Amos is named only in the book that bears his name and there is no record of his parentage or family. In chapter 7 verse 14, he tells us he was not a prophet or a prophet’s son but a herdsman or sheep master; this is one who likely drove the flock to market rather than leading it like a shepherd. In addition to this he also gathered sycamore fruit, a lowly food of the poor. From such humble circumstances, God fitted him to be a prophet. He came from Tekoa which was a village about ten miles from Jerusalem in Judah, but he prophesied to the northern kingdom of Israel.
Amos prophesied during the long reign of Uzziah king of Judah which makes him a contemporary of Isaiah. Unlike Isaiah, Amos’s ministry was to Israel, not Judah, during the reign of Jeroboam II. The first Jeroboam rebelled against Solomon’s son and established the northern kingdom which, after many generations of bad kings, was now ruled by its longest serving monarch, also called Jeroboam. He reigned for forty-one years of seeming prosperity and success, prior to a similar period of terminal decline, finishing with the ten northern tribes, known as Israel, going into captivity to Assyria. Despite their rebellion and a succession of bad kings, including Ahab the husband of Jezebel, and their descendants, God had not abandoned Israel but sent the great prophets Elijah and Elisha to reach out to them. In fact, Elisha had prophesied right up to the reign of Jeroboam’s father, resulting in Israel subduing their principal enemy Syria, with its capital at Damascus. The even greater threat of Assyria, ruled from Nineveh, had also receded following the ministry of Jonah, another prophet to Israel immediately preceding Amos. However, Israel would have only one more prophet following Amos, namely Hosea. These two would be God’s final messengers to Israel, although their contemporaries in the south, Isaiah and Micah, would be followed by several more prophets to Judah, both prior to and after their captivity some two centuries later under Babylon.
The book opens with two verses of introduction and concludes with five verses of hope which contain the only direct quotation found in the New Testament. In between, the briefest of outlines is as follows:
Each burden begins with the words, ‘Thus saith the Lord; for three transgressions of … and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof, because’. The name of the offending nation is inserted in the middle and their sin is outlined at the end followed by how God will judge them.
Amos is very subtle in his approach, as the first six burdens are all regarding the enemies which surround Israel. The first mentioned is Syria to the north, represented by Damascus, who were probably seen as Israel’s greatest enemy at that time. He then looks at the west; Israel is bordered on the west by the Mediterranean Sea, but the Philistines of Gaza also bordered the sea to the south-west and, similarly, the kingdom of Tyre to the northwest. Amos then turns to Israel’s ancient enemies on the east side, the descendants of Esau, Edom, and those of Lot, Ammon, and Moab. These last three are largely east of Jordan and it seems that most of the sins of all six enemies relate to atrocities committed in Gilead, a territory occupied by the tribes of Israel east of Jordan, or regarding Edom, also east of Jordan. The reference to ‘three or four transgressions’ does not seem to be literal as only one or two sins are listed in regard to these six. Rather, it seems the expression indicates that they have finally crossed a line and God will now act. This must have been music to the ears of Amos’s audience in Israel as he rails against their enemies and when he then turns to the south and their former brethren in Judah in chapter 2 verses 4 and 5, they would like it even more, especially as he now refers to three transgressions, ‘despis[ing] the law’, not keeping ‘his commandments’, and ‘their lies caused them to err’. However, having got their attention, he turns to Israel themselves in verse 6.
Once more, he refers to ‘three or four transgressions’, but then goes on to list far more. Israel has been guilty of multiple abuses of the poor, immorality, idolatry, and drunkenness. Even worse, despite God’s faithfulness in giving them the land and raising up prophets and Nazarites for spiritual guidance, they have defiled the latter and silenced the former. Well, God has now sent them a prophet from Tekoa and he will not be silenced! We can learn from Amos’s approach. Most people will agree if we point to the wickedness that abounds in our world today, but then less so when we point out that sin afflicts all of us.
Just as the burdens started with a common phrase, so the three sermons commence with, ‘Hear this word’, in the opening verse of chapters 3, 4 and 5. In chapter 3, he makes clear his message is from the Lord and He will bring down all the palaces and great houses which symbolize their wealth and destroy their false altar. In chapter 4, he turns to their womenfolk, who he refers to as ‘cows of Bashan’, NKJV. They are clearly carrying on with a form of godliness in offering sacrifices and tithing from their wealth, but God has already shown His disapproval by causing droughts, blight, and pestilence to hinder their produce and has even overthrown some of them as a warning that those who remain are ‘as a firebrand plucked out of the burning’, v. 11. But not having responded they must now ‘prepare to meet thy God, O Israel’, v. 12. The third and longest sermon goes into great detail about their sins for two whole chapters. It is in chapters 5 and 6 that we get to the crux of Israel’s sin and where its painful application to us is to be found. It is clear that, above all, God hates the social injustice in their society. Amos summarizes all the sins found in between as abandoning justice and righteousness and viewing them as poison, 5. 7; 6. 12. He lists examples such as ‘treading upon the poor’, taking ‘burdens [taxes] of wheat’, ‘they afflict the just’, ‘take a bribe’, and ‘turn aside the poor’, 5. 11, 12. Meanwhile, they are enjoying lives of ease, feasting, music, drinking, and pampering themselves, 6. 3-6.
Amos seems to portray a society where the rich are getting richer and the poor, poorer. Isaiah, Micah, and Hosea, who also prophesy in the period leading up to Israel’s captivity, contain much of the same themes, as do many more of the prophets, the Gospels and the Epistle of James. Sadly, today many Christians seem to approve of the excesses of our western capitalist societies, especially in the English-speaking world. Is this because, as honest, hard-working folk who do not waste their money on vices and addictions, we have, over several generations, become relatively comfortable materially? Therefore, we now have a vested interest in describing the clearly anti-God system we live in as ‘the best of a bad bunch of alternatives’. Remarkably, throughout these two chapters, Israel is clearly continuing to come to Bethel and Gilgal with their offerings, celebrating the feasts and even looking forward to the day of the Lord, even though Amos warns it will bring judgement, not rescue, 5. 18. There is a danger we can continue in complacent orthodoxy not realizing God’s call to re-establish justice and righteousness, 5. 24. Perhaps Micah sums it all up in chapter 6 verses 6 to 8, concluding, ‘What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?’ Despite Amos’s condemnation being interspersed with appeals to repent, he warns that captivity approaches, not from Syria, which they might expect, but ‘beyond Damascus’, 5. 27, clearly a reference to Assyria, confirmed in chapter 6 verse 14 where the area covered includes Syria all the way to the Persian Gulf. This is a remarkable prophecy of the extent of the, as yet, unexpected Assyrian Empire. Thus, the sermons close with impending judgement.
The closing three chapters are mainly taken up with five visions Amos received. The first two visions, locusts and fire, conclude with some hope in God’s mercy, but the third, the plumbline, declares clearly that judgement is coming, and specifically identifies that it will fall on the household of King Jeroboam, 7. 9. It is this detail which seems to stir up the priest, Amaziah, to go to the king with accusations against Amos and to call for Amos to leave Israel and return to Judah. Chapter 7 finishes with Amos pointing out that though he has none of the expected credentials, unlike the false priest and the false king, he is a true prophet of God. In the final two visions, the basket of fruits in chapter 8 and the altar in chapter 9, he reminds them of their sin, especially the oppression of the poor and their idolatry, and warns that judgement is coming, prophecy will cease, and God will speak to them no more, 8. 11, 12. The final vision offers no hope for Israel with its total destruction approaching, painfully fulfilled when the Assyrians took them away, and the northern kingdom has never been recovered since.
Amos is generally viewed as a severe prophet with little of the positive future prophecies of the Messiah, repentance, recovery, and return found in many of the other prophets, including his contemporaries. But, at the end of his final vision, we learn that God ‘will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob’, 9. 8, no doubt referring to maintaining a remnant in Judah. Even this book, taken up with sin and judgement, ends with a positive declaration for the future of the nation of Israel as a whole. Chapter 9 verses 11 to 14 makes it clear that God’s promises to David, of his descendants reigning, Israel possessing the Gentiles, agricultural blessing, return from captivity and righteousness and justice ensuring all enjoy the fruit of their labours at peace in their God-given land, will be fulfilled. Part of this is quoted in Acts chapter 15 by James in response to Gentiles coming into blessing following Peter’s preaching to them. This is a mere foreshadowing of blessing through and for Israel, but the fulfilment of Amos’s and so many of the other prophecies in the closing seventeen books of our Old Testament requires a literal millennial kingdom set up by and under our Lord Jesus Christ. Israel, for all their failure and departure, stand as a monument to the sovereignty of God, despite the attempts of kings, emperors, Fuhrers and Ayatollahs to wipe them out. Ultimately, under the Lord they will repent and return, showing that the promises of God are ‘yea and amen’.
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