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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

Amos 7

Verses 1-17


Amos 7:1-17 - Amos 8:1-4

We have seen the preparation of the Man for the Word; we have sought to trace to its source the Word which came to the Man. It now remains for us to follow the Prophet, Man and Word combined, upon his Ministry to the people.

For reasons given in a previous chapter, there must always be some doubt as to the actual course of the ministry of Amos before his appearance at Bethel. Most authorities, however, agree that the visions recounted in the beginning of the seventh chapter form the substance of his address at Bethel, which was interrupted by the priest Amaziah. These visions furnish a probable summary of the prophet’s experience up to that point. While they follow the same course, which we trace in the two series of oracles that now precede them in the book, the ideas in them are less elaborate. At the same time it is evident that Amos must have already spoken upon other points than those which he puts into the first three visions. For instance, Amaziah reports to the king that Amos had explicitly predicted the exile of the whole people {Amos 7:11} -a conviction which, as we have seen, the prophet reached only after some length of experience. It is equally certain that Amos must have already exposed the sins of the people in the light of the Divine righteousness. Some of the sections of the book which deal with this subject appear to have been originally spoken; and it is unnatural to suppose that the prophet announced the chastisements of God without having previously justified these to the consciences of men.

If this view be correct, Amos, having preached for some time to Israel concerning the evil state of society, appeared at a great religious festival in Bethel, determined to bring matters to a crisis, and to announce the doom which his preaching threatened and the people’s continued impenitence made inevitable Mark his choice of place and of audience. It was no mere king he aimed at. Nathan had dealt with David, Gad with Solomon, Elijah with Ahab and Jezebel. But Amos sought the people, them with whom resided the real forces and responsibilities of life: the wealth, the social fashions, the treatment of the poor, the spirit of worship, the ideals of religion. And Amos sought the people upon what was not only a great popular occasion, but one on which was arrayed, in all pomp and lavishness, the very system he essayed to overthrow The religion of his time-religion as mere ritual and sacrifice-was what God had sent him to beat down, and he faced it at its headquarters, and upon one of its high days, in the royal and popular sanctuary where it enjoyed at once the patronage of the crown, the lavish gifts of the rich, and the thronged devotion of the multitude. As Savonarola at the Duomo in Florence, as Luther at the Diet of Worms, as our Lord Himself at the feast in Jerusalem, so was Amos at the feast in Bethel. Perhaps he was still more lonely. He speaks nowhere of having made a disciple, and in the sea of faces which turned on him when he spoke, it is probable that he could not welcome a single ally. They were officials, or interested traders, or devotees; he was a foreigner and a wild man, with a word that spared the popular dogma as little as the royal prerogative. Well for him was it that over all those serried ranks of authority, those fanatic crowds, that lavish splendor, another vision commanded his eyes. "I saw the Lord standing over the altar, and He said, Smite."

Amos told the pilgrims at Bethel that the first events of his time in which he felt a purpose of God in harmony with his convictions about Israel’s need of punishment were certain calamities of a physical kind. Of these, which in chapter 4 he describes as successively drought, blasting, locusts, pestilence, and earthquake, he selected at Bethel only two-locusts and drought-and he began with the locusts. It may have been either the same visitation as he specifies in chapter 4, or a previous one; for of all the plagues of Palestine locusts have been the most frequent, occurring every six or seven years. "Thus the Lord Jehovah caused me to see: and, behold, a brood of locusts at the beginning of the coming up of the spring crops." In the Syrian year there are practically two tides of verdure: one which starts after the early rains of October and continues through the winter, checked by the cold; and one which comes away with greater force under the influence of the latter rains and more genial airs of spring. Of these it was the later and richer which the locusts had attacked. "And, behold, it was after the king’s mowings." These seem to have been a tribute which the kings of Israel levied on the spring herbage, and which the Roman governors of Syria used annually to impose in the month Nisan. "After the king’s mowings" would be a phrase to mark the time when everybody else might turn to reap their green stuff. It was thus the very crisis of the year when the locusts appeared; the April crops devoured, there was no hope of further fodder till December. Still, the calamity had happened before, and had been survived; a nation so vigorous and wealthy as Israel was under Jeroboam II need not have been frightened to death. But Amos felt it with a conscience. To him it was the beginning of that destruction of his people which the spirit within him knew that their sin had earned. So "it came to pass when" the locusts "had made an end of devouring the verdure of the earth, that I said, Remit, I pray Thee," or "pardon"-a proof that there already weighed on the prophet’s spirit something more awful than loss of grass-"how shall Jacob rise again? for he is little." The prayer was heard. "Jehovah repented for this: It shall not be, said Jehovah." The unnameable "it" must be the same as in the frequent phrase of the first chapter: "I will not turn it back" namely, the final execution of doom on the people’s sin. The reserve with which this is mentioned, both while there is still chance for the people to repent and after it has become irrevocable, is very impressive.

The next example which Amos gave at Bethel of his permitted insight into God’s purpose was a great drought. "Thus the Lord Jehovah made. me to see: and, behold, the Lord Jehovah was calling fire irate the quarrel." There was, then, already a quarrel between Jehovah and His people-another sign that the prophet’s moral conviction of Israel’s sin preceded the rise of the events in which he recognized its punishment. "And" the fire "devoureth the Great Deep, yea, it was about to devour the land." Severe drought in Palestine might well be described as fire, even when it was not accompanied by the flame and smoke of those forest and prairie fires which Joel describes as its consequences. {Amos 1:1-15} But to have the full fear of such a drought, we should need to feel beneath us the curious world which the men of those days felt. To them the earth rested in a great deep, from whose stores all her springs and fountains burst. When these failed it meant that the unfathomed floods below were burnt up. But how fierce the flame that could effect this! And how certainly able to devour next the solid land which rested above the deep-the very "Portion" assigned by God to His people. Again Amos interceded: "Lord Jehovah, I pray Thee forbear: how shall Jacob rise? for he is little." And for the second time Jacob was reprieved. "Jehovah repented for this: It also shall not come to pass, said the Lord Jehovah."

We have treated these visions, not as the imagination or prospect of possible disasters, but as insight into the meaning of actual plagues. Such a treatment is justified, not only by the invariable habit of Amos to deal with real facts, but also by the occurrence of these same plagues among the series by which, as we are told, God had already sought to move the people to repentance. The general question of sympathy between such purely physical disasters and the moral evil of a people we may postpone to another chapter, confining ourselves here to the part played in the events by the prophet himself.

Surely there is something wonderful in the attitude of this shepherd to the fires and plagues that Nature sweeps upon his land. He is ready for them. And he is ready not only by the general feeling of his time that such things happen of the wrath of God. His sovereign and predictive conscience recognizes them as her ministers. They are sent to punish a people whom she has already condemned. Yet, unlike Elijah, Amos does not summon the drought, nor even welcome its arrival. How far has prophecy traveled since the violent Tishbite! With all his conscience of Israel’s sin, Amos yet prays that their doom may be turned. We have here some evidence of the struggle through which these later prophets passed, before they accepted their awful messages to men. Even Amos, desert-bred and living aloof from Israel, shrank from the judgment which it was his call to publish. For two moments-they would appear to be the only two in his ministry-his heart contended with his conscience, and twice he entreated God to forgive. At Bethel he told the people all this, in order to show how unwillingly he took up his duty against them, and how inevitable he found that duty to be. But still more shall we learn from his tale, if we feel in his words about the smallness of Jacob, not pity only, but sympathy. We shall learn that prophets are never made solely by the bare word of God, but that even the most objective and judicial of them has to earn his title to proclaim judgment by suffering with men the agony of the judgment he proclaims. Never to a people came there a true prophet who had not first prayed for them. To have entreated for men, to have represented them in the highest courts of Being, is to have deserved also supreme judicial rights upon them. And thus it is that our Judge at the Last Day shall be none other than our great Advocate who continually maketh intercession for us. It is prayer, let us repeat, which, while it gives us all power with God, endows us at the same time with moral rights over men. Upon his mission of judgment we shall follow Amos with the greater sympathy that he thus comes forth to it from the mercy-seat and the ministry of intercession.

The first two visions which Amos told at Bethel were of disasters in the sphere of nature, but his third lay in the sphere of politics. The two former were, in their completeness at least, averted; and the language Amos used of them seems to imply that he had not even then faced the possibility of a final overthrow. He took for granted Jacob was to rise again: he only feared as to how this should be. But the third vision is so final that the prophet does not even try to intercede. Israel is measured, found wanting, and doomed. Assyria is not named, but is obviously intended; and the fact-that the prophet arrives at certainty with regard to the doom of Israel, just when he thus comes within sight of Assyria, is instructive as to the influence exerted on prophecy by the rise of that empire.

"Thus He gave me to see: and, behold, the Lord had taken His station"-‘tis a more solemn word than the "stood" of our versions-"upon a city wall" built to "the plummet, and in His hand a plummet. And Jehovah said unto me, What art thou seeing, Amos?" The question surely betrays some astonishment shown by the prophet at the vision or some difficulty he felt in making it out. He evidently does not feel it at once, as the natural result of his own thinking: it is objective and strange to him; he needs time to see into it. "And I said, A plummet. And the Lord said, Behold, I am setting a plummet in the midst of My people Israel. I will not again pass them over." To set a measuring line or a line with weights attached to any building means to devote it to destruction; but here it is uncertain whether the plummet threatens destruction, or means that Jehovah will at last clearly prove to the prophet the insufferable obliquity of the fabric of the nation’s life, originally set straight by Himself-originally "a wall of a plummet." For God’s judgments are never arbitrary: by a standard we men can read He shows us their necessity. Conscience itself is no mere voice of authority: it is a convincing plummet, and plainly lets us see why we should be punished. But whichever interpretation we choose, the result is the same. "The high places of Israel shall be desolate, and the sanctuaries of Isaac laid waste; and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword." A declaration of war! Israel is to be invaded, her dynasty overthrown. Everyone who heard the prophet would know, though he named them not, that the Assyrians were meant.

It was apparently at this point that Amos was interrupted by Amaziah. The priest, who was conscious of no spiritual power with which to oppose the prophet, gladly grasped the opportunity afforded him by the mention of the king, and fell back on the invariable resource of a barren and envious sacerdotalism: "He speaketh against Caesar." {John 19:12} There follows one of the great scenes of history-the scene which, however fast the ages and the languages, the ideals and the deities may change, repeats itself with the same two actors. Priest and Man face each other-Priest with King behind, Man with God-and wage that debate in which the whole warfare and progress of religion consist. But the story is only typical by being real. Many subtle traits of human nature prove that we have here an exact narrative of fact. Take Amaziah’s report to Jeroboam. He gives to the words of the prophet just that exaggeration and innuendo which betray the wily courtier, who knows how to accentuate a general denunciation till it feels like a personal attack. And yet, like every Caiaphas of his tribe, the priest in his exaggerations expresses a deeper meaning than he is conscious of. "Amos"-note how the mere mention of the name without description proves that the prophet was already known in Israel, perhaps was one on whom the authorities had long kept their eye-"Amos hath conspired against thee"-yet God was his only fellow-conspirator!-"in the midst of the house of Israel"-this royal temple at Bethel. "The land is not able to hold his words"-it must burst; yes, but in another sense than thou meanest, O Caiaphas-Amaziah! "For thus hath Amos said, By the sword shall Jeroboam die"-Amos had spoken only of the dynasty, but the twist which Amaziah lends to the words is calculated-"and Israel going shall go into captivity from off his own land." This was the one unvarnished spot in the report.

Having fortified himself, as little men will do, by his duty to the powers that be, Amaziah dares to turn upon the prophet; and he does so, it is amusing to observe, with that tone of intellectual and moral superiority which it is extraordinary to see some men derive from a merely official station or touch with royalty. "Visionary, begone! Get thee off to the land of Judah; and earn thy bread there, and there play the prophet. But at Bethel"-mark the rising accent of the voice-"thou shalt not again prophesy. The King’s Sanctuary it is, and the House of the Kingdom." With the official mind this is more conclusive than that it is the House of God! In fact the speech of Amaziah justifies the hardest terms which Amos uses of the religion of his day. In all this priest says there is no trace of the spiritual-only fear, pride, and privilege. Divine truth is challenged by human law, and the Word of God silenced in the name of the king.

We have here a conception of religion, which is not merely due to the unspiritual character of the priest who utters it, but has its roots in the far back origins of Israel’s religion. The Pagan Semite identified absolutely State and Church; and on that identification was based the religious practice of early Israel. It had many healthy results: it kept religion in touch with public life; order, justice, patriotism, self-sacrifice for the common weal, were devoutly held to be matters of religion. So long, therefore, as the system was inspired by truly spiritual ideals, nothing for those times could be better. But we see in it an almost inevitable tendency to harden to the sheerest officialism. That it was more apt to do so in Israel than in Judah, is intelligible from the origin of the Northern Schism, and the erection of the national sanctuaries from motives of mere statecraft. {1 Kings 12:26-27} Erastianism could hardly be more flagrant or more ludicrous in its opposition to true religion than at Bethel. And yet how often have the ludicrousness and the flagrancy been repeated, with far less temptation! Ever since Christianity became a state religion, she that needed least to use the weapons of this world has done so again and again in a thoroughly Pagan fashion. The attempts of Churches by law established, to stamp out by law all religious dissent; or where such attempts were no longer possible, the charges now of fanaticism and now of sordidness and religious shop keeping, which have been so frequently made against dissent by little men who fancied their state connection, or their higher social position to mean an intellectual and moral superiority: the absurd claims which many a minister of religion makes upon the homes and the souls of a parish, by virtue not of his calling in Christ, but of his position as official priest of the parish, -all these are the sins of Amaziah, priest of Bethel. But they are not confined to an established Church. The Amaziahs of dissent are also very many. Wherever the official masters the spiritual; wherever mere dogma or tradition is made the standard of preaching; wherever new doctrine is silenced, or programs of reform condemned, as of late years in Free Churches they have sometimes been, not by spiritual argument, but by the ipse dixit of the dogmatist, or by ecclesiastical rule or expediency, -there you have the same spirit. The dissenter who checks the Word of God in the name of some denominational law or dogma is as Erastian as the churchman who would crush it, like Amaziah, by invoking the state. These things in all the Churches are the beggarly rudiments of Paganism; and religious reform is achieved, as it was that day at Bethel, by the adjuring of officialism.

"But Amos answered and said unto Amaziah, No prophet I, nor prophet’s son. But a herdsman I, and a dresser of sycamores; and Jehovah took me from behind the flock, and Jehovah said unto me, Go, prophesy unto My people Israel."

On such words we do not comment; we give them homage. The answer of this shepherd to this priest is no mere claim of personal disinterestedness. It is the protest of a new order of prophecy, the charter of a spiritual religion. As we have seen, the "sons of the prophets" were guilds of men who had taken to prophesying because of certain gifts of temper and natural disposition, and they earned their bread by the exercise of these. Among such abstract craftsmen Amos will not be reckoned. He is a prophet, but not of the kind with which his generation was familiar. An ordinary member of society, he has been suddenly called by Jehovah from his civil occupation for a special purpose and by a call which has not necessarily to do with either gifts or a profession. This was something new, not only in itself, but in its consequences upon the general relations of God to men. What we see in this dialogue at Bethel is, therefore, not merely the triumph of a character, however heroic, but rather a step forward and that one of the greatest and most indispensable-in the history of religion.

There follows a denunciation of the man who sought to silence this fresh voice of God. "Now therefore hearken to the word of Jehovah thou that sayest, Prophesy not against Israel, nor let drop thy words against the house of Israel; therefore thus saith Jehovah "Thou hast presumed to say; Hear what God will say." Thou hast dared to set thine office and system against His word and purpose. See how they must be swept away. In defiance of its own rules the grammar flings forward to the beginnings of its clauses, each detail of the priest’s estate along with the scene of its desecration. "Thy wife in the city-shall play the harlot; and thy sons and thy daughters by the sword-shall fall; and thy land by the measuring rope-shall be divided; and thou in an unclean land-shalt die. Do not let us blame the prophet for a coarse cruelty in the first of these details. He did not invent it. With all the rest it formed an ordinary consequence of defeat in the warfare of the times-an inevitable item of that general overthrow which, with bitter emphasis, the prophet describes in Amaziah’s own words: "Israel going shall go into captivity from off his own land."

There is added a vision in line with the three which preceded the priest’s interruption. We are therefore justified in supposing that Amos spoke it also on this occasion, and in taking it as the close of his address at Bethel. "Then the Lord Jehovah gave me to see: and, behold, a basket of Kaits," that is, "summer fruit. And He said, What art thou seeing, Amos? And I said, A basket of Kaits. And Jehovah said unto me, The Kets-the End - has come upon My people Israel. I will not again pass them over." This does not carry the prospect beyond the third vision, but it stamps its finality, and there is therefore added a vivid realization of the result. By four disjointed lamentations, "howls" the prophet calls them, we are made to feel the last shocks of the final collapse, and in the utter end an awful silence. "And the songs of the temple shall be changed into howls in that day, saith the Lord Jehovah. Multitude of corpses! In every place! He hath cast out! Hush!"

These then were probably the last words which Amos spoke to Israel. If so, they form a curious echo of what was enforced upon himself, and he may have meant them as such. He was "cast out"; he was "silenced." They might almost be the verbal repetition of the priest’s orders. In any case the silence is appropriate. But Amaziah little knew what power he had given to prophecy the day he forbade it to speak. The gagged prophet began to write; and those accents which, humanly speaking, might have died out with the songs of the temple of Bethel were clothed upon with the immortality of literature. Amos silenced wrote a book-first of prophets to do so-and this is the book we have now to study.

Verses 14-15

Amos 3:3-8, Amos 7:14-15


THE Book of Amos opens one of the greatest stages in the religious development of mankind. Its originality is due to a few simple ideas, which it propels into religion with an almost unrelieved abruptness. But, like all ideas which ever broke upon the world, these also have flesh and blood behind them. Like every other Reformation this one in Israel began with the conscience and the protest of an individual. Our review of the book has made this plain. We have found in it, not only a personal adventure of a heroic kind, but a progressive series of visions, with some other proofs of a development both of facts and ideas. In short, behind the book there beats a life, and our first duty is to attempt to trace its spiritual history. The attempt is worth the greatest care. "Amos," says a very critical writer, "is one of the most wonderful appearances in the history of the human spirit."


Amos 1:1, Amos 3:3-8, Amos 7:14-15

When charged at the crisis of his career with being but a hireling-prophet, Amos disclaimed the official name and took his stand upon his work as a man: "No prophet I, nor prophet’s son; but a herdsman and a dresser of sycamores. Jehovah took me from behind the flock." We shall enhance our appreciation of this manhood, and of the new order of prophecy which it asserted, if we look for a little at the soil on which it was so bravely nourished.

Six miles south from Bethlehem, as Bethlehem is six from Jerusalem, there rises on the edge of the Judaean plateau, towards the desert, a commanding hill, the ruins on which are still known by the name of Tekoa.

In the time of Amos Tekoa was a place without sanctity and almost without tradition. The name suggests that the site may at first have been that of a camp. Its fortification by Rehoboam, and the mission of its wise woman to David, are its only previous appearances in history. Nor had nature been less grudging to it than fame. The men of Tekoa looked out upon a desolate and haggard world. South, west, and north the view is barred by a range of limestone hills, on one of which directly north the grey towers of Jerusalem are hardly to be discerned from the grey mountain lines. Eastward the prospect is still more desolate, but it-is open; the land slopes away for nearly eighteen miles to a depth of four thousand feet. Of this long descent the first step, lying immediately below the hill of Tekoa, is a shelf of stony moorland with the ruins of vineyards. It is the lowest ledge of the settled life of Judaea. The eastern edge drops suddenly by broken rocks to-slopes spotted with bushes of "retem," the broom of the desert, and with patches of poor wheat. From the foot of the slopes the land rolls away in a maze of low hills and shallow dales that flush green in spring, but for the rest of the year are brown with withered grass and, scrub. This is the "Wilderness" or "Pasture-land of Tekoa," {2 Chronicles 20:20} across which by night the wild beasts howl, and by day the blackened sites of deserted camps, with the loose cairns that mark the nomads’ graves, reveal a human life almost as vagabond and nameless as that of the beasts. Beyond the rolling land is Jeshimon, or Devastation-a chaos of hills, none of whose ragged crests are tossed as high as the shelf of Tekoa, while their flanks shudder down some further thousands of feet, by crumbling precipices and corries choked with debris, to the coast of the Dead Sea. The northern half of this is visible, bright blue against the red wall of Moab, and. the level top of the wall, broken only by the valley of the Arnon, constitutes the horizon. Except for the blue water-which shines in its gap between the torn hills like a bit of sky through rifted clouds-it is a very dreary world. Yet the sun breaks over it, perhaps all the more gloriously; mists, rising from the sea simmering in its great vat, drape the nakedness of the desert noon; and through the dry desert night the planets ride with a majesty they cannot assume in our more troubled atmospheres. It is also a very empty and a very silent world, yet every stir of life upon it excites, therefore, the greater vigilance, and man’s faculties, relieved from the rush and confusion of events, form the instinct of marking, and reflecting upon, every single phenomenon. And it is a very savage world. Across it all the towers of Jerusalem give the only signal of the spirit, the one token that man has a history.

Upon this unmitigated wilderness, where life is reduced to poverty and danger; where nature starves the imagination, but excites the faculties. of perception and curiosity; with the mountain tops and the sunrise in his face, but above all with Jerusalem so near, -Amos did the work which made him a man, heard the voice of God calling him to be a prophet, and gathered those symbols and figures in which his prophet’s message still reaches us with so fresh and so austere an air.

Amos was "among the shepherds of Tekoa." The word for "shepherd" is unusual, and means the herdsman of a peculiar breed of desert sheep, still under the same name prized in Arabia for the excellence of their wool. And he was "a dresser of sycamores." The tree, which is not our sycamore, is very easily grown in sandy soil with a little water. It reaches a great height and mass of foliage. The fruit is like a small fig, with a sweet but watery taste, and is eaten only by the poor. Born not of the fresh twigs, but of the trunk and older branches, the sluggish lumps are provoked to ripen by pinching or bruising, which seems to be the literal meaning of the term that Amos uses of himself-"a pincher of sycamores." The sycamore does not grow at so high a level as Tekoa; and this fact, taken along with the limitation of the ministry of Amos to the Northern Kingdom, has been held to prove that he was originally an Ephraimite, a sycamore-dresser, who had migrated and settled down, as the peculiar phrase of the title says, "among the shepherds of Tekoa." We shall presently see, however, that his familiarity with life in Northern Israel may easily have been won in other ways than through citizenship in that kingdom; while the very general nature of the definition, "among the shepherds of Tekoa," does not oblige us to place either him or his sycamores so high as the village itself. The most easterly township of Judea, Tekoa commanded the w, hole of the wilderness beyond, to which indeed it gave its name, "the wilderness of Tekoa." The shepherds of Tekoa were therefore, in all probability, scattered across the whole region down to the oases on the coast of the Dead Sea, which have generally been owned by one or other of the settled communities in the hill-country above, and may at that time have belonged to Tekoa, just as in Crusading times they belonged to the monks of Hebron, or are today cultivated by the Rushaideh Arabs, who pitch their camps not far from Tekoa itself. As you will still find everywhere on the borders of the Syrian desert shepherds nourishing a few fruit-trees round the chief well of their pasture, in order to vary their milk diet, so in some low oasis in the wilderness of Judea Amos cultivated the poorest, but the most easily grown of fruits, the sycamore. All this pushes Amos and his dwarf sheep deeper into the desert, and emphasizes what has been said above, and still remains to be illustrated, of the desert’s influence on his discipline as a men and on his speech as a prophet. We ought to remember that in the same desert another prophet was bred, who was also the pioneer of a new dispensation, and whose ministry, both in its strength and its limitations, is much recalled by the ministry of Amos. John the son of Zacharias "grew and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel." {Luke 1:80} Here, too, our Lord was "with the wild beasts." {Mark 1:18} How much Amos had been with them may be seen from many of his metaphors. "The lion roareth, who shall not fear? As when the shepherd rescueth from the mouth of the lion two shinbones or a bit of an ear It shall be as when one is fleeing from a lion and a bear cometh upon him; and he entereth a house, and leaneth ‘his hand on the wall, and a serpent biteth him."

As a wool-grower, however, Amos must have had his yearly journeys among the markets of the land; and to such were probably due his opportunities of familiarity with Northern Israel, the originals of his vivid pictures of her town-life, her commerce, and the worship at her great sanctuaries. One hour westward from Tekoa would bring him to the highroad between Hebron and the North, with its troops of pilgrims passing to Beersheba. {Amos 5:5; Amos 8:14} It was but half-an-hour more to the watershed and an open view of the Philistine plain. Bethlehem was only six, Jerusalem twelve, miles from Tekoa. Ten miles farther, across the border of Israel, lay Bethel with its temple, seven miles farther Gilgal, and twenty miles farther still Samaria the capital, in all but two days’ journey from Tekoa. These had markets as well as shrines; their annual festivals would be also great fairs. It is certain that Amos visited them; it is even possible that he went to Damascus, in which the Israelites had at the time their own quarters for trading. By road and market he would meet with men of other lands. Phoenician peddlers, or Canaanites as they were called, came up to buy the homespun for which the housewives of Israel were famed {Proverbs 31:24}-hard-faced men who were also willing to purchase slaves, and haunted even the battle-fields of their neighbors for this sinister purpose. Men of Moab, at the time subject to Israel; Aramean hostages; Philistines who held the export trade to Egypt, -these Amos must have met and may have talked with; their dialects scarcely differed from his own. It is no distant, desert echo of life which we hear in his pages, but the thick and noisy rumor of caravan and market-place: how the plague was marching up from Egypt; {Amos 6:10} ugly stories of the Phoenician slave-trade; {Amos 1:9} rumors of the advance of the awful Power, which men were hardly yet accustomed to name, but which had already twice broken from the North upon Damascus. Or it was the progress of some national mourning-how lamentation sprang up in the capital, rolled along the highways, and was re-echoed from the husbandmen and vinedressers on the hillsides. {Amos 5:16} Or, at closer quarters, we see and hear the bustle of the great festivals and fairs-the "solemn assemblies," the reeking holocausts, the "noise of songs and viols": {Amos 5:21 ff.} the brutish religious zeal kindling into drunkenness and lust on the very steps of the altar, {Amos 2:7-8} "the embezzlement of pledges by the priests, the covetous restlessness of the traders, their false measures, their entanglement of the poor in debt {Amos 8:4 ff.} the careless luxury of the rich, their "banquets, buckets of wine, ivory couches," pretentious, preposterous music. {Amos 6:1; Amos 6:4-7} These things are described as by an eyewitness. Amos was not a citizen of the Northern Kingdom, to which he almost exclusively refers; but it was because he went up and down in it, using those eyes which the desert air had sharpened, that he so thoroughly learned the wickedness of its people, the corruption of Israel’s life in every rank and class of society. But the convictions which he applied to this life Amos learned at home. They came to him over the desert, and without further material signal than was flashed to Tekoa from the towers of Jerusalem. This is placed beyond doubt by the figures in which he describes his call from Jehovah. Contrast his story, so far as he reveals it, with that of another. Some twenty years later, Isaiah of Jerusalem saw the Lord in the Temple, high and lifted up, and all the inaugural vision of this greatest of the prophets was conceived in the figures of the Temple-the altar, the smoke, the burning coals. But to his predecessor "among the shepherds of Tekoa," although revelation also starts from Jerusalem, it reaches him, not in the sacraments of her sanctuary, but across the bare pastures, and as it were in the roar of a lion. "Jehovah from Zion roareth, and uttereth His voice from Jerusalem." {Amos 1:2} We read of no formal process of consecration for this first of the prophets. Through his clear desert air the word of God breaks upon him without medium or sacrament. And the native vigilance of the man is startled, is convinced by it, beyond all argument or question. "The lion hath roared, who shall not fear? Jehovah hath spoken, who can but prophesy?" These words are taken from a passage in which Amos illustrates prophecy from other instances of his shepherd life. We have seen what a school of vigilance the desert is. Upon the bare surface all that stirs is ominous. Every shadow, every noise-the shepherd must know what is behind and be warned. Such a vigilance Amos would have Israel apply to his own message, and to the events of their history. Both of these he compares to certain facts of desert life, behind which his shepherdly instincts have taught him to feel an ominous cause. "Do two men walk together except they have trysted?"-except they have made an appointment. Hardly in the desert; for there men meet and take the same road by chance as seldom as ships at sea. "Doth a lion roar in the jungle and have no prey, or a young lion let out his voice in his den except he be taking something?" The hunting lion is silent till his quarry be in sight; when the lonely shepherd hears the roar across the desert he knows the lion leaps upon his prey, and he shudders as Israel ought to do when they hear God’s voice by the prophet, for this also is never loosened but for some grim fact, some leap of doom. Or "doth a little bird fall on the snare earthwards and there be no noose upon her?" The reading may be doubtful, but the meaning is obvious: no one ever saw a bird pulled roughly down to earth when it tried to fly away without knowing there was the loop of a snare about her. Or "does the snare itself rise up from the ground, except indeed it be capturing something?"-except there be in the trap or net something to flutter, struggle, and so lift it up. Traps do not move without life in them. Or "is the alarm trumpet "blown in a city"-for instance, in high Tekoa up there, when some Arab raid sweeps from the desert on to the fields-"and do the people not tremble?" Or "shall calamity happen in a city and Jehovah not have done it? Yea, the Lord Jehovah doeth nothing but He has revealed His purpose to His servants the prophets." My voice of warning and these events of evil in your midst have the same cause-Jehovah-behind them. "The lion hath roared, who shall not fear? Jehovah hath spoken, who can but prophesy?"

We cannot miss the personal note which rings through this triumph in the reality of things unseen. Not only does it proclaim a man of sincerity and conviction: it is resonant with the discipline by which that conviction was won-were won, too, the freedom from illusion and the power of looking at facts in the face, which Amos alone of his contemporaries possessed.

St. Bernard has described the first stage of the Vision of God as the Vision Distributive, in which the eager mind distributes her attention upon common things and common duties in themselves. It was in this elementary school that the earliest of the new prophets passed his apprenticeship and received his gifts. Others excel Amos in the powers of the imagination and the intellect. But by the incorrupt habits of his shepherd’s life, by daily wakefulness to its alarms and daily faithfulness to its opportunities, he was trained in that simple power of appreciating facts and causes, which, applied to the great phenomena of the spirit and of history, forms his distinction among his peers. In this we find perhaps the reason why he records of himself no solemn hour of cleansing and initiation. "Jehovah took me from following the flock, and Jehovah said unto me, Go, prophesy unto My people Israel." Amos was of them of whom it is written, "Blessed are those servants whom the Lord when He cometh shall find watching." Through all his hard life this shepherd had kept his mind open and his conscience quick, so that when the word of God came to him he knew it, as fast as he knew the roar of the lion across the moor. Certainly there is no habit which, so much as this of watching facts with a single eye and a responsible mind, is indispensable alike in the ‘humblest duties and in the highest speculations of life. When Amos gives those naive illustrations of how real the voice of God is to him, we receive them as the tokens of a man, honest and awake. Little wonder that he refuges to be reckoned among the professional prophets of his day who found their inspiration in excitement and trance. Upon him the impulses of the Deity come in no artificial and morbid ecstasy, removed as far as possible from real life. They come upon him, as it were, in the open air. They appeal to the senses of his healthy and expert manhood. They convince him of their reality with the same force as do the most startling events of his lonely shepherd watches. "The lion hath roared, who shall not fear? Jehovah hath spoken, who can but prophesy?"

The influence of the same discipline is still visible when Amos passes from the facts of his own consciousness to the facts of his people’s life. His day in Israel sweltered with optimism. The glare of wealth, the fulsome love of country, the rank incense of a religion that was without morality-these thickened all the air, and neither the people nor their rulers had any vision. But Amos carried with him his clear desert atmosphere and his desert eyes. He saw the raw facts: the poverty, the cruel negligence of the rich, the injustice of the rulers, the immorality of the priests. The meaning of these things he questioned with as much persistence as he questioned every suspicious sound or sight upon those pastures of Tekoa. He had no illusions: he knew a mirage when he saw one. Neither the military pride of the people, fostered by recent successes over Syria, nor the dogmas of their religion, which asserted Jehovah’s swift triumph upon the heathen, could prevent him from knowing that the immorality of Israel meant Israel’s political downfall. He was one of those recruits from common life, by whom religion and the state have at all times been reformed. Springing from the laity and very often from among the working classes, their freedom from dogmas and routine, as well as from the compromising interests of wealth, rank, and party, renders them experts in life to a degree that almost no professional priest, statesman, or journalist, however honest or sympathetic, can hope to rival. Into politics they bring facts, but into religion they bring vision.

It is of the utmost significance that this reformer, this founder of the highest order of prophecy in Israel, should not only thus begin with facts, but to the very end be occupied with almost nothing else than the vision and record of them. In Amos there is but one prospect of the Ideal. It does not break till the close of his book, and then in such contrast to the plain and final indictments, which constitute nearly all the rest of his prophesying, that many have not unnaturally denied to him the verses which contain it. Throughout the other chapters we have but the exposure of present facts, material and moral, nor the sight of any future more distant than tomorrow and the immediate consequences of today’s deeds. Let us mark this. The new prophecy which Amos started in Israel reached Divine heights of hope, unfolded infinite powers of moral and political regeneration-dared to blot out all the past, dared to believe all things possible in the future. But it started from the truth about the moral situation of the present. Its first prophet not only denied every popular dogma and ideal, but-appears not to have substituted for them any others. He spent his gifts of vision on the discovery and appreciation of facts. Now this is necessary, not only in great reformations of religion, but at almost every stage in her development. We are constantly disposed to abuse even the most just and necessary of religious ideals as substitutes for experience or as escapes from duty, and to boast about the future before we have understood or mastered the present. Hence the need of realists like Amos. Though they are destitute of dogma, of comfort, of hope, of the ideal, let us not doubt that they also stand in the succession of the prophets of the Lord.

Nay, this is a stage of prophecy on which may be fulfilled the prayer of Moses: "Would to God that all the Lord’s people were prophets!" To see the truth and tell it, to be accurate and brave about the moral facts of our day-to this extent the Vision and the Voice are possible for every one of us. Never for us may the doors of heaven open, as they did for him who stood on the threshold of the earthly temple, and he saw the Lord enthroned, while the Seraphim of the Presence sang the glory. Never for us may the skies fill with that tempest of life which Ezekiel beheld from Shinar, and above it the sapphire throne, and on the throne the likeness of a man, the likeness of the glory of the Lord. Yet let us remember that to see facts as they are and to tell the truth about them-this also is prophecy. We may inhabit a sphere which does not prompt the imagination, but is as destitute of the historic and traditional as was the wilderness of Tekoa. All the more may our unglamoured eyes be true to the facts about us. Every common day leads forth her duties as shining as every night leads forth her stars. The deeds and the fortunes of men are in our sight, and spell, to all who will honestly read the very Word of the Lord. If only we be loyal, then by him who made the rude sounds and sights of the desert his sacraments, and whose vigilance of things seen and temporal became the vision of things unseen and eternal, we also shall see God, and be sure of His ways with men.

Before we pass from the desert discipline of the prophet we must notice one of its effects, which, while it greatly enhanced the clearness of his vision, undoubtedly disabled Amos for the highest prophetic rank. He who lives in the desert lives without patriotism-detached and aloof. He may see the throng of men more clearly than those who move among it. He cannot possibly so much feel for them. Unlike Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Amos was not a citizen of the kingdom against which he prophesied, and indeed no proper citizen of any kingdom, but a nomad herdsman, hovering on the desert borders of Judaea. He saw Israel from the outside. His message to her is achieved with scarcely one sob in his voice. For the sake of the poor and the oppressed among the people he is indignant. But with the erring, staggering nation as a whole he has no real sympathy. His pity for her is exhausted in one elegy and two brief intercessions; hardly more than once does he even call her to repentance.

His sense of justice, in fact, had almost never to contend with his love. This made Amos the better witness, but the worse prophet. He did not rise so high as his great successors, because he did not so feel himself one with the people whom he was forced to condemn, because he did not bear their fate as his own nor travail for their new birth. "Ihm fehlt die Liebe." Love is the element lacking in his prophecy; and therefore the words are true of him which were uttered of his great follower across this same wilderness of Judea, that mighty as were his voice and his message to prepare the way of the Lord, yet "the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he."


Amos 1:2, Amos 3:3-8 and PASSIM

We have seen the preparation of the Man for the Word. We are now to ask, Whence came the Word to the Man?-the Word that made him a prophet. What were its sources and sanctions outside himself? These involve other questions. How much of his message did Amos inherit from the previous religion of his people? And how much did he teach for the first time in Israel? And again, how much of this new element did he owe to the great events of his day? And how much demands some other source of inspiration?

To all these inquiries, outlines of the answers ought by this time to have become visible. We have seen that the contents of the Book of Amos consist almost entirely of two kinds: facts, actual or imminent, in the history of his people; and certain moral principles of the most elementary order. Amos appeals to no dogma nor form of law, nor to any religious or national institution. Still more remarkably, he does not rely upon miracle nor any so-called "supernatural sign." To employ the terms of Mazzini’s famous formula, Amos draws his materials solely from "conscience and history." Within himself he hears certain moral principles speak in the voice of God, and certain events of his day he recognizes as the judicial acts of God. The principles condemn the living generation of Israel as morally corrupt; the events threaten the people with political extinction. From this agreement between inward conviction and outward event Amos draws his full confidence as a prophet, and enforces on the people his message of doom as God’s own word.

The passage in which Amos most explicitly illustrates this harmony between event and conviction is one whose metaphors we have already quoted in proof of the desert’s influence upon the prophet’s life. When Amos asks, "Can two walk together except they have made an appointment?" his figure is drawn, as we have seen, from the wilderness in which two men will hardly meet except they have arranged to do so; but the truth he would illustrate by the figure is that two sets of phenomena which coincide must have sprung from a common purpose. Their conjunction forbids mere chance. What kind of phenomena he means, he lets us see in his next instance: "Doth a lion roar in the jungle and have no prey? Doth a young lion let forth his voice from his den except he be catching something?" That is, those ominous sounds never happen without some fell and terrible deed happening along with them. Amos thus plainly hints that the two phenomena on whose coincidence he insists are an utterance on one side, and on the other side a deed fraught with destruction. The reading of the next metaphor about the bird and the snare is uncertain; at most what it means is that you never see signs of distress or a vain struggle to escape without there being, though out of sight, some real cause for them. But from so general a principle he returns in his fourth metaphor to the special coincidence between utterance and deed. "Is the alarum-trumpet blown in a city and do the people not tremble?" Of course they do; they know such sound is never made without the approach of calamity. But who is the author of every calamity? God Himself: "Shall there be evil in a city and Jehovah not have done it?" Very well then; we have seen that common life has many instances in which, when an ominous sound is heard, it is because it is closely linked with a fatal deed. These happen together, not by mere chance, but because the one is the expression, the warning, or the explanation of the other. And we also know that fatal deeds which happen to any community in Israel are from Jehovah. He is behind them. But they, too, are accompanied by a warning voice from the same source as themselves. This is the voice which the prophet hears in his heart-the moral conviction which he feels as the Word of God. "The Lord Jehovah doeth nothing but He hath revealed His counsel to His servants the prophets." Mark the grammar: the revelation comes first to the prophet’s heart; then he sees and recognizes the event, and is confident to give his message about it. So Amos, repeating his metaphor, sums up his argument. "The Lion hath roared, who shall not fear?"-certain that there is more than sound to happen. "The Lord Jehovah hath spoken, who can but prophesy?"-certain that what Jehovah has spoken to him inwardly is likewise no mere sound, but that deeds of judgment are about to happen, as the ominous voice requires they should.

The prophet then is made sure of his message by the agreement between the inward convictions of his soul and the outward events of the day. When these walk together, it proves that they have come of a common purpose. He who causes the events-it is Jehovah Himself, "for shall there be evil in a city and Jehovah not have done it?"-must be author also of the inner voice or conviction which agrees with them. "Who" then "can but prophesy?" Observe again that no support is here derived from miracle; nor is any claim made for the prophet on the ground of his ability to foretell the event. It is the agreement of the idea with the fact, their evident common origin in the purpose of Jehovah, which makes a man sure that he has in him the Word of God. Both are necessary, and together are enough. Are we then to leave the origin of the Word in this coincidence of fact and thought-as it were an electric flash produced by the contact of conviction with event?

Hardly; there are questions behind this coincidence. For instance, as to how the two react on each other-the event provoking the conviction, the conviction interpreting the event? The argument of Amos seems to imply that the ethical principles are experienced by the prophet prior to the events which justify them. Is this so, or was the shock of the events required to awaken the principles? And if the principles were prior, whence did Amos derive them? These are some questions that will lead us to the very origins of revelation.

The greatest of the events with which Amos and his contemporaries dealt was the Assyrian invasion. In a previous chapter we have tried to estimate the intellectual effects of Assyria on prophecy. Assyria widened the horizon of Israel, put the world to Hebrew eyes into a new perspective, vastly increased the possibilities of history, and set to religion a novel order of problems. We can trace the effects upon Israel’s conceptions of God, of man, and even of nature. Now it might be plausibly argued that the new prophecy in Israel was first stirred and quickened by all this mental shock and strain, and that even the loftier ethics of the prophets were thus due to the advance of Assyria. For, as the most vigilant watchmen of their day, the prophets observed the rise of that empire, and felt its fatality for Israel. Turning then to inquire the Divine reasons for such a destruction, they found these in Israel’s sinfulness, to the full extent of which their hearts were at last awakened. According to such a theory the prophets were politicians first and moralists afterwards: alarmists to begin with, and preachers of repentance only second. Or-to recur to the language employed above-the prophets’ experience of the historical event preceded their conviction of the moral principle which agreed with it.

In support of such a theory it is pointed out that after all the most original element in the prophecy of the eighth century was the announcement of Israel’s fall and exile. The Righteousness of Jehovah had often previously been enforced in Israel, but never had any voice drawn from it this awful conclusion that the nation must perish. The first in Israel to dare this was Amos, and surely what enabled him to do so was the imminence of Assyria upon his people. Again, such a theory might plausibly point to the opening verse of the Book of Amos, with its unprefaced, unexplained pronouncement of doom upon Israel:-

"The Lord roareth from Zion, And giveth voice from Jerusalem; And the pastures of the shepherds mourn, And the summit of Carmel is withered!"

Here, it might be averred, is the earliest prophet’s earliest utterance. Is it not audibly the voice of a man in a panic-such a panic as, ever on the eve of historic convulsions, seizes the more sensitive minds of a doomed people? The distant Assyrian thunder has reached Amos, on his pastures, unprepared-unable to articulate its exact meaning, and with only faith enough to hear in it the voice of his God. He needs reflection to unfold its contents; and the process of this reflection we find through the rest of his book. There he details for us, with increasing clear-mess, both the ethical reasons and the political results of that Assyrian terror, by which he was at first so wildly shocked into prophecy.

But the panic-born are always the stillborn; and it is simply impossible that prophecy, in all her ethical and religious vigor, can have been the daughter of so fatal a birth. If we look again at the evidence which is quoted from Amos in favor of such a theory, we shall see how fully it is contradicted by other features of his book.

To begin with, we are not certain that the terror of the opening verse of Amos is the Assyrian terror. Even if it were, the opening of a book does not necessarily represent the writer’s earliest feelings. The rest of the chapters contain visions and oracles which obviously date from a time when Amos was not yet startled by Assyria, but believed that the punishment which Israel required might be accomplished through a series of physical calamities-locusts, drought, and pestilence. Nay, it was not even these earlier judgments, preceding the Assyrian, which stirred the word of God in the prophet. He introduces them with a "now" and a "therefore." That is to say, he treats them only as the consequence of certain facts, the conclusion of certain premises. These facts and premises are moral-they are exclusively moral. They are the sins of Israel’s life, regarded without illusion and without pity. They are certain simple convictions, which fill the prophet’s heart, about the impossibility of the survival of any state which is so perverse and so corrupt.

This origin of prophecy in moral facts and moral intuitions, which are in their beginning independent of political events, may be illustrated by several other points. For instance, the sins which Amos marked in Israel were such as required no "red dawn of judgment" to expose their flagrance and fatality. The abuse of justice, the cruelty of the rich, the shameless immorality of the priests, are not sins which we feel only in the cool of the day, when God Himself draws near to judgment. They are such things as make men shiver in the sunshine. And so the Book of Amos, and not less that of Hosea, tremble with the feeling that Israel’s social corruption is great enough of itself, without the aid of natural convulsions, to shake the very basis of national life. "Shall not the land tremble for this," Amos says after reciting some sins, "and every one that dwelleth therein?" {Amos 8:8} Not drought nor pestilence nor invasion is needed for Israel’s doom, but the elemental force of ruin which lies in the people’s own wickedness. This is enough to create gloom long before the political skies be overcast-or, as Amos himself puts it, this is enough

"To cause the sun to go down at noon, And to darken the earth in the clear day." {Amos 8:9}

And once more-in spite of Assyria the ruin may be averted, if only the people will repent: "Seek good and not evil, and, Jehovah of hosts will be with you, as you say." {Amos 5:14} Assyria, however threatening, becomes irrelevant to Israel’s future from the moment that Israel repents.

Such beliefs, then, are obviously not the results of experience, nor of a keen observation of history. They are the primal convictions of the heart, which are deeper than all experience, and themselves contain the sources of historical foresight. With Amos it was not the outward event which inspired the inward conviction, but the conviction which anticipated and interpreted the event, though when the event came there can be no doubt that it confirmed, deepened, and articulated the conviction.

But when we have thus tracked the stream of prophecy as far back as these elementary convictions we have not reached the fountain-head. Whence did Amos derive his simple and absolute ethics? Were they original to him? Were they new in Israel? Such questions start an argument which touches the very origins of revelation.

It is obvious that Amos not only takes for granted the laws of righteousness which he enforces: he takes for granted also the people’s conscience of them. New, 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 if 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, some say, had never before been taught in Israel; nor had righteousness been so exclusively emphasized as the purpose of Jehovah. Amos and the other prophets of his century were the virtual "creators of ethical monotheism": it could only be by a prophetic license or prophetic fiction that he appealed to his people’s conscience of the standards he promulgated, or condemned his generation to death for not having lived up to them.

Let us see how far this criticism is 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 come 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; they abjure, as impeding morality, a ceremonial which the spiritual leaders of earlier generations had felt to be indispensable to religion; and they unfold ideals of the nation’s moral destiny, of which older writings give us only the faintest hints. Yet, while the fact of a religious evolution in Israel is thus certain, we must not fall into the vulgar error which interprets evolution as if it were mere addition, nor forget that even in the most creative periods of religion nothing is brought forth which has not already been promised, and, at some earlier stage, placed, so to speak, within reach of the human mind. After all it is the mind which grows; the moral ideals which become visible to its more matured vision are so Divine that, when they present themselves, the mind cannot but think they were always real and always imperative. If we remember these commonplaces we shall do justice both to Amos and to his critics.

In the first place it is clear that most of the morality which Amos enforced is of that fundamental order which can never have been recognized as the discovery or invention of any prophet. Whatever be their origin, the conscience of justice, the duty of kindness to the poor, the horror of wanton cruelty towards one’s enemies, which form the chief principles of Amos, are discernible in man as far back as history allows us to search for them. Should a generation have lost them, they can be brought back to it, never with the thrill of a new lesson; but only with the shame of an old and an abused memory. To neither man nor people can the righteousness which Amos preached appear as a discovery, but always as a recollection and a remorse. And this is most emphatically true of the people of Moses and of Samuel, of Nathan, of Elijah, and of the Book of the Covenant. Ethical elements had been characteristic of Israel’s religion from the very first. They were not due to a body of written law, but rather to the character of Israel’s God, appreciated by the nation in all the great crises of their history. Jehovah had won for Israel freedom and unity. He had been a spirit of justice to their lawgivers and magistrates. {Isaiah 28:1-29} He had raised up a succession of consecrated personalities, {Amos 2:1-16} who by life and word had purified the ideals of the whole people. The results had appeared in the creation of a strong national conscience, which avenged with horror, as "folly in Israel," the wanton crimes of any person or section of the commonwealth; in the gradual formation of a legal code, founded indeed in the common custom of the Semites, but greatly more moral than that; and even in the attainment of certain profoundly ethical beliefs about God and His relations, beyond Israel, to all mankind. Now, let us understand once for all, that in the ethics of Amos there is nothing which is not rooted in one or other of these achievements of the previous religion of his people. To this religion Amos felt himself attached in the closest possible way. The word of God comes to him across the desert, as we have seen, yet not out of the air. From the first he hears it rise from that one monument of his people’s past which we have found visible on his physical horizon-"from Zion, from Jerusalem," {Amos 1:2} from the city of David, from the Ark, whose ministers were Moses and Samuel, from the repository of the main tradition of Israel’s religion. Amos felt himself in the sacred succession; and his feeling is confirmed by the contents of his book. The details of that civic justice which he demands from his generation are found in the Book of the Covenant-the only one of Israel’s great codes which appears by this time to have been in existence; or in those popular proverbs which almost as certainly were found in early Israel.

Nor does Amos go elsewhere for the religious sanctions of his ethics. It is by the ancient mercies of God towards Israel that he shames and convicts his generation-by the deeds of grace which made them a nation, by the organs of doctrine and reproof which have inspired them, unfailing from age to age. "I destroyed the Amorite before them Yea, I brought you up out of the land of Egypt, and I led you forty years in the wilderness, to possess the land of the Amorites. And I raised up of your sons for prophets, and of your young men for Nazarites. Was it not even thus, O ye children of Israel? saith Jehovah." We cannot even say that the belief which Amos expresses in Jehovah as the supreme Providence of the world was a new thing in Israel, for a belief as universal inspires those portions of the Book of Genesis which, like the Book of the Covenant, were already extant.

We see, therefore, what right Amos had to present his ethical truths to Israel, as if they were not new, but had been within reach of his people from of old.

We could not, however, commit a greater mistake than to confine the inspiration of our prophet to the past, and interpret his doctrines as mere inferences from the earlier religious ideas of Israel-inferences forced by his own passionate logic, or more naturally ripened for him by the progress of events. A recent writer has thus summarized the work of the prophets of the eighth century: "In fact they laid hold upon that bias towards the ethical which dwelt in Jahwism from Moses onwards, and they allowed it alone to have value as corresponding to the true religion of Jehovah." But this is too abstract to be an adequate statement of the prophets’ own consciousness. What overcame Amos was a Personal Influence-the Impression of a Character; and it was this not only as it was revealed in the past of his people. The God who stands behind Amos is indeed the ancient Deity of Israel, and the facts which prove Him God are those which made the nation-the Exodus, the guidance through the wilderness, the overthrow of the Amorites, the gift of the land. "Was it not even thus, O ye children of Israel?" But what beats and burns through the pages of Amos is not the memory of those wonderful works, so much as a fresh vision and understanding of the Living God who worked them. Amos has himself met with Jehovah on the conditions of his own time-on the moral situation provided by the living generation of Israel. By an intercourse conducted, not through the distant signals of the past, but here and now, through the events of the prophet’s own day, Amos has received an original and overpowering conviction of his people’s God as absolute righteousness. What prophecy had hitherto felt in part, and applied to one or other of the departments of Israel’s life, Amos is the first to feel in its fullness, and to every extreme of its consequences upon the worship, the conduct, and the fortunes of the nation. To him Jehovah not only commands this and that righteous law but Jehovah and righteousness are absolutely identical. "Seek Jehovah and ye shall live seek good and ye shall live." {Amos 5:6; Amos 5:14} The absoluteness with which Amos conceived this principle, the courage with which he applied it, carry him along those two great lines upon which we most clearly trace his originality as a prophet. In the strength of this principle he does what is really new in Israel: he discards the two elements which had hitherto existed alongside the ethical, and had fettered and warped it.

Up till now the ethical spirit of the religion of Jehovah had to struggle with two beliefs which we can trace back to the Semitic origins of the religion-the belief, namely, that, as the national God, Jehovah would always defend their political interests, irrespective of morality; and the belief that a ceremonial of rites and sacrifices was indispensable to religion. These principles were mutual: as the deity was bound to succor the people, so were the people bound to supply the deity with gifts, and the more of these they brought the more they made sure of his favors. Such views were not absolutely devoid of moral benefit. In the formative period of the nation they had contributed both discipline and hope. But of late they had between them engrossed men’s hearts, and crushed out of religion both conscience and common-sense. By the first of them, the belief in Jehovah’s predestined protection of Israel, the people’s eyes were so holden they could not see how threatening were the times; by the other, the confidence in ceremonial, conscience was dulled, and that immorality permitted which they mingled so shamelessly with their religious zeal. Now the conscience of Amos did not merely protest against the predominance of the two, but was so exclusive, so spiritual, that it boldly banished both from religion. Amos denied that Jehovah was bound to save His people; he affirmed that ritual and sacrifice were no part of the service He demands from men. This is the measure of originality in our prophet. The two religious principles which were inherent in the very fiber of Semitic religion, and which till now had gone unchallenged in Israel, Amos cast forth from religion in the name of a pure and absolute righteousness. On the one hand, Jehovah’s peculiar connection with Israel meant no more than jealousy for their holiness: "You only have I known of all the families of the earth, therefore will I visit upon you all your iniquities." {Amos 3:2} And, on the other hand, all their ceremonial was abhorrent to Him: "I hate, I despise your festivals. Though ye offer Me burnt offerings and your meal offerings, I will not accept them Take thou away from Me the noise of thy songs; I will not hear the music of thy viols. But let justice run down as waters, and righteousness as a perennial stream." {Amos 5:21 ff.}

It has just been said that emphasis upon morality as the sum of religion, to the exclusion of sacrifice, is the most original element in the prophecies of Amos He himself, however, does not regard this as proclaimed for the first time in Israel, and the precedent he quotes is so illustrative of the sources of his inspiration that we do well to look at it for a little. In the verse next to the one last quoted he reports these words of God: "Did ye offer unto Me sacrifices and gifts in the wilderness, for forty years, O house of Israel?" An extraordinary challenge! From the present blind routine of sacrifice Jehovah appeals to the beginning of His relations with the nation: did they then perform such services to Him? Of course, a negative answer is expected. No other agrees with the main contention of the passage. In the wilderness Israel had not offered sacrifices and gifts to Jehovah. Jeremiah quotes a still more explicit word of Jehovah: "I spake not unto your fathers in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices: but this thing I commanded them, saying, Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and ye shall be My people." {Jeremiah 7:22 f.}

To these Divine statements we shall not be able to do justice if we hold by the traditional view that the Levitical legislation was proclaimed in the wilderness. Discount that legislation, and the statements become clear. It is true, of course, that Israel must have had a ritual of some kind from the first; and that both in the wilderness and in Canaan their spiritual leaders must have performed sacrifices as if these were acceptable to Jehovah. But even so the Divine words which Amos and Jeremiah quote are historically correct; for while the ethical contents of the religion of Jehovah were its original and essential contents-"I commanded them, saying, Obey My voice"-the ritual was but a modification of the ritual common to all Semites; and ever since the occupation of the land, it had, through the infection of the Canaanite rites on the high places, grown more and more Pagan, both in its functions and in the ideas which these were supposed to express. Amos was right. Sacrifice had never been the Divine, the revealed element in the religion of Jehovah. Nevertheless, before Amos no prophet in Israel appears to have said so. And what enabled this man in the eighth century to offer testimony, so novel but so true, about the far-away beginnings of his people’s religion in the fourteenth, was plainly neither tradition nor historical research, but an overwhelming conviction of the spiritual and moral character of God-of Him who had been Israel’s God both then and now, and whose righteousness had been, just as much then as now, exalted above all purely national interests and all susceptibility to ritual. When we thus see the prophet’s knowledge of the Living God enabling him, not only to proclaim an ideal of religion more spiritual than Israel had yet dreamed, but to perceive that such an ideal had been the essence of the religion of Jehovah from the first, we understand how thoroughly Amos was mastered by that knowledge. If we need any further proof of his "possession" by the character of God, we find it in those phrases in which his own consciousness disappears, and we have no longer the herald’s report of the Lord’s words, but the very accents of the Lord Himself, fraught with personal feeling of the most intense quality. "I" Jehovah "hate, I despise your feast days Take thou away from Me the noise of thy songs; I will not hear the music of thy viols {Amos 5:21-23} I abhor the arrogance of Jacob, and hate his palaces {Amos 6:8} The eyes of the Lord Jehovah are upon the sinful kingdom {Amos 9:8} Jehovah sweareth, I will never forget any of their works." {Amos 8:7} Such sentences reveal a Deity who is not only manifest Character, but is urgent and importunate Feeling. We have traced the prophet’s word to its ultimate source. It springs from the righteousness, the vigilance, the urgency of the Eternal. The intellect, imagination, and heart of Amos-the convictions he has inherited from his people’s past, his conscience of their evil life today, his impressions of current and coming history-are all enforced and illuminated, all made impetuous and radiant, by the Spirit, that is to say the Purpose and the Energy, of the Living God. Therefore, as he says in the title of his book, or as someone says for him, Amos saw his words. They stood out objective to himself. And they were not mere sound. They glowed and burned with God.

When we realize this, we feel how inadequate it is to express prophecy in the terms of evolution. No doubt, as we have seen, the ethics and religion of Amos represent a large and measurable advance upon those of earlier Israel. And yet with Amos we do not seem so much to have arrived at a new stage in a Process, as to have penetrated to the Idea which has been behind the Process from the beginning. The change and growth of Israel’s religion are realities-their fruits can be seen, defined, catalogued-but a greater reality is the unseen purpose which impels them. They have been expressed only now. He has been unchanging from old and forever-from the first absolute righteousness in Himself, and absolute righteousness in His demands from men.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Amos 7". "Expositor's Bible Commentary".