Let Justice Roll Down Lesson 5: Judgment begins at the House of God (8:1-9:10)
This is the fifth lesson in our series on Amos. To watch the livestream, click here.
In the book of Revelation, we get a startling picture of the glorified Jesus. John, exiled on the Island of Patmos, hears someone behind him boom in a loud voice, “write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches.” (Rev. 1:11). John turns around and this is what he sees:
Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. (Rev. 1:12-16)
This is a picture of Jesus, not as a lowly servant, but as the exalted judge. He comes this time, not to die for his people, but rather to rule them as the king he truly is. There’s never been a king like this. And while we’d expect that he would start his judgment with the sinful world, with all those evil and unjust rulers outside, instead he begins his just judgment with the Church itself. He tells John that he stands in authority over the seven churches (symbolic of the entirety of the Christian fellowship) and instructs him to write down his judgment on his people (Rev. 1:17-20).
For the next two chapters Jesus goes through each of the seven churches, at some points praising them and at some points calling out their sins. To the church at Ephesus he rebukes them “because you have abandoned the love you had at first,” and tells them to “remember from where you have fallen; repent and do the works you did at first.” (2:4-5). He points out the false teachers in the church in Pergamum, and tells them to “repent,” warning them that if they don’t “I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth” (2:16). He points out the immoral actions of those at Thyatira, and promises swift judgment if they don’t repent (2:19-23). Over and over again he reveals that he is keenly aware of their sinful patterns and their lukewarm love; their false sense of superiority and their unawareness of their errors, and each time he does this the message is the same: “repent.” If they don’t repent, Jesus promises this: “I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you” (3:3).
Notice that it is only after these chapters that Jesus shows John the judgment coming on the world. The rest of the book of Revelation details how God will exalt his name the final judgment and will bring his people into the rest they’ve always longed for. But the first place that judgment occurs is not the outside world, but rather with God’s people. Because the people were God’s people, Jesus the judge would first come and judge them, and call them to repentance. They would be saved because they were washed by the blood of the lamb, circumcised in heart, obedient to their master’s command and repentant at his rebuke. The world wouldn’t be so lucky.
As Peter says, “For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And ‘if the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?’” (1 Pet. 4:17-18).
The End is Coming (8:1-9:10)
Amos’ message is the same as Jesus’ in Revelation. Throughout the book he has reminded the people of Israel that God’s people do not get a pass on justice and righteousness, but rather they are judged by a higher standard because of his closeness to them. “You only have I known of all the families of the earth,” the Lord says to them in Amos 3:2, “therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” There was no room for complacency amongst them, because God was in their midst. The clear injustice and evil they committed would not be tolerated. When God issued just judgments, they must repent, mourn, and recommit their way to the Lord (5:1-15). They must learn to do good and not evil and learn again to love justice and hate oppression.
But that’s not how the people responded. We’ve focused for the past four lessons on this dilemma: that the people had perverted justice and had done great wickedness but didn’t seem to think it was much of a problem. They’d turned from God’s law and instead relied on the cultural narratives such as the idea that “the Day of the Lord” was really a national holiday, when God would punish everyone around them and leave them safe and sound (5:18-20). They relied on false teachers and priests like Amaziah, who suppressed the speaking of God’s word and instead spun conspiracy theories to stoke up fear (7:10-13). The relied on their comfort and their ease and couldn’t accept the claim that they had acted unjustly. They simply stopped their ears, stiffened their necks, and looked the other way.
Today we see what this response has got them: total destruction. The harshest judgments of the entire book show up in chapters 8 and 9, and it is simply described as “the end” for the people (8:2). The Day of the Lord was coming indeed, but it would strike them first at an hour they did not expect. The Lord would show up in justice, and it would mean destruction for them. Well, destruction for most of them, that is.
The Day of the End (Chapter 8)
Amos begins his dire prophesy with an ironic image: a basket of summer fruit. When we’d expect a whole host of hellfire, instead we are treated with an invitation to a picnic (8:1-2a). But then, the tone changes completely:
“The end will come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass by them. The songs of the temple shall become wailing in that day, declares the Lord.” (8:2b).
Why the change? Well, in English we can’t see it, but the irony is plain as day in Hebrew. The word “summer fruit” in Hebrew is qā-yis, and the word for “end” is qēs. It is almost as though the Lord said, “you want this qā-yis? I’ll give you qēs instead.” For us English speakers, we could say something like, “I saw a friend, but really it was the end for me.” The idea is one of mockery, of luring the listener into a false sense of security and joy, when the reality is that disaster awaits. It hints also at the end of God’s provision, when the last of the summer fruit is plucked and now only judgment awaits (Jer. 8:20).
This begins what might be two of the most devastating chapters of prophesy in the Old Testament (8-9:10). This prophesy of judgment, starting in verse 8, is in a word, harsh. God tells the people that he will never forget their deeds (8:7), and that he will turn feasting into mourning and singing into only lamentation (8:10). He warns of a famine of hearing God’s word, when people would look for direction from God but not find it (8:11-12). He tells of the death of the young by thirst (8:13-14), and the wailings that will take place in the palace courts:
“So many dead bodies!” “They are thrown everywhere!” “Silence!” (8:3b).
All of this would come on them because of their injustice and wickedness, their false religiosity and their lazy pride, their oppression of the poor and trampling on the needy (8:4-6). They’d eagerly waited for the “day of the Lord”; now that it had come upon them, they would mourn bitterly. It would be “a bitter day” (8:10).
The Lord Shows Up (9:1-11)
As if this picture couldn’t get any more terrifying, chapter 9 opens with these words:
I saw the Lord standing beside the altar, and he said: “Strike the capitals until the thresholds shake, and shatter them on the heads of all the people; and those who are left of them I will kill with the sword; not one of them shall flee away; not one of them shall escape.” (9:1)
This culminating vision of judgment, the last in the book, is the most severe of all. The Lord himself, the judge of all the earth, the one “who touches the earth and it melts, and all who dwell in it mourn, and all of it rises like the Nile, and sinks again, like the Nile of Egypt; who builds his upper chambers in the heavens and founds his vault upon the earth; who calls for the waters of the sea, and pours them out upon the surface of the earth” (9:5-6); he steps down to personally execute the final judgment. No one escapes his hand; if they dig down to Sheol or climb up to heaven, he’ll find them there (9:2). If they scurry up Mount Carmel or dive down into the depths of the ocean, he’ll make sure they get their due (9:3). Not one of them will avoid captivity or the sword, and the Lord will fix his eyes on them “for evil (Heb. Rā-ā(h), which can mean both “evil” and “destruction”) and not for good” (9:4).
In this last judgment, God is letting these people know that he is going to destroy the very foundations of their society. The pillars of the palaces shall fall, and their nation as they know it will cease to exist. God’s just wrath against their injustice will sweep them away, and God will destroy it like he would any other sinful nation (9:7-8).
Before we move any further, we should let the severity of this judgment sit for a minute in our hearts. There is no escaping the sheer terror of this image, its crushing intensity and vivid imagery. We talk about God a lot, about what he loves and what he doesn’t, but this is a rare glimpse of the moment when the object of all our discussion comes down and becomes the subject, the authoritative one, the master of the house. It is a moment of intense clarity, when all the arguments and the equivocations and the vileness of human pride finally meet the unmovable One, the true source of power, the great I AM. When God steps down, no one argues, or escapes his gaze. “Every knee shall bow, and tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:11).
But this is not the entire story. Even in this dire prophecy, we get a glimmer of hope. In verse 8 we read these words,
Behold, the eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the surface of the ground, except that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob, declares the Lord. (9:8, emphasis added).
God then describes this process of “shaking” the house of Israel “as one shakes a sieve, but no pebble shall fall to the earth” (9:9). While the exact nature of the image is obscure, the purpose is to show a clear distinction between the “sinners of my people” who will face destruction, and others. The idea is that of a “remnant,” of a group of people who will not be “utterly destroyed,” although they too will experience the coming destruction. This in no way meant that the nation would survive, but rather that a small group from the people, who truly repented and followed the Lord, would be saved from utter ruin.
While there remains this small remnant, the people as-a-nation will cease to exist. The majority of the people (“all the sinners”, 9:10), would experience judgment in all its terribly severity. And the reason that they will be destroyed is their insistence, even as the world around them burns, that “disaster shall not overtake or meet us” (10b). They’d flipped the idea of judgment in such a way that it never touched them, but they would see that the opposite was actually true: judgment starts with the people of God.
Keep your Lamp Burning
When I read passages like this, I think of Paul’s exclamation in Romans 11 (in the middle of his discussion regarding the rejection and eventual restoration of Israel):
Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. (Rom. 11:22).
The Israelites had forgotten this reality of God: kindness and severity. The task for God’s people, as the recipients of his kindness, was to “continue in his kindness,” to be a light to the nations and a holy people, and to act as if the living God was actually among them (Exod. 19:6; Jude 21). For God to dwell among them was not an excuse to laxity, much less to perpetuating injustice. Rather, it was an impetus for them, out of love for his grace, to walk in the way of his commands, recognizing that the way itself was grace. God’s kindness in condescending to them was the motivation for them to walk in his commandments.
But as we read the entirety of the Old Testament story, we must notice with Paul this other aspect of God’s dealing with his people: severity. That word, in Greek apotomia, had the connotations of something “sharply cut,” and meant the exactness of a coming judge. Whether it is Deuteronomy 28, or Genesis 3, or Numbers 16, or Matthew 24-25, we see that God’s dealing with those who call his name is unflinchingly just. While passages like Romans 8 remind us that “there is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” passages like Hebrews 6:4-8 and 10:26-31 compel us to continue to cling to his mercy. We remain safe in God’s grace, but to cling to that grace means that we walk in holiness (Heb. 12:14).
This is why Paul reminds Timothy of that saying in the early church, “let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity” (2 Tim. 2:19). There is this unavoidable connection between remaining in God’s goodness and walking as children of the light, in recognizing the free grace of God and also his call on us to good works (Eph. 2:8-10; Jas. 2:14-26). There is no room in God’s kingdom for those who simultaneously call on the name of Christ and live in darkness, whose lives are characterized by the deeds of the flesh rather than the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:19-22; 1 Cor. 6:9-10). Jesus’ death on the cross covers all of our sins, but it does not give us a pass to sin. To think that it does means that we are saying that Jesus died so that we could sin, which is in effect making God the endorser of sin. Those who follow Jesus, who receive the eternal life which he gives, never use the cross as an excuse to sin. To do so is to “trample underfoot the Son of God” to “profane the blood of the covenant,” and to “outrage the Spirit of grace” (Heb. 10:29).
God’s unflinching justice means that no one gets a pass on unrighteousness and injustice. But there is also God’s kindness, displayed finally and openly on the cross, by which we can stand under God’s wings of mercy. Yet even as we rely on his mercy, we must be ready for the judge to appear:
“Stand dressed for action and keep your lamps burning and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes…You must also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Luke 12:35-40)
The call to God’s people, especially now, is to prepare ourselves for the master the house. After describing the coming destruction at Jesus’ appearing, Peter exhorts us to holiness, saying: “what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God!” (2 Pet. 3:11-12a). Jesus describes that day of judgment as first coming to those who call on his name. When he appears, he will judge between those who have followed him and those who haven’t, like one who separates sheep from goats (Matt. 25:31-46), or as one who separates the wheat from the tares (Matt. 13:24-30). While the people in Amos’ day thought judgment would come to all the other nations and never touch them, in reality the Bible continually affirms that judgment comes to God’s people first and then to the rest of the world.
We wait for Jesus to come, assured of the sufficiency of his blood to cover all our sins, but also aware of the call on us to do the will of our Father in heaven (Matt. 7:21-23). We follow Luther in his insistence that “the entire life of believers is one of repentance,” and we humbly, empowered by the Spirit, strive to walk in Jesus’ steps. The motivation for us to pursue justice now is the reality that our master could come at any moment, and when he comes, he comes first to “judge his people” (Psalm 50:2). Let him find us in pursuit of justice in the gate (Amos 5:14-15) when he comes.
 Thomas E. McComiskey, “Amos,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 7 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, n.d.), 328.
 Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromily, vol. VIII (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972), 108.