Back to basics with Amos on Worship

Posted by Craig Borlase on 10 June 2014

‘I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.’ (Romans 7:15)

There’s a battle going on within the human soul. We find ourselves caught between devotion and selfishness. But we’re not the first to struggle this way; the Bible is full of wisdom on the matter.

Take Amos. He was a farmer a few miles south of Bethlehem with a God-given message for those living in the northern kingdom. The people there were worshippers, but their actions failed to match up to their words.

As Amos delivers God’s judgement on them, the picture becomes a little clearer:

“‘Proclaim to the fortresses of Ashdod and to the fortresses of Egypt: “Assemble yourselves on the mountains of Samaria; see the great unrest within her and the oppression among her people.” “They do not know how to do right,” declares the Lord, “who hoard plunder and loot in their fortresses”’’ (Amos 3:9-10, NIV).

Much as the Egyptians had abused the Israelites in previous generations, the Israelites had become numb to the eternal truth of God, dead to the acknowledgment that their actions come with consequences. By hoarding, plundering and oppressing, they have incurred God’s wrath. They might be good at the religious rituals, but the way they treat others has got them into trouble. So what is their fate?

“‘This is what the Lord says: "As a shepherd saves from the lion's mouth only two leg bones or a piece of an ear, so will the Israelites be saved, those who sit in Samaria on the edge of their beds and in Damascus on their couches”’” (Amos 3:12, NIV).

At first glance this bit about bones being saved might seem optimistic — I mean, at least there was going to be something left — but it's nothing of the sort. If a shepherd brought back a few sheep bones after an attack from a wild animal, he was simply covering himself. The bones were proof that the sheep had been entirely destroyed, that there was nothing left and that it hadn't simply wandered off. Right about now Amos’s audience would be feeling mighty uncomfortable.

The prophecy eventually turns to the subject of worship, of the way in which the Israelites had become good at “doing” religion. It's obvious that God’s chosen people had created a pleasantly cozy world for themselves, one in which worship was about ritual and form rather than heart and humility. Their religion was completely separated from God's laws and Amos 2:7 points out their hypocrisy, as “they trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed.”

What mattered more than quality religious services was their lifestyle. Sadly, all their singing and sacrificing didn't seem to help them live better lives. This passage is still true for us today. We might know better, but we can get so easily caught up in our own worlds, constructing our lives and investing energy in things we believe to be so vitally important but which fall so far short of God’s plans. Israel was far too self-absorbed to consider the consequences of lifestyle and the truth is that if they had been obedient, justice would have flowed, giving life to all around. If we want to know whether our lifestyle choices are in line with God’s agenda, the answer is a deafening NO if our actions cause others to be oppressed, impoverished, harmed, or exploited.

So how does this help us?

Corporate worship matters, and it’s a wonderful expression of our thanks and devotion to God that we should not neglect. But it doesn’t exist in isolation; it has to match up to the way we live out our lives 24/7.

Judgment isn’t something that gets sung about a whole lot, but perhaps we should change that. For, as Amos makes clear, there are consequences to our sin. When there’s a gap between what we sing and how we act, we should feel anxious to correct it.

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