Silence in the Gates?

Amos is one of the lesser known prophets. He does not have the same stature among Christians as Isaiah, Jeremiah or even Hosea. Yet Amos is a fascinating book for 21st century Christians because of the intersection in the book between worship, money, politics, and the church.

Amos preached to the Northern Kingdom prior to her destruction by Assyria in 722 B.C. He is the only prophet who preached exclusively to the Northern Kingdom, also known as Israel. Amos begins his book by denouncing the sins of the nations surrounding Israel (Amos 1:1-2:5).  Of course, if you were in the North at the time this would have been wonderful news. Edom, Gaza, Moab, and even your brother to the South, Judah, were directly in the path of God’s wrath. Lots of amens from the pews for this part of the sermon. But then Amos turns his guns on the Northern Kingdom (Amos 2:6-16) and folks begin to fidget, look away, and hope the clock moves faster. Not only does Amos rebuke Israel for her sins, she gets the longest and most scathing rebuke of all. The rest of Amos from 2:6 until 9:10 is devoted to the condemnation of the Northern Kingdom and the coming judgment for her sins.

Amos focuses on several sins he sees in Israel. First, he condemns idolatry. Bethel is mentioned seven times in Amos. What was special about Bethel? That is where Jeroboam had set up one of his two golden calves for the Northern Kingdom to worship (I Kings 12:25-29). Throughout the book Amos condemns Israel’s idolatry (Amos 2:6-8, 3:13-14, 4:4-5, 5:4-5, 21-23, 7:9, 8:13-14). Israel has bent her knee to the gods of this world, not to Yahweh. Her worship is a mockery. It is not according to God’s Word. It is not sincere (Amos 8:5-6). No matter how much pomp and show there is, God hates it (Amos 5:21).

The second sin is greed, which leads to bribes, theft, oppression of the poor, luxurious living, and crooked business practices (Amos 3:10, 15, 4:1, 5:11-12, 6:4-6, 8:5-6, 10).  There is a close connection between idol worship and economic injustice in Amos.

The third sin is that of rejecting God’s Word, in particular the word of the prophet. We see in this in Amos 3:7-8 where Amos defends his ministry. We see it in Amos 7:10-17 where Amaziah the priest, on orders from Jeroboam the king, orders Amos to go prophesy somewhere else. We see it in the promise that God will remove his word because of Israel’s sins (Amos 8:11-12). We read it in the repeated use of the word “hear” (Amos 3:1, 13, 4:1, 5:1, 7:16, 8:4).

 And we see it in Amos 5:10-15. Here is the text:

They hate him who reproves in the gate, and they abhor him who speaks the truth. Therefore because you trample on the poor and you exact taxes of grain from him, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins— you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate. Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time. Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said. Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph. 

I find this text interesting because it shows how wicked men are not tolerant. They do not want equal voice for all. Wicked men hate righteous men who rebuke them in the gates. Amos is not mentioned by name, but the implication is clear, especially in light of 7:10-13. Israel does not want his public condemnation of her sins. The prophet is told to quiet down and stop creating such a fuss. Israel doesn’t want or need his speeches on the steps of capital. They don’t like his sermons that mention the sin by name and hints at those who might be engaged in it. They don’t like the letter to the editor from the local pastor or the minister who shows up at a city council meeting. The prudent are silent. They know which way the wind is blowing. Those who strive to be righteous are afflicted. The people don’t want to hear God’s anointed messenger. Amos has got to go. Therefore God will send a famine of his word. Men will wander seeking God’s word, but will not find it (Amos 8:11-12).

Justice is mentioned 4 times in Amos all between 5:7 and 6:12 (5:7, 15, 24, 6:12). In 5:7, 24 and 6:12 it is coupled with righteousness. God expects there to be justice and righteousness in the gates (c.f. Isaiah 5:7). The gate was where public business was conducted (See Genesis 23:10, 18, 34:20, Deut. 21:19, 22:15, 24, 25:7, Ruth 4:1, 10, 11, II Samuel 15:2).  In other words, God expects Israel to obey him in all spheres, including the civic one. Israel is not free to ignore Amos and his preaching. God expects his word to be honored in the courtroom, the business office, the legislative office, and city hall. Amos tells Israel that justice is not a private matter reserved for dinner table and sanctuary. It is not enough to have God’s word in the pulpit and with coffee in the morning. God’s word must take up residence in the public square.

Several points flow from this. I assuming that while the specific application might have changed from Old Testament to New Testament, God still desires righteousness and justice in the gates just as he did in Amos’ day.

  • The link between idolatry and economic injustice is often overlooked. The frequent mention of Bethel in Amos points to Israel’s idol worship as the center of her decay. Therefore our worship must be according the God’s Word.  When our worship becomes encrusted with man-made traditions we are risking judgment. We know this. But what we don’t realize is that a community, church, denomination, or country that worships idols will be a greedy culture that tramples on the poor and cares little about economic justice. Theft, from both private and public sectors will become rampant. People will begin to rob God of the tithe due to him. Like vultures the rich will strip the poor. You can be sure that where idols are worshiped money will be as well. Too many Christians want to fix economics without fixing worship. That is impossible. If we worship God as he ought to be worshiped then our economic problems will begin to heal. Without right worship economic justice is a vapor. 
  • The world expects, indeed demands, that the church is silent about wickedness in the public square. Evil men, whether in the church, government, media, the academy, or Hollywood do not like being called out publicly. Therefore any Christian who speaks to the public sins of our age, such as sodomy, fornication, adultery, abortion, corrupt business practices, politicians who can be bought, denying that Scripture is God’s Word, or female ministers, and rebukes the men and women who commit such sins can expect kickback. They will be told to never again prophesy here (Amos 7:13).
  • A pastor is not identical to an Old Testament prophet, but there are connections between the two. One of the tasks of a minister, just like the Old Testament prophet, is to confront the sins in his church and in society. He is not to be silent in the face of evil and wickedness.  This does not mean every sermon must be fire and brimstone or a political screed. But his head should be up and his eyes open for what is happening out there and in here. If the sins in his congregation or the sins of the culture are never addressed with clarity and calls to repent then what exactly is he doing up there? If no one ever says to him, “Sit down and shut up. We are sick of hearing about our sin” then perhaps he is not doing his job.
  • Despite some clamor that God has no place in politics and ignoring some unhelpful ideas about Christian political engagement, Amos does teach us that God expects holiness in the civic realm. The courts, the laws, the rules about businesses, how money should impact elections, and care for the weak and poor among us are all legitimate concerns for Christians, including Christian ministers. All our questions will not be answered by simply saying we need to seek Biblical justice and righteousness in the city gates. Nor am I saying Christian ministers should develop economic policies. But just admitting that God expects holiness in the civic realm is a good start. Too many Christians, jaded perhaps by past failures or influenced by bad theology, believe that politics, economics, law, and similar subjects are unworthy of our attention. Amos, and indeed all the prophets, tell us this cannot be. Christians must work for justice and righteousness in the gates.
  • Finally, looking at Amos 7:10-13 we can see that sometimes prophetic preaching will also be treasonous. Amos is preaching to Israel not America. America does not stand in the same relationship with God as Israel did. Nonetheless, every country has its idols. Israel’s was a calf at Bethel. America does not set up golden calves, but she does have idols. When Amos preached to the idols in Israel he was accused of conspiring against the king (Amos 7:10). When a pastor attacks the idols in his land he can expect to not just be accused of religious intolerance, but also of conspiring against political powers. He is not just religiously out of touch, but also a traitor. We can see this unfolding already with the issue of sodomy.