When Worship Keeps Us From God
By Nathan Pickup
(18) “Woe to you who desire the day of Yahweh!
Why would you have the day of Yahweh?
It is darkness, and not light,
(19) as if a man fled from a lion,
and a bear met him,
or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall,
and a serpent bit him.
(20) Is not the day of Yahweh darkness, and not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?
(21) I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
(22) Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
I will not look upon them.
(23) Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
(24) But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
It’s easy to judge our spiritual condition by our worship—the frequency of it, the emotion we display in worship, or how involved we are in church activities. But these outward acts of worship can actually keep us from seeing our true spiritual condition. This is powerfully illustrated in Amos 5:18-24, where God’s prophet describes how the northern kingdom of Israel fell into this trap, which eventually cost them their nation and their eternal souls. By preserving this message, God is warning us that worship can in fact give us a false estimation of our spiritual status, which will cause us to be unprepared to meet Him when He comes in judgment.
The northern kingdom of Israel wholeheartedly believed that Yahweh was with them (Amos 5:14) and were thus anxiously waiting for the Day of Yahweh (Day of the LORD). They were probably expecting the Day of Yahweh to be a day when God would judge sinful nations and elevate Israel to victory, as expressed in Joel 3:1-21. Whatever the specifics of their expectations, it is obvious they thought the Day of Yahweh would mean good things for them since they were hastening its coming. But Amos reveals that it would be a day of darkness for them rather than light, gloom with no brightness, and they would have no escape from God’s judgment (Amos 5:18-20). Amos doesn’t dispute that God would defeat His enemies and give victory to His people on the Day of Yahweh. However, Amos is trying to get Israel to see that their sin would cause them to be judged on that Day as God’s enemies! How could Israel be so blind regarding their own spiritual condition? That answer comes in Amos 5:21-24.
Amos’ denunciation of Israel’s worship (vv. 21-24) is assuredly linked with his denunciation of Israel’s view of the Day of Yahweh (vv. 18-20). It may have been the northern kingdom’s public worship at sites like Bethel that perpetuated a false estimation of what the Day of Yahweh held in store for them. Amos’ words in vv. 21-24 come to life when we realize that he likely delivered them to Israelites entering a site like Bethel to participate in their corporate worship (Amos 7:12-13 reveals that Amos spent at least a portion of his ministry at Bethel, the religious capital of the northern kingdom). To put it in perspective, imagine going to church, and standing outside the building is a man yelling, “I hate, I despise your worship services, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your voices I will not listen!” Wouldn’t it be easy to dismiss this man as a lunatic? This must have been how Amos came across when he was yelling the words of vv. 21-24 to Israelites entering their own places of worship.
Besides the acerbic rhetoric, what makes Amos’ words so shocking is that they’re targeted toward a very worshipful people. If we could observe the people he condemns, we’d see them participating in religious feasts and having solemn assemblies of worship (v. 21); giving burnt offerings, grain offerings, and peace offerings of fattened (i.e., the best) animals (v. 22); and also singing hymns and making music to honor Yahweh (v. 23). Such acts would surely lead us to conclude this this people is close to God. Yet God says He “hates” and “despises” what they’re doing, and commands them to stop! Why would God condemn with such vitriol a people seeking to honor Him with all these worshipful acts?
This brings us to verse 24, where God tells Israel what He does want from them: justice and righteousness. These two words are used to summarize what a lifestyle modeled after Yahweh’s attributes looks like. God is telling Israel that without personal ethics (morality, generosity, and love towards their fellow man), Israel’s worship is nothing but a mockery of true religion. Religious activity can never substitute for a life modeled after Yahweh’s character.
What we have in Amos 5:18-24 is the seemingly incompatible idea of a worshipful people condemned to judgment by God. Instead of illustrating their strong relationship with Yahweh, Israel’s worship kept them from seeing their true spiritual condition. Their worship caused them to think they were spiritually alive, when they were actually spiritually dead. Their worship caused them to believe the coming Day of Yahweh would mean salvation, when in reality that Day would bring judgment. Their worship kept them from heeding Amos’ call to repentance, and so their worship led to their judgment by the very God they thought they were honoring.
What can we learn from Israel’s mistake? First, we too are waiting for the Day of Yahweh “and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him” (2 Thess. 2:1-2). Therefore, it is imperative that we correctly identify our relationship to God. One of the most sobering messages of God’s Word is that believers in Him can delude themselves into thinking they are His people, when in fact they are marked as targets of His judgment. “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21). To use a false standard to judge our spirituality may cause us to delude ourselves into thinking the Day of Yahweh will mean salvation for us, when in reality it will bring judgment.
Israel’s mistake also teaches us that the fervor or frequency of our worship can become a false standard we can use to assess our spiritual condition. We may think that because we worship three times a week, sing hymns to God, and partake of the memorial meal of the Lord’s Supper that we are in a right relationship with Him. But we learn from Amos that God dismisses all of that as rubbish if we are not seeking justice and righteousness in our lifestyles. I am not implying this passage teaches that corporate worship is unimportant. But the emphasis of this passage is that our corporate worship cannot be the measure by which we assess our spirituality. We must remember that Israel wasn’t judged for not worshiping enough. On the contrary, they worshiped often, but their worship blinded them to the fact that their religion was built on a false foundation where outward acts of worship defined a person’s spiritual status. This false conceptualization of religion made Israel unprepared to meet their God. It is the justice and righteousness of our lifestyles that determines whether we’re a truly worshipful people, not merely how frequently or fervently we participate in outward acts of worship.
God has given us a powerful message through Amos. When used as a substitute for justice and righteousness, worship can actually keep us from being ready for the Day of Yahweh by giving us a false standard of judging our spiritual condition. When we allow this to happen, our worship becomes repugnant to Him and we cease to be religious as God defines the term. Israel was too busy worshiping at their altars to heed this message from God’s prophet. We dare not make the same mistake, for if we’re not truly ready to meet our God, then the Day of His return will most certainly be “darkness and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it” (Amos 5:20).