God condemns dishonest business (June 28, 2015)

Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: Amos 8:1-6, 9-10 

In this passage Amos receives the fourth of five visions portraying God’s judgment against Israel. The first two visions of locusts and fire symbolized God’s judgment. God relented in response to Amos’ plea that Israel be spared, however, and a plague of locusts and destruction by fire did not occur.

The third vision focused on something in God’s hand, probably a plumb line. The etymology of this rare Hebrew word suggests that it refers to a mason’s tool that tested how vertically straight a wall actually was. “Then the Lord said, ‘Look I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will spare them no longer’” (Amos 7:8b Today’s New International Version translation). God’s judgment on Israel’s sins will not be averted again.

Amaziah, the priest at Bethel, told the king, Jereboam II, that Amos was conspiring against his rule. As the priest at a royal shrine, Amaziah spoke for the king. He told Amos to stop prophesying in Israel and urged him to go back to Judea. Undaunted, Amos replied that he was not a cultic prophet who would bow to the king’s command. Instead, he followed God’s command to bring the message of impending disaster.

Amos 8:1-3: The end of Israel has come
In his fourth vision Amos sees a basket of ripe summer fruit. The Lord identifies it as a sign that the covenant people are about to be punished for their sins. The Hebrew word for “summer fruit” sounds very much like the Hebrew word for “end.” Israel’s end will be a time of death and destruction. Their singing will become wailing when God’s judgment befalls them. Many will die. In the face of such a disaster, the Lord commands the people to be silent.

Amos 8:4-6: Dishonest business practices bring God’s judgment
The reasons for God’s stern judgment on Israel are precisely described by Amos. Ironically, the dishonest merchants of Israel indict themselves. “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain?” they ask. Although they grudgingly observe the rules prohibiting business on the Sabbath and liturgical holy days — after all, they are religious people — their greed makes them impatient to resume their fraudulent buying and selling as soon as possible.

The merchants conducted business with dishonest measurements. The ephah was a unit of measure for commodities like grain. The greedy merchants reduced the size of an ephah when they sold their dry goods so their customers got less than they thought they were buying. Their scales were balanced by overly heavy shekel weights so that it raised the amount of payment that had to be placed on the scale to complete a transaction. The use of dishonest weights is contrary to God’s law (Deuteronomy 25:13-16, Proverbs 20:10). Commentator James Mays reports that archaeologists have uncovered different sets of weights for buying and selling in the Israelite town of Tirzah.

The result of their fraudulent practices was all too understandable: The rich became richer and the poor became poorer. The needy were trampled and the poor were driven deeper into economic ruin.

Amos 8:9-10: Day of darkness and mourning
As Amos had announced earlier (5:18-20), the day of God’s judgment will be a time of darkness and mourning. Using language that describes a solar eclipse, Amos says that God will make the sun set at noon. Ancient documents indicate that Assyrian astronomers recorded dates when total solar eclipses occurred. Amos warns that the festal celebrations of Israel will be transformed into mourning and lamentation. The visible signs of deep grief — mourning, lamentation, funereal clothes and pulling out or shaving the mourners’ hair — express Israel’s reaction to God’s imminent judgment. Their sorrow will be like the bitter grief of a parent whose only son has died.

The basic message of the book of Amos is that God does not look the other way when political power and human greed grind the poor into the ground and God’s law is ignored. John Calvin preaching on Amos 8:14 said, “But those who rule are ordinarily the ones who also pervert all law and equity … . So it is not to be marveled at if our Lord by his prophets attacks them so sharply.”

For discussion 

Are you troubled by the message that God will punish the chosen people so severely for their dishonest business practices? Why or why not? What do you think Amos would say to the owners of large corporations about their role in American society at the beginning of the 21st century?