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Amos 6:1-6 .
This cowherd keeps on his way well. He is not all subdued up to this moment. We saw how he began in a high, clear, resonant voice of judgment and criticism. Not one tone has yet been softened. The voice is as clear as ever; the judgment has never faltered. Amos has never trifled with the standard; he began with righteousness, and he has never been tempted to change the court of appeal.
"Woe to them that are at ease in Zion" ( Amo 6:1 ).
But is not ease a sign of contentment? Is not ease indicative of satisfaction? Is not repose the highest aspect of power? What is there, then, to condemn in the spirit and attitude of ease? To find out the prophet's meaning we must go back to the language the prophet himself used; then the reading will be, Woe to them that are recklessly at ease in Zion Woe to them that care not; who say, It is nothing to us. "Recklessly at ease" is the literal translation of the prophet's word. This is not mere indifference, not a studied withdrawment from tumult, not some early Cowper sighing for "a lodge in some vast wilderness, some boundless contiguity of shade," because he is weary of this world's story of tumult and worry; this is studied carelessness as to the condition and fate of men. The Bible will never tolerate that hostile view of providence, human education, and human destiny; the Bible insists that we are to be careful about all these things all the time. Where is my brother? What is he doing? How can I help him? Can I lend a hand at carrying the burden which is too much for him? There are those who have hidden themselves away from the calamities of their brethren, have wrapped themselves round with a garment of reckless ease; and the cowherd comes, sends a blasting denunciation after them; he takes the roof off their house, and blows upon them with a whirlwind of righteous indignation. When did the Bible cease to care for men? When did the Bible ever lose itself in ideal contemplation, and withdraw itself from the line of human want, and sorrow, and pain, and wound, and helplessness? This is the one book in the library that sits up all night with us, that goes the whole road of life step for step with us, and that is tenderest when we are sorest, mightiest when we most realise our own helplessness.
The prophet, speaking representatively, says:
"Pass ye unto Calneh, and see; and from thence go ye to Hamath the great: then go down to Gath of the Philistines: be they better than these kingdoms? or their border greater than your border?" ( Amo 6:2 ).
Here he is reproving another kind of discontentment. He is rebuking those who think they have given up a good deal for God. There are persons who say that if they had only been anything but Christians they would have been millionaires. There are even preachers who say that if they had not in some mysterious hour sacrificed themselves in the interests of the pulpit they might have been driving in a carriage. There are those who say that if they had not given up all for Christ they might have been in the House of Commons or in the House of Lords! The Bible will not have it so. Peter once said to his Lord, "We have forsaken all and followed thee," and the Lord turned round about him and said, "Every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name's sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life." Where is your little "all" in that boundless ocean of recompense and reward? The prophet, however, will have concrete evidence. He is not content with saying, Your state is as good as it would otherwise have been; he says, Go to Calneh, to Hamath, to Gath; reckon up all the Philistines have, total the sum of benefit accruing to heathenism, paganism, worldliness: cast up the account well, and now tell me how the totals run. Where has the Christian been left short? Where has the good man been at a disadvantage? If in the hand, not in the heart; if in visible and tangible substance, not in the mind, that wondrous sanctuary of the imagination, by which a man lays hold of all the worlds, and by which he appropriates the whole universe of God, to his spiritual nutriment, his moral satisfaction, and the establishment and consolidation of his truest usefulness. Thus the Lord admits the principle of competitive criticism and judgment. He submits himself to be so judged. He says, Produce your gods: where are they? What are their names? what are their histories? what have they done? Are these your gods that are nailed up? Are these your divinities whose faces are freshly painted? Are these your trusts, worlds that are far away, and which you worship only on account of their distance and their magnitude? Where are your gods? So he descends to another level and says, Where are your advantages? What has the bad man got that is denied to the good man that is really of true substance, true value, and lasting quality? We cannot lay God under obligation; we cannot approach him and say, We have done great honour to the Cross, and but for our largeness and liberality, our faithfulness and constant endeavour, the cause of Christ would have gone down in the world. Never. No cause that is of Christ can go down, except to rise again. Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened except it die. There are moments of recession, moments even of putrefaction; but the chemistry of nature is operating, and the laws of nature never cease, and the upshot shall be that where there was a seedtime there shall be a harvest. No good word is lost, no true speech is blown away in the heedless wind; every word that has in it life and music and gospel and hope goes from thee to come back again a thousandfold in music and in strength and in blessedness. The Lord thus drives us out to Calneh, to Hamath, to Gath; to New York, to Paris, to St. Petersburg, to London; and he says, Take with you your books; write down all you see; cast up the account well; only be exact, be spiritual, be penetrating, omit nothing; even the dust is gold; reckon it, and when thou hast totalled all, tell me, saith the Lord, how stands the account.
The prophet now hurls another denunciation. "Ye that put far away the evil day," the day of judgment, the day cf the Lord, the day of inquest. They could not destroy that day, but they could postpone it. Is this an accusation limited to people who lived three thousand years ago? Is there no action of postponement now? Do we not cause things to be transferred until tomorrow and the day following? Do we not draw a visor over our faces that in momentary blindness we may do things we never should have done if our eyes were open, and were receiving the noonday light? This is the practical sophism of life; this is how men throw themselves away. So it is that judgment is put down, and the voice of conscience is silenced, and all the monitions of the better life are stifled. We say, Well tomorrow; we do not deny the importance of these things. The preacher talks well; in his sentences there are many words that are very valuable; but just now urgency, pressure of another kind is upon us: when we have a more convenient season we will hear this man, he shall unroll his revelations, and tell us what he wants to be and to do. There are men who do not deny the day of judgment, but they have put it off a long way. Nor have they done so merely in an arithmetical sense, for in the language used by Amos there is a tone which indicates that the postponement has been accomplished because the men who accomplish it viewed the day of the Lord with aversion. If we omit the element of aversion we miss the true criticism of the text. To avert is to turn the shoulder upon, to turn away from, to express displeasure, impatience, disgust, fear; never to express joy, welcome, gladness, thankfulness. Bad men have nothing to hope for from the day of the Lord.
"... And cause the seat of violence to come near" ( Amo 6:3 ), even in the very act of apparently postponing it. The people here charged postponed the day of the Lord, and in doing so hastened the day of the Assyrian. Men do not take in the double aspect of life; they see only one point in the great circle; they think that if they have postponed the day of judgment they have made all things quiet and smooth, and henceforth all things will run easily, forgetting that no man can put off the Lord without inviting the enemy. They "cause the seat of violence to come near" the session of violence, the sitting of violence; so that whilst the people were so dealing with God, putting off his day to a long date, the Assyrian was preparing to come down. When we have dismissed God we have opened the door to the invader. He who keeps the door of the nation is God; he who puts a roof over the head of the nation to save his people from desolating winds and rains is God. If we have dismissed the altar we have dismissed providence along with worship. This is the teaching of history, this is the tone of the prophets; and if it were the tone of the prophets only we might say this is ancient poetry, a fine idealism; but there is a grip upon us that says, The hand of the Lord is as the iron of almightiness. No man ever postponed a prayer without losing a bargain; or if he made his bargain for the moment, and took home his bag of gold, when he opened it there was nothing in that bag but darkness. It is on this basis of life we proceed. History is our evidence, consciousness is our witness; and for any man to break down this witness he must first break down by irrefragable evidence our personal character.
Again the cowherd comes to the charge. He scourges those
"That lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches" ( Amo 6:4 ).
Literally: Pour out themselves like a libation upon their couches, enjoy luxury to the full; and then he adds,
"That chant to the sound of the viol, and invent to themselves instruments of musick, like David" ( Amo 6:5 ).
How we shelter ourselves behind great names "like David," yet not at all David-like. David invented or devised instruments of music that upon them he might discourse to the praise and glory of the all-giving and all-directing God. They prostituted what David devised and consecrated. How often we say, Like the Puritans; like the Reformers; like the Revolutionists; like the Prophets; like David, when we are prostituting what they consecrated or devoted to the service of God. A man may make a lyre, and on it he may play to the devil; a man may paint a picture, and to him it may represent the beauty that fascinates the heart with other than spiritual loveliness, a singular mystery of appeal that in its very silence subtly affects the imagination and subtly wears down the finest quality of the soul. "Like David": we may have David's harp without playing upon it with David's spirit; we may read David's psalms and find no music in them. There are those who could parody David; there are irreverent creatures who could mimic the altar; there is a degeneracy of reverence that finds no God in blooming flower or in singing bird or in radiant morning. We could not fashion our lives after that sort. We could do so, we could play the beast as well as they. Have they tongues? So have we. Are they gifted in speech? We are not wanting in skill of utterance; we could talk profanity, we could curse society and blast the universe, and show the riches of our vocabulary of blasphemy, but we would not do so; we could be irreverent in the sanctuary, and make a kind of spurious fame by our want of veneration; we prefer silence, solemnity, and the spirit of adoration. These men made musical instruments, and said they were following the example of David. They lied, they dishonoured the immortal dead.
"That drink wine in bowls" that drink bowls full of wine. The ordinary goblet was too small; the little crystal glass excited but their contempt; their souls were on fire for accursed drink, and they must gulp it out of the bowl. Was that all? Far from it. The bowls that were here used, according to the best criticism, were bowls out of which the blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled. See the priest with his bowl, filled with the blood of sacrifice; see him dipping his fingers, and sprinkling and so consecrating the objects that were specified for such chrism; then see these hell-hounds, their throats all fire, using the very bowls, filling them with poison-wine, and drinking that they might forget their misery. To such degradation men have come. Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall. No man may boast against another herein. There are giants in the dust, there are mighty men registered among the lost. A haughty spirit goeth before a fall; pride goeth before destruction. If a man shall boast himself of his personal security, what wonder if his very boastfulness become a temptation and a snare? We are safe in humility, we are secured by self-distrust; for then we go to the munition of rocks, and cry mightily with the tenderness of prayer, "Hold thou me up, and I shall be safe."
What came of all this outstretching upon beds of ivory, and this pouring out upon couches and divans of luxury? What came of all this eating of the deer, the hart, the roebuck, the fallow deer, and the fat fowls of the poultry-yard? What came of all this drinking out of bowls and anointing with chief ointments? This came: "They are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph." "Joseph" here is the name that stands for the tribe of Ephraim. All luxury tends to moral insensibility, to social carelessness, to the recklessness of ease which the prophet began by condemning. There are two ways of treating the afflictions of society, and we are well practised in them. The first plan is to regard them as so little that poor people and others can manage the whole administration of the case themselves; we say, These are but skin-wounds; in a day or two they will be healed; these are little questions of momentary irritation and dislocation; in a little while by the poor taking care of themselves all this will be rectified. Drink more! bigger bowls! That is one way. Then the other way, the more philosophical and statesmanlike way, is to say that these evils are so gigantic and overwhelming that it is simply useless to talk about them drink! more drink! larger bowls! This is what it comes to, not always in the same broad form, not always with the same openness and visibleness of manifestation; but a man cannot overfeed his body without going down in the quality of his soul; a man cannot go down in the quality of his soul without ceasing to care for the souls of other people. A man cannot have his eyes filled with fatness and his whole nature surfeited with plentifulness of luxury without losing spiritual vision, spiritual sensitivity, spiritual bloom and quality; and now speak to him about the young and the poor and the sick and the helpless, and he says, I cannot attend to it now: I leave that to others: I can no longer take interest in public and social controversy drink! Bring in more wine, more luxury, more fatness from the jungle, the forest, and the vineyard. Shall it come to this? or shall we return to the grand old rule of simple living and high thinking? Not a monastic treatment of the body, but such an elevation of the soul as will make all other things low, poor, insignificant, comparatively worthless? Shall we use the world as not abusing it, or shall we allow the world to overweigh us and crush us and destroy us? To a great question there should be a solemn answer.
Amos 6:0 , Amos 7:0
We now come to one of the "Therefores" which are so characteristic of this practical prophet. He builds up his reasoning well; then he plunges into his conclusions. He is emphatically a great preacher, never concluding without a rousing application. We have considered what apostate men have done, and we move into this practical "Therefore" with abundant intelligence. We have seen men recklessly at ease in Zion, and trusting to the mountain of Samaria; we have seen them lying upon beds of ivory, and pouring themselves out upon couches of luxury, ordering the lambs out of the flock that they might increase their fatness. What can we expect the "Therefore" of the prophet to lead to? Shall we strike out the words after "Therefore," and fill the blank as we like? Let us see how far our moral sense replaces inspiration.
The men are apostate. They have gone down so rapidly that they are now drinking wine in bowls consecrated to sacrifice. They are not drinking the wine, they are swallowing it, devouring it: Therefore they shall be glad and rejoice; they shall be strong and happy; they shall shut the north wind out of their garden; their vines shall be plentiful in fruitfulness, and their day shall be long, warm; yea, the sun shall stand still to admire their enjoyments, and the moon shall halt that she may look down upon the glad festival. Conscience itself would not allow the use of such words. There is a spirit in man, and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth him understanding, even where he has not seen the written Bible. With an introduction so immoral we must have a conclusion adapted to it. We cannot replace the words we find here with better; the balance of the chapter is equal. There is a sublimity of style even in describing immorality, and that sublimity is well-balanced by the sublimity of the denunciation of judgment in which the ardent prophet indulges. The vengeance will be measured by the immorality. We do not know what the immorality is until we receive its punishment. We are not judges of our own actions; we cannot tell where they begin, how they proceed, how far their influence palpitates and throbs on the lake of being. We must know ourselves by studying providence; in the blight of the harvest we must see what we ourselves have been; in the action of the body reduced to a groan of helplessness we must see what sin really means. Sin was never meant to be theorised about, to be defined as a dictionary word, to be treated as a theological term; it is one of those words that stand apart from speech, gathering up into themselves colours, forces, suggestions, that do not lie within the limited function of word-explainers.
Only history can tell what sin is; nothing but divine judgment can give you a definition of bad doing. We must watch the desolation if we would know the meaning of certain terms, and know the range of certain actions. Men have shown folly herein, deep and incredible, for they have set themselves to writing books about sin; as if sin would ever consent to have itself passed through an inkhorn, to be explained by made pen, and by weary incapable hand, that cannot supply its own wants, much less write the tragedy of creation. We must study divine judgment if we would know human sin. The difficulty of the teacher herein is that so many persons are unconscious of sin, and are therefore mayhap the greater sinners. Some do not distinguish between crime and sin. They have not been criminals, and therefore they think they have not been sinners, as if all the story of life did not lie in the disposition rather than in the action. The action is nothing a poor impotent hand stretched out to do something it cannot accomplish. The heart is the seat of evil. None knoweth the heart but God. The heart does not know itself; the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; and if there were not a concurrent line called history or providence or judgment, we should never know the real state of the heart. What have we then in books but elaborate mistakes, metaphysics perverted to immoral uses, made to show that there is no sin; and in showing that there is no sin metaphysics leave unexplained the penal providences of life, the tremendous devastations that have been wrought by fire and plague and angry skies in every mood of indignation. How are all these to be explained, understood, or received into the line of education, and made to instruct the growing life? Never by any theory that undervalues or mistakes the force of sin. The young cannot enter into this; the life that has been lived in easy frivolity can never understand so grim a doctrine; the girl that has always had her own way and enjoyed herself abundantly at home, and has only had to ask for luxuries in order to receive them, and who has never been tried beyond the point of being called upon to thank her friends for their lavish kindness, what can she understand of this tragedy? To her, they who preach it must be fanatics, yea, madmen. We must, however, go to the broader history, the larger experience of mankind, and find, not in it alone, but in it as interpreted by divine providence, God's meaning of the term sin.
When the Lord putteth forth the whole of his judgment the desolation is terrible:
"A man's uncle shall take him up, and he that burneth him, to bring out the bones out of the house, and shall say unto him that is by the sides of the house, Is there yet any with thee? and he shall say, No. Then shall he say, Hold thy tongue [hush]" ( Amo 6:10 ).
That is God's judgment. There is nothing left but the man's uncle; that is to say, in Biblical language, the man's goel, the man's next-of-kin, whose duty it is to burn the dead body or to bury it; and he shall come to seek the corpses, and shall grope round the sides of the house to know if there are any more dead there, and one shall say in a whispered groan, Hush! "We may not make mention of the name of the Lord," either because we have proved ourselves unworthy to take that holy name into our lips, or because the judgment is so tremendous that even to mention the name of the Lord may seem to provoke but a repetition of his wrath. "Hold thy tongue" is a term which is best interpreted by the word, Hush! There is a time when we want no speech, a time when God's wrath has had free play, and is glorified not in destruction, but in the attestation of right. There are times when God himself must define terms and show us their meaning, and when he is driven to this he writes with a sword, he speaks with a tempest trumpet.
Amos is fond of interrogative parables. We have seen how often he puts a parable into an enigma. Here he has recourse to his favourite method of exposition and suggestion, saying, "Shall horses run upon the rock? Will one plow there with oxen?" Amos was a philosopher before the time. He talks here, though hardly knowing that he is so talking, about the "laws of nature." The passage may be interpreted variously. We may take it for practical purposes as indicating a certain law of cause and effect, a law of fitness of things, a law of possible and impossible. "Shall horses run upon the rock," and break their limbs? "Will one plow there with oxen?" who can make a plough that will cut rocks? Then there is a law of nature. How easily we assent to that proposition! But how difficult it is for us to understand the term "law of nature" in its larger uses and applications! There are those who are eloquent upon the laws of nature who only talk about those laws on one side or aspect. Is there no law of nature of a moral kind? Has the whole spiritual region of life no law, no philosophy, no genius which represents the fitness of things? Is there not a law of nature which demands that the child shall be filial? Is there not a law of nature which says that there are sovereignties that must be obeyed? Is there not a law of nature which calls for thankfulness as the natural sequence of benefaction? Is there no impulse toward the Eternal? Is there not a law which says to him who would find eternity in time, Set down the goblet, for out of that small vessel thou canst not drink immortality? We talk about these laws of nature as if they were limited, mechanical, ponderable, and such as can be represented in plain figures. Or, if we talk about laws of nature, why not take in all the laws of nature, all impulses, volitions, tendencies, aspirations, dumb strugglings after things above and beyond? Never imagine that the laws of nature are confined to certain mechanical and dynamical actions which are accessible only by the physiologist, or the chemist, or the biologist. There are laws of nature, and it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. It will be hard for thee to turn wrong into right. "The way of transgressors is hard": that is as certainly a law of nature as any procession of the stars or sequence of the seasons. In talking, therefore, about laws of nature take in all life, all nature, all possibilities of being; then you will not be pedants, but philosophers.
"Thus hath the Lord God showed unto me; and, behold, he formed grasshoppers in the beginning of the shooting up of the latter growth; and, lo, it was the latter growth after the king's mowings. And it came to pass, that when they had made an end of eating the grass of the land, then I said, O Lord God, forgive" ( Amo 7:1-2 ).
There is the triune God forming for the verb should be represented as rather an immediate and continuous action than an action already accomplished. This, indeed, is the key of many passages of Scripture, that the action is still proceeding. God is still forming man out of the ground; God is still creating man in his own image and likeness; God is still forming judgments, and making heavens of reward. The Lord humbles his creatures by the very instruments which he sometimes uses. An army could meet an army; but what soldiery could fight a grasshopper? or what cannon can strike the beast in a vital part? Where is it? What its magnitude? What its weight? What space does it occupy? Give us these data, and we will take them to the mathematician, and he will make elaborate calculations, and shape his weapon accordingly. That cannot be done. There may be a greater population on a green leaf than you find in all England. There may be a larger congregation in a drop of water than ever assembled in a cathedral. The Lord will not send some red-coated soldiery down to fight those apostates; he will make grasshoppers, and in the morning the grass will all be gone. We are told by those who have lived in lands known to grasshoppers and locusts, and other devouring insects, that to-day there shall be fifty acres of luxuriant corn waving in the summer wind, radiant, and beautified by the summer sun, and in less than twenty-four hours it shall be cut off within an inch of the root. By what? By swords? No; there were dignity in dying by a sword; the murder is not so rough, the instrument is long and sharp and silver-handled. By what ministry has this destruction been wrought? There is a tone of contempt in the very enunciation of the name this is the work of locusts, this is the miracle of grasshoppers.
Amos sees another vision,
"Thus he showed me: and, behold, the Lord stood upon a wall made by a plumbline, with a plumbline in his hand. And the Lord said unto me, Amos, what seest thou? And I said, A plumbline. Then said the Lord, Behold, I will set a plumbline in the midst of my people Israel" ( Amo 7:7-8 ).
These words are open to two meanings: I have measured up Israel, and none of it shall be lost; or, I will try Israel by a plumbline, and whatever is out of plumb shall be thrown down. The Lord's government is represented by a plumbline. He will have no leaning pillars; he builds no fancy Pisas; he is not a God of eccentricity. The Lord will have right; he will have the square, the vertical, the exact; he will not accept a rough polygon for a circle. His eyes are flames of fire; he weighs the actions of men in the scales of the sanctuary. The king knows what is written on the wall. Men have made wonderful expositions of "MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN," simply meaning, Pounds, ounces, pennyweights. There need be no esoteric meaning about the writing. The king knew it; he said, This means weighing: I have to go upon the scales; the weighing time has come: "Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting." Sometimes we have to be weighed without our consent being obtained. All life has to be weighed; the plumbline has to be set against every wall, and if the building be bad, as bad as it will be if not built first with the plumbline, down it goes, not arbitrarily, but because the laws of nature, gravitation, will not have crooked lines and bad speculative building and mean jerry-work in its holy universe. There must be a great tumbling down of bad building. On the other hand, we can lay comfort to ourselves by saying that because there is a plumbline in the hand of God no good action shall be allowed to fall, no good building shall perish; nothing that is right shall suffer loss; the judgment of God is but an aspect of his mercy.
Amos talked thus roughly and frankly, and Amos had a poor congregation. Men do not like this kind of speech. Better talk in polysyllables that jingle to one another, and call rhyme poetry; better sing some wordless lullaby, for thieves like sleep after felony. Who cares for judgment? If Amos were to return to the church there is not a congregation in the world that he would not dissolve. Amaziah represents what would happen: "O thou seer" there is mockery in the tone: thou man of eyes; seeing, penetrating, piercing looker; thou cowherd seer "go, flee thee away into the land of Judah, and there eat bread, and prophesy there [sell thy judgments in Judah]: but prophesy not again any more at Beth-el: for it is the king's chapel, and it is the king's court" go, talk to the rabble, but do not let the king hear thy raving! The prophet of God has always been handed down to the poor. There is a refinement that cannot speak above whispers; there is a delicacy that goes daintily down to hell, quietly, easily, gracefully; but you can hear the rustle of the silk as it goes down to be burned. The religious teachers have always been handed over to the canaille, to the rubbish of society. Religion has always been regarded as an excellent thing for the East-end.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Amos 6". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Sixth Week after Easter