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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

- Amos

by Charles John Ellicott





THE early life of the prophet Amos was spent at Tekoa, the modern Tekûa, an elevated spot between four and five English miles due south of Bethlehem. This spot, according to Robinson (Biblical Researches, i. 486), has “a wide prospect. Towards the north-east the land slopes down towards Wady Khureitûn; on the other side the hill is surrounded by a belt of level table land, beyond which are valleys, and then other higher hills. On the south, at some distance, another deep valley runs off south-east towards the Dead Sea. The view in this direction is bounded only by the level mountains of Moab, with frequent bursts of the Dead Sea seen through openings among the rugged and desolate intervening mountains.” No fitter scene can be imagined as the home of the prophet, whose far-seeing vision and trumpet voice were to awaken the corrupt and selfish life of the northern kingdom. Amos was by birth not a prophet, but a herdsman, and likewise a dresser of sycamore-fruit. How long he plied his peaceful tasks in his Judæan home, secure against invasion or disturbance under the strong rule of King Uzziah, we do not know. But to him—a layman, and no prophet—there came the Word of the Lord as he meditated among the lonely hills and their wide prospects, urging him to utter God’s doom against nations and kingdoms.

Respecting his prophetic work, we know that it was directed almost entirely to the northern kingdom, and was likewise exercised there. It is uncertain whether the striking episode described in Amos 7:10-17 belonged to the beginning or the end of his ministry. We there read that the prophet boldly presented himself at Bethel, celebrated for its ancient historic associations, its important temple, and as being a place of royal residence. There Amos delivered the striking series of symbolic oracles contained in Amos 7:8. This provoked the hostility of Amaziah, priest of the sanctuary, who endeavoured to obtain from King Jeroboam a sentence of banishment against the prophet, on the ground that he was speaking treason against the throne. To the charges and menaces of Amaziah Amos replied with a sentence of doom against king and priest.

It is extremely difficult to assign a probable date for the entire collection of oracles. We know from the superscription (1) that they were delivered two years before “the earthquake,” an event so terrible and marked in its character that it is referred to again by Zachariah (Zechariah 14:5); (2) that he prophesied during the reigns of Jeroboam and Uzziah. But we do not know the date of the earthquake, nor whether the prophetic ministry of Amos continued after the death of Jeroboam II. It is also doubtful how long a period is covered by the extant collection of oracles, though internal indications favour a short rather than a long interval. To this must be added the uncertainty which now prevails respecting Biblical chronology. (See Introduction to Hosea.) If we adopt Mr. Sharpe’s chronology, which seems more free from difficulties than other systems, the death of Jeroboam II. took place in 764. The Assyriologist, Professor Brandes, would put it several years later (Geo. Smith, Assyr. Eponym Canon, pp. 14, 15). We might, therefore, place the period of the prophet’s activity between 804 (the year of Jeroboam’s accession, according to Sharpe) and about 760 B.C. We shall assign reasons for showing that the prophetic career of Amos was probably subsequent to 780 B.C. The fact that the prophet never makes mention of the name of Assyria, though he refers expressly to the destinies of surrounding nations, seems to imply that Assyria was at that period not so disturbing a force in Syro-Palestinian politics as it had been in a former generation, and as it was destined to become during the ministry of the prophet Hosea, when the terrible invasions of Tiglath-Pileser made the names of Asshur and King Combat (Jareb) to be names of dread. Accordingly we prefer to regard the prophetic ministry of Amos as exercised when Svria had begun to recover from the disastrous invasion of Vulnirari III. (see Geo. Smith, Assyr. Eponym Canon, p. 115; Schrader, Cuneiform Inscriptions, second edition, pp. 212-216, calls him Ramman-nirari), i.e., about 780 B.C.[14]

[14] Additional confirmation of this view is to be found in the reference of chap. 8:9 to an eclipse, which probably occurred in 784 B.C. (See Excursus to the passage.)

For the social, moral, and religious condition of the northern kingdom during this period we fortunately possess varied sources of information. Apart from the accounts contained in the historical books, we have the numerous allusions scattered throughout the prophet Hosea, whose discourses belong to a somewhat similar period, and are extremely valuable as illustrating those of Amos.
We thus obtain a tolerably vivid conception of this momentous and tragic century—the last days of Israel’s history. The energetic rule and successful wars of Jeroboam II, had extended the bounds of the kingdom. Syria had been compelled to yield up to him a large tract of country extending from Hamath to the Dead Sea. Ammon and Moab had become tributary. But the ease with which these conquests were obtained were due to the dangers which threatened the very existence of the Syrian states from the Assyrian power which had for many centuries been formidable, but was now extending itself westward, under the energetic sway of Vulnirari III. Under that monarch, as we learn from his inscription, Syria received a terrible blow;[15] and it is extremely probable that the recovery of the Transjordanic district by Jeroboam from Syrian domination is to be closely connected with this temporary overthrow of Syria and the neighbouring kingdoms. (See Note on Amos 6:14.)

[15] “To Syria I went. Mariha, king of Syria, in Damascus, his royal city, I besieged. Fear and terror of Assur his lord overwhelmed him, and my yoke he took. Submission he made; 2,300 talents of silver, 20 talents of gold. 3,000 talents of copper, 5,000 talents of iron, clothing of wool and flax, a couch of ivory, a high table, his goods and his furniture without number in Damascus, his royal city, in his palace, I received.” This event is placed by Schrader in 800 B.C., and by G. Smith in 797.

But the external power and foreign conquests of Jeroboam were evidently viewed with mistrust by the prophet; and, though Assyria is never expressly named, it looms in the background of the seer’s gaze, as the sword of Jehovah’s vengeance, which is one day to make a full end of Israel. (Comp. Isaiah 10:5.) The oracles of both Amos and Hosea abound in allusions to the moral and social rottenness of the northern kingdom. Amos dwells upon the splendour of the public buildings and of many private dwellings of the land (Amos 3:15; Amos 5:11 : comp. Hosea 8:14). Within Samaria’s strong fortresses the wealthy nobles indulged in their drunken orgies, stretched upon ivory divans, singing their “lean and flashy songs” in wretched parody of David’s minstrelsy, and bidding farewell to all thoughts of coming evil (Amos 6:0). He rebukes the empty boasts of power in which these profligate leaders indulged (Amos 6:0). He sternly censures the ladies of fashion who encouraged their lords to acts of gross self-indulgence (Amos 4:1). Meanwhile their luxurious life is purchased at the cost and on the gains of frightful oppression. In the days when Amos lived, the simple agricultural life of earlier times had given place to the changed social conditions produced by growing civilisation and commerce (Hosea 12:7-8), by the growth of large towns, and by the extension of art and refinement, of unscrupulous trade, and accumulated wealth (Amos 8:5; Isaiah 2:7). The poor cultivators of the soil were ground down to abject poverty by the princely landowners. The debts of the peasant, however paltry, could only be redeemed by a personal service, which was slavery (Amos 2:6-7). Their lords were also their judges in the courts of justice at the city gates, and extortionate bribes were the appointed means of averting a harsh sentence (Amos 5:11-12).

But the root of all the social and moral disorder was indicated by Amos and Hosea (especially the latter) to consist in the idolatrous and sensuous corruption into which the people had sunk. Baal and calf-worship had become to the popular intelligence the degraded substitute and symbol of the ancient pure conception of the one true God inculcated in the Mosaic law and worship to which the prophet Hosea endeavoured to restore Israel. The whole of Canaan, from Dan to Beersheba, was studded with local shrines, in which Baal or the calf-symbols were adored. Of the former, probably Beersheba and Gilgal, of the latter, Samaria, Bethel, and Dan were the chief centres. (See Amos 8:14, Note, also Amos 4:4; Hosea 12:11.) Moreover, all these sanctuaries possessed an elaborate ritual and calendar of feast-days (Amos 5:21-22). Both prophets threaten foreign invasion and exile as the penalty for this abandonment of ancient law and observance (Amos 5:26-27; Hosea 2:11). There are likewise traces, though obscure, of the worship of the Ammonitish star deity, Moloch, of the star deity Kevan, and of the Syrian Hadad-Rimmon. But the passages on which this is based are doubtful (Amos 4:3, Amos 5:26).

That the herdsman of Tekoa was a man of wide and varied culture, in the current acceptation of the times, is clearly evidenced by his writings. In that age the free movements of human intercourse diffused knowledge more widely and equably among all classes of mankind than is possible under present social conditions. The mind of the prophet was especially open to all physical phenomena. The rising of the Nile, the constellations of the sky, the eclipse, and the earthquake stirred his imagination. It is noteworthy that in Amos we have the first clear indication of the enlarging sweep of the prophet’s gaze. His eye ranges over the surrounding kingdoms. Israel is no longer thought of exclusively, its destiny is no longer contemplated apart from that of the surrounding empires with which it was closely connected. Jehovah is God of the world, and not of his peculiar people the Hebrew race only. He brought Philistia from Caphtor as well as Israel from Egypt.
This conception of universal Divine sovereignty was certainly not a new one in Israel. But it was made especially prominent by Amos, and is the key-note of his prophecies. It is from this standpoint that the oracles are delivered. While to Hosea, Ephraim’s sin, whether in morals or worship, appeared as an outrage to the relationship of loyalty and love to the Divine Lord, it was regarded by Amos as the violation of a supreme rule and a supreme justice.
The prophecies may be divided according to their contents as follows:—


Amos 1-6. Prophetic threatenings directed against the nations.


Amos 1:2 to Amos 2:5. Brief denunciations of surrounding peoples;—against Damascus, Philistia, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, Moab, and closing with Judah.

(2) Amos 2:6. Indictment against Israel. The prevailing idolatry—The oppression of the poor, and the debauched and indolent lives of the nobles.


Amos 7-9. Symbolic visions of the coming doom of Israel interrupted by the episode of the hostility of the priest Amaziah to the Prophet. The series closes with the Messianic anticipations of reunited and restored Israel dwelling in peace under the reign of the house of David.


EXCURSUS A (Amos 4:3).

The rendering of the LXX., “to the mountain Remman (or Romman),” has suggested to Ewald the interpretation, And shall cast Rimmona to the mountain, i.e., in their flight (comp. Isaiah 2:18-21), Rimmona being the idol-goddess of love, corresponding to the masculine deity Rimmon (2 Kings 5:18). In this ingenious, though somewhat far-fetched, interpretation of a difficult passage, it will be observed that Ewald takes the Hebrew verb as an active, and not a passive. In this he is supported by most MSS.

But the credit of suggesting the most plausible explanation belongs to Hitzig, who, in his commentary, proposes to read Hadad-Rimmon, and translates, Ye shall be cast away to Hadad-Rimmon. On Zechariah 12:11, there is a long note by Steiner supporting the supposition that Hadad-Rimmon was a modified designation of the sun-god, and was likewise the counterpart of the Greek Adonis, over whose wounding and death there was an annual lamentation, in which the women took part, and gave way to all kinds of excess. Hadad-Rimmon was, therefore, the name of the deity and the locality of his worship (comp. Ashtaroth Karnaim and other examples), now called Rummâne, four miles south of Ledshûn (Megiddo). To this spot the women were to be carried off for purposes of prostitution. (Comp. the threat pronounced by the prophet, Amos 7:17.)

EXCURSUS B (Amos 5:26).

Three obscure points render this verse one of the most difficult in the Old Testament.
1. As to tense. The interpretation to which preference has been given in the commentary on the text—the time being regarded as future—has been decided on grounds of grammatical usage only. But certainly the larger number of commentators have rendered the verb as a past tense, “But ye bore the tabernacle,” &c., the time referred to being that of the desert wanderings. This view is upheld by Hitzig, Kuenen, Keil, Henderson, and also by R. S. Poole. It is also supported by the LXX.

2. The word Sikkûth, rendered tabernacle, or tent, in the E.V. and by the LXX., is derived from a root signifying both to interweave and to cover—an etymology which confirms the above rendering. Ewald’s conjecture that it signifies “stake,” inferred from the Aramaic Sekkitho, is to be rejected. The conception of Moloch being carried in a tent may be illustrated from the Egyptian monuments of Rameses XII. Birch (Egypt, S. P. C. K., p. 149), refers to a tablet found in the south-west corner of Karnak: “The picture of the tablet represents Rameses holding a censer, and worshipping the ark of the god [Khons], which, partly covered with curtains, is placed in a boat . . . Figures of priests, a sphinx, and standards are in the boat, while twelve priests carry it on their shoulders.”

3. Both Moloch and Chiun were evidently star-deities. R. S. Poole endeavours to connect Chiun with Semitic deities worshipped in Egypt (see art. “Remphan,” Smith’s Dict. of the Bible). The name Chiun appears as Remphan in the quotation of this passage in Stephen’s speech (Acts 7:43). And both Remphan and Chiun were held by Mr. Poole to be the corresponding male and female deities of Asiatic type, Renpu and Ken. But the form Remphan can be clearly shown to have arisen from textual corruption, originating, perhaps, in some false analogy. In the New Testament passage the best MSS. read Rephan, and this reading has been adopted in our Revised Version, and occurs in nearly the same form in the LXX., from which Stephen was freely quoting. In the LXX. the original order of the clauses has suffered transposition, and it is certainly safer to adhere to the Hebrew text (as in Amos 9:11-12).

Rêphan arose from the Hebrew text by the change of a single character. Instances of such interchange are not infrequent in the Old Testament. Yet the form Rephan, though corrupt, is invaluable, as indicating the true reading of the Hebrew word. The word for Chiun was read by the Masoretes as Kiyyûn (according to Ewald, “pedestal” [?]). But the LXX. indicate, and much confirmatory testimony establishes the fact, that the word is to be read Kêvan, and that Kêvan, like the Ammonitish Moloch, represented the star-deity Saturn. Thus Kaivono is the form of the word in the Peshito. This view is supported by Aben Ezra and Kimchi, who cite Kivan as the name for the star Saturn in the Persian and Arabic. This star (see quotations in Henderson’s Commentary) was held to exert malignant influence. Schrader (Cuneiform Inscriptions and the Old Testament, p. 443) compares the name Ka-ai-vanu, the Assyrian name for that planet.

EXCURSUS C (Amos 8:9).

That an eclipse is here referred to, and employed as a figure to express the overwhelming calamities which were to darken Israel, can hardly admit of doubt, when we compare the similar figurative use of the earthquake in the preceding verse. But to what eclipse does the prophet refer? Mr. J. W. Bosanquet has attempted to identify it with a very special one, mentioned in the Assyrian annals:—“In the eponymy of Bursagale, prefect of Gozan, the city of Asshur revolted, and in the month Sivan the sun was eclipsed.” This has been calculated by Hind to have occurred on June 15, 763 B.C. (So Rawlinson, Schrader, G. Smith, &c., as against Oppert’s view, which is untenable.) If this eclipse was in the mind of the prophet, it is a fact of considerable importance in chronology. On the whole, however, it is more probable that the prophet was thinking of an earlier eclipse, which took place in 784 B.C., Feb. 9. It was a total eclipse, the time of totality being about 1 p.m. at Jerusalem, thus exactly corresponding with the phraseology of this verse. So remarkable a phenomenon would naturally stamp itself for many years upon the mind of the people, and this vivid impression the prophet summons to his aid in foreshadowing the calamities of the last time.

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