righteousness go together. Justice refers to fairness, attention to the needs of the poor, an end to oppression, a legal system that protects the rights of all people. Righteousness connotes healthy relationships, a sense of commonality, a recognition of God as the one who has formed the people into a community, a respect for the bonds among the people. The image of justice rolling down like waters calls for justice to happen immediately, like a sudden deluge. The poor and marginalized should not have to wait for justice. Justice must happen now, with the urgency of a storm. The ever-flowing stream calls for a steady supply. The community should sustain justice. Justice should remain available just as a stream provides a reliable source of water.
Preachers should treat this passage with great care. Amos gives us powerful words, but the preacher must wield that power with skill. If one affirms my assessment above that the passage begins with images that frighten and shame, the preacher should avoid using the words that way. Faith that results from fear and shame rarely grows into healthy faith. A person in the pew fears a lion, a bear or a snake (in the wild), but rarely loves those animals, and cannot love such animals when they attack. The preacher has the task of using these images to convey God’s serious rejection of injustice, while still affirming God’s love.
Amos directed his words to those in Israel who worshipped, who made the sacrifices, sang the songs. He does not prophesy against those indifferent to the faith, or those who have rejected it. He directed these words to those who felt threatened by outside forces and expected God’s deliverance from enemies. Amos fulfilled the role of prophet, but he did not serve as a pastor. The contemporary pastor should seek in using this passage to communicate God’s hurt and anger over the treatment of the poor, and life’s victims. The contemporary preacher should not ignore the harshness of these words, or dismiss them. The preacher should use these words and images to proclaim God’s passion for the poor, and to call the congregation to live out their worship.
If we pray the Lord’s Prayer and have asked for the divine will to be done as part of worship, should we not work—even if imperfectly—to enact God’s will? If we ask God to speak to us through scripture, should we not seek to hear what God says about the victims in the world? If we celebrate the sacrament, should we not seek true fellowship with all? The preacher must wrestle with the words of Amos that God has grown angry enough to attack. Nevertheless, the entire book of Amos contains words of wrath (5:18-23), but also calls for repentance (5:4-6), and promises of mercy (9:13-15).
The preacher should honor the passionate God of this passage, but also include the whole message of Amos. Even in the fiery words of Amos, God offers forgiveness and healing, as well as challenge.