By J.R. Miller
Amos probably was a Judean. He was a small farmer and shepherd. He cultivated a few sycamore trees whose fruit was lightly esteemed. He owned a little flock of sheep, sheep of a peculiar breed which yielded an excellent kind of wool. He pastured his sheep in the wilderness of Judea.
Bethel, the ecclesiastical capital of the Northern Kingdom, was the principal scene of his preaching. "Go to Bethel and sin!" cried the prophet. Bethel was their place of worship--but every time they came there, they sinned because their worship was sin. Instead of bowing before the true God and adoring Him, they bowed before idols and gave them the honor which belonged to God alone. The more devout they were, therefore, the more they dishonored the Lord. Their great zeal, as shown in their sacrifices and tithes and free-will offerings, only multiplied their sin and heaped up sorer judgment against them. "Go to Bethel and sin; go to Gilgal and sin yet more. Bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three years. Burn leavened bread as a thank offering and brag about your freewill offerings-- boast about them, you Israelites, for this is what you love to do!" declares the Sovereign LORD." Amos 4:5-6
Their religion was all a pious farce, and the more there was of it--the more of an abomination it was unto God. God cannot be pleased with mere forms of worship and with ceremonials. The more we multiply these, the more do we grieve Him--if our heart is not in them. We may say we have no idols now in our churches; but are we sure of this? Do we truly worship God in our church services? When we sing the hymns, are our hearts fixed upon God? When we pray, are we really talking to God? When we confess sins, is the confession sincere? When we sit in God's house, are we truly in God's presence, breathing out our heart's love and worship to Him? If not, what or whom are we adoring, praising, worshiping? Empty religious forms--must have some idol at the heart of them.
The prophet told them very plainly what was in their hearts. "This is what you love to do!" You love this! You love to make a great display in your religion. This display of piety--is just to your taste. You like to cover up your sins--with forms of worship, appearing as saints before the world, though in secret cherishing and practicing all manner of wickedness!
This is God's own picture of these ancient 'worshipers'. We need to look honestly at it--to see if it is OUR picture. God looks at the heart! No external appearances are of any value--unless they are genuine expressions of what is in the heart! Pirate ships carry reputable flags to cover their dishonorable character. Religious hypocrisy often puts at its masthead, the colors of devout saintliness. But God cannot be deceived.
Someone told of past sorrows, sorrows which were sent with blessing, messengers bringing good in their hands--but which were rejected, turned away, resented as enemies, though they came as friends. When we sin against God--He sends penalties. Suffering always follows sin--but these penalties come to us really as friends, to save us from sinning again. God had sent penalties to the people of Israel--but they had not minded them. "I gave you empty stomachs in every city and lack of bread in every town--yet you have not returned to Me," declares Jehovah." The Lord had not let them alone in their sins. He had not merely allowed them to go on in their evil ways, without any effort to save them. In these verses we learn of judgment after judgment which God says He sent upon His people.
First there was "empty stomachs"--famine, lack of bread. Next He had withheld rain from their land. To make it yet more clear to them that the hand of God was in this withholding, He had caused it to rain in one place and not in another, so that while on one piece of ground everything was green and fresh, on another piece near by--all life was withered and dead. Then He had sent blasting and mildew, hot winds and blight, to destroy what the drought had left.
After these, He had sent palmer-worms to eat up the vineyards and gardens which were watered by artificial means and thus escaped the previous judgments. Having thus destroyed their gardens and crops and vineyards, He had then sent a plague upon the people themselves, sweeping away many of them. War had followed pestilence, and their young men had been slain. After all these terrible things, an earthquake had come, overthrowing and destroying many.
There are lessons here, which we must not lose. We must not misinterpret God. No doubt some of these people, when pursued by trouble, said that God was hard and cruel and unkind--to send so many losses and sufferings upon them. So it seemed. But here we are permitted to look into God's heart--and see a motive of love in all these sore troubles which He sent upon His people. They had gone far away from Him, and He would bring them back again. One affliction failed, and then He sent another and another and another. These sore troubles were all God's angels of love sent to try to save God's children. We ought to fix this lesson in our hearts, for some time we may need its light.
One came to a pastor with sore complainings against God. He had been most unkind, even cruel, he said. The pastor listened to a recital of a long series of bitter experiences--disappointments, sufferings, hardships. It certainly seemed that if these were God's doings--they were strange expressions of love. But the pastor questioned a little further, as gently as he could, and he learned that his friend had not been living near God during the time of these troubles, and had not been brought nearer to Him through the things which had seemed so hard--he had indeed been drifting farther away all the while, out into the wintry cold of unbelief and rebelliousness.
We may not interpret providences, saying that the history of this friend was the same as that of these ancient people, whom God had chastened to save--but who only went farther away from Him. Yet there is no doubt that the design of God in all His severe dealings with His children is the same--to bring back those who have wandered, or to bring still nearer those who are already near to Him. It is always love, never anger, that comes in the messengers of divine chastening.
"Yet have you not returned unto Me! says the Lord." After each recital of judgment, comes this same sad refrain. God had sent famine to bring them back. "Yet have you not returned unto Me!" He had withheld rain. "Yet have you not returned unto Me!" He had smitten their grain with blasting and mildew, and the palmer-worm had eaten up their vineyards and gardens. "Yet have you not returned unto Me!" He had sent pestilence and war, with terrible loss and devastation. "Yet have you not returned unto Me!" Earthquakes had caused terror over the land, laying much of it in ruin. "Yet have you not returned unto Me!"
This recurring refrain is infinitely pathetic. It sounds like the sob of God's breaking heart. It tells of wonderful love in Him for His people--in spite of all their sin; of love that forbears and waits and pleads and suffers on, never wearying in its eiforts to save. It tells, too, of love's sorrow--when the erring do not return. It speaks of divine disappointment when even sore judgments fail to bring back the sinning children. It is a wonderful revealing of the heart of God. No one who catches its meaning, can ever again say that God is cruel or unkind in sending troubles upon His people. He wants to save them--not to hurt or destroy them. We learn, too, what we should always do when any chastening falls upon us; we should get nearer to God! No matter how holy our lives may be, there is yet a holier holiness, a nearer nearness, attainable. If we are conscious of specific sins--we should put them away. We disappoint and grieve God when in any chastening, we do not return unto Him.
God reminds the people of how mercifully He had dealt with them. "You were as a brand plucked out of the burning." This is a striking figure. In the overthrow, probably by an earthquake, some seem to have perished. Those who escaped were almost destroyed, coming out of the overthrow injured, barely saved. They were like a brand, a piece of wood, which has passed through the fire, and has been plucked out, not burned up altogether--but scorched and blackened, partly burned, bearing the marks of the fire upon it. The picture is very suggestive. Sin is a fire. Wherever it touches it burns, scorches, wastes, consumes the beauty. Secret sin is like hidden, smoldering fire, which, unseen--yet eats away the life's substance and defaces the divine image that is on it.
What fire does to the trees when it sweeps through the forests, blackening them, destroying their leaves and all their greenness; sin does to the lives about which its flames flow. We all know lives, once lovely--but now scorched and blackened by sin. If sin is like a fire, human lives are like trees which the fire consumes. Every one of us has been hurt by this fire. Unless plucked out by some hand of love--our lives shall be utterly destroyed by the flames of sin which roll over all this world. But the burning brand may be saved.
A gardener saw one day in a pile of burning rubbish, a piece of root that was blackened and scorched, partly charred. But he plucked it out and, taking it away, he planted it, and it grew. It proved to be the root of a valuable species of grapevine, and in a few years the vine springing from it covered a large arbor and in the autumn days hung full of rich purple clusters. Saved lives are brands plucked from the burning. Thousands of them shine now in blessedness, redeemed from destruction, clothed in beauty, covered with the fruits of righteousness and holiness!