A Word to the Wealthy
John Wesley’s statement concerning the use of wealth was sensible: “Make all you can, save all you can, give all you can!”* Wesley was calling the Christian to a scriptural balance in the use of his finances. Today most Christians would give a hearty amen to Wesley’s words while at the same time living a different version, Make all you can, save some as you can, spend all you can on the good life.
The Protestant work ethic has brought the so-called “good life” to American Christians as they experience unprecedented prosperity in the 1980s. But with prosperity has come materialism, self-indulgence, and ease. Well-intentioned Christians often desire to obey Scripture when it comes to handling their finances, but many have succumbed to the call of a materialistic lifestyle.
The problem of materialism and self-indulgence must be faced by all people who become prosperous. Ancient Israel was no exception. In such a setting the prophet presented his fifth message to Israel.
Under Jeroboam II, Israel had expanded her borders, taken control of the trade routes, and grown very prosperous. Israel’s neighbors had come to view her as the chief among the nations (v. 1). A sense of false security had developed in Israel’s leaders, and they began to “trust in the mountain of Samaria” (v. 1); that is, they saw themselves as invincible and immune to destruction.
Amos opened his message with a strong indictment against Israel’s leaders who were living “at ease [rest] in Zion” (v. 1). These godless leaders spent their days enjoying a life of extravagant self-indulgence, careless revelry, and ease with money extorted from Israel’s poor and wealth gained through the exploitation of surrounding nations.
Taking a page from history, Amos reminded Israel of what had happened to three great neighboring cities who had followed the same godless lifestyle as she. The first was the destruction of Calneh (Calno, Isa. 10:9) (v. 2), an ancient Babylonian city built by Nimrod (Gen. 10:10), located on the east branch of the Tigris River. The second was Hamath (v. 2), a major city on the Orontes River in northern Syria. It was later named Epiphania after Antiochus Epiphanes. The city was destroyed and incorporated into the Assyrian Empire. The third was “Gash of the Philistines” (v. 2), one of the five major cities in Philistia (Josh. 13:3; Jud. 3:3) south of Israel. It was destroyed by King Uzziah of Judah (2 Chr. 26:6).
Amos reinforced the lesson with two rhetorical questions. The first was “Are they better than these kingdoms?” (v. 2). In other words, did these nations receive greater prosperity from God’s hand than had Judah and Israel? The obvious answer is no! Second, had these nations received borders “greater than your border?” (v. 2). Once again the anticipated answer is no! Therefore, Israel, take a good long look at your neighbors. See how blessed you are compared to them. If God destroyed them, who had lesser blessings, how much more will He destroy you?
But Israel had turned a deaf ear to such a thought, putting “far away the evil day” (v. 3) of God’s judgment. But how could they distance themselves from it when they caused “the seat of violence to come near” (v. 3)? They were actually enthroning violence and oppression through their wicked deeds. Israel’s leaders were deluding themselves, for one cannot practice such gross injustice while believing that God’s judgment will never come. In fact their deeds were actually hastening the day when God’s judgment would come upon them.
Violence was exalted just before Israel’s destruction. Dr. Sunukjian writes, “In the 31 years after Jeroboam II, Israel had six kings, three of whom seized power by political coup and assassination. The fear and violence in this period is reflected in the atrocities of 2 Kings 15:16.”*
Is there not a parallel to the United States? No nation on earth has experienced more wealth and prosperity than this country. Few nations have been granted greater borders than this country. No nation enjoys such a high standard of living and more time for ease than the United States. Like Israel, many gross injustices are being exalted, hastening the day of God’s judgment. Like Israel, the nation seems to be turning a deaf ear to the preacher’s cry of coming judgment.
The leaders in Israel decorated their homes with opulent furnishings. Archaeologists have discovered that the Samaritans paneled their homes with ivory. The wealthy leaders squandered their money on such luxuries as “beds of ivory” (v. 4) on which they reclined during times of hedonistic revelry, arms and legs dangling over the sides in a drunken stupor (v. 6). They drank wine out of large bowls (v. 6), most likely used in their temple worship for carrying the sacrificial blood (Num. 7:13). This was the height of irreverence, to say the least! Notice, instead of sipping wine, they gulped it down from these holy vessels to satisfy their insatiable appetites.
They feasted upon the choicest “lambs out of the flock, and the calves out of the midst of the stall” (v. 4). They were specially fattened animals carefully tended and prepared only for the wealthy.
In their drunken stupor they frolicked in song, chattering childishly “to the sound of the harp” (v. 5). Like David, they “invent[ed] to themselves instruments of music” (v. 5). David used these instruments for God’s glory (1 Chr. 15:16; 23:5; 2 Chr. 29:26–27), but these corrupt leaders used them for godless gaiety.
No expense was spared to acquire fragrant ointments (oils) (v. 6) to pamper their flesh.
Living in such luxury had made these leaders insensitive and indifferent to the crises facing the nation. They did not grieve “for the affliction of Joseph” (v. 6). That is, the flood of corruption filling the country did not distress them and move them to correct the situation.
Many Christians, entering the last decade of this century, are “at ease in Zion.” First, while their homes are not decorated with panels of ivory, they are often overflowing with luxurious furnishings and the latest decor. Second, their family rooms are filled with state of the art audiovisual equipment which caters to their ever-increasing appetite for ease and entertainment. Third, although lamb may not be a gourmet food for most Christians, they spare no expense to be well fed. Fourth, the Christian would not frolic in drink and song, but far too often every moment of his spare time is spent on a smorgasbord of personal pleasures. Fifth, the Christian would never think of gaining wealth by oppressing the poor, yet the pressure to produce in the business community has caused him to compromise his conduct. Selfishness and unethical practices toward others are often stepping stones in the struggle for survival or secular success. Sixth, no expense has been spared to pamper the flesh with the latest fragrances and fashions of the day. Seventh, the attitude of egoism has made many Christians insensitive and indifferent to the afflictions of less-fortunate Christians. In the place of true compassion and involvement, only token aid is given to the needy in order to pacify a guilty conscience to Christian duty.
God turned out the lights. The party was over for those who stretched themselves on beds of ease. They would be the first taken into captivity (v. 7). Israel’s leaders had wanted preeminence in wealth and wanton living therefore, they would have preeminence in exile (v. 7).
The coming judgment upon Israel was immutable and inevitable, “The Lord GOD hath sworn by himself” (v. 8), said the prophet. He had made an oath with Himself, solemnized by His holy name, that He, “the God of hosts [battle]” (v. 8), would make war against Israel. The reason for such action is given: “I abhor [loathe] the excellency [pride of exaltation] of Jacob, and hate his palaces [citadels]” (v. 8), said the Lord. In Hebrew the thought is more pungent: I loathe the pride of Jacob’s exaltation, and his citadels I hate! In Hebrew the text begins and ends with the word hate.* God hated their palaces built and filled with wealth extorted from the poor (cp. 3:10). Thus He had no choice but to deliver up the nation of Israel for destruction and captivity (v. 8).
Amos predicted the terror to come upon Israel when she was turned over to her enemy. First, even if a remnant were to escape the sword (“ten men in one house,” v. 9), they would still die (v. 9)—possibly from the effects of famine or disease.
Second, with so many family members slain during the siege, other relatives, such as “a man’s uncle” (v. 10) would be called upon to dispose of the dead. The bodies had to be burned (v. 10), rather than buried, for one of two reasons: Either there were so many to dispose of or the siege around the city made burial outside the walls of Samaria impossible. It was Israel’s custom to burn rather than bury the dead when the individual was extremely wicked (Lev. 20:14; 21:9). This was a bitter testimony against Samaria’s wickedness.
Third, they were forbidden to “mention … the name of the LORD” (v. 10). This could have been done for one of the following reasons: Perhaps it was inappropriate to mention God’s name since He had brought the destruction upon them. Perhaps they were forbidden to mention God’s name because they were so sinful. Possibly their religious leaders forbade the mention of God’s name because the people were blaming Him for their destruction. They may have been using God’s name in a critical way for His failure to help them in their hour of destruction. The leaders may have feared that, by mentioning His name, the Lord would send even more judgment upon the survivors. Whatever the reason, God’s name was not heard during this disaster.
Fourth, none would escape the invasion. The rich man’s “great house” (v. 11) would be leveled to the ground, and the poor man’s “little house” (v. 11) would be torn into pieces. God is no respecter of persons. When His judgment falls, rich and poor alike will be destroyed. A modern-day example is the ongoing conflict in Lebanon. The news media is filled with daily reports concerning the continual carnage inflicted on the innocent, disenfranchised people caught in the cross fire of warring factions within the country.
Israel was living under a false security. Material prosperity and military protection had lulled the nation into believing that she was immune to destruction. By the use of two questions, Amos proved that such confidence was ludicrous. “Shall horses run upon the rock? Will one plow there with oxen?” (v. 12). Certainly not! To act in such a way was useless, foolish, and contrary to nature. In like manner, it was ridiculous for Israel to believe that her military power was capable of destroying her enemies, for God would not spare a people who had “turned justice into gall [poison], and the fruit of righteousness into hemlock [wormwood]” (v. 12). Any hope of deliverance was nonexistent. Israel had poisoned the very judicial system established to preserve the nation, the fruit of which would be bitter destruction.
Israel had boasted, “Have we not taken to us horns by our own strength?” (v. 13). The word horns is symbolic of an animal’s glory and power. Recent military victories under Jeroboam II (2 Ki. 14:25–27) had given Israel a false sense of prowess and power so that the nation felt invincible to surrounding enemies. But God had the last word concerning Israel’s security. To rejoice over her own power was like rejoicing “in a thing of nothing” (v. 13). God would soon raise up a nation to afflict Israel “from the entrance of Hamath unto the river of the Arabah” (v. 14). The destruction of Israel’s holdings would extend from the Sea of Galilee to the Gulf of Aqaba. Israel would be afflicted (v. 14) by her enemy; that is, taken out of Samaria into slavery.
The founding fathers of America were aware that, like Israel, this nation did not come into being by accident or happenstance but by divine design.* Like Israel, America’s security and survival does not rest in its political savy, powerful military, or prosperous economy but by the righteousness of her people. Lest the nation become smug and secure in its superpower status, it needs to avoid the sins of Israel, so graphically described here, to retain its freedom and greatness.
Which way, America?—that is the question. Today America is steering a course toward troubled waters! The masses have forgotten God. Someone has well said, “America is rolling in luxuries, reveling in excesses, rollicking in pleasure, revolting in morals, and rotting in sin. What can we expect of a society … in which there is a desolation of decency; in which love has become a jungle emotion, lust is exalted to lordship, sin elevated to sovereignty, Satan worshipped as a saint, and man magnified above his Maker? It is sheer folly to suppose that the strength and security of America lies in its vast economic resources, industrial prowess, scientific ingenious, diplomatic skill, or military might. Our real defense as a nation rests in the spiritual conviction, character, and commitment of our citizenry.”*
Yes, that is the answer, conviction, character, and commitment of Christians! But if Christians are “at ease in Zion,” totally committed to egoism, will the nation survive to see the 21st century?
The real question we must all face is, Which way, American Christian? Will it be continual materialism, self-indulgence, ease, and entertainment with little concern for God’s priorities in our lives? Or will it be the setting of new spiritual priorities as we enter the decade of the 1990s? Isn’t it time to have a word with yourself about wealth?