“I gave you absolutely nothing to eat in all your cities, a shortage of food in all your communities, yet you did not return to me. This is the Lord’s declaration.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
“This is for your own good.” Did you ever hear that growing up? I’m grateful to say I don’t think I did. But what is usually the context of that particular gem of parental wisdom? It means something is about to happen that you aren’t going to like–probably a punishment of some kind. And if someone saw the outcome of whatever “this” was without the appropriate context, whoever did it was probably going to look pretty bad. That’s kind of the situation we have here.
Israel was not on the right track. If they were, Amos wouldn’t have had a job. In general, the prophets existed because the people weren’t doing right and God wanted to let them know it before the consequences fell on their heads.
Here’s the thing about God communicating with us, though: He’s got to do it carefully. No really, He does. Think about it. I know we sometimes like to joke that it would be helpful if He would just write out in the sky what He wants us to do, but that wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t work for two reasons.
Number one, His goal is to be in a relationship with us in which we freely choose to do life His way. Choosing freely requires the ability to think. If God just gave us neon-lights-in-the-sky instructions all the time, we wouldn’t have to think at all. We would just be mindless automatons, mechanically bumbling about our days. Think about the LEGO Movie. While the master builders are free, everyone in the city simply followed their instructions every day and never thought about anything else. That may make life simpler, but it wouldn’t make it good. A peon who merely mindlessly follows instructions doesn’t have a relationship with the one giving them. That’s not what God made us for. He’s not going to do that.
Number two, even if God did write out all our instructions in the sky, we still wouldn’t follow them because of sin. That would make us even guiltier. Besides, we are remarkably adept at convincing ourselves that what is right in front of our eyes isn’t there if we don’t want to see it. Folks committed to naturalism would argue that it was just an appearance of the clouds, not anything divine in origin.
Okay, well, if writing in the sky is out, what else could He do? Well, God isn’t limited in the ways He communicates with us. The challenge for Him is that He’s got to be humble and gentle about it. He’s so much bigger and more powerful than us that if He thundered, we’d be undone. If we saw Him in all of His glory, we wouldn’t have any choice but to obey His every word. But again, there can be no relationship in that kind of a situation, and since He made us for a relationship with Himself, that won’t work.
The result of all of this is that His voice is easy to ignore. How can He get through to us without totally overwhelming us? That’s the real trick here. He could try and speak to us through good times, but we’d just ignore Him and assume it was all the result of our efforts. Indeed, people don’t generally turn to Him when everything is going well. So, what’s He to do?
Throughout the Scriptures, God typically used two primary methods to communicate with His people. The first was the prophets. Rather than speaking directly and thundering from Heaven, God sent men and women who were particularly sensitive to His Spirit to share with the people what He had shared with them. Now, a prophet can easily be ignored (and most were), but there’s something about an earnest person speaking passionately about something that is not going to bring him any personal advantage that naturally attracts our attention. Also, many of the prophets were pretty creative about how they delivered their messages making them more memorable than the average conversation.
The second method is harder for us to stomach, but is what we see here. Whereas we tend to ignore God when things are going well, hard times of various sorts tend to grab our attention a little more easily. As a result, God can and does use these to get our attention. He did it to Israel here.
Amos 4 here reviews a whole litany of hard times the people faced, and God reveals to them that He was behind them all. And as you read down these, it’s a pretty intimidating list: famine, drought, diseased crops, locusts, pestilence, and political upheaval. Each and every one of these was claimed by God as something He did in order to get their attention; to get them to return to Him.
Now, what are we supposed to do with this? How should we feel about God actively causing people pain? Well, what else was He supposed to do? They were heading down a path that was going to result in their destruction if they stayed on it. And this, not because of anything He was going to do, but because destruction was the only thing that lay at the end of it. He was trying to keep them from that end. They didn’t return to Him when things were going well. They didn’t return to Him at the word of the prophets (like Amos). Giving them a bit of short term pain to avoid a much longer term hurt was all He had left.
Yet if we are shocked at the methods God was using to get their attention, we’re not reading this text with eyes of faith. We’re seeing it through the eyes of the world. The real scandal here was not that God was causing them pain to get their attention. In fact, to Amos’ contemporary readers, that idea wouldn’t have bothered them at all. The real scandal here was that the people just ignored it, ignored Him, and kept right on moving down the path He was nearly desperate to keep them from walking.
Here’s the thing: Although God through Amos claims responsibility for all these things, He was speaking into the context of a culture in which that kind of thing made sense. Speaking today, He might talk in terms of allowing hard things to happen us–that is, not preventing them. We cannot let culturally-conditioned communications keep us from catching the real point. And the real point is the very lack of repentance we just mentioned.
This, then, is where we find the point of connection for our own lives. The God revealed in the pages of the Scriptures–the God who exists and still longs to be in a relationship with us–is a speaking God. As we saw recently, He doesn’t do anything big without letting us know He’s doing it. The question we need to face is the same one the people of Israel were facing: Are we listening?
He may be speaking through peace. He may be speaking through His word if we are in it. He may be speaking through other people. He may be speaking through a quiet whisper to our heart. Or, if we aren’t in a place where we are going to be able to hear Him via one of these other methods, He just may be speaking to us through some hard times. Are we listening? Are you listening? All He wants is your attention and devotion. Stay tuned in and He won’t ever have to get loud.