Amos: Prophet of Doom
Posted by foryourfaith on September 2, 2011
No one knows exactly when or how, but in the hills around the town of Tekoa in the heart of the southern kingdom of Judah, an event occurred that led to one of the great movements of spirit in the history of humanity. The time was approximately the middle of the eighth century BC, the location about ten miles south of Jerusalem. The event was neither public nor visible and probably went unnoticed by the people of Tekoa: the event occurred within a sheepherder named Amos.
Although he was a man with no notable education or religious background, Amos somehow came to the conviction that he had had an encounter with God. He knew that he was divinely commissioned to carry an urgent message of judgment and warning to the kingdom of Israel to the north. “The LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’”
Amos was the first of those prophets that are known to us primarily through the records of their words, the oracles that they proclaimed, rather than the tradition of their deeds. The book of Amos introduces his prophecies by calling them “The words . . . which he saw concerning Israel.”
Peasant though he was, the words of Amos reveal the great gifts that he possessed. Indeed, he did not approach his task as a professional prophet or a member of one of the prophetic guilds, but as an ordinary Israelite. His prophecies are expressed in Hebrew poetry that is both polished and powerful. It combines an immersion in the traditions of his people, a knowledge of the political and social situation of Israel, and a fire of indignation that makes it sparkle and burn. His poetry includes hymns and dirges, fragments of liturgy, and repeating litanies of sins.
When Amos advanced into the northern kingdom of Israel with his bleak message, he described the move as the Lord roaring from Zion, as though he were a fierce lion. But Israel had soothed itself with the song of harps, and had little use for this threatening word of God.
The king of Israel was Jeroboam II, who had already been reigning for more than thirty prosperous years. Though the pagan cult of Baal was by no means dead, the worship of Yahweh was apparently strong. Israel’s military situation was secure as well. Jeroboam’s father, Joash (Jehoash), had begun a period of expansion and had even reduced the southern kingdom of Judah to vassal status. During Jeroboam’s long tenure the borders of Israel would be restored to the greatest extent they had ever achieved – from the heart of Lebanon to the Dead Sea. Trade flourished, and, as archaeological research has revealed, cities such as Samaria and Megiddo were rebuilt or repaired. A powerful sense of patriotism and national revival flowed in public life.
The religious establishment of Israel shared in the prosperity. At the ancient national sanctuary at Bethel a continuous round of sacrifices was performed. Feasts, solemn assemblies, and festivals punctuated the calendar. A plentiful flow of tithes and offerings expressed the devotion of the people (Amos 4:4-5; 5:21-23).
The good feelings of those times, however, masked the face of coming disaster for the northern kingdom. It was the unpleasant task of Amos to unveil the dark reality behind Israel’s prosperity. Amos did not simply warn of coming political reversals, however; he probed into the touchy underside of Israel’s social structure and punctured its pretense that all was well. As he spoke the word of Yahweh, he revealed a society built on profound injustice. He could and did point to the outrages committed by neighboring states, but his primary word was to Israel.
Its boasted prosperity belonged only to the apex of its social pyramid. He saw a society in which corruption had become entrenched. In the face of the thoughtless self-focused luxury of the rich, the message of Amos could be fierce indeed:
Hear this word, you cows of Bashan,
Who are in the mountain of Samaria,
Who oppress the poor, who crush the
Needy . . . .
Behold, the days are coming upon you,
When they shall take you away with hooks,
To Amos it was deeply ironic that in the midst of corruption and injustice, religion was so popular. Amos strongly affirmed Israel’s unique covenant with God, but used it not to glorify the nation but to call it to responsibility for its actions. Thus he spoke this word of the Lord:
You only have I known of all the
Families of the earth;
Therefore I will punish you for all your
For the leaders of the northern kingdom, however, God was far more a comfort than a threat. Since they believed that their carefree affluence was a sign of the Lord’s special favor toward them, they delighted to celebrate what they called the Day of Yahweh, or the Day of the Lord. They enjoyed the solemnities of the temple at Bethel and took pleasure in its sacrifices and hymns. Amos, however, warned them that the true “day of the Lord” would bring far blacker judgment, “darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it.”
Without justice, ritual worship was not jus irreverent, it was an abomination. Thus Amos spoke this word of Yahweh,
I hate, I despise your feasts,
And I take no delight in your
Solemn assemblies . . .
But let justice roll down like waters,
And righteousness like an
The impact of Amos’ message finally brought him into direct conflict with Amaziah, the chief priest of the royal sanctuary of Bethel. Amaziah accused Amos of treason against Jeroboam for predicting the king’s death and Israel’s exile. Thus, Amaziah insisted that Amos leave, go back to Judah, and “eat bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom” (Amos 7:12-13).
Since the tide of Israel’s prosperity was still high, one may well imagine that Amaziah and Jeroboam believed Amos was nothing more than a misguided voice of ill omen. It was only later generations who read the words of Amos and perceived that he had seen the situation of Israel more clearly than its leaders. They recognized the greatness of this man: they recognized that in this sheepherder from Tekoa was a truly prophetic voice.
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