Amos, The Prophet of Justice
I. The Man By many Amos is supposed to be the earliest prophet whose writings have come down to us. If so, then his book is the oldest volume of “sermons” extant! Be that as it may, he is one of the most forceful preachers of repentance and judgment of all the prophets of the Old Testament. As Cornill keenly observes, “Amos is one of the most wonderful appearances in the history of the human spirit.” His name, however, which signifies “burden” or “burden-bearer”, should be carefully distinguished from “Amoz,” the father of Isaiah, as the spelling in Hebrew differs. Like Elijah, and Luther, and other religious reformers, he was both the product and representative of his age. Stern, fearless, self-contained, a man of granite-make, he possessed a powerful well-knit mind and a vivid imagination, and is one of the most arresting figures ever on the stage of Hebrew history. He was not only the first of the prophets who wrote down what he preached, but the pioneer of a new era.
II. His Home and Early Occupation Reared on the edge of the desert, twelve miles south of Jerusalem “among the herdsmen of Tekoa” (1:1), he was a rustic, like Micah; and, because his father’s name is nowhere mentioned, it is inferred that he probably sprang from a poor and obscure family. He was a shepherd, and, therefore, a natural-born preacher! He raised a peculiar breed of stunted, fine-wooled sheep (as the Hebrew word, noked, in 1:1, when assisted by the Arabic cognate, implies), a breed small in size, and ugly in appearance, but highly esteemed on account of their wool; and he describes himself as also “a dresser of sycamore trees” (7 :14). Thus, he lived close to nature. In the desolate districts of Judah sloping rapidly toward the Dead Sea eastward, where wild beasts often lurked, doubtless he had often studied the stars, observed the moon’s changing phases, and marveled at the full-orbed sun as it rose over the distant ranges of Moab. Constantly breathing the keen fresh air of the desert, and often climbing to the peaks of the loftiest heights, he lived, as G. A. Smith expresses it, “in the face of wide horizons, the landscape of the desert becoming sacraments of the divine presence.” His occupation naturally carried him to the wool markets of the northern cities. There he would become acquainted with the life and religion of the people. Though he was untutored, having lived as a shepherd in the isolated and desert regions of Tekoa, yet being by birth a morally noble, healthy and vigorous yeoman, like John the Baptist who spent most of his years in the same wilderness, he developed into a religious reformer, and, eventually, became supremely concerned for the rights of God, and for justice.
III. His Call to Preach Amos had no special, professional, or formal preparation to preach; he was educated rather in the school of vigilance. By inheritance he was neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son; that is, he belonged to no established guild, such as “the sons of the prophets.” On the contrary, Jehovah took him, he says, “from following the flock,” and said unto him, “Go prophesy unto my people Israel” (7:14-15). There, in the lonely wilderness, perhaps “under the terror of a storm,” as Bertholet suggests, the shadow fell upon his soul which made him aware of God’s coming judgments, and forced him to lift up his voice in lamentation over his people (5:1). Such rustics, when called from the open life of the country to the feverish atmosphere of the city, become often experts in society, bringing with them “facts into politics and vision into religion.” His mission was particularly to North Israel. Accordingly, he repaired to Bethel, twelve miles north of Jerusalem, and there under the very shadow of the royal palace lifted up his voice in a vigorous and impassioned cry for justice.
IV. His Period The title to his prophecies defines his period as “in the days of Uzziah king of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash king of Israel, two years before the earthquake” (1:1) . These statements are, in general, amply confirmed by the contents of the prophecy (6:13; 7:11). The date of the earthquake, however, is somewhat uncertain. But it must have been one of unusual severity, as it is alluded to by Zechariah, who preached more than two hundred years later (Zech. 14:5). A total eclipse of the sun seems to have accompanied it (supposed to be referred to in 8:9), which astronomers have calculated as having taken place June 15, 763 B. C. This would fix the prophet’s date as somewhere about 760 B. C. This was the golden age of North Israel, the high water mark of their national prosperity. Jeroboam II was then upon the throne. He was a strong king. He ruled over a very large extent of territory, as Jonah had predicted he would (II Kings 14:25). But unfortunately, though there was much wealth in the nation, there was little wisdom. Feasting and banquets took the place of religious endeavor. A spirit of greed ruled society. Corruption of justice was a common sin. Might became right. Land seizure was an everyday crime. The landlords had all the legal machinery at their command to oppress. The result was that the rich became richer and the poor became poorer. With scornful indifference men lived “at ease in Zion” (6:1). Love of luxury prevailed, as prior to the downfall of Rome, and the breaking out of the French Revolution. Religion lost all its vitality, and morals were completely ignored. Insincerity and dishonesty, corruption and licentiousness, criminal extravagance and blind assurance took such a firm hold of the wealthy, arrogant voluptuaries, that they became heathen in everything but name. No wonder that the prophet of the wilderness was shocked beyond endurance and that he indignantly pronounces doom upon the nation. The only surprise is that he did not condemn the calves at Bethel and at Dan, and announce by name the agent of their destruction. Strange, he never mentions Assyria!
V. His Literary Style �Though one of the earliest, perhaps the first of the writing prophets, as we have seen, there is nothing crude, unfinished, or unrefined about his style. On the contrary he is the author of the purest and most classical Hebrew in the entire Old Testament. Jerome describes him as imperitus sermone, sed non scientia, “rude in speech but not in knowledge”; but, among the Hebrews, the best writing is an unaffected transcript of the best speaking. And so it ought to be always and everywhere. Jewish tradition accused him of having had an impediment in his speech, but such a tradition is not justified by the prophet’s speech. Amos was an orator. His style is grave, measured, and rhetorical. He uses brief uninvolved sentences, and often indulges in questions, apostrophes, and exclamations; he understands the power of repetition, and has enriched his message with varied imagery, and bucolic figures derived from nature, of which perforce he was an ardent and constant student. For example, he exhorts Israel to “seek him that maketh the Pleiades and Orion,” (5:8), and admonishes them that they shall be rescued from the enemy “as a shepherd rescueth out of the mouth of the lion two legs, or a piece of an ear” (3:12). And he constantly employs as metaphors and symbols the implements of rural life, such as threshing instruments (1:13), harvest carts (2:13), plowing and oxen (6 :12), baskets of summer fruit (8:1), sieves (9:9), the gin and the snare (3:5), fishhooks (4:2) ; and he, also, speaks of plowmen and reapers, of sowers and grape-treaders (9:13), of gardens and vineyards (4:9), of locusts and earthquakes (1:1; 7:1; 8:8; 9:5); so that his vocabulary and style are conspicuously those of Oriental homeliness, and especially of the wilderness. His sentences are regular, well-balanced and flowing, even rising at times to lyrical outbursts of poetic delineation; they are characterized by even paronomasia and rhythm. Quite possibly, after he had preached at Bethel, he returned to Tekoa, and wrote down his prophecies in a book.
VI. The Essence of his Message Samaria delenda est, “Samaria must be destroyed!” This is the essence of his book. The nation is ripe for judgment. Amos is the first of the prophets to declare the doom of North Israel. On a high feast day at Bethel he opened his lamentation, crying, “The virgin of Israel is fallen; she shall no more rise” (5:2). That was the funeral dirge of the nation Serious and grave indeed was the situation. The day of Israel’s doom was come: the Day of Jehovah! He took up this idea where Joel had left off: beginning, “Jehovah will roar from Zion and utter his voice from Jerusalem” (1:2). It was a day of national revelation! With unparalleled audacity, Amos announced to the people, lulled and dulled with prosperity, the results which must inevitably follow when religion is divorced from morality; enunciating with greatest emphasis and unprecedented clarity the doctrine, “Nothing can be good in Him, which evil is in me!” The causes for such judgment were patent: wealth and luxury, frivolity and corruption, opulence and oppression, summer and winter palaces, ivory couches, songs of revelry and wine, these were enough to convince the clear-headed prophet of the desert that there was left but one course for Providence; besides, there were specific crimes still more culpable and worthy of censure: namely, victimizing the poor, confiscating their garments for debt, unbridled licentiousness even under the cloak of religion, hypocritical tithing, and hollow Sabbath-observance, even pilgrimages to far distant shrines, these and other evils made the sensitive soul of Amos so to burn with indignation that he could not do otherwise than lift up his voice in protestation. He discovered moral unsoundness everywhere, and he was clearly and overwhelmingly convinced that Jehovah had appointed him the corrector morum of his age. His message, therefore, was a gospel, but it was the gospel of law and not of grace!
VII. The Analysis and Contents of His Book His prophecies fall naturally into three divisions:
A. Chapters 1-2, a series of eight formal judgments on Israel and their neighbors: thus, eight times over expressed, “For three transgressions and for four I will not turn away the punishment of,
1. Damascus, for threshing Gilead, (1:3-5)
2. Gaza, for delivering captives to Edom (1:6-8)
3. Tyre, also, for delivering captives to Edom (1:9-10)
4. Edom, for pursuing his brother without pity (1:11-12)
5. Ammon, for cruelty to Gilead (1:13-15)
6. Moab, for burning the bones of the king of Edom to lime (2:1-3)
7. Judah, for rejecting the law of Jehovah (2:4-5)
8. Israel, for selling “the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes” (2:6-16), the whole series teaching the fundamental principles of Biblical sociology, namely, (1) the universal sovereignty of God; (2) the sin of inhumanity; and (3) the moral responsibility of all mankind. Amos was the first prophet of the Hebrews to preach internationalism; that there is such a thing as international morality!
B. Chapters 3-6, three discourses of threatening and doom, each one beginning with the exhortation, “Hear ye this word” (3:1; 4:1; 5:1) , all three strongly minatory:
1. Jehovah’s choice of Israel conditional (chap.3), the greatest chapter in the book!
2. A warning to the Ladies of Samaria, who are inexcusably thoughtless, selfish, and cruel (chap.4; cf. Isaiah 3:16 ff.); for, in spite of repeated admonitions: (a) famine (vs.6); (b) drought (vs. 7-8); (c) blasting and mildew (vs. 9); (d) pestilence and sword (vs.10); and (e) earthquake (vs. 11), they have not returned unto Jehovah. Therefore, shouts the prophet, “Prepare to meet thy God 0 Israel!” (vs. 12).
3. An elegy over the nation, whose recovery is impossible (chaps. 5-6) ; because (a) they spurn righteousness (5:7) ; (b) hate reproof (5 :10); (c) court recklessly the day of reckoning (5:18); (d) reduce religion to formal ritual (5:21); and (e) scorn the divine entreaties “to seek Jehovah and live (5: 4, 6, 14). Whereupon, the prophet pronounces a double woe upon Israel and their princes: “they shall go into captivity and their palaces shall be destroyed” (6:7, 8, 11).
C. Chapters 7-9. A series of five visions, interrupted by the priest of Bethel (7:10-17), and ending with an epilogue of hope and comfort (9:7-15)
1. A vision of locusts (7:1-3)
2. A vision of devouring fire (7:4-6)
3. A vision of the plumb line of rectitude (7:7-9).
At this point Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, challenges the prophet’s right to fulminate thus vehemently against the house of king Jeroboam; whereupon, Amos boldly repudiates the priest’s charge of prophesying for a living, and claims that his inspiration is independent of all artificial training in the schools; hence, he daringly defies both him and the king! (7:10-17). By this incident, one is reminded of John Knox, and the motto which is still to be found inscribed, close beneath the ceiling, on the four walls of his “study” in High Street, Edinburgh: it reads, “I am in the place where conscience bids me speak the truth, therefore, the truth I speak, impugn it who so list!”
4. A vision of a basket of summer fruit (k?yitz); Jehovah responding, “The end (k?tz) is come!” (8:1-14). Note the pun which Amos puts into Jehovah’s mouth!
5. A vision of the smitten sanctuary (9:1-6); the people being pictured as buried under the ruins of their false religion. The book concludes with a promise of restoration, a paragraph of singular beauty, both hopeful and comforting, assuring Israel that the nation shall be sifted and a remnant ultimately restored (9:7-15).
VIII. The Permanent Value of His Message to Us In these brief sermons of the prophet may be found certain great fundamental truths of special eternal worth : for example,
1. Amos vindicates the moral personality of God, emphasizing that the essence of the divine nature is absolute righteousness. For a long time it has been the fashion to see in Amos the creator of ethical monotheism; but, as Sellin observes, “that is an error. He was only the deepest, the most uncompromising and most eloquent herald of a truth that had long been known.” It was Amos’ mission to interpret Jehovah as a God of righteousness. He does not attempt to give either a system of theology or a treatise on moral philosophy, but he does seek to awaken Israel’s conscience by pointing to the absolute righteousness of Jehovah. For, the God of Amos is not only all-powerful and international; he is also ethical and spiritual. The prophet’s three apostrophes to Jehovah are especially majestic and noteworthy (4:13; 5:8; 9:5, 6).
2. Amos also taught that the most elaborate worship, if insincere, is but an insult to God: “I hate, I despise, your feasts, and I will take no delight in your solemn assemblies” (5:21); and, “Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols” (5:23). Such words are eloquent to generations far beyond the age in which they were spoken. Many a modern Christian seems to be unable to conceive of salvation apart from the sacraments and ceremonies of his own church. Amos taught Israel that religion means much more than mere worship, and that it is not the smoke of the burnt offering that is acceptable to God, but the incense of a true and loyal heart.
3. And he further taught that there must be social justice between man and man: “Let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream” (5:24). The great mission of Amos was essentially that of a reformer whose work is to sweep away abuses, to overthrow established evils, and thus to prepare for a reconstruction, which necessarily he must leave to others. Of such the world has constant need. The great passion of the prophet’s soul was for social justice. To him this was a fundamental postulate of society. Hence, he urged the inexorable character of the moral law (2:6-8). Morality was the one necessity of Israel. God’s requirements are always moral. Moral issues determine the course of history. By such preaching Amos lighted a social candle in Israel that has never been, indeed, never can be, extinguished. His whole message serves as a most fitting prelude to James’ definition of religion: “Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).
4. Another great truth taught by Amos is the fact that privilege involves responsibility: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore, I will visit upon you all your iniquities (3: 2). Election to privilege is consequently only another name for election to duty!
5. And another is the meaning and purpose of calamity: “I have given you want of bread, yet have ye not returned unto me, saith Jehovah” (4:6 ff.). Every disaster is but a new call to repentance (cf. Luke 13:1-5).
6. And another, that warning is never obsolete. This great truth is taught practically throughout the entire book. There is a gospel in Amos, but it is
“the gospel of the Lion’s Roar!”
7. And, still another lesson is, The necessity of personal conviction in a prophet (7:14, 15). Religion is a personal matter; likewise conviction; it cannot be inherited!
8. Finally, the book of Amos has special historical value: being the oldest of the prophetic writings which is undisputed, it becomes an important witness to the religious beliefs current in Israel during the eighth century B.C. Amos not only recognized the moral precepts of Jehovah as binding upon Israel (5:21-27), but he judges Israel by a broad moral standard which he regards as binding upon all nations. It was by teachings such as these that he influenced the prophets who succeeded him, Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
IX. Special Passages of Peculiar Interest:
1. “Shall two walk together except they have agreed” (3:3)! This passage is especially Oriental. As is well known, in the East it is dangerous to travel through deep wadies and over rugged mountain roads, with unknown, untried, and possibly inimical companions.
2. “Surely the Lord Jehovah will do nothing, except he reveal his secret unto his servants the prophets” (3:7). There is, accordingly, an esoteric element in all true preaching. God whispers his secrets to those who are willing to “speak for” him!
3. “Did ye bring unto me sacrifices and offerings in the wilderness forty years, 0 house of Israel?” (5:25). The implication is that they did not; the reason being that from the prophet’s point of view, “to obey is better than sacrifice” (cf. I Sam. 5:22).
4. “Woe to them that are at ease in Zion” (6:1). Carlyle remarks that “Socrates was terribly at ease”!
5. “That they may possess (yrshu) the remnant of Edom (dhm), and all the nations that are called by my name” (9:12). Through slight changes, almost infinitesimal in the Hebrew, the Septuagint translators (c. 250 B.C.) rendered this passage: “That the residue of men (dhm) may
seek after (ydrshu) the Lord” (these last two words being supplied as a necessary object to the transitive verb “seek”); and so it is quoted by James at the Council in Jerusalem, A.D. 50 (Acts 15:17). This passage is especially interesting as an outstanding example in textual criticism.
6. “Behold the days come, saith Jehovah, that the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him that soweth seed” (9:13). In this one sentence Amos condenses the gist of his hope for the future; and though the picture is wholly materialistic, it is a classical expression of the Messianic kingdom, for which Israel longed, in all its outward glory and grandeur.