When Silence Is Sin

“Amos” by James Tissot

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“Seek the Lord and live, lest He break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel, O you who turn justice to wormwood and cast down righteousness to the earth!… “They hate him who reproves in the gate, and they abhor him who speaks the truth. Therefore because you trample on the poor and you exact taxes of grain from him, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins— you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate. Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time” (Amos 5:6–7, 10-15).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

A few weeks ago, we focused on the importance of holding your tongue and watching what you say. Today we have the flipside—“When Silence Is Sin.”

In Ecclesiastes, the Preacher tells us there is “is a time to keep silence and a time to speak” (3:7b). Knowing when to speak and when to be silent is a most difficult art. Sir Francis Bacon said, “Silence is the virtue of fools.” Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”

In our text, Amos also speaks about silence. First, he says, “He who is prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time” (Amos 5:13). And second, he observes, “They hate him who reproves in the gate, and they abhor him who speaks the truth” (Amos 5:10). Silence might keep you personally safe for a while in evil times. But through the prophet, God is teaching us that in the face of evil, one cannot remain silent even if he must endure hatred or abuse, because in the face of evil, silence must be broken, or it is deadly. Silence is evil’s best friend.

Silence is sin when the people of God are being led to false worship under the guise of cultural relevance. Israel tried it in places like Bethel, Gilgal, and Beersheba (Amos 5:5-6). They brought the false gods and idolatrous practices of their pagan neighbors to those historical holy places. Thus, the Lord warns Israel: “Seek Me and live; but do not seek Bethel, and do not enter into Gilgal or cross over to Beersheba; for Gilgal shall surely go into exile, and Bethel shall come to nothing. Seek the Lord and live, lest He break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel, O you who turn justice to wormwood and cast down righteousness to the earth!” (Amos 5:4-7).

At Bethel, which means “the house of God,” the Lord appeared to Jacob. The first time was when he was fleeing from Esau (Genesis 28:10-22). At night he saw a vision of a stairway to heaven where angels ascended and descended and the Lord spoke to Him, renewing the promises He had made to Abraham and Isaac. Jacob’s second visit to Bethel was on his return from Paddan-aram. He left with confirmation of his new name, Israel, and a renewal of the Lord’s promises to him (Genesis 35:1-15).

Jacob’s two experiences with the Lord at Bethel were renewing and creating. This makes Amos’ words all the more shocking. The false god that Jeroboam had erected there—a golden calf—had displaced Yahweh and caused Israel to sin (2 Kings 10:29). Consequently, the only thing dispensed at Bethel was death.

Through Amos, the Lord commands Israel not to go to Gilgal either. Gilgal was the place that Israel had encamped prior to her invasion of Jericho (Joshua 5:2-12). Gilgal was where the gift of manna ceased, and Israel first tasted “the produce of Canaan” (Joshua 5:12). Later still, Gilgal was where Saul’s monarchy was confirmed (1 Samuel 11:14-15). The irony is that Gilgal—the ancient location of inheritance, possession, and monarchy—would go into exile. Once connected with ancient promises, it currently offered nothing but doom.

Beersheba was associated with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, too. It was at Beersheba that Abimelech and Phicol said to Abraham, “God is with you in all that you do” (Genesis 21:22). Later, Yahweh made this promise to Isaac while he was in Beersheba: “Fear not, for I am with you” (Genesis 26:23-24). As an old man, Jacob arrived in Beersheba on his trip to Egypt, and there God said, “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt for there I will make you into a great nation. I Myself will go down with you into Egypt, and I will also bring you up again” (Genesis 46:3-4). The town was a place where the three patriarchs had comforted with the assurance of Yahweh’s presence and blessing in their lives.

What horror, therefore, it must have been to hear Amos warn, “Do not travel to Beersheba” (5:5). The ancient site could no longer furnish a gracious encounter with the living God. As its just judgment the idolatrous high place at Beersheba was destroyed by Josiah about 150 years later (ca. 632 BC) (2 Kings 23:8).

The Lord will not remain silent. Rather than making pilgrimages to these heterodox worship centers, the Lord invites His people to “Seek Me and live” (Amos 5:4). To “seek” is a “worship” word. By it, God calls His people away from false worship to Himself. Our silence is sin when we fail to speak against false religions that ensnare so many with their lies and as we fear the reaction of our culture rather than insisting loudly and clearly that there is no way to God except through Jesus.

Silence is also sin when we fail to speak up on behalf of those who are oppressed by the powerful. Amos cites the corruption of Israel legal processes. While the king served as chief justice in his realm, ordinary courts were made up of respected citizens in any town. This court sat at the gate of the city and heard the testimony of those involved. According to God’s precept, the judges were to “decide between [the litigants], acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty” and prescribing punishment if necessary (Deuteronomy 25:1).

Of Israel’s many offenses against His Law, the Lord singles out the perversion of justice. The clearest test of moral attitudes would present itself when one of the parties in a legal case was a widow, an orphan, or a foreigner. Such persons had no one to defend them from injustice. The judges had to take particular care to give their decision. God’s Law also included explicit warnings against letting money talk in court, one way or the other. Fairness and the law should guide the judges; they should favor neither the poor nor the rich in their decisions (Exodus 23:3, 6). “You shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the clearsighted and subverts the cause of those who are in the right” (Exodus 23:8).

Our silence is sin when we do not speak for those who have no voice—the unborn, the elderly, the child, the refugee, the poor, the disenfranchised, those who are shouted down by the most vocal, radical opponents, those who suffer for the name of Jesus. Our silence is sin when we don’t warn of the dangers false teaching and worry more about what someone will say or think about us than the many precious souls who are be led away from our Savior. Our silence is sin when we water down our teaching or we fail to speak the truth in love for sake of “just getting along” nice and to prevent our own discomfort.

Every age will produce a multitude of people who see evil, know it is wrong, but fear man more than God and remain silent rather than speak out. Such was the case in Nazi Germany. Martin Niemöller, a Lutheran pastor held for seven years in concentration camps for speaking out against Hitler and his regime is famously quoted as saying of his own failure to speak out initially:  

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

The simple fact is that most people will duck for cover and silently watch as they wait for someone else to speak out in the midst of evil. At most, they will privately tell the one who does speak, “I agree with you,” but will risk nothing. Our silence may seem “prudent” from the perspective of personal safety and benefit, but by it we stand condemned by the Law of God. Now is not the time for silence but for repentance!

Amos preaches repentance while he warns of a judgment to come. True repentance, really seeking the Lord, will be accompanied by fruits. The person who seeks the Lord will “seek good, not evil” (Amos 5:14). To say with our mouths “The Lord is with us” is a false and empty claim unless our hearts love His will.

God breaks the silence through His prophets. Amos was just one of many. Some we know by what they wrote and some by what they said. Some we do not know at all, as their voices have since been lost to history. But their united voice speaks to all generations, and it is a voice that calls us also to repentance and to mourn when our silence is sin in the face of evil.

Two thousand years ago, it seemed as if those voices of the prophets had been forever stilled. For four hundred years, since the prophet Malachi, silence had seemed to reign. And then there came “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” who spoke clearly and directly as the antithesis of modern “people skills.” “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come?” Here was one who was not “prudent” and who did not keep silent in such a time, for it was an evil time. And it cost him big time. He literally lost his head for it when he dared to criticize the powers that be.

And yet it was the same John who pointed to another and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” And indeed, that Lamb was the One who spoke through all the Prophets. Now He, the One who is mightier than even the great prophet Moses, would speak. We see Him cleansing the temple of a den of thieves. We see Him challenging the pretentious self-righteousness of Pharisee, Sadducee, and priest alike. We see Him bring justice to those who are oppressed, wholeness to those who are broken, hope to those who suffer.

Jesus was no silent observer of an evil time. Oh, He could be silent, to be sure. He stood before His accusers and was silent like a lamb led to the slaughter. But to be led to the slaughter is why He had come.

He came to speak the Truth, and that Truth is Himself. He came to redeem all of us who trade the truth for our own safety. He came to be lifted high on the cross, mocked, beaten, wounded, and hated for the Truth that He Himself is. He came to cry out, “It is finished!” He came to die and enter a tomb. He came to rise from the dead to bring His peace to His disciples—even the very ones who had scattered and hidden in silence when the going got tough.

Truth cannot be held back by anything, not even death. The message of the resurrection continues to break the silence of every evil time. It breaks through the silence that would condemn us all with the astounding news that because Jesus  lives, we, too, shall live.

Listen for the voice that breaks the sin of silence in your life. The Holy Spirit delivers the blessings of Jesus’ death and resurrection through Word and Sacrament. Hear Jesus in the words once spoken over you, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Hear Jesus as you kneel and receive Him in the Supper, “This is My body… this is My blood, given and shed for you.” And finally, hear Jesus in His absolution, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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