The Sermon for Sunday, January 22nd, 2023, the Third Sunday after Epiphany
The Lessons: Psalm 139:1-18; Amos 3:1-11; Matthew 4:12-22
The Text: Amos 3:1-11
The Topic: The prophetic call to treat people justly
The prophet Amos, though he lived in the village of Tekoa in the southern kingdom of Judah in the eighth century B.C., directed his prophetic messages to the northern kingdom of Israel, warning them of the Fall of Samaria (722 B.C.) on account of the injustices practiced by its people. Amos was primarily a sheep farmer, cattle farmer and a grower of sycamore figs, but God called him to prophesy to the northern kingdom of Israel (otherwise known as Ephraim). The physical location of Amos’s home may have affected his ministry as a prophet. Though Tekoa was more than 2,700 feet above sea level, the wilderness of Tekoa descended about 4,000 feet to the east into the Dead Sea valley. His proximity to the lonely desert emphasized the narrow border between life and death, and the power of God who has ultimate control over life.
The historical period in which Amos prophesied is given the framework of the reigns of two kings: Uzziah, king of Judah (783-742 B.C.) and Jeroboam II, king of Israel (786-746 B.C.). Although this period showed peace among nations and prosperity, the inner life of Israel was characterized by injustice, and it is this against which God’s word is directed.
Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, had been built by King Omri and King Ahab in the ninth century B.C. The city was situated on a hill 300 feet above its surrounding plain, which was encircled by hills. Enclosing the city were fortified walls, within which the magnificent palaces of these two kings had been built. The rulers and people of Samaria trusted in these fortifications and the wealth and military might of their kingdom to keep them safe from the attacks of the enemy, but their way of life was hateful to God.
AMOS 3:1-11: CAUSE AND EFFECT IN PROPHECY AND THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN GOD AND MAN
The Lord begins the prophetic oracle against the whole nation of Israel that he brought up from the land of Egypt by declaring that Israel is the only nation of all the families of the earth that he has known; therefore he will punish them for all their sins (Amos 3:2). This means that of all the peoples of the earth, God has known only Israel, that is, made a covenant with them, and entered a unique relationship with them. On the basis of the terms of that covenant, then, he will punish them for all their sins. The covenant God had made with Israel clearly stipulated curses and punishments for Israel if it disobeyed God and did not keep the terms of the Covenant (Deuteronomy 27, for example). Not only in the Old Covenant, but also in the New, and in ancient treaties between an overlord and his vassals, disobedience to a covenant is the cause of retribution.
After the Lord’s initial declaration of why he will punish Israel for their sins, a series of questions follow, to which the modern reader might well reply, “These are all self-evident.” What we must understand, though, is that these truths of cause and effect apply to man’s relationship to God and God’s relationship to man as well. The first question, “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3, KJV) speaks to the covenant relationship between Israel and the Lord. A covenant is a kind of formal agreement. But in the next few questions, the topic is predators and traps. A lion in the forest will not roar unless he has prey, nor will a young lion cry from his den if he has not caught anything (Amos 3:4). A bird will not fall in a snare when none has been set for him, and no-one will take up a snare from the ground if he has caught nothing in it at all (Amos 3:5). The questions show the pattern of cause and effect in the ordinary life of animals, birds, and human beings. The listener and the reader are meant to apply this relation of cause and effect to their relationship with God and with their neighbor, bearing in mind they are like animals or birds caught in a trap, if they purposely rebel against doing God’s will. In the Book of Ecclesiastes we are also warned of this:
For man also knoweth not his time: as the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them.
(Ecclesiastes 9:12, KJV)
In Amos 3:6, the question is whether a trumpet that is blown in the city will not cause the people to be afraid. The trumpet (shofar) would be blown to warn the inhabitants of a city that it was to be attacked by an enemy and they must prepare to defend it. Naturally, they would be afraid at the sound of the trumpet. The second question is about evil in a city, and whether the Lord is not responsible for it. This evil does not refer to sin, but to evil coming upon a city that the Lord has brought upon it. This speaks to a tendency we find today. Plagues, pestilences, floods, and wildfires have natural causes that can be explained in scientific terms. But on another level at times God can bring these things to pass as punishments for sin.
Though God is the ultimate cause of judgments in this world, including the destruction of some nations and empires to establish others, he does nothing, Amos 3:7 assures us, without first revealing his secret to his servants the prophets. Just as there is a causal relationship between disobedience to the covenant and retribution, so there is a causal relationship between God’s speaking of his word and prophets’ prophesying (Amos 3:8). Also, just as the lion roars, and everyone is afraid, so when the Lord God has spoken, his prophets must prophesy. The cause of genuine prophecy is God’s inspiration of his prophets, giving them the messages they must speak, not prophets themselves dreaming up from their own imaginations things that they pass off as the word of God.
In the last section (vv.9-11) of Amos 3:1-11, God calls on Israel’s neighbors, the palaces of Ashdod (representing the Philistines and their rulers) and the palaces of Egypt to gather on the mountains of Samaria to witness both the tumults and the oppressed in Samaria. In verse 10 we encounter the final indictment, that the rulers of Samaria do not know how to do what is right since they “store up violence and robbery in their palaces” (Amos 3;10b, KJV). The upper class, living in palaces, were oppressing the poor, stealing from them and doing violent acts against them.
God’s judgment on the sin of the Samaritan upper class would be an enemy round about their land, who would weaken them and loot their palaces (Amos 3:11). This judgment was fulfilled when Assyria (under King Shalmaneser) besieged Samaria for three years, captured it, and deported the Israelites to Assyria, replacing them with citizens of Babylon and other cities of Mesopotamia (2 Kings 17:24).
What does this passage teach us today? All people have free will, God’s faithful people included, but God holds all accountable for their actions. Just as many ancient Israelites relied on their election as God’s people, and thought they could behave as sinfully as they pleased, but God would still be pleased with them, so there are those today who bear the name of Christian while they live their lives in conflict with the will of God and the mind of Christ. Just as the northern kingdom of Israel faced downfall because of its unjust treatment of the poor in its midst, so God today will not forever prevent from falling those, whether nations or individuals, who treat others unjustly.
The fact that we are in the New Covenant sealed by Christ’s blood means that because we have been saved by grace, our duty is to love God with our whole being and our neighbor as we love ourselves, making sure we treat others rightly and justly.
 p.148, Peter C. Craigie: Twelve Prophets, Volume 1. Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1984.