Amos 5:18-27: The First Woe

This text begins the third major section of Amos. In the first section (Amos 1-2) the prophet addressed eight nations and climaxed his message with an extended application to Israel. In the second section (Amos 3:1-5:17) the prophet declares the word of the Lord in three brief speeches (“hear this word” in 3:1, 4:1 and 5:1) as he focused on the coming divine visitation, its rationale, and lament. Now, in this third section, Amos offers two prophetic woes against Israel. The first is found in Amos 5:18-27 and the second in Amos 6:1-14.

Each Woe oracle contains two components.  Each begins with the Woe itself and is then followed by a further pronouncement. The first Woe (5:18-20) is followed by an indictment (5:21-27) while the second Woe (6:1-7) is followed by a judgment proclamation (6:8-14).

Woe oracles function as either curses, warnings, or both. Woes pronounce judgment but at the same time warn about participation in the community to which the Woe is addressed.  Woes, then, are both exhortations and imprecations.

The Woe (5:18-20).  The first Woe declares the nature of the “day of Yahweh.” Apparently many are hoping and yearning for that day. They are under the illusion that the day will be good for them. Perhaps they believe that the “day of Yahweh” will be the day when God defeats the nations that surround them or that day will secure their safety, wealth, or power. Whatever they imagined that day to be or its circumstances, they believed its arrival would be in their own self-interest. But they are mistaken and deluded.

For Israel the “day of Yahweh” is darkness rather than light. It will not be redemption but judgment. It will not be a day of light as in the day of creation when everything is new or renewed. Rather, it will be a day of darkness, a day of chaos, death and destruction. This is uncreation, the reversal of creation itself. Though God created Israel, he will now uncreate them.

Further, the effects of the day, like the day itself, will be unavoidable. One might think they could run from it like they might run from a lion, but they will only meet a bear instead. They may even arrive home and think the danger has passed only to be bitten by a snake in the security of their own home. There is no escape. Yahweh’s day will come and it will complete its work despite all human attempts to avoid, flee, or escape it.

The Indictment (5:21-27). The structure of the indictment is: “I hate this…but I want this!” God hates their festive celebrations of divine grace through the sacrificial system, but he wants justice and righteousness to flow over the nation like an everlasting life-giving stream of water.

What does God hate? We must be careful that we do not miss the rhetorical intent here. We could literalize this in such a way that God hates all (1) assemblies, (2) sacrifices, and (3) music. Of course, God does not hate any of these per se. Each of these are present in the life of Israel as prescribed responses to God’s grace in their lives. The Torah directs Israel  to assemble (Leviticus 23:26) and sacrifice (Leviticus 1-7). The use of music–both singing and playing–was present at least from the time of David forward (2 Chronicles 7:6; Amos 6:5) and is part of the Psalter (Psalm 150). God did not literally hate or despise these; indeed, God enjoyed them as Israel assembled in the presence of God (Deuteronomy 27:6-7).

So, what does God hate? The contrast answers the question. God hates assemblies that lack justice. He hates Israel’s assemblies because they approach  God with hands stained with injustice. God refuses sacrifices from those who do not practice righteousness. God stops his ears to music played by a community that neglects or oppresses the poor. God desires assemblies, sacrifices and music, but they must flow from a people who practice justice and righteousness.

But what is “justice” and “righteousness” in this context? This is the language of Amos 5:7. The words are primarily focused on how the community treats the poor and needy among them. The larger meaning is ethical. Justice has a broad sense of practicing the ethical intent of the Torah while righteousness has the sense of doing what is right (ethical). In general, God desires a people whose ethic reflects God’s own and the practical effects of that lived ethic flows like water through a thirsty community.

The practice of injustice subverts true religion and invalidates religiosity . Assemblies, sacrifices and music offered by those who fail to practice righteousness are rejected.

The rhetorical question of Amos 5:25 solidifies the point. The expected answer to the question is “No.” Amos believes that during the forty years of wilderness wandering Israel offered no sacrifices. It appears the sacrificial system was designed for living in the land of promise and not for the wilderness experience. Whatever the history, Amos’s point is rather obvious. God’s covenantal relationship with Israel did not depend on their assemblies, sacrifices and music. Rather, it is expressed through covenant faithfulness to justice and righteousness.

Indeed, Israel’s covenant unfaithfulness is not only about injustice and unrighteousness but also their idolatry. Whether Israel in the wilderness (Acts 7:42-43), in the present, in the future exile “beyond Damascus” (Assyria) worshipped the Babylonian gods Sikkuth and Kaiwan, they will be exiled because of their covenant unfaithfulness. They did not honor the name of Yahweh who is the God of the armies of heaven. Yahweh is the Creator God who rules the nations. To worship any other god is to break covenant.

This Woe oracle speaks to the heart of worship. God delights in assemblies, sacrifices of praise, and music, but these are expressions of worship rather than its heart. The heart of worship is the practice of justice and righteousness; it is a sacrificed life devoted to good works. God delights in praise and sacrifices of assembled practitioners of justice, but despises those who assemble before him with spoils gained from the neglect or the oppression of the poor.

Let whoever has an ear to hear, listen to the word of the Lord.

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