6. The Major Prophets
The first division of the Old Testament was known as the Law with the second being called the Former Prophets, but these included four books which have already been outlined—Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. Though these books deal with the history of Israel, they were composed from a prophetic viewpoint and possibly even the authors themselves may have been prophets by profession.
The seventeen books considered in this section were classified in the Hebrew Bible as the Latter Prophets. The term ‘latter’ speaks primarily of their place in the canon rather than of their chronological position. These prophets are sometimes called the writing prophets because their authors wrote or recorded their utterances. There were other oral prophets like Nathan, Ahijah, Iddo, Jehu, Elijah, Elisha, Oded, Shemaiah, Azariah, Hanani, Jahaziel, and Huldah who left no records of their utterances. Mostly because of their size, the Latter Prophets are subdivided into the Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel), and the twelve Minor Prophets, whose writings could all be included in one large scroll which came to be known in Greek as the Do„decaprophe„ton , “the Twelve-Prophet Book”). 50 Daniel, usually viewed as one of the Major Prophets in the English Bible, actually appears in the third division of the Hebrew Canon called “the Writings.”
Lamentations will also be dealt with here because of its place in the English Bible, though in the Hebrew Bible it is among the five rolls or megilloth, the shorter books, which were brief enough to be read publicly on anniversaries.
The authors of these books were described or referred to by a number of terms due to the nature of their ministry and calling. They were called prophets, seers, watchmen, men of God, messengers, and servants of the Lord. Unger writes:
According to I Samuel 9:9 the prophet was in earlier Israel commonly called a ro’eh, that is one who perceives that which does not lie I the realm of natural sight or hearing. Another early designation of similar etymology was a hozeh “one who sees supernaturally” (II Samuel 24:11). Later the Hebrew seer was more commonly called a nabhi’ (I Samuel 9:9). This popular name is to be related the Accadian nabu, “to call or announce,” either passively, as Albright (From the Stone Age to Christianity, 1940, pp. 231 ff.), “one who is called” (by God), or actively with Koenig (Hebraeisches and Aramaeisches Woerterbuch zum Alten Testament, 1936, p. 260), “an announcer” (for), or preferably with Guillaume (Prophecy and Divination, 1938, pp. 112f), who construes the term to mean that the prophet is the passive recipient of a message manifest in his condition as well as in his speech, and is “one who is in the state of announcing a message which has been given to him” (by God). 51
As can be seen from Unger’s comments, a certain amount of uncertainty exists regarding the exact meaning of the word “prophet.” The word prophet is from the Hebrew ayb]n* (nabi). The deviration of this word is a matter of controversy, but the essential idea in the word is that of an authorized spokesman. This is clear, not from the etymology of this word which has been lost in antiquity, but from its use in three Old Testament passages: (1) Exodus 6:28-7:2. When Moses objected to being the spokesman for God to Pharaoh, God appointed Aaron to be Moses prophet, i.e., his authorized spokesman. The issue here is one person speaking for another. (2) Numbers 12:1-8. Aaron and Miriam, perhaps out of jealousy, sought to supplant Moses as mediator of God’s revelation with themselves (cf. Vs. 2), but God dramatically intervened to show He would speak directly with Moses alone and that He would also speak through those called prophets by dreams and visions. But the implication as to the meaning of “prophet” is clear. A true prophet is one who speaks for God to man. (3) Deuteronomy 18:9 -22. Just before the death of Moses, we have the formal announcement of the office of the nabi, the prophet, on a continuing basis. 52 These verses make it clear that the prophet is one who speaks forth the message which God has revealed to him.
Their Directive or Message
As a mouthpiece or spokesman for God, the prophet’s primary duty was to speak forth God’s message to God’s people in the historical context of what was happening among God’s people. The broadest meaning is that of forthtelling the narrower meaning is that of foretelling. In the process of proclaiming God’s message, the prophet would sometimes reveal that which pertained to the future, but, contrary to popular opinion, this was only a small part of the prophets message. Forthtelling involved insight into the will of God it was exhortative, challenging men to obey. On the other hand, foretelling entailed foresight into the plan of God it was predictive, either encouraging the righteous in view of God’s promises or warning in view of coming judgment. So the prophet was the divinely chosen spokesman who, having received God’s message, proclaimed it in oral, visual, or written form to the people. For this reason, a common formula used by the prophets was, “Thus says the Lord.”
As God’s spokesman, their message can be seen in a three-fold function they had among the people of God in the Old Testament:
First, they functioned as preachers who expounded and interpreted the Mosaic law to the nation. It was their duty to admonish, reprove, denounce sin, threaten with the terrors of judgment, call to repentance, and bring consolation and pardon. Their activity of rebuking sin and calling for repentance consumed far more of the prophets’ time than any other feature of their work. The rebuke was driven home with predictions about the punishment that God intended to send on those failing to heed the prophet’s warning (cf. Jonah 3:4).
Second, they functioned as predictors who announced coming judgment, deliverance, and events relating to the Messiah and His kingdom. Predicting the future was never intended merely to satisfy man’s curiosity, but was designed to demonstrate that God knows and controls the future, and to give purposeful revelation. The prediction given by a true prophet would be visibly fulfilled. The failure of the prediction to be fulfilled would indicate that the prophet had not spoken the word of Yahweh (cf. Deut. 18:20-22). In 1 Samuel 3:19 it is said of Samuel that the Lord was with him and let none of his prophetic words fail (lit., “fall to the ground”).
Finally, they functioned as watchmen over the people of Israel (Ezek. 3:17). Ezekiel stood as a watchman on the walls of Zion ready to trumpet a warning against religious apostasy. He warned the people against political and military alliances with foreign powers, the temptation to become involved in idolatry and Canaanite cultic worship, and the danger of placing excessive confidence in religious formalism and sacrificial ritual.
While the prophets functioned in various ways as they communicated God’s message, they occupied one major role in Israel’s religious system. The prophets in Israel occupied the role of a royal diplomat or prosecuting attorney, indicting the nation for violations of the Mosaic covenant. 53
The King Who Saved Israel Temporarily
A n end-time prophecy about America in Amos 7 names the leader as “Jeroboam.” Gerald Flurry’s booklet Great Again shows how America’s current president is fulfilling that prophesied role. The ancient type that gave rise to the prophecy was King Jeroboam ii of Israel, who oversaw a temporary resurgence in the cursed nation. This ancient history holds fascinating parallels with the current period in America.
The Bible records remarkably little about Jeroboam ii . He was Israel’s longest-reigning king, ruling for 41 years (circa 793–753 b.c. ). Yet regarding his character, the book of Kings only says that “he departed not from all the sins of Jeroboam”—that is, the first Jeroboam, who led the northern tribes to break away from the house of David nearly 150 years earlier. Through these scant details, though, the Bible reveals Jeroboam ii ’s reign to be unique in Israel’s history.
For instance, normally Israel expanded territorially only when God blessed the reign of a righteous king. This was not the case with Jeroboam ii . Through the Prophet Jonah, God prophesied that even though Jeroboam was wicked, God would have mercy on Israel and use Jeroboam to enlarge Israel’s boundaries in a way not seen since the reign of King Solomon.
“He restored the coast of Israel from the entering of Hamath unto the sea of the plain, according to the word of the Lord God of Israel, which he spake by the hand of his servant Jonah …” (2 Kings 14:25). As Benjamin Mazar showed in his text Early Biblical History, “the entering of Hamath” should be left untranslated from Hebrew as Lebo Hamath—a town located in modern-day Syria’s Hama province. This town is also mentioned in 1 Kings 8:65 to describe the northern edge of Solomon’s kingdom. As Mazar related, the watershed just north of this town “served in all periods as a natural boundary in the middle of Beqa,” or valley.
2 Kings 14:25 also mentions the southern edge of Jeroboam’s territory: “the sea of the plain.” Most scholars take this to mean the eastern portion of the Dead Sea, perhaps even to the point of Edom at the sea’s southern point. Taken together, these verses indicate Jeroboam had full control over the territories of Moab, Ammon and Syria (see also verse 28 and Amos 6:14). At the same time, King Uzziah of the southern kingdom of Judah was experiencing a national revival, conquering territory along the Philistine coast southward to the Red Sea.
This stunning expansion meant Jeroboam maintained control over one critical trade route connecting ancient Egypt to northern Mesopotamia: the King’s Highway. This meant Jeroboam’s kingdom once again became wealthy. Flush with cash, Israel took one last breath of the “good life” before descending into Assyrian captivity following Jeroboam’s death.
This prosperity during Jeroboam ii ’s reign is witnessed at several archaeological sites in northern Israel, such as Hazor, Dan and Tizrah. At Megiddo, a striking jasper seal reading “Shema, servant of Jeroboam” was discovered in excavations. Its iconography and the context of its discovery show it likely belonged to a minister or an assistant to Jeroboam himself. Though archaeology can only reveal so much, the picture that emerges of Jeroboam’s reign is one of national restoration of towns and cities throughout Israel, indicating a boost in wealth, at least for the ruling class.
Toward the end of Jeroboam’s reign, God sent the Prophet Amos to directly warn the affluent nation of its coming downfall if it failed to repent. Instead of thanking God for delivering the blessings prophesied by Jonah, Israel clung to its idolatry. “You lie on beds adorned with ivory and lounge on your couches,” Amos warned. “You dine on choice lambs and fattened calves. You strum away on your harps like David and improvise on musical instruments. You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph” (Amos 6:4-6 New International Version). Excavations in Israel’s capital of Samaria unearthed hundreds of ivory fragments, recalling Amos’s warning.
Israel refused to acknowledge God as the source of its wealth and peace, and continued its pagan practices. As Todd Bolen wrote, “The Israelites thought of themselves as good, religious participants. They traveled regularly to their royally designated cultic centers, places of ancient religious significance (Amos 4:4 5:5 8:14 Hosea 4:15). They brought sacrifices and freewill offerings of an extravagant nature and amount, unequaled in remembered history (Amos 4:5 5:21-22)” (“The Reign of Jeroboam ii : A Historical and Archaeological Interpretation”). Far from heeding the prophet’s call for repentance, the people expected continued blessings. So confident were they about their standing with God that they actually desired the day of the Lord, thinking it would not affect them (Amos 5:18-20).
As Jonah and Amos clearly showed, God was behind the prosperity and peace during the time of Jeroboam ii . Yet the people credited their king and their military victories instead. “You celebrate the defeat of Lo-Debar and Karnaim, and you boast by saying, ‘We did it on our own’” (Amos 6:13 Contemporary English Version). God saved the nation temporarily by the hand of Jeroboam, but soon after, He removed those blessings.
Bible history and contemporary secular history prove that the end of Jeroboam’s reign was the death knell for the nation. Successive Assyrian kings quickly drove Israel from the territory Jeroboam had won. Three decades later, the nation was in captivity.
The Old Testament prophets were adept at luring hostile audiences into listening to their judgment speeches. In 1 Kings 20:35-43 a prophet tricked Ahab into pronouncing his own guilt and punishment. And Nathan tricked David into declaring his own guilt by the artful use of a parable (2 Sam. 12).
Amos 1-2 contains a great example of this entrapment technique, and recognizing what Amos is doing here really helps us to understand what is being said and what is the theme of the book.
- Seven speeches pronouncing Judgment.
- Five messages describing the reasons for the judgment and just how bad they were.
- Five visions to show how bad the judgment will be.
- Promise of restoration in the future.
I also want to spend some time showing you some of the literary devices that the prophets used. Most of what they did is lost on the modern reader, but they were skilled writers and understanding some of these literary devices really opens up the book.
So, with this in mind, let's study the book of Amos.
A. Author and Date (1:1)
Amos was a sheepherder from the southern kingdom of Judah. Amos 7:15 shows us that he received a direct call from God to go prophesy to the northern kingdom of Israel. So Amos goes to Bethel, which was functioning as the capitol of Israel. The king, Jeroboam II, lived there. Bethel had special significance in Israel's history. In Genesis 28: we see that this is where Jacob had his dream about the angels descending on the ladder and his wrestling with God. But now it had become the center for idol worship in the Northern Kingdom. Jeroboam set up golden calves in Bethel and Dan for the Israelites to worship, because he didn't want the people worshipping God in Jerusalem and reuniting the kingdom.
It says this happened in the days of Uzziah, king of Judah and in the days of Jeroboam. So we know this to be somewhere between 790-753 BC. Israel was at the height of its power politically, but was very corrupt spiritually and morally.
We know that Israel was defeated by the Assyrians in 722 B.C., so this is just before that time and Amos is warning Israel so they will turn from their wicked ways before it is too late. And that brings us to the theme of the book.
B. The Theme (1:2)
One thing we need to notice is the phrase, “The Lord roars from Zion.” God has been Israel's shepherd. The Israelites are familiar with the 23rd Psalm, etc. Like a shepherd, God is supposed to take care of them. But Amos, a sheepherder himself, uses what would have been a very vivid word picture to that society. God is now like a Lion to Israel. The lion was probably the most feared animal of that time. It could attack and devour a flock of sheep while the shepherd watched helplessly.
So this imagery sets the stage and lets the people know that God is angry. Why is He angry? That is the theme of the book. And I don't want to tell you just yet.
So, with these things in mind, we see Amos is preaching in the Northern Kingdom to the Israelites, and he begins by giving a series of speeches against Israel's surrounding enemies.
II. The Roar of Judgment (1:3-2:16)
I can just imagine him shouting and pronouncing judgment on these surrounding nations, and his audience would be listening with delight as he listed the evil things their enemies had done and what God was going to do to them. After all, there were a number of prophecies, like the one in Jeremiah 30:7f, that had Israel anticipating a day when God would deliver them from their enemies. When we studied Obadiah and Joel, you may remember they talked about the day of the Lord when the nations would be judged.
Let's look at the speeches in Amos. Typically, people read these speeches and try to draw application from each one. They try to analyze each nation's sin, etc. But that is perhaps, not the best way to understand what Amos is doing here.
It seems that Amos is using these speeches to build to a climax. He starts with foreigners, then denounces Israel's neighbors and then the seventh speech is against Judah. You all know that the number seven is significant in the Bible and it was to the Jew. They would have thought this was the culmination of the sermon and they certainly would have been pleased that Judah was going to get what was coming to her.
But Amos uses another literary device to build the listener's interest and make him hang around till the end. Let's look at what Amos does:
The Three/Four Formula
One of the first things you notice is this saying, “for three transgressions of ________ and for four . . . .” What does that mean?
It is especially confusing when he doesn't list three or four things after he says that. We might label this device as an x/x+1 formula. This x/x+1 formula is found throughout the Bible and usually follows a set pattern.
- It is occasionally used to emphasize completeness as in Job 40:5 which says, “Once I have spoken, and I will not answer Even twice, and I will add no more.”
- It is sometimes used to mean “a few” - one or two of something. e.g. There were a couple of people at the meeting.
- It is sometimes used to mean abundance - “7 even 8” is used more often to refer to that. Micah 5:5 says,
When the Assyrian invades our land,
When he tramples on our citadels,
Then we will raise against him
Seven shepherds and eight leaders of men.
This means there will be plenty of shepherds (leaders). This is also seen in Ancient Near Eastern secular literature (from Ugarit). (E.g. Baal has 7 yea 8 bolts of lightning.)
- Sometimes it is more literal. The second number is what is being emphasized and the phrase “3 even 4” is mostly used for poetic parallelism. But it usually precedes a list of some sort. In Ps 62:11-12 we see the one/two formula. In Proverbs 30:15-16, 18-19, 21-23, 29-31 we have the three/four formula and in Job 5:19-22 and Proverbs 6:16-19 we have a six/seven grouping. Proverbs 6: 16-19 is fairly well known.
In all these sections the author gives a list corresponding to the larger number of the formula. The significance of all this is that the typical Jew would have been expecting Amos to list four transgressions for each of these nations mentioned. Does he do that? No. Why?
Amos is going to adapt this common 3-4 # formula to set up the audience and emphasize his message. Let's look at the speeches:
A. Judgment Against the Nations (1:3-2:5)
1:3-5 - “Because they threshed Gilead with implements of sharp iron.”
Damascus was the capitol of the Arameans or Syrians off to the North. Hazael and Ben-hadad were previous kings of Aram. This probably refers to the constant battles between Gilead and the Arameans. The word “threshing” is probably figurative for harsh and thorough conquest with the idea of Aram's armies raking across Gilead slicing and crushing it as though it were grain on the threshing floor. This could even refer to actual methods of torture where a device like a sledge with iron prongs or knives was used on prisoners, or as Ryrie says in his footnote--the huge sledges were literally dragged over the enemies to crush them.
But notice, even though it is a gruesome thing, there is only one transgression listed. Not four as the audience would have expected.
Damascus fell to the Assyrians in 732 BC.
1:6-8 - Philistines in the West. The cities mentioned, Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Ekron were major cities in Philistia.
Their sin - “Because they deported an entire population to deliver it up to Edom.”
Although it might look like two crimes listed, the overall concept is that of one thing--large scale slave trade. The Philistines were famous for capturing whole villages and selling them into slavery to Edom and from there they were sold to other parts of the world. Joel 3:4-8 talks further about their slave trade, and also mentions that Tyre participated with them. Tyre is the next city mentioned.
1:9-10 - This refers to the Phoenicians. Their crime against humanity was also slave trade with Edom. Strictly speaking we might see two transgressions here, but it seems that it is really one sin because the covenant of brotherhood was broken by the slave trade.
So, we have three nations condemned but only one sin listed for each. The 3/4 formula would have made the audience anticipate the fourth nation to be mentioned as the climax of the story.
1:11-12 - When Amos mentioned Edom fourth, I'm sure many thought this was the conclusion because the 3/4 formula might be mirrored in the speech as a whole with Amos denouncing three nations and then concluding with a special denunciation on the fourth. And I'm sure they were pleased. Ryrie mentions in his footnote on 1:7 that Edom was Israel's bitterest enemy. That is truly a sad thing because the Edomites were the descendants of Esau - Jacob's brother. Remember Jacob's other name was Israel.
“Because he pursued his brother with the sword” certainly refers to this relationship between Israel and Edom.
With all the emphasis on three and four transgressions, these four separate statements might make it seem like this is the culmination of the speech. But these four statements really all describe one basic sin and that is the intense hostility for Israel.
1:13-15 - This is certainly a gross sin. Ancient armies would sometimes do this to terrorize the enemy. And certainly committing this atrocity against defenseless women and children showed how immoral they had become. But again, I think there is just one conceptual sin listed. It says they ripped open the pregnant women in order to expand their borders. So it is their cruel imperialistic expansion that is in view.
2:1-3 - Ammon and Moab were the children of the daughters of Lot. More relatives. The sin listed is burning the bones of the king of Edom. It seems that in ancient times, much importance was placed on a dead man's body being peacefully placed in the family burial site, so he could be, “gathered to his fathers.” (BKCOT) If you remember they hauled Joseph's bones out of Egypt to bury them in the promised land.
So their sin was that of desecrating graves.
2:4-5 - Now he is getting closer to home. And he makes a couple of statements against them. but again, I think these statements are really just an elaboration on one sin
- The sin is rejecting the law of the lord
- The means is by not keeping the decrees, and
- The reason is because they followed false gods instead of the one true God.
And as Judah is the seventh nation mentioned, the audience would be certain this was the point of the message. Actually, the sin listed is perhaps the worst so far and is appropriate for the seventh pronouncement.
Notice the progression. He starts off with foreign nations and gets closer to home as he lists relatives.
Notice the numbers. First we notice Amos doesn't follow the usual convention of listing four ins after he uses the 3/4 formula. And second, it appears at first that he is going to focus his attention on Edom and then he continues. Then it looks like he is culminating with Judah which is listed 7th. Seven is a significant number and represents fullness, etc. The number eight is also significant in that it follows seven and gives the idea of abundance or “therefore. ”
So there is something wrong with the way Amos has told his story. He didn't follow the rules. That is part of understanding and appreciating the literature of the Bible. When someone doesn’t follow the rules it is usually done on purpose to make you take notice. The audience would have noticed this and been expecting something more. In other words, he has set up his audience. He has told them of those that will be destroyed and seemingly ends with Judah.
But - surprise - he continues and adds an 8th item to the list -- Israel. Israel is the target of the speech and the judgment. So we really shouldn't isolate each speech and the sin and judgment of each nation and turn them into principles. These are more than likely just building to #8.
The point is: Israel is worse than all the other nations.
B. Judgment Against Israel (2:6-16)
Now he gets personal. He gives it to them. 2:6-16 is the 8th oracle. Here he lists 8 or 10 sins (depending on how you count them) which could possibly be divided into 4 categories. So, Israel appears worse than the rest.
As you read verses 6-8 you notice some parallel structure: e.g.: They sell the righteous for money and (they sell) the needy for a pair of sandals.
Parallel structure was just the Hebrew way of saying everything. They like to repeat themselves. So, in this case, although it might look like separate sins, it is really a poetic way of describing one sin. Since we divided the sins of the other nations conceptually, we will do that here to be consistent.
I'm going to give you the four conceptual categories:
(1) Oppressing the innocent and the poor (2:6b-7a)
In verse 6 we see the justice system was corrupt. The law said it was OK to sell a debtor to pay the debt, but they were abusing it. The word righteous may mean the one who is right in a lawsuit. So the rich and the powerful may have been able to bribe judges to decide in their favor in a false lawsuit and that allowed them to sell the “righteous” (the one who was innocent but declared guilty) into slavery to pay the fine.
“Selling the needy for a pair of sandals” shows that the people were being sold into slavery for small debts or pledges. The law commanded the Israelites to give to the needy without demanding repayment (Deut. 15:7f), but I guess “business was business” for most Israelites.
Verses 9-11 recounts God’s provision for Israel. This reminds me of the unforgiving servant who refused to forgive his fellow slave a small debt, when he had just been forgiven a huge amount. I think God is heightening Israel's guilt by setting their rebellion against the backdrop of his own gracious acts toward them. It was He who conquered Canaan for Israel. At Jericho, Ai, etc. and later with Gideon and Samson. They took his forgiveness and salvation and provision but did not pass it on to others.
(2) Engaging in pagan religious practices (2:7b)
Verse 7 - is probably a reference to the fact that the Israelite men were going to pagan temples and participating with the temple prostitutes.
(3) Abusing the system of pledges and fines (2:8)
Verses 8 may also be referring to a different scenario - First, they weren't supposed to keep a cloak taken as a pledge overnight (Ex 22:26-27). It was assumed that only the very needy would borrow anything and so lenders were not to charge interest and profit from another person's misfortune, nor were they to keep coats that were given as collateral overnight. The poor persons would need it to stay warm. The poor person probably was required to give his coat as collateral so he couldn't go from place to place borrowing from every merchant. If a guy came in without a coat, that meant he had already borrowed for the day and he wouldn't be able to borrow anything else. He needed his coat back so he could stay warm that night and have something to use as collateral the next day. So these merchants were keeping the coats and, to make matters worse, we see the second sin - they used them to sleep on at night as they “worshipped” at pagan altars.
(4) Showing lack of respect for God's special servants (2:12)
Verse 12 shows the corruption and rejection of the religious system and the rejection of religious leaders. The Nazarites had taken a vow not to drink any alcohol, but the Israelites were coercing them to break their vows. They had no commitment to God and had no respect for those who did.
Does anything stand out to you at first glance?
I think two things stand out:
First, Amos finally lists four sins. This is the point of his 3/4 formula. He didn't list four sins for the other nations because Israel is the target of the coming judgment.
Second, These sins don't look nearly as bad as those of the other nations. So what is the point? Why does God consider Israel to be worse than all the other nations?
I think this points us to the theme of the book.
THEME: God requires more from those to whom He has given more. Luke 12:48
God had given the Jews the law. They knew better. That was God's complaint against Judah in verse 4 -- that Judah rejected the Law. And it is God's complaint against Israel, but he elaborates because Israel is the target audience and he really wants to drive the point home.
Amos wants you, the listener, to ask the question, “Why are these lists so short?” Then he gets to Israel who has many more sins listed than every other nation. Israel is really guilty - more guilty than all the rest.
What do all these sins of Israel have in common? Love of money and things had replaced love for people. Money had become their god. Does this have any practical application for America and for us?
The sins of Israel don't look as bad as those of the other nations. After all, the other nations were going to war, murdering people and ripping open pregnant women. But Israel's sins are worse because they knew better. Theirs was the sin of hypocrisy.
One obvious problem in Israel was the sin of materialism. We certainly face this problem in our society. We can see how the Israelites compromised God's laws and principles to achieve success (which they defined as wealth). We need to be careful that we do not fall into the same trap. The Israelites did something else. Their theology said that the wealthy person was a righteous person. We see that over and over again in the parables in the NT. This further passified their conscience as they told themselves that their prosperity was God’s sign of approval.
We see how the Israelites abused people in need. I don't know if we overtly abuse people, but how concerned are we for the poor? What are we doing for them? Are we ignoring them or ministering to them? I think in our society we expect Uncle Sam to take care of them. We criticize big government, but we depend on government to do what we ought to be doing.
I said the Israelites’ theology said prosperity was a sign of spirituality. Is our theology such that we assume they are poor because they are ungodly?
The main point of this section is this: We look at society and think other people are bad. abortion, homosexuality, murder, etc. but we do things that are, in God's eyes, worse, because we know better. God expects more out of His people. This doesn't mean we ignore the other sins. They are terrible, but don't gloss over what we think are little sins, or what we have rationalized away as not even being a sin.
Remember: To him who has been given much is much required.
III. The Reasons for Judgment (Amos 3-6)
A. The First Message (3:)
1. The Unique Relationship (3:1-2)
When you get to 3:2 you see that Israel is chosen and you would normally think that means special treatment. That is what the Jews thought at that time. There was a aberrant doctrine of eternal security floating around Israel. They thought they were immune from judgment, because they were the chosen people living in the chosen city. They thought it didn't matter what they did. They took their relationship with God for granted. I think 6:8 may be a reference to this attitude.
But to God, being chosen, means having responsibility. Israel forgot the stipulations of the covenant made in Deut. They were only secure as long as they followed God. That was part of the OT law.
How does this relate to us since we are not under the covenant blessings and curses?
The father/child relationship is probably the most helpful for understanding this. I treat my children differently than other children. I wrestle with them, play games, take them out to eat breakfast, buy them things, etc., but I also spank them when they disobey. If I’m watching several kids at my house, I don’t spank other people’s kids when they disobey. It would probably be fair to say that I expect more from my kids than the other kids. I know I’ve told my kids not to do carrier landings on the coffee table (explain). If they do it, they will get a spanking. .
In the same way, we are children of God. We can't remove the relationship no matter how much we sin. What we can change is whether or not he needs to discipline us or whether He can continue with His planned blessings for us. When Israel was bad, they were still God's chosen people, they just didn't get to enjoy His blessings. Instead, God had to discipline them. And He disciplined them for transgressions that didn’t seem as bad to us as the other nations. But they knew better.
We have a tendency to want to earn God's blessings and we think we deserve God's blessings. (That is one of the main lessons from Hosea) but there is a fine line here that we need to understand. We do not earn God's blessings by being good. We just free God up to graciously bless us.
2. The Inevitable Judgment (3:3-8)
In 3:3-8 Amos uses seven rhetorical questions to show that the judgment of God is inevitable. There is a progression here:
- 3:3 No element of force or disaster
- 3:4 One animal overpowering another
- 3:5 Man overpowering animals
- 3:6 Man overpowering other men
- 3:6b God overpowers man. Climax
- 3:7-8 God always reveals Himself and His plan to mankind. He tells us what He wants us to do, but with that information comes responsibility to do it. If we fail to do it, judgment will follow.
EXAMPLE: The theme of this whole book and especially this section causes me to go back to the parenting/discipline process for an analogy. When Mandy does something wrong, but I have never before told her not to do that, I usually tell her what she is doing is wrong and not to do it again. But I don't discipline her then. However, if I've told her not to do something and she does it anyway, the discipline is sure to follow. Because she knew better. And the Israelites knew better!
3. Unparalleled Oppression (3:9-10)
3:9 Ashdod (Philistines) and Egypt were former oppressors of Israel. But things were so bad in Israel now that Amos is sarcastically calling them to witness the internal oppression going on now. It is like saying, “You thought you oppressed them? You don't even know how to oppress compared to them. Watch them oppress themselves.”
4. The Coming Catastrophe (3:11-15)
Because of the oppression God was going to send an enemy in to destroy them. And in case some of the listeners thought God would save them again this time, Amos compares God's saving them to a shepherd snatching a leg bone or ear from a lion's mouth. Only a few people would be spared.
The reference to the lion in 3:12 goes back to the first verse of Amos. Remember he said, “The LORD roars from Zion and thunders from Jerusalem. ” This is just another literary device Amos uses which shows his skill as a writer.
So, the point of the first message is that Israel was chosen and because of their rebellion and internal oppression, judgment was certain.
B. The Second Message (4:)
1. Economic Exploitation
4:1 This is certainly a colorful and sarcastic section. Women are normally sensitive and compassionate, but note the contrast here. The women are compared with the fat cows living on the lush pastures of Bashan. The idea here is that these spoiled women demanded luxury from their “masters” (not the typical word for husband--more sarcasm and reversal of roles) and the only way their husbands could meet their demands was by oppressing the poor.
How does this apply to us? Are we guilty of this? Are we so materialistic and so demanding that our spouse has to work overtime to make enough money to satisfy our demands? Do we have to cheat other people in our business in order to make the most money we can?
4:2 The cattle imagery is continued by the meat hook imagery. See Ryrie's note.
So, economic exploitation was one problem, now, he describes another.
2. Religious Hypocrisy
4:4 continues the sarcasm. Bethel and Gilgal were important sites in Israel's salvation history. (Gen 28:10-22 Josh 4-5) Normally the priest would call people to come worship, but here we see Amos calling the people to come to Bethel and Gilgal to sin. The sacrifices and tithes that they were bringing to God had become a sham. They did everything to impress other people (vs 5), not to worship God. They were actually going to church to sin. Not to mention the fact that they weren’t going to Jerusalem to worship, which was the only authorized worship center for Yahweh.
4:5 Notice it says “proclaim freewill offerings and make them known.” I think this shows that they were bragging about their spirituality, their giving, etc. They were doing things to be seen.
We might ask ourselves if we are guilty of this.
4:6-11 shows God's response to their hypocrisy and His repeated attempts to bring them back to Him. The phrase, “Yet you have not returned to me” is repeated five times.
Amos 4:6 says “yet you have not returned to me,” declares the Lord. The punishments mentioned in the next few verses are an allusion to the promised curses of Deuteronomy 28.
- Famine is mentioned in Amos 4:6 and in Deuteronomy 28:17-18.
- Drought in Amos 4:7-8 and Deut 28:23-24.
- Locusts in Amos 4:9 and Deut 28:38.
- Plague in Amos 4:19 and Deut 28:60.
I think this shows God's patience - that He tried so many times, and it shows His mercy because we see that He started out with less severe measures and then increased the severity. (Famine, drought, crop failure, disease and war.)
C. The Third Message (5:1-17)
Chapter 5 is divided into two sections using a favorite literary device called a Chiasm. Explain: Draw X and show abcba.
Sometimes a Chiasm was just used as an outline and sometimes it really points us to the key idea of main point of the section. So not only is it fun to look for these, but it usually helps us understand the main idea of the author.
If we outline these two messages, it points to the overall truth that: the nation would be judged by its mighty Sovereign God, but individuals could yet repent and live.
C. The Third Message (5:1-17)
1. Description of certain judgment (5:1-3)
2. Call for individual repentance (5:4-6)
3. Accusation of legal injustice (5:7)
4. Portrayal of a sovereign God (5:8-9)
5. Accusation of legal injustice (5:10-13)
6. Call for individual repentance (5:14-15)
7. Description of certain judgment (5:16-17)
D. The Fourth Message (5:18-27)
1. Description of certain judgment (5:18-20)
2. Accusation of religious hypocrisy (5:21-22)
3. Call for individual repentance (5:23-24)
4. Accusation of religious hypocrisy (5:25-26)
5. Description of certain judgment (5:27)
Remember Isa 6: When Isaiah saw the glory of God on his throne, it caused him to repent and make himself available to serve God.
That is the point of the third and fourth messages. The Chiastic structure points us to that. The sovereignty of God in message three should cause the repentance in message four.
There are a few things I'd like to point out about these messages.
In 5:1 Amos summons the people to hear his lament over Israel.
Israel's demise was so certain that Amos lamented her fall as though it had already happened. This should have been as shocking to the Israelites as it would to one of us to read our own obituary in the newspaper.
5:2 Virgin Israel - a picture of being in the prime of life and experiencing a premature death. Israel could have and should have had a long prosperous life. Actually, God's plan was for an eternal kingdom for them.
5:10 They hate the one who points out their wickedness. Doesn't that sound like America. One example that comes to mind is the abortion issue. The Pro-life people are abused and beaten and thrown in jail when they try to protest (point out or reprove) those having and performing abortions. People don't want to be told that they are sinning. Darkness hates the light.
5:17 Just as God passed through Egypt (in judgment), He was going to pass through Israel. Ex 12:12
5:18-20 Pictures a man fleeing from one thing after another with no escape to be found.
5:23 Shows that their worship and singing was just noise in God’s ears because their worship was merely external.
5:24 shows that God desires justice. How you treat your fellow man is what is important to God and that is what shows that you love God. Over and over again we see the theme repeated that we are to love God and show it by our love for our neighbor.
This reminds me of the parable of the Good Smaritan. In the story, the priest and levite are on their way from Jerusalem. If they were on their way to Jerusalem, they might have been able to use the excuse that they didn’t want to become defiled and not be able to worship God. But they had already “worshipped God” (which supposedly showed that they loved God) but they refused to help the injured man (they did not love their neighbor) and that demonstrated that they really did not love God. Their worship was also merely external.
E. The Fifth Message (6:)
1. Their Boastful Complacency
6:2 This message addresses the problem in Israel in which everyone felt they were better because they were the chosen people.
2. Their Luxurious Indulgence
I think this section speaks for itself:
4 You lie on beds inlaid with ivory and lounge on your couches.
You dine on choice lambs and fattened calves.
5 You strum away on your harps like David
and improvise on musical instruments.
6 You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions,
but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph.
7 Therefore you will be among the first to go into exile
your feasting and lounging will end.
3. The Complete Devastation
6:8 We've already mentioned the aberrant doctrine of eternal security going around in that day. They thought they were invincible - partly because they were God's people, and because of their own strength. The rest of this chapter shows how wrong they were.
6:12 “you have turned justice into poison.” The judicial system which was designed to preserve the nations health, had become a lethal poison within its body. This sounds exactly like America with all the lawsuits that are going on and the lack of punishment for crimes.
6:13 says rb*d* aOl= <[email protected]=h^ or ( h^[email protected]'< l=l)a d`b*r ) which is translated in the NIV as “you who rejoice in the conquest of Lo Debar.” Lo Debar was a city on the East side of the Jordan which they had conquered. rbd ( d*b*r ) can mean either “word” or “thing” and with the negative ( loa ) could mean “no thing.” Therefore, Amos could be making a play on words (Lo Debar vs Lo Dabar) saying that they rejoice in nothing.
Hamath was a city in the north. The Brook of Arabah marked the southern border of Israel during Jeroboam II's reign. Mentioning these two cities shows how complete will be the destruction.
IV. The Results of Judgment - Five Visions
The Three Billy Goats Gruff
Once on a time there were three billy goats who were to go up to the hillside to make themselves fat, and the name of all three was “Gruff.”
On the way up was a bridge over a river they had to cross, and under the bridge lived a great ugly troll with eyes as big as saucers and a nose as long as a poker.
So first of all came the youngest Billy Goat Gruff to cross the bridge. “Trip, trap, trip, trap!” went the bridge.
“Who's that tripping over my bridge?” roared the troll.
“Oh, it is only I, the tiniest Billy Goat Gruff, and I'm going up to the hillside to make myself fat.” said the billy goat with such a small voice.
“Now, I'm coming to gobble you up!” said the troll.
“Oh, no! pray don't take me. I'm too litte, that I am.” said the billy goat. “Wait a bit till the second Billy Goat Gruff comes. He's much bigger.”
“Very well, be off with you,” said the troll.
A little while after came the second Billy Goat Gruff to cross the bridge. “Trip, trap, trip, trap” went the bridge.
“Who's that tripping over my bridge?” roared the troll.
“Oh, it is only I, the second Billy Goat Gruff, and I'm going up to the hillside to make myself fat.” said the billy goat and his voice was not so small.
“Now, I'm coming to gobble you up!” said the troll.
“Oh, no! Don't take me,” said the billy goat. “Wait a bit till the big Billy Goat Gruff comes. He's much bigger.”
“Very well, be off with you,” said the troll.
Just then up came the big Billy Goat Gruff. “T-r-i-p, t-r-a-p, T-r-i-p, t-r-a-p!” went the bridge, for the billy goat was so heavy that the bridge creaked and groaned under him.
“Who's that tramping over my bridge?” roared the troll.
“It is I! the BIG BILLY GOAT GRUFF!” said the billy goat, who had an ugly hoarse voice of his own.
“Now, I'm coming to gobble you up!” said the troll.
“Well, come along! I've got to spears,
And I'll poke your eyeballs out at your ears,
I've got besides to great big stones,
And I'll crush you to bits, body and bones.”
That was what the billy goat said, and so flew at the troll, and poked his eyes out with his horns, and crushed him to bits, body and bones, and tossed him into the river. Then he went up to the hillside.
There the billy goats got so fat they were scarce able to walk again, and if the fat hasn't fallen off them, why they're still fat and so --
You are probably wondering why I told you that story. Well, I did so because it illustrates what goes on in oral literature. You typically read stories like this and the three little pigs to children who can't read. They become totally caught up in the story and the author sets them up for the unexpected conclusion. The NT does this for us with the story of the Good Smaritan in Luke 10.
That is what Amos does to his audience with the next three visions. He uses the same literary technique. The first two visions are similar but the third one is different and catches the listener or reader's attention.
A. The Vision of the Locust Swarm (7:1-3)
1. The vision of destruction - 7:1-2a
2. The plea for mercy 7:2b
3. The suspension of judgment 7:3
B. The Vision of the Fire (7:4-6)
1. The vision of the all consuming fire 7:4
2. The plea for mercy 7:5
3. The suspension of judgment 7:6
C. The Vision of the Plumb Line (7:7-9)
1. The vision of the Plumb Line 7:7-8
2. The promise of Judgment
The third vision does not begin with judgment nor have a plea for mercy and the subsequent cancellation of judgment. The rhetorical purpose of this trilogy of visions is to set the audience up for the message of the third vision. The contrast of the third vision with the first two should draw attention to what is being said emphasize to the audience that Israel is “out-of-line” and doesn't measure up to God's standards. The prophet had asked for mercy in the first two visions, but when he was shown just how bad the people were (with the plumb line), he didn't ask for mercy because he could see that the judgment was deserved.
What is the main point of these visions? First we notice that the first two visions are like motion pictures. Amos responds to them emotionally and is overwhelmed by the destruction and effect on the nation. The third vision is like a snapshot. It invites reflection from the one seeing it. Amos sees the nation as God sees it. He looks at the situation theologically (the plumb line) and from reality (Amaziah's response) and sees that the judgment is deserved.
Too often we respond to bad things emotionally and blame God or think that it isn't fair, but we don't see what is going on from God's perspective.
The biographical account in 7:10-17 seems out of place but really isn't. It shows the reaction of the leaders of Israel (especially the priest) to the message of Amos. They rejected his warning and this proves that the visions are correct. The nation is corrupt all the way up to the priests and the king.
Amaziah's report is not accurate. He accuses Amos of conspiring to kill Jeroboam with the sword (7:11) but Amos' prophecy and reference to the sword was figurative language (metonomy of adjunct) referring to God's judgment on Jeroboam or perhaps it was picturing the severing of the king's line. Amaziah also says that the Israelites will go into exile. Amos didn’t say that.
Amos responded to Amaziah's accusation by describing in more detail what God's judgment would bring. It is ironic that the details of Amaziah's saying would indeed come true. Many would fall by the sword and the rest would be hauled away into exile.
D. The Vision of Ripe Fruit (8:)
The vision in 8:1-3 fits in nicely with the preceding section. The three visions, culminating with the vision of the plumb line, showed that judgment was very much deserved. The response of Amaziah, the priest, showed the corruption of the nation, even up through the leadership. It also showed that the warning was rejected. Finally, the vision of the basket of ripe fruit showed the time was ripe for executing the judgment. The time was now.
There is word play in 8:2 between the word for “fruit” ( Jy!q* ) q*y!J and the word for “the end” ( [email protected]^ ) h^ [email protected] . They both sound the same. I believe this figure of speech is called paronomasia. When Amos said he saw a basket of Jy!q* , God says, “Yes, the JQ! has come.”
This is one figure of speech that could be transferred into English. It is not the same type of figure of speech, but the idea is similar. The NIV says the fruit is “ripe” and God says the time is “ripe” for judgment.
8:5 shows the hypocrisy of the people. They went to worship on the Sabbath, but they resented the Sabbath because they couldn’t go to work and make more money by cheating others. If the law can be summed up by loving God and loving your neighbor, the Israelites showed that they did neither. And as we have pointed out before, if you don’t love your neighbor, it proves that you don’t love God.
8:11 shows that it is worse to go without hearing the word of God than to go without food.
E. The Avenging Lord (9:1-10)
9:8-9 shows that God will shake the nation to separate the wheat from the chaff. And when God shakes, no chaff will remain. Time and again, we see God will sort everyone out in the end and He will determine who will be saved and who will not. We have a tendency to want to judge others and determine if they are saved, but that is God’s job.
V. Restoration (9:11-15)
The ultimate purpose for God's judgment is not revenge, it is restoration. God punishes us to bring us back to Him. This is always the purpose for discipline. You see it in Mat 18 when Jesus talks about reproving your brother. The goal is to bring him to the point where he sees his sin and repents. Peter understands this and so he asks the question in Mat 18:21 about how many times we must forgive. Jesus’ answer is - always.
A. Political Renewal (9:11)
There will come a time when God will restore Israel.
B. National Purpose (9:12)
9:12 shows that it will be time when godly people from other nations will be included. That was Israel's purpose all along -- to be a testimony to the world of how great God is and lead the nations to Him. In Eze 17:22-23 God says:
22Thus says the Lord GOD: “I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar, and will set it out I will break off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, and I myself will plant it upon a high and lofty mountain 23 on the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bring forth boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar and under it will dwell all kinds of beasts in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest. (RSV)
Matthew 13:31-32 Another parable he put before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field 32 it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (RSV)
In these passages the birds represent the nations partaking of and benefitting from the establishment of the kingdom.
Application: It is the church's and the individual believer's role to attract the nations to God and bring them into the kingdom.
C. Prosperity, Peace and Permanence
Verse 15 says they will not again be rooted out from their land. This has to be a reference to the millennium and eternity. The many references to the land promise made to Abraham are one reason I believe there is still a future for Israel and they haven't been replaced by the Church.
Although the unbeliever's sins often appear worse to us, in God's eyes, those of the Christian are worse because we should know better. Chapters 1-2
Just like the Israelites looked down on her neighbor's for the atrocities they committed, I think we look down on those that commit gross sins and think that we are better than they, not realizing that God hates our sins of hypocrisy and idolatry more. Chapters 1-2
Just like God was patient with Israel and gave opportunity to repent. God also is patient with us an gives us time to repent, but don't abuse God's grace because we don't know when He will finally bring judgment. Chapter 4
Just like Amos reacted to God's judgment emotionally and thought it was unfair, we often do the same. When Amos saw things from God's perspective, he didn't protest any more. Chapter 7
God will restore Israel and will set up his kingdom so that all the nations can benefit from His rule.
5. Old Testament Justice (Amos)
Let’s now look at a place where the Bible uses the explicit language of justice. The fullest discussion of justice in the Old Testament shows up in the book of Amos. However, Amos treatment of justice echoes what we also find elsewhere in the Bible.
Amos’s Time and Place
Amos addressed his words to the ruling elite of Israel, the “northern kingdom” that had split off from Judea due to King Rehoboam’s oppressive practices (1 Kings 12). When Amos enters the scene several generations later, Israel lives in peace and prosperity. We get glimpses of the people’s enthusiastic self-confidence (Amos 6:1 8:3). Their popular religiosity saw the nation’s prosperity as the inevitable result of its faithfulness to God.
However, all was not well—as Amos came from Tekoa in the south to proclaim. Israel had originally been an egalitarian society. Torah’s social blueprint contained made concern for vulnerable people (such as widows and orphans) central. Torah sought to minimize the gap between a few wealthy and powerful elite and a mass of poor, even landless, peasants.
Torah’s inheritance system served as a means for common people to control their own resources. Israel confessed that Yahweh owned the land. The land served the good of everyone, not only the profit of a few. A decentralized legal system—the court in the gates of the villages—joined with the inheritance system to insure full participation in community life for everyone we could call this full participation “justice.” The court system helped the weaker members of the society who otherwise had no power and influence. Without the justice of the court they would not be able to maintain themselves in the social order.
This social ordering arose from the Israelites’ covenant with God. God established their nation in gracious love and desired the people to live in communion with one another. The covenant community was accountable to God—if it did not maintain its faithfulness, it was liable to be judged. Amos came onto the scene to announce that God was indeed about to carry this threat of judgment out. The social transformation of Israel had decisively moved away from covenant faithfulness.
Poverty and distress plagued the people at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Control of the land had shifted to a few centralized owners who exploited the people for their own gain. This process cut to the heart of the covenant-community concept. Israel’s God had cared for the Israelites in their enslavement in Egypt. The exodus from Egypt and the gift of Torah established Israel as a community meant to embody God’s justice. Increasing injustice profoundly jeopardized this witness to God’s healing agenda.
Amos’s General Message
In chapters one and two, Amos prophesies against Israel’s neighboring nations. This sets his listeners up for the challenge that begins in 2:6. In speaking against the nations, Amos gains the sympathy of his listeners—who agree that, of course, those nations are terrible and unjust. Amos then charges Israel with major crimes. He focuses on transgressions against harmonious ordering of Israelite communal life: (1) the sale into debt slavery of the innocent and needy (2) the oppression of the poor (3) the abuse of poor women and (4) the exploitation of debtors.
Amos turns Israel’s complacent view of its place as God’s covenant people on its head (3:2). He insists that privilege entails responsibility the Israelites have been irresponsible. Therefore, they are even worse than the despised pagans who never knew God. Consequently, Israel’s salvation history will become judgment history. Amos preaches that God has to do with justice and righteousness, not with Israel regardless of Israel’s way of life. When Israel itself is unjust, God will judge Israel.
Because of its past history as the recipient of God’s gracious acts, Israel uniquely knew God’s concern for the vulnerable. Because their leaders forgot this about God, the society will suffer. The whole book drives this world-shattering thought home.
Israelites did indeed know Torah’s concern for the vulnerable on an intellectual level. However, their leaders failed to administer the law fairly, and justice went disregarded. Worse, this happened in the midst of thriving religiosity. People flocked to the shrines but disregarded God’s call for justice for the vulnerable. Amos insists that religion made things worse for Israel. Ritualistic “faithfulness” masked ethical unfaithfulness.
In Israel, a veneer of peace and prosperity covered a corrupt reality. Rather than being a sign of God’s favor, this reality (even with its “peace and prosperity”) will be judged by God. Many people live in poverty while a few gain great wealth. In fact, the rich contribute to the problems of the poor. Even the one refuge of the poor, the court-system, has been corrupted and turned on its head to serve the rich instead of the poor.
Amos gives an example in 2:6. For rich creditors money has more value than people. Even more, the people who are needy are victims for insignificant reasons. Amos here implies, the needy are sold “because they can not pay back the small sum they owe for a pair of sandals.”
This covenant disloyalty will result in judgment. We are given an image of a plumb line in 7:8—likening the Israelites to an out of line wall. Disalignment characterizes injustice, life distorted and at variance with its intended dynamics.
Amos says that Israel, despite its chosenness and special relationship with God, will be judged due to its injustice. Israel especially embodies injustice toward people at the bottom of the social ladder. The nation deprives vulnerable people of their rightful status as full members of the covenant community.
We must note, though, that Amos does not use the term “justice” to describe judgment. As we will see, “justice” speaks to the solution, not the problem. Justice has to do with life, not judgment. Do justice and live—do injustice and face judgment.
The key to the book of Amos lies in its final few verses (9:11-15). This conclusion portrays restoration and healing. Many scholars see this vision as added on to the book later, arguing that it contradicts the book’s central punitive message. I believe, to the contrary, that this final vision tells us of the purpose of justice—restoration not punishment.
In light of this vision of healing, the message of the book as a whole centers not on punishment but on healing. Even amidst the injustices and poison of the present social order, God’s message of justice remains truthful: turn to justice and find healing. Justice as restoration.
Amos’s View of Justice
Four texts in Amos specifically speak of “justice”:
“Seek the Lord and live, lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel, O you who turn justice to wormwood, and cast down righteousness to the earth” (5:6-7).
Amos links justice and righteousness here with the presence of God as the life-bestowing force. By calling the evil good (i.e., the so-called “justice” at the gate that had become injustice, and the people’s wealth, that was gained at the expense of the poor and weak) and the good evil (abhorring the one who speaks the truth, 5:10), the Israelites transform what should be sweet (justice) into something bitter (wormwood).
“Seek good and not evil, that you may live and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said. Hate evil and love good and establish justice at the gate it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph” (5:14-15).
When speaks of hating the advocate of the right and abhorring those who speak “the whole truth,” he refers to opposition to the court-justice system. Such opposition, in God’s eyes, leads to death. True life in Israel can only flourish when God’s concern for the vulnerable finds embodiment in its social life. Such embodiment requires that the justice at the gate truly be justice, correcting wrongs done.
Concern for such justice goes back to the legal code itself: Exodus 23:6-8—“You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his suit. Keep far from a false charge and do not slay the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked. And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the officials and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.”
To experience the presence of God, in Amos’s view, Israel must practice justice. Religiosity does not matter. Amos makes this point in our next passage.
“I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream” (5:21-24).
Again, Amos connects justice with life. Life in the desert requires scarce water. Life in the community requires justice. When Israel does not practice justice, the community withers—and its worship rings false. Life departs the community. To have life in the community, justice and righteousness must roll down like floods after the winter rains and persist like those few streams that do not fail in the summer draught.
“Do horses run upon rocks? Does one plow the sea with oxen? But you have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood” (6:12).
The first part of this verse asks if the impossible could happen and the second part says that indeed in can. The impossible happens the leaders of Israel do it. Amos finds it incredible that the rich could be content in their luxury and not grieve over the ruin of “Joseph.” Their injustice destroys the covenant community (6:6). A place of justice (the court at the gate) has become unjust, poison. This violation of God’s world staggers the mind. Amos can only compare it with some incredible perversion of the natural order of things.
Key Points Regarding Justice in Amos
For Amos, most foundationally, justice links inextricably with life. Do justice and live, Amos asserts do injustice and die. Amos does not see justice as an abstract principle but rather as a life force. An unjust society will die it cannot help but collapse of its own weight. Genuine justice cultivates life.
More particularly, justice seeks life for everyone in the community. Because life is for everyone, justice pays particular attention to the people denied life. Justice provides for access by all to the communal “good life.” None can justly prosper at the expense of others, or even in the light of the poverty and need of others.
Amos sees justice as part of the created order. Injustice defies nature, like a crooked wall or an ox plowing the sea. To be unjust is thus inherently self-destructive. Injustice poisons its practitioners.
Chapters one and two show that Amos saw God’s justice as intended for everyone, including the pagan nations. The covenant people have a special responsibility due to their special awareness of God’s justice. Serious as their failure may be, still they are not judged more harshly than the other nations. Those too met with destruction, only Israel retains a remnant. However, Israel’s failure to practice justice, in Amos’s eyes, destroys the hope of the nations. God calls Israel to be a blessing to the nations, to witness to God’s justice and love. When Israel is unfaithful, no blessing comes forth.
Amos sees justice as something to be done: relationships established, needs met, wrongs corrected. Justice, in Amos, has nothing to do with a meaningless cult. Justice links with specific acts and people. It is not abstract nor ahistorical.
God’s justice, we see from 9:11-15, ultimately seeks redemption. God’s critique of Israel hopes that Israel’s self-destructive injustice might be corrected. God does not inspire Amos’s threats and warnings for the sake of repaying rebellious Israel an eye for an eye. Amos voices them in order to inspire transformation—recognizing that should Israel not respond the death of her nation-state will come.
Amos sees justice as the solution it is what the community should (must) seek. Let justice roll down like waters, like an ever-flowing stream that brings life. Injustice poisons like wormwood. Judgment is not “justice”—it is what happens when there is no justice. Justice is about healing justice is about transformation—justice is not about punishing.
Thoughts on Old Testament Justice in General
We may conclude, based on Amos’s teaching—and the rest of the Bible’s—that genuine justice serves life. God’s justice in the Old Testament centers not primarily on retribution but on salvation. God’s justice does not punish so much as correct. The justice of God saves, manifesting God’s fidelity to the role as the Lord of the covenant. God created the earth and its inhabitants for harmonious relationships. God continually acts, even in the midst of human rebellion, to encourage those relationships.
The Old Testament does not treat justice primarily as a legal concept. Justice tends to merge with “steadfast love,” “compassion,” “kindness,” and “salvation.” Justice has to do with how a loving creator has made the world. To be just means to live according to the creator’s will, to be in harmony with God, with fellow human beings, and with the rest of creation—and not to rest until everyone else also finds such harmony.
The Bible pictures justice as part of the created order. The Old Testament connection between justice and life follows from some of its ideas regarding creation. The Bible confesses “creation” to be an act of the covenant-making God of Israel. Creation harmonizes with the values of the covenant—love, justice, peace, compassion—that sustain and nourish life. We find no disjunction between the creator God and the covenant-making God.
Human life originated as an expression of God’s covenant-love. All human action that harmonizes with that love has meaning, the basic meaning of creation—and is thereby “just”. Because humankind has been created in the image of this God, all people need relationships—with each other and with God. Human activity finds its purpose in facilitating these relationships. Because all people share in the “image of God,” they have dignity and value. Discrimination and disregard of any human life can thus never be justified. Injustice severs relationships justice establishes and/or restores relationships.
God created the cosmos created good evil enters as an aberration. It can and must be resisted. To conquer the power of evil—a power especially manifested in the severing of relationships—defines doing justice.
The Bible portrays creation in terms of love. Faithfulness to the “creation mandate” equals living lives of love. Hence, people of faith have the calling to shape their social lives according to the values of love. This love motivates efforts to do justice. God’s love provides the motivation and the model for God’s followers.
Love applies to all areas of life according to the biblical teaching. Love should shape decisively the means and ends of all activity of the people of faith. We only become loving by practicing love at all times. Love gives those who shape their lives by it a hopefulness to believe that God’s justice and God’s love can be a reality in the world—and thus to act to make it so.
Biblical justice equals conformity with the will of the loving, covenant-making creator God. Justice links with love, rather than standing in tension with love. We see God’s justice in how God’s intervention has always sought the salvation of God’s people and the restoration of covenant relationships—for the sake of blessing all earth’s families.
God’s love works to set right that which has been corrupted. That is, God’s love works for justice. We may define God’s justice as how God expresses love in the face of evil. Love expressed in the face of evil acts to stop the evil and to heal its effects.
Old Testament people believed that God’s justice served as the norm for the nations as well as for Israel. Amos legitimately condemns the nations for their injustices, based on Torah. Torah revealed God’s will for all people, and God holds all people accountable for how they respond to that will.
God created everything, embedding justice into creation. Amos speaks, then of the unnaturalness of injustice, comparable to an ox plowing the sea or a wall being crooked. All people exist as part of God’s creation, as created in God’s image, and as accountable to God.
These beliefs primarily led to negative conclusions (such as Amos’s) regarding the actual practice of justice on the part of the nations. The nations too will be judged by God for being unjust. However, scattered examples of just people outside Israel (e.g., Rahab the harlot the repentant people of Ninevah in Jonah even, to some extent, Cyrus, the Persian leader) practice justice. God’s justice could be known and done by anyone—by virtue of their humanness.
God’s covenant people have responsibility to practice whole-making justice. This responsibility stems from their potential to bless all the families of the earth. Isaiah 2 and Micah 4 powerfully portray people from all the nations learning the ways of peace, of genuine justice, from Israel.
In Amos one and two, the prophet speaks in general terms of blatant injustices. From 2:6 on he speaks more specifically to Israel. He does so, not primarily because the nations lacked the capability of perceiving the need to be just in the ways Israelites were. Rather Amos’s focus reflects the idea that Israel’s calling entailed a closer relationship with God at this point. God expected more of Israel—for the sake of the nations.
The Power and Prevalence of Christian Nationalism
Christian nationalism is more common than we might think. In their book, Taking America Back for God, Whitehead and Perry report that 29% of all Americans believe the “federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation.” 1 Whitehead and Perry, Taking America Back for God, 6. Nearly two-thirds “either mostly or completely agreed” that “God has granted America a special role in human history.” Many Christians describe this “special role” in ways that apply biblical promises to American politics. 2 Koyzis, Political Visions, 120. Cf. also Whitehead and Perry, Taking America Back, 11.
Not convinced? Just listen to former president George W. Bush calling the “ideal of America” the “hope of all mankind” before applying the gospel’s words about the Incarnate Christ to this American ideal: “And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Listen to former president Donald Trump call the American people a “righteous public” that is “defended by God,” or former vice president Mike Pence using the Epistle to the Hebrews to call his audience to “run the race marked out for us” and to “fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents.”
Listen to former president Barack Obama call America the “last best hope on earth,” or former secretary of state Hilary Clinton claiming that the United States is “[a] shining city on a hill,” even “the indispensable nation.” Listen to President Biden speaking of a “faith” that “sustains America,” and then, after quoting a hymn filled with biblical allusions, calling the people to “embark on the work that God and history have called us to do . . . with faith in America and in each other.”
On each of these occasions, political leaders claimed truths about God and his people for a secular nation and its citizens. In doing so, they demonstrate that Christian nationalism is not only widespread, but also politically effective.
Christians have long recognized that, properly understood, patriotism is a Christian virtue, a healthy disposition to value and invest in the particular community in which we live out our love of God and neighbor. 3 See Oliver O’Donovan’s comments at the end of his essay “Politics and Political Service:” https://breakingground.us/politics-and-political-service/ “The church will survive the rise and decline of every nation,” Wolterstorff writes. “But the rise and decline of nations is not on that account a matter of indifference to the church. For [in it] lie millions of tales of human joy and suffering.” 4 Wolterstorff, Hearing the Call, 302.
But when we replace Jesus with a reference to an American flag, suggest that our country plays a uniquely irreplaceable role in God’s sovereign purposes, or claim God’s special protection for our nation, we aren’t practicing genuinely Christian patriotism. We might even be practicing idolatry.
The prophet Amos and restorative justice
[Published in Ted Grimsrud and Loren L. Johns, Justice and Peace Shall Embrace: Power and Theo-Politics in the Bible: Essays in Honor of Millard Lind (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 1999), 64-85]
When I was a doctoral student in the mid-1980s, I had the privilege of taking a year-long seminar on justice from Professor Karen Lebacqz of Pacific School of Religion. At the time, Lebacqz was in the process of writing a two-volume theological study on justice. As we read and discussed works such as John Rawls’s classic, A Theory of Justice, and Robert Nozick’s critique and alternative, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, I found myself increasingly disenchanted with these modern philosophical theories.
I was uneasy with both points of view, and I saw them having many problems in common—things that were particularly troubling to me in light of my own faith commitments. They both share certain assumptions (or faith commitments) that are problematic. I will mention a few, in general terms, not so much in an attempt to criticize them significantly, but more as a means of expressing part of my immediate motivation in seeing if an alternative might be constructed.
Briefly, these assumptions (sometimes more true of one than the other, but largely applicable to both) include:
(1) a fundamental rationalism, an assumption that we can come up with a notion of justice which all “reasonable” people can accept
(2) an emphasis on self-interest, a kind of faith that a balance of self-interest can lead to the common good for society
(3) individualism, a locating of the basic unit of moral discernment with the autonomous individual
(4) an emphasis on what seem to be quite abstract principles such as “equality,” “fairness,” “liberty,” “entitlement,” etc.
(5) a utopianism (in the sense of utopia = “nowhere”) which is ahistorical and not closely tied to historical developments concerning genuine injustices and genuine practices of justice
(6) a bracketing of any discussion of religious and faith and rejection of any notion of “particularlism”
(7) a focus on western consumptive goods and notions of liberty as if these are the ultimate human values.
Out of my unease with this general approach to justice, I decided to look at the Bible to see if it might contain something that might provide help in formulating an alternative approach. I wrote a letter to my seminary Old Testament professor, Millard Lind of the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, asking if he had any help to offer. Professor Lind kindly sent me several papers, including a most helpful unpublished (at that time) essay, “Transformation of Justice: From Moses to Jesus.” Lind is one of the few pacifist theologians and biblical scholars I am aware of who has accepted the challenge to attempt to rethink justice. A pacifist theory of justice that would serve as an alternative to the problematic approaches mentioned above continues to be an urgent need.
This essay is only one more fragmentary attempt to point toward a thorough-going Christian pacifist approach to justice. One of my main arguments, following Lind, is that the Old Testament is a crucial resource for such a resource. In fact, if we can get beyond what Canadian social theorist George Grant called “English-speaking justice” (or, said in other words, beyond the western philosophical tradition represented in recent years by Rawls and Nozick) and look at the biblical materials concerning justice (including the Old Testament) on their own terms, we will find that they are a tremendous resource for a pacifist approach to justice.
In this paper, I will focus on one Old Testament text that speaks of justice in particular, the Book of Amos. My assumption (which I cannot do more than assert here) is that Amos is a representative text. What we find in Amos concerning justice we also find elsewhere in the Bible.
The oracles contained in the book of Amos, were addressed to the ruling elite of the ancient Jewish kingdom of Israel, the so-called “northern kingdom” which had split off from Judea especially those in Samaria, which was the capital and primary center of urban power of mid-eighth century BCE Israel.
This was a time of peace and prosperity for Israel. The main superpower of the day, Assyria, was not much of a factor internationally (at least temporarily, it turned out) due to its internal problems, nor was anyone else. Given this lack of outside interference, Israel reached its largest geographical size during the reign of King Jeroboam II—786-746 BCE.
The book of Amos gives glimpses of the people’s enthusiastic self-confidence (6:1 8:3) and their popular religiosity that saw the nation’s prosperity as the inevitable result of its faithfulness to God.
However, all was not well—which is why Amos came from Tekoa in the south to prophesy. Israel was at the end of a social transformation. Israel had originally been a fairly egalitarian society. Some scholars attribute this to the “conquest” of Canaan following the Hebrews’ liberation from Egypt being, in part, a peasant revolt followed by wide-ranging land reform. The concern for marginalized, vulnerable people (such as widows and orphans) and the commitment to minimizing the social stratification characteristic of much the Ancient Near East between a few wealthy and powerful elite and a mass of poor, even landless, peasants were institutionalized in the law and social practices of Israel.
A key aspect of this land reform was the inheritance system. This served not as a means of keeping control in the hands of a rich elite but instead as a means whereby the peasantry themselves controlled their own resources. Foundational to this system was the belief that ultimately Yahweh was the lord of the land and holder of eminent domain. The land was for the sake of the good of everyone, not for the sake of the profit of a few.
Closely connected with the inheritance system was a decentralized legal system—the court in the gates of the villages (the area which was essentially the village’s town square). This system was democratically run and had as one of its main concerns the helping of the weaker members of the society who otherwise were without power and influence. Without the justice of the court they would not be able to maintain themselves in the social order.
The “ideological” basis for this social ordering was the Israelites’ view of the covenant they had with God. God had established their nation in his gracious love and desired the people to live in communion with him and with one another. The covenant community was accountable to God—if it did not maintain its faithfulness, it was liable to be judged (cf. Exodus 19:5-6).
Amos came onto the scene to announce that this threat of judgment was indeed about to be carried out. The social transformation of Israel was a decisive move away from covenant faithfulness. Of course, this was not the perception of those Amos was addressing.
However, poverty and distress were widespread among the people at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. One key aspect of that reality was the shift from the situation where control of the land was inherited to one where the control was in the hands of a few centralized owners. These owners were exploiting the peasants for their own gain. This shift apparently resulted from the efforts of the powerful in the society.
The fueling of this transformation dated back at least to the reign of Solomon. Walter Brueggemann summarizes Solomon’s main “accomplishments” thus: (1) an economics of affluence (2) a politics of oppression (3) the establishment of a controlled, static religion. By the time of Amos, apparently these “accomplishments” were bearing their fruit.
This process cut to the heart of the covenant-community concept, which paid special attention to those on the bottom of society and saw itself as based on the notion of a liberator-God. This God cared for the Israelites when they were all impoverished and enslaved in Egypt (and, perhaps, in Canaan) and saved them so that they might take responsibility to show the nations what a community based on God’s justice looks life.
Amos’s general message
In chapters one and two, Amos begins by prophesying against Israel’s neighboring nations. This sets his listeners up for the punch line that begins in 2:6. In speaking against the nations, Amos would gain the sympathy of his listeners—who would all agree that, of course, the nations are terrible and unjust.
However, then beginning in 2:6, Amos charges Israel with decisively-judged crimes. In particular in these verses, he focuses on transgressions against the harmonious ordering of Israelite communal life: (1) the sale into debt slavery of the innocent and needy (2) the oppression of the poor (3) the abuse of poor women and (4) the exploitation of debtors.
In 3:2, Amos turns Israel’s complacent view of election and its place as God’s covenant people on its head. He insists that privilege entails responsibility and that the unfaithful Israelites have been irresponsible. Therefore, they are even worse than the despised pagans who never knew God.
Due to this reality in Israel, their salvation history will become judgment history in their near experience. Amos preaches a transcendent ethic—God is not identified with Israel per se. God is identified with justice and righteousness. When Israel itself is unjust, it also is judged.
Because of its past history as the recipient of God’s gracious acts, Israel was in a unique position to know that the cause of the needy is the cause of God. Because this is forgotten by the powers-that-be in Israel, the society will be destroyed. The whole book contains impressive imagery driving this world-shattering thought home.
The problem in Israel was not that the people did not know intellectually the precepts of the law and their concern for the needy. The problem was the unwillingness on the part of the leaders and judges to administer the law fairly. This is what led to the disregard for justice. And, what was worse, all this happened in the midst of thriving religiosity. People flocked to the shrines but totally disregarded God’s call for his people to justice to the needy. Amos’s message essentially asserts that religion made things worse for Israel. Their ritualistic faithfulness masked ethical unfaithfulness.
Because of Israel’s unfaithfulness, Amos proclaims, judgment is coming. The context for this judgment is Israel as God’s covenant people—delivered from Egypt, given law to order their common life, given the land in which to live out God’s will. However, Israel was rejecting God’s ways of justice and goodness and by doing so breaking its side of the covenant bargain. Destruction, in reality, self-destruction, was inevitable.
In Israel, a veneer of peace and prosperity covered a corrupt reality. Rather than being a sign of God’s favor, this reality (even with its apparent peace and prosperity) and the process that created it will be judged and destroyed by God. The reality is more than that many people are poor while a few are rich and insensitive. Even worse, the rich contribute to the problems of the poor. Even the one refuge of the poor, the court-system, has been corrupted and turned on its head to serve the rich instead of the poor.
Amos gives an example in 2:6. For rich creditors money has more value than the people. And even the people who are needy are victims for insignificant reasons. In effect, Amos here is saying that the needy are sold “because they can not pay back the small sum they owe for a pair of sandals.”
This covenant disloyalty will result in judgment. In 4:6-11 Amos’s narrative of disasters apparently is a rather free synthesis of traditional curses and depends on the general tradition that God acts in typical ways to judge those who are disloyal to the covenant.
The vast majority of the book is an elaboration on this theme. In 7:8 there is the image of the plumb line—showing that the Israelites are like a wall that is out of line. This is what characterizes injustice. It is things distorted and at variance with what they are intended to be.
Amos says that Israel, despite its chosenness and special relationship with God, is being judged due to its injustice—especially injustice with regard to people at the bottom of the socio-economic scale, people who were being deprived—systematically and purposefully—of their rightful status as full members of the covenant community. Amos’s condemnation is pretty complete. He, unlike previous social critics, is not saying that with some relatively minor adjustments things can go okay. He is saying, more or less, that it is all over for Israel. Nevertheless, there are a few calls to turn back. This implies that it is not completely too late, at least not for a remnant.
The book closes with a somewhat incongruous vision of hope in 9:11-15, a vision of redemption for a remnant. This is a kind of new exodus, a liberation from servitude to and oppressive exploitation by the ruling elite.
These verses add a sense of God’s ultimately redemptive purpose in his judgments. The book as a whole, it seems, makes the point that God’s people need to live according to God’s justice. Those who do not will be judged (and self-destruct), those who do are given hope for the future. If there were no judgment, the poor would have no hope since their oppressors would never be called to account. Two other prophets (Isaiah and Hosea) speak of God’s chastisement for the sake of God’s people (Isaiah 19:22 Hosea 6:1—“come, let us return to the Lord for he has torn us, that he may heal us”).
Amos’s view of justice
Four texts in Amos specifically speak of “justice” (mishpat):
Seek the Lord and live, lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel, O you who turn justice to wormwood, and cast down righteousness to the earth (5:6-7).
Justice and righteousness are clearly associated here with the presence of God as the life-bestowing force.
By calling the evil good (i.e., the so-called “justice” at the gate which had become injustice, and the people’s wealth, which was gained at the expense of the poor and weak) and the good evil (abhoring the one who speaks the truth, 5:10), the Israelites transform what should be sweet (justice) into something bitter (wormwood).
Seek good and not evil, that you may live and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said. Hate evil and love good and establish justice at the gate it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph (5:14-15).
When Amos 5:10 speaks of hating the advocate of the right and abhoring those who speak “the whole truth,” it is apparently referring to personal opposition to the essence of the court-justice system. To do so, in God’s eyes, is to embrace death. True life in Israel can only flourish when God’s concern for the weak is expressed in its social life. One key way this happens is when the justice at the gate is truly justice, when it is truly corrective of wrongs done.
Concern for this goes back to the legal code itself: Exodus 23:6-8—“You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his suit. Keep far from a false charge and do not slay the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked. And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the officials and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.”
The key to experiencing the presence of God, according to Amos, is inter-human justice. It is not religiosity. This is emphasized in the next passage we will look at.
I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream (5:21-24).
Again, justice is connected with life. Water is the key to life existing in the desert. By doing justice is how the community exists. The worship of the cultic community is unacceptable because Israel does not live as the community of God. Thus it is without life.
For there to be life, justice and righteousness must roll down like floods after the winter rains and persist like those few streams who do not fail in the summer draught.
Do horses run upon rocks? Does one plow the sea with oxen? But you have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood (6:12).
The first part of this verse asks if the impossible could happen and the second part says that indeed in can, that it is, and (implicitly) that the leaders of Israel are doing it.
It is incredible to Amos that the rich could be content in their luxury and grieve not over the ruin of “Joseph”—that is, the destruction of the covenant community (6:6), and that a place of justice (the court at the gate) could become unjust, poison. This staggers the mind and he can only compare it with some incredible perversion of the natural order of things.
Key points regarding justice in Amos
(1) The most foundational point is that justice is tied up inextricably with life. Do justice and live, Amos asserts do injustice and die. Justice is not an abstract principle but rather it is a life-force. An unjust society will die, it cannot help but collapse of its own weight. The goal of justice is life.
(2) More particularly, the goal justice seeks is life for everyone in the community. Because life is for everyone, justice pays particular attention to the people who are being denied life. Justice provides for access by all to the communal “good life.” None can justly prosper at the expense of others, or even in the light of the poverty and need of others.
(3) Amos sees justice as part of the created order. It is unnatural to be unjust, like a crooked wall or an ox plowing the sea. To be unjust is thus inherently self-destructive. Injustice is the poison that poisons its practitioners.
(4) Chapters one and two show that Amos saw God’s justice as intended for everyone, including the pagan nations. The covenant people have a special responsibility due to their special awareness of God’s justice. Their failure is very serious. They are not punished more than the other nations. Those too were destroyed and Israel is the only one with a remnant. But Israel’s failure to practice justice, in Amos’s eyes, destroys the hope of the nations. Israel’s faithfulness is for the sake of the nations, that they might thus see the light of God’s justice and love. When Israel is unfaithful, there is no light to be seen.
(5) Amos sees justice as something to be done: relationships established, needs met, wrongs corrected. Justice, in Amos, has nothing to do with a meaningless cult. In its essence, justice in Amos is historical. It is tied to specific acts and people. It is not abstract nor ahistorical.
(6) The ultimate goal of God’s justice, we see from 9:11-15, is redemption. The judgment of Israel is ultimately for that end. It is expressed in the hope that Israel’s self-destructive injustice might thereby be corrected. The threats and warnings, the judgment of God, is not for the sake of punishment, of retribution, of repaying rebellious Israel an eye for an eye. The threats and warnings are given in hopes of salvation,of transformation—with the recognition that should Israel not respond God’s respect for her free-will will result God allowing the collapse of her as a nation-state (which, as we well know, is precisely what happened—Israel playing power-politics to the end and succumbing to the much superior power of Assyria).
Thoughts on biblical justice in general
The first general conclusion we might draw from Amos’s teaching—and which we find elsewhere in the Bible—is that justice is for the sake of life. God’s justice in the Old Testament is not primarily retribution but salvation, not primarily punitive but corrective. There is a strong sense that the justice of God is saving power, God’s fidelity to the role as the Lord of the covenant. God is pictured as the one who created the earth and its inhabitants for harmonious relationships and who continually acts, even in the midst of human rebellion, to effect those relationships.
That justice is for the sake of life is reinforced by the fact that in the Old Testament it is not primarily a legal concept, but it rather tends to merge with concepts like “steadfast love,” “compassion,” “kindness,” and “salvation.” Justice has ultimately to do with how a loving creator has made the world. To be just is to live according to the creator’s will, to be in harmony with God, with fellow human beings, and with the rest of creation—and not to rest until this is the case for everyone else too.
A second general point about the biblical perspective, is that justice is part of the created order. The Old Testament connection between justice and life follows from some of the ideas regarding creation contained there. A foundational concept in the biblical teaching is that “creation” is confessed to be an act of the covenant-making God of Israel. Therefore, the basic character of creation is in harmony with the values of the covenant—love, justice, peace, compassion—all the things which sustain and nourish life. There is no disjunction between the creator God and the covenant-making God. In fact creation was God’s first covenant-making act. Thus these values ultimately are part of the very fabric of creation.
This means that human life has meaning, purpose, and destiny. Human life originated as an expression of God’s covenant-love. So all human action that is in harmony with that love has meaning and is part of the basic meaning of creation–and is thereby “just”.
The creation of humankind in the image of this God means that all people need relationships—with each other and with God. The purpose of human activity is to facilitate these relationships. Since all people, simply by virtue of being people, are in the “image of God” and thus have dignity and value, there is no justification for discrimination and disregard of any human life. Injustice is the severing of relationships, justice is their establishment and/or restoration.
The cosmos are created good. Evil is an aberration. It can and must be resisted. No evil is such an intrinsic part of the structure of reality that it cannot be conquered by the creator’s power. To conquer the power of evil—a power especially manifested in the severing of relationships—is to do justice.
God’s will has to do with all parts of creation. There is nothing that is autonomous from that will or that is ethically neutral. The challenge of the Old Testament for people of faith was that the creator’s will be carried out in all spheres of human existence.
Ultimately, the Old Testament makes no distinction between the order of creation and the order of redemption. The creator-God and the redeemer-God are one and the same. They would never have recognized the former without their historical experience of the latter.
The central theological reality in creation is seen to be love. Therefore, faithfulness to the “creation mandate” equals living lives of love. It is thus seen to be incumbent upon people of faith to shape their lives and their social order according to the values of love. Love is seen to be the motivation and determining factor for doing justice.
The heart of God’s character is steadfast love, which for God means desiring the good of all people. This includes God’s enemies and especially social outcasts. God’s love provides the model for God’s followers.
A third general point is that loving justice is not soft on evil but rather seeks to destroy evil. God’s love for enemies means that God hates that which evil does to humankind and works to heal its effects. Evil is only ended when the cycle of evil fighting evil is broken. The Old Testament model for this is the suffering servant in Isaiah, for Christians the precursor to Jesus, who did not retaliate but accepted all that the powers of evil could do and conquered them. This is the ultimate model for biblical justice.
Love applies to all areas of life according to the biblical teaching. It is the element that is to shape decisively the means and ends of all activity of the people of faith. The only way to become loving is to be loving at all times.
Love gives those who shape their lives by it a hopefulness that provides the energy which moves people to believe that God’s justice and God’s love can be a reality in the world–and thus to act to make it so.
Biblical justice equals conformity with the will of the loving, covenant-making creator God. Thus it is part of love, not in tension with love. God’s justice is seen in that God’s intervention has always been intended for the salvation of God’s people and thus for the restoration of covenant relationships.
One of the characteristics of God’s love is that it works to set right that which has been corrupted. This is justice. One way of characterizing justice, therefore, is to say that justice is how love is expressed in the face of evil. Love expressed in the face of evil acts to stop the evil and to heal its effects that is, to be redemptive, salvific.
God’s justice is seen in the creation of life and in every act which God has done to sustain and restore life. Human justice, in the Old Testament sense, would seem only truly to be justice when it also acts to sustain and restore life.
A fourth general point is that part of the reason Israel existed as a people was to be a light to the nations, to show them the loving and just ways of their God. The goal of this witness is the transformation of the nations.
It would seem that the Old Testament people believed—when they thought about it, which apparently did not happen often enough—that God’s justice was normative for the nations as well as for Israel. When Amos condemns the nations for their injustices, no one would have questioned whether it was legitimate for him to do so. God’s will was for all people, and all people were to be held accountable to how they responded to that will.
This is true because God is seen to be the creator of all that is. Justice is imbedded into creation (hence injustice is as unnatural as an ox plowing the sea or a wall being crooked).
It would not have occurred to them to wonder if their concept of creation (tied up with their particular experience with their covenant-making, liberating God) was really an adequate basis for a universally accessible system of justice. Creation theology came not from reason but from their historical experience of God as their redeemer. But the implications of their creation theology would have led them to see all people as part of God’s creation, all people created in God’s image, and all people accountable to God.
These beliefs primarily led to negative conclusions (like Amos’s) regarding the actual practice of justice on the part of the nations. The accountability generally was used to support the fact that the nations too will be judged by God for being unjust. But there are scattered examples of just people outside Israel (e.g., Rahab the harlot the repentant people of Nineveh in Jonah even, to some extent, Cyrus, the Persian leader). These perhaps indicate that God’s justice was seen to be knowable and do-able by anyone—by virtue of their humanness.
To me it would seem likely that the Israelites would have said that all people should and could follow God’s prescriptions for doing justice (caring for widows and orphans, loving neighbors, etc.). So in a sense they would have had a natural theology. But it would be a natural theology derived from the creation-based values of the covenant-making God. Hence, it would be seen as totally consistent with their revealed theology. The point would be that the nations could also perceive and act according to God’s loving will.
Of course, even more, the point was that the nations were not in fact living according to this will—even if theoretically they could have been able to understand it and even follow it. Thus God’s revelation to and it Israel was intended to show God’s justice even more clearly than that seen in (now fallen) creation—and to provide a better means of empowerment for living it via the elected covenant-community. This fact meant that Amos (and the other prophets), self-consciously speaking words from God, could more sharply and specifically address the injustices of Israel than the injustices of the other nations.
In Amos one and two, the prophet speaks in general terms of blatant injustices. From 2:6 on he speaks more specifically to Israel. This is not primarily because the nations were in principle incapable of perceiving the need to be just in the ways Israelites were. Rather it reflects the idea that Israel’s calling entailed a closer relationship with God at this point in time. More was expected of Israel—for the sake of the nations. They would perceive true justice when they indeed saw it in Israel (without the aid of “special revelation”) and, according to Isaiah’s vision, flock to Mt. Zion to share in it (Isa. 2:1-4). But the point of Amos, and the rest of the Old Testament, is to facilitate Israel manifesting this justice. God’s justice is part of God’s covenant love. Where there is justice there is life, there is a relationship with the Giver of life.
Justice is thus more a relational concept than an abstract principle. The goal of justice is human beings in relationships with each other and God—not “fairness”, “equality”, “liberty”, “holiness,” etc. Israelite law was for the service of this communal goal—given not as something eternal and immutable, but as law that comes from a God who is merciful and forgiving.
For example, the purpose of a Hebrew trial was to settle a dispute between members of the community so that harmonious coexistence would be possible. The goal was correction of the wrong. Something is just if it contributes to the on-going well-being of the community.
A fifth general point is that the biblical teaching ends up emphasizing the poor and needy so much because they, in their oppression, were being excluded from community life and from the shalom God wills for everyone. This destroys community and ends up lessening the well-being of each person in the community.
This communal justice was not to be for the Israelites’ own sake alone. The ultimate purpose for justice in Israel was for it to be a lead to world-wide justice. Even in the story of Israel’s initial election in Genesis 18, a major reason given for it is to bring about “justice and right” for all humankind.
The New Testament carries on this connection between justice and salvation—one prime example being in Romans where Paul talks about God’s justice as being expressed in Christ’s work of salvation (Romans 3:21-26).
The Bible can help us to understand justice. In fact, if we take the biblical teaching seriously, it seems to me that it would lead us to redefine what we mean by justice. If we did so, we might be somewhat better oriented to do justice in a still largely unjust world.
A key point to me is the belief that the Bible ultimately identifies love and justice with each other. This seems crucial because it protects us from a situation where in the name of justice we justify treating some people as objects instead of as human beings. Then “justice” becomes a dehumanizing power-struggle with winners and losers. One practical problem with this is that the losers are never content with being losers and so the battle never ends.
Also, holding love and justice together protects us from making justice an abstraction, separate from its real meaning as a relationship-building, life-sustaining force. The concern for justice is people much more than “fairness”, “liberty”, or “entitlements”.
In this way of thinking, justice is primarily “corrective justice”. Thus, justice’s goal is reconciliation. Injustice must be opposed and resisted—but only in ways which hold open the possibility of reconciliation. What happens to the oppressors matters, too, if justice is the goal. Also, corrective justice rules out death-dealing acts such as war and capital punishment as tools of justice.
In this way of thinking, self-interest in the narrow, individualistic way it is used by modern philosophers can not serve as a motivating force for true justice. At the same time, biblical teachings on creation and providence support the idea that considering God’s will and the good of the community above one’s own narrow, individualistic self-interest would, in the long run, be the best for one’s own good as well.
Biblical justice actually has many parallels with other indigenous viewpoints on justice. We see this illustrated in a discussion reported in Tony Hillerman’s mystery novel, Sacred Clowns, set among the Navajo in Arizona and New Mexico. The main character in the novel is Jim Chee, a traditional Navajo who is an officer with the Navajo tribal police. Chee articulates a Navajo understanding of justice in a discussion with his friend, Janet Pete, a lawyer who is part Navajo but who grew up and was educated in white society.
They were discussing a case of a hit-and-run driver. Chee sets up the problem: “For convenience, let’s call our hit-and-run driver Gorman. Let’s say he’s a widower. Doesn’t drink much usually.…He’s a hard worker. All the good things. Something comes along to be celebrated. His birthday, maybe. His friends take him out to a bar off the reservation. Driving home he hits this pedestrian.…He hears something and backs up. But he’s drunk. He doesn’t see anybody. So he drives away. Now I’m a member of the Navajo Tribal Police, also deputized by a couple of the counties in Arizona and New Mexico, sworn to uphold the law. My boss wants me to catch this guy. So one day I catch him. What do I do?”
Pete responds from the perspective of English-speaking justice: “Well, it’s not pleasant, but it’s not too hard either. You just think about why you have laws. Society puts a penalty on driving drunk because it kills people. It puts a penalty for leaving the scene of an injury accident for pretty much the same reason. So what you do is arrest this guy who broke those laws and present the evidence in court, and the court finds he was guilty. And then the judge weighs the circumstances. First offense, solid citizen, special circumstances. It seems unlikely that the crime will be repeated. And so forth. So the judge sentences him to maybe a year, maybe two years, and then probation for another eight years of so.”
Chee makes the case more complicated. “We’ll give this guy some social value. Let’s say he is taking care of a disabled kid. Maybe a grandchild whose parents have dropped him on our Gorman while they do their thing.”
Pete insists this doesn’t change anything. “Society passes laws to ensure justice. The guy broke the society’s laws. Justice is required.”
In response, Chee focuses on the concept of “justice.” “We’re dealing with justice. Just retribution. That’s a religious concept, really. We’ll say the tribal cop is sort of religious. He honors his people’s traditional ways. he has been taught another notion of justice. he was a big boy before he heard about ‘make the punishment fit the crime’ or ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’ Instead of that he was hearing of retribution in another way. If you damage somebody, you sit down with their family and figure out how much damage and make good. That way you restore…harmony again between two families. Not too much difference from the standard American justice. But now it gets different. If somebody harms you out of meanness—say you get in a bar fight and he cuts you, or he keeps cutting your fences, or stealing your sheep—then he’s the one who’s out of [harmony]. You aren’t taught he should be punished. He should be cured. Gotten back in a balance with what’s around him. Made beautiful again.…
“Beautiful on the inside, of course. Back in harmony. So this hypothetical cop, that’s the way he’s been raised. Not to put any value on punishment, but to put a lot of value on curing. So now what are going to do if you’re this cop?”
Chee’s solution in this situation was not to arrest the hit-and-run driver, but to take some steps which would help facilitate the man’s healing.
There are many questions left—e.g., What are the legitimate means for doing justice which are consistent with the ends of peace and love? How can the needs of those at the socio-economic bottom of the heap be met without coercively forcing those at the top to give things up? What if those at the top do not choose to be reconciled with those at the bottom? What about the incredible forces of selfishness and pride in the real world? And the “moral man and immoral society” phenomena? How can a viewpoint based on a particular religious tradition be applied to a pluralist society? However, I believe that an approach to justice that takes seriously biblical teaching is not ruled out by these questions and may in fact be well suited to answer them in helpful ways—to the degree than any approach can answer them.
Karen Lebacqz, Six Theories of Justice: Perspectives from Philosophical and Theological Ethics (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986) and Justice in an Unjust World: Foundations for a Christian Approach to Justice (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1987).
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.
New York: Basic Books, 1974.
“Transformation of Justice” was first published in 1986 as part of the Mennonite Central Committee’s series of Occasional Papers of the MCC Canada Offender Ministries Program and the MCC U.S. Office of Criminal Justice. It was also included in Lind’s book, Monotheism, Power, Justice: Collected Old Testament Essays (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1990), 82-97. My references will be to the latter version. Millard’s graciousness in responding to my inquiry was typical of his approach to his students. I offer this essay in gratitude to his scholarship and his personal kindness.
These are some of the other beginning attempts to address this need: C. Norman Kraus, “Toward a Biblical Perspective on Justice” (unpublished paper presented to Mennonite Central Committee Peace Theology Colloquium, Elkhart, IN, November 1978) Ted Grimsrud, “Peace Theology and the Justice of God in the Book of Revelation,” in Willard M. Swartley, ed., Essays in Peace Theology and Witness (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1988), 135-153 Harry Huebner, “Justice and the Biblical Imagination,” in Harry Huebner and David Schroder, Church as Parable: Whatever Happened to Ethics? (Winnipeg, Man.: CMBC Publications, 1993), 120-146 Glen H. Stassen, “Narrative Justice as Reiteration,” in Stanley Hauerwas, Nancey Murphy, and Mark Nation, eds., Theology Without Foundations: Religious Practice and the Future of Theological Truth (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 201-225. An insightful study by a non-theologian was written by Howard Zehr, one of the grandfathers of the restorative justice movement in the criminal justice field: Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1990). Karen Lebacqz’s two books mentioned above are also important resources, but were not written from an explicitly pacifist point of view.
George P. Grant, English-Speaking Justice (Sackville, NB: Mount Allison University Press, 1974).
Robert C. Coote, Amos Among the Prophets: Composition and Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), 16.
God’s Social Justice – Amos the Prophet
I recently taught on the book of Amos during a study of the Twelve Minor Prophets. As I studied Amos I was able to see how it fits into the unity of these Twelve Books. There is a pattern within the individual books that make the twelve a cohesive unit. As I studied these prophets I found they all pretty much have the same basic ingredients: first there are warnings of impending judgment because of the nation’s sinfulness second a description of the sin third a description of the coming judgment fourth a call for repentance and fifth a promise of future deliverance. That is the Gospel message that we understand today.
Amos has perhaps received more critical attention than any other minor prophet. Hardly any aspect of the book remains untouched by extensive commentary. My purpose here is to focus in on one aspect of the Book of Amos. I have no intention to even begin to address the fullness of the nine chapters. Various approaches to Amos’ structure have been put forward. The book is often broken into a three-part framework that divides the book into indictments against neighboring nations, then Judah and Israel (chapters 1-2), sermons on ethical sin (chapters 3-6) and visions of the end (chapters 7-9). Our attention will be on the oracle or indictment of Israel for their callousness toward the poor and needy. The prophet will indict Israel, warn of coming judgment and then call for repentance. This I will follow with visions of the end because there is the promise of future deliverance.
Amos first indicts the leaders of Israel for their callousness toward the poor and needy including their exploitation of them for their own personal gain. “Hear this, you who trample on the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end, saying, ‘When will the new moon be over, that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath, that we may offer wheat for sale, that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great and deal deceitfully with false balances, that we may buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals and sell the chaff of the wheat?'”
The Lord God pleads with Israel through His prophet to “Seek good, and not evil, that you may live and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said. Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.”
We see a patient God but not an ever patient God. We see a God who has desired through the prophets to warn His people and the nations, not only in ancient times but through all history. He warns all peoples that they will pay for their sins and transgressions if they don’t turn to Him. We see a God whose love is shown through His warnings and patience but we also see the judgment from our God based of the transgressions of the people and His need for justice.
The oppression and injustice Amos found in the Northern Kingdom was evidence that righteousness had been thrown to the ground as something worthless by those who were in power. Righteousness no longer had any meaning for the powerful people of Israel as a requirement of the worship of God.
To Amos, “hating evil and loving good” was a simple yet powerful statement of how to establish justice “in the gate.” In a very simple language, the prophet placed principles of true justice before a group of people who could argue about legal technicalities while tolerating bribery, corruption, and greed.
The gate of the city was fortified in order to protect the city from enemies and to serve as the place where the elders of the city would gather as a legal assembly to decide cases needing adjudication. The gate was the place where the local judiciary met to determine right and wrong in legal disputes, and therefore, to decide who was innocent or guilty. The gate of the city in Israel what just the opposite.
The prophet speaks, first of all, about the behavior of their judges: ‘They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals’ (Amos 8:6). Those who were rich behaved as they wanted to, without being questioned silver passed hands and the corrupt judges convicted those who were innocent, ‘the righteous’. It was totally different for the poor. The judges were willing to sell a poor man into slavery – even though his debt might have been as small as the cost of a cheap pair of sandals – because the creditor paid the judge part of the money he received from the sale.
We can almost hear the sadness in God’s voice as, through Amos, the Lord speaks out about the lack of compassion shown by the rich people of Israel for the plight of their poor fellow countrymen. The rich and clever in Israel treated the poor like dirt and denied them justice because they were not wealthy enough to bribe the judges.
Amos indicts Israel for the oppression of the poor. The time in which Amos lived was a time of peace and prosperity for Israel. At least it was a time of prosperity in that the rich people became richer, but they became more selfish and heartless too. Originally in Israel each tribe had its own land, and each family its portion of that land, but then the rich got into their hands more and more of the land of those who were poorer. They even caused many of the poor to become their slaves. Poor people might owe a debt of no greater value than a pair of shoes, and they had to be sold as slaves to pay it (Amos 8:4-6 and 2 Kings 4: 1). In many different ways the rich ‘trampled the head of the poor into the dust of the earth’. They only cared to get more money for themselves. They oppressed the poor, taking away both their land and their liberty. This was sin, grievous in God’s sight and the people knew it but did not care. The word of Amos was that they must answer to God for it. The patience of God, however, was about to expire.
In Amos 8:9-12 the Lord lets it been known to Israel “And on that day,” declares the Lord God, “I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning and all your songs into lamentation I will bring sackcloth on every waist and baldness on every head I will make it like the mourning for an only son and the end of it like a bitter day.”
“Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord God, “when I will send a famine on the land – not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.”
God warns of judgment but He is a God whose love is shown through His warnings and patience. With every warning of coming judgment there is always a call to repentance, whether specifically spoken, or, as here, merely implied. Isaiah prophesied, ‘Give ear and come to me hear me, that your soul may live’ (Isaiah 55:3). Yet these stubborn people continually refused to listen to the voice of the Lord’s prophets because they did not like what they heard. They did not want to be challenged or shaken out of their comfortable lifestyle. God was not quick to anger hoping that Israel would turn away from their sins. He was not quick to anger but He was not ever patient. His judgment was then cast on an unrepentant nation. The judgment of God is based on the transgressions of the people and His need for justice. In fact, the day of judgment did arrive, and Israel was taken away by the Assyrians, never to be heard of again. The judgment of God will come down on all unrepentant people not just Israel.
What does it mean to have justice established in the gate? I don’t think it means to have a society without distinctions, but a society without oppression or exploitation of the less fortunate, the poor and the needy. The eighth century before Christ was a period during which a privileged few in Israel were enjoying unprecedented prosperity while most Israelites were facing dire poverty. Amos forged an explicit and unbreakable link between justice toward the neighbor and righteousness before God. Amos’ ministry provided an eternal witness of God’s opposition to economic, political, and social injustice for all nations.
Amos spoke to an oppressed society and his concern for the poor and the oppressed made him a prophet for all times. Amos is also a prophet for the 21st century, a time when the worldwide gap between the rich and the poor has never been greater.
The words of Amos can be remembered by many of us today as we remember Martin Luther King, Jr., in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. in August 1963. King brought 20th century meaning to the words of Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24).
The sources of oppression and injustice may look different today, but people’s concern for material prosperity reflects the days in which Amos lived. Amos’ message of God’s opposition to injustice, his criticism of the people’s worship of material things, and his witness of God’s special concern for the poor and oppressed, affirm that the worship of God in any age is worthless if social oppression and injustice are ignored.
How evident is this in 21st century America? How evident should this be to God’s people the Church? Were we brought together within the local Church to uphold a different standard of righteousness than ancient Israel? Does the care of the poor and the oppressed end in a voting booth for Christians? Vote, pay taxes and leave it to the government?
I understand that many evangelicals link the so called Social Gospel with those Churches that emphasize that Gospel apart from the teaching of sound doctrine. The attention to feeding people physically but not spiritually. The need for social justice does not preclude attention to feeding people spiritually. Bringing an individual to Christ fills them with a hope that no government or program can ever give them.
God desires to have a church full of people who don’t care if they live in comfort, but who hate evil, love good, and who devote themselves to establish justice at the gate! People who feel grief and indignation not just when their livelihood is threatened, but also when children die of starvation and anyone dies without salvation. Feeding and taking care of the poor and needy of this nation is no different in God’s eyes then it was in the days before the Assyrians came down on the nation of Israel. He is a God of justice and righteousness. He is a God whose character is unchanging, His will is immutable, His love abounding. His patience indicates His love for us but it is not endless. His justice, therefore, is swift if a nation fails to repent. America should understand that, especially with the direction it is now heading.
Think and pray about 21st century America. Think and pray about the Church’s responsibility in bringing about social justice in America. Think, however of a Christian community that fills the bellies of the hungry and also their spiritual need to be saved. Social justice will never be fulfilled on this earth, only in God’s Kingdom to come and in an eternity with Him made possible through the saving blood of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. That does not mean we have the right to turn away those truly in need.
For those who turned away from their sin God offered those Israelites hope. “In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old, that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name,” declares the Lord who does this. “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when the plowman shall overtake the reaper and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant them on their land, and they shall never again be uprooted out of the land that I have given them,” says the Lord your God.” (Amos 9:9-15)
This is the same hope that we have today. This is a hope that no earthly government can ever provide. This is a hope that all who believe in Jesus as their Lord and Savior already has. As we as God’s people reach out to the truly needy it is a hope that we need to share with them. We need to teach them to pray “Thy Kingdom Come” because it is on that day that we will all see social justice.
Amos Grieves over Israel - History
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Amos, (flourished 8th century bc ), the first Hebrew prophet to have a biblical book named for him. He accurately foretold the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel (although he did not specify Assyria as the cause) and, as a prophet of doom, anticipated later Old Testament prophets.
The little that is known about Amos’ life has been gleaned from his book, which was, in all likelihood, partly or wholly compiled by other hands. A native of Tekoa (now a ruin), 12 miles (19 km) south of Jerusalem, Amos flourished during the reigns of King Uzziah (c. 783–742 bc ) of Judah (the southern kingdom) and King Jeroboam II (c. 786–746 bc ) of Israel. By occupation, he was a shepherd whether he was merely that or a man of some means is not certain. He actually preached for only a short time.
Under the impact of powerful visions of divine destruction of the Hebrews in such natural disasters as a swarm of locusts and fire, Amos traveled from Judah to the neighbouring richer, more powerful kingdom of Israel, where he began to preach. The time is uncertain, but the Book of Amos puts the date as two years before an earthquake that may have occurred in 750 bc . Amos fiercely castigated corruption and social injustice among Israel’s pagan neighbours, Israel itself, and Judah he asserted God’s absolute sovereignty over man and he predicted the imminent destruction of Israel and Judah. After preaching at Bethel, a famous shrine under the special protection of Jeroboam II, Amos was ordered to leave the country by Jeroboam’s priest Amaziah. Thereafter his fate is unknown.
From his book, Amos emerges as a thoughtful, probably well-traveled man of fierce integrity, who possessed a poet’s gift for homely but forceful imagery and rhythmic language. So distinctive is his style of expression that in many instances the reader can distinguish those portions genuinely by Amos from parts probably invented by others, such as the concluding, optimistic section foretelling the restoration of the Davidic kingdom.
As a theologian, Amos believed that God’s absolute sovereignty over man compelled social justice for all men, rich and poor alike. Not even God’s chosen people were exempt from this fiat, and even they had to pay the penalty for breaking it hence, Amos also believed in a moral order transcending nationalistic interests.
This article was most recently revised and updated by Amy Tikkanen, Corrections Manager.
Amos Grieves over Israel - History
On the wild uplands of Judah beyond Tekoa, which is twelve miles south of Jerusalem, Amos, inured to hardship and danger, received his training as a prophet straight from the hand of the Lord. His beautiful style abounds in illustrations drawn from his mountain home. He had learned the power of the Creator in the mountains and the wind, in the dawn and in the darkness. Like David, he had gazed upon the stars and looked beyond them to their Maker. Like him also, as he had ''followed the flock'' (7:15), he had known what it was to defend them from the wild beasts, both the lion and the bear, and is probably describing his own experience when he speaks of a shepherd taking out of the mouth of the lion ''two legs or a piece of an ear'' [3:12].
[Author's note: ''The common Syrian goat, Capra mambrica, may be at once recognized by its enormous pendent ears a foot long, often reaching lower than its nose, and its stout recurved horns'' (The Natural History of the Bible, p. 93, by Canon Tristam).]
The snare of the fowler and the snake concealed in the rough stone wall were alike familiar to him. He was also a ''gatherer,'' or ''dresser,'' of sycamore fruit. This fruit, which is a very inferior sort of fig, only eaten by the very poor, has to be scarified at one stage of its growth with a special instrument for the purpose, in order to enable it to swell and ripen properly. Many of the figures which Amos uses are taken from the milder lowlands these also may have been familiar to him in his earlier life, or, as a keen observer of nature, may have struck him as he prophesied in the plains of Samaria. He speaks of the oaks and the cedars, the vines and fig-trees and olive-trees, the gardens, the ploughmen, the sower, the reaper, and the cart pressed down with its weight of sheaves.
The Earthquake. Amos opens his prophecy by quoting the words of Joel, ''The Lord will roar from Zion, and utter His voice from Jerusalem'' [1:2 Joel 3:16]. He tells us, in the verse before, that his prophecy was uttered ''two years before the earthquake.'' Joel also says, ''The heavens and the earth shall shake.'' They no doubt refer to the same earthquake, and it must have been one of exceptional severity for Zechariah speaks of it nearly three hundred years later, as an event well remembered, though the whole captivity in Babylon had intervened (Zech 14:5). The Hebrew word Ra'ash suggests the English word Crash, ''two years before the crash.'' Dr. Waller, in his little book on Amos, shows how perfectly the prophet's description of the coming catastrophe fitted the event, though probably at the time Amos prophesied he did not realize that it was an earthquake he was describing. Twice over (Amos 8:8 9:5, R.V.), we read that ''The land is to rise up wholly like a flood, and sink again as the flood of Egypt.'' This is a most terrible form of earthquake. ''If the widespread effect of the earthquake in Amos is indicated literally by the clause seven times repeated in chapters one and two, 'I will send fire which shall devour the palaces,' then the shock must have extended from Tyrus to Gaza on the coast of the Mediterranean and from Damascus to Rabbah of the children of Ammon on the east of Jordan. The whole of the bed of the Jordan is said to be volcanic-- which means that the underground forces are there, and available if the Lord of creation should choose to set them at work.'' [Amos, by Chas. H. Waller, D.D.] Fires almost invariably follow severe earthquakes.
Reading Amos in the light of the earthquake, we can account for various things he foretells. The fires throughout the book. ''The waters of the sea poured upon the face of the earth'' (5:8). ''If there remain ten men in one house, they shall die'' (6:9). ''He will smite the great house with breaches, and the little house with clefts'' (6:11). ''Shall not the land tremble?'' (8:8). ''Smite the lintel of the door, that the posts may shake'' (9:1). ''He toucheth the land and it shall melt'' (9:5).
But behind the primary fulfillment of his words, in the earthquake, there was the terrible invasion of the Assyrians, and the people carried into captivity (5:27 6:14). And behind all this ''the day of the Lord.'' ''Prepare to meet thy God, O Israel'' (4:12).
Judgment on the Nations. Amos opens the way for his message to Israel by proclaiming the Lord's judgment upon six surrounding nations-- Damascus (Syria), Gaza (Philistia), Tyrus (Phoenicia), Edom, Ammon, Moab [1:3 - 2:3]. Then he comes nearer home and pronounces judgment against Judah (2:4,5), and against Israel itself (2:6-16), and finally against the whole nation (3:1,2).
It would seem that the people questioned [the prophet's] authority, for he proceeds by a series of seven questions to show that the Lord has revealed His secret to him, and that therefore, he can do no other than prophesy (3:3-8).
He denounces the sins of Israel in more graphic detail than Hosea, dwelling especially on the careless ease and luxury, the oppression of the poor, the extortion and lying and cheating which prevailed, and the utter hypocrisy in worship. The Lord grieves over the people for not attending to His judgments, with the refrain, ''Yet have ye not returned unto Me, saith the Lord,'' and the renewed invitation, ''Seek ye Me and live.'' [Chapters 4 - 6]
- First the locusts, and Second the fire, which judgments are removed in answer to his intercession [7:1-6].
- Third, the plumb-line. There was no hope of deliverance from this last. The Lord said, ''I will not again pass by them any more'' [7:7-9 cp. Isa 28:14-18]. This unqualified pronouncement of judgment stirred up the smouldering animosity of Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, to a flame, and he denounced the prophet to the king, saying, ''The land is not able to bear his words,'' so mightily had they shaken the nation. At the same time, he urged Amos to flee away back to the land of Judah and prophesy there-- but not here at the Court of the king. Amos fearlessly told of the Lord's call, ''I was no prophet, neither was I a prophet's son but the Lord took me as I followed the flock, and said, Go, prophesy unto My people Israel'' [7:10-17]. He then pronounced the Lord's judgment upon Amaziah, and proceeded with the account of the remaining visions, regardless of the interruption.
- The fourth vision was of the basket of summer fruit, the last basket. ''The end has come upon My people.'' The prophet saw the guilty nation ripe for judgment [chapter 8].
- The fifth vision [chapter 9] is of the Lord Himself, standing upon the altar [*], and closes with the glorious promise of restoration for the fallen Tabernacle of the House of David, the promise of the Messiah, who was to come at the moment of its greatest humiliation. This passage [9:11,12] is quoted in Acts 15:15-17 by James, and applied to the ingathering of the Gentile believers, and God's favor at the same time to the House of David, when His purpose for Jew and Gentile alike will be accomplished. [* Notes regarding ''the Lord standing upon the altar'':
- ''The position of the Lord (Adonai) is significant. The altar speaks properly of mercy because of judgment executed upon an interposed sacrifice, but when altar and sacrifice are despised the altar becomes a place of judgment. cp. John 12:31" [ScofRB]
- Since Amos is addressed primarily to the northern kingdom of Israel, which had established alternate altars (eg. Amos 8:14), and had rejected the ''tabernacle of David'' (9:11), their altar offered false hope and was under God's judgment, from its inception. Although the Lord must judge the nation severely, His promise of restoration remained for those who would turn to the Mercy-seat of His provision (Heb 2:17).]
Return to the Table of Contents for Christ in All the Scriptures.
For another brief look at this book of the Bible,
see the related chapter in OT Reflections of Christ, by Paul Van Gorder.