The scope of these verses is to show how little God valued their shows of devotion, nay, how much he detested them, while they went on in their sins. Observe,
I. How unpleasing, nay, how displeasing, their hypocritical services were to God. They had their feast-days at Bethel, in imitation of those at Jerusalem, in which they pretended to rejoice before God. They had their solemn assemblies for religious worship, in which they put on the gravity of those who come before God as his people come, and sit before him as his people sit. They offered to God burnt-offerings, to the honour of God, together with the meat-offerings which by the law were to be offered with them; they offered the peace-offerings, to implore the favour of God, and they offered them of the fat beasts that they had, Amos 5:21, 22. In imitation likewise of the temple-music, they had the noise of their songs and the melody of their viols (Amos 5:23), vocal and instrumental music, with which they praised God. With these services they hoped to make God amends for the sins they had committed, and to obtain leave to go on in sin; and therefore they were so far from being acceptable to God that they were abominable. He hated, he despised, their feast-days, not only despised them as no valuable services done to him, but hated them as an affront and provocation to him, as we hate to see men dissemble with us, pretend a respect for us when really they have none. Nothing more hateful, more despicable, than hypocrisy. He that blesseth his friend with a loud voice, it shall be counted a curse, when it appears that his heart is not with him. God will not smell in their solemn assemblies, for there is nothing in them that is grateful to him, but a great deal that is offensive. Their sacrifices are not to him of a sweet smelling savour, as Noah’s was, Gen. 8:21. He will not accept them; he will not regard them, will not take any notice of them; he will not hear the melody of their viols; for, when sin is a jar in the harmony, it grates in his ears: “Take it away,” says God, “I cannot bear it.” Now this intimates, 1. That sacrifice itself is of small account with God in comparison with moral duties; to love God and our neighbour is better than all burnt offering and sacrifice. 2. That the sacrifice of the wicked is really an abomination to him, Prov. 15:8. Dissembled piety is double iniquity, and so it will be found when, if any place in hell be hotter than another, that will be the hypocrite’s portion.
II. What it was that he required in order to the acceptableness of their sacrifices and without which no sacrifice would be acceptable (Amos 5:24): Let judgment run down as waters, among you, and righteousness as a mighty stream, that is 1. “Let there be a general reformation of manners among you; let religion (God’s judgment) and righteousness have their due influence upon you; let your land be watered with it, and let it bear down all the opposition of vice and profaneness; let it run wide as overflowing waters, and yet run strong as might stream.” (2.) “In particular, let justice be duly administered by magistrates and rulers; let not the current of it be stopped by partiality and bribery, but let it come freely as waters do, in the natural course; let it be pure as running waters, not muddied with corruption or whatever may pervert justice; let it run like a might stream, and not suffer itself to be obstructed, or its course retarded, by the fear of man; let all have free access to it as a common stream, and have benefit by it as trees planted by the rivers of waters.” The great thing laid to Israel’s charge was turning judgment into wormwood (Amos 5:7); in that matter therefore they must reform, Zech. 7:9. This was what God desired more than sacrifices, Hos. 6:6; 1 Sam. 15:22.
III. What little stress God had laid upon the law of sacrifices, though it was his own law, in comparison with the moral precepts (Amos 5:25): “Did you offer unto me sacrifices in the wilderness forty years? No, you did not.” For the greatest part of that time sacrifice was very much neglected, because of the unsettledness of their state; after the second year, the passover was not kept till they came into Canaan, and other institutions were in like manner intermitted; and yet, because God will have mercy and not sacrifice, he never imputed the omission to them as their fault, but continued his care of them and kindness to them: it was not that, but their murmuring and unbelief, for which God was displeased with them. He that so owned his people, though they did not sacrifice, when in other things they kept close to him, will certainly disown them, though they do sacrifice, if in other things they depart from him. But, though ritual sacrifices may thus be dispensed with, spiritual sacrifices will not; even justice and honesty will not excuse for the want of prayer and praise, a broken heart and the love of God. Stephen quotes this passage (Acts 7:42), to show the Jews that they ought not to think it strange that ceremonial law was repealed when from the beginning it was comparatively made light of. Compare Jer. 7:22, 23.
IV. What little reason they had to expect that their sacrifices should be acceptable to God, when they and their fathers had been all along addicted to the worship of other gods. So some take Amos 5:25; “Did you offer to me sacrifices, that is, to me only? No, and therefore not at all to me acceptably;” for the law of worshipping the Lord our God is, Him only we must serve. “But you have borne the tabernacle of your Moloch (Amos 5:26), little shrines that you made to carry about with you, pocket-idols for your private superstition, when you durst not be seen to do it publicly. You have had the images of your Moloch—your king” (probably representing the sun, that sits king among the heavenly bodies), “and Chiun, or Remphan” (as Stephen calls it, Acts 7:43; after the LXX.), which it is supposed, represented Saturn, the highest of the seven planets. The worship of the sun, moon, and stars, was the most ancient, most general, and most plausible idolatry. They made to themselves the star of their God, some particular star which they took to be their god, or the name of which they gave to their god. This idolatry Israel was from the beginning prone to (Deut. 4:19); and those that retain an affection for false gods cannot expect the favour of the true God.
V. What punishment God would inflict upon them for their persisting in idolatry (Amos 5:27): I will cause you to go into captivity beyond Damascus. They were led captive by Satan into idolatry, and therefore God caused them to go into captivity among idolaters, and hurried them into a strange land, since they were so fond of strange gods. They were carried beyond Damascus. Their captivity by the Assyrians was far beyond that by the Syrians; for, if less judgments do not work that for which they were sent, God will send greater. Or the captivity of Israel under Shalmaneser was far beyond that of Damascus under Tiglath-pileser, and much more grievous and destructive, which was foretold Amos 1:5. For, as the sins of God’s professing people are greater than the sins of others, so it may be expected that their punishments will be proportionable. We find the spoil of Damascus and that of Samaria carried off together by the king of Assyria, Isa. 8:4. Stephen reads it, I will carry you away beyond Babylon (Acts 7:43), further than Judah shall be carried, so far further as not to return. And, to make this sentence appear both the more certain and the more dreadful, he that passes it calls himself the Lord, whose name is, The God of hosts, and who is therefore able to execute the sentence, having hosts at command.