God abhors selfish arrogance (June 21, 2015)

UNIFORM LESSON for June 21, 2015
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Amos 6:4-8, 11-14

Prosperity and pride often go together. People who have “made it” can be quick to take credit for their accomplishments. Especially in the United States, to be self-sufficient and capable of picking one’s self up by the proverbial boot straps is considered particularly worthy of praise. Society applauds those who have made it, as a popular advertising campaign claimed, “the old-fashioned way… by earning it.”

In the days of Amos, the rulers of Israel confidently took credit for the military and economic successes they believed they had earned. With fresh memories of successful military incursions into Judah (2 Kings 14:11-14), the leaders of Israel regained control of land east of the Jordan River over which Solomon had reigned at the height of his power. The economic and political gains of Israel fueled social changes that produced a wealthy class that was richer and more powerful than the growing number of people in Israel who were poor.

Amos 6:4-8: The affluent society
In this passage Amos pronounces a series of woes against the rich ruling class in Israel. He derisively and ironically calls them “notable men of the foremost nation” (Amos 6:1). They were the ones who benefited when Israel enjoyed a brief period of peace and prosperity under king Jeroboam II (2 Kings 14:25). Archeological excavations at Tirzah (Tell el-Farah) in the hill country of Samaria have revealed the existence of large and luxuriously furnished houses.

As Amos observes, “…it is an evil time” (5:13). While the poor in Israel became poorer, the ruling class grew richer. Listen to the list of luxuries the wealthy enjoyed: expensive furniture with inlaid ivory, succulent lamb and veal to eat, beautiful music composed just for them, large bowls filled with wine and rare lotions for their pampered skin. They lived in self-indulgent opulence totally oblivious to the suffering of the oppressed poor living in their own land. The ruin of Joseph ( or Israel) was of no concern to them, Amos records.

The eighth century prophetic pronouncements of Amos mark a new stage on Yahweh’s relationship with Israel. For the first time God’s judgment falls on the nation as a whole. God’s judgment on Israel is expressed by means of an oath formula also found in 4:2 and 8:7: “The Lord God has sworn by himself….” Amos delivers God’s verdict: “I abhor the pride of Jacob… and I will deliver up the city and all that is in it.” The city is Samaria, Israel’s capital, where the ruling officials enjoyed their ill-gotten gains.

Amos prophesies that these selfish rulers will be the first ones to be carried off into exile. Their luxurious lifestyle will soon come to an end.

Amos 6:11-14: God condemns wicked leaders
The disaster coming to Israel will mean total devastation from the largest and most luxurious houses to the smallest buildings. Nothing will escape the destruction about to befall Israel. Two things that are impossible — horses racing up perpendicular cliffs and oxen attempting to plow the water in the sea — illustrate the absurdity of Israel’s sins. They have turned justice into a poison weed and righteousness into rotten wood.

To make matters worse, Israel’s leaders boasted that it was their own strength that had gotten them their territorial gains and prosperity. They replaced the power of Yahweh, who had given them many victories in the past, with arrogant exaggeration of their own self-proclaimed conquests. Amos mocks them by turning the names of the towns they had conquered (Lo-debar and Karnaim) into Hebrew words that mean “nothing” and “horns.”

God’s terrible judgment will soon come in the form of a conquering nation that will oppress Israel. From Lebo-hamath in the north to Wadi Arabah in the south, Israel will be dominated by a foreign power. Amos does not name the power that will defeat Israel, but history tells us that it was the Assyrians who invaded Israel and by 721 BC they had carried Israel off into exile. The lost tribes of Israel were led away into exile by the Assyrians.

For discussion:
How many of the listed luxuries of the rulers of Israel have you enjoyed? Who are the poor and oppressed in your community? In your region? Amos says God will punish selfish rulers who do not provide justice to relieve the suffering of the poor. Do you think it is the responsibility of our political leaders to provide justice for the poor? What can you and/or your congregation do to bring about justice in your community?