What Might Have Been
Ellen White records for us a vision that was given to her of the work that was taking place in Battle Creek, Michigan. The vision that she relates is about a meeting that occurred in the Tabernacle Church:
“We were assembled in the auditorium of the Tabernacle. Prayer was offered, a hymn was sung, and prayer was again offered. Most earnest supplication was made to God. The meeting was marked by the presence of the Holy Spirit. The work went deep, and some present were weeping aloud.” Testimonies, vol. 8, 104.
She goes on to say that the issue at hand involved the reception of the message to the Laodicean church, the need for repentance on the part of God’s people, and their reconciliation one with another. Those attending the meeting were often heard repeating the words of Jesus: “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.” Revelation 3:19.
She continues: “No one seemed to be too proud to make heartfelt confession, and those who led in this work were the ones who had influence, but had not before had courage to confess their sins.
“There was rejoicing such as never before had been heard in the Tabernacle.” Ibid., 105.
Would not that have been a tremendous occasion to witness?
“Then I aroused from my unconsciousness, and for a while could not think where I was. My pen was still in my hand. The words were spoken to me: ‘This might have been. All this the Lord was waiting to do for His people. All heaven was waiting to be gracious.’ I thought of where we might have been had thorough work been done at the last General Conference, and an agony of disappointment came over me as I realized that what I had witnessed was not a reality.” Ibid., 105, 106.
What a disappointment! You know, it is not good to dwell on things that might have been. It means sweet dreams dispelled, fair hopes blighted, and human lives ruined. Yet, dear friend, this was the prophet’s task.
Sorrow of a Prophet
This is the setting for the fifth chapter of Amos. Amos has a very heavy heart as he writes these words concerning the Northern kingdom of Israel: “Hear ye this word which I take up against you, [even] a lamentation, O house of Israel. The virgin of Israel is fallen; she shall no more rise: she is forsaken upon her land; [there is] none to raise her up. For thus saith the Lord God; The city that went out [by] a thousand shall leave an hundred, and that which went forth [by] an hundred shall leave ten, to the house of Israel.” Verses 1–3.
Amos was chosen by God because he was spiritually in tune with God. He understood what was transpiring, and no doubt, the lament had at its core “what might have been.” And now, instead of “what might have been,” there comes the need to face the reality of “what is.”
I wonder how many prophets have been shown “what might have been” down though the centuries of time. Many prophets wrote, “I have seen things that I cannot describe. I have seen things that I cannot put into words.” How many times have prophets seen what might have been and, because they were in one accord with God and desired His will, were overcome with sorrow upon returning to a state of consciousness?
Think of the Lord Jesus Christ, the God of heaven, Who came down to this earth and walked among men, taking upon Himself human flesh, knowing the realities of heaven and knowing what it was like to be in tune with the Father. Yet, as He walked and as He saw what was taking place in the temple porticos, the Bible tells us that He was “a man of sorrows.” Isaiah 53:3. I can understand that. The Scriptures tell the sad story.
God has always extended a very glorious picture to His people. So often, however, they respond in like manner as we find recorded in Ezekiel 33:31–33: “And they come unto thee as the people cometh, and they sit before thee [as] my people, and they hear thy words, but they will not do them: for with their mouth they show much love, [but] their heart goeth after their covetousness. And, lo, thou [art] unto them as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument: for they hear thy words, but they do them not. And when this cometh to pass, (lo, it will come,) then shall they know that a prophet hath been among them.”
The Virgin is Fallen
Amos describes the people of God as wanting to come, sit, and listen to very melodious and beautiful music, but when the prophet comes to them with a message in hope of changing the direction of their lives, they do not want to hear it. They want to hear a lovely song sung. When the reality finally sets in of the consequences for rejecting God, it will be for them too late. This is the story that Amos here records. He says, “The virgin of Israel is fallen.”
Amos presents this matter to the Northern kingdom, using the illustration of a girl in her beautiful youth who is cut down, never to rise again. In every culture, in every land, there seems to be an awesome regard for youth. Youth is portrayed as that time in life when everything is a bowl of cherries. When a young person tragically loses his or her life, old and young feel it very deeply. That is the picture presented here—a girl in the blossoming of her youth was cut down.
Every time I hear of a young person who has lost his or her life, the thought always comes to me, What might it have been for that person, had he or she lived? What would have been the direction of his or her life?
Amos is entertaining the same thought, and then he brings us the reality of the picture. Those who compose the cities, Amos says, will suffer until they are left with only ten percent of what they formerly had.
When a city suffers a fate like this, its glory is gone. It is not a very bright picture that is painted here by Amos. But what we need to focus on is the fact that this ten percent constitutes a remnant. The 90 percent that were sufficient to produce a glory of the city are going to be stripped away. We are told in Psalm 37:11 that “the meek shall inherit the earth.” And so a remnant is left. It is not intended to be a bright picture. It is a picture that is painted with dark colors, a picture of darkness and gloom.
“For thus saith the Lord unto the house of Israel, Seek ye me, and ye shall live.” Amos 5:4. God is hoping that the ten percent will increase. There will be a remnant that will be left, but He is wanting more than that. Most are going to be lost; the virgin is going to be cut down.
“But seek not Bethel, nor enter into Gilgal, and pass not to Beersheba: for Gilgal shall surely go into captivity, and Bethel shall come to nought. Seek the Lord, and ye shall live; lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and devour [it], and [there be] none to quench [it] in Bethel.” Verses 5, 6. The places that Amos refers to here—Bethel, Gilgal, and Beersheba—were places of sacred memory to Israel.
One of my responsibilities as a pastor is that of marriage counseling. I always ask the couple in distress what it was that brought them together in the first place. How did they meet? What are the memories of their early affections?
These verses reveal that God is basically doing the same thing. These three locations were places of sacred memory. Bethel was where Jacob dreamed of the ladder that led to heaven and where he made his vow to be the Lord’s. Gilgal was the place where the people reconsecrated themselves before they entered into Canaan. Beersheba was where Abraham called on the Lord, where Isaac built his altar, and where Jacob offered sacrifice before going into Egypt to be re-united with his son, Joseph.
But the tragedy is that all of these places of sacred memory for Israel and the resulting heritage had now been transformed into places of idolatrous practices. It is sad but true that places of sacred memory can be, through a transforming process, turned into places of haunt.
Plea to Return
So God appealed to His people to seek Him and to turn back. Even though the divine sentence had been pronounced, God was still pleading with any that may have been in the valley of decision.
Hosea was a contemporary with Amos. They wrote at the same time, and the story and the appeal were the same. Hosea unfolded to his readers that, even though Israel was unfaithful, God could take them back. The cry was, “How can I give thee up, O Ephraim? Turn and come back to Me, and I will heal all your backslidings. I will forgive your sins, if you will only come back.” (See Hosea 14:1–4.) Amos gave the same appeal.
This has always been the appeal that God has given. Regardless of what you have done, He says, “I will take you back. Just come to Me. Learn of Me. Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me.”
In the time of the antediluvians, Noah built an ark, which held the portent of their destruction. For 120 years, with every wooden peg that was driven, Noah proclaimed to the people that destruction was on its way. “Turn from your wicked ways,” was the cry, but when the time came and the door of the ark was closed, only eight were saved.
Then there was Jerusalem. Jerusalem was thrust into a position of desolation. When Jesus stood on the Mount of Olives and cried out, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, [thou] that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under [her] wings, and ye would not!” Matthew 23:37. You would not what? You would not come to Me. You would not come and have your sins forgiven. You would not put away your unrighteous ways. You would not allow the Spirit to change your heart. Therefore, “your house is left unto you desolate.” Verse 38. Interestingly, even though these words of Jesus held the portent of their destruction, those in Jerusalem still received the exposure and witness of Pentecostal power, as He hoped that more would come to Him.
God’s threatenings are based upon the condition of man’s conduct. The threatenings of God are given concerning a certain set of circumstances created by men. If and when those circumstances change, through their repentance, the threatenings cease to apply. You see, those threatenings are designed to turn men back to God, not to plunge them into despair.
Protection of the Poor
“Ye who turn judgment to wormwood, and leave off righteousness in the earth, [Seek him] that maketh the seven stars and Orion, and turneth the shadow of death into the morning, and maketh the day dark with night: that calleth for the waters of the sea, and poureth them out upon the face of the earth: The Lord [is] his name: That strengtheneth the spoiled against the strong, so that the spoiled shall come against the fortress.” Amos 5:7–9.
God does not leave them wondering what they are going to do when the judgement comes. They have turned “judgment to wormwood.” Wormwood is mentioned in the Book of Revelation. It is a plant that has a very bitter, pungent taste, and here, Amos denounces those who have made the procedure of going to tribunals for protection a hateful, bitter experience. They have gone for a resolve, only to find bitterness.
The Lord had set in place the process of resolve for the purpose of protecting the poor from those who would try to take advantage of their unfortunate circumstances. There are always people who would fall into this category, and God takes a special interest in protecting His people from hurt and harm.
The interesting part about this is that the Jews have always had the reputation of striking a sharp deal, and they have handed this trait down to their posterity—literally as well as spiritually. Ellen White writes about striking sharp deals: “There should be in our business deal no shadow of selfishness or overreaching. Let no one take advantage of any man’s ignorance or necessity.” Testimonies, vol. 7, 163. We, as Seventh-day Adventists, have some things to learn in these areas. God especially hates this. In the days of Amos, it had become so difficult to obtain justice that God termed it “wormwood.” As a result, righteousness was left off in the earth. This should speak to us, as a church, today.
I could not begin to count the number of times I have heard stories in which individuals have made appeals to the church to do the right thing, only to be brushed aside. I do not know how many letters I have written about such situations. Maybe you have written letters, too, only to be flicked off like a bug. God said that is not the way it is to be. He pleaded for His people to turn away from sin and not do it anymore, because there are consequences that will come from such actions.
When we have it set in our minds that we are the only ones who have the right answer, and we fail to take into account the understandings of others, an attitude develops that we are right, that we will always be right, and that no one can tell us what we need to do. God says to turn away from this.
God says, “I am the One Who is to be your wisdom. I am the One Who, if you look to Me, will give you guidance and direction in every situation that you face, that indeed you will do the right thing, because I am the holy measurement. And every thing that you take off of Me will be measured right and correctly.”
This whole passage is an appeal to the people’s better sight. Turn away from sin, because there is infinite power in God, Who will help you through to salvation.
But the words take a turn in Amos 5:10, 11: “They hate him that rebuketh in the gate, and they abhor him that speaketh uprightly. Forasmuch therefore as your treading [is] upon the poor, and ye take from him burdens of wheat: ye have built houses of hewn stone, but ye shall not dwell in them; ye have planted pleasant vineyards, but ye shall not drink wine of them.” This is God’s view of the whole thing.
Isaiah gives a different view: “They [God’s people] shall build houses, and inhabit [them]; and they shall plant vineyards, and eat the fruit of them.” Isaiah 65:21. That will happen only when we have put ourselves into God’s care and keeping.
But the people depicted in the Book of Amos had become so self-exalted that they said, “We will be able to plant our vineyards, and we will have good wine next year, and we will build our houses, and we will be able to rejoice.” But God said, “No. You are not going to enjoy any of it,” for Amos 5 continues, “For I know your manifold transgressions, and your mighty sins: they afflict the just, they take a bribe, and they turn aside the poor in the gate [from their right]. Therefore the prudent shall keep silence in that time; for it [is] an evil time.” Verses 12, 13.
An interesting fact of reality comes alive here. Verse 10 says, “They hate him that rebuketh in the gate, and they abhor him that speaketh uprightly.” The one that was set up in the gate was appointed by God and was a mouthpiece or a spokesman for God. The gate was that special place of appointment where justice was to be rendered. If there was any place that was to hold a place of right doing, it was the gate of the city. Many times, throughout Scripture, God talks about the injustice that takes place at the gate. There will be an accounting for that.
What is the attitude revealed here? Well, it is an attitude of selfishness and arrogance—don’t tell me what to do; I want my own way. When this type of an attitude prevails, the Bible says that the prudent man keeps silence.
Have you ever heard someone say, Don’t keep harping on that; it makes me mad? Perhaps we have even said that ourselves. The better part of wisdom is, when something has been said, leave it alone. If there is no change, prudence dictates that silence is golden.
To know when to be silent and when to speak takes much wisdom. Why does it take wisdom? Because self gets in the way. Self wants to assert self. We always want the last word, do we not? Why? Because we know we are right, and the other person is wrong. If we can just speak a little bit longer, we feel that our last word will have the power of convincing. But I can tell you, if we would follow the counsel of the prophet about being prudent in knowing when to remain silent, it could save a lot of domestic dispute and violence. Be quiet!
Patiently Wait Upon the Lord
There is a tendency for us to run ahead of God. There is a tendency for us to become impatient. Do you remember the story of King Saul? When the Israelites were getting ready to go into battle against the Philistines, Samuel was to come and offer sacrifice. King Saul was to wait for Samuel to come, but he grew impatient and offered the sacrifice himself. (See 1 Samuel 13:8–10.) He had no business offering sacrifice. “Samuel had appointed to meet the king at Gilgal, there to ‘offer burnt-offerings and sacrifices, and to show him what he should do.’ The prophet did not arrive within the allotted time, and as Saul saw their dangers increasing, and the hearts of the people failing for fear, he became impatient. Instead of resorting to prayer, and humbling his soul before God, he determined to do something himself to relieve the difficulties of the situation.” The Signs of the Times, August 3, 1882. Ellen White wrote that “equipped as he was with armor and weapons of war, he approached the altar and offered sacrifice before God.” Patriarchs and Prophets, 618.
As soon as the sacrifice was offered, Samuel approached the encampment. Saul went out to greet him, proud of himself, of what he had done, and yet it was at that moment that judgment fell upon Saul’s house. “Saul endeavored to excuse his own course, by depicting the terror of the people and the danger of an immediate attack from the Philistines. But the prophet returned the stern and solemn answer,—
“ ‘Thou hast done foolishly. Thou hast not kept the commandment of the Lord thy God, which he commanded thee; for now would the Lord have established thy kingdom upon Israel for ever. But now thy kingdom shall not continue; the Lord hath sought him a man after his own heart, and the Lord hath commanded him [to be] captain over his people, because thou hast not kept [that] which the Lord commanded thee.’ [1 Samuel 13:13, 14.]” The Signs of the Times, August 3, 1882.
Saul failed the test God had given him. “The Lord had detained his servant [Samuel], in order to test the faith and obedience of the king. Saul did not stand the test. God had promised to be with him, if he would be obedient. He should have trusted this promise, and waited patiently for divine instruction and guidance.” Ibid. Since he disobeyed, Saul had to suffer the consequence of his disobedience. “This act [the sacrifice] was a flagrant violation of the divine command that only those should offer sacrifice who had been sacredly consecrated to the work. Moreover, the public nature of the act, as well as the high position of the offender, added greatly to the pernicious influence of his example, and rendered prompt punishment indispensably necessary.” Ibid.
Accept the Remedy
“Hate the evil, and love the good, and establish judgment in the gate: it may be that the Lord God of hosts will be gracious unto the remnant of Joseph.” Amos 5:15. God is talking here to religious people. He is saying, “Let there be a change. Let things come about where it will be a seeking of Me and My way.” How do people get into such conditions? It seems that there is always a pattern followed from which the end can be quite accurately forecast.
One of the interesting things about the ministry is that in many ways the work of a pastor parallels that of a physician. People have trouble recognizing that fact.
A physician goes to school and studies medical practices and techniques for years. Then he or she serves an internship where hands-on-instruction is experienced. The intern sees patients with a skilled physician. After examining a patient, the intern will make a diagnosis, based on the information gleaned from other patients with the same symptoms. Perhaps 98 percent of the time, people accept the diagnosis of the physician. The physician generally will write a prescription for medicine. The patient willingly takes it to a pharmacy, receives and takes the medication, and usually gets over the problem.
A pastor’s work is a little different in that it deals with fruit. A pastor goes to school to learn how to inspect fruit, along with the study of the Word, because the Word tells the pastor what kind of fruit to look for. (“By their fruits ye shall know them.” Matthew 7:20.) When a pastor spots bad fruit, he says, “My, my, what I see here is bad fruit; let me give you a prescription.”
Do you know what the responses of the people are? “Who are you to tell us?”
The pastor may respond, “I have been sent to this church as the pastor to try to help you see where you are going. I have seen your condition before. I have seen this and this and this happen in this and this and this individual, so I can tell you where you are going, because your fruit is the exact same fruit.”
And the people say, “Who do you think you are?” They do not want to accept the diagnosis or the offered remedy.
Prophets have the same calling, to a great degree. There is always a pattern that is followed, and it can be pretty well forecast. What is taking place in Amos 5? Why did all these things transpire in the way that they did?
Amos was trying to say that, first of all, God had given the children of Israel a true system of worship. It was the same system that had been delivered in the Garden of Eden. When man was put out of the Garden, the system of religious worship was changed to give man hope of redemption.
Another element was at work then, as it is today. When God gives man something good, the devil is not content to leave well enough alone. Man, in and of himself, cannot create religion, but he can adapt it. He adapts it because the devil, who knows all about God and religion, gives him ideas. The sad revelation is that what God gives us in the way of religious principles—now consider this carefully—are too pure for us. Think about that for a minute.
What God gives us in the way of religious principles are too pure for us. If we would accept the principles He gives for what they are, they have the potential of lifting us up to the state of purity, to the perfection He requires. We, in our human nature, want to bring those principles down to a comfortable level for us. We accomplish this by compromising what we know is right and good, that which is delivered to us by the hand of God. We change the good that God has given to us to fit the ideals that the devil gives to us.
Idolatrous worship seems less of an apostasy if it retains some forms of true worship. That is usually the compromise. We do not want to go too fast or too far away from God’s principles, but we do want to feel comfortable, so the devil lets us down into idolatry, as into other sin, by easy stages. First, we get rid of the spirit of true worship but retain the form. Then we get rid of the object of worship, which then corrupts the form. And then we adopt a new object, and we adopt that into the worship, which is really corrupted. This is the way that all sin goes. Easy does it, until we do not recognize the path down which the small steps have led us.
This is exactly the process of how the papacy was formed. It did not happen overnight. It took nearly five centuries for the papacy to form into the institution that persecuted the saints.
The worship that was set up at Bethel and Gilgal was not pure and simple idol worship. It was worship of God by means of idols and in forms that mimicked the worship at Jerusalem. You see, heresy at the outset always masquerades in the guise of truth. Sometimes, when you see this process taking place, it is very difficult to put your finger right on the issue. This is why it is called creeping compromise. It moves imperceptibly, but it moves. If it moves far enough for someone who is in tune with God to raise an alarm, usually that person is chastised that he or she is just being legalistic or is trying to ruin what others are attempting to accomplish. So the prudent man remains silent, and things begin to change. Heresy masquerades. By adopting a sheep’s clothing, the wolf gets easy access into the fold, and it is only after he has entered into the fold and the immediate danger is over that his true character is revealed. But then it is very hard to catch him and to throw him out of the fold.
We must know what truth is, be able to recognize it, and prevent error from corrupting that which is pure. That is the mission to which historic Adventism has been called. It has been called to stop these false issues, to give a warning, and to hold the truth in purity very high.
Day of Darkness
The people in Amos 5 were not only to stop seeking evil, but they were to hate evil and to love good. Unfortunately, they did not go in that direction.
“Therefore the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord, saith thus; Wailing [shall be] in all streets; and they shall say in all the highways, Alas! alas! and they shall call the husbandman to mourning, and such as are skilful of lamentation to wailing. And in all vineyards [shall be] wailing: for I will pass through thee, saith the Lord. Woe unto you that desire the day of the Lord! to what end [is] it for you? the day of the Lord is darkness, and not light.” Amos 5:16–18.
The word therefore, in verse 16, has a reference that carries us back to the cause of this judgment. That which has been outlined earlier is now the cause of that which is to come. These people thought they were just about right on as far as religion was concerned, but they were a long way off. They were even looking forward to the day of the Lord to come. They were Seventh-day Adventists; they kept the Sabbath. They looked forward to the coming of Christ, but they did not have a clue as to what the real state of things was all about, because they hated everyone who tried to share the real issues with them. They abhorred those who were speaking the truth, and the prudent kept silent. They thought they were ready for the day of the Lord. They knew that when this event happened they would be set in a place of security and power. They felt that this was the time when God would conquer their foes and set them up as His people forever. They looked forward to that day. They would be the beneficiaries of it all. But the truth of the matter was that when the day of the Lord came, it would be a time when God would judge all sin—even theirs.
So Amos said that that day would be a day of darkness. He described it for them: “As if a man did flee from a lion, and a bear met him; or went into the house, and leaned his hand on the wall, and a serpent bit him. [Shall] not the day of the Lord [be] darkness, and not light? even very dark, and no brightness in it?” Verses 19, 20.
Then God continued to describe His feelings of nausea when it came to worship time. “I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not smell in your solemn assemblies.” Verse 21. This has to do with the incense of prayer that is being offered. “Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols. But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream. Have ye offered unto me sacrifices and offerings in the wilderness forty years, O house of Israel? But ye have borne the tabernacle of your Moloch and Chiun your images, the star of your god, which ye made to yourselves. Therefore will I cause you to go into captivity beyond Damascus, saith the Lord, whose name [is] The God of hosts.” Verses 23–27.
God said, “I do not want anything to do with you. I hate everything with which you come to Me. You come and you offer worship; I hate it. I hate your feast days. You come and you sing your beautiful songs before Me; I do not want to listen. I do not even want anything to do with your instruments of music.”
It is interesting that Amos played a comparison contrast here. God said, “I want to send you the purity of religion. I want to send you a purity that will elevate you. In order for you to rise to that purity, you need to have some guidance, some counsel, and I will send you prophets to accomplish that task.”
What did the people do? They hated those that God sent to them to help them. With the feeling of hatred in their hearts, they went to the temple and there began to play on the viols. They began to sing songs of music, and they bowed down in worship. God said, “You hate what I did for you. I hate what you are doing. I do not want to have anything to do with it. You do not want to have anything to do with those that I have sent to you; I do not want to have anything to do with you either.” There is a comparison contrast. Amos was trying to convey to them the feelings of God and how He felt about what they were doing with what He had sent to them as His good gifts.
“You will not listen; I will not listen. You hate; I hate.” But God said, “Mark it down. You will be the ones who will suffer far more than I. Judgments will come running down like a river upon you. You have neglected Me in times past. You have neglected Me in times present. You will not escape.”
Amos was not an easy prophet to have around—none of the prophets were. This is why the people killed them. This is why attempts were made to destroy their influence. The surprising thing about all of this is God’s forbearance.
God will forbear, but finally, there is a moment reached. None of us knows when our moment is reached, so the questions that we really need to ask ourselves are, How am I relating to the counsel that God gives? Are there things that, when I have heard them or when I have read them in the words of inspiration, I have ignored? I do not want to hear them, and if anyone says I ought to do them, I do not like them.
I have heard people, and I am sure you have heard people, who, when invited to a worship service, will ask, Who is preaching? If the speaker is perceived as one who preaches smooth things, you can be sure they will be there. If the speaker is known as one who speaks hard things, if he uses the Spirit of Prophecy, you will not see these people in attendance.
I saw this happen repeatedly when I pastored in Riverside, California,—right out the back door of Loma Linda. Many churches are clustered within close proximity of that area, and people are church floaters, going where they can get their ears tickled. (See 11 Timothy 4:3, 4.) That is not the way God would have it.
Pastor Mike Baugher is Associate Speaker for Steps to Life Ministry. He may be contacted by e-mail at: email@example.com, or by telephone at: 316-788-5559.