The Theological Implications of the Prophecy of Amos

Ralph Smith  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 9 - Fall 1966

When one begins to talk about the theology of Amos, he must recognize immediately that this is something that he must ferret out for himself. Amos nowhere set out a systematic presentation of his personal theology. This does not mean that Amos did not have a theology. He certainly must have had a basic theological stance, although he may not have reflected upon it and certainly may never have tried to express it systematically or put it down on papyrus. When one deals with the theology of Amos, then, he is dealing with Amos’ presuppositions—his basic theological stance. Now if Amos does not tell us what his theological presuppositions were, we must deduce them from what he says and from what we can learn from a study of the history of Israel’s religion. That is what will be attempted in this article. We will attempt to reconstruct the basic theological stance of the prophet Amos on the basis of the materials in his book and from a study of the history of Israel’s religion. Unfortunately, we find very little specific help in the other books of the Bible at this point, because Amos is not mentioned anywhere else in the Scriptures. Amos 9:11, 12 is quoted from the LXX in Acts 15:16, 17, but this quotation raises more problems than it solves.

Another preliminary matter that must be considered before we can turn to the subject of the theology of Amos is the nature and authenticity of the Book of Amos. One must arrive at conclusions concerning certain critical questions before one can construct a reliable theology. Did Amos write all of this book? If not, how much did he write? There is general agreement among Old Testament scholars that the bulk of the material in the Book of Amos goes back to the prophet himself or to his disciples. W. S. McCullough of the University of Toronto, writing in the Journal of Biblical Literature, recently advocated the view that “the text of Amos is substantially authentic.”[1]W. S. McCullough, “Some Suggestions About Amos,” Journal of Biblical Literature, LXII (Decmember, 1953), p. 247. It is quite possible that the material was originally collected in two books: “The Book of Words,” (Chaps. 1-6), and “The Book of Visions” (Chaps. 7-9),[2]John D. W. Watts, Studying the Book of Amos (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1966), p. 14. and later put together. John D. W. Watts, following Artur Weiser and others,[3]Cf. John D. W. Watts, Vision and Prophecy in Amos (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1958), p. 27. says that the Book of Words was collected and preserved by Amos’ followers in the Northern Kingdom, and the Book of Visions came into being in Judah after Amos had been driven out of Bethel. Sometime later the two books were combined by a Judean editor. Watts goes on to say, “There is, however, no reason to question the authenticity of either section of the book.”[4]Watts, Studying the Book of Amos, p. 16.

The Book of Amos is not a closely reasoned book on the nature of God, man, sin, and salvation. Amos presents no ontological, teleological, or cosmological arguments for the existence of God. He is not so much interested in presenting to his people what God is like as he is in announcing what God is about to do. The message of Amos is the message of the lion’s roar and of the earthquake. Amos was under orders to announce the judgment of God upon his people. He had been taken from following the sheep to stand in the council of God (2:7). He had heard the final verdict, “The end has come upon my people Israel; I will not pass by them any more forever” (8:2). Israel as a nation was dead before her time (5:2).

The presentation of the theology of a biblical book must not take the cold analytical approach of a detached systematician, but must try to recapture the central theme of the book and present it as dynamically and vibrantly as possible and use as nearly as possible the same dialectic as did the original writer.

The primary concern of Amos was the imminent destruction of Israel. Everything he said was predicated on his conviction that the end of Israel was near. Amos had suddenly come to this conviction through a personal encounter with God. But Amos’ theology was not the result of a sudden experience. The roots of Amos’ faith were deeply embedded in God’s dealing with Israel and the nations in history.

If we are to understand the theology of Amos, we must get at the roots of his faith and stand where he stood. We must consider from his vantage point what God had done, what the nations had done, what Israel had done, and what God was about to do.


What God Had Done

The beginning of the theology of Amos is to be found in the doctrine of election. Amos stood in the middle of Israel’s election traditions. He did not initiate the faith of Israel; he inherited it. He was no revolutionary, but a reformer, calling the people back to the faith of their fathers.[5]Cf. Edmond Jacob, “The Biblical Prophets: Revolutionaries or Conservatives?” Interpretation, XIX (January, 1965), pp. 47-55. Amos believed that God had chosen Israel “out of all the families of the earth” (3:2) and had led her out of Egypt (2:10; 3:1; 9:7). God had given her a land, driving out the Amorites before them (2:9). He had raised up from among their sons prophets and Nazirites (2:11) and had given them special laws to guide them in the way they were to go.[6]Recent studies have shown how Amos derived his accusations from quite explicit statements of the ancient law of God found mainly in the Book of the Covenant. There it is stated that the poor and the weak are not to be oppressed (Exodus 22:21ff., Hebrew 20ff.); that the person who gives his garment as a pledge shall have it restored by evening so that he might not be cold during the night (Exodus 22:26f., Hebrew 25f.); that interest is not to be taken on loans (Exodus 22:25, Hebrew 24). In Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 25:13-16) and the Holiness Code (Leviticus 19:35f.) we find the law prohibiting the use of false measures and weights. All of these things are mentioned by Amos in accusing the people of transgression. Cf. Walther Zimmerli, The Law and The Prophets (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1965), p.68.

God had entered into a special relationship with Israel. Many Old Testament writers refer to this relationship as the covenant relationship. Amos nowhere uses the term “covenant” to refer to this peculiar relation between God and Israel, although, certainly, Amos’ theology was a covenant theology. Perhaps Amos avoided the use of the term covenant, because of Israel’s misunderstanding of it in his day. It seems that Israel believed the covenant to be inviolable and gave her privileges and a license that no other nation had. Amos certainly believed in this special relationship. He used the expression, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth” (3:2). Herbert Huffman has recently shown that Semitic parallels to the Hebrew verb, “to know,” were used in treaties between emperors and their vassals.[7]Cf. Herbert Huffmon, “The Treaty Background of the Hebrew Yada,” BASOR, (February 1966), pp. 31-38. It is well known that the covenant idea in the Old Testament has been greatly illumined by the discovery of the ancient Hittite treaties of the fourteenth century B.C.[8]Cf. George E. Mendenhall, Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: The Biblical Colloquium, 1955). Just as those Hittite emperors demanded absolute allegiance from their vassals, so Yahweh made such a demand on Israel. As the emperors reminded the vassals of their benefits to them, so Yahweh did to Israel. As the emperors gave specific stipulations of the treaty, so did Yahweh to Israel. Therefore Israel was bound to Yahweh as his subjects or servants. They owed him their complete allegiance. Amos knew this and believed it.

But Yahweh for Amos was not just the God of Israel. He was the God of the whole world. In fact the doctrine of election implies God’s universal sovereignty. For if God were not sovereign over all nations, he would not have the right or the power to choose one nation. Amos believed that God was sovereign over all nations. He chose Israel from all the families of the earth. He delivered her out of the hands of the Egyptians. He drove out the Amorites before them. He brought the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir (9:7). But his sovereignty also extended over nature (4:13; 5:8; 9:5), and over Israel’s nearest neighbors.


What the Nations Had Done

Amos’ theology began with God’s relationship to Israel, but it was not limited to that. It included God’s relationship to other nations. In 1:3-2:3 Amos deals with the sins of Israel’s nearest neighbors: Damascus, Philistia, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, and Moab.[9]The genuineness of some of these oracles has been questioned by some scholars. Cf. McCullough, p. 248; and Watts, Studying the Book of Amos, p. 34. It is interesting to note that Amos did not hesitate to claim that these nations had sinned (rebelled) repeatedly and grievously against one another and against God. Amos believed that Yahweh would hold these nations accountable for their sins, and that at a certain point in their rebellion God would say that it was enough. He would step aside and not turn away the judgment of their sins any longer.

All of the sins of Israel’s neighbors are not enumerated. In fact, seemingly only one representative sin is mentioned specifically in connection with each nation. But that one sin speaks volumes. None of these nations is accused of breaking the covenant, nor of rejecting the law of God. Their sins are the crimes of man’s inhumanity to man. Their sins can be put into three categories: cruelty in war; slavery; and hatred. Damascus had threshed Gilead with threshing instruments of iron (1:3), and Ammon had ripped up women with child to enlarge their borders (1:13). Philistia and Tyre had been guilty of depriving whole villages of their freedom and of selling the population into slavery (1:6, 9). Edom refused to be reconciled to his brother and allowed his anger to tear perpetually (1:11), while the Moabites vented their wrath on the dead king of Moab by disinterring his bones and burning them (2:1). Such sins even among pagans could not go unpunished.


What Israel Had Done

Amos must have asked himself on behalf of his people, “If those nations who have not been chosen and guided by God in a special way cannot escape his judgment, how shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation?” The answer was: there is no escape. Israel had not only sinned in the same way as her pagan neighbors; she had broken her covenant with God.

On the basis of God’s special dealings with Israel—his election, covenant, deliverance from Egypt, gift of the land, and revelation in the law-one might have expected Israel to have been a model nation in righteousness and faith. Instead, however, Israel actually forfeited her election by becoming like the other nations. She broke her covenant. She used her freedom from bondage to enslave a large segment of her own people. The gift of the land she used for selfish purposes. She rejected the law of God and walked after lies.

Amos brought many specific indictments against Israel, but none was more serious than the one expressed in the words, “They do not know how to do right” (3:10). What an indictment against a people of God! Israel should have known how to do right. She could have known. In fact there is evidence that Israel once had known how to do right. But not anymore! Doing right had become a lost art for Israel.[10]Cf. Paul F. Barackman, “Preaching from Amos,” Interpretation, XIII (July, 1959), p. 306. Amos was always talking about justice and righteousness (5:7, 24), about truth and goodness (5:10, 14). But all indications are that Israel did not understand this language anymore.

Evidence that Israel no longer knew how to do right can be seen in the charges, that Amos brought against Israel. They were guilty of walking over “little” people (2:7; 5:11; 8:4), of buying and selling them like grain (2:6; 8:6), of obstructing justice (5:12), of practicing prostitution (2:7), of silencing the prophets (2:12; 7:12, 13). Amos says that their judges were taking bribes (5:12); their women were hard, cruel, and drunken (4:1); and their businessmen were unscrupulous, dishonest, and grasping (8:5, 6). They had turned their worship services into mechanical manipulations of ceremonies to satisfy their own lusts and consciences and to pacify and placate the Lord rather than to praise him. Israel was not grieved over the ruin of Joseph (6:6).


What God Was About To Do

What was God going to do in the face of Israel’s sin? Would he ignore it? Would he wink at it? Or, would he not tum away the punishment thereof any longer? The whole burden of the message of Amos was that her day of grace was over. The end had come upon Israel. Her sins, like those of her neighbors, had reached the saturation point: “For three transgressions of Israel, yea for four I will not tum away the punishment thereof” (2:6).

The end had not come upon Israel without warning. Amos said that the Lord would do nothing without revealing his secret to his servants, the prophets (3:7). Seven times God had called for Israel to repent and she refused to hear. He called in famine (4:6), in drought (4:7), in blight and mildew (4:9), in the plague of locusts (4:9), in pestilence (4:10), in war (4:10), and in the earthquake (4:11). But Israel turned a deaf ear to every call to repent. Therefore God says, “Thus will I do unto you, O Israel; because I will do this to you, prepare to meet your God” (4:12). God was not dead for Amos, but fearfully alive, and he must be faced.

What God was about to do was left disturbingly uncertain in 4:12. It is expressed in the word “this.” But in other places in the book, Amos makes it clear that he is referring to an enemy army that will surround Israel (3:11). The enemy will destroy the defenses (3:11), the temple at Bethel (3:14), and the altars at Gilgal and Bethel (5:5), along with the winter houses, summer houses, and vineyards (3:15; 5:12; 6:11). Ninety percent of the population will be killed or captured (5:3). Amos, with a heavy heart, sings a funeral dirge for his people.

Fallen no more to rise, is the virgin Israel;

Forsaken on her land with none to raise her up.


Was there no hope for Israel? Was there no way to escape the impending judgment of God? There was only a slight possibility—only that possibility found in the sovereignty of God. Twice Amos saw the judgment of God coming and interceded for Israel (7:2, 5), and God turned away the announced judgment. But with the third vision of the plumbline, God as much as told Amos not to pray for his people anymore: “I will never pass by them (7:9; 8:2). This sounds very final. Yet Amos holds out a “maybe” to Israel (5:15). However, the prophet makes it very clear that the only hope Israel has is in God himself and not in forms or ceremonies (5:4, 6, 14).

To say the least Amos’ message must have come as a shock to many of his hearers. Perhaps many of the people had no suspicion that their nation was so close to destruction. They were blind to the dangers which threatened them. Hosea graphically describes Israel’s blindness:

Aliens devour his strength, and he knows it not;

gray hairs are sprinkled upon him, and he knows it not.

(Hosea 7:9)

Some of Israel’s leaders probably knew what was going on and realized subconsciously at least that ultimately judgment would come, but they thought that they had succeeded in putting far away the evil day (6:3).

But the great majority of Israel’s leaders felt perfectly safe and secure. They were trusting in the doctrine of election, in their punctilious observance of religious rituals and ceremonies, in the coming of the day of the Lord, and in the mountains of Samaria and Zion. But Amos stripped his hearers of all these false securities one by one and left them without any ground on which to stand, except the casting of themselves on the mercies of God. He said the doctrine of election involves responsibility as well as privilege (3:2). He said that their very worship added sin to sin (4:4) and that God hated their feasts and would not accept their sacrifices (5:21, 22). He said the day of the Lord would be darkness rather than light (5:18) and that Samaria would fall and never rise again (8:14).

But, we ask, was there to be no future for Israel and the people of God. It is well known that there is a roll of hope at the end of the Book of Amos (9:11-15). Many scholars have rejected this as the work of Amos on the grounds that it seems to contradict what Amos had said previously They shall fall and never rise again” (8:14), and on the grounds that the expressions “I will raise up the booth of David that 1s fallen (9:11) and “I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel” (9:14) are post-Exilic. These are weighty arguments and must not be rejected lightly. But they do not present insuperable d1ff1culties to the view that Amos is the responsible author of this passage. Two recent writers, Watts[11]Watts, Studying the Book of Amos, p. 72. and von Rad,[12]Gehard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Translated by d. M. G. Stalker (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), Vol. II, p. 138. have defended the authenticity of this passage. Watts says, A careful examination of the verses shows that there is nothing here which Amos could not have said. Further, the typical motifs of Exilic eschatology are entirely lacking.”[13]Watts, Studying the Book of Amos, p. 72.

Von Rad says, “Now, Amos was a Judean. Would it not surprise us if there had been absolutely no mention of the traditions in which he was most at home? This Messianic oracle is distinctly restrained in the matter of its content. There is no hint of any sensational upheaval in world events as a result of which the heavens and the earth are shaken (cp. Hag. ii. 20ff.). The sole thing mentioned is the rebuilding of the fallen house, solely the restoration of an edifice whose foundations were laid long ago. And what will there­ after follow is an integration of the old Davidic empire which in the interval has suffered severe damage. Jahweh is not to blot out what he once ‘built’; in particular, he is not to surrender his claim upon the nations ‘who had been called by his name.'”[14]Von Rad, p. 138.

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