Amos - The Prophet of Righteousness
Arthur Shearman, Worcester, England
The ministry of Amos, the earliest of the written prophets, is both rugged and direct. He communicates with uncompromising sincerity the burden of his heart concerning the Northern Kingdom of Israel. By occupation he was a herdman from Tekoa, disclaiming earnestly any connection with the schools or the families of the prophets, Amos 7. 14. His background was unpretentious but as he gives utterance to those truths which mattered to him most, he shows himself to be an Israelite indeed. His mind is steeped in the godly traditions which he saw so sadly lacking in the people to which he was sent. The language of the prophet is severe, often violent, with very little tenderness or sympathy to soften the heavy blows he delivers. Yet there was no doubt that the rugged character of the man was bred in his surroundings and in the kind of life that he lived.
Tekoa has been described as a place without sanctity and almost without tradition. The world upon which Amos looked was "desolate and haggard". The village was twelve miles from Jerusalem, and looking north the towers of the city could be seen among the hills. It was in the wilderness or pastureland of Tekoa, 2 Chron. 20. 20, that Amos would rear his desert sheep. It has been called a very empty and a very silent world. From the sheep that he tended, Amos would obtain the wool which we are told was prized for its excellence. This he would trade for his living in the markets round about. He was also a dresser of sycamores, trees which bore a fruit like a small fig, usually eaten by the poor. There is no doubt that the prophet came from hardy and tough stock, and here he found preparation for his mission to Israel.
In the ministry of Amos we see some of the evidence of the effect of his environment. He shows himself to be a man without sentiment. His surroundings and profession are reflected in much of the language he uses. For instance, he had heard the lion roar when about to spring upon its prey. So it is that, when he begins his message, he describes the Lord as roaring from Zion and uttering His voice from Jerusalem, Amos 1.2; see also 3. 8, 12; 5. 19. His theology—the way in which he describes his God— seems to be built out of his sense of the grandeur of nature, 4. 13; 5. 8-9; 9. 5-6. He presents to us the God that he has learned in the depths of his own experience.
The Call of Amos is interesting, considered against such a background. "The Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said unto me, Go, prophesy unto my people Israel", 7.15. There is nothing spectacular about this call. While at work, the Lord took him and channelled his life into His service. His credentials were few, yet quite straightforward. Just "taken" as if the very hand of the Lord had been seen and felt, and sent to the people of Israel. It was quite easy for him to meet the accusations of Amaziah that he had conspired against king Jeroboam. The mind of the prophet is crystal clear as he judges the issues at stake. He has no ulterior motives—he is merely the mouthpiece of Jehovah. This teaches a valuable lesson concerning the call of God. The dramatic or spectacular is not necessarily the proof of its genuineness. Sufficient it is to be able to say with Amos, "the Lord took me." Immediate obedience proved the reality of the call to service.
Although Amos belonged to a small community, he displays a wide knowledge of the happenings in the surrounding nations. In chapters 1-2 he utters his condemnation of the sins of these people with clear insight into their nature: Damascus, Gaza and Tyre; Edom, Ammon and Moab. He seems to know quite confidently where they are wrong. The sins of Judah are noted with the sins of his own nation, Israel. From where did he obtain such knowledge if he were but a herdman in the desert? As he visited the market places with his wool he would meet traders from these parts, and his ears would catch the current news of his day. With these details burning in his ears he would go back to the silence of the desert and he would ponder these matters in his mind. These "transgressions" or "rebellions" would be seen in their intensity as he considered them in the light of the presence of his God. Eventually out of deep exercise he would utter his protests and condemnation. The forcefulness of his words is felt in these two chapters. As so often, during history, the burden of men's wrongs has first of all been felt by the godly in the silence of the sanctuary before they have been uncompromisingly condemned in public.
The cry of Amos was for judgment or justice and righteousness. The keyword of his prophecy is found in 5. 24: "let judgement roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream". Let us consider the times in which he lived to gain insight into the true reason for his cry.
1. Social Conditions. The date of his prophecy is fixed fairly certainly as between 760 and 750 B.C. These were days of prosperity in Israel. The astute policies of Jeroboam II had given to the nation wealth that they could hardly have dreamed of. Israel was left pretty well alone during this period to develop its resources and increase its prosperity; these were reckoned to be the best days for the nation since Solomon's time. The people lived in godless luxury and self-indulgence. There was a great increase in wanton-less and sensuous pleasures; see 5.11 -12; 6. 1-6. Yet the very prosperity which filled the pockets of the rich brought cruelty and oppression to the poor. On four distinct occasions in his prophecy, Amos cries out because of these conditions. The righteous were being sold for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes. There were those who, by harsh measures, crushed the poor and needy yet lived in luxury, 4. 1. Bribery and corruption were rife, 5. 12. There was dishonesty in trading—the ephah was made small and the shekel great, 8. 4-6. As Amos considered these things, his righteous indignation welled up within him. He cried out for justice and right standards.
2. Religious Conditions. Even more than the social inequalities that he saw, the spiritual life of the nation with its rank hypocrisy troubled Amos. Covering the wickedness and corruption of the people was a veneer of religious profession. There were shrines at Bethel, Gilgal and Beersheba, 5. 5. The prophet taunts the people with their willingness to bring their sacrifices and freewill offerings. "This liketh you, O , . . Israel", 4. 5. Impossible though it may seem, this wicked nation kept the outward show of worship of God. To the Lord this was utterly abhorrent. "I hate, I despise your feasts ... I will take no delight in your solemn assemblies", 5. 21 -23. The day would come when the altars would be smashed and destroyed, 3. 13-15. As we study the approach of Amos to the religious life of the nation, there is no doubt that in his heart the deep values of true worship were enshrined. The sin of his nation Godward hurt him deeply and he cried out, ^'let judgement roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream", 5. 24.
The message of Amos can be compassed by three imperative calls that he makes to the people.
1. Publish Ye, 3. 9. These words sum up the compulsion that was upon the prophet to speak the words of the Lord. We have noted already that he was conscious of the fact that he was not trained in prophetic circles. His message was not delivered in sophisticated speech designed to attract popular support. To His servants, Jehovah revealed His mind—His secret, 3. 7. If He had thus spoken, who could refuse to prophesy? 3. 8. The Lord had said to him—Amos the herd-man, "prophesy unto my people Israel", 7.15-16. Dare he keep silence ? Compulsion was upon him to publish abroad the unrighteousness and sin of his nation. They were to him a people who did not know to do right, 3. 10. It is worthy of note, that to Amos the worst kind of famine, one day to be known, was a famine for the Word of the Lord, 8. 11-12. To refuse to hear meant eventually to lose the Word.
2. Prepare, 4.12. The days of Israel, the Northern Kingdom, were fast moving towards the Assyrian captivity. Amos makes this very clear, 7.17; 9. 4. Warnings had been given but had not been heeded, and they had not returned to the Lord, 4. 4-13, In the call that the prophet brings to the people to prepare to meet their God, we sense the distance that existed between their lives and God. If they could have read the signs of the times they would have humbled themselves and repented. Within thirty years their doom would be sealed as the Assyrian captivity took place.
3. Seek the Lord, 5. 4-14. In a vivid appeal to the people, Amos calls them away from the empty formality of their professed worship to a real personal relationship with Jehovah. This would give them life. "Ye shall live"— how the nation needed this. Their corruption and defilement had killed their best things. Soon as a nation they would be like a valley of dry bones, Ezek. 37. 1. By seeking good and not evil, they would once again find that the Lord, the God of hosts, would be with them, Amos 5.14-15. Notice that three times over he calls them out of their lethargy and self-indulgent ease to seek the Lord and the values that were with Him.
Although at times there is a rugged, poetic beauty about the language of Amos, there is very little of sympathy or tenderness in the message that he gave. It was his business to warn and he begins in chapters 1-2 with ideas of punishment. When we look at Hosea we see that it was his Xoplead with the people to return unto their Lord. Yet can we say that to be faithful in the cause of righteousness meant that Amos was altogether without deeper feelings of devotion and love to his people ? As we close, let us look at indications of those exercises which really inspired the prophet to speak.
1. He had a deep reverence for the sanctity of the worship of Jehovah. To him, worship was more than the outward forms of shrine and sacrifice. In this connection notice how he says that they have turned "judgement into wormwood, and cast down righteous ness to the earth", 5. 7. Only someone who was fully devoted to the true qualities of worship could speak so forcibly and with such intensity of feeling. We learn here that we can easily misjudge people who speak intensely concerning spiritual evils. Often that which seems harsh springs from a deep concern for right standards. The worship of Jehovah, his God, was precious to Amos.
2. He had a deep concern for those who suffered because of the avarice and greed of the wealthy. He saw clearly the affliction of the poor and the needy. Surely only a tender heart could speak with such vehemence concerning the inequalities that he saw. Truly he loved his neighbour as himself. Inflexibly righteous as his demands were, he must protest at the oppression and cruelty that he witnessed. Surely this concern for the needy is essential in all Christian relationships. "Owe no man anything" Paul could say, "save to love one another", Rom. 13. 8-10.
3. The prophet never lost sight of the fact that, with all their evils, Israel was still God's chosen people. So he says, "You only have I known of all the families of the earth", Amos 3. 2,— God's sovereign choice. He describes the efforts of the Lord to bring them back to Himself, 4. 4-13. In the vision of the locusts, 7.1 -3, and the fire, 7. 4- 6, we see that he is even moved to ask that forgiveness be granted to Jacob. He is small—how shall he stand? Underneath the rugged exterior of Amos there was a heart that longed for his people's deliverance. To stand firm for justice and righteousness does not exclude the activity of intercession for those who fall. Rather a deep intensity of prayer is essential.
4. Finally we see that enshrined in the prophet's heart were the hopes of the nation. We have to wait until the end of his prophecy, 9. 11-15, before we get to his expression of this. Yet through the dark clouds of impending and certain doom, he sees a shaft of sunlight which heralds the eventual glory of the Messianic age. The tabernacle of David built, the prosperity of the nation's growth, the captivity restored—these are the ideals of hope in the future. To Amos all was not lost. The Lord would one day plant His people in their land, and they would never leave it again.