Read this one slowly and with the book of Amos close at hand. Read it more than once over the next few days. Perhaps it will revive you as it did me.
Of the minor prophets, Amos has always drawn me. Maybe it was in that first class I took on Minor Prophets at Moody in Chicago, when I realized that Martin Luther King Jr. used a verse from Amos, quite appropriately, at the march on Washington for civil rights in 1963:
Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. -Amos 5:24
Or maybe it was as my professor, John Walton, now at Wheaton College, introduced me to the poetic interludes of Amos, including:
Behold, He who formed the mountains,
And created the wind,
And has told man what His wish is,
Who turns blackness into daybreak,
And treads upon the high places of the earth —
His name is the Lord, the God of Hosts. -Amos 4:13
There is an undeniable poetic beauty to Amos as well as a powerful and, at times, startling message. Abraham Joshua Heschel captures the poetry and the message in his chapter on Amos in The Prophets.
Heschel on Amos’ Background
A southerner from Judah who came into complacent Samaria (the northern kingdom, Israel) during the long reign of Jeroboam II was a herdsman from Tekoa named Amos. The comforts and complacencies of Israel are often decried by the pen of this prophet out of his place. He predicted lazy Samaria was in for a brutal shake-up:
Fallen, no more to rise,
Is the virgin, Israel;
Forsaken on her land,
With none to raise her up.
But Heschel notes that Amos had hopeful advice for a better outcome, “seek the Lord and live” (5:6).
On Amos’ Attachment to God
A number of beautiful poetic interludes and other verses hinting at God’s nearness as well as his might color the lines of the book. In addition to 4:13, above, there is the first interlude:
The Lord roars from Zion,
Shouts aloud from Jerusalem;
And the pastures of the shepherds shall languish,
And the summit of Carmel shall wither.
Heschel moves me with his questions:
What is the nature of Him whose word overwhelmed the herdsman Amos? Is his grandeur like a towering mountain? Is his majesty comparable to an inscrutable constellation? Is he sublime as the morning and mysterious as darkness? All comparisons fade to insignificance…
On Amos’ Call for Justice
Who can fail to be moved by the reality, not at all banished from our world, of Amos’ indictment of his generation?
They sell the righteous for silver,
And the needy for a pair of shoes —
They that trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and turn aside the way of the afflicted.
Heschel notes that Amos particularly indicted those who were fastidious in worship and unmoved by those whose lives called out for a little help.
Spare Me the sound of your hymns,
And let Me not hear the music of your lutes.
We are ready to judge the ritual act on its own merit. Properly performed, its value is undisputed. Yet, the prophet speaks with derision of those who combine ritual with iniquity.
On Amos and the “Redeemer Pained by the People’s Failure”
Heschel notes that rejection of the Torah was the basis of the condemnation poured out by Amos on the nation (see 2:4). Yet it was not mere ethics that motivated the herdsman-turned-prophet:
Did Amos speak as a champion of ethics? Was it in the name of the moral law that the shepherd of Tekoa left his sheep to proclaim his message in Samaria? Amos insisted it was God whose called he had followed and whose living word he carried. . . . The message of God is not an impersonal accusation, but the utterance of a Redeemer who is pained by the misdeeds, the thanklessness of those he has redeemed.
On Amos and Nations Outside Israel
Amos 3:2 famously says, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth,” and yet the book goes on to have an inclusive and hopeful tone for the relation of the Gentiles to God. Messianic Jews should note that Amos 9:12 is the very verse cited by James in Acts 15 to back up the approval of the Gentiles who came to Messiah without first converting to become Jews.
Amos 9 mentions the Ethiopians, Philistines, and Syrians, whom God brought up from one place to become a greater people than before, a process much like Israel’s story (9:7). Heschel comments:
The nations chosen for this comparison were not distinguished for might and prestige — countries such as Egypt and Assyria — but rather nations which were despised and disliked. The color of Ethiopians is black, and in those days many of them were sold on the slave markets. The Philistines were the archenemies of Israel, and the Syrians continued to be a menace in the northern kingdom. The God of Israel is the God of all nations, and all men’s history is his concern.
On Israel’s False Hope in the Day of the Lord
Amos reveals an attitude of waiting for a day of great judgment, in which surely the nations will be judged and Israel blessed. Yet Amos, like Yeshua many generations later, had no patience with the smug certainty of the religious. God always values humble approach and not presumption and superiority. Amos railed, “Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord . . . it is darkness and not light” (5:18).
Amos tried to convey the sense of disappointment, God’s aversion against the people. Indeed, what God demands of man is expressed not only in terms of action, but also in terms of passion. “I hate and abhor your feasts!” (5:21), says God. “Hate evil and love good” (5:15) is the great demand.
On God Repenting
In Amos 7, the prophet prays for his people, “How can Jacob stand? He is so small!” And the text says God repented and said, “It shall not be,” averting the declared judgment to come.
Had the Lord been a God of stern, mechanical justice, then long ago he might have repudiated his covenant and cast Israel off. He had a deep affection for his people, and had known them more intimately than any of the other nations (3:2). . . . The Lord repented, not because the people are innocent, but because they are small. His judgment is never final. There is always a dimension of God’s pervading affection where compassion prevails over justice, where mercy is a perpetual possibility.
Wrap-Up: The Relation of Prophet and God
In a famous poetic passage, Amos asks, “Can two walk together unless they have made an appointment?” (3:3). Heschel sees this as a description of Amos and God’s relationship, as clarified by 3:7:
The prophet regards himself as one who walks together with God. God and he have agreed. It is in the light of such sympathy, of such inner identification with the divine disappointment and aversion, that the spirit of Amos can be understood. . . . This is the burden of a prophet: compassion for man and sympathy for God.