It appears I’m getting slower and slower at posting new parts in my occasional series looking at the content of the book of Amos, but now that I’m here I’ll continue from where I left off (towards the end of Ch.3). If you’d like to read Amos Ch.4 first, before reading my notes then you can find it by following the link (as usual I’m referencing Today’s New International Version) …

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Among Amos’ audience there were almost certainly a number of rich women who would not have been slow to express contempt for his message, bringing from the prophet a stinging rebuke and a warning of impending disaster. Well-fed and plump, adorned with jewellery, including the nose-rings to which Isaiah would later refer to in his condemnation of the women of Jerusalem (Isaiah Ch.3 vs.18-23), these women at Bethel reminded Amos of  nothing more than the fat cattle for which the region of Bashan was renowned (Ch.4 vs.1). Without in any way exonerating the men of Israel the prophet draws attention to the incessant demands of their wives for the luxuries which could be paid for only at the expense of the poor. Such women, who so callously ignored the suffering of others, will themselves become prey to the refinements of cruelty practised by invading Assyrian armies. With hooks through their mouths some of them will be drawn by their nose-rings through the breached walls of Samaria while the corpses of others will be dragged out for mass burial (Ch.4 vs.2 & 3).

It is, says the prophet, useless for such women to plead mitigation and cite cases of religious observances and attendances at religious festivals, since these are seen by Amos to be examples of sin rather than righteousness. About 170 years earlier Jeroboam I had established at Bethel and Dan centres of worship based on the bull cult, in direct competition to the divinely appointed worship at the temple in Jerusalem. He had consecrated a pagan priesthood (1 Kings Ch.12 vs.26-33) and by his actions had won for himself the unenviable title of the man, ‘… who caused Israel to sin …’ (1 Kings Ch.16 vs.2). And yet, when Amos refers to the sin of the worship at Bethel he doesn’t have the transgressions of Jeroboam I in mind since nowhere does he try to win the people back to the worship at the temple in Jerusalem. Their sins went much further than that of a false ritual or an un-scriptural method of worship. In reality of course any kind of worship divorced from practical righteousness, however Biblically based, is no better than an attempt to bribe the Almighty and so becomes an insult to His holiness. So even if every day could become a New Year celebration, and even if tithes due every third year were brought every third day, all such religious observance would serve only to highlight the hypocrisy of their worship.

One of the elements present at any of the great festivals was the recitation of the former acts of God on behalf of His people, a remembrance of God’s faithfulness and His power. But, in sharp contrast, Amos recounts God’s acts of judgement that have beset the people of Israel (Ch.4 vs.6-11).

Another part of the ritual of worship involved the appearance of the Shekinah glory, that outward sign of the presence of God with His people. For Israel that presence had become not a promise but a threat, ‘… because I will do this to you, Israel, prepare to meet your God …’ (Ch.4 vs.12b). The truth was, that despite their love of religious ceremonies, the people of Israel had little conception of the greatness and majesty of the God they professed to worship. So, in words that may well have been drawn out from the liturgy of the New Year festival Amos draws the attention of the people to the fact that their God is the One who created the great mountain ranges and can fathom the depths of the human heart (Ch.4 vs.13).

We’ll jump into Ch.5 next time …. as time allows …!

amos-prophet1Following on from the previous post in this series we now move into chapter three of Amos where we find the prophet majoring on the theme that religion is worthless without righteousness.

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We can imagine the indignant response which Amos’ first sermon would have drawn from his audience. Almost certainly one part of the response would have been based on the people’s insistence that unlike the heathen nations that Amos had condemned they themselves were God’s own people. Coupled with that would have been a demand to know by what right this stranger from the southern kingdom dared to preach to them in the north. Amos proceeds to answer both of those objections. What they boast is, in fact, the very grounds of God’s condemnation. It is true that they are God’s chosen people, since, ‘… you only have I chosen from all the families of the earth …’ (Ch.3 vs.2), but this fact leads to rather than precludes punishment when those who have been so chosen decide to sin against God’s law. Here surely is a sharp lesson for all of us who claim to be God’s people because of imputed righteousness gifted by God’s grace. Such a claim does not, nor cannot, remove the necessity for us to live lives of practical righteousness. God does not condone our daily sinfulness on the grounds that He has already forgiven us. His purpose for our lives is that we should not only be accounted but also made righteous – and the latter is as much a part of our salvation as the former (ref. Philippians Ch.1 vs.6).

To the second objection – that Amos had no right to preach to them – the prophet responds with a number of examples of cause and effect. In the desert countryside if two people were found to be walking side by side it could only have come about because they had agreed to meet (Ch.3 vs.3), and the roar of the lion was a clear indication that it had caught it’s prey (Ch.3 vs.4), and similarly if a trap had been sprung then something had been caught (Ch.3 vs.5). It was also true that when the sentry guarding the city chose to sound a note on his horn then it was a sure signal that there was imminent danger (Ch.3 vs.6) and if disaster did strike then such an event would be in the purpose of God’s divine will and when that purpose was revealed to His servant, the prophet, then that servant must speak (Ch.3 vs.6-8).

Amos then returns to the question of God’s punishment of His people. They are, as we have seen, guilty of social corruption, and because they have refused to take any notice of God’s Word they are now spiritually ignorant (Ch.3 vs.10). The judgement which is to fall must therefore be viewed as coming from God and not merely a misfortune occurring from an indefinable source.

So the prophet calls on the surrounding nations to bear witness to Israel’s crimes so that when judgement does come they will recognise it as coming from God Himself (Ch.3 vs.9). It is likely that the name rendered Ashdod in the TNIV and in other translations should more probably read Assyria. If that is the case then it is the two great political powers, Egypt and Assyria, that are being called upon to bear witness to God’s judgement.

The extent of the judgement will, however, not be total. A small remnant will be left (Ch.3 vs.12). As Amos, the shepherd, knew only too well, when a wild beast attacked the flock it was necessary for any hired shepherd to save at least, ‘… two leg bones or a piece of an ear …’ (Ch.3 vs.12) as evidence that the sheep hadn’t been stolen by the shepherd but rather had been attacked and savaged (ref. Exodus Ch.22 vs.13).

It is not only Samaria, the political capital, which will face destruction. Bethel too will be devastated despite its honoured religious traditions (ref. Genesis Ch.12 vs.8 and Ch.28 vs.18). Neither a nation, a city, or a church congregation for that matter, can escape God’s judgement by appealing to its past.

Amos continues by being very specific about who the people are on whom the full weight of God’s judgement will fall. Archaeologists have discovered quantities of fragments of beautifully inlaid ivory dating form the 8th century BC in Samaria. They formed part of the decoration of the ‘… houses adorned with ivory …’ occupied by the rich who enjoyed the comfort of their separate ‘… winter house along with the summer house …’ (Ch.3 vs.16). It is these houses that will be torn down and demolished when God’s judgement falls.

More to follow … we’ll look at chapter four next time …

It’s taken me rather too long to get back to writing about the book of Amos, but I’ll make no excuses and resume where I left off without further comment …!

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The sins of Israel

While Amos’ audience was coming to term with his condemnation of Judah he suddenly launches into an attack on the Israelites themselves. It was a two-pronged attack – against both personal and social sins. All too often our contemporary morality seems to suffers from tunnel vision seeing only one kind of sin whilst remaining blinkered as to the true extent of our wrongdoing, whether as individuals or collectively as a wider society.

Amos continues by describing four situations. Firstly there is the selling of slaves for a trivial price which provides a yardstick as to the worth placed on a human life (Ch.2 vs.6). Secondly in the law court the poor have no hope of justice when confronted with the rich who can afford to bribe the judiciary (Ch.2 vs.7), a practice foretold and forbidden by God (ref. Deuteronomy Ch.16 vs.19). Thirdly, both young and old indulge in acts of immorality (Ch.2 vs.7). Fourthly, in their self indulgent celebrations of religious feasts the worshippers have no concern about where the wine came from or the fact that the cloaks they are lying on at night have been taken from the poor and kept in contravention of God’s expressed law (ref. Exodus Ch.22 vs.26).

It’s likely that Amos’ audience may well have responded to his verbal attack by asserting that the sins he condemned were far less serious than those of their neighbours. The prophet’s answer appears in the next verses which reminded his hearers that the right living which God demanded was not meant to ensure blessing but was rather to be in response to blessings already received. The LORD who condemned them was the One who had brought them out of Egypt, provided for their needs in the wilderness and given them victory over their enemies (Ch.2 vs.9-10). God’s provision had, however, gone further than physical and material necessities. It had taken account also of spiritual needs. The only group of people who were called to full time service for God were the descendants of Levi who worked in the temple. For the ordinary Israelite man who wished to demonstrate his love to God the Nazirite vow provided the opportunity for a public declaration of his dedication. His long hair made him stand out from other men and since he abstained from alcohol he was depriving himself of one of the few luxuries a poor man could enjoy. But to the lukewarm materialistic Israelite this abstinence suggested an undesirable degree of religious enthusiasm so, ‘… you made the Nazirites to drink wine …’ (Ch.2 vs.12).

Even more deplorable was the attitude towards the prophets, the men with the task of revealing God’s will to His people, those with an ear to God’s voice. It’s unlikely that the text means that they were physically forbidden to speak (Ch.2 vs.12b), but more likely, just like prophets before them (ref. 1 Kings Ch.22 vs.13) they were expected to tell the people what they wanted to hear rather than what God wanted them to be told.

Years after Amos had spoken Jeremiah and Ezekiel would both accuse the prophets of Judah, Amos’ own nation, of, ‘… saying peace when there was no peace …’ (ref. Ezekiel Ch.13:10).

The punishment, as always with God, fits the crime. Just as the rich and powerful had pressed hard upon the poor and the defenseless so their own fate will be to be crushed by the threshing sledge (Ch.2 vs.13). From that judgement neither youthfulness or strength of force can deliver the people.

More to follow … as time allows …!

Here’s the third of my occasional posts looking at the OT prophecy of Amos. It’s been awhile since I last wrote on this topic so I had to look back over what I’d written previously to try and pick up on my thought process. I’m not sure that I’ve succeeded but hopefully you’ll not find it too fragmented.

Amos at Bethel

There are a number of pointers to the circumstances in which the prophet Amos proclaimed his message or, more probably, his series of messages. Firstly we discover that Amos travelled to Bethel, the religious centre of the nation, rather than to Samaria, its commercial and political centre. Secondly he preached in circumstances where he was able to command the attention of the people over a period of quite a few days. All this would seem to suggest that he chose one of the great religious festivals to deliver his warning of God’s coming judgement. From his latter comments (Ch.5 vs.16-27) it seems probable that Amos arrived in the city during the time of the Autumn Festival which celebrated the last of the three harvests, the ingathering of grapes, olives and other fruits. It was also the festival of the New Year and the seven days given over to its celebration would have provided ample opportunity for Amos to deliver the message God had given him. One attribute of the festival was its emphasis on the LORD as sovereign over both the forces of nature and the nations of the world. It was also the occasion when the people of Israel anticipated the day when God would judge those who were His enemies, those people who were also the enemies of His chosen people. In such circumstances we can imagine the delight with which Amos’ opening words were greeted by those who had come to attend the festival. However, detailed attention to what Amos was saying would surely have cast the first faint doubts as to the strength of his nationalism for God seems to have been prepared to act in judgement as much on the nations’ treatment of each other as on their treatment of Israel and Judah, and since they had not received God’s law it was not disobedience to His revealed will that was being condemned but rather the sins of these nations were against common humanity and transgressed common basic humanitarian principles, the kind of principles that Paul reminds his readers in Romans that are, ‘… written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness …’ (Romans Ch.2 vs.15).

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Syria was guilty of a delight in cruelty. It was generally accepted that those who were defeated in war should at least have their lives spared. In contravention of this custom however the Syrians laid their bound prisioners on a threshing floor and crushed them to death under spiked threshing sledges (see Ch.1 vs.3).

Slavery too was a condition that the ancient world largely took for granted so long as it arose from war or as a result of natural disasters. Yet the Philistines went far beyond this by capturing other nations, not merely to use them as slaves, but also to use them as currency through human trafficking (see Ch.1 vs.6).

Like the Syrians the Ammonites were guilty of barbaric cruelty. In this case the deliberate slaughter of pregnant women appears to be a sign that they wished to wipe out an entire people group (see Ch.1 vs.13). Also we see that the peoples of Tyre and Sidon broke treaties of friendship (Ch.1 vs.9) and whilst the Edomites may have had cause to feel enmity towards the people of Judah their desire to seek revenge had become a relentless pursuit of terror (see Ch.1 vs.11). By comparison the sin of the Moabites in forbidding a proper funeral to the Edomite king might seem at first rather a trivial matter, but this wouldn’t have been the case in an age when there was a widespread belief that such a desecration would prevent the victim’s participation in the after-life (see Ch.2 vs.1).

So, after such denunciations Amos’ condemnation of his own people in Judah may have seemed surprising for two reasons. Firstly, whatever rivalry may have existed between the northern and the southern kingdoms, both belonged to God’s covenant people and might therefore hope to escape His judgement. And secondly, by comparison with the sins of the nations that surround God’s people Judah’s own sins might almost appear trivial. But the yardstick wasn’t so much the greatness of Judah’s sins but more about the abuse of Judah’s privileges. Unlike their neighbours, the people of Judah had received God’s written law and they boasted that God Himself was in their midst. So, when despite those privileges the people still broke God’s law and allowed themselves to be willingly led into idolatry and false worship, the LORD’s judgement must inevitably fall because greater privileges brings greater responsibilities.

I’ll try not to leave such a long gap before I write Part 4 …

As promised, here’s my second post taking a look at the content of the book of Amos. You’ll have to excuse me if the way I’ve set out these comments doesn’t always appear to be particularly linear but I’m endeavouring to be as clear as I can and follow a reasonably straightforward path through the book.

So, here’s the next part …

Amos had a growing conviction that a righteous God could not fail to act in judgement against a society that was so polarized and unjust and his conviction was further strengthened by a series of visions linked in Amos’ mind to a number of natural disasters which the country had experienced in his lifetime. When in a vision he saw the LORD create a swarm of locusts which ate up every green thing in the land (Ch.7 vs.1-2), he recalled an actual plague (Ch.4 vs.9). And when he beheld a vision of fire which ‘… dried up the great deep and devoured the land … ‘ (Ch.7 vs.4) he recalled the days when, ‘… one field had rain and another had none …’ (Ch.4 vs.8), and he remem­bered the scorching winds which dried up the crops (Ch.4 vs.9).

For Amos these were more than natural disas­ters. They were the out-workings of God’s judgment designed to draw his people back to Himself; and the tragedy of the situation lay in the fact that, ‘… you have not returned to me …’ (Ch.4 vs.8).

We may find ourselves troubled by a theology which sees locusts and famines as acts of God. Even if today, however, we view them as aspects of God’s permissive rather than his active will Amos’ words still present us with a challenge. In the light of what contemporary ecologists are teaching us, should we regard famine as a natural disaster, or are we being forced to realize that human greed and mismanagement of natural resources, to say nothing of civil and international wars, have played a large part in producing barren areas and times of shortage. But neither locusts, famine, nor the hot desert wind were to be God’s final judgement. Yet faced with these, Amos pleads for the people, ‘… Sovereign Lord, I beg you, stop … how can Jacob survive … he is so small …’ (Ch.7 vs.5)

Two more visions showed Amos how close that final judgment had come. In the first he saw a basket of autumn fruit (Ch.8 vs.1), the sign of the ending of another year. H. L. Ellison commenting on this passage says this, ‘… for good or bad Israel had borne her fruit and now there re­mained only God’s judgement on it …’. In a final vision Amos saw the LORD standing by an altar and command­ing an angel to break the tops of the temple columns (Ch.9 vs.1). The altar which had once spoken of com­munion between God and man had now become a sign of His judgement upon a society where religion had become wholly divorced from daily life. Before this judgement fell upon Israel there would be one further natural warning. Two years after Amos had prophesied, an earth­quake shook the land (Ch.1 vs.1) with such force that the incident was still remembered nearly four hundred years later when Zechariah was proclaiming God’s word to his generation. (Zechariah Ch.14 vs.5).

There could have been little joy for Amos in the message that he came to Israel to deliver; but he was motiv­ated by a divine compulsion, since he says, ‘… the Sovereign LORD has spoken … who can but prophesy ? …’ (Ch.3 vs.8). Amos was compelled to bring an unwel­come message which comes afresh to every new generation and to all nations: that the greatness of any people is to be assessed not by their material prosperity, nor their politi­cal influence, nor even their religiosity; but by the manner in which they treat the poor and weak within the community.

I’ll write more soon as time allows …!

This is the first part of a series of short posts looking at the historical, political, religious and social setting surrounding the prophecy of Amos. This first part is an introduction to the historical setting for the book and takes a look at what we know about the man himself. As mentioned in my previous posts I’m using the TNIV (Today’s new International Version) bible as my reference source.

Introduction to the book of Amos

Almost 10 miles south of Jerusalem and on the edge of the Judean wilder­ness lay Tekoa, home of the first prophet whose words were to be fully recorded: the shepherd Amos. He was, as he himself declared, ‘… neither a prophet nor the disciple of a prophet …’ (Amos Ch.7:14a) but a shepherd impelled by a divine com­pulsion to proclaim the word of God however unpopular.

Amos lived during the reigns of Uzziah, king of Judah, and Jeroboam II, king of Israel (Amos Ch.1:1). It was a time of growing influence and pros­perity for both kingdoms. For many years previously the northern kingdom of Israel had come increasingly under the domination of neighbour­ing Syria. The Syrians occupied the whole of the Trans-Jordan, and on the western coast their influence extended as far as south as Gath. Other nations also took advantage of Israel’s weakness. The Ammonites wiped out the population of the land to the east of the Jordan in order to gain further territorial advantage. At such a low ebb in Israel’s fortunes, Jeroboam’s accession to the throne seemed like a divine intervention on the people’s behalf, ‘… the Lord had seen how bitterly everyone in Israel, whether slave or free, was suffering; there was no one to help them …and since the Lord had not said he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam son of Jehoash …’ (2 Kings Ch.14:27). In his battles against Syria Jeroboam succeeded in recovering territory from the north­ern pass of Hamath as far south­wards as the Dead Sea. With this new political strength came a correspond­ing prosperity; but it was superficial, and whilst it brought luxury and comfort, it brought it only to a favoured minority, as Amos him­self discovered.

Amos is described in Scripture as a shepherd, although the word used can also mean a breeder of sheep such as is used of Mesha, king of Moab (2 Kings Ch.3:4). But even if this were his position, there are indications that Amos was far from enjoying personal pros­perity since, for instance, his father’s name is not given; which indicates that he came from an obscure family. The countryside around Tekoa was bleak and inhos­pitable; its only source of water came from infrequent springs near which shepherds might hope to find enough grass to feed flocks. The poverty of such a living is further emphasized by the fact that Amos supplemented it by tending sycamore or fig trees (Ch.7:14). It doesn’t appear from the text that all of Amos’ days were spent in looking after his flock or caring for trees since it seems likely that from time to time he visited cities in the northern kingdom of Israel possibly to sell the wool from his sheep. It appears likely that it was on these journeys he became increasingly aware as to the true cost of Israel’s new-found pros­perity.

More to follow … as time allows …!