Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria…. Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away. –Amos 6:1a, 4-7 NRSV
The Old Testament Prophet Amos didn’t pull any punches with the political/religious leaders and wealthy elite of the northern Kingdom of Israel. Naturally, they weren’t too happy with him, and so they repeatedly and forcefully told him to go back home to Judah. But God has sent him to speak a prophetic word to Israel, so he wasn’t going anywhere. Often it’s good to read a biblical passage in a couple different translations or version. Here’s the one already cited, but from The Message by Eugene Peterson:
Woe to you who think you live on easy street in Zion, who think Mount Samaria is the good life….
Woe to you who are rushing headlong to disaster! Catastrophe is just around the corner!
Woe to those who live in luxury and expect everyone else to serve them!
Woe to those who live only for today, indifferent to the fate of others!
Woe to the playboys, the playgirls, who think life is a party held just for them!
Woe to those addicted to feeling good–life without pain! Those obsessed with looking good–life without wrinkles!
They could not care less about their country going to ruin.
But here’s what’s really coming: a forced march into exile.
They’ll leave the country whining, a rag-tag bunch of good-for-nothings.
Elsewhere Amos tells his readers the shrines at Gilgal and Bethel were mobbed by worshipers, their altars filled with the sacrificial blood and carcasses of animals. It’s worth looking closely at those worshipers’ motives, however. The foundation for all that constant activity was the people’s inadequate view of God and misunderstanding of covenant. You see, they viewed their economic prosperity (and, consequently, their international standing won by military victories) as divine approval and blessing.
How often do we hear something similar: “Hey, just look at us! See how great and powerful and wealthy we are. Obviously, God has blessed us with all this!”
Now, Israel’s “problem” was not prosperity. No, the real problem was in how they viewed all that material abundance: as proof of God’s blessing and exclusive protection. And just to compound it all, they also believed all they really had to do in response was engage in outward forms of lavish worship (in other words, perform all those ritual sacrifices). Moral responsibility for their fellow countrymen, much less foreigners, may not have even occurred to them. Amos was characteristically blunt:
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings 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. –Amos 5:21-24 NRSV
Eventually, the Assyrian army conquered Israel and scattered its people to various parts of the then-known world. So much for their prized “protection theology.” There was nothing in it remotely relating to the idea of generosity. Instead of love, the motivation was obligation fueled by “If I do this then you [God] will give me wealth and protection.”
And that’s what being “at ease in Zion” was all about.