1. Is the Day of the Lord good news or bad? Both in biblical times and in our day, “judgment” is a very ambiguous words . Psalm 96 and 98, for example, represent the positive side of the word. Both psalms climax in an exuberant exclamation that the Lord is coming to judge the earth. Psalm 98:7-9 in the NRSV puts it this way: “Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the LORD, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity.”
But over against that impulse to rejoice in the hope of the “Day of the Lord” is the stark reminder, especially in Amos, that the “day” is not always a happy one. Indeed his words in that connection are some of the most vivid in the book: “Alas for you who desire the day of the LORD! Why do you want the day of the LORD? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. Is not the day of the LORD darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?” (Amos 5:18-20, NRSV).
Discussion Question: In light of Amos’s stark words, can we know when it is safe to look forward to the “Day of the Lord” with rejoicing? Or is it safer simply to tremble in fear?
2. Judgment as gracious warning, not as final destruction. Often the language of the prophets is so strong that we are inclined to dread them or even to turn away from them entirely.
But there is a gracious word lurking in the hard “judgment” words of Amos 4:6-12. The last line is a somber indictment: “Prepare to meet to your God, O Israel.” But preceding that last call to judgment is a list of quite a different kind, a list of warning judgments, not final ones. The prophet lists all the “judgments” that had been intended to awaken the Israelites so that they would not have to face the final judgment: famine, drought, blight and mildew, pestilence, destroyed cities. Yet after each of these “judgments,” the line is repeated, “Yet you did not return to me.”
Discussion Question: How is it possible to present “judgments” in this more hopeful way? Or is human nature such that even “warning” judgments are usually seen simply as threats of a final judgment?
3. Party Time and Poverty. One of the starker images in Amos involves the contrast between party goers in the midst of poverty. In Amos 4:1, for example, the prophet talks about the fat “cows of Bashan” who “oppress the poor, who crush the needy,” but at the same time call to their husbands, “Bring something to drink.” In Amos 6:1-7, the contrast between rich and poor is less vivid, though the party-goers are described in some detail. They “lie on beds of ivory,” “eat lambs from the flock,” “sing idle songs to the sound of the harp,” “drink wine from bowls,” “anoint themselves with the finest oils.” Then the stinger – “but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph.” Clearly these are people who are reveling in all kinds of creature comforts while their brothers and sisters are languishing in genuine poverty.
Discussion Question: How can conscientious Christians enjoy any creature comforts at all when there is so much want and poverty in the world? Is Jesus’ visit to the wedding at Cana (John 2) any help? Or is our appeal to that example likely to lull us into the very experience condemned by Amos?
4. Sinful Religion: Amos does not content himself with contrasting party goers who live at ease in the midst of poverty-stricken people. These party-goers are apparently also deeply religious, at least in the external sense. In one passage, Amos allows himself to slip into sarcasm and scorn. “Come to Bethel – and transgress; to Gilgal – and multiply transgression,” he exclaims (Amos 4:4). Bring sacrifices, tithes, and offerings. Announce your gifts to the world (Amos 4:4-5)!
But his more sober counsel is not to go to Bethel or Gilgal at all. Instead “Seek me and live” (Amos 5:4-5). But then he really explodes against their religious practices: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the voice of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24, NRSV).
Discussion Question: As long as there is serious injustice in the world, can God’s people afford to revel and rejoice in religious services? Or should we simply “sigh and groan over all the abominations” in our world (Ezek. 9:4, NRSV)? How do we find a balance? Or is even the attempt to find a “balance” already a sinful compromise?
5. The Power of Intercession. Although Amos’s presence in the northern kingdom was not at all welcomed by the authorities – Amaziah, the priest at Bethel, told him pointedly to go back home to Judah (Amos 7:10-13) – Amos himself reported that his intercession on Israel’s behalf had convinced the LORD to back away from some of the threatened judgments against the land. In the series of judgments described in Amos 7 to 9, the first two – locusts and a devouring fire – are withdrawn by the Lord. In both cases, the Lord “repented,” to use the KJV word, and he did so in response to poignant prayers from Amos: “O Lord GOD, forgive, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small” (Amos 7:2). And again, “O Lord GOD, cease, I beg you….” After these two successful interventions, the judgments could no longer be restrained.
Discussion Question: Today, is it possible that some of the more unpopular and somber ministries on the fringes of the church may actually be preserving the church from judgments? Or should such a heavy-handed mission be restricted to messengers who have been especially called by the Lord? That latter approach seems to be the point of this counsel from Ellen White to those who attempted to follow her example, ill-advisably, according to Ellen White:
God has not given my brethren the work that He has given me. It has been urged that my manner of giving reproof in public has led others to be sharp and critical and severe. If so, they must settle that matter with the Lord. If others take a responsibility which God has not laid upon them; if they disregard the instructions He has given them again and again through the humble instrument of His choice, to be kind, patient, and forbearing, they alone must answer for the results. With a sorrow-burdened heart, I have performed my unpleasant duty to my dearest friends, not daring to please myself by withholding reproof, even from my husband; and I shall not be less faithful in warning others, whether they will hear or forbear. When I am speaking to the people I say much that I have not premeditated. The Spirit of the Lord frequently comes upon me. I seem to be carried out of, and away from, myself; the life and character of different persons are clearly presented before my mind. I see their errors and dangers, and feel compelled to speak of what is thus brought before me. I dare not resist the Spirit of God. – 5T 20