Amos was the first of the writing prophets that make up our 4 major, 12 minor prophet cohort. He operated mainly in and prophesied to the northern kingdom of Israel, even though he was from the South. His message was a lot more to do with judgement and rebuke, when this is compared with that of his near contemporary, Hosea, whose message was more compassion and mercy. As for Amos, he went about entreating the people to turn back to YHWH and practice righteousness and justice. While he appeared to be knowledgeable and articulate, he came from a humble background – he was a herdsman and look after sycamore groves. He began his ministry around 760 BC and was contemporary with Hosea (who started his ministry a little after him) and Jonah (a little before him), whose messages all complemented, all were living under King Jeroboam II.
He was prophesying primarily to Israel and to a lesser extent Judah, because that was what God told him to do and they were particular objects of God’s interest, which was to get his special people to turn back to Him, if need be using natural disasters to shake them up and later (from 722 BC), more drastically, letting them be taken into captivity by a hostile, foreign power (Assyria). While obedience to YHWH and practising justice and righteousness, especially to the poor and weak, may these days be seen as two separate messages, as far as Amos was concerned the latter followed the former. If they had truly loved God they would have loved their neighbour too. He also prophesied against the nations surrounding Israel (Damascus, Philistia, Tyre, Edom, Ammon and Moab – see map below), which between them did many wicked acts and God would punish them. It was a relatively peaceful time and many in Israel were doing well. But there were the “haves” and the “have nots” and in the main the former did not care about the latter and exploited them, interested in their own comforts. The people were also religious but it was a false religion that did not honour God as he should. There was much repetition in Amos utterances but the sense of indignation over the wickedness he observed was all too evident. He images like a basket of over ripe fruit the people were compared to and a plumb line that could be used to expose crookedness, in the main fell on deaf ears.
Amos is not the only prophet to speak out against social injustice or the exploitation of the poor but he was one of the more prominent to do so and it is not surprising that Christians on the Left like to quote from Amos about justice and righteousness in Martin Luther King “I have a dream” speech, which encapsulates what God’s expectations were. Amos message was more directed at individuals rather than institutions, who were expected to obey God’s commands. The government was under a king, who along with most of the kings of Israel and Judah was bad king, and was also an object of rebuke. Not only that, but the judges were corrupt and could be bribed by the rich and powerful. As for the priests, who were the custodians of the law and meant to be the conscience of the nation, they should have been teaching the way of God but were unfaithful to what should have been their calling. Their main fixation was to maintain the status quo and threaten, which they did, and shut up Amos and, as with many prophets, would have done so fully (i.e. kill him) if they could. The situation in Amos’ time while different to that of today had similarities, like the rich doing well as the expense of or ignoring those who are poor or with just grievance. Amos plea for us to practice justice and righteousness and turn back to God is relevant for us this time as it was to 750 BC Israel.
One commentator has broken down Amos message as follows:
- Indictments x 8 chs 1-2
- Oracles x 3 chs 3-6
- Visions x 5 chs 7-9
I found the following individual verses (to be read in context) – helpful when it comes to meditation.
- 3:2 “You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your sins.” Israel remains God’s special people and it seems as such he will deal harshly with then in order to bring them back to him.
- 3:7 “Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets“. In the Old Testament, certainly, God continued to tell His people what He was about to do using the prophets as His messengers, even though they were often rejected when doing so.
- 3:14 ““On the day I punish Israel for her sins, I will destroy the altars of Bethel; the horns of the altar will be cut off and fall to the ground.” The horns of the alter were signs of strength (it was also what escaped fugitives held to when fleeing justice) but the people could no longer trust in this as the horns will be removed.
- 4:1 “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria, you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy and say to your husbands, “Bring us some drinks!”” This so graphically illustrates people (in this case the women) who were pre-occupied with their own comforts and were happy to continue do so even if it meant exploiting the weak and vulnerable.
- 5:24 “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” What Martin Luther King quoted in his “I have a dream” speech – but it needed repentance first.
- 6:1 “Woe to you who are complacent in Zion, and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria, you notable men of the foremost nation, to whom the people of Israel come!” The people at least the “haves” of that society thought they were ok in a time of peace and prosperity (at least for them) but how wrong they were and we are too if we think on those lines.
- 7:1-3 ” This is what the Sovereign Lord showed me: He was preparing swarms of locusts after the king’s share had been harvested and just as the late crops were coming up. When they had stripped the land clean, I cried out, “Sovereign Lord, forgive! How can Jacob survive? He is so small!” So the Lord relented. “This will not happen,” the Lord said.” Swarms of locusts then and now can be devastating. Just as remarkable is how prayer can invoke God’s mercy.
- 7:7-8 “This is what he showed me: The Lord was standing by a wall that had been built true to plumb, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord asked me, “What do you see, Amos?” “A plumb line,” I replied. Then the Lord said, “Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.” God wants us to be straight in our dealings.
- 7:10 “Then Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent a message to Jeroboam king of Israel: “Amos is raising a conspiracy against you in the very heart of Israel” An example how standing for God comes at a price. Like most prophets it amounted to being persecuted by the establishment.
- 8:1-2 “This is what the Sovereign Lord showed me: a basket of ripe fruit. “What do you see, Amos?” he asked. “A basket of ripe fruit,” I answered. then the Lord said to me, “The time is ripe for my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.” Like much of Amos prophesying, this message is so devastating and final!
There is much else I could discuss, but I will end with the final verses (9: 11-15), which helps provide balance: ““I will restore David’s fallen shelter – I will repair its broken walls and restore its ruins – and will rebuild it as it used to be, so that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations that bear my name,” declares the Lord, who will do these things. “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when the reaper will be overtaken by the plowman and the planter by the one treading grapes. New wine will drip from the mountains and flow from all the hills, and I will bring my people Israel back from exile. “They will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them. They will plant vineyards and drink their wine; they will make gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant Israel in their own land, never again to be uprooted from the land I have given them,” says the Lord your God.”
My first point is while there is a severity in the message of condemnation and judgement Amos proclaimed to the people, who by their rejection found themselves cruelly uprooted less than thirty years later, there was also a message of hope. The early part of it, if we are consider Acts 15 when the Council of Jerusalem discussed how to accommodate new Gentile converts, has already been part fulfilled in Gentile believers joining God’s people. The latter part considers a glorious prospect for Israel and noting how today anti Semitism and anti Israel sentiment remains rife, we do well to remember, YHWH, the Lord God of Israel, shall have the final word and his purposes cannot be thwarted.