GOD’S WORD THROUGH THE UNORDAINED:  THE MESSAGE OF AMOS

Posted on 11 January 2011

An ordinary ‘bloke’ shares God’s message with us all!

GOD’S WORD THROUGH THE UNORDAINED:
THE MESSAGE OF AMOS

Amos and his Setting

Amos, a name born only by the author of this prophecy in the OT (the name of Isaiah’s father is spelt differently), is not known outside of his book. Thus, internal evidence alone is able to furnish us with information about him.

Khirbet Tekoa, 20km south of Jerusalem is generally identified with Tekoa (1:1). It is not clear that this was Amos’ birthplace. Khirbet Tekoa is a desolate area, surrounded by hills.

7:14 indicates that he was a herdsman (working for himself or a landowner?) and, as a side-line, cultivated sycamores. The latter was impossible in Tekoa and was probably undertaken on the slopes surrounding the Dead Sea. ‘Shepherd’ (1:1) is to be understood in a wider sense than used conventionally in English.

His ministry was apparently short and he distanced himself from the ‘professional’ prophets. His message is directed to the northern kingdom, which he shows evidence of knowing well: probably through commercial travelling. He had evidently been present at some of their religious festivals and was familiar with the social evils, judicial corruption and religious presumption of the people. He was also familiar with the history of Israel, referring to the exodus from Egypt, the preservation in the wilderness and the defeat of the Amorites which enabled the people to settle in Canaan.

Amos does not regard himself as proclaiming a new message but as calling God’s people back to the old ways. He was a master of the Hebrew language as is seen in his free use of verse and his editorial prose. Perhaps he is best viewed as a well-educated merchant.

The book fits appropriately into its historical context. Jeroboam II enjoyed a flourishing economy and political success (with major victories east of Jordan). As yet there is no trace of the emerging Assyrian power (750 BC onwards). We cannot date the earthquake (1:1) with any certainty.

1:1

Surprisingly the book dates the oracles of Amos against the northern kingdom with reference to the south. This suggests that Amos himself could well have edited his prophecies into book-form: later authors would have been more likely to have related his message entirely to the north.

The verse (typically of the Bible) shows little interest in the mode of inspiration (‘what he saw’ translates a very general Hebrew word). More importantly this section stresses:

1) the divine initiative in the revelation (hazah, ‘he saw’  points to this);

2) the verbal character of the revelation (3);

3) the fact that divine verbal revelation is not inconsistent with human authorship (1, ‘the words of Amos’);

4) the transcendent quality of the revelation; a mere ‘shepherd’ could scarcely come to it!

Nockri (‘shepherds’) is an unusual word found only here and in 2 Kings 3:4. An Arab cognate hints that the word refers to a particular brand of wool-bearing sheep. A Babylonian cognate might suggest an employee of the king or a major landowner. We cannot be sure and the book seems to hint at an independent ‘shepherd’.

The earthquake, also mentioned in Zech. 14:5, cannot be dated with certainty. However, it must have had a considerable impact on the nation in view of the several references to it.

The detailed dating points to a period between 780-740 BC (Jeroboam II reigned 786-745, Uzziah 783-742). The middle of the period (760) when peace and prosperity florished and before the emerging threat of Assyria fits best.

1:2

This is a summary heading or motto of Amos’ message, especially of 1:2-3:8 which begins and ends with a lion’s roar.

The message is one of judgement as God appears (‘thunder’ often accompanies theophany in the OT) from the place associated with his presence in the OT (‘Zion’) and stands ready to pounce (sha-ag has this force e.g. in Judges 14:5).

The judgement is one of nationwide destruction in which valley bottoms (‘pastures’) and mountain peaks (‘Carmel’) and all between (the Hebrew idiom here) together mourn (abal under the onslaught of God’s wrath.

Significantly Carmel was in the northern kingdom. Judgement is to come to those who lay claim to being the people (or part of the people) of God.

Moreover, the emphasis in the verse is upon Yahweh. It is the covenant God of his people who is seen to arouse himself to judgement.
1:3-5
Note:

1) These verses are part of a section which extends to 2:3. Oracles are addressed to the nations surrounding Israel. Each of them is judged for habitual rebellion (‘three…four’ is a typical Hebrew idiom emphasising repetition). Each are identically structured: stated formula, declaration of the nature of the sin, declaration of punishment.

2) However, the question naturally arises: to whom were these oracles actually addressed? Since the whole of the prophecy is primarily addressed to Israel the same would appear to be true here and elsewhere where the OT prophets address the nations (Isaiah 13-23; Jeremiah 46-51; Ezekiel 25-32).

Indeed, structurally, it would be better to say that the present section extends to 2:15 (for both Judah and Israel are also condemned in oracles which are constructed similarly to those in 1:3-2:3). The literary effect of this is to throw the judgement of these two peoples into emphasis. Like a thunderstorm (verse 2), the storm rages all around until, in all its fury, it falls upon Judah and Israel.

Thus, the judgements against the nations are made here in order to emphasise that the sovereign Lord (1:9 etc.) does not exempt his own people from universal judgement. If the nations stand condemned for wrong-doing, then so do his people.

This is further emphasised in the fact that the judgement of the nations is on the basis of their sins against conscience and humanity whereas the judgement of God against his people is on the basis of their disobedience against revelation.

3) It is also noteworthy that here (and throughout Amos) God’s condemnation is based not on religious failings but on moral grounds. Motyer suggests that a careful study of these oracles reveals the following absolute moral principles (here transgressed): people are not things, there is a priority of human welfare over commercial profit, the pledged word is inviolable, hatred nourished in the heart is inadmissable, personal ambition is limited by the needs of the helpless and vengeance is always wrong.

The historical referent of 3-5 is probably Hazael’s military campaigns (842-806) in which Syrian power was re-exerted over territory to the east of Jordan: Gilgal (cp. 2 Kings 8:12; 10:32; 13:3). Apparently, his son (Ben-Hadad) had established that rule and built expensive houses (armanoth) markedly in contrast to the mud-and-wattle homes of the subjugated peoples. These actions had filled up (‘three…four’) Syria’s bowl of wrath and made God’s judgement proven beyond all doubt. God would not revoke it (shuv is used in such a legal sense in Numbers 23:20; Isaiah 14:27).

Significant is the reference to ‘threshing’ (3): such is dome to things not people but Syria has treated people as ‘mere things’. Motyer says that this is the essential sin of warfare.

God’s judgement is to send the people back from whence they came (the fulfilment is described in 2 Kings 16:9). Divine authority is emphasised by ‘This is what the LORD says’.

The word for sin here (peshah) emphasises rebellion against an overlord. Yahweh is not merely the Lord of his people.

1:6-8

Gaza, one of the five great Philistine cities, is here condemned for the pitiless way in which it had prosecuted its slave trade; acting as a middle-man in the slave market. Situated on the trade route from Egypt to Mesopotamia with routes inland to Edom they had traded Israelites to Edom. Probably kidnapping rather than those taken in war are in mind here.

The Philistines were a Phoenician race, originally from Crete (see 9:7) who had settled as traders on the coastal plain of Palestine after Israel had taken possession of the land. They were of completely different race, culture and religion and frequently held the upper hand over the Israelites because of their superior military prowess. Gaza is apparently singled out as the largest and most culpable of the Philistine cities.

The pitiless Philistines (all the major cities except Gath are mentioned in the judgement) will be pursued without pity: not one will escape (8) from the Lord God (adonai-Yahweh).

1:9-10

Tyre was another Phoenician city to the north of Israel, 50km north of Carmel. It was the most important Phoenician port at the time of Amos and, inevitably, was a major trade centre.

The charge is similar to that in the preceding oracle but the basis is not merely inhumanity but the breach of a treaty. The commentators debate whether Israelites are understood as the slaves and which treaty is in mind and between whom. Conclusive resolution is impossible, though perhaps 1 Kings 5:1,12; 9:13 is in view.

1:11-12

From patriarchal times onwards relationships between Edom and Israel were tense. David subdued the Edomites but they achieved freedom from Joram in 850 BC. Subsequently, partial authority was restored (2 Kings 14:7; 16:6).

Verse 11 refers to the way in which Edom had continually (the force of the verb here) brooded in hate over Israel and had always been ready to strike out against her (the succession of warlike actions against Israel is exhaustively documented in Pusey).

Yet such was an un-natural action (‘stifling all compassion’) directed in a perverse direction (‘brothers’). This action against both the better instincts of the heart and in flagrant disregard of those for whom particular care ought to have been shown is the basis for God’s judgement.

The latter is described in terms which emphasise totality since Teman was a district in the north of Edom and Bozrah a city near the southern frontier.

1:13-15

The Ammonites dwelt to the east of Gad and Reuben. Israel viewed them as related (Genesis 19:30-38). However, there were numerous clashes over the years (cp. Judges 10:7-11:33; 1 Samuel 11) until Ammon was subjugated under David (2 Samuel 8:12; 10-12). They were not, however, exterminated and harried Israel whenever opportunity arose.

The particular sin (13) is to be interpreted literally and is to be seen as an attempt at extermination of the enemy which goes far beyond the exigencies of war. Predatory action against the innocent and helpless for purely selfish ends is described.

God cannot stand idly by! Like a storm (a double image of tempest is found in 14) the Ammonites will be driven before their enemies. Those who have sought to enlarge their own borders at any cost will find themselves dispossessed.

Note, that this judgement is given in expanded detail to emphasise that God’s fury is aroused to an excess by Ammon’s dealing with the helpless.

2:1-3

Moab was east of the Dead Sea and was bordered by Edom to the south and Ammon to the north. Israel subjugated it briefly under Eglon before conquering it in the time of David (2 Samuel 8:12). This, however, proved of short duration. Moab was also regarded as related to Israel through Lot.

Ammon had violated the helpless and innocent, Moab the dead since verse 1 is a reference to the burning of the bones of a long dead corpse. Pusey suggests that the reference is to the burning of the king of Edom’s son and as a common criminal for whom the punishment of death is insufficient.

Such an action would have been regarded as a severe profanation among peoples who placed considerable stress upon peaceful burial of family. The crime is, thus, of the basest nature.

Note this offence is not against Israel. Yahweh takes displeasure in every offence: not just those directed against his people.

2:4,5

This short oracle demonstrates the consummate communication and literary skills of Amos. Though the burden of his message is the northern kingdom the present section (1:3-2:16) has devoted itself to an unfolding of the sins of surrounding nations. The complacent hearer could easily place himself/herself in an exemption category: the people of God.

However, when the prophet turns to Judah, there can be little doubt who is next! Moreover, the basis of Judah’s judgement: sin against revelation (law, torah (3), refers to everything God has revealed not simply ‘law’) is no different from Israel’s situation. The following oracle (6-16) indicates the consequences of such a rebellion: the central sin.

Jerusalem fell in 587BC.

2:6-16

Since the main point of the present section has now been reached, the judgement of God against Israel (the northern kingdom is in view here), a longer oracle is demanded.

There are three sections:

6-8: the sins of Israel;

9-12: the sinfulness of Israel;

13-16: the judgement of Israel.

In prosperous Israel, the man who has money not right on his side wins judicial favour, even if the money exchanged is only a trivial amount (6). This seems especially the case in lust for real estate (could the reference to sandals be to conveyancing, cp. Ruth 4:7) where the wealthy even begrudge the soil placed on the head of the ousted owner in mourning. Might is right.

7b introduces a further sin: womanising. The word for prostitute is not used here. Rather, a general breakdown of sexual morality is described: all openly take themselves or offer themselves to one another. Emphasis surely is placed upon this as a preoccupation of the entire population.

Some see the reference to cult prostitution in which a religious act is undertaken (in the name of Yahweh). However, this ‘sacred’ act is, in reality, ‘unholy’ blasphemy.

The cultic element, possibly present in verse 7, comes to prominence in verse 8. Wild drinking bouts were part and parcel of the debauchery of Canaanite religion. Here, however, this is taking place in the temple and in the name of Yahweh (so the best interpretation of 8b). Yet what makes these generalised religious observances (‘every altar’) still more perverse is the fact that both the garments lain upon and the wine drunk is that heartlessly distrained from the poor.

In these few brief sentences Amos vividly depicts the consequences of the rejection of revelation. Moral and religious perversion inevitably becomes rife, religion is used and abused by the rich at the expense of the poor in their pursuit of hedonism.

In vivid contrast to this picture of self-seeking corruption is the picture of the holy and compassionate God of 9-11. This is brought out by the emphatic anoki (9a); ‘I, on the contrary, and for my part…‘.

Verse 9, with its picture of the total destruction ‘root and branch’ of a people who seemed secure in their strength (the cedar was a byword for secure strength) is a reminder of the God with whom the people have to do and a gentle hint that what happened once….

More positively, however, the people are reminded of the grace of God towards them. Redeemed, preserved and established (10), they had enjoyed the revelation of God and the example of holy men (11). Such was incontrovertible (11b) and solemnly true (n’um Yahweh).

However, rather than be inspired by the good they had sought to bring the good down to their own tawdry level and, far from listening to God, they had closed their ears to God’s messengers (or, more properly, closed the messengers mouths: always more final and effective!). Moral and spiritual inspiration had been rejected. Verse 12, thus, emphasises the grossness of Israel’s sin.

Such sins, grosser than those of the surrounding nations who already stand condemned, makes judgement inevitable (13-16).

Verse 13 is obscure but NIV has probably caught the meaning: ‘one day you will find yourselves no more able to escape judgement than something/someone trapped under a heavy cart (see commentators for detailed discussion). No highly prized human ability will make escape possible (note the effective use of repetition, 14-16) declares Yahweh with utter solemnity (16b).

In applying this passage we do well to note that it is God’s people who are condemned. It is easy for us to think that we are an exempted category too! Moreover, we need to note the fact that what is described here is the ejection of revelation from its central place in the faith. Indeed, it is not heterodoxy that is condemned here but a profession of orthodoxy unaccompanied by faith in revelation and by a life consistent with that revelation (at work, at play and in worship). Viewed thus it comes uncomfortably near to home!

3:1-2

These verses commence the main central section of Amos’ prophecy (extending to chapter 6, but see comments on 3:9)). They are a joint denunciation of both the northern and southern kingdom and act as a summation of the preceding two oracles.

Verse 2 is a summary of the theology of Amos. In the face of the ‘election theology’ of his contemporaries Amos emphasises that special status does not bring with it so much security as place greater obligations upon its recipients.

The two verses thus depict Israel as elected, adopted, redeemed and possessing the privileges of a unique covenantal intimiacy as a consequence of which they have a heightened responsibility and liability to judgement.

A brief word is in order on ‘chosen’ (NIV, 2, Hebrew yadah). It emphasises deep communion in love and oneness and its first usage is of the conjugal relationship (Genesis 4:1).

3:3-8

These verses offer Amos’ credentials as a prophet: a necessary task in the light of his words in 1,2.

All the questions are expected to be answered by a negative, consequently his hearers are expected to concede a close relationship between Amos’ preaching and Yahweh’s command to him to prophesy.

Verse 6 may point to God’s sovereignty even in misfortune (such is taught elsewhere, e.g. 2 Samuel 24:1) but the phrase could be translated, ‘shall evil be in a city and God not take action’ and this may make more sense in the present context.

Most commentators regard Amos’ words as also containing a symbolic meaning. Thus,

3) there could well be a reference either to God and Israel and express the veiled rebuke that the latter were no longer walking with God since they no longer agreed to meet in fellowship. Alternatively, the words could express the idea that since Amos is Yahweh’s prophet and they walk together in agreement, therefore the prophet’s message is God’s command.

4) Most see this verse as a declaration of the inescapability of judgement. God’s warnings are not idle threats!

5) This verse is often seen as emphasising the culpability of those who are under judgement. It is not uninvited: the bird is in the trap through no fault but its own. Calvin suggests the image is rather one which stresses that no destruction comes unplanned.

6) Emphasises the need to fear the coming judgement. See also the comments above.

However the earlier verses are understood the climax is reached in verses 7,8. Just as inevitably as in the earlier similes there is an inevitable relationship between cause and effect, so it is inevitable that in the face of judgement God should send his messengers in mercy and warning.

Several important observations can be made from this verse:

a) the privilege of God’s people in receiving a warning is stressed;

b) the relationship of the prophet and Yahweh is described as one of friendly intimacy (‘counsel’). It is out of this intimate knowledge of God that the prophet speaks. Prediction is one of the consequences of this intimacy;

c) prediction is stressed as central to the role of a prophet. While the prophets were forthtellers they were also foretellers, though the latter was not mere ‘fortune-telling’ but, as with a modern preacher, was a declaration about the future which was intended to evince a response in the hearer now.

The final verse draws together the earlier verses: God has a prey, his prophets must declare the warning (8).

3:9-15

Motyer suggests that a new section of the prophecy begins here: a section again to be determined by Amos’ use of inclusio. Earlier the lions roar (1:2,3:8) demarcated a section, here ‘the enemy in the land’ (3:11;6:14) marks out a section. In fact, Amos’ shows considerable literary skill and 3:1-8 is probably best viewed as a ‘bridge section’ which concludes one part of the prophecy only to introduce a new one.

3:9-4:13 is devoted to diagnosing the failures of Israelite society and religion.

9,10) In verse 9 two of the inveterate enemies of the people of God, who did not share the revelation of Israel and were not known for their high ethical standards (and before whom Israel had suffered the very things they were meting out!), are invited to gather on the mountains surrounding Samaria (the capital of the northern kingdom) and to witness and condemn what is taking place in the city. Such vividly emphasises that the people were not only failing to live up to grace but also failing to live up to nature: even flawed fallen nature!

It is notable that in this and the subsequent verses that images of national solidity, strength and prosperity are singled out. Yet for all the outward strength the nation is going to be plundered, for the glory had departed.

Motyer sagely notes that this passage indicates the seriousness not of a people fallen into the power of the Devil but a people fallen out of the power of God.

The four words used here in 9,10, unrest, oppression, plunder and loot are significant. They describe (first and last) the opposite of order in society and (second and third)  the opposite of justice. Such ‘do not know anything about doing good’. However, such are hording up a different ‘treasure’ than they imagine! 

11) This verse describes the consequences (‘therefore’) and there is a logic in the judgement described: violence and robbery is met with the same.

12, 13-15) These two brief oracles mark a shlit in the nature of the charges against God’s people. Personal spirituality rather than morality is the focus here. NIV has botched the translation (but note the footnote). It is not an oracle of salvation (a word not mentioned in the original) but of total destruction.

In the law the evidence required to prove the demise of an animal that once was (Exodus 22:10-13) was as described here. It is then used as an analogy of the coming destruction of Israel: except that when Israel has disappeared what will be left as evidence is the corner of a couch and ?coverlet (demesheq). Symbols of sensuality, luxury, idleness and bodily care rather than the evidence of a spiritual people are all that will be left behind.

The second oracle (spoken by the prophet or, scandalously, by the Ashdodites and Egyptians!) describes the consequent judgement. Reminded of what they once were (and still claimed to be), ‘the house of Jacob’, the destruction of this luxurious society is depicted (15) in terms which emphasise the powerlessness of their religion to save them (14).

Many suggest the image in verse 14 is one of assylum, here denied. However, Motyer emphasises that there is no OT evidence that the horns of the altar were so viewed in biblical religion. While, therefore, a pagan image may be used here, it is, perhaps more likely that a more biblical image is in view. In the OT the anointing of oil on the horns of the altar was primarily associated with religious effectiveness (Exodus 29:12; Leviticus 4:7). This seems best here.

Motyer also notes the interweaving of the political (Samaria) and the religious (Bethel) here: the latter apparently being the royal sanctuary (7:13). Religion had become a crutch for a corrupt society. As such both the religious and the political will fall together and the support of ‘religion’ prove illusory.

This is a powerful section which puts both church, state and the individual worshipper under the microscope. We do well to meditate upon its contemporary relevance and challenge to us .

4:1-3

This oracle continues the theme of the previous chapter but with a change of emphasis: women, in particular, is singled out.

‘Cow’ was not a derogatory word in the ANE, rather the contrary: it could be a compliment emphasising beauty. Bashan was well known for its fatstock. The women of Samaria are thus compared to sleek, fatstock. Such achieve their beauty and opulence by their inordinate demands upon their husbands (lit. baalim) in order that ‘we can hold parties’.

However, if their baalim have been active on their account, another Lord, whose essential holiness has been affronted by their actions, is ready to act on behalf of those who have suffered as a result of their inordinate demands. The two classes mentioned here are those utterly cast on God because of their need.

The details of 2-3 are not altogether clear. Perhaps, best, the picture is of these women being led (like cattle and captives) in the direction of the place they have, by their conduct, suggested is their natural hime: the mountains and hills of Bashan (consult the commentaries for the details). Note, the solemnity of Yahweh’s utterance (3b).

4:4-5

Alongside of the description of the conduct of the ‘hostess class’ is the description of their religion. Notable is the fact that it is not condemned for unorthodoxy but unreality.

Bethel and Gilgal (the point at which Israel had entered Canaan had always been a venerated site for Israel) were major worship centres for Israel. There is no reason to suppose they were not valid centres: the OT is less interested in one sanctuary than valid sanctuaries.

4b,5 describe actions rigorously in conformity to revealed religion: even eagerness to ‘outdo’ the demands of such regulations. The people were proud of their scrupulous faithfulness in their ritual observances and found self-gratification in what they did (‘you love to do’).

However, these same actions are viewed by the prophet from God’s point of view: transgression (rebellion) compounded by transgression (4).

Self-regarding ritualism devoid of reality and righteous actions only aggravates God’s wrath rather than placate it.

4:6-11

The activity of the false worshippers is matched by the activity of God (gam ani). The people ought not have been blind to the folly of their actions because repeated warnings had been given yet the people had failed to ‘return right back to God’ (shuv: emphasises the movement reaches its mark completely). This emphasises, incidentally, that the purpose of God’s judgements are always moral and spiritual and that his lordship extends both to the religious and moral and (by his providential control) over the world of nature. God cannot be compartmentalised as he was being by his people.

Various judgements are described:

i) nationwide famine (6).

ii) patchy, but disastrous drought (7-8). In Palestine there are two rainy periods. In October-December the early rains germinate the seed. In March-April the latter rains bring the crop to full maturity. The early ending of the latter rains would clearly have serious consequences for the size of the crop. This is what is described here. Such should have been seen in the light of Deuteronomy 28:23.

The first two judgements refer to the absence of the two basic staples of life: bread and water.

iii) blight (9a) occasioned by drought (the ‘sirocco’ is in mind) or too much water (9b. cp. Deuteronomy 28:22) accompanied by a locust swarm which destroyed the most important products after corn, especially olives which were used for oil, medicine and fuel.

iv) pestilence and war: complete military disabling (10).

v) earthquake (11). This earthquake was clearly of some magnitude (compare 1:1) and unexpectedness (such normally happened in the Jordan bvalley not the hill country) and the miracle that there were any survivors at all ought to have been both a warning and a reminder of God’s grace.

Some, however, see the image as metaphorical; to the overthrow of the kingdom (2 Kings 14:25f.) after which the reign of Jeroboam II had offered respite. This interpretation is certainly attractive giving due impact to Amos’ words.

4:12

The repeated failure of the people to respond to God’s warnings made judgement inevitable (‘therefore’). The rather strange grammar may suggest that Amos’ words were accompanied by a vivid gesture which left the hearers in very little doubt of the severity of the coming judgement.

The last part of the verse is often seen as a warning to prepare for judgement. However, it is probably better to see it as a further call to repentance: such is consistent biblical theology. Indeed, Motyer argues that the word cun refers to preparation for grace not judgement.

4:13

This verse may well be a quotation from part of Israel’s liturgy. It is cited here to remind Israel of the ability of God to do all that he has threatened.

Israel’s God is both the creator (bara) and sustainer (asa) of the visible (‘mountains’) and the invisible (‘wind’) [or the terrestrial and the spiritual, translating ruah as spirit rather than wind]. The omnipotent is also omniscient (‘reveals his thoughts to man’) and sovereign in the world of men as well as nature (‘treads the high places of the earth’).

‘The Lord of hosts’ has a variety of connotations in the OT, referring variously to the heavenly armies, the celestial spheres and the people of Israel. There may be a deliberate ambiguity here, emphasising his essential character (‘name’) as the battling God, well known to Israel,  who here (?) is envisaged as turning on his own people.

5:1-3

In the fourth chapter the LORD’s circumstantial calls to repentance are listed, here his verbal calls are appended.

This section begins with a quina (3+2) lament or funeral dirge. It expresses Amos’ grief: he does not merely ‘roar his head off’ (Mays) in judgement.

Prophetic perfects are used in verse 2 and Israel personified as a woman (consistently with the Hebrew view that cities etc. are the mother of their inhabitants).

‘Deserted in her own land’ emphasises that God has departed and with the loss of the ‘male’ Israel is utterly hopeless and bereft.

In verse 3 Yahweh speaks to amplify the picture: the desertion of Israel will be witnessed in military defeat and decimation.

5:4-13

Motyer suggests that there are four calls to reformation and renewal in the following verses:

a) 4-13, spiritual;
b) 14-20, moral;
c) 21-27, religious.

He also notes that Amos takes up the characteristic position of the three shrines: in Genesis Bethel was the place where God was revealed as the transforming God, Beersheba was where God was revealed as the God who accompanied his people and Gilgal was the place where the people first entered the land of promise.

If the people are to make God the centre of their life they must abandon religious error (4f.) and moral error (6f.) or else they must face inevitable judgement (8f.). He then adds that 10-11 take up the issue of social injustice to demonstrate the outward evidence for the fact that God is not there and 12-13 exposes the voice of justice as having been silenced.

The people had been very religious, travelling even to the far south of Judah to the sanctuary at Beersheba. However, such religious activity can take place in such a way that the central purpose of religion, to seek God for Himself, is neglected. This was the problem with Israel (4). The source of life, the one who alone could establish in the land that quality of life prepared for his people, was not sought.

Without a proper approach to God, these sanctuaries had become a stumbling block to Israel and an offence to God. Consequently, though the people may venerate them, God was ready to destroy them.

Note, that in the last phrase of verse 5 (somewhat concealed by the NIV translation, but compare the footnote) Beth-el, the house of God, is re-named by the prophet as Beth-aven, a name expressive of the power of evil as well as that which is empty and powerless, with no existence in itself. It was a synagogue of Satan.

Thus, the people are encouraged to seek God aright or to face judgement (6).

Again, we note that it is not heterodoxy that is exposed but a religion which, though orthodox in appearance, is a veneer and where true spirituality is absent.

Motyer notes that 5b-6 express a warning in three different ways: emphasising the ultimate insecurity of false religion (5b), the reality of the wrath of God against disobedience (6a) and the incapacity of false religion to produce any shelter against the wrath of God (6b). The whole exercise is a futile waste of time.

The construction of the next verses in this section is unclear. However, it is perhaps best to view 8f. as a familiar cultic hymn which is cited in the surrounding context of exposure of social sins (7, 10) and which, therefore, emphasises God’s capacity to act as judge.

Frequency is emphasised by the syntax of verse 7. No mere occasional failure is in mind but a consistent and determined way of life. Such are overturning (hafak, 7a) the proper God-appointed order.

The reference to Pleiades (or, possibly, Sirius) and Orion may be intended to emphasise the power of God although they were also regarded as seasonal markers in the ANE. This would be consistent with the diurnal changes emphasised in the next part of the verse. 8b,9 seems then to shift the emphasis to climactic changes and his sovereignty in the (the climax and application) affairs of nations. Thus, the people do well to apply the words of their own hymns and recognise that there is no basis for their own self-confident security.

If verse 7 condemns the corrupt judiciary, verse 10 makes a slightly different point; it condemns the rich who criticise justice when it is given. This condemnation of the rich is continued in verse 11: the poor is deprived of the basis for continuing existence in the land at the expense of the rich who build homes which, they think, will secure their own.

However, whereas they seek to efface justice (even to the point that the worldly-wise consider it prudent not to make themselves unpopular and endangered by commenting on it, 13), God is omniscient (12) and he will condemn them to precisely the fate that they have imposed on others (11b). They will experience ‘poetic justice’.

5:14-20

The earlier call for spiritual renewal has led to the exposure of social sins. This prepares Amos for the next section of his message in which he calls again to the people to come right back to God and to demonstrate it by a new direction morally. Renewal without moral reformation is thus exposed as a sham.

Motyer notes that Beersheba, in particular, was associated with the presence of God among his people. This seems to be reflected here in the assumptions of God’s presence (14), grace (15) and ‘Day of the LORD’ (18). Amos seeks here to explode the myth. Such security is only to be found among those who seek God in morally upright lives.

There is only one way to favour and stability: the moral way (14) in which the decision of the will leads to a concomitant response of the emotions (15, ‘hate’). This is ever the way.

15b does not imply that God is unwilling to change his mind in the face of repentance. Rather it stresses the prophet’s pessimism as to whether his hearers will actually listen. This is emphasised in verse 16f.

The established dogma in Israel’s eschatology which saw the ‘day of the LORD’ as a judgement of God upon his enemies and the blessing of his people had doubtless been used to support the false-security of the people. Amos, however, re-interprets the image. Without renewal the ‘Day of the LORD’ will be judgement for the professed people of God too (18)!

This fact, repeated in 20, is re-enforced by verse 19. Most view this as a series of images but Motyer is probably best when he views them as successive. Disaster after inescapable disaster is vividly described.

5:21-27

This section introduces a third area in which God calls for renewal: religious renewal. Concentration on sacrifice and ritual at the expense of moral law is emphasised.

Verses 21-23 describe an active cult in which meetings (21), sacrifices (22) and worship (23) proliferate. But active orthodoxy unaccompanied by abundant (‘roll down…mighty’) and lasting works of righteousness is ineffective (22) and abhorrent (21) to God.

Despite many of the commentators, verse 24 expects the answer ‘Yes’. How then are we to understand verse 26? Perhaps the best expedient is offered by Motyer. Puzzled by Amos’ criticism of what appeared to be God appointed practices, the question would naturally arise, ‘But are we not doing what God demanded of us in the wilderness?‘ Amos does not deny this but indicates that when the ‘lid is taken off’ their present, apparently, orthodox worship a seething mass of paganism is discovered just below the surface.

Pagan worship in much of the ANE was astral. This is reflected here. This does not necessarily mean that Israel were actually practising these things as emphasise that a man-centred religion influenced by the prevailing (sacramentalist) religious views of the day had reduced Israel’s religion, whatever the outward appearance, to the level of a man-made pagan cult.

The consequence is spelt out (27). Perhaps, significantly, the destination of exile is ‘beyond Damascus’. At present Syria was the enemy but it was Babylon where the astral cult was most fully developed. Here then is a prophetic word which looks beyond the immediate threat and which, as such, is a word of grace giving time for repentance.

This chapter, properly applied, is a powerful challenge to much of popular evangelicalism today.

6:1-7

This chapter concludes the central section of the prophecy of Amos. The people were characterised by self-reliance. This chapter outlines the outcome.

1-7 assert the fact of national pride, emphasising complacency (1-3), luxuriousness (4-6a), moral indifference (6b). Those who thought of themselves first, would indeed find themselves first: first at the judgement (7).

8-14 describes the straits to which the nation will be reduced by such pride. The reason for this is grounded firmly in Yahweh’s hatred of such an attitude.

Though Amos has concentrated on (and will continue to do so) upon the northern kingdom, he is not unaware of the fact that Jerusalem is characterised by the same spirit, especially by those who ‘tick themselves on a list’ (naqav), as ‘notable’ (1). The first two verbs emphasise wanton behaviour and the verse, in brief compass, vividly depicts the idle rich!

Calneh and Hamath (2) were cities in northern Syria conquered by Shalmaneser III in 854-846. Gath was defeated by Hazael in 815. But why are they mentioned? Perhaps best is the suggestion that these were mighty cities who had now perished. If they had fallen in their pride….

Yet (3) the people feel sufficiently secure as to put any thought of disaster right out of mind. Yet while they set aside any thought of danger they, themselves, unleash a reign of terror on the defenceless (3b, this is probably better here than the interpretation which suggests that they were bringing God’s judgement nearer by their conduct).

Again Amos vividly portrays the selfish and indolent lifestyle of the rich. Abreast of the latest trends, they had replaced their dining tables with reclining couches upon which they sprawled (sarah, ‘lounge’ for their meals (4a), the menu comprising of the choicest meats (4b) and vast quantities of wine (6). Such banquets are accompanied by (there is a note of criticism here) those who like to think of themselves as aping David in their idle musical pursuits (to fill up the time?: verse 5) and are able to indulge themselves in the finest cosmetics (6).

Such people like to be first and produce a lifestyle which they think justifies their claims. Yet their concerns are entirely selfish, their ambitions and interests self-centred rather than directed outward (the mark of true greatness). But God is prepared to honour their hopes (7) and give them pride of place in the exile!

6:8-14

This section continues the theme of pride, outlining the fact (8), re-emphasising the moral indifference (12) and self-centredness (13). The resulting hatred (8), alienation (9-11) and enmity of God (12-14) is also emphasised.

God’s threat is made more serious by the oath (8) and the emphasis upon total capitulation to the power of the enemy (8c).

The picture of verses 9-10 seems to depict one of the great houses (‘ten’ would be a large remnant in anything else!) already severely depleted but now struck by some sort of plague/seige in which ordinary burial cannot take place and where the conversation between the one remaining and the relative/undertaker is one in which Yahweh is not mentioned lest he hear and they, too, die.

Verse 11 may emphasise that the poor will suffer too or (?) refer to the destruction of ‘second homes’ (perhaps better in context).

There is some difficulty in the translation of verse 12 but almost certainly two impossible situations are envisaged (as NIV). How unnaturally have the people reversed the true order of right and wrong!

13f. are pungent. Lo Debar means ‘nothing’, Karnaim means ‘horn’; a symbol of strength. They are apparently Amos’ re-naming of cities taken by Jeroboam II. Exaggerated boasting in personal strength over a trifling victory is depicted.

Lebo Hamath was the northern frontier of Israel and Arabah the southern boundary of Israel under Jeroboam. The phrase emphasises the totality of the oppression described here (in typical Hebrew idiom).

7:1-9

These verses introduce the final section of Amos’ message.

This first section introduces three separate visions of judgement. The first (1,2a) describes a locust swarm which devours the crop after the first shearing given to the king has ben taken away. The people would then be left totally without support.

This indiscriminate judgement prompts the prophet’s intercession (2b) and Yahweh’s assurance that it will not happen (3).

The second vision is drawn far more from the realm of myth: the holocaust of even the deep (4-6). Again a total destruction is depicted, the prophet intercedes and Yahweh withdraws the threat.

Finally, the vision of the plumb-line, with the emphasis upon discrimination is introduced. The plumb-line was used not only to help build but also to decide what to pull down. The picture is still one of judgement and of judgement according to the ‘line’ of the Mosaic law. In this, however, it is also gracious. Not all will suffer, only the culpable. This explains why Amos does not intercede a third time.

It also explains the point of the three oracles. The earlier oracles functioning to highlight the discriminating judgement that God will bring.

7:10-17

It is probable that this section chronologically comes at the end of the book. However, it is included here to emphasise the official response to Amos’ message.

Amaziah bore a name which is theophoric (‘Yahweh is my helper’) and this suggests that the northern cult was understood by its adherents to be a truly Yahwistic one. Nevertheless, he was opposed to the message of Amos (10b); though it is doubtful if Amos was engaged in political intrigue as he claimed.

Summarising the message of Amos accurately (11) he acts, apparently with royal sanction, to end Amos’ ministry. In sneering terms he suggests that Amos return to Judah if he wants to earn an income as a prophet (12). Certainly, such words are quite inappropriate at the royal chapel (13)!

Amos’ answer is to distance himself from the professional cult prophets (14a) and to indicate that he had no thought of the prophetic ministry until the LORD called him (14b). Rather he had been a shepherd and incisor of sycamore figs (which were thus sweetened and rendered an adequate substitute for figs). Only the call of God brought him away from his usual occupation.

Thus, Amos reprimands Amaziah (16f.) The picture described in the last verse is of a woman bereft of support forced to prostitution. He, himself, will lose his place in the land of promise and will die (horrors to an Israelite!) in a land which reveals his true spirit. And… like it or not, Amos’ words will prove to be from the LORD.

There is reason for us to meditate upon Amaziah and the words of this chapter. How easily we can develop the same spirit! 

8:1-3

This chapter continues the theme of imminent judgement. It justifies the judgement by explaining the ground on which God judges his people. 1-3 emphasises ripeness for judgement and 4-14 the relationship between crime and punishment.

At the heart of this oracle is a (typically Hebraic and prophetic) play on words: qayitz and quetz. The former refers to summer-fruit, the latter (etymologically unrelated) means ‘end’. Together (as NIV) the emphasis is made to rest on ‘ripe fruit’...‘ripe for judgement’.

The result of this imminent judgement will be the ending of the activities of the present cult which were so abhorrent to God. NIV catches well the vividness of Amos’ language at this point.

8:4-14

This section describes the crime which merits this judgement. Thus:

4) provides a basic summary of the situation: self-advantage pursued at the expense of the weaker person.

5,6) develops this by highlighting the fact that the people were subordinating everything to selfish gain:

i) religion (5a);

ii) honesty (5b);

iii) other people (6a);

iv) moral standards (6b).

7-14) elaborate the punishment. NB the fact that the passage is full of God as the divine agent: he is coming.

i) 7-8 emphasise the scale of the earthquake by reference to a nationwide earthquake;

ii) 9-14 develop three facets of the ‘Day of the Lord’:

a) the reversal of worldly enjoyment (9,10);

b) the exposure of true needs (11,12);

c) the insufficiency of false religion (13,14).

Verse 4 describes again the disadvantaged of society crushed by those placed higher up the social system.

Verse 5 emphasises the extreme exploitationist views of those Amos is condemning. A desire to lengthen trading hours to the limit and a deliberate attempt to minimise the quality of the product and skimp on the measures while pushing up the price through monopolisation is described here. In such an environment the poor are increasingly at the mercy of the ‘shop-keeper’ since he is in control of the supply of goods (6). The picture here is vivid. The poor, while being given inferior products (6c) are forced to pay in valued items for shoddy goods even to the point of having to mortgage or sell their lands and even themselves (6a,b).

However, while all this is going on there is one who has an infallible memory and an omniscient eye who is ready to act (7). The reference to the ‘pride of Jacob’ is not entirely clear and the commentators offer a number of possibilities. Perhaps most likely is the suggestion that it is ironic. The object of the people’s pride ought to have been Yahweh but they were proud only in themselves.

Verse 8 seems to describe an earthquake compared in violence to the inundation of the Nile valley by floods (a well-known image in the ancient world). 8a emphasises the extent while 8b the violence of the occasion. Perhaps, the picture is metaphorical of the world in movement under judgement.

9-10) seem to depict an eclipse (often regarded as presaging judgement in the ancient world). Such occurred in 784, 763. In this context the atmosphere of the hated religious festivals is changed into something more in tune with reality: bitterest mourning (10, end). 

11-12) The image of verse 12 is probably best understood if ‘sea to sea’ (12a) is seen as a reference to the east and west (i.e. the Med. and the Dead Sea). Three of the four points of the compass are then mentioned: only the south is excluded, for there, in Judah, the word of God will still be found. The picture is one in which in the teeth of judgement people are alerted to the reality of the situation when it is too late. God’s word has gone!

13,14) Tragically, without God the people are exposed as without any other security. The elders have ignored the Word of God and now the young are exposed, thirsty, but without finding anything in what their elders taught and believed to meet them in their desperate needs.

The details of verse 14 contain allusions which are not too easy to unpack. However, note,

i) the shame of Samaria, describes the reality of the cult with just the hint that it was, in reality, idolatrous (shame/idolatry is the same word and another word, similar in sound, is used for Canaanite deity). Whatever the appearance, the cult was no better than Canaanite religion…and as valueless:

ii) the image at Dan, ostensibly Yahwist (but compare the biblical denunciations!) was dedicated to the living God. Possibly,

iii) the same was true of Beersheba. Either way the living, powerful god which the people claimed to worship would prove dead and ineffective to help those exposed in judgement.

9:1-7

These verses describe how the judgement alluded to is accomplished.

Motyer notes that the initial command to destroy (1) is followed by a section which stresses the inescapability of this judgement (2-4) since there is neither spiritual refuge (2), nor worldly shelter (9) nor political answer (4). On the contrary (5,6), Yahweh has the ability to enforce his command since he exercises power over both the physical world (5) and the cosmos (6).

If there is a relationship between the visions of chapters 8 and 9 it may be that 9:1-6 may refer to the autumnal festival to which the summer fruits would usually be brought. That festival was sometimes considered to secure prosperity: here the reverse is the case.

The vision probably relates to the altar at Bethel (1) and the destruction of the sanctuary envisaged as total (‘tops…threshold’). However, this is no mere destruction of a sacred building for with that destruction goes the annihilation of the nation (1b). With God commanding the destruction of his own sanctuary what is to stop the destruction of the people!

Verses 2ff. emphasise the totality of the destruction and the fact that such is experienced at the very hands of the one they had (supposedly) worshipped. These verses are almost the opposite of Romans 8:32ff.. A succession of opposites or near opposites emphasises the impossibility of escaping the wrath of God: the words need no explication! Neither depth nor height (2), nor any other spiritual power (Carmel is known in the OT as a Baal sanctuary, the serpent was one of the Canaanite pantheon, 3), nor geographical distance or presence in the lands of other ‘gods’ (4) will be able to save the people.

In verses 5f. Amos again seems to quote a song from their own hymnbook, in the section, ‘God, the Creator’: a section doubtless much thumbed at the Autumnal Festival. Amos’ point is surely this; precisely because Yahweh is the sovereign God (note adonai, 5a) of whom you sing, this will happen.

An objector might appeal to Israel’s election. However, Amos’ point is that a mere date in history does not (alone) make any spiritual or moral difference. There are always other dates… Bellafonte was incorrect when he sang, ‘man shall live for evermore because of Christmas day’. This is the point of verse 7. In the context of 8ff. this is not a denial of election but the denial of an appeal to election without the fruits of redemption.

9:8-20

Yet, abruptly, Amos’ final words are words not of judgement but of hope. The situation he was addressing demanded that he emphasise the negative but his understanding of Yahweh and his purposes equally required confidence for the future. The God of the covenant (Yahweh) was still the covenant establishing God no matter how much his people fail. Where they might fail, He must prevail.

Thus, the judgement of God is seen as discriminatory (8,9a). Those who by their words (10b) have denied the true nature of the revealed message and have revealed themselves to be sinners (false understanding invariably has a moral cause in the Bible), will experience the full punishment of sin (10a).

However, an eschatological, messianic day (so longed for in Amos!) will come (the force of the reference to David and Edom, both popular messianic motifs cf. Isaiah 34, 63; Ezekiel 34. In that day the remnant will inherit the fullness of the covenantal blessings of God to his people (11f.; note the emphasis on Yahweh in 12).

Such will be ‘heaven on earth’ (13-15). The picture in verse 13 is impossible, but is an exaggerated description intended to evoke a mental picture of paradise regained, a land truly flowing with milk and honey! For them ‘everlasting joy’ will be upon their heads, for the messianic age will never come to an end (15); God, ‘your God’, guarantees it!

Thus for the faithful exile cannot be the end (14): the character and the purposes of God forbid it.

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