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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

Amos 6

Verses 1-14

3. "AT EASE IN ZION"

Amos 6:1-14

The evil of the national worship was the false political confidence which it engendered. Leaving the ritual alone, Amos now proceeds to assault this confidence. We are taken from the public worship of the people to the private banquets of the rich, but again only in order to have their security and extravagance contrasted with the pestilence, the war, and the captivity that are rapidly approaching.

"Woe unto them that are at ease in Zion"-it is a proud and overweening ease which the word expresses-"and that trust in the mount of Samaria! Men of mark of the first of the peoples"-ironically, for that is Israel’s opinion of itself-"and to them do the house of Israel resort! Ye that put off the day of calamity and draw near the sessions of injustice"-an epigram and proverb, for it is the universal way of men to wish and fancy far away the very crisis that their sins are hastening on. Isaiah described this same generation as drawing iniquity with cords of hypocrisy, and sin as it were with a cart-rope! "That lie on ivory diwans and sprawl on their couches"-another luxurious custom, which filled this rude shepherd with contempt-"and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the midst of the stall"-that is, only the most delicate of meats-"who prate" or "purr" or "babble to the sound of the viol, and as if they were David" himself "invent for them instruments of song; who drink wine by ewerfuls-waterpot-fuls-and anoint with the finest of oil-yet never do they grieve at the havoc of Joseph!" The havoc is the moral havoc, for the social structure of Israel is obviously still secure. The rich are indifferent to it; they have wealth, art, patriotism, religion, but neither heart for the poverty nor conscience for the sin of their people. We know their kind! They are always with us, who live well and imagine they are proportionally clever and refined. They have their political zeal, will rally to an election when the interests of their class or their trade is in danger. They have a robust and, exuberant patriotism, talk grandly of commerce, empire, and the national destiny; but for the real woes and sores of the people, the poverty, the overwork, the drunkenness, the dissoluteness, which more affect a nation’s life than anything else, they have no pity and no care.

"Therefore now"-the double initial of judgment "shall they go into exile at the head of the exiles, and stilled shall be the revelry of the dissolute"-literally "the sprawlers," as in Amos 6:4, but used here rather in the moral than in the physical sense. "Sworn hath the Lord Jehovah by Himself-‘tis the oracle of Jehovah God of Hosts: I am loathing the pride of Jacob, and his palaces do I hate, and I will pack up a city and its fullness. For, behold, Jehovah is commanding, and He will smite the great house into ruins and the small house into splinters." The collapse must come, postpone it as their fancy will, for it has been worked for and is inevitable. How could it be otherwise?" Shall horses run on a cliff, or the sea be ploughed by oxen-that ye should turn justice to poison and the fruit of righteousness to wormwood! Ye that exult in Lo-Debar and say, By our own strength have we taken to ourselves Karnaim." So Gratz rightly reads the verse. The Hebrew text and all the versions take these names as if they were common nouns-Lo-Debar, "a thing of naught"; Karnaim, "a pair of horns"-and doubtless it was just because-of this possible play upon their names, that Amos selected these two out of all the recent conquests of Israel. Karnaim, in full Ashteroth Karnaim, "Astarte of Horns," was that immemorial fortress and sanctuary which lay out upon the great plateau of BaShan towards Damascus; so obvious and cardinal a site that it appears in the sacred history both in the earliest recorded campaign in Abraham’s time and in one of the latest under the Maccabees. Lo-Debar was of Gilead, and probably lay on that last rampart of the province northward, overlooking the Yarmuk, a strategical point which must have often been contested by Israel and Aram, and with which no other Old Testament name has been identified. These two fortresses, with many others, Israel had lately taken from Aram; but not, as they boasted, "by their own strength." It was only Aram’s preoccupation with Assyria, now surgent on the northern flank, which allowed Israel these easy victories. And this same northern foe would soon overwhelm themselves. "For, behold, I am to raise up against you, O house of Israel-‘tis the oracle of Jehovah God of the hosts-a Nation, and they shall oppress you from the Entrance of Hamath to the Torrent of the ‘Arabah." Everyone knows the former, the Pass between the Lebanons, at whose mouth stands Dan, northern limit of Israel; but it is hard to identify the latter. If Amos means to include Judah, we should have expected the Torrent of Egypt, the present Wady el ‘Arish; but the Wady of the ‘Arabah may be a corresponding valley in the eastern watershed issuing in the ‘Arabah. If Amos threatens only the Northern Kingdom, he intends some wady running down to that Sea of the ‘Arabah, the Dead Sea, which is elsewhere given as the limit of Israel.

The Assyrian flood, then, was about to break, and the oracles close with the hopeless prospect of the whole land submerged beneath it.

4. A FRAGMENT FROM THE PLAGUE

In the above exposition we have omitted two very curious verses, Amos 6:9-10, which are held by some critics to interrupt the current of the chapter, and to reflect an entirely different kind of calamity from that which it predicts. I do not think these critics right, for reasons I am about to give; but the verses are so remarkable that it is most convenient to treat them by themselves apart from the rest of the chapter. Here they are, with the verse immediately in front of them.

"I am loathing the pride of Jacob, and his palaces I hate. And I will give up a city and its fullness" to (perhaps "siege" or "pestilence"?). "And it shall come to pass, if there be left ten men in one house, and. they die, that his cousin and the man to burn him shall lift him to bring the body t out of the house, and they shall say to one who is in the recesses of the house. Are there any more with thee? And he Shall say, Not one and they shall say, Hush! (for one must not make mention of the name of Jehovah)."

This grim fragment is obscure in its relation to the context. But the death of even so large a household as ten-the funeral left to a distant relation -the disposal of the bodies by burning instead of the burial customary among the Hebrews-sufficiently reflect the kind of calamity. It is a weird little bit of memory, the recollection of an eye-witness, from one of those great pestilences which, during the first half of the eighth century, happened not seldom in Western Asia. But what does it do here? Wellhausen says that there is nothing to lead up to the incident; that before it the chapter speaks, not of pestilence, but only of political destruction by an enemy. This is not accurate. The phrase immediately preceding may mean either "I will shut up a city and its fullness," in which case a siege is meant, and a siege was the possibility both of famine and pestilence; or "I will give up the city and its fullness" in which case a word or two may have been dropped, as words have undoubtedly been dropped at the end of the next verse, and one ought perhaps to add "to the pestilence." The latter alternative is the more probable, and this may be one of the passages, already alluded to, in which the want of connection with the preceding verses is to be explained, not upon the favorite theory-that there has been a violent intrusion into the text, but upon the too much neglected hypothesis that some words have been lost.

The uncertainty of the text, however, does not weaken the impression of its ghastly realism: the unclean and haunted he use: the kinsman and the body-burner afraid to search through the infected rooms, and calling in muffled voice to the single survivor crouching in some far corner of them, "Are there any more with thee?" his reply, "None"-himself the next! Yet these details are not the most weird. Over all hangs a terror darker than the pestilence. "Shall there be evil in a city and Jehovah not have done it?" Such, as we have heard from Amos, was the settled faith of the age. But in times of woe it was held with an awful and a craven superstition. The whole of life was believed to be overhung with loose accumulations of Divine anger. And as in some fatal hollow in the high Alps, where any noise may bring down the impending masses of snow, and the fearful traveler hurries along in silence, so the men of that superstitious age feared, When an evil like the plague was imminent, even to utter the Deity’s name, lest it should loosen some avalanche of His wrath. "And he said, Hush! for," adds the comment, one "must not make mention of the name of Jehovah."

This reveals another side of the popular religion which Amos has been attacking. We have seen it as the sheer superstition of routine; but we now know that it was a routine broken by panic. The God who in times of peace was propitiated by regular supplies of savoury sacrifice and flattery, is conceived, when His wrath is roused and imminent, as kept quiet only by the silence of its miserable objects. The false peace of ritual is tempered by panic.

Verse 12

8

COMMON SENSE AND THE REIGN OF LAW

Amos 3:3-8; Amos 4:6-13; Amos 5:8-9; Amos 6:12; Amos 8:8; Amos 9:5; Amos 8:4-6

FOOLS, when they face facts, which is seldom, face them one by one, and, as a consequence, either in ignorant contempt or in panic. With this inordinate folly Amos charged the religion of his day. The superstitious people, careful of every point of ritual and very greedy of omens, would not ponder real facts nor set cause-to effect. Amos recalled them to common life. "Does a bird fall upon a snare, except there be a loop on her? Does the trap itself rise from the ground, except it be catching something"-something alive in it that struggles, and so lifts the trap? "Shall the alarum be blown in a city, and the people not tremble?" Daily life is impossible without putting two and two together. But this is just what Israel will not do with the sacred events of their time. To religion they will not add common-sense.

For Amos himself, all things which happen are in sequence and in sympathy. He has seen this in the simple life of the desert; he is sure of it throughout the tangle and hubbub of history. One thing explains another; one makes another inevitable. When he has illustrated the truth in common life, Amos claims it for especially four of the great facts of the time. The sins of society, of which society is careless; the physical calamities, which they survive and forget; the approach of Assyria, which they ignore; the word of the prophet, which they silence, -all these belong to each other. Drought, Pestilence, Earthquake, Invasion conspire-and the Prophet holds their secret.

Now it is true that for the most part Amos describes this sequence of events as the personal action of Jehovah. "Shall evil befall, and Jehovah not have done it? I have smitten you. I will raise up against you a Nation Prepare to meet thy God, O Israel!" {Amos 3:6; Amos 4:9; Amos 6:14; Amos 4:12} Yet even where the personal impulse of the Deity is thus emphasized, we feel equal stress laid upon the order and the inevitable certainty of the process Amos nowhere uses Isaiah’s great phrase: "a God of Mishpat," a "God of Order" or "Law." But he means almost the same thing: God works by methods which irresistibly fulfill themselves. Nay more. Sometimes this sequence sweeps upon the prophet’s mind with such force as to overwhelm all his sense of the Personal within it. The Will and the Word of the God who causes the thing are crushed out by the "Must Be" of the thing itself. Take even the descriptions of those historical crises, which the prophet most explicitly proclaims as the visitations of the Almighty. In some of the verses all thought of God Himself is lost in the roar and foam with which that tide of necessity bursts up through Chem. The fountains of the great deep break loose, and while the universe trembles to the shock, it seems that even the voice of the Deity is overwhelmed. In one passage, immediately after describing Israel’s ruin as due to Jehovah’s word, Amos asks how could it "have happened otherwise":-

"Shall horses run up a cliff, or oxen plough the sea? that ye turn justice into poison, and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood." {Amos 6:12} A moral order exists, which it is as impossible to break without disaster as it would be to break the natural order by driving horses upon a precipice. There is an inherent necessity in the sinners’ doom. Again, he says of Israel’s sin: "Shall not the Land tremble for this? Yea, it shall rise up together like the Nile, and heave and sink like the Nile of Egypt." {Amos 8:8} The crimes of Israel are so intolerable, that in its own might the natural frame of things revolts against them. In these great crises, therefore, as in the simple instances adduced from everyday life, Amos had a sense of what we call law, distinct from, and for moments even overwhelming, that sense of the personal purpose of God, admission to the secrets of which had marked his call to be a prophet.

These instincts we must not exaggerate into a system. There is no philosophy in Amos, nor need we wish there were. Far more instructive is what we do find-a virgin sense of the sympathy of all things, the thrill rather than the theory of a universe. And this faith, which is not a philosophy, is especially instructive on these two points: that it springs from the moral sense; and that it embraces, not history only, but nature.

It springs from the moral sense. Other races have arrived at a conception of the universe along other lines: some by the observation of physical laws valid to the recesses of space; some by logic and the unity of Reason. But Israel found the universe through the conscience. It is a historical fact that the Unity of God, the Unity of History, and the Unity of the World, did, in this order, break upon Israel, through conviction and experience of the universal sovereignty of righteousness. We see the beginnings of the process in Amos. To him the sequences which work themselves out through history and across nature are moral. Righteousness is the hinge on which the world hangs; loosen it, and history and nature feel the shock. History punishes the sinful nation. But nature, too, groans beneath the guilt of man; and in the Drought, the Pestilence, and the Earthquake provides his scourges. It is a belief which has stamped itself upon the language of mankind. What else is "plague" than "blow" or "Scourge?"

This brings us to the second point-our prophet’s treatment of Nature.

Apart from the disputed passages (which we shall take afterwards by themselves) we have in the Book of Amos few glimpses of nature, and these always under a moral light. There is not in any chapter a landscape visible in its own beauty. Like all desert-dwellers, who when they would praise the works of God lift their eyes to the heavens, Amos gives us but the outlines of the earth-a mountain range, {Amos 1:2; Amos 3:9; Amos 9:3} or the crest of a forest, {Amos 2:9} or the bare back of the land, bent from sea to sea. {Amos 8:12} Nearly all, his figures are drawn from the desert-the torrent, the wild beasts, the wormwood (Amos 5:24; Amos 5:19-20; etc.; Amos 7:12). If he visits the meadows of the shepherds, it is with the terror of the people’s doom; {Amos 1:2} if the vineyards or orchards, it is with the mildew and the locust; {Amos 4:9 ff.} if the towns, it is with drought, eclipse, and earthquake. {Amos 4:6-11; Amos 6:11; Amos 8:8 ff.} To him, unlike his fellows, unlike especially Hosea, the whole land is one theatre of judgment; but it is a theatre trembling to its foundations with the drama enacted upon it. Nay, land and nature are themselves actors in the drama. Physical forces are inspired with moral purpose, and become the ministers of righteousness. This is the converse of Elijah’s vision. To the older prophet the message came that God was not in the fire nor in the earthquake nor in the tempest, but only in the still small voice. But to Amos the fire, the earthquake, and the tempest are all in alliance with the Voice, and execute the doom which it utters. The difference will be appreciated by us, if we remember the respective problems set to prophecy in those two periods. To Elijah, prophet of the elements, wild worker by fire and water, by life and death, the spiritual had to be asserted and enforced by itself. Ecstatic as he was, Elijah had to learn that the Word is more Divine than all physical violence and terror. But Amos understood that for his age the question was very different. Not only was the God of Israel dissociated from the powers of nature, which were assigned by the popular mind to the various Ba’alim of the land, so that there was a divorce between His government of the people and the influences that fed the people’s life; but morality itself was conceived as provincial. It was narrowed to the national interests; it was summed up in mere rules of police, and these were looked upon as not so important as the observances of the ritual. Therefore Amos was driven to show that nature and morality are one. Morality is not a set of conventions. "Morality is the order of things." Righteousness is on the scale of the universe. All things tremble to the shock of sin; all things work together for good to them that fear God.

With this sense of law, of moral necessity, in Amos we must not fail to connect that absence of all appeal to miracle, which is also conspicuous in his book.

We come now to the three disputed passages:-

Amos 4:13:-"For, lo! He Who formed the hills, and createth the wind, and declareth to man what His mind is; Who maketh the dawn into darkness, and marcheth on the heights of the land-Jehovah, God of Hosts, is His Name."

Amos 5:8-9:-"Maker of the Pleiades and Orion, turning to morning the murk, and day into night He darkeneth; Who calleth for the waters of the sea, and poureth them forth on the face of the earth-Jehovah His Name; Who flasheth ruin on the strong, and destruction cometh down on the fortress."

Amos 9:5-6:-"And the Lord Jehovah of the Hosts, Who toucheth the earth and it rocketh, and all mourn that dwell on it, and it riseth like the Nile together, and sinketh like the Nile of Egypt; Who hath builded in the heavens His ascents, and founded His vault upon the earth; Who calleth to the waters of the sea, and poureth them on the face of the earth-Jehovah His Name."

These sublime passages it is natural to take as the triple climax of the doctrine we have traced through the Book of Amos. Are they not the natural leap of the soul to the stars? The same shepherd’s eye which has marked sequence and effect unfailing on the desert soil, does it not now sweep the clear heavens above the desert, and find there also all things ordered and arrayed? The same mind which traced the Divine processes down history, which foresaw the hosts of Assyria marshaled for Israel’s punishment, which felt the overthrow of justice shock the nation to their ruin, and read the disasters of the husbandman’s year as the vindication of a law higher than the physical-does it not now naturally rise beyond such instances of the Divine order, round which the dust of history rolls, to the lofty, undimmed outlines of the Universe as a Whole, and, in consummation of its message, declare that "all is Law," and Law intelligible to man? But in the way of so attractive a conclusion the literary criticism of the book has interposed. It is maintained that, while none of these sublime verses are indispensable to the argument of Amos, some of them actually interrupt it, so that when they are removed it becomes consistent; that such ejaculations in praise of Jehovah’s creative power are not elsewhere met with in Hebrew prophecy before the time of the Exile; that they sound very like echoes of the Book of Job; and that in the Septuagint version of Hosea we actually find a similar doxology, wedged into the middle of an authentic verse of the prophet. {Hosea 13:4} To these arguments against the genuineness of the three famous passages, other critics, not less able and not less free, like Robertson Smith and Kuenen, have replied that such ejaculations at critical points of the prophet’s discourse "are not surprising under the general conditions of prophetic oratory"; and that, while one of the doxologies does appear to break the argument {Amos 5:8-9} of the context, they are all of them thoroughly in the spirit and the style of Amos. To this point the discussion has been carried; it seems to need a closer examination. We may at once dismiss the argument which has been drawn from that obvious intrusion into the Greek of Hosea 13:4. Not only is this verse not so suited to the doctrine of Hosea as the doxologies are to the doctrine of Amos; but while they are definite and sublime, it is formal and flat-"Who made firm the heavens and founded the earth, Whose hands founded all the host of heaven, and He did not display them that thou shouldest walk after them." The passages in Amos are vision; this is a piece of catechism crumbling into homily. Again-an argument in favor of the authenticity, of these passages may be drawn from the character of their subjects. We have seen the part which the desert played in shaping the temper and the style of Amos. But the works of the Creator, to which these passages lift their praise, are just those most fondly dwelt upon by all the poetry, of the desert. The Arabian nomad, when he magnifies the power of God, finds his subjects not on the bare earth about him, but in the brilliant heavens and the heavenly processes.

Again, the critic who affirms that the passages in Amos "in every case sensibly disturb the connection," exaggerates. In the case of the first of Amos 4:13, the disturbance is not at all "sensible": though it must be admitted that the oracle closes impressively enough without it. The last of them, Amos 9:5-6 -which repeats a clause already found in the book {Cf. Amos 8:8} -is as much in sympathy with its context as most of the oracles in the somewhat scattered discourse of that last section of the book. The real difficulty is the second doxology, Amos 5:8-9, which does break the connection, and in a sudden and violent way. Remove it, and the argument is consistent. We cannot read chapter 5 without feeling that, whether Amos wrote these verses or not, they did not originally stand where they stand at present. Now, taken with this dispensableness of two of the passages and this obvious intrusion of one of them, the following additional fact becomes ominous. "Jehovah is His Name" (which occurs in two of the passages), or "Jehovah of Hosts is His Name" (Which occurs at least in one), is a construction which does not happen elsewhere in the book, except in a verse where it is awkward and where we have already seen reason to doubt its genuineness. But still more, the phrase does not occur in any other prophet, till we come down to the oracles which compose Isaiah 40:1-31; Isaiah 41:1-29; Isaiah 42:1-25; Isaiah 43:1-28; Isaiah 44:1-28; Isaiah 45:1-25; Isaiah 46:1-13; Isaiah 47:1-15; Isaiah 48:1-22; Isaiah 49:1-26; Isaiah 50:1-11; Isaiah 51:1-23; Isaiah 52:1-15; Isaiah 53:1-12; Isaiah 54:1-17; Isaiah 55:1-13; Isaiah 56:1-12. Here it happens thrice-twice in passages dating from the Exile, {Isaiah 47:4 and Isaiah 54:5} and once in a passage suspected by some to be of still later date. In the Book of Jeremiah the phrase is found eight times; but either in passages already on other grounds judged by many critics to be later than Jeremiah, or where by itself it is probably an intrusion into the text. Now is it a mere coincidence that a phrase, which, outside the Book of Amos, occurs only in writing of the time of the Exile and in passages considered for other reasons to be post-exilic insertions-is it a mere coincidence that within the Book of Amos it should again be found only in suspected verses? There appears to be in this more than a coincidence; and the present writer cannot but feel a very strong case against the traditional belief that these doxologies are original and integral portions of the Book of Amos. At the same time a case which has failed to convince critics like Robertson Smith and Kuenen cannot be considered conclusive, and we are so ignorant of many of the conditions of prophetic oratory at this period that dogmatism is impossible. For instance, the use by Amos of the Divine titles is a matter over which uncertainty still lingers; and any further argument on the subject must include a fuller discussion than space here allows of the remarkable distribution of those titles throughout the various sections of the book.

But if it be not given to us to prove this kind of authenticity-a question whose data are so obscure, yet whose answer frequently is of so little significance-let us gladly welcome that greater Authenticity whose undeniable proofs these verses so splendidly exhibit. No one questions their right to the place which some great spirit gave them in this book-their suitableness to its grand and ordered theme, their pure vision and their eternal truth. That common-sense, and that conscience, which, moving among the events of earth and all the tangled processes of history, find everywhere reason and righteousness at work, in these verses claim the Universe for the same powers, and see in stars and clouds and the procession of day and night the One Eternal God Who "declareth to man what His mind is."

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Amos 6". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/amos-6.html.