Today in my Introduction to Biblical Studies course, we read Amos. I usually skip over Amos in my Bible course, focusing more on Hosea. I flipped it this year, skipping Hosea for Amos. It was, for me, a pleasant switch.
Amos lived in the 8th century BCE, from the southern kingdom of Judah, but offered prophecies that condemned sometimes the northern kingdom of Israel, and sometimes, it seems, both kingdoms together. He is all doom and gloom with only occasional oases of hope. But he is also considered one of the more socially responsible prophets.
Amos indicates that God is going to destroy Israel for their bad behavior. He does not really single out problems of worship, like idolatry, so much as problems of justice: failure to help the poor and needy (3:6-7; 4:1; 5:10-17) while indulging in luxury (3:13-15; 6:1-7).
In the context of this, Amos makes a startling point: God does not really want your worship. It is all just noise. In fact, God will hate your worship if you worship God – even properly worship God – but are not just. One should not seek out God’s traditional sanctuary, but seek the LORD (YHWH) (5:4-7). Most striking is the passage:
I hate, I despise your festivals, / and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. / Even though you offer me your burnt offering and grain offerings, / I will not accept them; / and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals / I will not look upon. / Take away from me the noise of your songs; / I will not listen to the melody of your harps. / But let justice roll down like waters, / and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (5:21-24)
While some of this is directed toward temple offerings, not all of it is. It is a general description of all worship of God, including festivals, temple service, and even singing songs. This is all proper worship. But it is just noise to God without justice, without taking concern with the condition of the poor and the needy. (And, indeed, many modern worship songs sound cacophonous.)
Isaiah expresses a similar concern, though with less intensity. Noting again that people have failed to do good, that, to do good, one should seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow (Is. 1:17), Isaiah also notes that without justice, worship of God is pointless:
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; / I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams / and the fat of fed beasts; / I do not delight in the blood of bulls, / or of lambs, or of goats. / When you come to appear before me, / who asked this from your hand? / Trample my courts no more; / bringing offerings is futile; / incense is an abomination to me. / New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation – / I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. / Your new moons and your appointed festivals / my soul hates; / they have become a burden to me, / I am weary of bearing them. / When you stretch out your hands, / I will hide my eyes from you; / even though you make many prayers, / I will not listen; / your hands are full of blood. (Is. 1:10-15)
While there is a greater emphasis on the temple here, it is again inclusive of all worship activities, including festivals, and even prayer.
So there you have it: God hates people’s worship, including temple sacrifices, incense, festivals, songs of worship, and even prayer if those people are unjust, if they indulge in luxury while failing to help or even actively oppressing the poor and needy; if they do not help the oppressed, the orphan, or the widow.
Amos’s God does not want your “thoughts and prayers”; his God wants your just actions. If you are unsure whether you are just or unjust, simply ask: do your actions help, neglect, or oppress the needy, poor, and oppressed?