Saturday, April 17, 2021

Mining the Minors: Amos (11)

One of the subtler themes of the book of Amos is this: that God hates strongholds.

That probably requires a little explanation. Chapters 1 and 2 are full of references to these fortified places. There are the strongholds of Ben-hadad in Syria, the stronghold of Gaza in Philistia, the stronghold of Tyre, and so on. Each of seven strongholds mentioned is slated to be devoured by fire, the judgment of God poured out upon them. Then in chapter 3 the word “strongholds” is used four times, and it is Israel’s strongholds, particularly Samaria, which are in view.

I Hate His Strongholds

Finally in chapter 6 the Lord comes out and plainly declares his hatred of these man-made defenses and the spirit of independence and pride they embody:

“I abhor the pride of Jacob and hate his strongholds, and I will deliver up the city and all that is in it.”

The KJV translates the Hebrew word 'armôn as “palaces”, but that may give us an inadequate picture. The word 'armôn does not mean a showpiece or an architecturally splendid edifice. Rather, the stronghold was the (hopefully) impregnable fortress to which you retired to discourage the enemy outside and send him packing, and from which you could fire on him with impunity. It was the place where you kept your wealth and treasury against the threat of robbers and thieves. It was your last line of defense in a crisis.

Independence, Pride and Power

Strongholds are places men build to protect their goodies, to consolidate their sense of control over circumstances, and — sometimes inadvertently and sometimes overtly — to demonstrate their independence, pride and power. In Amos’s time, the rulers of the various nations were effectively showcasing their independence of God, and God had something to say about that attitude through his prophet. He is always determined to demonstrate the inadequacy of everything men are most inclined to put their trust in.

For our purposes, a stronghold, fortress or citadel is anything we learn to rely on for our protection other than God himself. Bank account balances, stocks, bonds, real estate holdings and RSPs provide no more real long-term security than stones and mortar. You may as well armor yourself with Kleenex. The same goes for education, skills, physical prowess, beauty, intellect, wisdom, charisma, strength, persuasiveness, connections, family ... whatever we put our trust in when the chips are down to get us what we need.

Whenever we tell God he is superfluous to our arrangements, whether in word or action, we are inviting him to demonstrate the inadequacy of our strongholds. That’s a terrible idea.

Amos 3:9-10 — Calling All Witnesses

“Proclaim to the strongholds in Ashdod and to the strongholds in the land of Egypt, and say, ‘Assemble yourselves on the mountains of Samaria, and see the great tumults within her, and the oppressed in her midst.’ ‘They do not know how to do right,’ declares the Lord, ‘those who store up violence and robbery in their strongholds.’ ”

Amos is told to call foreign cities as witnesses against Samaria, consistent with the teaching of the Law of Moses that “every charge must be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses”. These are Samaria’s peers and they operate in similar ways. Egypt and Philistia also rely on their strongholds.

God could apply his own far superior standard of righteousness to Israel, but here he is demonstrating that his people had become so morally debased that they failed to meet even the low standards of their pagan neighbors. If the Philistines were setting the bar for acceptable moral conduct, then that bar was low indeed. The Egyptians could certainly be accused of oppressing foreigners living among them, but could not conceive of engaging in violence and robbery against their own people. And yet this is precisely what Israel was doing. So God says to Ashdod and Egypt, “Assemble yourselves on the mountains of Samaria, and see the great tumults within her, and the oppressed in her midst.” The conduct of the Israelite elite was truly exceptional, such that even the world would condemn it.

Something equally appalling is briefly mentioned by the apostle Paul in his first letter to Timothy, when he reminds his co-worker that “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” The standards of Christians are always going to be different from the standards of the world, but the baseline for acceptable Christian conduct should never, ever be lower. In failing to meet even the inferior moral standards of the nations, Israel was establishing the righteousness of God’s coming judgment against them.

Amos 3:11 — The Assyrians are Coming

“Therefore thus says the Lord God: ‘An adversary shall surround the land and bring down your defenses from you, and your strongholds shall be plundered.’ ”

Interestingly, the words “Assyrian” and “Assyria” occur nowhere in the book of Amos. The closest Amos comes to it is referring to “an adversary” in this chapter, to “a nation [that] shall oppress you from Lebo-hamath to the Brook of the Arabah” in chapter 6, and finally in chapter 7 to “an unclean land” in which Israel would find itself exiled and from which its people would subsequently be dispersed among the nations. And yet it is readily evident from Bible history that much of the book’s prophetic fulfillment is found in the Assyrian invasion and subsequent captivity.

This is especially remarkable when you consider that Amos prophesied less than 100 years before the fall of Samaria to the Assyrian armies, when the rise of the Assyrian lion in the ancient East was already a well-established fact of life. It’s a reminder of how quickly a political situation can change. The certainties men expect and rely on are subject to being overturned at only a moment’s notice.

We are seeing something of that in that last year. The “strongholds” of our unsaved friends and neighbors have disappeared. Our social and cultural institutions are all being openly attacked. The middle class is being eliminated. Small businesses are dropping like flies. Unbelievable amounts of wealth are evaporating. The rule of law is being rewritten on the fly. Our well-documented civil rights are what the province, the city and the federal government say they are today, and no more. Even our language is becoming unrecognizable. The whole world has changed overnight, and it is not unrealistic to think almost anything can happen.

We need to be reminded that “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing”, because absolutely any other stronghold will surely bite the dust.

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