A Biblical Theology of the Book of Amos

Amos came with a message from YHWH to the Northern Kingdom of Israel. He was not considered a formal prophet, or even in a prophetic school (7:14), but rather, he was a farmer from the southern tribes (1:1).  Even though he did not have formal training, his book still communicates the message of God in clear style and poetic imagery.

As an early 8th century prophet, Amos preached during the reigns of Uzziah, king of Judah (783-742 BC) and Jeroboam II, king of Israel (786-746 BC). The first verse also indicates that he preached two years before a major earth quake. Some archeological evidence from the city of Hazor suggests that a major earthquake happened around 760 BC,[1] which could indicate the almost an exact date when Amos would have been prophesying (762 BC).

The moral climate of this time was corrupt. Israel had long since left the correct worship of YHWH and built its own centers of worship (1 Kings 12) and added Baalism to its religious life. Also, during the reign of Jeroboam II, Israel prospered economically and militarily. However, this prosperity was monopolized by the rich who exploited the lower classes.

Despite this morally corrupt time, Amos came and prophesied against the North Kingdom. His message emphasizes the sure judgment to come and can be summarized as: God judges His treacherous people with extreme—but temporary—desolation using the nations, because His people refused the message of YWHW which called them to repentance.

The God of the Judgment

The first major theme in the book is that God’s person requires Him to judge Israel. First, God repeatedly reminds the nation of His personal relationship with them. He was the one who brought them out of the land of Egypt (2:10, 3:1). He was the One who drove out the Amorites before them so that they could have the land (2:9-10). And He was the One who chose them from among all the nations of the earth to be His people (3:1-2). Therefore, because they broke this relationship, He must judge them.

Second, God’s character is the basis of His right to judge His people. God reminds His people that He is the creator of the universe (4:13, 5:8, 9:6). He is omniscient—knowing the thoughts of man—and omnipresent (4:13). And He is omnipotent (9:5).

The Message of the Judgment

Outside of the theme of Judgment, the theme of the Word of God is second theme most apparent to the reader. The phrase, “thus says YHWH” (or the like) occurs thirty times and the phrase “the word of the Lord” occurs three times in the book. Several words indicating communication occur often as well: אמר (to say, 52x), שׁמע (to hear, 10x), צוה (to command, 8x), נבא (to prophesy, 6x), ידע (to know, 4x), שׁבע (to swear, 4x), שָׁאַג (to roar, 3x), and יִתֵּ֣ן קוֹל֑וֹ (to give voice, 1x). Words indicating the content of the message are נְאֻם (declaration, 23x), דָּבָר (word, 9x), and סוֹד (counsel, 1x). And words indicating the messengers are נָבִיא (prophet, 5x) and נָזִיר (Nazirite, 2x).[2]

The Prophet of the Message

When God gave His message to the prophet, the prophet had no choice but to proclaim that message. God raised up the prophet or Nazirite to proclaim his message (2:11). And God also raised up Amos himself to be a prophet (7:14). And in defense his necessity to preach the message, Amos asks a series of questions (3:3-8) highlighting this fact.

However, though God sent the prophet, the people often rejected the message. At one point in his ministry, Amaziah—a priest—commanded Amos to stop prophesying judgment (7:10-13). Yet, Amos refuses to stop and delivers another message of judgment personally directed to Amaziah (7:14-17). Also, the nation of Israel profaned the messengers. They caused the Nazirites to drink wine, which was forbidden in their vows (2:11a, cf. Num. 6:3-4). And the people rebuked the prophets, ordering them not to speak (2:11b).

The Character of the Message

In the opening lines, the message is terrifying: YHWH roars from Jerusalem (1:2).[3] Here Amos pictures YHWH as a lion, coming to consume Israel. His presence is so terrifying that even the fields wither and dry up. Amos carries this terrifying tone throughout his book, until the last few verses. Additionally, the message also is necessary. In chapter 8:11-14, God declares that he will remove his word from the land. The result is that the people will wither and parish.

The Goal of the Judgment

When God judged Israel, He did not do so because he wanted to see them suffer. Instead, His goal was to see Israel repent and turn back to Him. God Himself repents, or changes his mind, twice in the book relenting of the judgments he was sending to Israel (7:1-6). However, five other times God sent judgment into the land of Israel to cause them to repent, but they refused to repent. (4:6-12). Thus, Amos writes his book with a call to repentance, as a last offer of mercy to God’s rebellious people. The people must repent of their religious formalism and syncretism and they must seek God instead (5:4-6, 24). Additionally, they must reject the social injustices pervasive during their times. Instead, they must seek the good of their neighbor (5:14-15).

The Nations in the Judgment

In his book, Amos did not develop lengthy oracles against the nations, as in Jeremiah or Isaiah. Outside of his introduction, he mentions the nations only in passing.

Judgment of the Nations

Amos first introduces his book with outcry against the nations.  He mentions seven cities or states which surround Israel. He starts with the farthest nation away from Israel and moves closer to it until he speaks of the sins of the Southern Kingdom. Also, Amos moves through the kinsman relationships that these nations had with Israel. He mentions Damascus, Gaza and Tyre, three cities not closely related at all to Israel. Then he mentions Edom, Ammon, and Moab, which are three states that descended from the Patriarchs Isaac (Esau, Edom) and Lot (Ammon and Moab). Finally, he mentions Judah, the closest national relative that Israel had. Amos emphasizes that these nations acted treacherously toward their bother nation—Israel. In a bold declaration, Amos accuses Israel of the same treachery to her own people and calls for her judgment.

Agents of the Judgment

God also declares that he will use the nations as the agents of his judgment. In chapter 3:11, an unidentified nation from somewhere around Israel will come and conquer her. In addition, this nation will not come up against her by their own might. YHWH Himself in judgment will raise up this nation to come and defeat His people (6:14). This desolation will be complete, from one end of Israel to the other.[4]

The Sinners of the Judgment

Amos details the reasons that Israel was to be destroyed: because of her many sins. This detail justifies God’s judgment upon the nation, taking on courtroom overtones when God summons the nations to come and witness the sins of Israel (3:9-10). The major categories of sin are social injustice, syncretistic religion, legal injustice and general sins.

Social Injustice

Amos’ condemnation against social injustice is what most people think of when they consider the book of Amos. The rich and affluent are guilty of inhumane slavery (2:6, 8:6) and ignoring the destitute (2:7). In business, they were eager to cheat people (2:8, 5:11, 8:4-5) and they did not return collateral as prescribed by the Law (2:8, cf. Deut. 24:12). Even the women did not show any compassion, but became demanding and lazy (4:1). Chapter 6:4-5 optimizes the wealthy class’ attitude: they pursued pleasure rather than the benefit of their brother.

Syncretistic Religion

During Amos’ days, the people still worshipped YHWH, but it was very syncretistic. They sacrificed to Him, but not as he prescribed (4:4-5, 5:22). And they even carried with them other Mesopotamian gods and worshipped them alongside YHWH (5:25-26). Because of this syncretism, YHWH rejects their sacred events and praise (5:21, 23).

Legal Injustice

Along with their social and religious sins, their legal system was also perverted. They were partial to bribes in court (5:10-13). They hated the people who had integrity (5:10). And they managed to pervert justice in impossible ways (5:7, 6:12).

General Sin

Besides these three main categories, they also sinned in other general ways. They participated in perverse temple prostitution (2:7). They trusted in military might (6:1-3, 13). And violence was rampant in the streets (3:9-10).

The Laments of the Judgment

The coming desolation would be so great that the people would lament and wail. This theme occurs throughout the book and many key words accompany it as illustrated in the chart below.

 

Word Gloss Occurrence
קִינָה Lament 2x
נְהִי Lamentation 1x
ילל To howl 1x
אבל To morn 3x
אֵ֫בֶל Mourning 3x
מִסְפֵּד Funeral 3x
הוֹ Alas 2x
הוֹי Alas 2x

The Cause of the Laments

Amos gives three reasons concerning why the witness of the judgment lament. First, they would lament because God remembered the sins of his people against them (8:7-10). Second, they would lament because YHWH was coming in His wrath (5:16-17). And third, they would lament because of the gory scene unfolding before them (5:16-17).

The Contents of the Laments

In the laments, two main categories appear. First, they would lament that Israel had fallen and would not rise again (5:1-2). And second, they would lament that the day of YHWH was utter gloom (5:18-20).

The Scope of the Desolation

With the sins of the people rising before the righteous God, He must judge Israel for her transgressions. The whole book is filled with the imagery describing how this judgment would come about. It was a message of complete desolation.

 The Desolation of the People

The scene as pictured by Amos has no hope for the people. The warriors of Israel will cower and flee (2:13-16). As for the sons of Samaria, Amos illustrates their demise as the scraps of meat left from a lion devouring a lamb (3:12). The wealthy, lazy women are compared to cows which are lead away to the slaughter house (4:2-3). Populations in towns and villages will be reduced by 90% or more (5:3, 6:9). And people will fear to speak the name of YHWH (6:9-10). Thus, the scope of the destruction of these people would leave the population utterly decimated.

The Desolation of the Land

As for the cities and sites in the land, their end is not much better. The altars and religious sites will be destroyed (3:14, 7:9). The homes in which the wealthy felt secure and at ease will be turned into rubble (3:15). And the fortresses in which they trusted for defense would be annihilated (5:9).

The Surety of the Desolation

God had changed his mind concerning earlier judgments on the people, but now Amos declares that this judgment was sure to come (2:6, cf. 3:14) and that God could not spare his people any longer (7:8, 8:2). It was so sure that YHWH swore that he would bring desolation by His Holiness (4:2), by Himself (6:8), and by the pride of Jacob (7:8).[5] And YHWH did not leave the exile solely to a foreign power, but rather He would personally send Israel into exile (5:27). He also commands the enemy to destroy all the houses of the wealthy (6:11). And because He was so deeply offended by the people that he began to loath them (6:8), he would relentlessly pursue Israel and destroy them (9:1-4).

The End of the Desolation

After all this dark and heavy judgment, God shines a ray of hope in the last few paragraphs of the book. Although the judgment upon sinners would be great, he promises that He will save some of His people in judgment (9:7-10). These people He will gather into a united nation, under the leadership of the booth of David, and He will return His people to the land (9:11-12). And when they arrive, God will again give to them economic prosperity (9:13-14).[6]

Conclusion

The book of Amos contains many relevant applications to today’s Christian. The foremost application is God’s hatred of sin. Throughout the book, God repeatedly condemns and rebukes sin of all types, especially pride brought on by wealth. Second, along the same lines, wealthy Christians should not be arrogant in their behavior. As James says in his epistle, the wealthy man should remember that his sustenance will fade away and he too will be humbled (Jam. 1:10-11). Third, the Christian should remember the mercy of God in chastisement. God may send chastisements upon the Christian, much like He sent them upon the nation of Israel. But these chastisements are not meant to drive the Christian away, but rather they are to bring the believer back to God. The author of Hebrews adds that chastisement makes Christians partakers in His holiness and it produces the “peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Heb. 12:4-10).

There is one connection to the book of Amos that the New Testament makes which is initially confusing. James quotes the LXX translation of Amos 9:12 saying, “So that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the gentiles who are called by my name” (Act. 15:17). Yet this quote is different than what is in the Hebrew text. However, the differences are minimal amounting to an expansion of the promises in Amos 9:12 and James might have quoted the original text.[7] Thus, James says that Gentiles could be saved without circumcision, because as Amos revealed, the Gentiles would be added to the Davidic Dynasty[8]  with no rite of circumcision mentioned.

 

[1] J. Daniel Hays, The Message of the Prophets: A Survey of the Prophetic and Apocalyptic Books of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 287.

[2] Although in Numbers 6:1-21 Moses does not specify that the Nazirite Vow dedicates a man to be a messenger of God, it seems that in Amos’ time, the vow had taken on the prophetic responsibility because the term only appears in parallel with the word prophet (2:11-12). Although much later, John the Baptist exemplifies the Nazirite/prophet idea.

[3] The location of God in Jerusalem is significant, because the Israelites said that God resided in many other places as well. Amos draws the reader to the true location of God’s presence.

[4] Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition (Biblical Studies Press, 2005) Am 6:14, n.39. “Lebo-Hamath refers to the northern border of Israel, the Stream of the Arabah to its southern border. See 2 Kgs 14:25. Through this invader the Lord would reverse the victories and territorial expansion Israel experienced during the reign of Jeroboam II.”

[5] Ironically, God swears by the pride of Jacob. As God’s holiness is eternal, and as He Himself is eternal, so also is the pride of Jacob eternal. They were so stanch in their pride that it was surety for an oath.

[6] This point is key in the current social justice discussion in the church today. God condemns the wealthy for their pride, injustice, and perversion, but He does not condemn the wealthy for being wealthy. In fact, when God redeems His people in the eschaton, He will richly bless them financially. Thus, wealth in and of itself is not wrong. Nor is the enjoyment of wealth wrong. Rather, it is how one attains this wealth which can be wrong and the prideful attitude that often accompanies wealth is wrong. Therefore, for Christians to act in a socially just way, it does not demand of them to be socialists, but to be careful of the vices which often accompany wealth and to help their fellow man.

[7] Stanley D. Toussaint, “Acts,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 394.

[8] Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition (Biblical Studies Press, 2005) Am 9:11, n. 31. “The phrase translated “collapsing hut” refers to a temporary shelter (cf. NASB, NRSV “booth”) in disrepair and emphasizes the relatively weakened condition of the once powerful Davidic dynasty. Others have suggested that the term refers to Jerusalem, while still others argue that it should be repointed to read “Sukkoth,” a garrison town in Transjordan. Its reconstruction would symbolize the rebirth of the Davidic empire and its return to power (e.g., M. E. Polley, Amos and the Davidic Empire, 71–74).”

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