In this passage, the Lord continues to argue graciously with his wayward people. The speaker in verse 1 – it could be the Lord or it could be his servant Amos – is very distressed because of the impending judgement on Israel, a judgement so severe that the population will be decimated (vv. 1-3). Indeed, he is probably singing a funeral lament because the invasion seems to have begun.
The Lord urges his people to seek him, and if they do they will escape further punishment. He warns them to cease practicing idolatry within Israel (at Bethel and Gilgal) or outside Israel (Beersheba was in Judah). Perhaps the worshippers went to those places because they were associated with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Those who served the pagan gods at Bethel and Gilgal would go into exile, so it would be folly for his people to participate in such worship (vv. 4- 5).
If they don’t seek the Lord, they will be consumed totally in his anger. He uses the illustration of a fast-moving fire than devours all in its path, and it will a judgement that the religious leaders at Bethel will not be able to put out (v. 6). Once again the Lord reminds them of the particular sins that they were practicing – injustice towards those in need (v. 7).
Why should they listen to the Lord? In contrast to the false gods, he is the Creator who guides the heavenly bodies, who controls the sequence of day and night, and who is in charge of the rainfall. It will be easy for him to judge those in Israel who depend on their own resources (vv. 8-9).
What sins does he reprove them for? In verses 10-11, the Lord lists some of them: hatred of the person who warns them of their fate (perhaps a reference to Amos as a preacher), cruelty and extortion against the poor, and living in luxury. Verse 12 is a frightening verse for an impenitent person: ‘For I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins – you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate.’ The Lord knows both the number and the depravity of their sins. So when the judgment comes, a wise person will not complain against God (v. 13).
Again the Lord gives a call to his people to turn from their evil ways. If they do, they will enjoy his fellowship and protection – he is the Lord of hosts, after all. If they repent, there is hope for those who will survive the judgement. Otherwise it will not be the prophet who is lamenting but the entire community – in the town squares and in the countryside (vv. 14-17).
The lesson from this passage is that mere participation in religious activities will not bring the Lord’s blessing. Instead, what is required is a life of repentance and righteousness. Repentance can be genuine, even at the eleventh hour, and righteousness is its proof.