Then Amaziah said to Amos, “Get out, you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there. Don’t prophesy any more at Bethel, because this is the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom.” Amos answered Amaziah, “I was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore-fig trees. But the Lord took me from tending the flock and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ ” Amos 7:12-15
“Clear off, Amos. We don’t want your sort around here. Go back where you came from. All right?”
Those weren’t quite the words the priest Amaziah addressed to God’s prophet Amos, but the message was pretty much the same: “Amos, you’re not welcome here.”
What’s going on?
About 150 years earlier, God’s people Israel had split into two kingdoms – “Israel” in the north, with Samaria as its capital, and “Judah” in the south, based in the historic capital, Jerusalem. (You can read about the split in 1Kings 12.) Under its king, Jeroboam, Israel adopted out-and-out idolatry, complete with golden calves.
And now Amos is called to prophesy, to be a “seer” – but to do so in Israel, not his homeland of Judah. And this doesn’t go down well with Amaziah, who serves as priest in the rival sanctuary at Bethel. Hence the confrontation between the two men.
Amaziah objects to Amos encroaching on “his” territory with his anti-Israel message. Amos replies that when you are called by God, sorry, but you have no choice: I never asked to become a prophet, Amaziah – no, I’m just a shepherd with a sideline in sycamore-fig trees… “But the Lord took me… and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel’.”
On one level, you can see the story as a straight battle between two different forms of religion – the official religion of the state-sponsored priest Amaziah, and the God-ordained, Spirit-led religion represented by Amos.
It reminds us that, even today, we need to be wary of forms of religion which owe little or nothing to God, but are purely “man-made”. Jesus tells the woman he met at the well (John 4) that “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth”. Religion that is merely formal is likely to be devoid of truth and spiritually dead.
But we need to be careful too. God alone knows, and is able to judge, the hearts of men and women. We mustn’t make the mistake of assuming that someone who worships according to set patterns and in formal ways – who worships “liturgically”, as we might put it – is therefore not a true worshipper. Nor that anyone who gets excited by spontaneous worship, and who simply speaks off the cuff, is therefore bound to be a true worshipper.
No. The devil, I’m afraid, is far too clever for it to be as simple as that. The Amos-type may be just full of him or herself; the Amaziah-type may be truly Spirit-filled.
I think it was David Watson (an ordained clergyman of the Church of England) who some fifty years ago said, “All Word and no Spirit, and you dry up: all Spirit and no Word and you blow up”. Words which neatly capture the vital need to blend both submission to God’s word and openness to God’s Spirit, whether you are an officially recognised spiritual leader or a complete “layperson”.
So… don’t be taken in by the splendour of ceremony, titles, robes and what-not; they may be just clothes on a spiritual corpse. But, at the same time, don’t be dazzled by the so-called “charismatic” personality, which may be nothing but froth and bubble.
The spat between Amos and Amaziah illustrates another timeless truth: the sheer power of God’s word when it is clearly spoken, no matter who by.
As we read the Old Testament right through we learn that Amos’s pessimistic prediction – that God would ultimately bring disaster on arrogant, idolatrous Israel – came true. Israel did indeed “go into exile, away from their native land” (Amos 7:17).
Yes, Amos may have been, to all appearances, a bit of a nonentity – a jumped-up shepherd with a talent for trouble-making – but the fact is that, well… he was right and Amaziah wrong. End of.
To use a modern expression, Amos “spoke truth to power”. That is something most of us have no opportunity to do; we move in far humbler circles. But we can – and should – speak truth whenever we have the opportunity, even if only to our neighbours or the people we work with.
Such people probably don’t deserve the kid of severity Amos meted out to Amaziah; we must speak the truth in a humble, gracious and sensitive way.
But let’s make no mistake: a simple word of God’s truth, spoken in the power of the Holy Spirit, is never spoken in vain. It has a wonderful way of sinking like a seed into people’s minds and germinating there perhaps many years later. It may be a word of warning, or of encouragement, or of rebuke, or simply of love, but one day, we can be confident, it will bear fruit.
You may not be an Amos. The person you speak to may not be an Amaziah. But never mind – that word you speak today may change someone’s life for ever!
Heavenly Father, thank you for the courage and boldness of Amos the truth-teller, and for the countless men and women both before and since, who have likewise “spoken truth to power”. Help me too to speak your truth at every opportunity, with patience, passion and love – and so to make known Jesus, who is the way, the truth and the life. Amen.