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The Prophecy of Amos: Concerning the Main Themes

Introduction

The Book of Amos reveals the prophet to be an honest, courageous and passionate man, who distinguished himself from the professional prophets, for they could be corrupted by priests and regal patrons. He was a native of Tekoa, a barren hilly district about six miles south of Bethlehem (Amos 1:1 and 7:14-15). It is often suggested that Amos was a menial shepherd, because he was not from the school of the prophets, but such a description does not fit with the prophet’s style of writing and poetic phrases. In the NKJV he is described as a ‘sheepbreeder’. The original Hebrew word in chapter 1:1 is ‘noqed’, and the only other place where it is found is in 2 Kings 3:4 where it is used of a royal ‘sheepbreeder’ — King Mesha of Moab. Amos was also a dresser of sycamore fruit in the harvest season. This task involved piercing the top of the fruit to encourage early ripening. Some scholars consider that Amos may have owned sheep and cattle, and groves of sycamore fruit. He was not a rich man, but certainly not poor either. These two different occupations meant a considerable amount of travelling, due to the wool markets being in the north of Israel, and the sycamore fig trees being in the lowlands of Israel and Judah.

Historical background

Amos prophesied during the times of Uzziah King of Judah and Jeroboam II King of Israel. Uzziah ruled for fifty-two years; Jeroboam II was on the throne for forty-one years; and their kingships overlapped for thirty-six years. (2 Chronicles 26 and 2Kgs 14:23-29). The reigns of Uzziah and of Jeroboam II are significant in relation to the teaching of Amos. God gave Uzziah success against his enemies, particularly against the Philistines and Ammonites who brought tribute to the king, consequently making him exceedingly wealthy and powerful. The army was well trained, with an array of lethal equipment. Fortified towers were built in Jerusalem at the Corner Gate, by the Valley Gate, and in the desert. Uzziah ‘loved the soil’; he encouraged the development and cultivation of fields and vineyards, and possessed much livestock. In order to care for his animals and crops, the king also dug many cisterns.

Jeroboam II furthered the forceful land extension polices that had been developed byjehoash. Israel’s boundaries were restored to practically the same extent as in the time of Solomon. The period of virtual peace that followed this expansion was marked by an almost unique economic prosperity. Amos was active as a prophet during the middle of this period, when both Israel and Judah were peaceful and prosperous. Previously Elijah and Elisha had prophesied to Israel and Judah, but neither of them wrote a book concerning their ministries.

Analysis

In attempting a concise review of the Book of Amos, it is considered that an analytical and thematic approach to this prophecy is appropriate, so that the fundamental and vital messages of the prophet can be better appreciated. There is an apparently clear structure to the book. Chapter 1 and the beginning of chapter 2 are devoted to a consideration of God’s judgments on the nations that surrounded Israel, followed by warnings of the forthcoming punishment of Israel and Judah. The prophet then appeals to Israel and Judah to forsake their evil ways, and in chapter 5 there is the impassioned entreaty “Seek me and live” In the following chapters ‘Two Woes’ are revealed that refer respectively to the ‘Day of the Lord and darkness’, and to ‘the complacent and proud’. The Five Visions of the Lord’s judgments are presented, and the book concludes with a pen picture of the restored Kingdom of Israel. The main themes therefore are:

• Punishment of the Surrounding Nations
• Judgment on Israel and Judah
• Social Injustice
• Apostasy and Religious Rituals

Throughout the book, the prophet, as a countryman familiar with the wonders of nature and the universe, conveys the sense of his great wonderment at the awe-inspiring sovereignty of the Creator. Amos is also very conscious that Israel is a special people chosen by God to share a covenant relationship. However, the superior privileges from which Israel benefitted required serious responsibilities. In the development of the main themes, the prophet makes significant references and allusions to the history of Judah, Israel, and the surrounding nations, and to the Law of Moses. He mentions, for example, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Isaac, Jacob, Esau (Edom) and Joseph, the Exodus and Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness. In his criticisms of the outward observance of religious rituals, the prophet mentions and/or alludes to offerings and tithes, new moons and Sabbaths, and shows a marked awareness of ceremonial rituals and rules. He was clearly extremely familiar with Israel’s history and the Law of Moses. This suggests that Amos was a well-educated man, but not a professionally trained prophet. He occupied an elevated role in the agricultural community, and was not merely a menial stockman.

God’s judgments on the surrounding nations

At the beginning of his prophecy, Amos foretells the coming judgments on the Gentile nations around Israel. These peoples were often at war with one another, and indulged in acts of excessive cruelty. The expression ‘for three transgressions and for four’ implied repeated acts of evil that warranted severe punishment. The Syrians were charged with torturing Gileadites, by dragging iron threshing sledges fitted with iron teeth over them. This example could be representative of the horrific treatment that was inflicted on the Gileadites in history. Syria was destroyed by the invasion of Tiglath-Pileser III (2Kgs 16:9). The Philistines and Phoenicians were both guilty of passing on a large number of prisoners, which probably included Israelites, to the nation of Edom. The judgment on the Philistines was accomplished by Sennacherib of Assyria and Pharaoh Necho of Egypt. Tyre experienced trouble over many years, but was eventually destroyed by Alexander the Great.

Indescribable cruelty

The charge against Edom was that it was inflamed with hatred, and indulged in extraordinary and indescribable cruelty. Over the years, Israel suffered because Edom often became an ally of Israel’s enemies. The nation was punished by Israel under Amaziah, much later by the Maccabees, and finally by the Romans. Ammon was another nation that was guilty of associating with Israel’s enemies, and with trying to extend her borders into Israel. Her cruelty was notorious, for pregnant women were slashed apart by swordsmen. The Ammonites were subdued and persecuted by both the Babylonians and Assyrians, and finally extinguished by the Assyrians. The indictment against Moab was on the basis that the body of the King of Edom had been desecrated. In the ancient world, such an action was regarded as despicable and degrading. The prophet indicated that Moab would be utterly destroyed by fire. Nebuchadnezzar and his hordes over-ran the land, ignited an inferno, and Moab ceased to have an independent existence.

Judgments on Israel and Judah

The Israelites would just love to hear this denunciation of the surrounding nations. Nevertheless, after he had pronounced God’s judgments on the nations that surrounded Israel, Amos turned his attention to Israel and Judah. The message of God that came from Amos shattered Israel’s apparent tranquillity like a ferocious lion charging out of his den. Amos cried: “The LORD roars from Zion… And the top of Carmel withers” (Amos 1:2). Venturing into Israel and Samaria as a countryman from the Deep South, the prophet was able to see everyday society with complete detachment, especially life in the cities.

It is significant that the alien peoples were condemned, because of their apostasy, and for their cruelty to one another. The accusation levelled against Israel and Judah was that they were cruel in the mistreatment of their own people. Judah would be punished because they despised the Law of the LORD, failed to keep His commandments, and resorted to telling lies. This behavior led them astray to such an extent, that they did not know to do the right thing. Israel would also be dealt with severely because they defiled God’s Holy Name by worshipping idols.

The two woes

In chapter 4 particularly, the prophet refers to the way in which the LORD has used natural disasters, such as famine, drought, blight, mildew, plague and earthquake — as well as their enemies, to bring Israel to their senses and to repent. The LORD appeals to the people:

“Seek Me and live”  Amos 5:6.

“Seek good and not evil, That you may live ” Amos 5:14.

The people were professing to look for the Day of the LORD, when He would deliver them from their enemies. But the prophet retorts “Woe to you”, because the people had no realistic idea of what they were asking. Unless they became morally good, there would not be a ray of joy or hope, but it would be a day of doom and darkness. It would be a great shock to those who stuck to the popular idea of deliverance.

“Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! For what good is the day of the LORD to you? It will be darkness, and not light. It will be as though a man fled from a lion, And a bear met him! Or as though he went into the house, Leaned his hand on the wall, And a serpent bit him!Is not the day of the LORD darkness, and not light? Is it not very dark, with no brightness in it?”(Amos 5:18-20.)

In chapter 6:1-3, the second ‘Woe’ conveys warnings to the leaders in Israel and Judah about being complacent and smug, when injustice and immorality were rife in both nations. ‘You are putting off thinking about punishment’, says Amos in effect, ‘but actually by your stupid behavior you are bringing the day of doom nearer. The LORD God of Hosts will elevate a nation to badly affect you’.

The five visions

The nature of God’s judgments are portrayed in symbolic form via Five Visions in Amos 7:1-9:10. First and second are the creation ofaplague of locusts, and the preparation of a life-destroying drought (represented by fire). The prophet pleaded with the LORD not to turn against Israel. So the LORD relented and did not carry out the plan. The third vision was of the LORD checking a wall that had been straight because it had been built with a plumb line, only to find that the plumb line now showed it to be crooked. This vision represented the sinfulness of Israel, and the LORD declared that the nation and the dynasty of King Jeroboam would be destroyed. On this occasion Amos did not appeal for mercy — the judgment would be final.

These words of the prophet reached the ears of Amaziah who was probably the chief priest at the shrine in Bethel: see Amos 7:10-17. He told Jeroboam of this treasonable action, and then gave orders that the prophet was not to prophesy in Bethel, and should hasten back to Judah. Amos retorted that he was not a professional prophet, but had been specially called by God to prophesy against Israel. He accused Amaziah of interference, and declared that the priest and his family would suffer terribly in the looming warfare. The next vision was of a basket of ripe summer fruit, which represented the people of Israel, who were now all set for retribution because of their evil practices. The LORD declared that He would not defer their punishment again. In addition to a literal famine, the nation would experience a famine of “hearing the words of the LORD”. The people would wander everywhere “seeking the word of the LORD, But shall not find it”. The final vision is of the LORD standing by the altar and shouting “Strike the doorposts”. The sanctuary would be destroyed with the worshippers inside. Even those who tried to run away would not escape the fury of God.

Social injustice in Israel and Judah

The prophet draws attention to the travesty of widespread injustice, by focusing on particular malpractices. Corruption was rampant, and it was the poor people in particular who suffered the most. The offering of bribes was a commonplace indulgence afforded by the rich. When poor people couldn’t repay their debts, they were sold into slavery for the price of a pair of shoes. In effect, the deprived were trampled in the dust, and the humble were kicked aside. The rich people acquired their wealth by various means, including the profits from lush vineyards and abundant wheat harvests. At the same time, they imposed crippling interest rates on loans, extorted bribes, and levied severe taxes and fines on both the deprived and the underprivileged. The wealthy often owned two dwellings, one for winter, and the other for the summer months. The ones inhabited in the cold seasons could be described as mansions or palaces, and were often inlaid and decorated with expensive ivory. The LORD prophesied that all these houses would be destroyed.

Prevalent attitudes

At the beginning of chapter 4 the prophet addresses wealthy women in particular as “you cows ofBashan, who are on the mountain of Samariaand accuses them of oppressing the poor and needy. The mention by the prophet of these ladies getting their husbands to bring them wine, suggests a sight of lazy and mindless women idling away their time in unseemly drunken carousals. It was not just the women who reveled in their luxuries and wealth. All those who were well-off lay on beds of ivory, relaxed on couches, anointed themselves with the better-quality ointments and perfumes, and ate choice lambs and calves. In their carousings they twanged away on harps, imagining that they were emulating King David as they sang idly, continually showing no concern for those who were less well-off and needed help.

In chapter 8:4-8, Amos draws attention to prevalent attitudes that were particularly ghastly. He addressed those business people who couldn’t wait for religious festivals and the Sabbath to come to an end, so that they could resume the practice of selling grain and trading wheat. These people were not content with lawful and reputable practices, they used inaccurate weigh scales, measly measures, and sold wheat that others would class as sweepings and garbage. The underlying principles of the Law in relation to the system of justice, had been perverted and poisoned, resulting in resentment and despair.

Apostasy and religious rituals

The nation of Israel to whom Amos was to warn of coming judgment was flourishing, peaceable, prosperous and well-armed. And to all outward appearances it was outstandingly religious. The adulation of Baal in Judah and Israel had been suppressed by Jehu and Elisha as recorded in 2 Kings 9-10, but serious idolatry continued amongst both nations. Amos urged them not to worship the idols of Bethel, Gilgal, or Beersheba in Amos 5:5. At these centers the people were offering tithes every three days; thanksgivings with leaven, and freewill offerings, as in Amos 4:4-5 (See Exod. 34:25, Lev. 2:11).

Apostate Shrines in the time of Amos

Dan
• Shrine created by Moses grandson: Jonathan. Judges 18:30.
• Elevated to national shrine by Jeroboam I. lKgs 12:29; Amos 8:14.

Bethel and Gilgal
• Connected by a main road.
• Centers of Jeroboam’s rival cult. Amos 4:4; 5:5-6; 7:10; Hosea 4:15.

Beersheba
• Amos 5:5; 8:14.

Worship of false gods

The adoration of Molech, the abominable god of the Ammonites, persisted. This was associated with the sacrifice of children ‘as a burnt offering’, and was forbidden absolutely, as stated in the Law of Moses: “Any Israelite or any alien living in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech must be put to death” (Lev 20:2 NIV). Amos’s references to Molech andRephan in chapter 5:25-27 in the Septuagint, are quoted by Stephen in his ‘declaration’ recorded in Acts 7:43. (It is significant that Rephan is the name for the god associated with the planet Saturn — the god of war).

The people of Israel sinned again and again, and indulged in outrageous practices, such as socializing with temple prostitutes in a contemptible manner — a man and his son frequented the same girl. When they worshipped their false gods, they lay down near the altar on clothes that had been taken by pledge. In fact, these garments were stolen, in defiance of the teaching in Exod 22:26- 27, (and as reinforced by Jesus in Matt 5:40). Wine that had been pilfered was presented in lieu of a fine, as an offering to their god. Was it also wine that had been stolen that was given to the Nazirites as an act of insolence against their special vow? Amos warned them that the LORD hates false worship, and would not listen to their hymns of praise, but regarded them as a noisy nuisance. The LORD despised their feast days and sacred gatherings. He would not accept their burnt offerings, grain offerings, or ‘fattened peace offerings’. The nation would be punished severely, because they defiled God’s Holy Name by worshipping idols and distorting His Law.

Conclusion

It is significant, that after all the warnings of the forthcoming destruction of Israel because oftheir wickedness, Amos is compelled by his awareness of, and resolute faith in the LORD’S loving kindness and mercy, to expose to the nation his own vision — his true hope — for that could be theirs too. The sinful ones in the nation were to be destroyed, but Israel and Judah would be restored.

“The time of joy was therefore not yet, but it would surely come. Thus, the faithful remnant was comforted in a time of distress.”1

In chapter 9:11-15 the prophet presents a pithy, yet wonderful, word picture of the Kingdom of God on earth. There would be unmatched productivity of the land, rebuilding of the cities, and the Gentiles will seek the Lord. He foretells the restoration of the ‘tabernacle of David’ and a return of former glories. (See also Acts 15:16 – 18.)

Lessons for today

At the beginning of the prophecy, the pagan nations were condemned, not because they disobeyed God’s Law, but because they ignored the evidence of creation. This was in contrast to those who allowed their consciences to be educated by their awareness of God’s mighty works.

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them,for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse” (Rom 1:18-20; cf Rom 2:12-16).

Paul makes it abundantly clear that ‘God will punish sin wherever it is found’. Bro. Fred Pearce comments:

“We too need reminding that the ‘LORD God’ of Israel who is also the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, will not forever tolerate sin, but will cause His Holiness to prevail by the destruction of the sinner, if the sinner will not have it any other way. But to the repentant and submissive remnant His mercy was and is still everlasting.”2

The prophet laid bare the materialism which permeated the whole of Israel and Judah, and divided those societies. Taking a global view of our community today we see that there is a vast gulf between rich and poor brothers and sisters in this world. Unquestionably, there are serious problems associated with marked cultural differences, but it is incumbent upon all of us to accept responsibility for the spiritual, physical and material welfare of our fellow believers, especially those who are deprived.

In the last days

Israel and Judah were looking for the ‘Day of the LORD’, but Amos indicates that they would be shocked when it arrived, for they were unrealistic in their expectations. We too are waiting for the Day of the Lord, but we must examine ourselves in order to have a clear idea of our responsibilities. The Apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 3-4, describes in a very perceptive and incisive manner the world in which we live, and implies ‘that in the last days it is going to be very difficult to be a Christian’. In several aspects it is not unlike the situation in Israel and Judah at the time of Amos. These words to Timothy are often applied to those outside the Truth, but we should recognize that several of these comments could apply to us today. We live in this present world and have to ‘occupy until he come’. But we have also to be ready to meet Jesus. This implies that we must be prepared to relinquish our grip on the things of this world.

The prophet sees a right relationship with God as paramount. Our love for God will determine our whole attitude to life, and will find expression in service to others. We are to worship God in spirit and in truth, and serve Him by dealing justly and honestly with our fellow men. Our personal associations, our behavior with our fellows, both those in the faith, and those in the world should reflect God’s values. However, we can convey the impression of being devout and pious, but having something of the Pharisees about us. We must avoid being hypocritical. We have to do our utmost to avoid the values and influences of an acquisitive and humanistic society permeating our Brotherhood. The underlying principles of the teachings of Moses, the Prophets, the Lord Jesus Christ and the Apostles, regarding both beliefs and practices, must be cherished and safeguarded.

Kenneth Camplin (Southern Highlands, NSW, Australia)

Notes:
1. Fred Pearce “From Hosea to Zephaniah” Page 75
2. Ibid, p. 77.

Amos

Although Amos is a short prophecy, and is reckoned as belonging to the minor prophets, it nevertheless is one of the most helpful of the prophetical books. It is a practical work, for it points out sin clearly and exalts at the same time the purity of God. Amos stresses several doctrines, always in need of emphasis. He speaks of God as the truly sovereign one, in control of the forces of nature, and doing what he will. He also shows that God is no respecter of persons. If Israelites sin against Him, He will condemn them as readily as other nations.
Amos makes it clear that there is no ground for false hopes. A man who claims to believe in the election of the LORD must live as one who is so elected. And the service which the LORD demands is one which flows from a heart devoted to him. God hates hypocrisy.
It has sometimes been claimed that Amos was a forerunner of the social gospel. That claim, however, misunderstands the situation represented. Amos was a prophet of the LORD, and was revealing the truth of all Scripture that right belief demands right practice. There can never be a divorce between doctrine on the one hand and ethics on the other. True faith will seek to honor and glorify God in every realm of life. And for this very reason is the true believer to be interested also in social problems. He must have a concern for the welfare of people, and he must use his influence to see that justice is provided for all. The prophet cries for justice and announces judgment.
Young, E. j. (1958). Bible Book of the Month. Christianity Today, 2(24), 35.

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