‘Behold the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of bearing the words of the Lord.’
I. If adversity tried and sifted men, prosperity tried and sifted them much more.—Where adversity slew its thousands, prosperity slew its tens of thousands. Poets and moralists had dwelt on the sweet uses of adversity: the misuses and abuses of prosperity would furnish a far more eloquent theme. Adversity was a bitter medicine, but it was in vain to think that health could be preserved unless it were administered at one time or another. Prosperity was a pleasant draught, but a continuous indulgence in it was sure to affect the health and undermine the very constitution of the soul. In making worldly prosperity the sole aim of their life, men belied their own truest experiences of real happiness. They forgot that the happiest moments of their lives had not been moments of outward prosperity. For the most part, glorious revelations had come through some heavy trials when their heads appeared bowed down under the heavy judgments of God; it had been in the first hour of their loneliness, when a sudden bereavement had left their hearts vacant and sorrowing; it had been when they lay prostrate on a bed of sickness, or life trembled in the balance; it had been when an unforeseen disaster had shadowed some carefully-devised plan, or stripped them of some worldly advantage; it had been when they had forced themselves to some act of strong self-denial,—then it was that their loss had been turned into gain, and they had been able to throw themselves down before the footstool of God, and feel the glory and joy of His Presence. Happy moments these—happier far than weeks and months of their prosperous everyday life, for now the screen had fallen from the invisible, and heaven was no longer shut out from their view by the allurements and the delights and the successes of the present. As God dealt with Israel of old, so He had dealt with them. He had led them out of the land of bondage and brought them into the wilderness,—the wilderness of shattered hopes, of bereaved affections, of bitter disappointments, and so also He had spoken to them comfortably, spoken with a father’s voice, spoken in accents of infinite tenderness and love. In this chastisement they had recognised His father-hand; for the first time, perhaps, He had revealed to them the privileges and the glories of their sonship.
II. As it was with individuals, so was it also with large masses of men.—The severest trial to the morality of a people was a long period of prosperity; the most efficient instrument in the purification of a people was the sharp attack of adversity. The commercial depression and social disorganisations, with all their attendant miseries, were a discipline and a corrective of God’s hand, whereby He might recall them to their better selves. This chastisement is needed after a period of almost unexampled prosperity. But, however grievous it had been in the present, it had borne abundantly the fruit of righteousness, for during such a season of trial not a few of both masters and men learned sacrifice and self-restraint, which a whole lifetime of high wages and large profits would have been powerless to teach. Such at least was the lesson enforced upon Israel in the days of Amos the prophet. Never since the secession of the ten tribes had the material welfare of the nation been greater. King and people alike might well have congratulated themselves on the present condition of the nation. It was just at this crisis that the prophet Amos appeared on the scene. But though it was in a season of unexampled prosperity, the prosperity of Israel was not the burden of his message; though the armies of Jeroboam had been signally triumphant, he poured out no congratulations over these triumphs. His whole prophecy was one prolonged wail, one unbroken elegy, the funeral dirge of a dying religion, a falling dynasty, and an expiring kingdom. For prosperity was then doing its work. Luxury, revelry, and pleasure were rampant; commercial morality was low, petty frauds in trade were rife; the laws were administered for the advantage of the powerful; the poor were ground down by the tyranny of the rich. A stern moralist might have found much to lament and denounce in the vices of the age; a far-sighted politician, drawing upon long experience, might have discerned from these elements of social disorder the symptoms of a disease, which, if not arrested in time, would lead to the ultimate ruin of the state. But the prophet, with a keener eye and a wider range of wisdom, firmly and unhesitatingly pronounced the result—in the very midst of the triumph of armies, in the very flush of successful self-complacency, he announced the catastrophe as imminent. Prosperity had carried away the hearts of Israel from the true religion of their God, and it needed the deep uses of desolation and captivity to chasten them and call them back. But all this while Israel had not been without a religion; if they had not heard the words of the Lord, at least they had professed His name. It was not the object of their worship, it was only the character of their service which was at fault. For (1) The worship of Israel had degenerated into a religion of political expediency, a religion of conventional life; it had adapted itself to the exigencies, aye, and to the vices, of the age. It looked complacently upon the luxury, the oppression, the indolence, the carelessness, the dishonesty which prevailed on all hands; it had no word of hope, no thought of remedy for the startling social evils of the time; the overflowing wealth here, the grinding poverty there. (2) The religion of Israel was formal and material; it was not thought of except in an outward and material sense in the days of prosperity, and when in their captivity and heavy trials their hearts turned to it seeking solace, instead of finding comfort and help, they saw only a vague and indistinct shadow. The experience of Israel was the experience of all who worshipped after Israel’s manner. In the moment of trial they sought the word of God and could not find it. They did not seek their Father’s presence when their course was smooth and even, and in their hour of danger it was withdrawn from their eyes. It was in this sense that men could not live by bread alone, that the human heart cried for some more enduring food than the fruits of the earth could yield; that sooner or later, in this world, or in the next, the absence of this heavenly sustenance must be felt by them as a famine more gnawing than the famine of bread, and a drought more burning than the drought of water that had brought them together for the ceremony of that day. Whatever some men might say, their factories, their workshops, their shipping, and their coalpits, even their museums and their lecture rooms, could not supply the deepest wants of men. The highest instincts of their nature were left hungering still. The Church, therefore, rose up as a local centre, round which the spiritual affections and life of the neighbourhood gathered.