Tales of the Nevi'im - Amos
The Tales of the Nevi’im are the Stories of the Prophets. In Hebrew navi (nah-vee') means prophet and the plural, prophets, is nevi'im (neh-vee-eem'). Israel had many prophets, some of whom we know from the Old Testament, others are lost to us in history. Many of Israel's prophets spoke to the people but didn't write anything down, likely because their message was meant for a specific people and time. Others proclaimed a message meant to instruct us as well. God spoke his word through these men for all people for all times, and we read them today as the books of the prophets in our Bibles. This series will explore their stories and message.
The Story of Amos
Like Jonah and Hosea, Amos was a prophet in the 8th century BC. The first few verses of the book tell us he worked during the reign of king Jeroboam II (793-753 BC) in the northern kingdom of Israel and the reign of Uzziah (792-740 BC) in the southern kingdom of Judah. He also mentions a great earthquake which archaeological excavations suggest may have happened in 760 BC. This allows us to date the prophecies of Amos to the approximate range of 765-760 BC. Amos himself, however, was not from a typical prophetic background. He tells us he was a shepherd and a farmer from the village of Tekoa, a few miles south of Jerusalem, who received a call from God to deliver a message to Israel.
The fathers of Jeroboam and Uzziah had also been kings of their respective kingdoms and warred against each other. But when Jeroboam and Uzziah gained the thrones, they made peace. This allowed both Israel and Judah to turn their attention to their neighbors and taking advantage of Assyria’s preoccupation with internal problems, they extended their territories through conquest. This in turn brought a period of prosperity to both kingdoms. Prosperity was accompanied by moral and spiritual decline. While religious observance appears to have continued, it very obviously had no effect on the lives of the Israelites. The rich indulged in extravagant lifestyles, oppressed the poor with high rents and taxes, and engaged in sexual immorality. They made an outward show of being religious but their moral and spiritual practices proved otherwise. While all of the 8th century prophets were concerned with social injustice, the message of Amos is particularly focused on the rampant corruption and oppression of his time.
As a boy, I spent many summers working on my grandfather’s farm. I can remember some years with little rain, resulting in a poor harvest. Like many farmers facing a disappointing harvest, he would sometimes have to borrow against the next year’s crop in hope of a better year. This is the same situation any Israelite farmers faced in the 8th century. In ancient Israel it was not unheard of to have successive years of drought. The Israelite farmers were also forced to borrow to plant the next year’s crops. Within a few years of this cycle they could find themselves completely mortgaged. If the one who had lent the money called in the debt, the Israelite farmer found himself no longer the owner of his land, working instead as a servant, often getting further and further behind.
The law of Moses forbade this type of exploitation but it was happening in Amos’ time. Perhaps Amos, being a farmer and shepherd, was uniquely equipped to deliver this particular message from God to Israel.
Chapters 1-6 of the book of Amos contain words of warning. At first, the warnings are against Israel’s neighbors – Damascus (modern Syria), Gaza (Philistine territory), Tyre (modern Lebanon), Edom, Ammon, and Moab (all in modern Jordan). All of these nations had fought and oppressed Israel. Amos words were heard with joy to know that God would judge these nations. But imagine their surprise when he continued in chapter 2, “Thus says the Lord, ‘For three transgressions of Judah, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because they have rejected the law of the Lord, and have not kept his statutes, …’” And then, “Thus says the Lord, ‘For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals – those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and turn aside the way of the afflicted, …’” Surely not! Would God judge Judah and Israel along with the other nations? Yes, replied Amos, and not only that, but God’s expectations of his chosen people were greater than his expectations of the surrounding nations. Israel’s punishment would be harsher because of her greater knowledge, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” (3:2)
In chapter 4, God lists all his efforts to get Israel to repent, but he repeatedly concludes, “yet you did not return to me, declares the Lord” (4:6, 8, 9, 10, 11). And in chapter 5, God summarizes what he asks of Israel with some beautiful passages:
“Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate” (5:15)
“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (5:24)
Unfortunately, history shows that Israel was deaf to Amos’ message and the story turns to a prophecy of Israel’s future.
Chapters 7-9 relate visions given to Amos by God. The first is a graphic illustration of judgment. It’s a picture many of us are familiar with, even today – using a plumb line to judge how straight and true our construction might be.
“This is what he showed me: behold, the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb line.’ Then the Lord said, ‘Behold I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass by them; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.’” (7:7-9)
This is a vivid picture of God measuring Israel’s deeds, finding them wanting, and sending a punishment by the sword. In fact, history records that a few decades after this prophecy, the Assyrians would retaliate against the northern kingdom of Israel and destroy it!
But Amos continues with an even greater calamity for Israel,
“Behold, the days are coming declares the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land – not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it” (8:11-12).
As terrifying as the vision of national calamity was to them, Amos foretells a worse fate – when they turn to God in their desperation, he will not be there! What a stark example of Jesus’ teaching in John 15:5-6, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”
Lessons and Themes
Amos was not a prophet by profession. He was a farmer and shepherd. Yet God called him to deliver a message to Israel. Sometimes we feel we are not qualified or equipped to do what God, in the scripture, is asking us to do. We are tempted to think this is work for “professionals” – pastors or teachers. Yet, Jesus charges us in Matthew 28:19, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” This commission is for all who believe. We all have a story of an encounter with Jesus to tell. We all have a story of good news to share.
Everyone will be accountable to God on the day of judgment. In Amos we find the first known reference in the Old Testament to the “day of the Lord”. This is the day of accountability or judgment. The Israelites thought it would be a day of light and salvation for them and a day of destruction for their enemies. But Amos says in 5:18, “Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light, …” The lesson is a reminder to us as well - the day of the Lord is only a day of light to those who trust in Christ!
Justice and compassion toward others is a sign of our relationship with God. To be sure, human justice and compassion cannot save us, but their lack in our lives is a visible sign of an inward problem. Our faith will inevitably show itself in compassion to the needy and outcast.
Questions for Further Reflection/Discussion:
Are you surprised that God sends a message of warning and judgment to Israel at a time when religious observance was high? Read 5:21-24. What does this tell us about God’s attitude toward religious observance? What specific implications might that have for us in our worship?
In chapter 4, God lists some of the difficulties Israel has been through. It appears that God expected these trials to cause Israel to turn back, but he repeatedly says, “yet you did not return to me” (4:6, 8, 9, 10, 11). Does it surprise you that God might use trials to lead us back to him? Have you ever experienced a situation like this?
Read Amos 9:11-15. There are a number of references in the passage that are not obvious, but the tone is clear – a glimmer of hope. Why do you think God would end this book of warning and judgment with a prophecy of hope? The phrase, “raise up the booth of David that is fallen” likely refers to Jesus, a descendant of king David whose kingdom will never end. In light of this prophecy, how do you see this book relating to our times?
Terry Feix is the Executive Pastor at Crossings Community Church in Oklahoma City and a regular writer at So We Speak. Follow him @TerryFeix on Twitter.
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