The Ministry of Amos
Trevor E. Dowen, Cardiff
Amos had a message to get across. His name indicated his burden over the sin of Israel. 'To bear a load' meant that something urgently needed attention. His words describe what he was trying to convey. 'But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream', 5. 24.
The ministry of Amos occurred during the latter part of the reign of Jeroboam II, 782-753 B.C. This arrogant idolatrous sovereign ruled Israel at the same time as Uzziah (Azariah) ruled Judah from the throne of David in Jerusalem, 791-740 B.C.
Around 760 B.C. an economic boom was taking place. People were living luxuriously and immorally. Idolatry was rampant. The poor were oppressed. Worship was formal and degrading. Nations were steeped in superstition. Amos was impelled to speak out against these sins, especially against apostasy from the word of God to the worship of idols.
Although he was called to be a prophet to the whole house of Jacob, 3. 1, 13, he was chiefly concerned with the Northern Kingdom, 7. 14, 15. The main sanctuary was at Bethel, 7. 10. The High Priest Amaziah opposed Amos and reported his fearless preaching to Jeroboam, 7.10, 13. It seems that after his return to Tekoa, Amos wrote more than he preached. A contemporary of Hosea, he was born in Judah. God had clearly sent him, taking him as he followed the flock and telling him to prophesy to Israel, 7, 14, 15.
Amos foretold chastisement from the Lord. Assyria was to be the Lord's scourge. He did not actually name this foreign invader but gave clear indications, as history has proved. He prophesied disaster but did not use the language of the politicians. Knowing that man could not live by bread alone, he did not insult the people with pleasantries but proclaimed, 'Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord: And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it', 8.11,12.
The time of the message is referred to as 'two years before the earthquake'. This earthquake seems to have been unusually severe for it is mentioned by Zechariah, 14. 4, 5, more than two hundred years later. Amos related his message to that of Joel, 3. 16 by stating, 'The Lord will roar from Zion', that is against Israel. Joel however puts it for Israel against her enemies.
Judgement was about to fall upon Israel. The habitations (pastures) of the shepherds in the south would mourn and the top of Carmel in the north would wither. The whole land was included. It was a general destruction. Amos saw beyond the boundaries of his native land. Embracing past, present and future in his messages he tactfully denounced Israel's foes, 1. 2-13, 21. This won him a hearing. He went on to speak of the sin of Judah, 2. 4, and finally pointed out the sin of Israel, 3.1.
Amos put God first. 'The Lord will roar from Zion'. Frequently he used the words, 'Thus saith the Lord'. His use of 'Yahweh', the personal name by which God as supreme was known to the Hebrews, indicated that he was convinced of God's self-consistency and unchangeableness. He believed that God would, and does, keep His promises and is 'the same yesterday, and today, and forever'. The word 'roar', 1.2, suggests the figure of a lion. A sound of pending destruction was heard by the prophet from Zion. Jehovah's voice was compared with rolling thunder, Psa. 18. 13.
A pastoral scene around Tekoa was depicted. The words 'shall mourn' are poetic, but nevertheless real, and describe destruction and desolation. The top of Carmel', 1.2, showed the spreading northward sweep to the thickly wooded headland of Carmel, the garden land. In 9. 3, the words alluded to a hiding place. Isaiah 35. 2 refers to the majesty of Carmel. The effects of Jehovah's thunderpeal caused 'the heavens and the earth' to shake, Joel 3.16.
Damascus was first to be denounced, 1.3. As capital of a powerful Aramaean city-state which harassed Israel (900-780 B.C.), especially under Benha-dad (880-842 B.C.) and Hazael (842-806 B.C.), the words 'for three transgressions and for four' were applicable. The measure of guilt was not merely full, but overflowing with sin upon sin, more than enough. Hazael, the usurper, threshed Gilead in Transjordan. God replied, 'I will break also the bar of Damascus', 1.5. This referred to the bar of its gates. 'The palaces of Benhadad' were the fortresses or strongholds of Benhadad II, the son of Hazael, 1. 4. The 'house of Eden' was Beth-eden, 1.5.
Gaza was next to be denounced, 1.6. Gaza represented Philistia. Ashdod, Ashkelon and Ekron were judged, having sold the Israelites, an entire captivity population, to Edom, 2 Chron. 21. 16, 17; Joel 3. 4-8. The Philistines were the old troublesome enemies of Israel. Four representative cities are mentioned. Their sin was that they trafficked slaves with Edom. Gaza was the centre for slave traffic. The Philistines sold a portion of prisoners to the Edomites and the remainder to the Phoenicians, who in turn sold them to the Greeks. It seemed profitable to Israel's enemies to make merchandise of God's people. God's reaction was unmistakable, 'But I will send fire on the wall of Gaza, which shall devour the palaces', 1.7. He also added, 'And I will cut off the inhabitant from Ashdod, and him that holdeth the sceptre from Ashkelon, and I will turn mine hand against Ekron; and the remnant of the Philistines shall perish, saith the Lord God', 1.8.
The third denunciation was upon Tyre, 1. 9, the representative and most important city of Phoenicia whose crime was similar to that of the Philistines, the selling of prisoners of war as slaves and much inhuman cruelty against Israel, 1. 9, 10. The Tyrians forgot the treaty entered into between King Hiram of Tyre and David and Solomon three hundred years previously. Amos not only censured the wrongs perpetrated against Israel but defended and vindicated the common rights of humanity. God's reply was 'But I will send a fire on the wall of Tyre, which shall devour the palaces thereof, 1. 10; 2 Sam. 5.11.
Fourthly, Edom was denounced, 1. 11, 12. Edom and Israel are often spoken of as 'brethren', Deut. 2. 4; 23. 7; Gen. 27. 40, 41. Edom suppressed and stifled the natural, instinctive regard towards a brother. 'Because he did pursue his brother with the sword, and did cast off all pity, and his anger did tear perpetually, and he kept his wrath for ever'. 'But I will send a fire upon Teman (Tawilan S.E. of Sela/Petra.), which shall devour the palaces of Bozrah (north of central Edom)'.
The fifth denunciation was upon Ammon, 1.13. Its capital city was Rabbah, Deut. 3. 11. Ptolemy Philadelphus of Egypt named it Philadelphia. In the Middle Ages it became Amman as it is today. Situated about twenty-five miles north-east of the northern end of the Dead Sea it is at the upper course of the Jabbok(Wady Amman), 1. 13-15.
The ravaging atrocities against Gilead by these barbaric Ammonites were carried out in cold blood simply to enlarge their territory at the expense of their Israelite neighbours. They were of course descendants of Lot, Abraham's nephew, Gen. 19. 38. Jeremiah prophesied against them, Jer. 49.3. The Lord through Amos declared, 'But I will kindle a fire in the wall of Rabbah, and it shall devour the palaces thereof, with shouting in the day of battle, with a tempest in the day of the whirlwind: And their king shall go into captivity, he and his princes together, saith the Lord', 1. 14. 15.
Moab received the sixth denunciation, 2. 1. God was indignant. Moab's climactic sin was the burning of the bones of the king of Edom into lime. This was a mark of unrelenting hatred. The wicked Moabites pursued their fallen enemy even into the rest afforded by the grave. The sanctity of the tomb was violated. Bones were removed and treated with shocking indignity. See also Josiah, 2 Kings 23. 16-18. God saw this and said, 'But I will send a fire upon Moab, and it shall devour the palaces of Kerioth: and Moab shall die with tumult, with shouting, and with the sound of trumpet: And I will cut off the judge from the midst thereof, and will slay all the princes thereof with him, saith the Lord', 2.2,3.
Judah was the seventh to be denounced, 2. 4, 5. Judah was as guilty as the surrounding nations. Punishment was due for deliberate sin against the revealed will of God. They had 'despised the law of the Lord'. His commandments were not kept. They had hardened their hearts and sinned as their fathers did. It was not because of the untruths of others, but their own. There is no respect of persons with God. He is just, impartial and holy, Rom. 2. 11. God had to speak solemnly, 'But I will send a fire upon Judah, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem'.
The eighth denunciation was upon Israel, 2. 6-16. The indictment consisted of maladministration of justice, oppression of the poor, immorality and self indulgence, practised in the name of religion despite the divine favours bestowed upon them in the past. God's judgement or retribution made it abundantly clear that he who oppresses the poor or mocks them reproaches his Maker, Prov. 14. 31; 17. 5. They would be defeated and flee before their foe.
Things were bad. Some unrighteous judges in Israel were prepared to condemn even righteous causes brought before them for the sake of bribes. This violated Deuteronomy 16. 19. The tribunals of the day could be bought for a pair of shoes. Despising the poor is mentioned several times, 2. 6, 7; 4. 1; 5. 11; 8. 6.
Israel was privileged, specially chosen by God, redeemed out from Egypt and under covenant responsibility, Exod. 19. 4-6; Deut. 6. 7; Luke 12. 48. Failure would be severely judged. It became Israel to walk with the Lord and hearken to His warnings of judgement through His prophets. In practice Israel had been a poor example to her pagan neighbours and had assumed that as recipients of God's favour their blessings would continue despite their corrupt lifestyle. How mistaken! They should have known better for they were aware that obedience would be rewarded with blessing. They knew that disobedience would not go unpunished. Amos put them right. All twelve tribes were guilty. The whole family had sinned, 3. 1; Rom. chs. 1-3. God is longsuffering and patient but there is a limit and mercy gives way to judgement in the face of repeated rebellion.
God's judgement would be thorough. It would centre upon the paganised altars at Bethel, their polluted wealth and houses of ivory, 3. 12-15. The first three verses of chapter 4 were addressed to the women of Samaria. The remainder of the chapter was addressed to the people generally. Amos denounced the self-indulgent luxury of the wealthy women of Bashan, capital of Samaria, calling them 'kine of Bashan'. Bashan was the fertile region east of Jordan. Its well nourished herds are spoken of in Deuteronomy 32. 14 and Ezekiel 39. 18. The Psalmist, 22. 12, refers to the bulls of Bashan to describe wild fierce assailants living an animal existence, proudly going their own way and resenting any interference.
Bethel was idolatrous. Gilgal was polluted. Amos could not contain himself. 'Prepare to meet thy God', he proclaimed. The chastening love of God met with no response from Israel. Consequently God's justice and wrath had to be faced and the realization of His infinite power and wisdom. He is 'The Lord, The God of hosts, is His name', 4.13. The Name could not be connected with evil and idolatry. The Name 'above every name'.
God demanded obedience, judgement and mercy. Persistently He pleaded with Israel to seek Himself and live, 5. 4. In response Israel rebelliously practised the opposite, calling upon herself a just retribution. Personification of a nation or community as a woman, maiden, daughter or mother became common in Hebrew poetry. The words 'The virgin of Israel', 5. 2 expressed dramatic emotional force and effect. She who had once been separated unto the Lord had now fallen into abominations and was helpless, forsaken and pathetic. Bethel would come to nought. Gilgal was destined for captivity. Israel had no choice but to seek the Lord. They were not to pass to Beer-sheba but had to 'seek good, and not evil, that they may live', 5. 14. God had to be sought. 'The Lord God of hosts', He would be gracious unto them, 5.15. Warning was also given of the Day of the Lord, 5. 21-27.
Those who were self-secure and 'at ease in Zion', and trusted in the mountain of Samaria (hill of Shemer) were alerted and admonished, 6. 1-14; Luke 6. 24. They were advised to take heed for the inevitability of punishment was assured. Their dissipating indulgence, carnality and spiritual unconcern would result in captivity to Assyria. It was no good relying upon their own devices and strength. The Lord's oath had been sworn by Himself, cf. Gen. 22. 16, 17.
Three sermons appear between chapters 3 and 6. The voice of the prophet spoke of: (i) Israel's privilege and guilt. God had been despised, (ii) Preparation for meeting God. He is the Lord God of hosts, (iii) Seeking the Lord and really living. He is the living God who gives all things to enjoy.
Five visions occur within chapters 7 to 9. Amos found it difficult to impress upon the people the fact that the judgement he had announced could not be averted. It was too late. Although Jehovah had previously repented of His purpose, 7. 3-6, He could not further repent. The time for mercy had passed.
1. The Plague of Locusts, 7. 1-3. The Lord God showed Amos the locusts which He had formed in the beginning of the shooting up of the latter growth. It was the latter growth, He made clear, after the king's mowings. The first mowing went as taxes to the king. Everything in sight was eaten. Amos pleaded with God to forgive His people and not to send them this plague. 'By whom shall Jacob arise? for he is small', said Amos. The Lord relented and did not fulfil the vision.
2. The Fire of God, 7. 4-6. The Lord God showed Amos a great fire 'and it devoured the great deep, and did eat up a part'. The outbreak happened in field and forest during the dry season. It spread with alarming rapidity. The great deep was devoured. The great deep is referred to in Genesis 7. 11 as the subterranean waters which broke forth at the time of the flood. The meaning of this judgement seems to be drought, Joel 1. 19. Amos's plea for mercy prevailed. God repented and stayed the fire.
3. The Plumbline, 7. 7-9. Having measured His people with a plumbline the Lord sentenced them to destruction, cf. 2 Kings 21. 13-15. Sin had so irreparably warped them that they were beyond correction. The plummet was a test of the perpendicular. It was likewise a symbol of judgement according to perfect righteousness. Isaiah 28. 17 says, e.g. 'judgement also will I lay to the line, and righteousness to the plummet'. The words 'I will not again pass by', 7. 8 referred to God's people Israel and meant, 'I will not pass over them any more'.
Amos courageously preached and predicted against the house of Jeroboam. The anger of Amaziah was aroused for he was the priest of Bethel. He complained to King Jeroboam II with a charge of conspiracy saying that Amos was a danger to national security. The king took notice and Amaziah ordered Amos out of the country.
This decision was not without reaction. Amos fearlessly faced Amaziah and replied that regardless of his humble background and lack of formal education he could nevertheless foresee the time when the priest's wife would be 'an harlot in the city', and his sons and daughters would fall by the sword, and his land (property) would be divided by another. Amaziah himself would die in a polluted (heathen) land. After all, Amos had been commissioned by Jehovah to speak as he had done and with greater emphasis he reaffirmed his prediction.
4. The Basket of Perishable Summer Fruit, 8. 1-14. This over ripe produce of the earth was a symbol of the imminency of Israel's end. The reason was sin. Amos rebuked the merchants of Israel for their avarice, dishonesty and meanness. The sacred festival seasons and the Sabbaths caused interruptions in their mercenary activities. The poor were oppressed. Those less well off were subject to commercial exploitation and dishonesty. The ephah by which goods were sold was short measured. The shekel by which the money to be paid by the purchaser was weighed was heavy (great). The balances were tampered with to give unjust advantage over the purchaser. This utter dishonesty was in contravention of Deuteronomy 25. 13-16. 'Thou shalt not have in thy bag divers weights, a great and a small. Thou shalt not have in thine house divers measures, a great and a small. But thou shalt have a perfect and just weight, a perfect and just measure shalt thou have: that thy days may be lengthened in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. For all who do such things, and all who do unrighteously, are an abomination unto the Lord thy God'.
The judgement for 'Jacob's pride' embraced mourning and a famine of hearing the words of the Lord, 8. 11, 12. The pagan deities of Dan and Beer-sheba, the farthest northern and southern limits of the land, would be powerless to help in the coming calamity. The 'sin of Samaria' was a distortion of the name Asherah, the Canaanite mother goddess, to conform to the Hebrew asham meaning guilt, 8. 14.
5. The False Altar, 9. 1-15. The Lord standing by the altar saw that it was despised and desecrated by idolatry, cf. John 12. 31. He gave the instruction, 'Smite the lintel'. These were situated at the tops of the columns supporting the roof of the temple. It would not be possible to hide from or evade the anger of the Lord. God must punish those who reject His mercy. There was no special privilege for His chosen nation.
When our Lord Jesus Christ returns in glory at His second advent He will establish His kingdom, Acts 1. 6; 15. 15-17. Today in this present age God is calling out a people for His Name - the church (ecclesia). He will return after the rapture with the saints and re-establish and reinstate the Davidic dynasty in Himself. There will be prosperity for a millennium and a restored Israel. The blessings of peace will be enjoyed.
Amos was the first prophet to predict Israel's captivity and to announce God's rejection of His chosen people. He assumed his readers' knowledge of the Pentateuch and asserted its truth. He upheld their religious ritual (except the golden calves) and its accord with the Mosaic law. Stephen in Acts 7. 42 quoted Amos 5. 25-27. James in Acts 15. 16 quoted Amos 9. 11. Amos used the names Adonai (Lord) and God of hosts. He showed that Jehovah, Israel's Covenant God, is universal Lord.
Amos had a message to get across. He was a man dismissed as unlearned, not from the accepted schools of prophets. His ancesters were small farmers, 7. 14. His message was desperately needed. Although his burden was one of judgement there was a line of hope and a repeated call to 'seek the Lord'. With the doom there ran a message of confidence, a message for his generation, a message also relevant to ours today.