The Prophets and the Poor
We’re going to be starting a new series this new year to look at the prophets of the Bible. As you know, the Bible is made up of sixty-six individual books; we studied a bit of Mark’s Gospel last year. That’s one of the four Gospels, the stories about Jesus. And after the Gospels are letters written to young churches to teach them and to help solve problems. So there are several different types of books in the Bible: stories about Jesus, letters, history about the people of Israel, songs, and also prophecy. There’s a few books of prophecy at the end of the Old Testament and one at the end of the New. We’re going to look at the Old Testament prophets.
So first, what’s a prophet, anyway? Some people think it’s someone who tells the future. Well, that’s sometimes true. Another, better explanation is someone who speaks the words of God. That’s true. We’re going to look at Amos today, and in Amos chapter 3, it says “Surely the Sovereign LORD does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets.” But I want to look at it a slightly different way.
Pretty much every religion in the world describes how mankind tries to get close to God. If you say the right prayers or do the right things, or don’t do the wrong things, then you can get close to God. But the Bible has it completely the other way around. The Bible is a story of how God wants to get close to mankind.
It starts with Adam and Eve, God having this relationship with two people, and how they reject him and do their own thing. Then God tries again to reach out to people, first to Noah, and Abraham, and Isaac and Jacob. And eventually, when we get to Moses, God finally gathers together a people that He can have a relationship with. God says “I want to be faithful to you. Will you be faithful to me?” And so God and His people commit to be faithful to each other in a covenant. It’s like a marriage vow between God and His people.
At the heart of this covenant, there are a set of main commandments. All the rest of the covenant are just details around these main commandments. You know the main commandments? How many commandments are there? No, there are eleven commandments. The first commandment is “You shall have no other Gods before me.” But before that is the zeroth commandment: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” The commandments start by saying what God has done for His people, how He has loved them and how He has protected them. And because of what He has done for them, God then tells them the best way for them to live. Don’t kill people. Don’t cheat. Don’t commit adultery.
Remember I said this is like a marriage vow. It’s not like a scorecard or a school report card. When two people get married, they promise that they will always love each other and always serve each other in all situations. Now in reality they don’t. There will be times when even the best husband or the best wife get fed up or tired or angry and don’t love as much as they can. When that happens, the marriage isn’t over. You don’t say “Well, you’ve broken the contract, let’s give up.” No. What you’re promising is how you want to live before each other. If things go wrong, then you sit down and talk about it. If things still go seriously wrong, then maybe you bring in a marriage counselor, someone to talk together with.
And it’s the same between God and Israel. They set out how they want the relationship to look. Now God always keeps his side of the covenant, but Israel is not always so good. They get distracted. They go off and worship foreign gods. Things go seriously wrong. So God brings in a marriage counselor, someone to remind Israel that they have lost their way and to try to convince them to come back to God.
That’s what the prophets are; their job is to remind God’s people about the covenant, about how they should live with God. Sometimes they’re harsh, sometimes they talk about the problems that will happen if Israel don’t return to God. Sometimes they’re more subtle. But almost always, their job is to tell the people of God how to live. This is important - with two exceptions, Amos and Jonah, prophets are concerned with God’s people. They don’t tell people how to live if they’re not God’s people.
As Christians, we have that covenant relationship with God. We love Him and we serve Him, and He loves us and He saves us. And because we’re in that relationship, there are things that we are expected to do. You have a right to say to me, “Simon, I’ve noticed you’re getting angry with people a lot, and I think you might have a problem with that.” Or “Simon, I don’t think the way you handle your money is always what God wants.” OK, you have to be careful, and you have to be loving, but you have a right to say that. You have that right because I have that relationship with God that I want to keep. But you don’t have that right to say it to someone who is not one of God’s people. The prophets remind God’s people how to live. They remind people what they should already know.
Now I said there were a couple of exceptions, and we’re going to look at one of them today. Let’s open our Bibles to Amos chapter 1. We’re not going to read any particular passage at the moment, but we’re pick up little bits and pieces from Amos.
Amos is an exception in lots of ways. Most of the prophets in the Bible were professionals. They were members of the priesthood, they worked in the Temple, and they saw their visions of God and messages from God while they were working for God in the temple. But God does not just speak through professionals! He uses anyone who will listen to Him. Amos was a shepherd, out in the fields with his sheep, and God grabbed hold of him and said “I have a message for the people; will you listen?” You do not need to be a pastor or a missionary to hear God. In fact, sometimes the professionals can be the problem! They can be the people who are ignoring what God says!
Let’s look at chapter 7, verses 10-15. The priest Amaziah doesn’t like what Amos is prophesying, and tries to get rid of him. And so Amos says, look, “I’m not a prophet or the son of a prophet. I just heard God and said what He told me to say.” The prophets often have a really difficult job. God sends prophets to try to fix up a damaged relationship between God and Israel. But if the relationship is already damaged, then Israel is not likely to listen to the prophets!
I think this is a danger in our lives as well. Most of the time when we’re being disobedient to God, We know very well what we’re doing. We know we are disobeying God. And when we’re being disobedient and doing our own thing, we want to hide away. We don’t want people telling us what we’re doing wrong. I know; I spent two years running away from God and running away from church. I was running away because I knew I wasn’t living right and I didn’t want people reminding me about it. When you’re running away, it can seem like God is the problem. It sometimes takes something drastic in your life to realise that God is the solution as well. But He is. Remember the zeroth commandment. It’s only because God loves you and protects you and wants to be in a covenant relationship with you that He has the best way for you to live.
Let’s look at what Amos prophesies. In chapters 1 and 2, he starts by talking about all the nations around Israel: Syria was cruel and heartless when it invaded Gilead, and God will punish it; the Palestinians and the Lebanese each took an entire people and sold them into slavery, and so God will punish them.
Before I said that prophets remind God’s people about their covenant with Him. This is not about that. This is God promising justice. He is saying, “because these countries behaved so horribly and so appallingly, I will not let them get away with it.” Does your translation talk about the “sins” of these countries? That’s a bad translation; “sin” is a technical term. It’s a word which talks about a problem in the relationship between God and His people, and that is not the word God is using here. It’s a different word in the Hebrew; God is not talking about that covenant relationship. He’s actually talking about crimes, war crimes that these nations have committed.
… And then suddenly, in chapter 2 verse 6, in the middle of how all these horrible war crimes, God talks about Israel. Now I think this is what God is doing here. We said that God sends his prophets to his own people, and not normally to other people. I think God is using the other nations just to show up just how bad Israel is. He talks about all the nations who don’t have that relationship with Him. He talks about the horrendous things they have done. But Israel should know better! Israel has the covenant relationship with God. We should expect Israel to behave better! But no, God is saying, you’re just like all the other nations.
In fact, in chapter 9 v7, he says exactly that: You’re just like the Ethiopians to me. Yes, I brought you out of Egypt, but I also brought out the Philistines and the Arameans. You are my covenant people but that doesn’t make you better than anyone else.
Actually for the Israelites and for us, the only reason we are God’s covenant people is because of God’s grace. It’s nothing to do with how good we are or how well we behave. It’s just because God, throughout the whole of history, has wanted a people to call His own. So there is no room for the Christian to boast. We can’t think “Well, we’re chosen by God”, and look down on others. We cannot talk about how good we are or how secure we are because God called us. He did not call us because we are special. He called us because He is special.
You know, I sometimes wonder why God wanted me here as a missionary. I am sure there are many people who could do the job better. I’m sure there are many people in this room who could do the job better! If I was looking for a missionary, I wouldn’t choose me. I know nicer people. I know better evangelists. I know people with much better prayer lives and much better worship lives. I think, God, why don’t you use one of them instead? But for some insane reason, God wanted this cynical and strange computer programmer to be one of His representatives in Japan. So I say, “OK, well, God, if you’re sure… You know, if this doesn’t work out, this is Your problem, OK?” I can’t rely on my own goodness or my own ability to serve God. We’re only here because He called us.
So He chose the Israelites, and now He’s warning them that they’re getting stuff wrong. Let’s look at what Israel is getting wrong. Back to ch 2 v6. First, they sell poor and honest people into slavery. In verse 7, they oppress the poor. They are unjust. The next part says “Father and son use the same girl”, but the word for “girl” is the one used for a servant or slave girl.
Then it says “they lie down on garments taken in pledge”. This is again about how they treated the poor; when an Israelite owned money to another Israelite, they would give a deposit to prove that they were going to pay. The deposit was usually a coat or cloak. But if you already poor, you need your cloak to keep you warm. So there was a law - you can find it in Exodus 22 if you want to look at later - that you must return a pledge by sunset so that the poor man can sleep in his cloak. They weren’t doing this, and they were taking their illegal pledges into the temple of God. They were taking money away from people and using it to get drunk on wine.
Can you see a pattern here? It’s all about how they abuse the poor. Or how they deny justice to the poor or innocent. This is something that God really gets angry about. God is saying that Israel is just as bad as every other nation. Why? It’s not because of how many times a week they go to church, or how much they drink or smoke, or who they have sex with. Of course God is interested in these things. But the true sign of someone who is following God can be seen most of all in how they treat the poor.
We could go on and look at Amos chapter 5, where again God talks about the things that Israel has been doing, and there as well it is all about justice and about the poor. Now this is a topic I talk about a lot, so you might think I have deliberately chosen these passages. But nearly all of the prophets are the same. 160 times in the books of prophecy, God talks about justice or oppression or the poor or the innocent. Actually, if you want to see if someone is a prophet - if you want to see if they are speaking the words of God - listen to what they say about the poor.
When we think about sin, we generally think about some private thing, some hidden part of our lives. But the biggest sins are the public sins, the sins that everyone can see. The way we treat people less fortunate than ourselves. The way we do nothing when we see injustice. It is hard to exaggerate how important this is to God.
At the end of Amos 5, God completely rejects the worship of Israel. Let’s look at 5:21-24. He says “I don’t want your praise. I don’t want your offerings. I don’t want your meetings or your music. I want you to work for justice.” Micah chapter 6 (v6-8) says the same:
With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
Basically, the question is “How should I worship God?” And the answer comes like this:
He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
Isaiah chapter 1 says the same: (vv. 13, 16-17)
Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me… Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.
James chapter 1 says the same: (v. 27)
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
This is a huge challenge to me. I come from a church tradition where the focus is on part two of that. The focus is on keeping myself polluted by the world. And if I do get polluted by the world, I come to God and ask him for forgiveness, and He forgives me. And I still think that’s true. I think it’s important, and I think it’s wonderful. I know that there is forgiveness for all of my past and all of my future in the name of Jesus. I believe in a God who gave His only Son because He longed for a relationship with me to keep me from that pollution.
But if I had to summarize the message of the prophets in the Bible it would be that we have to focus on part one as well. We have to realise that God is concerned about widows and orphans in their distress. And that he wants us to get up and doing something about it.
Amos, Isaiah, and Micah all say the same thing, in very strong words: all of your private worship is worthless unless you are seeking justice and encouraging the oppressed. Like it says in the book of James, if your faith does work itself out in public, then it is not really faith at all. There was a debate on the radio in the UK on New Year’s Eve about “Can we keep religion out of the workplace?” I think we can see from Amos that we cannot do that. You cannot have a personal, private faith. It must change how we see society. It must change how we deal with the poor and the oppressed. It must drive us to supporting the cause of the fatherless and the case of the widow and the orphan. Then, and only then, can we worship God.
Let’s pull all of this together.
The Bible is a book about God reaching out to have a relationship with His people. And sometimes in that relationship we disobey God and we want to hide away. But God does not want to let you go. He would move heaven and earth to maintain that relationship with you. In fact, He already did, two thousand years ago. And so when that relationship goes wrong, He will bring people alongside to remind us how to put it right. In the Bible, they’re called prophets. They’re not always professional. Sometimes the professionals get in the way. The prophets just need to be willing to hear God and tell people what the problem is. And the biggest problem they had to deal with was not people’s private religion but how they treat the poor. How they help those who cannot help themselves. And I think that’s still the biggest problem that God has to deal with in us now.