Saturday 29 January 2022

The Visions of Amos - 5

Here is demonstrated the tough love of Father God who brings His people back to where they belong
Amos Chapter 9

Amos has delivered some very strong words to Israel and to the surrounding nations, but the last chapters of his confrontations are about what he saw; his visions.

First he saw locusts, then a destroying fire, but both of these were prevented by the prophet's pleas for mercy. Then came the plumb line, set against the religious and political hierarchy, followed by the basket of summer fruit, a picture of a nation ripe and ready for ruin. 

Now in the fifth vision Amos sees the Lord Himself, standing in the very spot where the stench of syncretism has gone up. Most English translations have the Lord standing 'beside' the altar but the Hebrew preposition is normally rendered 'upon'. The Lord is standing on or above this offensive monument to infidelity, ready to bring down the whole edifice on the heads of the idolatrous worshippers. The temple design could well have been similar to the Philistine house of Dagon with two central pillars which Samson pushed against and brought the roof down on three thousand of his enemies. In this case the Lord uses a great earthquake to strike the tops of the pillars and bring down the whole edifice on heads of the assembled throng.

These chapters leave us in no doubt that God, who is God of love, is also prepared to judge, condemn and destroy those who persistently oppose Him, and especially those who should know better.

The following verses tell us three more things about the nature of God:

(v2-4) God is everywhere at once (omnipresence). There is no place beyond His reach; not the deepest sea nor the highest mountain, not even in death itself can man escape the presence of the Lord. We can never be safe from God; only safe in Him.
(v5-6) God has unlimited power (omnipotence). In His infinite greatness He can do what He wants and when He wants. The rise and fall of continents and oceans, earthquakes, tsunamis, wind and water events, climate, heat and cold - all are under His control.

(v7-8) God knows everything (omniscience). He knows all there is to know and all that can be known. He is aware of the past, the present and the future of every being and of every people and nation.   

And God chose an obstinate and rebellious people from the Middle East to demonstrate to the rest of the world his magnanimous desire for friendship and relationship with mankind. The Hebrew people were given privileged access but with it greater accountability; harsher punishment for disobedience but with it an inextinguishable hope of return to the Covenant of friendship with the Almighty.

So Amos declares that Israel will be shaken like a seive but the pebbles will not be lost. One day they will be returned to the land from which they were banished. After two thousand years we are the generation that have witnessed this miraculous return. While the original Egyptians, the Philistines, the Arameans (Syrians), the Edomites and other surrounding nations all disappeared off the face of the earth, the Hebrew people have returned, and still are returning, to the same land, speaking the same language and once again believing in the same God, prospering despite worldwide jealousy and antipathy.  

"I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,
and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.
I will plant them on their land,
and they shall never again be uprooted
out of the land that I have given them,”
says the Lord your God.

This modern miracle is surely a good reason to believe in the One who three millenia ago predicted these things through a humble shepherd. Here is demonstrated the tough love of Father God who brings His people back to where they belong. We too are brought back to repentance and restoration as we hope in Jesus the Jew, who suffered on our behalf, bringing us to where we belong with His redeemed and rescued people.

Author: John Plumb

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Saturday 22 January 2022

The Visions of Amos – 4

One day Jesus will return to earth, not to suffer again for our sins but to judge the nations and to rule with perfect justice
Amos chapter 8

Just over a century ago an Irish archaeologist was on a dig in Gezer, an ancient village to the west of Jerusalem. He unearthed an ancient tablet, probably from the time of king Solomon, inscribed with the farming calendar. In paleo-Hebrew script it reads:

‘Two months of harvest’
‘Two months of planting’
‘Two months of late planting’
‘One month of hoeing’
‘One month of barley-harvest’
‘One month of harvest and festival’
‘Two months of grape harvesting’
‘One month of summer fruit’

This last line is the concluding agricultural activity of the year and is the context of a vision given to the prophet Amos, his fourth.

As a farmer I know that the arrival of the combine harvester heralds the end of the arable year. It is the culmination of a year of work and inputs as grain is off-loaded into trailers and weighed into the store. The next arable year is about to begin as the first seeds are planted straight into the harvested ground.

Returning to our text and to 750BC Israel; summer fruit is the late harvest, and produce such as figs gathered in late summer would spoil quickly, rather like our soft fruits that would perish without the help of freezers and would have to be consumed quickly. Being mostly rural, hearers and readers of this vision would immediately know that the Lord, through the prophet Amos, was referring to something that was about to end. The kingdom of Jereboam II was about to be harvested. Despite the expansion, the power and the wealth of this godless dynasty and the accompanying complacency it was in reality as fragile as a basket of perishable fruit, already past its best.
In verse 2 there is an important play on words that we miss in translation. The word for ‘summer fruit’ is ‘qayits’, then in the next sentence, using the same root letters, comes the word ‘qets’ which means ‘the end’. God himself is saying that the end has come for his people.  

The first two visions threaten destruction by locusts and by fire but the Lord relents as a result of the prophet’s intercession. In the third vision Amos sees that the royal house and the religious establishment will be measured by the plumb-line of God’s standard. Now in this fourth vision he comes into line with God’s plans and goes on to pronounce the reasons for Israel’s downfall. The divide between rich and poor was widening due to exploitation and dodgy trading practices, giving scant lip service to God’s laws as they persisted in selfish abuse of others, treading on heads to scale the social ladder. Corrupt practices that kept the poor in debt meant that ruthless merchants could sell even the chaff that had been winnowed out of the wheat. Worse still by stealth they were forcing needy people into unofficial slavery.

There was to be one final warning for the kingdom. Right at the beginning of the book we are told that within two years there would be a significant earthquake (Amos 1:1). Historical accounts record that in 763BC there was an earthquake on the scale of 7 – 8, and in the very same year there was a near total eclipse of the sun (Amos 8:9). Nevertheless the people just rebuilt and carried on with their greed and abuse, until the Assyrians came in 721BC to take them away.

The parallels for today are clear. The nation that rejects the Word of God becomes obsessed with making money and the controlling power it brings, deceiving others to the point where they themselves are deceived into thinking that this is acceptable. And God says that the end is nigh for those who refuse his Word.  

One day Jesus will return to earth, not to suffer again for our sins but to judge the nations and to rule with perfect justice.

Author: John Plumb

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Saturday 15 January 2022

The Visions of Amos – 3

We thank God for Jesus through whom we may be spared from due condemnation and through whose Spirit we may attain His standard of holiness
Amos 7:7-9

Visitors to Coventry Cathedral will have seen an art work inspired by these verses. A model of the city sits under a large plummet, suspended by a fine cord attached all the way up to the high vaulted ceiling. The roof is so high and the line so long that it seems to hang from heaven itself. The sculpture reminds us that every city, every community and every individual who has ever lived will be judged according to God’s standard of uprightness.

In the first two visions (Amos 7:1-6) God announced the desolation of the land of the northern kingdom of Israel, firstly by locusts then by fire. In both cases the prophet prayed and through his intercession disaster was averted. In this third vision there is no prayer because Amos now sees that the persistent transgression of the nation has gone too far:

“For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment” (Amos 2:6)

Transgression means to cross a boundary, and the ‘three and four’ is a way of saying that they just kept adding to their list of sins.

There is general agreement that the wall in the vision is the nation of Israel which had been built by the Lord using His plumb line. Now the Lord is checking to see if the wall is still upright, and all that is now out of true will be brought down. The message is being delivered in Bethel where Jeroboam I had set up golden calves for the people of the north to worship so they wouldn’t have to travel down to Jerusalem for the festivals. A hundred years on and the hostility between north and south continues, Jeroboam II and his apostate priest Amaziah still lead the people into false state-sponsored religion. The Lord will no longer tolerate it; the high places and the sanctuaries will be made desolate and laid waste, and the dynasty of Jeroboam is coming to a violent end.

When the Lord asks Amos what he sees in the vision it is the plumb line that stands out. So what does this plumb line represent? It is God’s measure of uprightness.
‘Upright’ is not a description often used of people today. It is defined as being honest, moral and responsible, and accompanies integrity. This is the quality that the Lord is seeking in His people, though too often He finds something crooked. 

The integrity of the upright guides them, but the crookedness of the treacherous destroys them. (Prov 11:3)

The plumb line in the vision is God’s law written in His Word. He sets this standard of holiness in the midst of Israel (v8-9) and refuses to overlook the transgression of the nation. The high places were sites of depravity, the sanctuaries had become centres of empty religious practice, and the king and his regime controlling and corrupt. All these spheres of life – leisure, religion, government – are found wanting and will be brought down by God’s authority. In the event within one generation the northern nation of Israel was no more, having been defeated and deported by the cruel and ruthless Assyrian empire. The southern kingdom of Judah, the home of Amos, was to survive for another 150 years.

Whilst it is helpful to understand the context of these words we cannot think that the warnings were only for that people in that time, rather the narrative is a model for how God works throughout history. We can see the intimate relationship that the Lord has with this simple man, formed amongst the flocks and fields of his homeland, even responding to his prayers for mercy over a nation. We also see the wrath of God ready to be poured out over an arrogant and avaricious society that has abandoned theocratic rule and abused its privileges.

We cannot but consider our own nation and the plumb line of God’s Word that hangs from heaven in our midst. We thank God for Jesus through whom we may be spared from due condemnation and through whose Spirit we may attain His standard of holiness. May we too represent the plumb line of God’s standard. 

Author: John Plumb

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Saturday 8 January 2022

The Visions of Amos – 2

Not one of us can claim to deserve God’s favour, only condemnation, but Jesus is pleading our case before the Father, and we receive mercy because of that relationship.
Amos 7:1-6

Sent by God to the apostate and arrogant elite of the north, Amos brings indictment and instruction to a people steeped in religious experience but devoid of its practical outworking in matters of justice, mercy and humility.

‘Seek the Lord and live,
lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph,
and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel,
O you who turn justice to wormwood
and cast down righteousness to the earth!’  (Amos 5:6-7)

The warnings are clear and their delivery explicit. Did they listen? Clearly not.  Bethel (whose name means ‘House of God’,) has become the ‘king’s sanctuary’, not of the real King but of pretender king Jereboam, now a temple of an earthly kingdom worshipping golden calves and so destined for desolation according to the word of the Lord. (7:12-13)

Now come the visions of chapter 7. Responding to the first vision (7:1-3) Amos pleads with God to forgive Israel. God relents and the threat of devastation by locusts recedes. Then comes a second vision with a yet worse threat – fire. The nature of this fire is not clear, but probably refers to heat and drought so severe that even the underground waters of the ‘great deep’ would dry out and the land itself would be rendered barren and uninhabitable desert. Amos understands that the nation is under divine and deserved judgement but he won’t give up. This time he doesn’t ask for forgiveness, knowing that it was not granted in the first vision.  Recognising their unrepentance he simply asks the Lord to cease, to refrain from sending this devastating fire.

What a picture of selfless intercession. Not one of us can claim to deserve God’s favour, only condemnation, but Jesus is pleading our case before the Father, and we receive mercy because of that relationship.
God’s response to Amos is the same as in the first vision. ‘This also shall not be.’  Once again God’s mind is changed as the result of a human prayer. The word ‘relent’ (heb: ‘nacham’) means a change of mind resulting from pity or compassion.  The verb structure (niphal form) implies that the subject, in this case God himself, initiates but is also intimately involved with the removal of the threat. Amos knows that the people are arrogant and unrepentant, but he also knows God to be full of compassion and mercy. How interesting that the prophet succeeds in changing God’s mind, but not that of the king (Jereboam) or his priest (Amaziah). 

All of this should remind us that at the heart of everything God does, or does not do, is relationship. This is why Jesus said: 

‘Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it.’  (John 14:13-14)

Amos, this unassuming man of the field, had learned that God wanted a conversation with him, and he treasured that relationship above any comfort or reward that the world had to offer.  

The name Amos suggests carrying a burden, and we see that he carried the burden of the people he served to the God he loved, while he himself was being carried by God. In this Amos points forward to Jesus who carries us and our burdens before the One who is able to give us rest for our souls.

God chose the tribes of Israel to be a model for his world, both for blessing and for cursing. Despite many prophetic warnings they still refused to repent and later the nation was indeed destroyed, not by locusts, not by fire, but by defeat and deportation. If the Lord did this to his chosen people will he not also judge our own nation? May the Lord continue to raise up intercessors, burden-bearers who will come before the throne of the King on behalf our our nation until we repent and return to His authority.

“Prepare to meet your God, O Israel!” (Amos 4:12)

“Amen, come Lord Jesus” (Rev 22:20)

Author: John Plumb

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Saturday 1 January 2022

The Visions of Amos

Compassion for this unjust society prompts intercession rather than condemnation
Amos lived some seven and a half centuries before Christ.  In those days God’s people were living in two divided nations; conservative and isolated Judah to the south, and cosmopolitan and prosperous Israel to the north.  God called Amos from his work in Judah’s fields and flocks in the south to pronounce judgement against the rapidly expanding kingdom of the north. His oracles were delivered in aptly named Bethel, meaning ‘house of God’, which had become a centre of idolatry and syncretism, mixing orthodox religious practices with all kinds of disgusting rituals relating to golden calves and other false deities.

As he delivered his message Amos was heading for trouble with the religious and political leadership, but wisely began by prophesying against all the surrounding nations. This must have somewhat pleased the hearers since their nation was in the process of expanding at the expense of its godless neighbours, who were about to come under judgement. Even self-righteous Judah was on the list. But then Amos brought his words to bear on the arrogance, oppression and injustice of the nation of Israel itself and was then told in no uncertain terms to go back to his own country and his day job with the sheep.

Israel, under the leadership of Jereboam II, had regained territory, expanding fourfold, and was prospering from new trade which could move freely while the great empires of Egypt and Assyria were in a period of quiescent cold war and were not considered a current threat. As trade flourished and greed became the norm, the rich got richer, the poor got more abused, the parties got wilder and religion became a formality.
Meanwhile there had been warning signs – drought, food shortages, disease, warfare – all ignored as the people refused to return to the Lord. Amos responds:
“Therefore thus I will do to you, O Israel;
because I will do this to you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel!”

Such was the hypocrisy that the ‘day of the Lord’ was considered desirable, but mere religious offerings cannot help the proud and complacent who live in comfort at the expense of the downtrodden.

Amos has brought many critical and eloquent warning words, but now come a series of visions that God gives him. Today we consider the first vision of locusts.  (Chapter 7:1-3). Here in the UK we have little idea of the devastation caused by a swarm of millions of locusts, each insect eating its own body weight in a day, consuming every green thing in its path, leaving poverty and starvation in its wake.  Timing is critical; in this vision the king’s share of the first harvest has been taken and the standing crops are to feed the people, thousands of whom will certainly die of hunger.

The response of Amos tells us something of his character. Compassion for this unjust society prompts intercession rather than condemnation. He cries out to God, through whose eyes he now sees just how small and vulnerable is this apparently great nation.

“O Lord God, please forgive!

How can Jacob stand?

He is so small!”

The Hebrew word ‘salach’ is only ever used of God’s forgiveness, so Amos places himself as mediator, pleading for mercy for the nation he criticises. And God answers by revoking his decision and relenting.

Ancient Israel is still a model for God’s dealings with people. Today in Britain, were it not for intercessors crying out on behalf of this nation we would surely be under serious judgement, but one day God’s patience will run out, and we will face the consequences of our rebellion, just as Israel did a couple of decades after Amos’ words.

Author: John Plumb

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