The prophet and his prophecy
Amos (whose name means burden) was from Tekoa (1:1), a small town in Judah about 6 miles south of Bethlehem and 11 miles from Jerusalem. He was not a man of the court like Isaiah, nor was he a member of a priestly family like Jeremiah and Ezekiel. He earned his living from the flock and the sycamore-fig grove (1:1; 7:14–15) and of humble means. Whether he owned the flocks and groves or only worked as a hired hand is not known. His skill with words and the strikingly broad range of his general knowledge of history and the world preclude his being an ignorant peasant. Though his home was in Judah, he was sent to announce God’s judgment on the northern kingdom (Israel).
He ministered for the most part at Bethel (7:10–13), Israel’s main religious sanctuary, where the upper echelons of the northern kingdom, including the priests that opposed him, worshiped. The book brings prophecies together in a carefully organized form intended to be read as a unit. It offers few, if any, clues as to the chronological order of his spoken messages—he may have repeated them on many occasions to reach everyone who came to worship. The book is ultimately addressed to all Israel (hence the references to Judah and Jerusalem).
While Amos is best known as God’s mouthpiece, doing the job God had given him, it was evident he had a relationship with God, such that he could even change God’s mind: “Thus hath the Lord God shewed unto me; and, behold, he formed grasshoppers in the beginning of the shooting up of the latter growth; and, lo, it was the latter growth after the king’s mowings. And it came to pass, that when they had made an end of eating the grass of the land, then I said, O Lord God, forgive, I beseech thee: by whom shall Jacob arise? for he is small. The Lord repented for this: It shall not be, saith the Lord. Thus hath the Lord God shewed unto me: and, behold, the Lord God called to contend by fire, and it devoured the great deep, and did eat up a part. Then said I, O Lord God, cease, I beseech thee: by whom shall Jacob arise? for he is small. The Lord repented for this: This also shall not be, saith the Lord God” (7:1-6).
Background and context
From the outset we are introduced to “the words of Amos, who was among the herdmen of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of Uzziah king of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash king of Israel, two years before the earthquake” (1:1). Amos prophesied during the reigns of Uzziah over Judah (792–740 BC) and Jeroboam II over Israel (793–753). The main part of his ministry was probably carried out 760–750 BC. The background and context to Amos’ ministry was as described above (see under his contemporary, Hosea).
A synopsis of the Book
- Superscription (1:1)
- Introduction to Amos’s Message (1:2)
- Oracles against the Nations, including Judah and Israel (1:3—2:16)
- Judgment on Aram (1:3–5)
- Judgment on Philistia (1:6–8)
- Judgment on Phoenicia (1:9–10)
- Judgment on Edom (1:11–12)
- Judgment on Ammon (1:13–15)
- Judgment on Moab (2:1–3)
- Judgment on Judah (2:4–5)
- Judgment on Israel (2:6–16)
- Ruthless oppression of the poor (2:6–7a)
- Unbridled profanation of religion (2:7b–8)
- Contrasted position of the Israelites (2:9–12)
- The oppressive system will perish (2:13–16)
- Oracles against Israel (3:1—5:17)
- Judgment on the Chosen People (ch. 3)
- God’s punishment announced (3:1–2)
- The announcement vindicated (3:3–8)
- The punishment vindicated (3:9–15)
- Judgment on an Unrepentant People (ch. 4)
- Judgment on the socialites (4:1–3)
- Perversion of religious life (4:4–5)
- Past calamities brought no repentance (4:6–11)
- No hope for a hardened people (4:12–13)
- Judgment on an Unjust People (5:1–17)
- The death dirge (5:1–3)
- Exhortation to life (5:4–6)
- Indictment of injustices (5:7–13)
- Exhortation to life (5:14–15)
- Prosperity will turn to grief (5:16–17)
- Announcements of Exile (5:18—6:14)
- A Message of Woe against Israel’s Perverted Religion (5:18–27)
- A Message of Woe against Israel’s Complacent Pride (6:1–7)
- A Sworn Judgment on the Proud and Unjust Nation (6:8–14)
- Visions of Divine Retribution (7:1—9:10)
- Judgment Relented (7:1–6)
- A swarm of locusts (7:1–3)
- A consuming fire (7:4–6)
- Judgment Unrelented (7:7—9:10)
- The plumb line (7:7–17)
- The basket of ripe fruit (ch. 8)
- The Lord by the altar (9:1–10)
- Restored Israel’s Blessed Future (9:11–15)
- Revival of the House of David (9:11–12)
- Restoration of Israel to an Edenic Promised Land (9:13–15)
The message of the Prophet
In his prophesying, primarily to Israel and to a lesser extent Judah, it was what God told him to do, for 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 two were closely linked. If they truly loved God, they would love their neighbour too. He also prophesied against the nations surrounding Israel (Damascus, Philistia, Tyre, Edom, Ammon and Moab – see map in Chapter 2), which between them did many wicked acts and God would punish them. 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. 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 a 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, which they didn’t. As with many prophets, they would have (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 a just grievance. We might well reflect that Amos plea to practice justice and righteousness and return to God is just as relevant for us at this time as it was to 750 BC Israel.
One simple breakdown of Amos message is:
- Indictments x 8 (Chapters 1-2)
- Oracles x 3 (Chapter 3-6)
- Visions x 5 (Chapters 7-9)
We close with the following (memorable) individual verses (to be read in context) – that the author has found 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 consistently told His people what He was about to do using the prophets as His mouthpieces, even though they were often rejected and the messages were often repeated.
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 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 to do so even if it meant exploiting the weak and vulnerable.
5:14-15 “Seek good, not evil, that you may live. Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is. Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts. Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph.” The need for justice was especially pertinent at the time of Amos and remains so as we see deep injustices in our society, including the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large.
5:24 “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” This is probably the key verse in Amos and is 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 set and secure given it was a time of peace and prosperity (at least for them) but how wrong they were and so are we if we were to 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 bring about 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.” A plumb line is used to helped ensure straightness building a wall or whatever construct; God wants His people to be straight in all their 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” Here is an example how standing for God comes at a price. Like most prophets it amounted to being persecuted by the establishment, in this case the priest.
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.” A basket of over ripe fruit which is what the people were likened to, as with so much of Amos prophesying, was a poignant and devastating picture of how God saw His people, who were now over ripe for judgment.
9:11,15 “In that day will I raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen, and close up the breaches thereof; and I will raise up his ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old … And I will plant them upon their land, and they shall no more be pulled up out of their land which I have given them, saith the Lord thy God”. After his message of God’s displeasure and imminent judgement, Amos looks forward to a time of restoration and the bringing in of the Gentiles, a theme that is picked up in Acts 15 and is further discussed in Chapter 15.