Amos is a fascinating book, and I believe that in some circles he may be neglected. He was charged with an impossible task. Yet God often requires the impossible of his servants. Amos’specific task was to preach to people who will not listen. More that than that, Amos was sent preaching to a people who would have held him in contempt.
As this study of Amos begins, it is very beneficial to know the contexts that Amos preached in. This will give a greater appreciation for the man, Amos, while also doing justice to the first few verses of the book itself. One of the key pieces of contextual information is the scripture in II Chronicles that give some commentary and insight during this period. II Chronicles 25:17-24 gives some insights concerning the overall atmosphere that would have affected Amos’ ministry.
One last comment. Since this introduction covers vs. 1-2, the context of Amos, the geography, and other important pieces of information.
1 The words of Amos, who was one of the sheep breeders from Tekoa —what he saw regarding Israel in the days of Uzziah, king of Judah, and Jeroboam son of Jehoash, king of Israel, two years before the earthquake. 2 He said: The Lord roars from Zion and raises His voice from Jerusalem; the pastures of the shepherds mourn, and the summit of Carmel withers.
Structure of the Text
Verse 1 begins with “the words of Amos,” but the words Amos spoke are not given until verse 2. In fact, most of verse 1 is an apposition. Apposition is when a word or phrase is introduced, and then additional information is set beside it. This apposition is giving additional details needed to make sense of Amos’ message; like when they were spoken and to whom they were spoken. The introduction covers three areas: Amos the person, the Words Amos saw, and the words Amos’ spoke or his message.
Amos’ name means “burden.” It is a fitting name. He carried the the the message of God to his northern neighbors, and it is likely they saw him as a meddlesome burden. The information given about Amos is his profession and his origin. Amos’ profession as a sheep breeder means he may have had a different job than standard shepherds. Compare 5 different translations, there will be 5 different answers about what Amos actually did. What can be known for sure is that he dealt with sheep, rams, and other flock animals. The word here is not the normal one used for shepherds (which is used in verse 2). Amos may have worked in the marketing and selling of sheep which shepherds took care of. Additionally, Amos states in chapter 7 tells that he also dressed sycamore trees for figs and did follow a flock.
Amos’ town, Tekoa, is about 10 miles south of Jerusalem as a crow flies. Tekoa was a city fortified by prior kings and served as a town between two worlds. The climate to the east was the desert with its steep cliffs and jagged edges because the elevation drops towards the dead sea. But west of Tekoa were soft, rolling hills and fertile pastureland and farmland of Judah. Most importantly, it should be remembered that Amos is a man from Judah.
The information given about the words Amos saw are what, when, and where. Notice how the translators have worded this… In the ESV, NASB, and KJV we have “The words of Amos which he saw.” But this version has “The words of Amos what he saw.” The HCSB is picking up a problem that sometimes we gloss over but is in fact essential to nature of being a prophet. English speakers would not normally say “the words what Amos spoke.” The reason for this awkwardness is that the Hebrew is insisting Amos has “seen” the words.
The Hebrew prophets often speak about the word of the LORD coming to them. What should be understood here is that Amos saw a vision that included God speaking words—in this case words of judgement—and it is the content of these words that Amos is charged with speaking. In fact, the NIV actually adds the word vision—which isn’t in the Hebrew—in verse 1.
Surveying how other prophets received the word of the Lord, it seems they were given a vision—affecting any or all of 5 senses—in which they are taken up to God’s heavenly court where the Divine counsel is decided. Think about Isaiah chapter 6, Jeremiah 1, or Ezekiel 1. The prophet then is charged with reporting the divine decree and carrying this message.
Now when did this take place? A few details are given about that. First, there is a king in both Judah and Israel which means this is when the kingdom was divided. Specifically, this message was given in the days of Uzziah of Judah and Jereboam II of Israel. Now, where? Even better…what direction? The message is given by God to Amos of Judah, but the message is regarding Israel. This is striking. Amos is sent across the border. The timeline and geography is discussed a bit more later, but the what is the message Amos saw?
Amos uses the literary device of parallelism. “The Lord roars from Zion, and from Jerusalem gives His voice.” Parallelism is when two lines have a similar structure and have a similar meaning. Repetition is a sign of good Hebrew literature and while that can sometimes be unnerving to modern ears, there is a reason behind this. My Hebrew professor always said Hebrew repetition is like using the left and right speaker of a stereo system. There are different nuances of sound between the left and right speaker, but by using both speakers you get the full sound and full impact of the one message.
Amos is emphasizing the origin of his message. This message is not something that Amos has dreamt up, rather this word comes from God who dwells on mount Zion in the temple surrounded by the city of Jerusalem. The effect of his judgment will devastate the land.
One quick observation where some interpreters and commentaries seem to accidentally mistake is the use of a lion’s roar. Sometimes it is thought, in error, that by roaring God is sending a warning to Israel. However, a few hours watching the discovery channel shows that a lion only roars after he has taken his prey. Roaring before an attack would scare off the prey, and would ruin the stealthy approach cats use. The point here is that God has already made his judgment concerning Israel’s future. The lion has roared. The prey is in hand.
Now that Amos’ message is understood a little bit more–a message he unpacks for nine chapters–it is helpful to look at the layout of the land and also why Amos’ being from Judah, yet preaching to Israel, foreshadows tension.
- Notice Tekoa here just south of Jerusalem. The city of Bethlehem is about halfway between Tekoa and Jerusalem
- Also notice the key locations in Israel—Samaria which is the capital city (prominent in Hosea’s ministry) and Bethel which was Israel’s religious center (prominent in Amos’ ministry)
- There were other religious sites Israelites took pilgrimages to
- Beersheba in the far south where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob spent time
- Gilgal along the Jordan river where after the Israelites first crossed into the promised land under Joshua
- There were other religious sites Israelites took pilgrimages to
- There are two Mt. Carmels. One in the south and one in the far northwest. It is likely that the Carmel Amos is speaking of is in northern Israel where there is abundant plant growth; especially since Amos’ message targets the northern kingdom
On this next map, there is something that may be surprising. Reading the book of II Kings or II Chronicles can give the impression that as Israel and Judah decline spiritually, the country’s prosperity also suffered. That wasn’t always the case—although that was true in the time of Judges. One of the great ironies of Amos’ ministry is that he predicts the destruction of Israel in approximately 40 years during a period of unparalleled military and economic success.
Judah’s previous king Amaziah, who is Uzziah’s father, had conquered much of Edom, Gath from the philistines, and a large swath of land to the south. The expansion to the south likely made Amaziah over confident.
Likewise Israel took land from Ammon and the Arameans in the north. The reason for Israel and Judah’s success is that the real superpower Assyria to their north was involved in other issues. This left a power vacuum in the land.
The result of this gave both nations a false sense of confidence in military power and a false sense that God was pleased with their behavior. Second, since Judah and Israel became the two main powers in the region, it may have been inevitable that they would fight with each other—which they did at Beth Shemesh (just north of Jerusalem).
This timeline of events begins with Solomon’s united kingdom split in 930 BC and ends with Uzziah’s lengthy reign beginning in 792. There were 8 kings in Judah and 12 in Israel. This averages to a reign of 17.25 years in Judah and 11.5 in Israel. In comparison, Uzziah’s 52 year reign is pretty remarkable.
Jereboam II reigned in Israel during Amos’ ministry. Ironically, Jereboam’s namesake—Jereboam 1st—was the first king in Israel after the kingdom split. Jereboam II’s reign ends in 753. By 723, thirty short years, all of Israel is conquered by Assyria and the people are in exile.
Again, while Jereboam II and Uzziah are reigning during Amos’ time, these two king’s fathers went to war with each other. Not only did the kingdoms split, but a “civil war” of sorts broke out. Technically the word war is inaccurate. The Scriptures mention only one battle.
But based on what may be known about this period before the earthquake, that small conflict was within 40 years of Amos’ ministry and certainly impacted the attitudes of the two nations towards each other.
The earthquake referenced in verse 1 must have been memorable for their whole world. It is referenced almost in the same way that Americans can reference 9/11. Everyone remembers. Even after the exile(s), Zechariah references it in chapter 14. Josephus, the historian, also references the earthquake stating that it happened when Uzziah attempted to offer sacrifice at the temple. He continues to say that the mountain split in half and the king’s royal gardens were all destroyed.
The final thing to do is take a look at this conflict between Amaziah Judah and Jehoash of Israel to get a taste of how embarrassing this conflict was and then to apply the relevance of Amos 1:1-2 to us today.
Talks and Trees
II Chronicles (HCSB) 25:17 King Amaziah of Judah took counsel and sent word to Jehoash son of Jehoahaz, son of Jehu, king of Israel, saying, “Come, let us meet face to face.” 18 King Jehoash of Israel sent word to King Amaziah of Judah, saying, “The thistle that was in Lebanon sent a message to the cedar that was in Lebanon, saying, ‘Give your daughter to my son as a wife.’ Then a wild animal that was in Lebanon passed by and trampled the thistle. 19 You have said, ‘Look, I have defeated Edom,’ and you have become overconfident that you will get glory. Now stay at home. Why stir up such trouble so that you fall and Judah with you?” 20 But Amaziah would not listen, for this turn of events was from God in order to hand them over to their enemies because they went after the gods of Edom. 21 So King Jehoash of Israel advanced. He and King Amaziah of Judah faced off at Beth-shemesh in Judah. 22 Judah was routed before Israel, and each fled to his own tent. 23 King Jehoash of Israel captured Judah’s King Amaziah son of Joash, son of Jehoahaz, at Beth-shemesh. Then Jehoash took him to Jerusalem and broke down 200 yards of Jerusalem’s wall from the Ephraim Gate to the Corner Gate. 24 He took all the gold, silver, all the utensils that were found with Obed-edom in God’s temple, the treasures of the king’s palace, and the hostages. Then he returned to Samaria.
In what was likely the most epic put down in ancient Israel/Judah, Jehoash refers to Amaziah as a thistle. It is very common in the ancient Near East to refer to kings and kingdoms as stately trees under which the nation is sheltered. When Jehoash refers to himself as a cedar of lebanon, he is stating something about the power and glory of his kingdom. In Jehoash’s opinion, the kingdom of Judah is but a thistle in comparison.
The second part of Jehoash’s allegory is that this thistle dared to ask the cedar to give a daughter in marriage. These arrangements of princes marrying princesses were to form alliances between equals. In great economy of language, Jehoash lets Amaziah know that the kingdom of Judah is a small weed and that it is offensive to even think Judah is equal to Israel. In Jehoash’s opinion, Judah would make a good servant–a good vassal, but not an equal worth unifying by marriage.
While it is clear that Amaziah started the fight, it is equally clear that both kings were looking for one. Jehoash’s words must have been embarrassing to receive.
Consider how embarrassing this was for Judah and what sense of superiority this gave Israel.
- By knocking down only Jerusalem’s northern wall Israel signalled two things
- Judah was easy enough to defeat that Israel need not raze every wall down
- Now your northern neighbor sees everything happening in Jerusalem; Judah is exposed
- Israel’s religion may have felt validated by being able to take the gold and goods from the temple in Jerusalem
- Even today in the United States there is still some animosity between the north and the south, but this event is fresh on the memory of those living during the time of Amos
Christians today might feel like Amos. Perhaps not a trained pastor, but an every day worker like Amos, and charged with announcing God’s word to a world that is hostile. What authority does a Christian have to tell other people anything? What authority did this southern Judean have to tell Israel anything?
But this is precisely the point. Remember that the Word Christians proclaim is not dreamt up; rather its origin is from God Himself. God’s word is its own authority. That authority does not rest on any person or any kind of superiority of character someone has—whether intellectual or professional. The voice of Yahweh roars from Zion. Ultimately it is not Amos’ message at all; it is Yahweh’s. So Amos must go, and Israel ought to listen. For Christians, the Word has been made flesh, died for the sins of man, and rose again for the justification of all who believe. This is from God and so Christians must go, and the world ought to listen; not because Christians are smart, but because the message comes from God.
Second, Christians may long for a vision like Amos had (The word which he saw). Perhaps there is a longing for a nearness to God that mirrors Isaiah, Hosea, or Amos during this period of time. Regrettably, this idea likely means the believer is despising God’s written Word.
Christians must see that the Word has already come down for us. That Word was made flesh; it lived, breathed, died, and rose again and it tells us a message that is God’s final word for ourselves and the nations. We do not need a vision; we need only dust off our bible. As Paul argues in his epistles, is not God the Spirit dwelling in the Christian? This is a nearness Amos longed for while living on the earth and never saw.
Christian, carry on this message about how the Word of God died in order to reconcile men with God. Have comfort that there is no need to be smarter, stronger, or better than anyone else. God’s Word is its own authority; Christians are merely the messengers.