The kings of Israel encouraged their people to worship at shrines within the nation, and not to go to Jerusalem in the neighbouring kingdom of Judah. The shrine at Bethel contained a golden calf, representing the gods who brought them out of Egypt (1 Kings 12:28), and sacrifices were made to it at Bethel and presumably at Gilgal and elsewhere. Beersheba was in Judah, to the south of Jerusalem; it was associated with Abraham and Isaac, and so the Israelites would make pilgrimages there as well, much as people in this country might go to Lourdes.
Amos condemns all this. God's message was, 'Seek me, and live.' (v.4) Rejection would mean death - that's the implication. But the people thought they were seeking God at these other shrines. No, says Amos, for two reasons; first, these shrines in Israel will be destroyed and are of no help, and second, you are not seeking God if at the same time you are doing evil. Amos believed that worshipping the calf at Bethel was wrong (it is against the second commandment); yet he does not speak out against that so much as against their injustice and oppression.
The motive behind the oppression and injustice seems to have been materialistic: the Israelites simply wanted the good things of life, stone houses (not mud brick), lush vineyards (V.11). But to get the wealth meant using the courts to your advantage, maybe bribing the judges, and forcing those with no power to give them the produce of their fields - maybe as punishment for trumped up charges, or as payment of debt at an extortionate rate. These were evil days - and it was wiser not to rebuke the powerful, but to keep quiet (v.13). Perhaps that was why God called Amos, a foreigner from Judah, to do the rebuking.
What about us? How much of the goods we buy have been obtained in a similar way? Big business has the power to force farmers in developing countries to accept minimum prices for their crops. Rich nations cripple developing nations with their demand for debt repayment. Aid is given, but often with strings, or maybe in a way that is of greatest benefit to the donor countries. What would Amos say to us?
In the middle of his rebuke, Amos slips in a glance at God - maker of the stars, the one who brings each day and night into being, who brings the rain, and who also has the power to bring destruction whenever it is needed. God cannot be trifled with. And therefore the unjust Israelites need to watch out, and mend their ways, seeking good, not evil. Then - perhaps - God may have mercy, and not bring an end to the nation. Then - truly - God would be with them to bless them; the Israelites said he already was, but their words were empty. It is too easy to make the right religious noises, but not to have a true relationship with the living God. That is what Jesus came to offer us.
ISSUES AND QUESTIONS
1) What can we do to bring more justice to the poor, especially in less well off parts of the world?
2) When are days so evil that it is prudent to keep quiet?
3) Israel worshipped the true God but in unacceptable ways, according to Amos. Do all ways lead to God?
4) How can statues and icons be used wrongly in worship, and how can they be used rightly?
IDEAS FOR MEETINGS
Tell us about a journey you have made to see or do something special.
Read Amos 5:8. Then give out paper and pens and ask the group members to write their own verse about what the Lord does. Then read them in turn as worship to God.