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Introduction to the Book of Amos

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General Info

The book of Amos addresses one of the largest “hot button” subjects of our modern times, that of “Social Justice” and/or “Social Injustice”.  Not surprisingly however, the book proposes much different solutions than what is being demanded by the various pundits, protestors and politicians of our day.  Well further elaborate on this in the “Themes” chapter below.

In the Protestant Canon, Amos is grouped with the other eleven books in the section called the “Minor Prophets”.  Each of the twelve books are named for its author and main character.  Amos in Hebrew means “Burden Bearer”.  In the Hebrew Bible Canon, the twelve books of the minor prophets (along with Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel) are grouped into a section called the Nevi’im Aharonim, or the “Latter Prophets”.

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Brief Survey

The book begins with a brief introduction to the prophet Amos, after which the author launches into seven brief oracles of judgment against Israel’s neighboring nations, each beginning with “Thus says the Lord”.  Most of these were basically crimes against humanity such as selling people into slavery, slaughtering women etc.  If Amos had stopped with chapter 2, verse 5, he would have gone down among the Israelis as one of the most popular prophets in history.  Many were probably cheering as he addressed the coming judgment of their pagan neighbors, and was even tougher on Judah, holding their fellow Jews to a higher standard because they had received (and rejected) God’s law, and even worshipped false gods.  Many may have even believed that God would use Israel as the instrument to carry out His wrath against their enemies.

Unfortunately for Israel, God was just getting warmed up, since the last, and by far the longest, opening oracle is addressed to Israel.  When Amos began proclaiming and detailing Israel’s sins, the whole nation must have been taken by surprise.  After all, they considered themselves to be special and privileged in God.   He had greatly blessed them by bringing them out of Egypt  (2:10) and into the Promised Land, but they consistently disobeyed and broke God’s covenant laws.

Chapters 3-6 then contains a group of five oracles or sermons that expands on the pronouncements of judgment contained in chapter 2.  Israel is admonished for such sins as idolatry, injustice (particularly toward the poor), bribery, relying on religious rituals rather than true worship, and becoming morally bankrupt.  They rejected God’s rule despite all the good thinks He had done for them.  These pronouncements are also accompanied by an announcement of coming judgment.

In the next section, God gives Amos another series of judgments in the form of visions to pass along to the Israelites.  The first is a vision of locusts that would devour and decimate their crops, a primary source of livelihood for the majority of the population.  The second is a vision of fire (devastating drought) that would dry up all that was left by the locusts.  As with the first, Amos pleaded for the Lord’s mercy and God relented.  A third vision of a plumb line was a symbol of spiritual testing which Israel failed.  These proclamations would lead to a confrontation between Amos and the pagan priest Amaziah who persuades the king to order Amos to be deported.  Amos refuses, and places a death curse on Amaziah (7:10-17).  The fourth vision is that of a ripe basket of fruit, symbolizing the ripeness of Israel for destruction due to their corrupt business practices, again primarily with the poor (8:4-8).  The final vision is the most terrifying.  It involves a vision of the Lord Himself standing by the alter while giving the final proclamation of judgment of destruction and exile (9:1-10), which would come to pass only a few decades later.

The book of Amos however, ends on an upbeat note with the God’s promise of restoration for His people (9:11-15).  Jerusalem would be rebuilt (see the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah), the dynasty of David would be reestablished in the land, ultimately fulfilled by Jesus the Messiah.

Within this final section, there's an interesting quote in which the Lord promises that His people would “possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name” (9:12).  This could be a lead-in to Obadiah, the next Book of the Twelve minor prophets, which deals with the coming judgment of Edom.  However, it may also be a larger reference to the promise that the Gentiles (symbolically represented by Edom) would be included in God’s promises and would also be his people (Ac 15:7-19, Ga 3:26-29).

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Key Verses

The words of Amos, one of the shepherds of Tekoa - what he saw concerning Israel two years before the earthquake, when Uzziah was king of Judah and Jeroboam son of Jehoash was king of Israel.  He said: “The LORD roars from Zion and thunders from Jerusalem; the pastures of the shepherds dry up, and the top of Carmel withers”. (1:1-2)

Hear this word the LORD has spoken against you, O people of Israel - against the whole family I brought up out of Egypt: “You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your sins”.  Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?  When disaster comes to a city, has not the LORD caused it?  Surely the Sovereign LORD does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets. (3:1-3,6b-7)

There are those who hate the one who upholds justice in court and detest the one who tells the truth.  You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain.  Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine.  For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins.  There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.  Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times, for the times are evil.  Seek good, not evil, that you may live.  Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is.  Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts.  Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph. (5:10-15)

“I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies.  Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them.  Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them.  Away with the noise of your songs!  I will not listen to the music of your harps.  But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”. (5:21-24)

“The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign LORD, “when I will send a famine through the land - not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD”.  (8:11)

“Surely the eyes of the Sovereign LORD are on the sinful kingdom.  I will destroy it from the face of the earth - yet I will not totally destroy the house of Jacob,” declares the LORD...  “The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when the reaper will be overtaken by the plowman and the planter by the one treading grapes.  New wine will drip from the mountains and flow from all the hills. I will bring back my exiled people Israel; they will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them.  They will plant vineyards and drink their wine; they will make gardens and eat their fruit.  I will plant Israel in their own land, never again to be uprooted from the land I have given them,” says the LORD your God. (9:8,13-15)

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Author and Date

As with all the minor prophets, the book of Amos is named for its human author.  Amos prophesied during the reign of Judean King Uzziah (791-740BC) and Israeli King Jeroboam II (793-753).  This would make him one of the earliest of the writing prophets.  Many believe that, because one of his main themes was social injustice, that he must have been very poor.  His primary autobiographic statement is found in chapter 7, verses 14-15 in which he states “I was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I was a shepherd [or herdsman, Hebrew nabi], and I also took care of sycamore-fig trees. But the Lord took me from tending the flock and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’”   Some scholars believe however, that Amos could have been the owner of many sheep and orchards, so that he could have been at least somewhat affluent.

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Historical Background and Timeline

See Historical Background of the Minor Prophets, Chronology of the Minor Prophets and Chronology of the Monarchy Timeline for additional info.

Amos was a Judean prophet living during the reign of King Uzziah.  Shortly after the Israeli prophet Jonah prophesized to Nineveh in Assyria, Amos was called to deliver God’s message to Israel.  As we noted in Jonah, this era (first half of the eighth century BC) was marked by abundant prosperity and national pride, but the nation of Israel was spiritually, morally and ethically bankrupt.

Assyria, Syria and Egypt were all relatively weak during this period, which temporarily allowed Jeroboam to enlarge Israel’s territory to the extent that they possessed during the reigns of David and Solomon.  Thus, most ignored ignored the warnings of coming judgment being issued by Amos.  With things going so well militarily and economically, few could even imagine the disasters that would suddenly come upon Israel just three decades later (722 BC) when they were conquered and exiled by the now powerful Assyrians.  Meanwhile, Uzziah was a godly king for the most part, so Judah was spared.  Later however, Uzziah’s power and fame would lead to pride and he would be struck with leprosy (2Chr 26:16-23).

931 BC Division of the Kingdom into the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah
931 - 910 BC Jeroboam I as first King of Northern Kingdom of Israel - Institutes Idol Worship
793-753 BC Jeroboam II King of Israel
791-740 BC Uzziah (aka Azariah) King of Judah
~780-750 BC Jonah Prophet of Israel to Assyria
~765-750 BC Amos Prophet of Judah to Israel
~755-715 BC Hosea Prophet of Israel
722 BC Israel Conquered and Exiled by Assyrians
586 BC Fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, Exile of much of the remaining Population

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

The overall theme of the book is God’s righteous judgment.  Even though Israel was his chosen people, they were not exempt for His covenant laws, laws that were put in place for their own good and prosperity.  God condemns the guilty, but provides for the righteous.  The oppression of the righteous, particularly the poor, is a very common theme in the Old Testament, along with immorality, idolatry and other perverted religious rituals.

Today, most people look to political “solutions” in an attempt to solve social injustice issues.  Not surprisingly, Amos (and Scripture in general) takes a different approach.  Political strategies usually involve the government forcefully redistributing wealth from one group of people to another.  Yet, after decades of failure that tends to produce the opposite outcome (the rich get richer and the poor gets poorer), one might ask, could we try something new, or even better, perhaps the only thing that has ever worked?  We’re speaking of course, of a spiritual solution, and in particular, the one offered by God through Amos.  The solution was (and is) for the people to get right with God and follow His command to love your neighbor as yourself.  Throughout history, God’s people (the true Church) have been on the front lines of charity work that engages both the spiritual and the practical.  Christian ministries provide compassion and provisions for the needy, but also strive to help them into a better life instead of relying on government handouts that perpetually trap them in their current situations.

In addition to true social justice as a theological topic, Amos also mentions the coming day of the Lord (5:16-20), a future time of dreadful destruction and judgment on the wicked.  The day of the Lord is predicted by Christ in Matthew 24, and the Apostle John gives a vivid and detailed description in Revelation chapter 6-18.  Another theological issue is the peril of perfunctory religion, basically just going through the motions rather than obedient true worship.

The main purpose of the book is to call Israel back to repentance and true worship of the One True God.  This spiritual change would necessarily lead to true justice and righteousness.

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

Some interpreters have charged that Amos 3:6 indicates God to be the Author of evil (When disaster comes to a city, has not the LORD caused it?).  While God allows evil to exist in this world, it is under His complete control.  He allows some evil to exist due our sinful nature, but Jesus Christ has already defeated all evil at the Cross.

Does Amos 4:4 encourage sinning?  The subject verse reads “Go to Bethel and sin; go to Gilgal and sin yet more.  Bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three years.”  Amos had warned his audience over and over regarding their sinful practices, yet was consistently ignored.  Thus, Amos was resorting to sarcasm in an attempt to awaken them to the seriousness of their sin.

Like several other OT prophets, Amos forecasts the Day of the Lord (5:18-27).  Please see our Day of the Lord article for more interpretation information.

In Amos 8:14, we read “Those who swear by the sin of Samaria— who say, ‘As surely as your god lives, Dan,’ or, ‘As surely as the god of Beersheba lives’— they will fall, never to rise again.”  Some have contended that this verse appears to contradict with Bible teachings elsewhere about the resurrection.  There are several other verses about which this is suggested, but the one is Amos is probably the easiest to answer.  The simple answer is that the author is referring to the enemies of God, who will fall and never rise to oppose Him again.

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The book of Amos can be sub-divided into three to five basic sections.  A common four-way division is Prophecies against the Israel’s Neighbors (chapters 1-2), Prophecies against Israel (chapters 3-6), Visions symbolically portraying Israel’s Spiritual Condition (7:1-9:10), and a Promise of future Restoration (9:11-15).

1:1 Introduction
1:2 - 2:3 Coming Judgment on Israel’s and Judah’s Surrounding Neighbors
2:4 - 2:5 Coming Judgment on Judah
2:6 - 6:14 Prophecies of Judgment against Israel and Calls for Repentance; Day of the Lord
7:1 - 8:14 Warnings to Israel of Famine, Drought, and Plagues
9:1 - 9:10 Vision of the Destruction of Israel and Promise of Later Restoration
9:11 - 9:15 Promise of Israel’s Restoration

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