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Bible Commentaries

Parker's The People's Bible

Amos 4

Verses 1-13

Moral Degradation

Amos 4:0

"Hear this word, ye kine of Bashan, that are in the mountain of Samaria, which oppress the poor, which crush the needy, which say to their masters, Bring, and let us drink" ( Amo 4:1 ).

David speaks of bulls "bulls of Bashan." Amos speaks of "kine"; another word, with subtler meanings, which cannot be expressed in terms. The whole people had sunk into sensuality. To say they were distinguished by effeminacy is to expose a word innocent in itself to false interpretations. The whole society spoken to by the reproachful prophet was sunk in the worst forms of selfishness and baseness. This farm servant does not choose his words with any view to consulting the taste of his hearers. He must get at their attention. When a man is determined to arrest the attention of the public he must not be too particular in the use of terms, or the use of words only that are permitted in the court of perverted and fickle taste. There are prophets who are speaking to the taste of the age, and the taste of the age takes no heed of their mincing words. They are not prophets, therefore. They have on the official robe, and they stand upon the official floor, but they are not prophets, because they do not use words that burn their way into the attention of the heart and the judgment. This farm servant, this field hand, comes crashingly down amid the corruptions of his day, and looking upon the wealthiest men lounging in their divans of ivory, nicely cornered where no draughts can reach them, and calling for more drink, he says, "Ye kine of Bashan " ye filthy women, men "hear this " It was well for Amos that he was not a farmer, but only a labourer. He would have been evicted. Poverty can be independent, skill can be courageous; a man who has a living in his fingers has no favours to ask; it is only the gentleman who cannot make his own living who has to beg some other people to let him live. Amos did not say, Gentlemen, nobles, aristocrats, feudal lords; he said, "Ye kine of Bashan." He addressed them as if they had gathered in a stable which itself had not been cleansed for a century, the very air of which reeked with pestilence. We must not send dainty men to do rough work; instruments must be adapted to the function which is demanded of them. There are those who cannot listen to speakers whose voices rise above the level of a whisper. By all means let such people have such gospel as they can receive; but an age marked by avarice, cupidity, oppressiveness, self-indulgence, and every form of evil, must listen to voices often grating, crashing, thunder-like, and carrying with no uncertain emphasis the express and direct judgment of God.

What is the charge against these fallen ones? They "oppress the poor," they "crush the needy." Yet, reading between the lines, and in the light of the day in which this history was written, it is perfectly possible that all this oppression and crushing was done secondarily, so that the men who were guilty of it did not personally and immediately know what they were doing. Does that relieve them of responsibility? Not one whit. The men in question curtained themselves in their divans, lounged at ease, dreamed the devil's nightmare, enjoyed themselves in all the range and gamut of evil aspiration, and allowed others to crush the needy. There are those who find it convenient not to see all that they are doing; there is a sense of grim comfort about drawing the curtain around one, and letting all manner of oppression and crushing and evildoing be conducted without our personal cognisance of the ghastly facts. This is the charge against the once-called people of God. Is it an ancient charge? Is it a reminiscence that requires a very skilful historian to recall in all its particularity and applicableness? Verily this is the iniquity of to-day. The senior partner does not know what the junior partner is doing; can the senior partner therefore preside over a Christian assembly, and talk pious twaddle, without being responsible for what his more energetic coadjutor is doing? Let him answer the question before he touches the altar in prayer, before he puts to his lips the blood of sacrament. Are they guiltless who leave a church, a country, a family, and so long as they can reap profit enough for their own advantage, care nothing how that profit is extorted from those who are oppressed? If the throne of God is holy, there is a dark day of answering for all such traitors and all such unfaithful souls. It is convenient to have some inner chamber, in which seniority can rest, and whence it can call for more drink, more luxury, more gold, no matter at what cost; but God's fire will find its way into that innermost chamber, and burn it Blessed be the name of the Judge, for he is interested in the poor; the case of the needy is his. Wherever there is oppression he hates it, and when men seek to sanctify robbery he calls it robbery, and throws it into hell. We need some blunt Amos to talk to us in our mother tongue. The moment he becomes rhetorical he becomes insincere; yet he must create a ritual of his own, noble, massive, resonant, marching through his audience as if by right intellectual, moral, divine right. You are bound to know how your servants are living. You are called upon by the God of Amos to find out how much you are giving to the least little boy in your establishment. If you are giving a thousand a year for the conversion of people you never saw, and are starving your own apprentices and employes and servants at home, you are bad. If thou say, "I knew it not," God will condemn thee out of thine own mouth. Why read reports of things five thousand miles away, and not know that a man in your own employment is at this moment dying of consumption, has a wife and four or five little children, and hardly a coal in the grate, and not much bread in the cupboard? You are bound to stop your carriage at his door, and save him from destroying hunger. That may make no impression in the public halls of the kingdom, but it will be written in the Book of Life, and in the other book, one day to be read aloud by the Judge, the inconsumable record written in heaven. What Amos dare tell us these things? Lord, send him! He will be crucified, but thou wilt receive him to glory.

"The Lord God hath sworn by his holiness" ( Amo 4:2 ).

Then it is a moral controversy. Nothing short of the holiness of God is pledged and involved in this argument. God does not swear by his majesty, but by his character. It is because he is holy he is going to take this action. Whenever holiness is interested in a controversy, know that the most obstinate and persistent force known to human nature is engaged in the strenuous contention. Always be afraid of an opponent who is working along the line of a noble character. The religious man is the most determined opponent of evil. The political economist is a calculator, an arranger; he thinks that perhaps the operation of evil had better be suspended, because it interferes with the adjustment of the comings and goings, exports and imports, and internal statistics. He will give way under pressure. Holiness never gives way. Fire will not give in, and the fire of the divine heart is enlisted against all men who oppress the poor and crush the needy. Find a man who is a politician, who operates only from political considerations, and he will be here to-day and there tomorrow; he will listen to know what is being said; he will calculate and arrange and adjust, and see how balances run, and listen to the eloquence of averages. Find a man whose conscience is alive, whose very mind has become a moral organ, whose whole soul is committed to the cause of right, and he will never yield; he cannot be changed, he is a representative of an eternal principle and an unchangeable standard. What we need is moral conviction. We have intelligence of a certain kind in plenty. We want the conscience to be enlisted, intelligently, thoroughly, passionately. When conscience takes up the cause of truth, that cause will be heard of in many languages, will be seen in many aspects, will be confronted in unexpected places. Conscience has been lost. The Church is without conviction; and a creed without conviction is a corpse. The Lord is not so arrayed against wrongdoing that we have to appease his passion; he is so arrayed against evil that we have to satisfy a moral judgment. God will have that which is right. Until the right is done nothing is done. In vain we decorate the walls if the foundations are destroyed. The Lord will have nothing done to the walls until the foundations are put in course. Decoration is nothing to him who appointed the heavens, and flushed the summer with colour, and made all nature an infinite loveliness. He does not look for our paint. He admires our solidity, massiveness, rectitude. We serve a holy Master: "Be ye holy as your Father in heaven is holy."

The farm servant now begins to speak in a tone of irony. It is wonderful how all these farm servants and others became suddenly and completely educated in the very highest style of human eloquence. These burning, blasting utterances might, so far as their rhetorical structure is concerned, have been fabricated by trained heads. The Lord will educate his own ministers, and abundantly qualify those whom he has honoured. God never sends his servants abroad empty-handed; he will have them stand still, and be his instruments through whom he may thunder judgment, or through whom he may whisper benediction. When will men let the Lord alone? When will the Church allow some scope to inspiration, and some opportunity for divine providence to vindicate itself? When will the Church learn to be reverently decent? We do not make one another; God makes us all. Now we shall hear irony that might have been spoken by Elijah.

"Come to Beth-el, and transgress [You are quite equal to it; come and dance on the church-floor, come and turn the sacrament board into a festival of rioting]: at Gilgal multiply transgression [Around the altar weave the web of iniquity, and carry on your madness under the sky of God]: and bring your sacrifices every morning, and your tithes after three years: and offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving with leaven, and proclaim and publish the free offerings" ( Amo 4:4-5 ).

What a partial programme! how well it reads, and yet how rotten it is at the heart of it! A sacrifice every morning, tithes after three years, sacrifice of thanksgiving, proclaim and publish the free offerings! There is one thing wanting in all that elegant programme, and for want of that one thing the whole arrangement dies in the air like a gilded bubble. What is omitted from this rehearsal? The sin offering, the trespass offering. They will come with sacrifices every morning as donors to God; they will come with service and sacrifices of thanksgiving with leaven; they will throw money into the treasury, and announce the sum in plain figures Where is penitence? Where is contrition? Where is heart-wringing? Where is the tearing conscience, the presence of tormenting agony in the innermost life? Most worship is partial; many will have a little partial religion. Some attention has to be paid to custom, to the habit, wont, and use of life; some mean coin must at least be thrown into the treasury, and thrown in with some ostentation; hymns must be sung, and fault must be found with the music, and judgment must be pronounced upon the rabbi, the priest, the teacher for the time being, and for a certain period there must be an odour of sanctity about what we say and do. All this trickery is possible; but it never reaches the heaven of God. Such doing does not amount to conduct; it does not go beyond the boundary of calculation and selfish adjustment. Not the sweetest song is accepted if its sacrifice be but a song. The publican, brokenhearted, crushed, wounded in the soul, crying, God be merciful to me a sinner! sings in his sob, praises God loudly and sweetly in the very utterance that is choked; when he has experienced the mercy he will rise like a liberated bird, and sing at the gate of heaven. Beware of formality, of partial worship, of doing in the church only those things we like. We like to sing; we like to hear some particular voice that charms or rouses, that soothes or encourages us; we like to sit in certain places, and, so far as our partialities go, what can be more decorous and more beautiful than our conduct in the sanctuary? Whereas the Lord, looking upon all these perfunctory attentions and sapless, bloodless sacrifices, says, I am weary to bear them: go and deal thy bread to the hungry, and lift up the life thou hast crushed, and be reconciled to thine enemy: do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with God; and then thy poorest song shall mingle without discord with the music of angels. When we do what we like to do we are not worshipping God. Unless there be a touch of the agony of the Christ, what we do is unacceptable to God.

Here you have punctuality; here you have thanksgiving; here you have music, and yet the Lord turns it into ironic taunt: "Come to Beth-el, and trangress: at Gilgal multiply transgression: and bring your sacrifices every morning, and your tithes after three years": be very punctual in your payments; after you have done it all, go home with the charge that you have been found liars before God. When will Amos come to tread us down in the divine wrath, and raise us up when we have confessed our sins and sought the divine forgiveness? To call us who have been ministers, office-bearers, heads of parishes, and leaders in sanctuaries men who have been found liars before God, how rough the speech, how violent the incrimination! Surely this cannot be a true impeachment. Men who talk so cannot be saved. Men should ask, Is it true? Have I omitted from my programme the sin offering, the trespass offering, the sign of personal criminality? Am I only a decorator of my external life, or am I seeking to be purified at the wellhead, cleansed at the font of being?

Now the Lord promises to inflict judgment and punishment upon his people. He will give them "cleanness of teeth" in all their places, because they shall have nothing to eat in all their places; and he proceeds to say that all his policy of punishment has failed. He says, after he has told them what he has done in case after case, "Yet have ye not returned unto me, saith the Lord" ( Amo 4:6 ); "But they were not satisfied: yet have ye not returned unto me, saith the Lord" ( Amo 4:8 ); "Yet have ye not returned unto me, saith the Lord" ( Amo 4:9 ); "Yet have ye not returned unto me, saith the Lord" ( Amo 4:10 ); "Yet have ye not returned unto me, saith the Lord" ( Amo 4:11 ). Mere punishment, even when exercised by the divine Being, can do nothing permanently and really curative. Here you have references to Sodom and Gomorrah and Egypt, to all the plagues that fell upon the people, and yet after all they stood before God with obdurate hearts. It is not in punishment to regenerate society. You cannot subdue a nation even by divine punishment. For God has tried it and has failed. Why should men hope to succeed where omnipotence has succumbed? Something more than punishment must be attempted; there must be education; there must be opportunity created for reasoning; there must be a spirit of judgment not on the penal side only, but on the side of rational debate and consideration.

Then comes a symbolic word. Amo 4:12 is a picture: "Therefore thus will I do unto thee, O Israel." How? There is no answer. The speaker here strikes an attitude; the attitude is that of an uplifted hand, "Therefore thus." There are many things that cannot be written. The Lord himself calls attention to figures in the sky, to signs in the expressive clouds, to events that build themselves up into pillars one side all fire, the other delicate and feathery as a cloud. The Lord shows himself apocalyptically, and only because we are blind we allow him to pass by without recognition and grateful hallelujah. Lord, that we might receive our sight! Thou art always near us, but we do not see thee; we are the victims of the body, we are subdued by our own flesh. The flesh warreth against the spirit, and the spirit often shows feeble fight against the flesh. Take not thy Holy Spirit from us. Thou art near, within touch, thou art nearer to us than we can ever be to ourselves, Lo, God is here, and I knew it not. See the action of providence; note the significance of events; read the signs of the times; standing in the sun is One who says, "Therefore thus." He that hath ears to hear, let him hear; he that hath eyes to see, let him see; these sights are not given to the eyes of the body, they are lavished upon the vision of the pure heart.

"... And because I will do this unto thee, prepare to meet thy God, O Israel" ( Amo 4:12 ).

How often have these words been turned into words of terror; how many noble discourses have been preached from this text which had no relation whatever to its meaning! This is the voice of love. All punishment has failed; threatened hell has become a familiarity that men listen to and let pass on; eternal fire, eternal brimstone have become figures in rhetoric tropes in poetry what now is to be done? Something larger, nobler "Prepare to meet thy God, O Israel." "Prepare:" there is forewarning. When God forewarns he means to give us every opportunity of repentance; if he were not determined upon giving us every opportunity he would plunge upon us without warning, and carry us away as a flood in the nighttime. The very word "prepare" so used in this relation is itself a gospel term. "Prepare to meet thy God" still "thy God." Men give up God, but does God give them up? They forget that there is a double relation. There be atheists and agnostics and non-theists and secularists who have made up their mind to renounce the whole idea of God, but God has not made up his mind to renounce them. Christ's Cross still stands; Calvary is just where it ever was; the great evangelic thought of redemption by the blood of Christ is the music of the universe, is the security of things eternal. So God will not renounce us, or cast us off, or allow us to be cut down, until he has pleaded with us, and we have to cut our way from him; and at last even he will say in the words of his Son, blessed, eternal Saviour, I have lost none but the son of perdition; I would have saved him too, but he would not be saved. Imagine not that God is moved by your fickle changefulness. You may have renounced God, but God has not renounced you. Men sometimes say that they have been obliged to give up Christianity; and we find it is not Christianity at all they have given up, but some church creed, some metaphysical, bewildering, superstitious nonsense that they have given up, and thank God they have given it up. All these things ought to be raked together, and burned!

Prayer

Almighty God, thy throne is established in the heavens, and thou thyself reignest calmly in Zion. Thou dwellest in peace; thou dost sit above the circle of the earth; thou lookest upon all the children of men as they come and go, and behold, as compared with thine own eternity, they are as shadows that abide not. We rest in thy care, we stand in thy strength. Thou art the Ancient of Days, and the Eternal King: blessed are they who have a place in thy house; they will be still praising thee; in the darkness they will see the Lord, far away they will know his coming, and near at hand they will hear his voice. We bless thee for all this consciousness of thy nearness, thy love, thy care, thy mighty defence; may we so grow in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ as to be no longer tossed about, wearied and worn and distracted by all the tumults of time. May we rest in the Lord and wait patiently for him, and abide under the shadow of the Almighty, and dwell in the tabernacle of eternity; then shall we not see when fear cometh, the cloud will be no frown, the gathered storm will fall in blessing upon our garden, our heritage shall then be fruitful, and our song unto the Lord shall every morning be new. Blessing and honour and glory and power be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever. Amen.

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Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Amos 4". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jpb/amos-4.html. 1885-95.