By 2004, things were hopping in our eight-year-old church. So why did I decide to speak about Amos for weeks? I can’t remember. But it has been interesting to look back on what I said. It still seems like a good discussion to have. You might like to read Amos 1 before you get into this, but not a requirement.
That disturbing wrath
Fortunately, I am not God. Can we all agree on that, to begin with? What’s more, you are not either. Can we all agree that that is also a good thing?
But we are made in the image of God. Male and female, we represent God’s being. We are created in God’s likeness. So our basic make-up – the way our characters get organized, our emotions, the way we relate, is something like God. That make-up is broken, and it wasn’t an exact replication to begin with — but it is like God.
As a result, I can understand God’s wrath, the anger of God that so disturbs many of us these days.
Of course, I understand God’s wrath in broken ways. I’m not God. But I get the gist of it. It is like all those times my kids would push me right over the edge and I would mete out my punishment in unhinged and even violent ways. It’s like the times my wife has “made me crazy” (we say), and I have anger well up from nowhere like a storm – hot wind, deep thunder, and then anger pours down. I don’t think God is as unconscious as I am, but I do think that feeling I have is not foreign to him. Somehow the anger I have comes from God, too.
I think when the Bible, and when Amos, our subject of the this piece, reveals things about God’s wrath, it is more like when I am angry about what happens to my wife at the office. She’s trying to do something good and get the administration done, she’s trying hard, she’s doing the best she can, which is very good, and someone acts out of some inexplicably selfish motive which, at first, you can’t believe is happening. You have to step back and ask, “Could that actually be what I think it is?” Then you find out, “Yes, they are that wicked. And there is my beloved in the middle of it!” That really burns me up. Sometimes, I get madder than she is! I defend against the attack. I seethe with desire for my lover’s safety and happiness.
I feel that all the time. When someone comes to my office to talk and they are relaying what happened to them, I find myself flaring up with anger. I’m indignant. I’m appalled. I’m sad. I’m defensive about my loved one. It seems to me that there is very little love if there is no wrath.
Amos and God sound really angry
“The LORD roars from Zion,
and thunders from Jerusalem;
the pastures of the shepherds dry up,
and the top of Carmel withers.” (this is all from chapter one)
And he starts right in…
This is what the LORD says:
“For three sins of Damascus,
even for four, I will not turn back [my wrath]. …
There is a collision of images in chapter one and they all sound scary. A lion roars. Thunderclouds form over the mountaintop of Jerusalem. Lightning, wind and thunder swirl in the darkness. The hot breath of God’s roar blasts the earth and scorches the pastures. Even the top of Mt. Carmel, which is usually covered with snow, is dry.
The prophet’s stormy message starts with Damascus and crisscrosses the old tribal league territory of Israel until it zeroes in on the remnants of the kingdom of David: Judah and Israel.
“For the three sins of Damascus that are on my mind, I might turn away my wrath,” God says, “But this fourth one puts me over the edge. Because she threshed Gilead with sledges having iron teeth.” This crime of the kingdom of Aram (capital: Damascus) is an event had happened long before Amos’ time, but it was apparently famous. Like Pearl Harbor or the Twin Towers, people remembered how ruthless Aram was to the people of Gilead that time (northern tribes of Israel, east of the Jordan River). It was like one of Amos’ neighbors in Tekoa mowed down the summer crops in his field and left his family nothing.
One by one, Amos identifies the neighbors of Israel and gives the same message: the coming impact of God’s wrath is well deserved. Then he turns a surprising direction and sets his sites on Judah. He’s from the northern kingdom of Israel, so his audience might have been cheering him on, at that point. But then, right there in the ancient shrine town of Beth-el where he shouts out his message to Israel, he turns on the northern kingdom, too. It is shocking. Under Jeroboam II, the northern kingdom is in the midst of an economic boom and a cultural renaissance. They feel like they are back on top. But here comes Amos to tell them the days of Israel as they know it are numbered. And sure enough, they were. He was telling the truth.
So how do you feel so far?
Let’s pause there for a minute. Because that message of the wrath to come might bring up some feelings. What is with this voice of doom, God? Do you want ME to be scared of you, too? Am I supposed to be all cautious about everything because you might swoop down on me? How am I supposed to relate to you if you are like a lion? – Cower in the corner? Tame you? Get eaten? Run?
People handle God in a number of ways. How do YOU handle it when a loved one, or just an authority figure, is angry with you? How did you handle your parents? Your Dad? Your Mom? They’re both in the mix here.
- Some people deal by deciding that Amos is talking about the Old Testament God who is a lot like Chemosh of Aram, some quixotic storm God, the God of wrath. Primitive people needed to placate such gods, because they didn’t know any better. But now we have Jesus, the God of love. We’re enlightened.
- Some people have explained all this anger away by surmising that Victorian-age Christians projected their stern fathers onto God and we’ve been trying to get out from under the repression ever since. Educated and liberated people of this century have thrown off such psychological shackles.
- Some people, defend the doctrine of God’s wrath, since it is right there in the Bible. Even Jesus says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt. 10:28). They try to make the wrath of God into more of a controlled burn, since a full-on lion’s roar scorching the countryside does seem a little unseemly. So they make it rational, a principle. To them, God’s wrath is an instrument of exacting judgment.
I’m just trying to get the whole difficult picture drawn, here.
Maybe Jonathan Edwards drew the picture for you.
One of the famous things that happened in the United States to seal people’s image of the wrath of God happened on July 8, 1741. Jonathan Edwards preached his famous sermon, “Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God.“ His congregation was so traumatized that some people hung on to the railings for fear of sliding into the fires of hell. You may know this quote. Edwards pleaded,
“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked….Oh sinner, consider the fearful danger you are in! It is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath that you are held over in the hand of that God whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it and ready every moment to singe it.”
BUT give the man another chance, because he went on.
“The misery you are exposed to is that which God will inflict, to the end that He might show what the wrath of Jehovah is. God has had it on His heart to show to angels and men, both how excellent His love is, and also how terrible His wrath is.”
To people who are free, in their own minds, at least — who are in need of very little, as we are — who are preoccupied with the pleasures of the flesh — and who have enough leisure time to be preoccupied with the depths of their relationships and with the exploration of their own psyches and souls, wrath seems unfortunate, at best. We wouldn’t buy it. We wouldn’t hire it. We wouldn’t marry it. We don’t worship it. We don’t respect it.
We do flip people off a lot, we do love football, we do bomb countries into shock and awe, we do murder people at high rates, we do have a huge punitive prison system, BUT we don’t think of ourselves as needing much but love. If God is like what Edwards says, or Amos, who needs him?
Is there a different way to see wrath?
Edwards may be more nuanced than he seems. I think C.S. Lewis tries to explain God’s wrath so we can value it. He says:
God is the only comfort, He is also the supreme terror: the thing we most need and the thing we most want to hide from. He is our only possible ally, and we have made ourselves His enemies. Some talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think again. They are still only playing with religion. Goodness is either the great safety or the great danger–according the way you react to it. And we have reacted the wrong way. (Mere Christianity)
Edwards’ emphasis on the wrath of God is foreign to our generation. Yet an amazing thing happened as he quoted heavily from Bible texts warning of the anger of God. Terrified men and women woke from their sin long enough to see their desperate need for the forgiveness of God. They saw they were boxed in and wanted out.
Amos is trying to say: God is God and you’re not. And because God can’t stand what you’re doing to yourself and his creation, he is going to get you out of your box. We can relate if we can see Amos point his message at the macro and the micro. On all levels, God intends to break creation out of its sinful, self-reliant box. We are going to grow now.
Here’s the macro message to Israel the nation (like what he said to the other nations)
Israel, you were chosen by God to be a vehicle for his message and for the revelation for the redemption of the world. BUT you got stuck on the choseness and neglected to see that God is the Lord of all. It’s not all about your nation. You’re just one of all the rest. I have a unique relationship with all of them. You’re special, but not that special. You are not the center of the world, I am. Look what you do…
They sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals.
They trample on the heads of the poor
as upon the dust of the ground
and deny justice to the oppressed.
This is a reference to perverting the courts. Innocent people are losing their land. Can you relate to having courts that don’t do justice? Have you been to court lately? Are people getting justice? Are you able to get your insurance payoff without a lawyer?
Father and son use the same girl
and so profane my holy name.
The reference above could be that they revived the shrine prostitutes that were important to Canaanite fertility goddesses or they are just taking advantage of one of their slaves. Regardless, the name of God is profaned because sex is an act that comes with the mutual respect of making the image of God one. Do you think we have respect for sex like that in this country?
They lie down beside every altar
on garments taken in pledge.
In the house of their god
they drink wine taken as fines.
This is so colorful. When a person had a debt, they used his cloak as surety – you only have one coat, you’ll need it by night, so you’re sure to come back with whatever payment you were supposed to make – like when people keep your license or credit card when you rent something. But they are using these cloaks to cover their couches at the shrines where they have worship parties which are fueled by the wine they got when they went to collect the fines they unjustly got enacted on people! The rich are out of control and they are using every means possible to get richer. I’d say most of the big buildings around here are decorated with just such injustice — like that Cira Center over by 30th St. Station which is part of an “economic development zone” intended more for North Philly than for corporate lawyers.
Amos assures us all — “There will come a day.” We should feel sorry for people who abuse us. There will come a day. They must think this mercy they live in is forever. God is reluctant to name those days, but they happen, and the final day will definitely come.
Here’s the micro message to each of us
What does one does with this lion? Amos realizes that he or at least his descendants will be at the mercy of this God, who has been pushed over the edge by the sinfulness that is destroying his creation. It is a hurting, disappointed, abandoned, unheard God, who is the Lord of all.
As far as Amos can see, each of us share in this sin, at some level. God can make this accusation:
I also raised up prophets from among your sons
and Nazirites from among your young men.
Is this not true, people of Israel?”
declares the LORD.
“But you made the Nazirites drink wine
and commanded the prophets not to prophesy.
We have missed the mark, too, in our own way. We wanted to be holy, but we weren’t. We heard the word and knew we should follow it, but we didn’t. What are we to do to avoid God’s wrath?
Paul offers some sound advice in 1 Thessalonians 5:8-9. He urges us prepare our souls and to go into battle with God, to “… put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Jesus absorbed and defeated the wrath. Jesus, who is such a good picture of how wrath and love go together, is the Lion of Judah whose suffering pays the awful price of our wrongdoing.
We are not destined for wrath
Hear the good news! We are not destined for God’s wrath. We are destined for salvation. Salvation can only be worked out between God and each of us. We work out our salvation by talking with God, shouting at God, arguing with God and wrestling with God. Get out of your box. The wrath of God wakes us up to realize that our own suffering leads to new life. A sinner in the hands of an angry God is in loving hands. Hands that can’t stand to see them destroyed, seeing them living in an airless box of their own self-absorption, ignorance, or pain.
C.S. Lewis’s pictures this well. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a young boy named Eustace unwillingly visits the fantastic world of Narnia with his cousins Lucy and Edmund. He finds himself on a sailing ship with the current King of Narnia, who is on a great quest. Eustace attempts to evade work when the ship and crew reach Dragon Island by running away. He gets lost in the mountains and accidentally discovers a dragon’s lair. After seeing the death of the great dragon, Eustace stumbles onto its treasure during a rainstorm. His greed for the treasure causes him to turn into a dragon. Neither Eustace nor the crew can find any way to reverse the transformation.
Later, Edmund sees Eustace in boy form, and Eustace tells the incredible story of his transformation back into his original, physical self. Aslan, the lion gets him out of his box, you might say,
Then the lion said — but I don’t know if it spoke — “You will have to let me undress you.” I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.” 
Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off — just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt — and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me — I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again. 
Let me leave you with that. Amos tells us that the lion is coming. We’re in for a painful, painful battle. But the lion is, ultimately, on our side. Amos tells us some blunt-spoken truth, but it is not the final story. This immediate “wrath” we feel is not our destiny! Salvation is our destiny. We don’t need to fear the painful work of our box-shattering God. Like Jesus goes through death to life, we can follow. We embrace that destiny, for there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”