Psalm 140:1–6; Amos 6,7; Revelation 9:12–21

Originally published 12/08/2017. Revised and updated 12/07/2019.

Psalm 140:1–6: This David psalm of supplication has a certain formulaic quality about it. It’s at a high level of abstraction that does not really reveal much about the psalmist nor the precise nature of the threats he faces. The same goes for his enemies who are violent, plot evil, are troublemakers, and speak lies. Nevertheless there’s some vivid imagery and similes:
Free me, Lord, from evil folk,
from a violent man preserve me.
Who plot evil in their heart,
each day stir up battles.
They sharpen their tongue like a serpent,
venom of spiders beneath their lip. (2-4)

Frankly, this description could apply to any number of contemporary politicians, tweeters, and cable news hosts.

Having described his plight, our psalmist turns to God asking for protection, explaining that he is apparently the object of a conspiracy. While we can be pretty sure that David himself did not write this psalm, perhaps the psalmist is referring to a specific political plot by some court official or military leader that was directed against him. The metaphor of a net covering a trap in the woods is particularly striking. It’s certainly a hazard that would have been well known to the shepherd who became Israel’s greatest king:

Guard me, Lord, from the wicked man’s hands,
from a violent man preserve me,
who plots to trip up my steps.
The haughty laid down a trap for me,
and with cord spread out a net.
Alongside the path they set snares for me.

This psalm is certainly proof that conspiracies are as old as humankind and as contemporary as the political scheming we see around us daily.

Amos 6,7: In what could easily be a description of modern American culture, Amos chastises the self indulgence and consequent unawareness that doom awaits in the very near future. Nor is it impossible to see Amos’s words as being directed against the infamous “1%” of his time—and applicable to ours:
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. (6:4-7)

The sin of these indolent folks is always the same: pride that has corrupted justice, which as always they have corrupted to their personal advantage:
Do horses run on rocks?
    Does one plow the sea with oxen?
But you have turned justice into poison
    and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood—
you who rejoice in Lo-debar,
    who say, “Have we not by our own strength
    taken Karnaim  for ourselves? (6:12, 13)

Their reckoning comes in the next chapter—and where we can see some of John’s source material for his book of Revelation. Being John of course, his version is far more embellished than Amos’s rather straightforward descriptions.

First, there are locusts: “This is what the Lord God showed me: he was forming locusts at the time the latter growth began to sprout (it was the latter growth after the king’s mowings).” (7:1) Then there is fire: “This is what the Lord God showed me: the Lord God was calling for a shower of fire, and it devoured the great deep and was eating up the land.” (7:4)

God’s third object lesson is one we don’t see in Revelation: “This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand.” (7:7a) God goes on to tell Amos,
See, I am setting a plumb line
    in the midst of my people Israel;
    I will never again pass them by;
the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
    and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
    and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.” (7:7b, 8)

So, why a plumb line metaphor? I think the answer is pretty obvious, God is measuring Israel against his Covenantal standard and Israel is severely out of alignment. Hence God’s loss of patience and his threat to destroy the nation.

We suddenly arrive at narrative rather than poetry. It seems that a certain Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, complains about Amos to King Jeroboam of Israel, accusing him of conspiracy because of his prophecy that Jeroboam will die. Amaziah advises Amos to “flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there.” (7:12)

But Amos denies that he’s a prophet, but is  only “a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees,” chosen by God seemingly at random to go prophesy to Israel. Then, Amos uncorks a devastating prophecy about Amaziah himself:
Therefore thus says the Lord:
‘Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city,
    and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
    and your land shall be parceled out by line;
you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
    and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.’ (7:17)

Unfortunately, Amaziah’s reply is not recorded. But then again, perhaps he was left speechless. I know I would be… Give Amos credit where it’s due: he certainly spoke truth to power.

 : As if it were not already obvious, John interrupts his narrative to tell of “The first woe has passed. There are still two woes to come.” (12) Oh, good. I can hardly wait…

The sixth trumpet blast releases four bound angels, who we assume are agents of Satan, “who had been held ready for the hour, the day, the month, and the year, to kill a third of humankind. ” (15) The means of all this destruction is an army of 200 million (16). John, who seems rather obsessed by horses, doubtless because he had seen the Roman cavalry, describes the horses and riders of this army in grotesque detail: “the riders wore breastplates the color of fire and of sapphire and of sulfur; the heads of the horses were like lions’ heads, and fire and smoke and sulfur came out of their mouths.” (17)

The creative contrast of sapphire to sulphur is one of those places where we can only shake our heads in wonder at the imaginative details of John’s apocalyptic vision. The OT prophets Joel and Amos look absolutely boring by comparison.

The army is impressive, but once again it’s the horses that capture John’s imagination as the true agents of destruction: “For the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails; their tails are like serpents, having heads; and with them they inflict harm.” (19) Perhaps John had witnessed a battle, perhaps even Titus’s conquest of Jerusalem that had pitted the power of the Roman cavalry against the hapless, unarmed civilian population.

Then, in another echo of the OT prophets, John observes that the destruction of a third of humankind apparently did not phase those who remained: “The rest of humankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands or give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk.” (20) This is certainly an echo of Joel and Amos who’s prophecies were basically shouting into the wind.

At first read this may seem incredible. But then all we need to do is think about the present: how we go on with our quotidian lives even as other people in far off nations are the victims horrors almost beyond imagining.  John is simply describing fallen human nature—thus it has ever been and ever will be until the end of history.

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