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"The words of Amos, who was among the herd men of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel" ( Amo 1:1 ).
Prophets persist in saying that they "saw" the word of God. It is more than a graphic expression; the explanation is not to be found in Hebrew poetry alone. Here is the expression of a deep conviction; here are men, be they whom they may, who shut out every other sight from their eyes, and had their vision fixed upon what they at least supposed to be the word of God. If it be sentimental we shall soon discover it; if it be lacking in substance it will not bear the pressure of the critical finger; but if it be moral, honest, noble, such a vision as commends itself to the conscience of the world, by so much will the prophet justly acquire credit and justly be invested with authority. We shall pay no attention to mere verbal colouring, or to mere verbal music; we shall listen to find out, if we can, whether there is any conscience in the strain, and by the conscience we shall stand or fall in regard to our estimate of any prophet.
Amos was not ashamed of his descent. Amos was not a farmer; Amos was, in the opinion of the best critics, a farm-labourer. We have great interest in farm-labourers as a whole, or in a certain indefinite sense in the abstract Who cares to be upon very close intimacy with a field hand or a cowherd? Yet this is just what Amos was; and to a little outdoor work he added the process of cleaning and preparing the fruit either for preservation or for sale; and whilst he was doing his farm work, and attending to his fruit, a blast from heaven struck his deepest consciousness, and he stood up a prophet. The Lord will bring his prophets just as he pleases, and from what place he chooses. We should like him sometimes to bring them from other places and in other clothes, and with other pedigrees. We are neatly-minded; we pay attention to appearances; we are the devotees of a perishing, because a superficial, respectability. We would have all the clergy brought from the higher ranges of social life, even though they be second sons, and even though they be not equal to the first in breadth and grasp of intellect The Lord will not have it so, and he will be Lord. God cannot vacate. Somebody must come down from the chair of authority; God will not, God cannot, for the reason that he is God. Amos was a field hand, and yet he was fearless; he was all the more fearless because he was a field hand. A farmer could not have been so fearless. The plough was his if nothing else, and some little agricultural property belonged to him, and it would never do needlessly to send abroad a breath of tempest, a roar of judgment. It did hot matter to the field hand where he slept; he could sleep as well outside as inside: "The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head" he was rich in his poverty. Amos was an agricultural labourer; yet he was religious. That is an impossible miracle. That a labourer should have any religion or ever pretend to pray is a startling circumstance. Yet thus it hath pleased God to work, that the mother knows more than the father, the woman's eye sees miles beyond the masculine vision; while the man is getting his lenses ready, the woman has read all the small print on the horizon. Father, thou hast hidden many things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes: even so, for so it seemeth good in thy sight. God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise. When we know least we often know best Amos was a farm-labourer, yet he was equal to the occasion. Education is never equal to anything that is supremely great Information is handy, useful, and is sometimes particularly available in instances in which men try to make progress by contradiction; but there come times in human history when inspiration must go to the front; talent neat, measurable, drilled, educated, and expensively adjusted talent must go behind, and genius must go to the first place. When we are inspired we forget our rags. Inspiration makes the lowliest descent noble. A man may not have descended from the Plantagenets, he may only have descended from the Shakespeares and Miltons, the Isaiahs and the Ezekiels. It is often conceived that there is only a fleshly pedigree, as if flesh and bone might come down respectable; but what of that mystery that connects the lowliest with the most vital intellectual genealogies? What of that mysterious power that takes a man from the plough, and makes him sing until the ages listen?
Whom God calls let not man despise. God's elections are startling. When did the Lord choose as we thought he ought to have chosen? The old prophet in search of a king or a successor of a royal line will look upon stature and say, Not that: nobility of figure, and royalty of mien, as who should say in his every attitude, I am king to the manner born, and the old prophet will say, Not that And when all the best specimens of the family have passed under prophetic review, he will say, Is there not another? There is a spirit in man, and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth him understanding. The Lord elected in Amos a layman. Ought the laity to prophesy? Ought the pew to have any voice in the church? The Lord answers our inquiries in the affirmative; the Lord has allowed women to preach; the Lord has encouraged little children to make the church walls ring with their resilient and vibrant voices; and when learned rabbis would have checked them, and even imperfect disciples would have had them silenced, he said, Let the children sing; if they did not sing the stones would sing. This is the Lord's manner of election, and we will not have it. It is always officially unpopular. It is a terrible thing for any man to be official. He is no longer himself his natural, free, frank, fresh, genial, original self; he is weighed down with something; he is afraid of spectators; he reads the bible of precedent; he studies the apocrypha of tradition; and he is always thankful when the official day is over and the official salary is paid. Officialism will not allow the laity to speak above a whisper; officialism will look upon even those who occupy positions of teaching, and unless they have come through a certain routine they will say, Irregular! That is a dangerous word in the mouth of officialism. Officialism is nothing if not regular. Yet all the divine election has been lost upon us; we are as stupid to-day as the men were in the most ancient times. We cannot have it that God has stooped to put a ploughman in the prophet's office. We may get over it a century afterwards; there may be those who would to-day clap their hands applaudingly at the mention of the name of Bunyan who would not admit a living Bunyan to fellowship, intimacy, hospitality. Something might be given to him at the back door. It is one thing to applaud the heroes, the prophets, the seers of old time, and another to recognise their successors to-day.
History is lost upon us. We learn nothing. How can we learn anything when we were born in the bottle of an island, and we are afraid lest anybody should draw the cork, and let us see out?
Amos begins where all rude, energetic minds begin; they begin in denunciation. Judgment seems to be a natural work for them to conduct. They may be educated out of this educated into moderation, into connivance, into compromise, into concession, but speaking fresh from the Lord, speaking after immediately turning round from the divine face, they judge the world. "Know ye not that the saints shall judge the world?" And Amos issues his judgment against Damascus, Gaza, Tyrus, Edom, Ammon, Moab, Judah, Israel, all round the circle that judgment fire sparkles and blazes. It was like a farm-labourer, to have no resource but fire. All this is true to nature. It seems so much easier to denounce than to discriminate. Even young prophets began with thunder and lightning; in every instance Amos, representing the Lord, says, "But I will send a fire into the house of Hazael, which shall devour the palaces of Ben-hadad.... But I will send a fire on the wall of Gaza, which shall devour the palaces thereof.... But I will send a fire on the wall of Tyrus, which shall devour the palaces thereof.... But I will send a fire upon Teman, which shall devour the palaces of Bozrah.... But I will kindle a fire in the wall of Rabbah, and it shall devour the palaces thereof." And the nobles were lying on divans of ivory, having corrupted themselves to the point of rottenness. There are times in human history when the only disinfectant that can work the real miracle is fire. Fire never fails. When the prophet says, "For three, and for four transgressions" of Damascus, Gaza, Tyrus, Edom, Moab, Judah, Israel, he is not using an arithmetical term; the expression is idiomatic, it means the surplus sin the sin that overflows. The vessel of iniquity is filled up, and then another great wickedness is put in, and the vessel overflows, "for three, yea, for four" for a multitude of sins, for sin carried to the point of aggravation and intolerableness. I will send a fire upon the divans, and the couches of ivory shall be burned, and the nobles shall be disinfected with death. We need voices of this kind; they help to keep the average of human history well up to the mark. We could not live on lullabys, we do not want nursery rhymes; they may come in now and again. There may come times when we sing, "Far, far away, like bells at evening pealing," that may be indeed a sweet nonsense or useful piety, as the case may be; but the ages have made it fire and brimstone, thunder and lightning, judgment, criticism sharp as the eyes of God. Those you find in the Bible. The Bible is not only the most mysterious and transcendental book in literature; it is the most moral book. There is most of honesty in it right, fair, square, downright dealing with wrong, whatever the guise in which it hides its ugliness; the Bible will tear the visor from the actor's face, and show him in all his native and calculated odiousness.
What were the punishments for? Here again arises the moral standard. Will the Lord punish for the sake of punishing? Does he call for war simply that he may tear the prophets in twain, and wither the pride of Carmel, sweetest garden of the world, snowy with blossoms of purest white, green with emerald such as eyes had never seen or art invented? Is this arbitrary wrath? The answers are before us; we can judge the course of the divine policy and action. There is in every instance a cause. Take Damascus "because they have threshed Gilead with threshing instruments of iron." The Lord will not commend cruelty. If you oppress any man because he is weak the Lord's fire will burn you, even though that man be only an apprentice in your establishment, or a doorkeeper in your house of commerce, or a pauper supposedly under your care. Who is there in the world that cannot contemn with living scorn a man who has no money? He seems to be born to be driven out of the way ordered to move on. How goes the judgment? Read in the case of Tyrus "because they delivered up the whole captivity to Edom, and remembered not the brotherly covenant." Passion cares nothing for treaties. We meet in solemn congress, and write covenants and clauses and stipulations, and we adorn our signatures with infinite sealing-wax, and we say, This is better than war. It may be, or it may not be; that depends upon the use we make of the document. A man adds to his infamy when he denies his own signature, especially when that signature pledges him to responsibilities of the gravest and costliest kind. When passion overcomes any man he is no longer himself; he cannot consult moral obligations, or review himself in the light of spiritual judgments; the very devil infests every corner of his being, and the covenant is disannulled.
How goes the judgment? Is it arbitrary? Read in the case of Edom "because he did pursue his brother with the sword, and did cast off all pity, and his anger did tear perpetually, and he kept his wrath for ever." The Lord will not have pitilessness. When Edom pursued he did not simply run a race, and when his breath failed return. The word "pursued" here means persisted. When we pursue a man in this sense we give him no rest, we hunt him night and day; if he have retired to slumber we awake him; if the man has concealed himself in the sanctuary of midnight, we uncover him, arrest him, and rejoice in his nakedness, and turn his shame into mockery. The Lord will not allow man to treat man thus. The Lord hath respect unto his own image and likeness. There may be lawful contentions, legitimate controversies; there may be competing claims which require a very nice judgment to adjust and settle; but man is not to pursue man as if one side of the party or controversy were immaculate and pure as the untrodden snow, and the other were all villainy, deceit, and wrong. Not thus will the Lord have the controversies of men adjusted. How goes the war? Hear the case of Ammon "they have ripped up the women with child, that they might enlarge their border." God will not have ill-gotten gain. Enlargement of borders is nothing compared with righteousness. Yet to what will covetousness not drive a man? It will take away his sleep; it will make him jealous; it will fill him with rapacity. He must have something more, and yet another, and beyond; much will have more, and more most, and most all; and thus the infinite aggravation goes on. What if the Lord should stand up in the presence of his prophet, and say there can be no judgment upon this, short of the judgment of fire? Take the case of Moab the Lord "will send a fire upon Moab," "because he burned the bones of the king of Edom into lime." Edom had his rights; though Edom has been pronounced upon thus severely, yet even Edom was not divested of rights; and because Moab desecrated the tombs, or sought to turn the bones of the king of Edom into an element of profit and personal pecuniary advantage, the Lord will burn him. For the scheme of time is not a scheme of chance. There is righteousness at the heart of things; there is a throne above the stars. Thus in judgment we get comfort; thus in the terribleness of the divine wrath we see the vindication of divine and human rights.
Hear the instance of Judah "because they have despised the law of the Lord, and have not kept his commandments... therefore there shall be fire sent upon them." Hear the case of Israel "because they sold the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes." They turned the Lord's people into profit, they made chattels of them. They did not see the image and likeness of God on the very poorest human face; and so for a pair of sandals they would sell the poor, for a handful of silver the righteous might go into captivity. Nay more, "they pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor." Various interpretations of these mysterious words have been given. The one I adopt is that which fixes the meaning as: So covetous are they, that when the poor man has put ashes on the top of his head in sign of mourning, these people want to get those ashes into their own hands, that they may sell them for profit! This is the way of avarice. Is it right to punish such men? Do not fix your attention on the fire and the brimstone and the roaring out of the God of Zion, but fix your attention upon the object which the divine judgment has in view. What were the circumstances with which God had to deal? Look at the corruption, and then look at the judgment, and what if, after all, it be found that such judgment under such circumstances is but an act of mercy? These sins can never be got out of the world but by one process. Judgment can never destroy them. The Lord has shown that the sword has no power whatever in bringing things into moral relation, and setting up the sphere and kingdom of spiritual righteousness. Put up thy sword into its sheaf; that piece of iron can do nothing in the way of propagating truth and divine righteousness. Nay, the Lord has proved by his providence that judgment can do nothing towards the conversion of the world. Men may be desolated and sore afraid; they may be swallowed up with water; they may be burned with fire and brimstone as Sodom and Gomorrah, and yet their sin will assert itself, because selfishness is deeper at present than spirituality. All this must give place to a grand spiritual ministry. The conversion of the world is the work of God the Holy Ghost, and God the Holy Ghost does not take of his own, but of the things of Christ he takes Gethsemane with its sweat of blood; Calvary with its cry of agony; the resurrection with its signals of triumph and victory; the intercession of the risen Priest, as an assurance that the vilest sinner may return from the uttermost places of the earth. It is along this line that the world has to be bettered, reformed, regenerated, sanctified. For Christianity is not a reformation, it is a regeneration; it is not a new cloak, it is a new character. Therefore let us maintain the testimony of the Cross; let us be faithful to those profound evangelical truths and doctrines which take the largest, grandest view of history and of futurity. The work is holy, it is the Lord's work, and the Lord will conduct it in his own way and in his own time; and let us say to him, Lord, the harvest is thine; find the labourers where thou wilt Lord, here am I, send me; or if some other man will serve thy purpose better, send him, and keep me at home. The Lord choose his own instruments, his own reapers, his own orators and ministers; only dwell in them, qualify them by continual fellowship with God, and make them mighty, not after the withering power of man, but after the power of an endless life; may there in the simplest of them be a mystery which means God's autograph, God's endorsement.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Amos 1". Parker's The People's Bible. https://studylight.org/
the Fourth Week after Epiphany