2001 AD and 722 BC — two dates separated by over twelve centuries yet linked by a great disaster. The first date, 2001 AD, will remain forever etched in our memories — the day when, in the words of the Times newspaper, “war came to America” with the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, with the destruction of the World Trade Towers and part of the Pentagon, with the loss of thousands of lives.
The effects on the American psyche will be far greater and wide-ranging. In an article in the Times entitled “Invulnerable no more” Ann Treneman wrote, “When you grow up in America, you know certain things. You live in the best country in the world. You are the richest country in the world. And you live in a country whose mainland has never seriously been attacked from the outside. You are invulnerable to such a thing.”
She concluded, “Now America has come under attack in a way that even Hollywood could never have contemplated. The unthinkable has happened, and the fortress will never be the same again. America will come together to deal with this — Oklahoma taught us this on a much smaller scale — but no one will ever feel truly safe again, and such a change goes to the heart of the American soul.”
The second date, 722 BC, will be of little significance to most of us, unless we are familiar with ancient history. However, it was an equally devastating moment when a whole nation was finally destroyed with the capture of its capital city.
The superpower of the day, Assyria by name, had marched through the ancient world conquering all before it with a brutal style of warfare which relied on massive armies, superbly equipped with the world’s first great siege-machine manipulated by an efficient corps of engineers.
However, as one writer puts it, “psychological terror was Assyria’s most effective weapon. It was ruthlessly applied, with corpses impaled on stakes, severed heads stacked in heaps, and captives skinned alive.” You will be glad that there are no pictures from this day that we can view on a screen.
After overrunning most of Israel, these same Assyrian forces entered Samaria in the year 722 BC after a horrendous three year siege with a huge loss of life. Those who survived the privations of the siege and the subsequent violence, torture, and rape were herded together and carried off into exile — never to return. The Assyrian annals, written on clay, record the words of Sargon the commander of the invading forces — “I besieged and conquered Samaria, led away as booty 27,290 inhabitants.”
One writer comments that these were “the most traumatic political events in the entire history of Israel.” And the reason for the trauma was that Israel, like America, imagined itself to be secure from such attacks and that such a thing could never happen to them. The people of Israel believed that they were invulnerable and that, while other nations around them succumbed to the invaders, they were secure because they were God’s chosen people. They were sadly and tragically wrong.
And even more tragically it need never have happened if they had only heeded the warnings they had received over many years. Almost forty years before Samaria fell, Amos, a prophet sent from God, had told them in no uncertain terms that they were heading for disaster.
What Amos said — and how the people of Israel responded or failed to respond — is recorded in the book in the Bible which bears his name.
God’s message to Israel applies also to America, and Britain, and every nation on earth. More particularly, it is a message, a warning, to those who belong to God and bear His name. It reminds them, and us (if we claim to be such), of the price of privilege.
I will underline the words I have changed and strike out the originals: “Hear this word the Lord has spoken against about you, O people of Israel — against about the whole family I brought up out of Egypt: ‘You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish visit you for all your sins'” (
Do you see what Amos is doing? He gathers a crowd around and tells them that he has a special message from the Lord for them — the only people on earth with whom He has entered into a unique family relationship. He reminds them that the Lord rescued them from slavery in Egypt and brought them into the Promised Land, and therefore the Lord says He is going to speak with them in respect to something they have done.
At this point the answer depends on what is in focus — what they have done. It is like the pupil who is called into the headmaster’s study and the headmaster says, “I wanted to see you about something you did yesterday.”
What is it that the pupil did? Something good or something bad? Will it be a reward or a punishment? When I was at school and this happened, I was always pretty sure that it must be something bad.
However, the people of Israel were absolutely sure that it must be something good that they have done — here comes another reward. But Amos drops his bombshell with his final word, “your sins.”
And so punishment, not reward, must follow — which is why the NIV translators have changed “about” to “against” and “visit” to “punish,” what Amos in effect meant, though it loses the impact of how he said it. In the message which follows, Amos establishes two principles which apply not just to Israel but to every nation and person on earth.
In the light of recent events, therefore, we would do well to listen to what the Lord says to us through this ancient prophet, and make sure that we do not respond as his original hearers did. The first principle is this:
1. No Sin without Judgment
So Amos does what many speakers of his day did, and many speakers still do in the Middle East today — he tells a series of riddles: “Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so? Does a lion roar in the thicket when he has no prey? Does he growl in his den when he has caught nothing? Does a bird fall into a trap on the ground where no snare has been set? Does a trap spring up from the earth when there is nothing to catch?” (
What is the point the riddles are making? Simply that there is no cause without effect or, in one of our own sayings, there is no smoke without fire. Everything that happens has a cause. Two people walking together in the countryside do so because they have arranged to meet. A lion roars because he has sighted his prey and is about to pounce, or growls in his den because he has caught something. A bird falls to the ground because a set-snare has caught it, and the trap activates because something triggered it.
And then Amos moves closer to home and humans: “When a trumpet sounds in a city, do not the people tremble?” (
And finally Amos makes his theological point: “When disaster comes to a city, has not the Lord caused it?” The Lord is the cause behind every effect, and behind the coming invasion of the city – their city of Samaria. They have sinned against the Lord, and He is therefore about to bring judgment upon them and their city. Sin always has consequences, and those consequences are judgment from the Lord. There is no sin without judgment — either individually or corporately, we reap what we sow.
Now, I doubt if any Israelite would have disagreed with this theological maxim — that sin always brings judgment. That is why they probably enjoyed the opening message of Amos when he denounced the sins of the nations surrounding Israel and pronounced God’s judgment on them. “Amen” you can hear them thunder after each oracle against Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, and Moab. “Quite right too — no sin without judgment.”
However, although they believed in “no sin without judgment” there was just one exception to the rule — namely themselves. They were God’s special people chosen out of all the nation-groups on earth the objects of His favour and blessing. So there was no way that God would ever judge them or punish them; they were invulnerable.
Now it is only a short step from believing that to acting accordingly. If there is no sin without judgment for you, then you are free to sin, to do as you please. And that is exactly what they did and were doing in the days of Amos. The people of Israel were living lives of decadence and immorality and amassing personal fortunes on the backs of the poor and oppressed with impunity and without conscience. (
Notice the word “fortresses” which occurs frequently in these opening chapters. Every nation has its “fortresses,” and it is these that the Lord would destroy in His judgment (
And Israel is no different. Her leaders thought they were secure in “Fortress Israel” — as symbolized by fortified residences, summer homes in the city of Samaria and winter homes in the city of Jezreel (while the poor were being dispossessed of even the basic staples of life in order to finance their opulent lifestyles).
And they even thought that they were religiously secure with the alternative worship system to Jerusalem they had been set up in Bethel with its golden calves. But the Lord says through Amos that they are absolutely wrong in their theology and wrong in their practice which flowed from it. And so they were living under a sense of false security.
Not only were they subject to the same principle as everyone else — no sin without judgment — but their judgment would be even greater than anyone else because of all the privileges they had received.
It was because the Lord had entered into a special family relationship with them, and because the Lord had rescued them from Egypt and given them this land that they were especially accountable to Him. They had far less excuse than any of their neighbours for their behaviour; they should have known better.
And that is why God’s judgment on them will be even greater and why Israel’s greatest enemies, the Philistines in Ashdod and the Egyptians — whom they looked down on as immoral heathen nations — would be called by the Lord into the witness-box to testify against His people (
Their judgment was so comprehensive that hardly anything or anyone would survive — like the piece of an animal’s ear that a shepherd brings in order to prove that his animal has been mauled by a lion (and not stolen by him), or a piece of expensive cloth from the edge of one of their luxurious sofas in which they love to recline. Their fancy houses would be demolished, along with the shrine at Bethel, leaving no sanctuary on the horns of the altar to which they might flee. This was the price of privilege: “You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your sins” (
A few days ago, I read in the newspaper that a man named Anders Wiklof was fined the sum of pound16,457 for a single speeding offense — a new world record. The reason for the large penalty was that the offense occurred in Finland and fines are related to earnings. Mr. Wiklof is a millionaire. “To whom much has been given much is expected.”
Now the person who said that was none other than the Lord Jesus Christ speaking about the final judgment at His return. Let me read His words in
You see, it is very easy for Christians to fall into the same trap as the Israelites — to think we are exempt from God’s judgment because we are His people. So we come to treat sin lightly and to disbelieve in the prospect of God’s judgment so far as we are concerned. And what is true of individuals is also true of churches and nations. But we need to remember that privilege carries a price and “To whom much has been given much is expected.”
But God warns us through a prophet like Amos and supremely through His Son, Jesus, that there is no sin without judgment. That is the first principle which Amos establishes. But thankfully there is also a second principle:
2. No Judgment without Warning
Look again at
Although the Lord would be fully justified in executing judgment on His people Israel immediately — after all, the terms of the covenant were clearly laid down in many places — none the less, He does not do so. Instead, He sends His spokesmen, the prophets, to warn them of coming judgment in order that they might listen and change their ways.
The lion roars, but he has not yet pounced. Disaster is imminent but there is still a last chance of escape for the victim.
This is what Amos knows, and this is why he must speak — despite the unpopularity of what he has to say — so much so that later in the book we discover that both priest and king, religious and secular authorities, try to get him to shut up.
But he must speak, and he must warn, for he is under a divine commission and compulsion. The Lord will bring disaster upon His people, and Amos has no choice but to announce it.
God never acts in judgment without first of all revealing what He is about to do to His spokesmen and instructing them to warn His people. Why? Because He is a God of mercy not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. As the Lord said through another prophet, Ezekiel, He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked but longs that they turn from their wicked ways and live (
So, John the Baptist, the last and greatest of the prophets, was sent to prepare the way for the coming Messiah. And what was his message? It was one of coming judgment — especially on the religious establishment: “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come One who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing-floor, gathering His wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire'” (
Tragically, they failed to heed the warnings — not only of John the Baptist but of the Messiah he promised. And so the message of Jesus against His people, Israel, was one of warning, of greater judgment given than what they had heard and witnessed:
“Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of His miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. ‘Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you'” (
Now the same principle applies to us and to our nation — privileged to have known the gospel for centuries and the Bible in dozens of versions in our own language while millions have lived and died without ever hearing the name of Jesus. “To whom much is given, much is expected.”
And what of those within our nation who claim to be God’s own people, those He has reconciled and redeemed in a far greater and deeper way than the ancient nation of Israel? Do we fail to heed God’s warnings and ignore His judgment? We do so at our peril, for if we fail to repent and turn from our sin, then God’s judgment is certain.
Now, do not misunderstand. God’s judgment on His people does not nullify His covenant, either with Israel or the church, but rather it purges His covenant people, removing false professors and disciplining true members as Jesus Himself said in
“I am the true vine, and My Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in Me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit He prunes so that it will be even more fruitful …. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in Me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in Me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned” (
The people among whom we live and work will only take sin and God’s judgment seriously if they see us taking sin and God’s judgment seriously. And that usually, if not always, is seen most clearly in the context of suffering and tragedy — such as we have witnessed recently.
Listen to the words of the apostle Peter in his first letter, writing to Christians who were suffering severely for their faith: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when His glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner? So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good” (
There is no judgment without warning, and we have an obligation to warn — however unpopular it might be. God is a God of great patience. In human terms, it is only a split second between the roar of the lion and its pounce. But God has a different view of time, as Peter writes in his second letter: “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (
However, God’s patience is not infinite or indefinite, as he goes on to write: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare” (
And, if we believe this, then it will affect how we live: “Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with His promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness” (
So Amos reminded his hearers of these two principles: 1) No sin without judgment; 2) No judgment without warning. And none of them paid any attention at all — other than to tell him to shut up.
Why not? Because when he gave his message of the destruction of Israel, nothing seemed more unlikely. The nation was experiencing the biggest economic growth since the glory days of Solomon. The Samaria stock-exchange was going through the roof. House building, of both city and holiday homes, was enjoying a boom. On the political front, Israel seemed secure from all attack. And the religious scene was flourishing like never before. The people of Israel had never had it so good.
Who would have believed that it would all be reduced to rubble in just less than forty years? Only a prophet named Amos who had heard the lion’s roar.
And who would ever believe that something similar could happen to a nation like ours? Maybe, just maybe, a few more people after the events of September 11, 2001.