The Lion Roars: Seek the LORD and Live
4 of 7 sermons in a series through Amos
Valarie Castile embraced Don Damond at a “Justice for Justine” rally in Minneapolis. Considering Valarie’s loss of her son in similar circumstances, her words were compelling: This is not a black or white thing. This is a human being thing. This is a humanity type thing. Healing comes when we see each other’s humanity and grieve with each other, sharing a deep sense of loss and injustice.
We live in a time when society is crying out against injustice. Amos helps us think and feel rightly about injustice in the world. Amos is concerned, however, with injustice among the people of God. Unless I address the injustice in me, I will have nothing of benefit to contribute to the justice conversation.
In 5:1-17, Amos presents the third argument in YHWH’s case against His people in the form of a dirge. 5:1-17 is the center of the book of Amos, showing that the emphasis of the book is the demise of the Northern Kingdom, while preserving a remnant according to the grace of God (15). The center of 5:1-17 is verses 8 and 9. This structure helps us understand the prophet’s message.
In this type of textual structure the center point is the point being emphasized. At the center of the center is Amos’s doxology extoling the sovereign power of YHWH, the God of Israel (note the mere repetition of His Name in vv1-17). Three times the imperative seek the LORD is used (4,6,14). The point of the text is all of life must revolve around and be oriented toward YHWH, the God of Israel. This is what it means to seek the LORD and live.
So I want us to walk through this text and then make some applications.
Verses 1-3, 16-17
The heart of the book us Amos shows us the heart of the prophet. This whole section of text is a lament. It opens with lament and closes with lament (1-3, 16-17). Everything between these bookends is part of Amos’s song of sadness. It is unreasonable for us to think of Amos as unloving because he preached on judgment. In fact, we will see in his visions that Amos twice besought YHWH in Israel’s behalf, and He turned away his wrath (7:1-6).
Amos is morning the irrevocable fall of Israel. Verse 1 is the prophet sharing his grief. Fallen, no more to rise, … forsaken…(2). He speaks as if it has already happened. The cause of mourning is the devastation God will inflict stated in verse 3. Such devastation would be the cause of wailing in all the squares, in all the streets, and in all the vineyards (16,17). The normal places of joy would become spaces of lamentation where the mourners cry, Alas! Alas!
Amos echoed the language of the Exodus, when YHWH passed over (Ex. 12:13, 23) Israel but passed through Egypt (Ex 12:12,23). Now YHWH would pass through Israel, for they had become covenant breakers and enemies of YHWH (7 cf. 7:8; 8:2). The nation would be so decimated that Amos said, it will never rise, yet the fallen tent of David will rise (9:11).
Verses 4-6, 14-15
In verses 4-6 and 14-15, the word seek is used three times. Verses 4 and 6 exhort Israel to Seek the Lord and live. Verse 14 exhorts them to seek good and not evil, which is further defined in verse 15 with the exhortation hate evil, and love good.
So in verses 4-6, we learn what seeking YHWH is not, and in verses 14-15, we learn what seeking YHWH is.
What seeking YHWH is not (vv4-6)
A pilgrimage to the sanctuary is not the same thing as seeking YHWH. Amos singled out the three most popular shrines, Bethel, Gilgal, and Beersheba. These shrines marked locations of God’s powerful work in the history of his people. It was incomprehensible to Israel that going to the sanctuaries was anything other than seeking YHWH. The ideas of exile (5) and the unquenchable fire of wrath (6 cf. 1:4,7,10,12; 2:2,5) were unthinkable.
What seeking YHWH is (vv14-15)
So they replied to Amos, YHWH the God of hosts is with us (14). They thought their current prosperity and political strength proved YHWH’s presence with them.
Amos argued that if you were seeking YHWH, you would seek good, and not evil; hate evil and love good (14,15). Your life outside the sanctuary would be different. Justice would be established in the gate (15).
While the call to seek YHWH and live is sincere, it will only be effective for the believing remnant of Joseph (15). Amos is calling for a change in the orientation of their lives to match their profession. They had a religion of cheap grace, Come to Bethel and live was their motto. They mistook religion for a relationship. Religion is easy. Relationship is complicated. It impacts all of life.
Amos charged them with an inconsistency of life and religion. The nation was called into a covenant relationship with God. Their national life depended on living out the stipulations of that covenant, namely justice and righteousness. They had turned justice into bitterness, and cast down righteousness to the earth as something worthless (7). Justice and righteous are major themes in Amos. The two terms go together. Righteousness is living by the covenant in relation to God and your neighbor. Justice is the fruit of righteousness (6:12). When people live righteously, justice is upheld. When people live un-righteously, injustice prevails.
Injustice described (vv10,12)
Amos, then, described the injustice among them and the result of it. In verses 10 and 12, Amos begins and ends with the perversion of justice in the gate. In verse 10 they hate those who hold up justice in the gate. The gate was the place where one expected justice. Those who dared to speak for the weak were hated.
Amos switched to the first person in verse 12 saying, I know the number and magnitude of your sin—afflicting the righteous, taking bribes, and turning aside the needy. People were victimized at the very place justice should be dispensed.
The result of injustice (vv11,13)
Therefore (11,13, cf. 3:11) is a word that signals the result or the punishment for injustice. Verse 11 promises a futility curse. Through unjust, excessive taxation the wealthy built houses and planted vineyards. They will find these things totally unsatisfying. At this point, it’s not so much these things are taken away. It’s that they will lack the ability to enjoy them.
A second result is that the social order was in such disrepair that the prudent would keep silent (13). Society had cut itself off from the voice of wisdom.
At the center of Amos’s lament stands YHWH, the sovereign God of Israel. Amos held up before Israel the God they were to seek (cf. 4:13).
It was YHWH who made the constellations and controlled the seasons, not some astral deities. He controls the rhythm of life. He controls the cycles of rain. This same God controls the history of peoples and nations, and He will bring judgment on those who break His covenant. Those who turn justice into bitterness (7), who turn aside the needy from the gate (12), will face the One who turns deep darkness into day. YHWH is His Name!
Amos holds up before us YHWH, the God of the covenant, with whom life must be lived in personal relationship and around whom life must be oriented. I want to preach from the edges of this text toward the middle and in light of the middle at every point. What are the implications of living in personal relationship with God and orienting all of life to Him?
1. Some things ought to be lamented in community before the LORD (1-3, 16-17).
Amos 5:1-17 comes to us in the form of a lament. Amos lamented the death of a nation. He lamented the covenant breaking injustice that ruled the day and the resulting just judgment of God. He does see a future for a multiethnic people of God gathered under the tent of David’s greater son (9:11), but he suffers the grief of the loss of the nation established by the Sinai covenant.
Some things ought to be lamented in the community of faith. Lament is the struggle of faith to lay hold of and accept the purpose of a sovereign God while experiencing heartbreaking loss. It is the cry of faith that says, I believe. Help my unbelief. It is the struggle of faith to reconcile our pain with the sovereign goodness of God. It is the struggle to believe that in events so contrary to my desire, my will, my seeming well-being, the sovereign God who controls all things loves me and works good in my life.
It is one thing to sing and pray and praise and believe when nothing is at stake, nothing is lost, life is great, and things are going your way, but it’s altogether another thing to exult in the goodness of God when your mate dies, your diagnosis is cancer, your children rebel, your spouse abandons you, your faithfulness to theological honesty and commitment to preach the Bible means that no church will allow you to pastor (Cf. 7:12-13), or you’re in Salt Lake, and you’ve labored for two years pouring yourself into people who turn and walk away. Yet, this is where the LORD calls us—to suffer the loss of all things in order that we might gain Christ (Phil. 3:8b).
There is a certain kind of lament that the church should experience as we look at the world before the LORD through the eyes of covenant faith. Amos looked with compassion on a people who had the advantages of having the covenant and the shrines, and yet lived in covenant disobedience. How much more should we lament that 2000 years into Christian history nearly half of the world’s peoples remain unreached? We know the day is coming when God will pass through in irrevocable judgment on every unbeliever.
There’s an unforgettable scene at the end of the movie Schindler’s List, when the 1200 Jews Schindler saved from certain death gathered around him as he is fleeing for his life. Oskar Schindler weeping said, “I could have done more, I could have done more… This car,” he says, “why did I keep it? I could have sold it and saved ten more lives. This stupid diamond pin, even that I could have sold and gotten enough money to save one more life.” He kept weeping and kept repeating, “I could have done more, I could have done so much more.”
LORD, let us be faithful to do everything in our power to obey the commission of Jesus to the church. Let us not come to the end of our days and say, I could have done more, given more, prayed more, opened my life more….
Some things should be lamented in community before the LORD. Life that is oriented around relationship to Christ understands--
2. Religion is no substitute for authentic devotion to God (4-6, 14-15)
Amos’s distinction between seeking YHWH and the pilgrimage to the shrines would have been puzzling to the Israelites (4). In their minds, going to the sanctuary was seeking God. If someone were looking for God, don’t you think church is a logical place to go? Sure. But not if you equate being here with being right with God. This is a paradoxical thing. I don’t think you can be right with God and not attend church. But never think for one moment that coming here makes you right with God.
It’s not the liturgy that makes you right with God, but rather it is a personal relationship with God through faith in Christ that justifies you. It’s not being present in the gathered community that makes you right with God, but it’s a personal relationship with God that binds you to His community.
The Israelites were going through the motions with no devotion to YHWH. To seek YHWH means to have a life that is fully devoted to Him, a life that’s guided by and revolves around Him.
Such a personal relationship with YHWH is consequential. Amos replaced YHWH of verses 4 and 6, with good in verse 14. He can do that because good is a reflection of the character and nature of God. Everything we call good is not necessarily good. God alone is the One who has the prerogative to say what good is. What is good then comes to us by revelation. God revealed His nature and character in the Sinai covenant, that is, He revealed what is good and just.
Injustice has always been in the world. It didn’t just come on the scene in your lifetime. The popular idea of what is just is not based on any objective standard but on what one feels or thinks or wants. What happens then if you desire evil? Evil then becomes good and just in your mind—abortion becomes right, same-sex marriage becomes right, adultery becomes right, disobeying parents becomes right, etc. We are right back at Eden, exercising moral autonomy in determining what is good and evil rather than relying on the revelation of God to guide our thinking. If God has determined what is good, we have a standard by which to measure all things. If we are the determiners of good and evil, there is no limit to the sorts of evil that will parade across the world as good. People, who say they want justice but reject God’s revealed will, don’t want justice at all. They simply want their way.
If you’re devoted to YHWH, the consequence is you will be devoted to what is good and not evil. Emotion follows devotion. When you are devoted to YHWH, you are going to love good. Those who are devoted to YHWH and good, will establish justice in the gate. The reason people find it so hard to do good is because they are not devoted to YHWH.
Religion is no substitute for relationship. To live a life oriented around devotion to YHWH--
3. We must live righteously, upholding justice in the world (7,10-13).
As God’s people, not only must we oppose injustice wherever it is found in the world, but we must never be the perpetrators of injustice of any kind. At first Amos mentioned injustice and the casting down of righteousness in general (7). In verse 10, he focused a bit more on the nature of the injustice among the people of God. Then in verses 11-12, Amos names injustices very specifically.
Obviously, injustice has many faces, but the point of the text is righteous people act justly. Justice is the fruit of righteousness. Those rightly related to God and their neighbor are concerned for justice in the world.
We are much concerned for social justice in our day, as we should be. Christians must never give credence to any injustice.
The concern of the text, however, is injustice among the people of God. Today, many Christians are concerned with injustice in the world while failing to look at their own lives. Some oppose injustice publicly and, then, in the privacy of their room indulge in pornography—one of the greatest injustices of our day, or participate in illicit sexual encounters, or refuse to pay what they owe, or refuse to take responsibility for their lives and work for a living, or abuse social programs designed to help people who have fallen on hard times, or plan business deals to cheat others out of what is rightfully theirs, or play around and fail classes. We could go on and on. Justice is the fruit of righteousness. The best thing you can do to promote social justice in the world is to live righteously.
As those whose lives are oriented toward and around personal relationship with YHWH--
4. We must reject the notion of any encounter with God that leaves life unchanged (8-9).
It is impossible to encounter the God who made the constellations, turns darkness to morning and day to night, calls for water from the sea to pour on the earth, makes nations rise and fall, and be unchanged by Him.
The Israelites were saying they were encountering this God at the shrines and that He was with them (V14). Then, they would leave the shrine and turn justice into bitterness and trample on righteousness as if it were of no account (7). They would leave the sanctuary, only to hate those who stood for justice and righteousness in the gate.
Verses 8-9 interrupt the flow of thought in verses 7 and 10. The structure of this text shows that the God they claimed to encounter made absolutely no difference in their lives. He was inconsequential to their lives.
In Christ, we are a new creation. Old things, the things of the present age, have passed away. All things have become new. We have been transferred out of the kingdom of darkness into His Kingdom of light. These are radically life-changing concepts. You should be different.
Perhaps you carry scars from the old age. But that is not who you are anymore. Perhaps you struggle with same-sex attraction. The culture, the old age, is telling you that this is your identity. I’m telling you that is not who you are anymore. Perhaps you have been an adulterer or promiscuous, self-promoter, idolater, drug addict, porn addict, etc., that is not who you are anymore. You are in Christ, and He is your life; he is your identity; he defines your life; he makes you new. Don’t let the spirit of this age bind you, define you, have power over you; you are Christ’s and Christ is God’s. Therefore you are free.
We must reject any notion of God that leaves life unchanged. We are to live righteous, God-centered, God oriented lives as a community faith, upholding a faithful witness in an unjust world.