Famine For the Word of God

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“The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign Lord,“when I will send a famine through the land–not a famine of food or a thirst for water,but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord. Men will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east,searching for the word of the Lord,but they will not find it. (Amos 8:11c-12 | NIV84)

Amos was not your run-of-the-mill Old Testament prophet. Not by a long shot. Technically he wasn’t even a prophet.

Amos answered Amaziah, “I was neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore-fig trees. (Amos 7:14 | NIV84)

Here was an untrained, uneducated sheep-herder and tree farmer whom the Lord, in his wisdom, called to be His prophet. It’s not a seminary education that makes a preacher, it’s the call of God. He entered the scene during an interesting time in Hebrew history. Times were good for both the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The economies of both kingdoms were booming and there was peace over the land. It all looked good, but serious problems were percolating under the surface. The greatest threat to the Northern Kingdom was the very prosperity she was enjoying.

God took a simple, hard working man to carry His message to this affluent, lazy, idolatrous people. But not just to God’s people. Amos actually began prophesying to other nations first, before leveling his sights on Israel and Judah. His first sermons were delivered to Damascus, then to Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Moab, and Judah. Finally he came to Israel. If his words were a little blunt and harsh to the nations around her, they were positively scorching and scathing when he spoke to Israel.

Even though Amos lived and spoke thousands of years ago, there are at least two really important lessons you may glean from his little book of prophecy. First, in his words we learn that God is the governor of all nations, not just of Israel and Judah. And God expects all nations to heed His Words and govern according to His will. Second, the message of Amos teaches that privilege creates responsibility. Those nations which had been blessed the most will be held accountable for how they used those blessings to both honor God and their citizens.

Sin, Suffering and Judgment

Verses 11 and 12, which talk about a famine for the Word of God, are actually the third point in Amos’ three-point sermon to God’s People. Here’s his outline:

Act One: Shady Business Practices

Israel was prospering; business was good; the economy was booming, but all was not as it seemed.

Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, saying, “When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain,and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?”–skimping the measure,boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals,selling even the sweepings with the wheat. (Amos 8:4-6 | NIV84)

That’s nefarious businessmen talking. Not all businessmen are nefarious but this bunch up in the Northern Kingdom was. They couldn’t wait for the Sabbath to end so that they could get back to business, but not just any business:  The business of ripping people off. In particular, the rights of the needy were trampled on by greedy and cold businesses. The Hebrew behind the English is graphic: These businessmen were literally “chasing after” the poor to take advantage of them. They couldn’t wait to invent clever ways to get money out of people’s pockets using highly suspect and devious means.

This kind of corruption wasn’t new and Amos wasn’t the only prophet to call out his people for their shameful practices. Isaiah wrote this:

So justice is far from us,and righteousness does not reach us.We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows. (Isaiah 59:9 | NIV84)

Back in Amos, there’s a clever play-on-words going on that is lost in its English translation. In verse 4, the sinister businessmen were trying to “do away with” the poor, or they “caused the poor to cease.” The Hebrew word comes from a very familiar word: Sabbath. And over in verse 5, they couldn’t wait for the Sabbath to end. These were curious Jews indeed; completely narcissistic; nasty pieces of work.

But the Lord noticed what was going on, and He notices today, too. You may think that evil is triumphing over good, and it may well be at the moment. But it’s just temporary. The Lord will move and righteousness will be prevail.

Act 2:  Nature reflects more than God’s glory

In the New Testament and even in the the Wisdom Literature in the Old Testament, we read about how nature reflects the majesty of God. But nature reflects more than that! Nature, from time to time in the history of God’s people, reflects God’s mood. It did in Genesis with a flood, will again when the Lord returns and it did when Samaria and Israel fell under the heavy hand of God’s judgment.

Will not the land tremble for this,and all who live in it mourn? The whole land will rise like the Nile; it will be stirred up and then sink like the river of Egypt. “In that day,” declares the Sovereign Lord, “I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your religious feasts into mourning and all your singing into weeping. I will make all of you wear sackcloth and shave your heads.I will make that time like mourning for an only son and the end of it like a bitter day.” (Amos 8:8 – 10 | NIV84)

In these verses, God uses nature to show His displeasure with how Israel was behaving. Some of what we’re reading is, of course, metaphorical, some is not. That’s not the point. The end of Israel is portrayed as a premature darkening of the sky. That nation, after Jeroboam II’s successful conquests, seemed to have risen to a new heights, “noon,” when the sun is at its brightest and hottest. Yet God will not let that light continue its normal course, but will turn it off suddenly and totally. Darkness is often used in Scripture to signify calamity and God’s displeasure.

The people’s fake religious festivals would be turned into reasons for mourning. The party atmosphere will come to an end when the whole nation swerves sideways as God ramps up His judgment. The good times were coming to end. And they did, when Assyria plowed Samaria into the ground.

Act 3:  The unquenchable famine

The next group of verses shows the progressive nature of God’s judgment. Things go from bad to worse the farther away from God His people wander. This judgment – a spiritual starvation – may well be the worst judgment of all.

“The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign Lord,“when I will send a famine through the land–not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord. Men will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the Lord,but they will not find it.” (Amos 8:11c-12 | NIV84)

The “words of the Lord” refer to the light of His revelation. What the Lord is promising here is shocking. Those who have no regard for the Word of God will one day literally hunger and thirst for it, but won’t be able to find it. Like the old saying goes, “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.” That’s not in the Bible, incidentally, but it’s true nonetheless. Those who despise the Word of God and want it silenced will get their wish. He will stop speaking to them.

Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. (Romans 1:28 | NIV84)

God is nothing if not fair. If a person – Israel or some schmuck next door to you – dislikes the Word of God so much, God will let that person experience what life is like without it. It’s like a spiritual version of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in which a person finds out how cold and miserable the world is without the warmth of God’s Word in it.

It’s a sad fact, but our population today is so spiritually dull and historically ignorant that they have no idea the role Biblical teachings played in the foundation of the West and of the world in which they live. There’s a reason why for generations the West in general and America in particular have enjoyed such peace and prosperity; why we in the West are healthier and stronger than those in other cultures. And it’s sad that we might well be witnessing another fulfillment of Amos’ prophesy being fulfilled before our eyes as we despise the very teachings that made us great.

Think about that word “famine” and what it means. First, a “famine” suggests a serious lack of food and water for an extended period of time. Second, a “famine” implies a feeling of desperation as starving people look for food yet can’t find any. A spiritual famine is the same thing. Imagine people who want the Word of God but can’t find it anywhere. No matter where they look, they can’t find it. Imagine a time when a spiritually starving person wants desperately to hear the truth of God’s Word but can’t hear it!

Historically, that sad condition stretched on to the time of Christ with the funky spirituality of the Samaritans, a people who were the descendants of the very people who heard Amos’ prophesy firsthand.

“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46a | NIV84)

That was the prevailing opinion of the people living in Nazareth, smack-dab in the Samaria region.

Back in Amos, we are told that men will “stagger” looking for the Word of God. “Stagger” is the Hebrew nua’, a word used of drunkards and the blind. The survivors of God’s judgment and their children will crave what their parents despised and refused.

The root cause of the famine

Amos tells us what was ultimately behind this judgment from God:

They who swear by the shame of Samaria,or say, ‘As surely as your god lives, O Dan,’or, ‘As surely as the god of Beersheba lives’–they will fall,never to rise again.” (Amos 8:14 | NIV84)

The “shame of Samaria” was the worship of the calf. The people worshiping the calf were the ones who would starve for the truth of God’s real Word. What we’re talking about here is idolatry, which is still a problem to day. Any substitution of the creature in any form for the Creator results in an inability to receive the Word of God. If a person substitutes nature for God, education for God, family for God, politics for God, money for God, philosophy for God, then though the Word of God be all around him, he hears nothing. And people bereft of the Word of God are the most restless people of all. All the time, searching for what they cannot find. Peace, justice, contentment, love, all the things that come from a life based on Biblical teachings. It’s a fruitless search for something that cannot be found apart from the Word of God. There is no substitute for teachings of Scripture.

The Lord honors those who honor Him. He will restore a person or a nation that, at the very least, puts into practice the moral laws of Scripture. We’re not talking about converting all 300 million people in America – although can you imagine what a wonderful thing that would be! But can you imagine if a majority of those in leadership and a majority of our fellow citizens started to consider value of a Biblical worldview as opposed to a completely secular worldview? In the words of Louis Armstrong,

What a wonderful it would be.

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