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Seek God and Live - a study of Amos 5:4-15

Our hearts should be broken over all injustice.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Amos 5:4-15

In our final lesson in Amos, we see Amos repeat the charges against the Israelites, except this time as a lament over the destruction they will bring upon themselves. Justice and righteousness are expectations for all of God's people -- but they must be by God's standards. The people's callous selfishness was their undoing.

Pursue good and not evil so that you may live, (5:14)

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Fire the Coach! Recall the Politician!

I guess every season is coach-firing season, but I think of football season as the time for the highest profile coach firings. Scott Frost was just fired by Nebraska (and there are plenty of stories to read about that, if you're interested). Sports news sites even keep updated lists of coaches "on the hot seat" (coaches they think are the most likely to be fired next; Marcus Freeman of Notre Dame, and Matt Rhule of Carolina, just fyi). Nothing brings out the ire of a fan quite like a debate about if a coach should be fired.

If you've got sports fans in your group, you might be able to start with this discussion:

  1. What are the reasons why fans want a coach to be fired?

  2. What are the reasons you would want a coach to be fired?

  3. What are actually defensible reasons for a coach to be fired?

Understanding the difference between the answers to those questions can be illuminating.

Let's say you don't have sports fans in your group. Shift to politics. Truth be told, "recall elections" are very rare. This topic wouldn't be so much about "firing a politician" as "not electing them next time". It's also really hard to think objectively about this because campaign ads do everything they can to convince you their candidate should be elected and not "the other guy". So, as best you can, work with the same kinds of questions.

  1. What are the reasons why voters want a candidate not to be elected?

  2. What are the reasons you would want a candidate not to be elected?

  3. What are actually defensible reasons for a candidate not to be elected?

Here's what I would hope to reveal through this exercise:

  • People can have very different opinions on what is a "fire-able offense".

  • People can have very different perceptions of a situation.

  • People can be swayed by presentation.

None of that applies to God. God has a clear and immutable definition of right and wrong. God's perception of a situation is the reality of the situation. God cannot be swayed by appearances.

The Israelites really thought they were okay. They thought their understanding of the situation was "good enough". And Amos wasn't going to convince them otherwise.

To demonstrate this, you might take a scenario like Mark Richt to Kirby Smart (I would stay away from an election -- this is supposed to be a "make you think" topic, not a "make you mad" topic). Could the two "sides" convince the other to change their mind? Probably not. People tend to dig in on topics like this. And if we can dig in about a football coach firing, how much more "dug in" could a person be about the kind of scenario Amos is bringing up?

All the more reason for us to be willing to listen to God's perspective on our lives.

Topic 2: What Are the Really Socially Important Problems in America?

I've suggested a version of this topic recently, but you might not have used it. Perhaps a "make you think" topic would be to identify the problems in our country that are truly problematic. Note that I'm not talking about possible solutions! People will argue until the cows come home about how to solve a problem. Let's just identify the problems.

NPR did a mid-term election survey and found that voters are concerned with:

  • Inflation

  • Abortion

  • Health care

  • Jan 6 trials

  • Immigration

  • Guns

  • Crime

What are people concerned with around here? Drugs. Social services. Taxes. Available housing. Schools. Workforce. Supply chain. And plenty more.

Here's the direction I would go with this. Which of these two scenarios is worse:

  • A community trying to solve a problem but not making great headway.

  • A community ignoring a problem completely.

To me -- and people disagree with me about this -- a community who recognizes a problem is in better shape than a community who ignores a problem. That's why I believe that a community who is trying to get better still has hope, even if they're making mistakes along the way. Here's the thing about ancient Israel: they were completely ignoring the massive social problems around them.

Let's never turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to what's happening around us.


This Week's Big Idea: Giving a Warning without Sounding like an Extremist Fanatic

Amos's situation was painfully simple: no matter what he said, the Israelites dismissed him as a religious zealot nutcase.

We've all dealt with versions of this in our own lives. How do people respond to you when you tell them that apart from Jesus, they will spend eternity in hell? Or that God will judge them for their sin? People don't like to hear that, and an easy way to dismiss the message is to dismiss the messenger. This can be equally true on specific topics, like abortion, marriage, social responsibility, and whatever else.

So, a big idea that you may want to cover at some point during the group discussion is how can we present important, confrontational truths without sounding like a crazy zealot?

The first thing is to realize that you can't necessarily control what you sound like to another person. You might be making the most reasonable, respectful, compassionate presentation of basic truth, but the other person hears you as a hatemonger. That said, the Bible does give us a few good guidelines, and I encourage you to do some of your own research into this. I'll take the easy way out and quote from 1 Peter 3:

8 Finally, all of you be like-minded and sympathetic, love one another, and be compassionate and humble, 9 not paying back evil for evil or insult for insult but, on the contrary, giving a blessing, since you were called for this, so that you may inherit a blessing. ... 14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness, you are blessed. Do not fear them or be intimidated, 15 but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, ready at any time to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. 16 Yet do this with gentleness and reverence, keeping a clear conscience, so that when you are accused, those who disparage your good conduct in Christ will be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.

Here's my quick summary of how Peter tells us to speak truth to others:

  • Speak out of love for the other person

  • Have true compassion for the other person

  • Be humble before the other person

  • Do not be reactionary or retaliatory

  • Have Jesus at the front of your mind

  • Don't hesitate to share the truth

  • Be gentle in how you speak

  • Be respectful of the other person

  • Care what God thinks about what you say

That last bullet point comes from the verses I skipped in the quote, that God is always listening, but His ears are attentive to the righteous person.

Doing all of those things will not guarantee that you won't be dismissed as a zealot. BUT -- doing all of those things will mean that you can have a clear conscience about your encounter. For example, if Amos had any trouble sleeping, it would be because of his broken heart over Israel's sin, not because he was second-guessing his message.


Bonus Big Idea: The Rest of Amos

This is our last session in Amos (next week is a joint session focused on evangelism). So, that means that if you find this week's passage to be too close a parallel to last week's passage, you can sprinkle in some of the other amazing things Amos shares.

Here are a few passages from later in the book that I find particularly powerful:

Amos 5:18 Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord! What will the day of the Lord be for you? It will be darkness and not light. 19 It will be like a man who flees from a lion only to have a bear confront him. He goes home and rests his hand against the wall only to have a snake bite him. 20 Won’t the day of the Lord be darkness rather than light, even gloom without any brightness in it? 21 I hate, I despise, your feasts! I can’t stand the stench of your solemn assemblies. 22 Even if you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; I will have no regard for your fellowship offerings of fattened cattle. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. 24 But let justice flow like water, and righteousness, like an unfailing stream.

This underscores Jesus' very powerful words: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven." (Matt 7:21)

In other words, it's not enough to think you're "sincere". The Israelites probably convinced themselves that they were sincere in their religious practices. But they were sincerely wrong. It's not enough to think you're properly religious if your heart is far from God. You've probably heard it this way: "God cares what we do on Sunday morning; He also cares what we do on Monday morning."

Verse 24 in particular has been a favorite quote in justice movements throughout history (MLK's use of it was quite powerful), but it can be misused. It is based on God's standard of justice and righteousness, not a human standard. Realizing that, what does this verse mean?


7:1 The Lord God showed me this: He was forming a swarm of locusts at the time the spring crop first began to sprout—after the cutting of the king’s hay. 2 When the locusts finished eating the vegetation of the land, I said, “Lord God, please forgive! How will Jacob survive since he is so small?” 3 The Lord relented concerning this. “It will not happen,” he said.
4 The Lord God showed me this: The Lord God was calling for a judgment by fire. It consumed the great deep and devoured the land. 5 Then I said, “Lord God, please stop! How will Jacob survive since he is so small?” 6 The Lord relented concerning this. “This will not happen either,” said the Lord God.
7 He showed me this: The Lord was standing there by a vertical wall with a plumb line in his hand. 8 The Lord asked me, “What do you see, Amos?” I replied, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will no longer spare them."

This is an amazing passage, if difficult to understand. Like Abraham and Moses, Amos appealed to God's mercy to stave off God's all-consuming judgment by locust and by fire. But the third vision is different -- God doesn't show Amos a vision of destruction; He shows Amos a plumb line. In construction, a plumb line can be used to show which wall has sagged; it is irrefutable evidence which wall needs to be corrected (or torn down). With the plumb line, God shows Amos that the people's sin cannot be ignored. You'll notice that Amos has nothing to say after the third vision.


9:13 Look, the days are coming—this is the Lord’s declaration— when the plowman will overtake the reaper and the one who treads grapes, the sower of seed. The mountains will drip with sweet wine, and all the hills will flow with it. 14 I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel. They will rebuild and occupy ruined cities, plant vineyards and drink their wine, make gardens and eat their produce. 15 I will plant them on their land, and they will never again be uprooted from the land I have given them. The Lord your God has spoken.

And then the final verses give a beautiful image of restoration and rebuilding. The book of Amos is mostly seen for its condemnation and warning (and for good reason!), but I love verse 13. There is coming a day when the people will be back in their land, and it will be so bountiful that the farmers will still be gathering the harvest when it's time to plant again! It's such a stark contrast to the famine and blight prophesied in the previous chapters.

I read these final verses as a promise of heaven (or at least the Millennial Kingdom, depending on how you interpret Revelation), not a picture of the return from Babylon. The Israelites were uprooted again by Rome, but there is coming a day in the final kingdom when there will be no war, no famine, no drought -- not ever again.

If you want to spend some time covering any of the rest of Amos, I think that would be a great idea.


Where We Are in Amos

This week's passage immediately follows last week's. We are still in the middle section of the book, so the focus is the same:

Verification of God's Judgment on Israel (3:1-6:14)

  • Behind every result is a cause (3:1-8)

  • Confirmation of Israel's punishment (3:9-4:3)

  • Israel is unwilling to return to God (4:4-13)

  • A lament over Israel, the dead nation (5:1-17)

  • Woe oracle concerning false hopes (5:18-27)

  • Woe oracle concerning false security (6:1-14)

Last week established that Israel had sinned and should be punished for it. This week is a lament over that sin. It essentially covers the same ground. However, there are two big and helpful truths that would be easy to miss:

  1. The importance of lamenting sin! There's a reason why this section parallels the previous. Amos didn't just name the Israelites' sin; he was brokenhearted by it. Likewise for us, when we hear of sin, our reaction should not be "I hope they get what's coming to them" but to cry out to God in sorrow for the sin in our world.

  2. The difference between lamenting sin and lamenting "being caught". This section is a chiasm (see below), and it begins and ends with a lament. But the opening lament is from God, lamenting that He had to send judgment on the people. The closing lament is from the people, lamenting the judgment itself. Do you see the difference?

Chiasm. The leader guide points out the chiastic structure of 5:1-17 (where something is written as A B C B A), which is good, but they also point out why that matters:

  • In a chiasm, the emphasis is on the central verse

  • Chiasms clearly delineate a "paragraph" (where a topic starts and stops)

So as not to copy the leader guide, here is a different way of looking at the chiasm:

5:1-3 -- lament for Israel by God

5:4-6 -- "seek me and live"

5:7 -- accusation about justice

5:8a -- the power of the Lord to create

5:8b -- "the Lord is his name"

5:9 -- the power of the Lord to destroy

5:10-13 -- accusation about justice

5:14-15 -- pursue good and live

5:16-17 -- lament for Israel by the people

The emphasis of this chapter is that the Lord is God. Don't lose sight of that when covering these verses.


Part 1: The Choice (Amos 5:4-9)

4 For the Lord says to the house of Israel: Seek me and live! 5 Do not seek Bethel or go to Gilgal or journey to Beer-sheba, for Gilgal will certainly go into exile, and Bethel will come to nothing. 6 Seek the Lord and live, or he will spread like fire throughout the house of Joseph; it will consume everything with no one at Bethel to extinguish it. 7 Those who turn justice into wormwood also throw righteousness to the ground.
8 The one who made the Pleiades and Orion, who turns darkness into dawn and darkens day into night, who summons the water of the sea and pours it out over the surface of the earth—
the Lord is his name.
9 He brings destruction on the strong, and it falls on the fortress.

So, yeah, pretty simple: seek the Lord and live, or remain His enemy and be consumed by His judgment.

A lot of people pigeonhole God in the Old Testament as an angry God who is quick to punish. Based solely on these verses, how would you respond to that claim?

We talked about Bethel and Gilgal last week. Beer-sheba ("well of the oath") was an important worship site for Abraham and Isaac as well as being an important waypost in the desert. The Israelites had corrupted the worship there just as they had at Bethel and Gilgal. Anyone who went there was perpetuating a pagan religion.

We covered Isaiah a while back; he and Micah were contemporaries in the southern kingdom not long after Amos gave this prophecy. Isaiah went into more detail about how foolish the idol worshipers were:

Isaiah 44:6 This is what the Lord, the King of Israel and its Redeemer, the Lord of Armies, says:
I am the first and I am the last. There is no God but me. 7 Who, like me, can announce the future? Let him say so and make a case before me, since I have established an ancient people. Let these gods declare the coming things, and what will take place. 8 Do not be startled or afraid. Have I not told you and declared it long ago? You are my witnesses! Is there any God but me? There is no other Rock; I do not know any.
9 All who make idols are nothing, and what they treasure benefits no one. Their witnesses do not see or know anything, so they will be put to shame. 10 Who makes a god or casts a metal image that benefits no one? 11 Look, all its worshipers will be put to shame, and the craftsmen are humans. They all will assemble and stand; they all will be startled and put to shame. 14 He cuts down cedars for his use, or he takes a cypress or an oak. He lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a laurel, and the rain makes it grow. 15 A person can use it for fuel. He takes some of it and warms himself; also he kindles a fire and bakes bread; he even makes it into a god and worships it; he makes an idol from it and bows down to it. 16 He burns half of it in a fire, and he roasts meat on that half. He eats the roast and is satisfied. He warms himself and says, “Ah! I am warm, I see the blaze.” 17 He makes a god or his idol with the rest of it. He bows down to it and worships; he prays to it, “Save me, for you are my god.” 18 Such people do not comprehend and cannot understand, for he has shut their eyes so they cannot see, and their minds so they cannot understand.

And Isaiah goes on to give the same kind of encouragement that Amos does, which means that God finds this message very important:

44:21 Remember these things, Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you, you are my servant; Israel, you will never be forgotten by me. 22 I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like a mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you.

The total message is pretty simple: there is only one God. Seek Him and live. Reject Him and suffer the consequences with the other fools.

Here's where I would take the discussion: why were the Israelites (particularly the ruling class) so quick to turn their backs on God?

You should get some answers about how they were swayed by the pagan religions around them. You should get some answers about how they didn't want to put in the hard work of following God's laws. But I hope you also get some answers about how they thought they had it all together -- they had money, power, and a large military. What did they need of God?

Framed that way, you can see how we can fall into the same traps today. God sent prophets like Amos (and Isaiah, well, and Jonah and Micah and Hosea) to warn the people of the consequences. Today, we have the record of their words, and the words of the final Prophet (and Priest and King), Jesus Christ. Are we taking them seriously?


Part 2: The Reality (Amos 5:10-13)

10 They hate the one who convicts the guilty at the city gate, and they despise the one who speaks with integrity. 11 Therefore, because you trample on the poor and exact a grain tax from him, you will never live in the houses of cut stone you have built; you will never drink the wine from the lush vineyards you have planted. 12 For I know your crimes are many and your sins innumerable. They oppress the righteous, take a bribe, and deprive the poor of justice at the city gates. 13 Therefore, those who have insight will keep silent at such a time, for the days are evil.

This is another litany of the ridiculously obvious sins the Israelites thought they could get away with. If you have covered them in detail already, I would suggest moving on and perhaps hitting some of the important concepts from later in the book.

But if you haven't, it's well worth explaining. First, realize that "they" refers specifically to the ruling classes of Israel, the ones with money and power and influence. Second, realize that the city gate was often where "trials" were held and taxes were levied.

  • Those people no longer wanted a fair and impartial justice system -- they wanted a "justice system" that let them get away with whatever they wanted. (v. 10, 12)

  • They were taking full financial advantage of the poor by charging them exorbitant rents/leases and putting high taxes on anything related to their livelihood, including taking a large portion of their harvest before they could eat it or sell it. (v. 11)

  • They weren't just targeting the poor -- they were also targeting the godfearing Jews around them, either because they were self-conscious or because they didn't think their righteous neighbors would defend themselves.

It's all quite gross.

What will happen to them? All of their great possessions (in that day, it would be the estates -- farms/orchards/vineyards/ranches -- and the giant houses on them) would be taken from them at "gunpoint".

From our vantage, we can see that as "turnabout". They had accumulated the money to build these great estates by taking it from the poor. And soon enough someone would take it from them.

There are plenty of application questions for us, and you may have exhausted these in the past weeks. Are we willing to pay attention to the "bad news" around us? One of the things I've noticed is that some people are so tired of the "slanted" reporting they see from some news sources that they ignore valid reporting from those sources (and this happens on both sides of the spectrum). Let's always be willing to consider someone else's perspective, even (especially) when it makes us uncomfortable.

To validate that, let me copy my list from 1 Peter 3 above about our words:

  • Speak out of love for the other person

  • Have true compassion for the other person

  • Be humble before the other person

  • Do not be reactionary or retaliatory

  • Have Jesus at the front of your mind

  • Don't hesitate to share the truth

  • Be gentle in how you speak

  • Be respectful of the other person

  • Care what God thinks about what you say

I believe that equally applies to our thoughts and attitudes. Let's always be willing to consider how other people view our world, even when we disagree with their conclusions.


Part 3: The Solution (Amos 5:14-15)

14 Pursue good and not evil so that you may live, and the Lord, the God of Armies, will be with you as you have claimed. 15 Hate evil and love good; establish justice at the city gate. Perhaps the Lord, the God of Armies, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

The solution is incredibly simple. Stop doing evil and do good. Certainly ask for examples of how to do this and challenge the people in your group to live this way, but there's not much to explain here. Just do.

I find it very interesting that God's call to live rightly doesn't change just because judgment has been passed and punishment is coming. "You've been guilty, you're still guilty, and you're going to be punished for your guilt, but you still need to stop."

There are three ways we could look at this:

  1. God was truly willing to prevent the invasion of the Assyrians. (There was no real chance of this, though, because the people were unwilling to repent.)

  2. God was willing to have mercy on those who repented, perhaps by making their experience in the coming war less awful. (I lean this way.)

  3. This message was more about the future generations who would read this prophecy and be challenged to take God seriously. (It's hard to argue with this.)

Today, because of Jesus Christ, we have a different kind of relationship with God. We are no longer "lumped in" with a nation based on genealogy or proximity; we are now a "people" with everyone who has made a personal confession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. But God has put Christians in nations to be salt and light there, to be His ambassadors and witnesses. The call to pursue our society's good still applies to us today. We might no longer be of the world, but we are in the world -- for a purpose.

There are two closing applications for our time in Amos.

  1. The way our heart is pricked for the needs of others is proof of our spiritual growth. The leader guide asks this great question: why are loving good and upholding justice indicators that a person is seeking God?

  2. What are ways we can pursue good and establish justice in our community? At the very least, what are steps we can take or foundations we can lay for future movement toward justice and righteousness?

This thought exercise is only half-baked (that's the disadvantage of doing this week-to-week), but maybe you can do something with it:

  • Picture a protest or assembly of people who are advocating for something you agree with, and for something you disagree with. Now picture Jesus walking up to the scene with some of His apostles. What do you think He would say to the people, and what do you think He would teach His apostles?

We want to have the same attitude toward the people around us that Jesus would. Pray that He shapes us to be more like Him.


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