ROY CLEMENTS ARCHIVE
Sermons: A Prophet and the Establishment
Amos 7: 10-17
Then Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent a message to Jeroboam king of Israel: "Amos is raising a conspiracy against you in the heart of Israel. The land cannot bear all his words. For this is what Amos is saying: Jeroboam will die by the sword, and Israel will surely go into exile, away from their native land."Then Amaziah said to Amos, "Get out, you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there. Don’t prophesy anymore at Bethel, because this is the king’s sanctuary and temple of the kingdom." 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. But the Lord took me from tending the flock and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ Now then, hear the Word of the Lord. You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel, and stop preaching against the house of Isaac.’ Therefore this is what the Lord says ....."
On 28 October, in the year AD 312, Constantine the Emperor of Rome met his rival Maxentius in battle at Milvian Bridge, near Rome. During the night before the battle, Constantine is said to have seen a vision of a cross in the sky, encircled with the words, ‘In this sign, conquer’. As a result of that vision, he ordered the sign of the cross to be painted on the shields of all his soldiers. The next day he defeated Maxentius, attributed his victory to the God who had given him the vision, and professed conversion to Christianity.
Ever since then it has been a source of debate as to whether the events of that October day were a triumph or a disaster for the church. Within a matter of a few years, the faith which Rome had persecuted with ferocious cruelty intermittently for two and a half centuries had not only been granted toleration but had become the official religion of the Empire. The Emperor began to chair church council meetings. Churchmen such as Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea and church historian, were great personages at court. Military might was invoked to crush theological dissent. Imperial favour was sought to secure ecclesiastical appointments. Bishops who would once have been martyred found themselves politicians instead, and politicians, bishops. Christianity became safe, even fashionable. Stark upper rooms gave way to palatial basilicas, murky catacombs to splendid cathedrals. For the first time people started talking about Christian civilization.
This was very gratifying. We can hardly blame the church for becoming a little intoxicated with her new-found influence in the corridors of power. Yet, in all that success, something had been lost: the seismic fervour of those early Christians, perhaps; the radical demands of the gospel; the clear distinction between the church and the world. Somehow these things got obscured as Christianity gave up its role as a controversial counter-culture and became instead respectable and institutionalised.
In a word, the church had become part of the establishment. And one way or another, it has remained so ever since. I cannot help feeling that the church should have been more cautious about that move; the Bible is not short of warnings about the dangers of the religious establishment. None are clearer, perhaps, than the collision between Amos and Amaziah that we find reported in Amos 7.
Amaziah, the establishment person
Then Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent a message to Jeroboam king of Israel: ‘Amos is raising a conspiracy against you in the very heart of Israel". (7:10).
Bethel was to Israel what Canterbury is to England: the centre of the national church. It had occupied that role ever since Israel had separated from the southern kingdom of Judah and rejected Jerusalem as its capital. In fact, Jeroboam I had deliberately set up Bethel as an alternative focus for his people’s religious enthusiasm in order to sever links with the south all the more completely. From its inception, the priesthood of Bethel had been politically appointed, just as Amaziah himself implies in 7:13: ‘This is the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom.’
Bethel was there to provide a public image of legitimacy for the Israelite monarchy and to bestow an ecclesiastical benediction upon the king’s policies. So it is not surprising that Amaziah, priest of Bethel, was a typical representative of establishment thinking. He received his wages from the royal court of Samaria, and, as is so often the case, he who paid the piper called the tune.
There is no hint of spirituality in the man throughout this whole exchange. He seems to talk more like a senior civil servant than a clergyman, and, in a sense, that is precisely what he was. As far as he was concerned, Amos represented a threat to the stability of the nation and it was his job as primate of the national church to put a stop to him. Notice how cleverly he turns the screws on the prophet.
Amaziah’s strategy: stage one
There are two stages to his strategy. The first is a well-timed letter to the king. The letter has just enough truth in it to make it credible, and yet places an altogether unfair and sinister interpretation on the facts. ‘Amos is raising a conspiracy against you,’ he tells the king. What a ludicrous suggestion! Who were Amos’s fellow conspirators? The only one who had conspired with Amos was God himself; he had no human allies. But Amaziah is shrewd enough to realize that governments take political subversion much more seriously than they do religious fanaticism. So he portrays Amos as the author of a seditious plot to overthrow the regime. That way the king could not fail to act.
‘The land cannot bear all his words,’ he goes on. That is subtle, because, while on the surface it simply says that Amos is an intolerably persistent tub-thumper, when we read between the lines it implies rather more. ‘Amos is a threat to internal security,’ it suggests. ‘The people are being made restless and dissatisfied by his speeches. I recommend immediate deportation.’
Then comes the supreme master stroke. ‘This is what Amos is saying: ‘Jeroboam will die by the sword.’‘ Look back a little and compare that with the record of what Amos was actually saying. Do you notice the difference? Amos had attributed these doom-laden words to God. ‘Then the Lord said . . . with my sword I will rise against the house of Jeroboam’ (7:8-9).
Amaziah, however, with political craftiness, interprets Amos’s oracle as if that first-person singular referred to the prophet himself. ‘This is what Amos is saying,’ he says. In other words, Amos is threatening personal violence against the king’s life. He has removed the theological context of Amos’s message altogether, and reduced it to the level of Machiavellian intrigue. Perhaps that is all Amaziah could understand. Perhaps religious vocabulary and ecclesiastical office were to Amaziah nothing more than a cover for the pursuit of political goals, as they were to those famous Borgias that Machiavelli so much admired. Perhaps he had become so secularized by his responsibilities in the state cult, that the idea that God might actually be saying something through this voluble Judean yokel was almost unimaginable. Amos had to be some kind of opportunist troublemaker, there was no other explanation. Certainly that does seem to be the unspoken assumption lying behind stage two of his strategy of intimidation.
Amaziah’s strategy: stage two
Then Amaziah said to Amos, "Get out, you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there. Don’t prophesy any more at Bethel, because this is the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom" ‘ (7:12-13).
To fully appreciate this blistering reprimand, we need to understand the social dynamics. Amos was at an immense psychological disadvantage because of his humble roots. If Amaziah was the eighth-century BC equivalent of an Archbishop of Canterbury, Amos by comparison was a nonconformist lay preacher from South Wales. It was hardly a fair contest and Amaziah does not pull any punches. No doubt waving a carbon copy of his official letter to the king under poor Amos’s nose, he warns him in the plainest terms to get going while the going is good. ‘This is Bethel Cathedral,’ he is saying, ‘not one of your rural tin chapels. You are out of your class, Amos. Go back home where you belong. Maybe they will appreciate you there. There is good pay, I hear, for preachers down in Jerusalem, but not a penny is going to come your way in this diocese. Bethel has its own clergy, thank you very much, and we have no vacancies for a rustic Cassandra like you. Be off, then, before the king reads his mail and decides that banishment is too good for a would-be assassin!’
Most of us, I suggest, in that situation would have been hopelessly overawed. It is not easy to stick your neck out when you are talking to an archbishop or to keep your chin up in the face of establishment intimidation. Yet Amos did. Victimized he might be, but terrorised he refused to be.
Amos, the called person
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. But the Lord took me from tending the flock and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel’ ‘ (7:14-15).
To understand Amos here, we have to remember that prophets were no novelty in Bethel. For centuries a prophetic tradition had been associated with the shrine there. It was what was "a school for the sons of the prophets". It probably began in the time of Samuel, hundreds of years before. Certainly the academy was thriving in the days of Elijah, who, we are told, came to Bethel and met a sizeable company of the sons of the prophets there, just before his whirlwind resignation (2 Kings 2:2-3). In early days these prophetic bands had been staunch upholders of true religion, but it seems more than a little likely that, as time wore on, they became a bit like the priesthood—increasingly institutionalised and establishment-minded.
For example, we are told in I Kings 22:6 that King Ahab, who was an apostate, had about 400 of these prophets in his court on his payroll. And Micah, who is a near contemporary of Amos, complains bitterly about the commercialisation of the prophetic office in Jerusalem in his day (Micah 3:5).
It seems beyond question that these schools for the sons of the prophets had taken on more and more the nature of career training—a bit like going to university—and of course the essential thing about the qualifications obtained at such places is that they should be marketable. There was a demand for prophetic oracles in Amos’s day, but as in all selling, the secret was to give the customer what he wanted. No doubt job security came into it too, and the royal court offered the prospect of a steady job with a regular income. There was even the prospect of promotion if the king liked your face.
There were many such professional prophets in Bethel at this time, and Amaziah was very familiar with them. That is why he rather assumed that Amos must be of the same stamp, trained in a rival theological seminary maybe, from down south, but in it for the money just like all the rest. Hence his rather sarcastic comment: ‘Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there’ (7:12). The fact is, though, that Amos was different. And it is his purpose in his reply to spell out to the worldly-minded Amaziah just what that difference was: ‘I was neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son.’
Scholars debate that verse because in the original language it could be construed with either a past tense or a present tense of the verb ‘to be’. It could either mean I was neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son,’ or ‘I am neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son.’ If the past tense is correct, Amos is saying, ‘I did not apply for the job of prophet. I had no ambition in that direction.’ If the present tense is correct, then Amos is saying, I am not a prophet in the way you understand the word, Amaziah, at all. I am not one of your professional soothsayers.’
Either way the implication is clear. Amos is dissociating himself from the official prophetic guilds that were so familiar to his contemporaries. He is saying he didn’t belong to them. As far as he was concerned, prophecy was not a career, it was a vocation. It seems to have come as a surprise as much to him as to anybody else. ‘I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore fig-trees. But the Lord took me from tending the flock and said to me, "Go, prophesy to my people Israel" ‘ (7.14-15). That is as much as Amos tells us about his burning-bush experience, but clearly it turned his life upside down, just as dramatically as Moses’ experience had done for him.
How dare this Amaziah suggest that Amos was in prophecy for the money! We can almost hear the outrage in his tone as he spits the accusations back in Amaziah’s face. ‘What do you take me for, a mercenary time-server like you? No, if I need money, I have flocks and orchards enough back home, thank you very much. I am not here to make a fast buck, still less to plot revolution against your king. I am here because God has sent me.
And when God says ‘Go!’ you go, no matter how many archbishops obstruct your path. When he says ‘Speak!’ you speak, no matter how many archbishops try to silence you.’
Now then, hear the word of the Lord. You say: "Do not prophesy against Israel, and stop preaching against the house of Isaac.’‘ Therefore this is what the Lord says... (7:16-17).
The contrast between the establishment person and the called person could not be plainer. The establishment person has political influence; the called person has spiritual authority. The establishment person threatens court action; the called person threatens divine judgment. In his sense of vocation we have the secret of how this nonconformist lay preacher could stand up to the archbishop: his conviction that God had called him gave him an inner resilience, a courage which a hundred Amaziahs could not browbeat. He knew where the real power lay in the country, and it was not in the palace of Jeroboam, still less at the cathedral at Bethel.
‘Therefore this is what the Lord says: Your wife will become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and daughters will fall by the sword. Your land will be measured and divided up, and you yourself will die in a pagan country. And Israel will certainly go into exile, away from their native land’‘ ’ (7:17)
God had rejected the Israelite establishment, including the priesthood. Amaziah’s refusal to acknowledge the word of God confirmed his complicity in the national apostasy, and therefore he would have his personal share in her coming holocaust of retribution.
Verse 17 is a sobering end to the chapter. Who would have thought that leaders of the national church could ever go to hell? There are many lessons for us to learn from this confrontation between the establishment priest and the called prophet.
A lesson for the church
Amaziah shows very clearly the weaknesses of establishment religion.
Look at verse 12 again: ‘Get out, you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there. Don’t prophesy any more at Bethel, because this is the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom’ (7:12).
In spite of all the maliciousness of Amaziah’s attitude towards Amos, there is something tragic about it. As chaplain to the king he would have been in a unique position to exert moral influence on the nation. In II Kings we read of a man called Jehoiada. He was a priest too, in Jerusalem, but he splendidly demonstrates the positive potential of such an office in the way he instructed the young king Joash. In our own history books we learn of a similar achievement by Archbishop Cranmer in the reign of Edward VI. And it ought to be said in defence of the Church of England that in recent years it has often been a radical critic of the government on issues of social importance in Great Britain. Yet, though the opportunity for great influence was there, because of his establishment position, it passed Amaziah by. He could have gone down in history as a great reformer. Instead he is recorded in the Bible as just a puppet of the system, a persecutor of the prophets.
I fear to say it, but all too often that is the way with establishment religion. Jesus expressed it when speaking of his own establishment: ‘0 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing’ (Mt. 23:37).
That story has been repeated again and again down through two millennia of Christian history. In the 1,600 years since Constantine’s conversion, hundreds of thousands of Christians have been persecuted just as Amos was. They have been intimidated, exiled, imprisoned, dispossessed, executed, often in horrifyingly cruel ways. And the ironic thing is that in a great many of those cases, the persecution of Christians has been conducted not by pagans hostile to the gospel, but by the church itself.
Take for example Hugh Latimer, closely associated with the city of Cambridge. He was a superb preacher, with a passion for the gospel and for social justice. Yet he was burned at the stake in 1555 at Oxford. Why? Because he was a Protestant and at time the establishment was Catholic.
Remember, too, John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress, now hailed as a classic of English literature. He was imprisoned in Bedford for twelve years. Why? Because he was a nonconformist, and in those days the establishment was Anglican.
Or listen to this:
‘Some they have executed by hanging. Some they have tortured with inhuman tyranny and afterwards choked with cords at the stake. Some they have roasted alive. Some they have killed with the sword and given to the fowls of the air to devour. Some they have cast to the fishes. Some wander about here and there in want, homelessness and affliction, fleeing from one country to another because they are hated and abused by all.’
That is not Eusebius describing the persecution of the early Christians by Roman emperors like Nero or Domitian, but Menno Simons describing the persecution of Anabaptists by protestant reformers like John Calvin, Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli. Thirty thousand baptistic dissenters were put to death in Friesland in Northern Holland alone between 1535 and 1545. The consequences of that vicious oppression of religious liberty can be seen in Europe even to this day. And why did it happen? Because the Anabaptists offended the establishment.
It is very important to realize that, contrary to the impression one is sometimes given by militant Protestant organizations, the Catholic church was not the only church to persecute dissidents. Reformed churches have done it too.
The one thing all persecuting churches have in common is not their theology, but their political affiliation to the state.
I am not suggesting, of course, that any affiliation between the state and the church is inevitably going to be for the worst; obviously that would be a gross exaggeration. Nor am I suggesting that this chapter of Amos ought to be construed as proscribing such church/state alliances or encouraging Christian anarchism. That would go far beyond what the text permits. But it is important to notice that Amaziah illustrates the three classic dangers into which a state church is always likely to fall unless it is uncommonly self-aware.
First of all, a state church will all too easily become a compromised church, for its vested interest in the status quo and privileged relationship with the powers that be all too easily prejudice its moral judgment and spiritual integrity, as was Amaziah’s.
Secondly, a state church will all too easily become a diluted church in which the spiritual calibre, not just of the members, but more importantly of the high-ranking ministers, will be far from ideal. Lord Acton’s famous dictum about power corrupting is just as applicable to bishops as it is to prime ministers, as Amaziah proves.
Thirdly, a state church can be and often has proved to be a persecuting church. For, once state and church join hands, theological dissent can be interpreted as a political crime and religious toleration is imperiled.
While retaining a high regard for very many Christians within established churches, whom I count as friends, I have to point out that these three dangers have befallen most state churches, including the Church of England, and to some extent continue to do so. I have a nagging suspicion that an Amaziah would find speedier promotion to the House of Bishops than would an Amos, even today!
The acid test of any church is how it responds to the voice of prophetic protest originating outside the ranks of its own establishment. Again and again that is where revival has begun, indeed where it has had to begin. In many respects the number of denominations which we complain about so bitterly simply reflects the failure of ecclesiastical establishments to respond to that challenge when it has arisen in history.
Amaziah is a signpost to us all, warning us, whatever our denominational traditions, to beware of establishment religion. Although it has opportunities, it has also has grave weaknesses.
Lessons about Christian service
There is a lesson in this chapter, too, about the nature of Christian service.
In this connection, Amos has something to teach us, first, about the motivation that must accompany a decision to go into Christian service. To put it bluntly, if you are looking for job security, promotion prospects, a good salary and the like, do not become a pastor. While it is possible to do quite well financially as a preacher it is essential that we do not treat Christian service as a professional career. To regard it as such is to head straight for the ranks of the Amaziahs of this world. I am not suggesting that it is wrong to accept financial support for Christian ministry. The New Testament makes it abundantly clear that that is perfectly acceptable. But it must be regarded as financial support, not as a fee for services rendered. If we are not willing to serve God for nothing, then we are not right to serve him at all.
Secondly, we can learn from Amos something about the flexibility that must accompany such a decision. Amos had had ideas of his own about what God wanted him to do with his life They were perfectly legitimate. He was going to be a farmer, and he had got a long way into that career. He does not say he was thinking about becoming a shepherd. Rather, he already was a one. God, then, redirected him in the middle of what seemed to be a very settled and comfortable situation in life. He was not one of those people who flopped school, flopped university, flopped this job, flopped that job and then suddenly discovered a call to missionary work. He was doing quite well at his secular employment, but God arrested him and lifted him out of it. No Christian can afford to be too settled. The exciting thing about being a child of God is that we never know what might be just around the corner. We have crossed the Rubicon; we could be in for anything, so we have to be ready for change. Flexibility is required of those who would think about entering Christian service.
Thirdly, notice the conviction that must accompany a decision to enter Christian service. But the Lord took me from tending the flock and said to me, "Go, prophesy" (7:15). Of course, a call to Christian service does not have to be as dramatic or objective as Amos’s seems to have been. After all, he was being appointed to a quite unusual level of spiritual authority. He is one of those handful of people in the thousands of years of God’s dealings with the human race whose inspired words would go down in Scripture. None of us is likely to make so fundamental a contribution and therefore we will not need so supernatural a set of credentials. Many people have been unnecessarily deterred from Christian service by too naive a correspondence being drawn by well-meaning preachers between a missionary call and the experience of Paul on the Damascus Road or of Moses at the burning bush. Their experiences were special, for obvious reasons.
Nevertheless, while the need for a call can be overdramatized, it is unquestionably true that no man or woman will survive in Christian service unless they have a very clear sense of divine vocation to that task. What would Amos have done in this confrontation with Amaziah if he had not been able to say: ‘The Lord took me from tending the flock?’ He would have crumpled. And that is what will happen to us if we launch out into a self-appointed career of Christian service. We will crumple too. It is only the called person who can stand the strain.
So we must beware of the love of money, of getting stuck in a rut that we cannot get out of and of running before we are called.
Finally, and most importantly, if we are going into Christian service, we must be our own man or woman. If we are to be servants of God we must retain such a degree of direct and intimate relationship with him that no party or establishment can ever put us in its pocket. Integrity above everything else is required of a servant of God. He or she must be a person who knows they are accountable directly to their master. Of course, we are accountable to the church, to those who send us, and to those who finance us; but we can never be in their pockets. The church owes an incalculable debt to its rebels. It is far better to be an Amos on the bishop’s carpet than an Amaziah on the bishop’s throne. Be your own person. It is important.
Dr Roy Clements