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The Israelites Prepare to Meet God -- a study of Amos 4:1-13

Updated: Sep 8, 2022

Taking God lightly is a terrible idea.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Amos 4:1-13

Amos clarifies for the Israelites the depth of their foolish rejection of God's justice and righteousness -- not only did it bring them great suffering (by continuing to ignore God's chastisement and discipline), but it would finally bring them face-to-face with God's wrath and judgment: their utter destruction at the hands of the terrifying Assyrians.

Israel, prepare to meet your God! (4:12)

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Is It Just Me, or Has the Weather Been Weird?

Among other things in this week's passage, God mentions that He used the weather to try to get His people's attention (they still ignored Him). Without (!) making any political statements about "climate change", can we all agree that the weather has been something we're talking about more than usual?

Sure it's nothing new -- men have sat and talked about the weather for a long time (amiright, Randy Travis?). And the joke in Georgia (and Texas and probably every other state) is that if you don't like the weather, wait a few minutes and it will drastically change. But it seems to me that the weather has been weird around the country, and people like to talk about the weather. So, let's use that as an opening discussion!

FYI: I'm going to focus on USA weather. By all means, talk about any part of the world -- a lot of people need prayer as they deal with the fallout of weather catastrophes.

I think of "billion-dollar disasters" as happening during hurricane season, but we had 9 of them in the first 6 months of 2022. This doesn't include the ongoing wildfires in the west, the recent disastrous flooding in Kentucky/Illinois/Missouri, or the ice storms in Texas and New England.

If you like to see details of how rough certain parts of our country have had it weather-wise, these two maps from NOAA are for you!

I want to focus on temperature and rainfall.

Our little pocket in Georgia hasn't been too bad. We were in a mild drought, and we had our share of hot days, but if you have friends and relatives who live elsewhere, you probably heard some envy out of them.

Based on your conversations with people who don't live here, which parts of the country are complaining the most about too much heat and not enough rain? If you keep up with weather news, what is getting the most headlines right now?

If you're a glutton for punishment like I am, you may as well spread the word that the temperature is going to remain warmer-than-usual for a while. But I don't want to say anything to anyone on the West Coast, who may be in their worst summer heat wave ever.

This next map shouldn't surprise anyone -- 26 locations recorded their warmest-ever summer this summer (and a lot more had "top 10s"). But proving that no one really understands the weather, the other map says that 5 places had a "top 10" coldest summer ever. Huh.

Truly, I think of rainfall as being a bigger deal. Water is life. We've all seen the stories about Lake Mead being at its lowest level ever, and about how the West Coast is rationing water and energy (in places). And while I'm extremely grateful that we are not currently in any kind of drought, a lot of the country is.

And that's what's so weird to me. So much of the country is in drought, and yet we've also had a large number of catastrophic floods. Texas and Rhode Island had "top 5" driest Julys on record, and Kentucky had a "top 5" wettest July on record. I don't understand the weather, but I sure take it seriously.

This Week's Big Idea: God and Weather

Here's where I'm going with this: do you believe that God could use the weather to get our attention? Of course! In our passage this week, He even says that He has done so in Israel. In fact, He used the weather as chastisement for Israel's sins.

Our current section in Amos is based on a verse that we skipped:

I have known only you out of all the clans of the earth; therefore, I will punish you for all your iniquities. (3:2)

God did so much for His people, and yet they ignored Him and committed great evils, and so they must face the consequences.

But there is a big difference between saying that "God has used weather in the past as direct consequence for sin" and "God is using current weather events to punish sin". So, with that in mind, how do you think we should react to today's weather disasters?

First, it should remind us that we live in a world broken by sin. I always bring that up in the context of "why do bad things happen to good people?". Sometimes, "bad things" (and by that, I mean natural disasters like tornados and hurricanes) happen because the world is broken. And I mean physically. We have earthquakes and volcanoes and droughts and all the rest. And as long as humans live on this world, we will be affected by those things. To me, there's a big difference between saying that "God allowed that disaster to happen because we live in a broken world" and "God caused that disaster to happen to those people because of such-and-such sin". And this should point us forward to the new heaven and earth -- do you think there will be tornadoes in heaven?

Second, it should remind us that time is running out. Last week, I brought up the "street preacher" and his ubiquitous "The End Is Near" sign. Well, these weather disasters should remind us that the end is actually near. Remember what Jesus said in the Olivet Discourse (Matt 24): God will use wars, famines, and natural disasters as signs that the end is getting nearer. They do not mean that the end is here; they remind us that the end is approaching.

Third, and most importantly, we should remember that we are powerless before God. One great consequence of the "Climate Change" narrative (intentional or not) is the idea that these things are entirely man-caused. Really? Come on. Let's remember that God has the final say on everything that happens on earth (sorry, Mother Nature). Our first rection to weather disasters should be to cry out to God for mercy, not yell at the UN to "do something".

This is not to say that God is using these weather events as punishment for sin; this is to say that God could. If the earth keeps spinning for another thousand years, it will be because God allowed it, not because people got their act together on carbon emissions. (By all means, though, let's get our act together on carbon emissions.) When we face extreme heat or drought or storms, let's first remember how great God is that He can control this awesome power without breaking a sweat.

If you use this topic for discussion, I would like to direct it to this end: "When we hear about various weather disasters in our country/world, let's develop the habit of asking God for mercy and for opportunity to tell others about our hope in Jesus." Do you think there will be heat waves or drought in heaven?


Where We Are in Amos

I'm embarrassed that I forgot to include the Bible Project video on Amos last week, and thank you to those of you who pointed that out. It's a great summary, as always.

We are now in the second major section of the book.

1. Judgments on the Nations (chs 1-2)

2. Verification of God's Judgment on Israel (chs 3-6)

3. Visions and Exhortations of the End (chs 7-9)

God isn't capricious or moody; the Israelites have brought this punishment upon themselves.

God uses a very dark image that I find so powerful:

As the shepherd snatches two legs or a piece of an ear from the lion’s mouth, so the Israelites who live in Samaria will be rescued with only the corner of a bed or the cushion of a couch. (3:12)

The destruction will be utter.

But the people cannot say that God didn't warn them! This week's passage focuses on some of the ways God used to try to steer His people off their destructive path (one method He has already mentioned is the prophets -- 3:7).


Part 1: Indulge (Amos 4:1-3)

Listen to this message, you cows of Bashan who are on the hill of Samaria, women who oppress the poor and crush the needy, who say to their husbands, “Bring us something to drink.”
2 The Lord God has sworn by his holiness: Look, the days are coming when you will be taken away with hooks, every last one of you with fishhooks. 3 You will go through breaches in the wall, each woman straight ahead, and you will be driven along toward Harmon. This is the Lord’s declaration.

So, yeah, this is a tough insult -- but it might not mean what you think it means. Modern culture uses "cow" as a specific type of insult. But the modern equivalent to Amos's meaning might be closer to "fat cat". It could connote "diva" (as the leader guide suggests), but it definitely connotes "over-indulged". These are women who have lived a life of luxury at the expense of everyone around them.

("Bashan" referred to a particularly fertile region east of the Sea of Galilee -- a vast plain that was Israel's "breadbasket".)

The idea of the over-indulged, out-of-touch wealthy class is a very common image in literature because it's so easy to understand. Think "District 1" from the Hunger Games, or Denethor's table from Return of the King. It's lampooned in the sentiment "The people don't have bread? Then let them eat cake" (wrongly attributed to Marie Antoinette). An ancient Chinese emperor once said "The people don't have rice? Then they should eat porridge with meat" and was apparently deposed. Perhaps we might talk about the CEO who cuts thousands of jobs because there's not enough money but then collects a bonus worth the salaries he cut. And so on. People who make you wonder if they're aware which world they live in.

I mentioned Amos 4:1-3 when talking about the fall of Samaria in 2 Kings 17 as part of God's case against Israel. Why do you think God is so upset with this kind of self-indulgence?

In that post, I said that verse 2-3 was literal. The Assyrian army was the first to conquer and rule by what we would now call "terror tactics". [Warning: this Sunday is 9/11. Be wary of the bizarre narrative that makes al-Qaeda or other terrorists God's modern agents of vengeance like the Assyrians.] Here are reliefs of their practice of mass impalement, flaying alive, and ripping out teeth and beard.

The idea (as with all terror) was to frighten the people into submission -- don't fight back because you know what they will do to you.

One of their methods of controlling prisoners was to hook them through their nose and string them together. (Well, this worked for the self-indulged upper classes who could not tolerate pain; for the more rebellious types, they would hook them through their jaws.) And you can see in this picture that they're also putting out someone's eyes. (Imagine that -- your eyes are gouged out and you're being led along by a hook through your nose. How much trouble are you going to cause?) This is appalling (and yes, it eventually came back to bite them).

Also note the reference to a "breach in the wall", meaning a gap where the wall has been destroyed. There, the women will be "driven along" (or "cast out" or "thrown out").

[Translation note: the Hebrew is very obscure here. "Fishhook" might also be "basket" or "rope". There seems to be a fishing connotation, which is where I get the image of fishhooks through the nose, but it could also refer to being caught and captured in a basket for fish. Which is still horrifying. But because I believe it refers to the hook through the nose, I lean toward the "dragged along" meaning. The women are all strung together by a long rope, each one connected to it by a hook through their nose.]

[Bonus translation note: we don't know what "Harmon" means, if it's a place name or an adverb of some kind.]

Again, your primary discussion here: what is God so upset about?


Part 2: Worship (Amos 4:4-5)

4 Come to Bethel and rebel; rebel even more at Gilgal! Bring your sacrifices every morning, your tenths every three days. 5 Offer leavened bread as a thanksgiving sacrifice, and loudly proclaim your freewill offerings, for that is what you Israelites love to do!
This is the declaration of the Lord God.

This is Amos turning the Israelites' sin into a kind of taunt. "Keep rebelling! Why stop now?"

Bethel was where Abraham built one of his earliest altars (Gen 12:8), and a number of judges used it as their "headquarters" (the ark was even kept there for a time). You remember that Jeroboam I coopted this history and set up a golden calf at Bethel so the Israelites wouldn't keep going to Jerusalem to worship. "Great idea! Why don't y'all keep doing that!"

Gilgal was the Israelites' first worship center in the Promised Land (Josh 5). After miraculously crossing the Jordan, Joshua set up an altar there, and all the people observed the Passover. Samuel and Elisha used Gilgal as a "headquarters" (1 Sam 7, 2 Ki 4), Saul was crowned king there (1 Sam 11), and Elijah was taken up to heaven there (2 Ki 2). The Israelites were quite proud of the history of this place. "Yep, the great things that happened here centuries ago definitely excuse your actions here today!"

The Israelites went above and beyond for their actions of worship. The law called for a tenth ("tithe") to be brought once every three years (Deut 14), and the sacrifices were to be made kinda "as needed". But the Israelites were comically bringing it all every day, or every few days (that's probably hyperbole, but God's point is to contrast this with the famine and poverty in the land -- "the people starve, but you throw around sacrifices for show"). Your leader guide points out that Amos doesn't mention sin or guilt offerings, probably because the people were completely shameless.

These words might remind you of what Jesus said to the Jewish leaders (Matt 23):

23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You pay a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, and yet you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness. These things should have been done without neglecting the others. 24 Blind guides! You strain out a gnat, but gulp down a camel!
25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside of it may also become clean.
27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of the bones of the dead and every kind of impurity. 28 In the same way, on the outside you seem righteous to people, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

All of this is leading to the highpoint of Amos's warning in chapter 5:

24 But let justice flow like water, and righteousness, like an unfailing stream.

The first section of this week's passage covered that there was no justice in Israel; this section covers that there is no righteousness either. And if God's people are without justice or righteousness, what good are they?

This should make us think of another of Jesus' warnings:

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt should lose its taste, how can it be made salty? It’s no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. (Matt 5:13)

So, put these two sections together. Justice and righteousness. Why does God find both to be equally important? What does it look like for Christians today to neglect either?


Part 3: Refuse (Amos 4:6-11)

6 I gave you absolutely nothing to eat in all your cities, a shortage of food in all your communities, yet you did not return to me. This is the Lord’s declaration.
7 I also withheld the rain from you while there were still three months until harvest. I sent rain on one city but no rain on another. One field received rain while a field with no rain withered. 8 Two or three cities staggered to another city to drink water but were not satisfied, yet you did not return to me. This is the Lord’s declaration.
9 I struck you with blight and mildew; the locust devoured your many gardens and vineyards, your fig trees and olive trees, yet you did not return to me. This is the Lord’s declaration.
10 I sent plagues like those of Egypt; I killed your young men with the sword, along with your captured horses. I caused the stench of your camp to fill your nostrils, yet you did not return to me. This is the Lord’s declaration.
11 I overthrew some of you as I overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, and you were like a burning stick snatched from a fire, yet you did not return to me— This is the Lord’s declaration.

[Sometimes I feel like Lifeway uses a random word generator to come up with their section titles.]

Obviously, this is where I came up with the opening "weather" discussion idea. This wider context is extremely harsh. Have your group go through these verses and list all of the methods God used to get His people's attention (i.e., verse 6 famine, verse 7 drought, etc.). How harsh!

Here are some interesting details:

  • Verse 6: "nothing to eat" is literally "cleanness of teeth", which is a vivid image for a culture before toothbrushes and toothpaste!

  • Verse 7: "three months before harvest" are the most important for rain, bringing the work from planting to a success. The reference to "one field but not another" lets us know that the people should have observed a divine pattern in the drought.

  • Verse 9: "blight, mildew/disease, and locusts" are the three most frightening words for a farmer in that day -- they had no defense against them.

  • Verse 10: "plague of Egypt" probably refers to one of the ten plagues in Exodus, but it could also mean a kind of plague that was happening in Egypt at the time; either way, it should have been evident that God was behind it. There's a separate reference to war here, that God allowed Israel's enemies to kill her army.

  • Verse 11: "Sodom and Gomorrah" -- in Gen 19, God destroyed those two cities with fire and sulfur from the sky (like a massive volcanic eruption). This probably refers to how the Assyrians burned cities to the ground and ruined the farmland with stone and sulfur.

And the people never once wondered if they had upset God.

Read this excerpt from Deuteronomy 28, and decide if the people should have known:

20 The Lord will send against you curses, confusion, and rebuke in everything you do until you are destroyed and quickly perish, because of the wickedness of your actions in abandoning me. 21 The Lord will make pestilence cling to you until he has exterminated you from the land you are entering to possess. 22 The Lord will afflict you with wasting disease, fever, inflammation, burning heat, drought, blight, and mildew; these will pursue you until you perish. 23 The sky above you will be bronze, and the earth beneath you iron. 24 The Lord will turn the rain of your land into falling dust; it will descend on you from the sky until you are destroyed. 25 The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You will march out against them from one direction but flee from them in seven directions. You will be an object of horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. 26 Your corpses will be food for all the birds of the sky and the wild animals of the earth, with no one to scare them away.
27 “The Lord will afflict you with the boils of Egypt, tumors, a festering rash, and scabies, from which you cannot be cured. 28 The Lord will afflict you with madness, blindness, and mental confusion, 29 so that at noon you will grope as a blind person gropes in the dark. You will not be successful in anything you do. You will only be oppressed and robbed continually, and no one will help you.
38 “You will sow much seed in the field but harvest little, because locusts will devour it. 39 You will plant and cultivate vineyards but not drink the wine or gather the grapes, because worms will eat them. 40 You will have olive trees throughout your territory but not moisten your skin with oil, because your olives will drop off. 41 You will father sons and daughters, but they will not remain yours, because they will be taken prisoner. 42 Buzzing insects will take possession of all your trees and your land’s produce. 43 The resident alien among you will rise higher and higher above you, while you sink lower and lower. 44 He will lend to you, but you won’t lend to him. He will be the head, and you will be the tail.
45 “All these curses will come, pursue, and overtake you until you are destroyed, since you did not obey the Lord your God and keep the commands and statutes he gave you. 46 These curses will be a sign and a wonder against you and your descendants forever.

I'm gonna say yeah, they should have known.

Here's a potential discussion topic -- tread lightly because it could get personal -- that you could use to personalize this. What the harshest parenting method you've ever used or that was used on you? Was it effective or not, and why?

God had made it very clear to the people what would be the consequence for their rebellion. He also listed some extremely harsh penalties as deterrence. Why? Because if they left Him, they would be consigning themselves to an eternity in hell. No worse thing could happen to God's children, and so He offered the ultimate "stick and carrot" to keep them on the right path.

And when they catastrophically failed, He made good on his promise of discipline.

A few things that distinguish "God's parenting skills" from ours:

  • God knows our hearts perfectly

  • God is always right

  • God sees the eternity in our future

Just keep that in mind if you are emboldened by this to become harsher with your children. Maybe don't.


Part 4: Prepare (Amos 4:12-13)

12 Therefore, Israel, that is what I will do to you, and since I will do that to you, Israel, prepare to meet your God! 13 He is here: the one who forms the mountains, creates the wind, and reveals his thoughts to man, the one who makes the dawn out of darkness and strides on the heights of the earth. The Lord, the God of Armies, is his name.

And here we go! I imagine listening to James Earl Jones doing a dramatic reading of Amos (not like the recording that's out there -- it's kinda boring).

"Israel, you chose the wrong deity."

This reminds me of the final scene in the book of Job,

40:6 Then the Lord answered Job from the whirlwind: 7 Get ready to answer me like a man; When I question you, you will inform me. 8 Would you really challenge my justice? Would you declare me guilty to justify yourself? 9 Do you have an arm like God’s? Can you thunder with a voice like his? 10 Adorn yourself with majesty and splendor, and clothe yourself with honor and glory. 11 Pour out your raging anger; look on every proud person and humiliate him.

And Job was allowed to reply:

42:4 You said, “Listen now, and I will speak. When I question you, you will inform me.” 5 I had heard reports about you, but now my eyes have seen you. 6 Therefore, I reject my words and am sorry for them; I am dust and ashes.

Job repented, and God restored him. The Israelites were beyond repentance.

When we want to share an "awe" passage, I think a lot of us tend toward Job. But Amos 4:12-13 makes a strong case to be that passage -- so short and direct! How awe-inspiring!

People will convince themselves not to take a Santa Claus god seriously, but the One True God is something else entirely. You cannot ignore Him -- you can only bow before Him.

The big picture here is "taking God seriously". We've talked about this a number of times the past few months, so now would be a good time to take stock of yourself. Based on the past few weeks, what are examples of ways you have not treated God like the "Lord God of Armies" He is?

I'm not suggesting that any of us may have gone so far as the Israelites! But the point is to make sure we never even come close to that. What are the little ways we have taken God for granted, not taken Him seriously, or not treated Him with the reverence He deserves?

Next week's passage goes into this last point in greater depth, so make sure to save some discussion for next Sunday!

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