Book Overview - Amos
by Joseph Exell
No better illustration of the perfect freeness with which the Holy Ghost selected the men who spoke in old time to the fathers could be desired than that which is furnished by the contrast between Joel and Amos. Not more than half a century separated the periods of their prophetic activity; and perhaps they had actually looked one another in the face. They were both men of God, both natives of the same little land, both commissioned to preach to one people--the people whom Jehovah had chosen for His own. Yet they were entirely distinct in temperament and in personal surroundings. Joel was tender and pitiful, and Amos rigorous and severe. Joel’s words were those of a cultured citizen; Amos sprang from the poor of the people, and his language was simpler and stronger and more keen and cutting, coming from the heart of a man who had himself borne the yoke in his youth. Joel was a child of the busy town; Amos was a child of the quiet country-side, summoned from the spade and the goad to preach to the educated ranks of men. But the Holy Spirit shone through both alike, and spoke with the lips of both. For there are seasons when His light is the White light of the diamond, and other seasons when it is the ruddy glow of the ruby. His voice may be compassionate to-day, and full of an awful solemnity to-morrow.
I. What was the history of amos?--They are but hints and glimpses of his biography which he gives us; but, slight as they are, they tell us a good deal. His home was in the kingdom of Judah, not in any of its great centres of life, but in the little town of Tekoa, which lies some six miles south of Bethlehem. Far away on the horizon he saw the summits of Olivet, which were so well known to Joel; but the scenes among which he was nurtured were different altogether from those familiar to one born and trained in the city. Though Tekoa was itself a fruitful spot, well adapted for flocks and for the cultivation of the sycamore-fig, it lay on the very edge of the wilderness. Immediately beyond it fertility ceased. The eye looked out on rugged and desolate mountains, and through the gorges between the barren hills glittered the waters of the Dead Sea. In this last outpost which man had snatched from nature, Amos had his birthplace; and most of his life was spent among these solitudes. He was one of the herdsmen of the district, not himself the owner of large flocks, but simply the guardian of the sheep and lambs that belonged to another. £ He was a poor man, and his usual food, he tells us, was the sycamore fruit, one of the coarsest and least desirable of all the fruits of Canaan. But the prophet’s vision and faculty are not the prerogatives of the rich, and God’s grace can exalt those of low degree to the chief seats in His kingdom. In the loneliness of the desert Amos was prepared little by little for his life-task. If we study his prophecy we shall find that he was taught wisdom by two great instructors. He read much in the book of nature which lay open before him. The imagery of his visions is drawn from his life in the country. The locusts in the meadow, the basket of fruit, the shepherds fighting with the lions for their prey, the sifting of corn, the foaming winter torrents that descend to the Dead Sea, the midnight sky, in which the seven stars and Orion shine conspicuously--such are his metaphors. It was the sublime and tragic in the outside world, rather than the merely beautiful, which fascinated the mind of Amos. When the writer of such a psalm as the nineteenth opened his eyes on nature he beheld it with a gaze of childlike joy. The sun was like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoicing as a strong man to run his race. But the prophet looked on the world with other eyes. He was impressed by the nakedness and changelessness of the desert on the confines of which he had his home, by the overwhelming grandeur of the heavens, which bent over him at night as he watched beside his flocks, by the conflict and death which he saw around him. This proneness to meditate on the more terrible aspects of the outer world was to colour his words when God called him away from the sheepfolds. He loved to point his teaching by wild and disquieting images taken from what he had himself seen, telling his hearers how Jehovah would crush Israel “as a waggon full of sheaves presses what is under it,” how the remnant left of the people would be “as when the shepherd saves from the mouth of the lion two feet or a piece of an ear,” how like some devouring animal the Lord would roar out of Zion on the shuddering and doomed nation. Thus from the great picture-book of nature Amos gleaned many profound thoughts and many solemn truths. But during those years of preparation he read deeply, too, in another book--the book of the law of the Lord. He brooded over the revelation which before his time God had given to His people. He traced His doings in history, in the vicissitudes which had befallen the nation of Israel, and in those of other nations too. In this fashion he sought to gather for himself some conception of the Divine character, and some understanding of the principles which regulate the Divine government. That his endeavour was not in vain his writings make very clear. In his solitude he learned much of the ways of God to man; and when at last he came forth to speak on behalf of the Lord to the mightiest in the land, he was able to enforce his declarations by many references to God’s dealings in the past. The law of Moses was familiar to him, and he recalled its commandments and threatenings to the minds of his listeners. He knew of the forty years’ march through the wilderness, and of the idolatry into which the people fell in former days. (Amos 2:10; Amos 5:25-26). He reiterated in some of its very expressions the prophecy of Balaam against Moab. Compare his words, “Moab shall die with tumult,” with those of Balaam in Numbers 24:17, where the Star of Jacob is said to “smite the corners of Moab and destroy all the children of tumult.” He hinted at the story of Jacob and Esau, when he denounced the sin of Edom. “His brother” (Amos 1:11) is, of course, Jacob. He repeated once and again the phrases of his predecessor Joel. Compare Amos 1:2 with Joel 3:16; Amos 5:18 with Joel 2:1 et seq. We cannot but feel that the bleak and lonely desert was the best of all schools for Amos. There he was moulded into fitness for a great and perilous enterprise. There, like Moses and Elijah and John the Baptist, he was taught by God Himself. And one day the wilderness life came suddenly to an end. He received the call of Jehovah to special work. The glory and the burden of the prophet were laid upon him. How the wish of heaven was indicated we cannot tell; but there was not a doubt left on the mind of Amos that God had summoned him to unwonted scenes and hazardous duties. He had no choice in the matter, and he desired none. “The lion had roared,” he said in his own characteristic style--once for all he had heard the thunder of Jehovah’s voice--and “who could but prophesy?” So he went out from the desert to proclaim the message of judgment revealed to him. For whither was the stern shepherd sent? Away from Judah altogether, northward into the territory of the ten tribes; and not to some quiet Israelitish village like the Tekoa which he knew, but to the court of the king, to the brilliant crowd that thronged the royal sanctuary at Bethel. It was not indeed a long journey, as we reckon distances in our day; for Palestine in its entirety is but a small country. But it transported Amos into a new world. In his home he had heard of the greatness and the sin of Israel; now he saw them with his own eyes. Somewhere in the closing years of the ninth century before Christ this memorable expedition took place. Jeroboam II. was reigning at the time over the Northern Kingdom. Under his rule it had reached its highest splendour. He “restored the coast of Israel,” we are told in the historical books, “from the entering of Hamath unto the sea of the plate.” He was a brave and vigorous man, though “he did evil in the sight of the Lord”; and his arms had been successful everywhere. His subjects were secure in the consciousness of their strength. They did not dream of disaster or defeat. But the proud and careless kingdom was being undermined from within. Its sins were sapping its vitality. These sins, we learn from the denunciations of Amos, were of three kinds. The root evil, from which the others sprang, was the corruption of the worship of Jehovah. Induced as much by political as by religious reasons, the rulers of Israel had erected golden calves at Bethel and Gilgal within their own territories, and at Beersheba in the far south for such of their subjects as had settled there. Their design was to prevent the ten tribes from repairing to God’s house in Jerusalem; for, had they been permitted to join the people of Judea in the great annual feasts, they might have been won back to their allegiance to the house of David, and the separation between the kingdoms would have been brought to an end. To secure their continued independence the sovereigns of the North established a special ritual and founded sanctuaries of their own; and at these sanctuaries they commanded their people to serve God. The character of the religion practised at the shrines of Israel must not be misapprehended. It was far from the pure worship of Jehovah, but just as certainly it was not rank and utter idolatry, like the service of Baal. It was the adoration of the true Lord under visible forms and images. Doubtless many genuine lovers of Jehovah bent the knee before the golden image at Bethel, even as in corrupt churches of our own day there may be much simple and earnest piety. And it was not otherwise in the ancient kingdom of Israel. In spite of its erroneous worship, numbers of its citizens may have been the children and servants of Him who is not like unto gold or silver or stone graven by art and man’s device. The fact that God still spoke with them through His prophets is proof in itself that He had not quite cast them off, and that, while their religion was sadly mixed with evil, it was not entirely false in His sight. But notwithstanding all this, they sinned grievously when they tried to frame an outward likeness of the Lord who transcends thought and sense; and He told them, by the mouth of Amos, that the altar of Bethel was an abomination to Him. And this initial sin was speedily followed by other offences; for when once the worship of God is corrupted, it is hard to keep contamination out of any department of human life. The little leaven very soon leaveneth the whole lump. Luxuriousness and effeminacy, with the sensual lusts which generally accompany them, were but too common in Samaria. The prophet describes its inhabitants as lying on beds of ivory and stretching themselves on couches, as chanting to the sound of the viol and inventing to themselves instruments of music, as drinking in bowls of wine and anointing themselves with the finest ointments. And he found them willing to stain their lives with even darker crimes, of which an apostle says that it is a shame so much as to speak. Many of these proud Israelites were sunk in the grossest impurity, as the clear-sighted shepherd from the desert quickly discovered. There was much social oppression, much greed of gain, much injustice done the destitute and helpless. The nobles turned judgment into wormwood, Amos declared. The judges sold the righteous to obtain money, and the poor for a pair of sandals. The princes put the day of calamity far off, and brought the seat of violence near. These were the influences which were working toward the downfall of the state. Fearless as Amos was, it must have tested his courage to put into execution God’s command and to repair to Bethel. But he obeyed. His tragic words rang soon through all the wayward northern country. They were sharp as arrows in the hearts of the King’s enemies. The people were bowed down before the prophet, as the trees are bowed before the storm. Perhaps Jeroboam himself, like another ruler of a later day, trembled for a little as he listened to the preacher of righteousness and temperance and judgment to come. But Amos made one relentless enemy in Israel. Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, began to fear for the reputation and the gains of his sanctuary. He determined to silence the daring speaker. “Get thee hence, O seer,” he said, “flee into the land of Judah, and there earn thy bread, and prophesy there.” Judging Amos by himself, he regarded him as a man whose prophesying was a financial speculation, and who “had made a bold stroke for notoriety.” The Judean visitor returned him a prompt and pitiless answer. “I am no prophet,” he declared, “nor a prophet’s son, but a simple herdsman, whom Jehovah took of His good will from following the flocks, and sent to this sinful place to cry against it a heavy and bitter woe. And thou, who callest thyself His servant, and seekest, nevertheless, to close the lips of His chosen messenger, thou wilt yet know His special chastizement, His fiercest and hottest indignation.” There is a tradition that Amaziah, angry at so dauntless a witness-bearer, sought to put him to death, and that Amos, wounded by the attendants of the priest, crossed the border of his native Judah only to yield up his spirit to God. But that cannot have been the case. For when he had reached his home again he set himself to write the story of his mission and the record of the words he had spoken while he was away. This book of his prophecy is most carefully arranged. Its sections are linked artistically each to each. That is the life-story of Amos of Tekoa, So far as we can gather it from the book he has written. It tells us--does it not?--how condescending God’s grace is. This humble shepherd was His minister. He chose the weak things of the world to confound the things that were mighty. It tells us, too, how devoid of feverish haste, and how free from foolish pomp and display, God’s movements are. He spent a long time in educating Amos for a task which was probably accomplished in a few weeks
II. The prophecy which Amos spoke.--Its great theme is the sinfulness and the doom of the kingdom of Israel. But, first, the preacher describes the judgments of God as about to fall on the nations which surrounded the guilty people. He glances rapidly from one to another, and, because all have sinned, he proclaims against all the Divine wrath. Damascus, Philistia, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, Moab, Judah--there is not one of them which is not ready for punishment. Yet Israel is the offender whose crimes are of the deepest dye. Its inhabitants were under peculiar obligations to be loyal to Jehovah. He had brought them up from the land of Egypt. Very unsparingly Amos exposes their transgressions. He pleads with them, though their evil was aggravated and the hour was late to seek the Lord; but, should they continue impenitent, he would have them know what awaits them. Even as he spoke a terrible danger was beginning to loom on the horizon. The hosts of Assyria, soon to be the ruling power of the world, were already advancing toward Israel. These hosts were in God’s hand, and by means of them He would afflict His foolish and prodigal children. He would cause them to go into captivity “beyond Damascus,” to the far country of Babylon away on the Euphrates. Then Amos passes to relate some visions which he had been permitted to see. They are all ominous of impending woe. The grasshoppers which devoured the harvest; the fire which was so fierce that it seemed to lick up the very depths of the sea; the plumbline employed to mark out the nation for destruction; the basket of summer fruit which typified Israel’s ripeness for judgment; the altar beside which the Lord Himself stood, ordaining a punishment from which none should be able to escape--how awe-inspiring and weighted with sorrow and distress each one of them is! A short section of this latter division of the prophecy is devoted to the recital of the episode at Bethel; and at the close, as the manner of the prophets is, there is a lightening of the gloom which has prevailed all through. The style of Amos corresponds well with his own temperament and with the character of his message. It is simple, stern, impressive. His words are pointed and powerful, and very often fervid and glowing. They are words that fall like a hammer, words that scorch like a flame. Not so finished or beautiful as that of Joel, his diction has a rugged grandeur of its own. One thing strikes us as we read his book. He likes to get hold of a telling phrase, and to repeat it over and over again. What a force there is in the reiterated formula of the opening verses, “For three transgressions and for four!” What a deep pathos underlies the ever-recurring refrain of the fourth chapter, “Yet have ye not returned unto Me, saith the Lord!” He was unacquainted with the learning of the schools; but he was not ignorant of the orator’s art.
III. Lessons which Amos is so well able to teach.--
1. He turns our attention, we cannot but remark, to the severity rather than to the goodness of Cod His prophecy closes, indeed, with an attractive delineation of the Divine loving kindness. But before the still small voice there have been the wind and the earthquake and the fire. No doubt, the life of Amos in the desert helped to imprint deep on his conscience and heart thoughts of the Lord’s inflexible righteousness and awful purity and unbending justice. Joel, whose home was in the city, had another and a gentler conception of God’s character. Dwelling in the midst of men and women and children, and loving them tenderly, and knowing how ready He was to make large allowance for their weaknesses and faults, he clothed the Maker of his heart with the same sympathies which he found within himself. Joel’s testimony concerning Him is true. Yes, but that of Amos is true also--a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation.
2. This prophet, too, insists upon the universality of God’s government. The Divine rule, he tells us, is as wide as the world. It is sometimes said that the Old Testament writers are exclusive in their sympathies; that they speak as though Palestine alone enjoyed the favour of the Lord; that they regard all born outside the land of promise as heathen men and publicans for whom the God of heaven could feel no care. But these are false notions. The Jehovah of the psalmists and prophets is God of the whole earth. His kingdom ruleth over all. Amos was convinced of this truth, and asserted it strongly. Israel must not imagine, he said, that God was mindful of its people alone; for had He not brought the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir? Though He had a special interest in Israel, His providence was present and powerful everywhere. It was of the judgments of this universal Sovereign that Amos chiefly thought. But there is comfort, too, in the remembrance that the Lord reigneth with a limitless and omnipotent sceptre. He sitteth King upon the floods. He will bring good out of all the evils which mar His creation, and will turn wars into peace, and will make the kingdoms of this world the kingdoms of His Christ.
3. Once more Amos feels strongly the necessity of uprightness and integrity in the outward life--of justice and mercy and truth in the conduct from day to day. He is the great moralist among the prophets. He occupies in the Old Testament the position which the Apostle James fills in the New. Perverted though the worship of the Northern Kingdom was, the people were very zealous in observing it. They loved to bring their sacrifices in the early morning to Bethel and Gilgal. They offered tithes every three days. But there were other duties which the prophet would fain have seen them perform. “Hate the evil and love the good, and establish judgment in the gate,”--these were his commandments. It is the most certain of all certainties that God can have no delight in worshippers who call themselves by His name and yet refuse to fulfil His law. (Original Secession Magazine.)
The date of Amos
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 (Jared)
to be names of dread. Accordingly we prefer to regard the prophetic ministry of Amos as exercised when Syria had begun to recover from the disastrous invasion of Vulnirari III. For the social, moral, and religious condition of the Northern Kingdom during the 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 was 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 Syria received a terrible blow; and it is extremely probable that the recovery of the Trans-Jordanic district by Jeroboam from Syrian domination is to be closely connected with this temporary overthrow of Syria and the neighbouring kingdoms . . . The conception of universal Divine sovereignty was certainly not a new one in Israel. But it was made especially prominent by Amos, and is the keynote of his prophecies. It is from this standpoint that his 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 a violation of a supreme rule and a supreme justice. (H. R. Reynolds, D. D.)
The Book of Amos
The subject is “Words concerning Israel.”
I. The material.
1. His first address, chapters 1; 2.
Threats against Damascus (Amos 1:3-5), Gaza (Amos 1:6-8), Tyre (Amos 1:9-10).
(a) Her sins enumerated (Amos 2:6-12).
(b) Complete subjugation announced (Amos 2:13-16).
2. The second address, chapters 3., 4. Destruction.
3. The third address, chapters 5., 6.: Lamentation.
4. The series of visions, Amos 7:1-9 : Punishment.
5. Promise of restoration (Amos 9:11-15).
II. The essential ideas.
1. The prophecy and its fulfilment--three views.
2. Teachings of the Book concerning prophecy.
3. More important, ideas.
The ethics of Amos
It is obvious that Amos only takes for granted the laws of righteousness which he enforces: he takes for granted also the people’s conscience of them. Now, indeed, is the doom which sinful Israel deserves, and original to himself is the proclamation of it; but Amos appeals to the moral principles which justify the doom, as if they were not new, and as in Israel ought always to have known them. This attitude of the prophet to his principles has, in our time, suffered a curious judgment. It has been called an anachronism. So absolute a morality, men say, had never before been taught in Israel; nor had righteousness been so exclusively emphasised as the purpose of Jehovah . . . How far is this criticism supported by the facts? To no sane observer can the religious history of Israel appear as anything but a course of gradual development. Even in the moral standards, in respect to which it is confessedly often most difficult to prove growth, the signs of the nation’s progress are very manifest. Practices came to be forbidden in Israel, and tempers to be mitigated, which in earlier ages were sanctioned to their extreme by the explicit decrees of religion. In the nation’s attitude to the outer world sympathies arise, along with ideals of spiritual service, where previously only war and extermination had been enforced in the name of the Deity. Now, in such an evolution it is equally indubitable that the longest and most rapid stage was the prophecy of the eighth century. The prophets of that time condemn acts which had been inspired by their immediate predecessors. (Geo. Adam Smith, D. D.)
The order of prophets after Samuel
There was one very remarkable change effected by this new order of prophets, probably the very greatest relief which prophecy experienced in the course of its evolution. This was separation from the ritual and from the implements of soothsaying. Samuel had been both priest and prophet. But after him the names and the duties were specialised, though the specialising was incomplete. While the new Nebi’im remained in connection with the ancient centres of religion, they do not appear to have exercised any part of the ritual. The priests, on the other hand, did not confine themselves to sacrifice and other forms of public worship, but exercised many of the so-called prophetic functions. They also, as Hosea tells us, were expected to give Toroth--revelations of the Divine will on points of conduct and order. There remained with them the ancient forms of oracle--the Ephod, or plated image, the Teraphim, the lot, and the Urim and Thummim, all of these apparently still regarded as indispensable elements of religion. From such rude forms of ascertaining the Divine will, prophecy in its new order was absolutely free. And it was free of the ritual of the sanctuaries. As has been justly remarked, the ritual of Israel always remained a peril to the people, the peril of relapsing into paganism. Not only did it materialise faith, and engross affections in the worshipper which were meant for moral objects, but very many of its forms were actually the same as those of the other Semitic religions, and it tempted its devotees to the confusion of their God with the gods of the heathen. Prophecy was now wholly independent of it, and we may see in such independence the possibility of all the subsequent career of prophecy along moral and spiritual lines. (Geo. Adam Smith, D. D.)
The Old Testament Prophet
He is a speaker for God. The sharer of God’s counsels, as Amos calls him, he becomes the bearer and preacher of God’s Word. Prediction of the future is only a part, and often a subordinate and accidental part, of an office whose full function is to declare the character and will of God. But the prophet does this in no systematic or abstract form. He brings his revelation point by point, and in connection with some occasion in the history of his people, or some phase of their character. He is not a philosopher nor a theologian with a system of doctrine (at least before Ezekiel)
, but the messenger and herald of God at some crisis in the life and conduct of his people. His message is never out of touch with events. These form either the subject-matter or the proof, or the execution of every oracle he uttered. It is therefore God, not merely as Truth, but far more as Providence, whom the prophet reveals. And although that providence includes the full destiny of Israel and mankind, the prophet brings the news of it, for the most part, piece by piece, with reference to some present sin or duty, or some impending crisis or calamity. Yet he does all this, not merely because the word needed for the day has been committed to him by itself, and as if he were only its mechanical vehicle, but because he has come under the overwhelming conviction of God’s presence and of His character, a conviction often so strong that God’s Word breaks through him, and God speaks in the first person to the people. (Geo. Adam Smith, D. D.)
prayer, that we may be baptized with the Holy Ghost. (Caleb Morris.)
the First Week after Epiphany