Bible Commentaries

Dummelow's Commentary on the BibleDummelow on the Bible

- Amos

by John Dummelow


1. The Man. We have but one trustworthy source of information concerning Amos, viz. the book which bears his name. Happily it is so written as to convey a sufficiently full and clear impression of the man and his career. He was born in the land of Judah, of unnamed and unimportant parents, during the first half of the 8th cent. b.c. His possessions consisted of a few sycomore trees, and a small flock of sheep which belonged to a peculiar breed, ugly and short-footed, but valuable for the excellence of their wool. These he pastured in the neighbourhood of Tekoa, in the wilderness of Judah. Although his means were but meagre, his position was independent, and when he wished to leave his flock he was able to do so, entrusting them perhaps to some lad, like that son of Jesse who in the same neighbourhood had followed the ewes great with young.

2. His Call. Three causes combined to turn the shepherd into a prophet. First, his knowledge of the deplorable state of affairs in the northern kingdom. The victories won by Jeroboam II (2 Kings 14) had brought wealth and power to the ruling classes in Israel. But luxury, impurity and intemperance were rife amongst them (Amos 2:7-8; Amos 6:4-6). And as to the poor, their case could hardly have been worse. They groaned under the most oppressive exactions; they were totally unable to get justice; they were treated as chattels, not as men (Amos 8:4-6). And the warnings sent by Providence—drought, locusts, famine, pestilence—were not understood by the well-to-do oppressors of the poor (Amos 4:6.). There is nothing to wonder at in the fact that Amos, a subject of Uzziah of Judah, knew all this. And the shepherd’s soul was stirred with deep indignation, like Nehemiah’s at a later day (Nehemiah 5). Secondly, he had heard of the campaigns against Western nations, waged by the great kings of Assyria; he could not help foreboding that God would use this mighty instrument for chastising the crying sins of Israel (Amos 5:27; Amos 6). Thirdly, and most important of all, God’s spirit communed with him and impelled him to speak. Amos was as conscious of a direct call from heaven as St. Paul was (Amos 7:15; Galatians 1:1). He knew himself to be in possession of the divine counsel; he could not refuse to declare it (Amos 3:8).

3. The Prophet’s Work. It is impossible to state precisely when the call came. If we could determine the date of the earthquake (Amos 1:1; Zechariah 14:5), there would be no difficulty. We must be content to know that it lay within the period when Jeroboam II and Uzziah occupied contemporaneously the thrones of Israel and Judah, about 775-750 b.c. It was at Bethel, the religious centre of the former kingdom, that his voice was heard. But Amaziah, chief priest of that famous sanctuary, soon intervened, sending a message to the king to accuse the uncourtly prophet of treason, and trying meanwhile to frighten away the preacher (Amos 7:10-17). Jeroboam does not seem to have taken any notice. Probably he cared as little for Amos as Leo X did for Martin Luther. And the prophet was not to be frightened. He explained his position, completed his message, turned upon the worldly-minded priest with a threat of divine retribution, and then withdrew unmolested. An unreliable Christian tradition of the 6th cent. asserts that Amaziah’s son struck him on the forehead with a club, and that he died from the effects of the blow soon after reaching home.

4. The Book. One thing is certain. On his return to Judah he reduced to writing the substance of his speeches at Bethel; not, indeed, giving us a verbatim report of each several address, not indicating precisely where one ends and another begins, but furnishing, rather, copious notes of these weighty discourses. And the exclamation, ’Oracle of Jehovah’ (see on Amos 2:16), is the Nota Bene of the writer, calling attention to peculiarly grave words. Besides writing out his message he added to it. He had preached against the crimes of Israel; he writes of the sins and punishments of surrounding nations (Amos 1:3 to Amos 2:6).

Remembering that the book of Amos is in all probability the earliest of the prophetic writings, it helps our comprehension of him and his successors to keep four points in view.

(a) His Idea of God. His faith in the Unity of God was not won by reasoning. He had a deep sense of the nearness, greatness, righteousness of One Holy Being; there was no room for another. The One God is all-powerful in Heaven and Hades, Carmel and the depths of the sea, Caphtor and Kir, Edom and Tyre. His mightiness appears in the control of human history, especially in His direction of the fortunes of Israel. It directs all that happens; there is no such thing as chance; calamity, equally with prosperity, is of His ordering. This implies dominion over Nature; drought, dearth, mildew, pestilence, locusts obey His orders. He is not a mere Power, however great; but a distinctly Personal Being, who can be spoken of as rising up against the wicked, sword in hand, or as moved by pity to change His purpose.

(b) The Relation between Jehovah and His People. In common with all other Hebrews, the prophets believed that Jehovah was in a peculiar sense their God. But in their eyes the bond was a natural and indissoluble one, so that if they paid His dues in the form of sacrifices, He was under an obligation to protect and bless them. Amos, on the contrary, insisted that the tie was a moral one, inevitably dissolved by unrighteousness (Amos 3:2; Amos 9:7). Here his splendid originality comes out. Ceremonial worship has no intrinsic value (Amos 4:4; Amos 5:21). Justice and righteousness form the true service of God (Amos 5:24): if His worshippers are immoral and oppressive, He shrinks from contact with them as a defilement (Amos 2:7); inhumanity and unbrotherliness are hateful to Him, whether displayed by heathen or Hebrew (Amos 1, 2). To Amos, Jehovah is above all else the God of Righteousness.

(c) The Coming Judgment. This is the first Scripture in which ’the Day of Jehovah’ is mentioned. Not but what it had already become a current phrase. The Israelites thought that when the Lord should arise in judgment it would be to their advantage—their sufferings would terminate, their dominion would be extended. Now they were told that this ’Day’ would be one of judgment upon themselves, and that its advent was nigh (Amos 5:18-19). Repentance would have averted destruction, but they have put it off too long.

(d) The Picture of a Happier Future (Amos 9:8-15). This is quite unlike the general tenor of the prophecy. Israel has been the almost exclusive subject of the prophet’s thought. Here Judah comes into the foreground, or, if Israel is in view, it is only as reunited to Judah. The Davidic kingdom is to be restored, but no stress is laid on the person or the character of the monarch. The ancient bounds of the empire will be reëstablished, Edom and other foreigners being reduced to subjection. The restored exiles rebuild the wasted cities. Agriculture and kindred pursuits flourish to a miraculous degree on an extraordinarily fertile soil. And the people will never be dispossessed from this earthly paradise. Whether this appendix was added by Amos himself or by a later patriot need not be discussed here.

’The style is the man.’ It is so in this case. When the shepherd from the south of Judah interfered in the social and religious life of Israel, he displayed extreme boldness. His style is a bold one. His language is clear, vigorous, direct. The imagery, as might have been expected, is drawn from rural affairs—threshing-sledges, wagons, harvests, cattle, birds, lions, fishing. But the Oriental shepherd, though he be not familiar with books, is not necessarily uncultivated. The poetic structure of Amos 4 is quite perfect: the refrain, ’Yet have ye not returned unto me, saith Jehovah’ (Amos 4:6, Amos 4:8-9, Amos 4:10-11), is used with great effect; the technical arrangement of the dirge is perfectly understood (Amos 5:2; Amos 8:10), and Amos knows how to work up to a climax.

5. Contents. We have already shown what is the substance of the prophet’s teaching, but it will interest some readers if we roughly trace the order of his ideas as they appear in the book. It opens with a denunciation of the cruel wrongs done by the surrounding nations to each other and to Israel. All of these shall have their due recompense of reward (Amos 1:3 to Amos 2:3). Judah’s turn comes next: her offence is more directly against God, but her punishment is no less certain (Amos 2:4-5). When Israel is reached, the note is struck which resounds all through the book: it is the oppression of the poor, unchastity, a wrong idea of the character and requirements of Jehovah which will bring down chastisement (Amos 2:6-8). These sins are due to ingratitude for God’s mercies, and are aggravated by attempts to silence the voice of truth. They will bring on an attack and utter defeat at the hands of an enemy (Amos 2:9-16). The next section teaches that the closeness of the relation between Jehovah and Israel itself involves the punishment of the people (Amos 3:1-8). The neighbouring nations are summoned to witness the oppressions which are going on: the doom of palaces and altars is pronounced (Amos 3:9-15). The rich women are rebuked and threatened (Amos 4:1-3); the futility of superstitious worship is proclaimed (Amos 4:4-5); the failure of God’s attempt to reform Israel is bewailed (Amos 4:6-12). A bitter lament over Israel is followed by some account of the injustice practised by the powerful; then the fond hopes cherished respecting the ’Day of the Lord’ are shattered, and the elaborate ritual with which it was sought to please Him is sternly rejected (Amos 5). The luxury of the higher classes is the main theme of the next address, which ends with an intimation of Assyrian invasion (Amos 6). Three visions set forth in pictorial form the speedy end of the nation (Amos 7:1-9). Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, attempts to drive Amos out of the country (Amos 7:10-17). Another vision is described, and the common theme of dishonesty and injustice is again taken up: from the penalty thus provoked there will be no deliverance either in man or God (Amos 8). None shall escape (Amos 9:1-6). Jehovah repudiates a special interest in Israel (Amos 9:7). The final paragraph rejoices in the hope of a happier future, a restoration of the kingdom in the line of David, a fertile land, an undisturbed security of tenure (Amos 9:11-15).