The Ethical Teaching of Amos, Its Content and Relevance

F. B. Huey, Jr.  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 9 - Fall 1966

Scholars have emphasized the importance of Amos among the great prophets of the Old Testament by means of various expressions. He has been referred to as the “first of the classical prophets,”[1]Philip Hyatt, “The Book of Amos,” Interpretation, III, No. 3 (July, 1949), 338. the “first of the writing prophets,”[2]James L. Mays, “Words about the Words of Amos,” Interpretation, XIII, No. 3 (July, 1959), 259. the “first of the great reforming prophets,”[3]Robert H. Pfeiffer, Introduction to the Old Testament (New York: Harper & Row, 1948), p. 580. the “father of written prophecy,”[4]John Paterson, The Goodly Fellowship of the Prophets (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948), p. 12. and frequently the “first of the great prophets.”[5]John Marsh, Amos and Micah (London: SCM Press, Ltd., 1959), p. 9.

In an attempt to describe the man Amos, writers have used such phrases as the “prophet of doom,”[6]Ibid., p. 30. the “Social Reformer,”[7]S. M. Lehrman, “Amos,” Soncino Books of the Bible: The Twelve Prophets, ed. A. Cohen (London: The Soncino Press, Ltd., 1948), p. 82. and “a pioneer.”[8]Hyatt, p. 338. His message has been considered, in some respects, the most important of any conveyed by an Old Testament writer.[9]William Rainey Harper, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Amos and Hosea (“The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments,” ed. Samuel Rolles Driver, Alfred Plummer, and Charles Augustus Briggs; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1905), p. cx. These evaluations, although hardly exhaustive, are sufficient to indicate that though included in the portion of the Old Testament called the Minor Prophets, in importance, Amos must be listed among the prophets of major significance.

No adjective has been used more frequently to describe the message of the humble herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees from Tekoa than the word “ethical.” For, above all else, Amos will be remembered as the first of the great quadrumvirate of ethical prophets of the eighth century which included Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah. He preached an ethical religion “in conspicuous degree and in language of magnificent forcefulness.”[10]Richard S. Cripps, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Amos (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1929), p. 26. However, it should be clearly understood that none of these four prophets was more interested in ethics than in religion. Gardner emphasizes this fact: “Their ethical teaching, as important as it is, was almost incidental, for they were first of all religious prophets.”[11]E. Clinton Gardner, Biblical Faith and Social Ethics (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960), p. 33. By this statement he means that their moral and ethical teachings were not derived from a rationalistic, philosophical system setting forth the highest good for man, but rather that their teachings were derived from their understanding of the nature of God. They realized that the God of justice and righteousness demanded the same attributes from men.[12]H. Rowley, The Faith of Israel (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956), p. 60. His own nature was always the standard by which God judged the conduct of me. Eichrodt makes the same observation: “. . . moral action is inseparably bound up with the worship of God.”[13]Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, trans. J. A. Baker, I (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961), p. 76.

In order to understand what motivated such an ordinary man as Amos to proclaim such an extraordinary message, it is necessary to understand the times in which he lived. There are a number of sources which deal at length with the social, moral, and religious conditions in the time of Amos.[14]Recommended are: Richard S, Cripps, A Critical and Exegetical Com­mentary on the Book of Amos; S. R. Driver, Joel and Amos (“Cambridge Bible”); Norman H. Snaith, Amos (“Study Notes on Bible Books”); Roy Lee Honeycutt, Amos and His Message; J. D. Smart, “Amos,” (Vol. I, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible). However, such a study lies outside the scope of this paper and can only be summarized here.

Amos appeared on the scene in Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II, a time of relative peace and prosperity in both Israel and Judah. Some of the people enjoyed great wealth, but others experienced crushing poverty. The poor were oppressed, cheated, and exploited. Their rights were ignored. Immorality of every kind was openly and unashamedly practiced. Drunkenness, adultery, licentiousness, and self-indulgence had rotted the moral fiber of the nation.

However, the people could not be accused of neglecting religion. Ritualistic practices abounded. High places for worship of other gods were tolerated (7:9). Idolatry was not suppressed. Paterson’s classic statement best sums up the situation: “The people were oozing and dripping with religion of a kind.”[15]Paterson, p. 25. Heaton describes the situation thus:

Israel’s trouble was not a lack of religion, but an excess of it. As aspirins comfort the man with a toothache, sacrificial worship was a palliative, not removing the evil, but numbing the awareness, a magic drug of which, the efficacy was automatic.[16]E. W. Heaton, The Old Testament Prophets (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1958), p. 111.

Any attempt to classify the sins with which Amos dealt would be highly artificial and inadequate, though several scholars have devised such classifications. McFadyen suggests three categories: cruelty to the poor, immorality, and intemperance.[17]John Edgar McFadyen, A Cry for Justice: A Study in Amos (Edmburg: T. & T. Clark, 1912), pp. 12-13. Sutcliffe gives four: oppression of the poor to gain undue luxury, oppressing the poor by dishonest dealing in trade, immorality, and giving wrong judgments in the law courts.[18]T. H.   Sutcliffe, The Book of Amos (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1939), pp. 87-88. Paterson (following Ernest Sellin) lists five: exploitation of the poor and oppression of the needy, lack of even-handed justice, flaunting of flamboyant luxury by the rich, substitution of mechanical and magical relations for the personal relations that must prevail between a people and its God, arrogance that dares to pride itself on its peculiar privilege and fondly imagines that no evil will come nigh it.[19]Paterson, pp. 33-34. Of these three examples, the latter is obviously the most adequate.

All such classifications fail, however, in that they do not reveal the multiplicity and complexity of the sins committed by Israel. Perhaps a truer picture of the situation would be attained by listing the various sins which Amos condemns without attempting to classify them. Such a list would include the following: cruelty and oppression of the poor (2:6-7a, 2:8a, 4:1, 5:11, 5:12, 8:4, 8:6); false worship practices (3:14, 5:26, 7:9); immorality (2:7b); desecration of sacred things (2:8b, 2:12, 8:5); hardness of heart over the ruin of Joseph (6:6); drunkenness and revelry (2:8b, 4:1, 6:6); lack of gratitude for past mercies (2:9-12); refusal to listen to the prophets (2:12, 5:10, 7:10-13); violence and robbery (3:10); the besetting sin of luxury as a way of life (5:11, 6:1-8); mechanical offering of sacrifices (4:4-5, 5:21-23); women of debased standards (4:1); the wrong use of leisure (4:1, 6:4-6); refusal to recognize calamity as a warning from God (4:6-12); injustice and contempt for righteousness (5:7, 5:12, 6:12) ; unethical business practices (5:12, 8:5); lack of impartial justice in the courts (5:7-12); a self-sufficiency that denies a need for God (6:13); deluded pride and self-sufficiency of the rich (6:1-6); irreverence toward things sacred (8:5); covetousness (8:4-6); and greed (2:6-7). The sinfulness of Israel has been summarized succinctly by Jacob Myers: “Israel is loaded down with transgression as a cart is loaded with sheaves”[20]Jacob M. Myers, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah (“The Layman’s Bible Commentary,” ed. Balmer H. Kelly; Richmond: John Knox Press, 1959), p, 113. (cf. 2:13).



It has been well said that the prophets are “contemporaries of every generation,”[21]R. B. Y. Scott, The Relevance of the Prophets (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1944), p. 14. for certainly their messages are relevant in every age.

The particular relevance of Amos for the present generation does not lie alone in the fact that many, if not all, of the sins practiced in his day are also practiced now. But only as all of the conditions and problems of the present are studied in comparison with the conditions and problems of the Israel of Amos’s day can it be determined whether or not his message speaks meaningfully to the present situation.

Probably the most critical contemporary theological discussion centers around the changing concept of ethical standards. For years no one would have thought of challenging the following statement by Duff:

The prophets never dream of questioning whether there be one categorical imperative or moral law for one and another for another. It is right for every child of man and every nation to do right.[22]Archibald Duff, The Theology and Ethics of the   Hebrews (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1902), p. 127.

However, as a result of the influence of the writings of Bonhoeffer, Brunner, Bultmann, Fletcher, Bishop Robinson, and others, affirmations such as Duff’s, of absolute standards of right and wrong, do not go unchallenged today. How­ ever, Amos would not have felt at home with the modern theologians and ethicists who proclaim what has been variously called the new morality, situation ethics, or contextual ethics. His emphasis was different. Rather than seek for the broadest common denominator by which a man may justify his sins, Amos insisted that absolute standards of morality do exist. His message serves appropriately for the basis of a study to determine whether biblical ethics (and especially the Old Testament teachings about ethics) have anything to say to a generation that proclaims that no absolutes exist (such an affirmation itself being an absolute!).

Contextual ethics has some helpful insights, but its great danger lies in the fact that it permits a man to establish his own standards (which usually tend to be permissive rather than restrictive). Man does not need broader categories by which to rationalize his sins, but needs to be reminded that there are limits beyond which he cannot go without experiencing the wrath of God (a term that surely must be distasteful to the contextual ethicist).

When the contextual ethicist asserts that “the ruling norm of Christian decision is love: nothing else,”[23]Joseph Fletcher, Situation   Ethics: The New Morality (Philadelphia: Westminster Press., 1966), p. 69. he has stated only a partial truth. He overlooks that which will ultimately cause his system to fail, i.e., the elemental truth that true love can be understood and practiced only when God, not love, is made central in the system.[24]Gardner, p. 175. He does not understand that unregenerate man finds it very difficult, if not impossible, to act always in the best interest of the other person, or even of himself. He needs to know that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.”[25]Jeremiah 17:9.

The Israelite of Amos’s time, freed from a sense of responsibility to a righteous God, oppressed the poor, turned to idolatrous practices, debased himself through immoral practices, and lost all sense of social consciousness. It must be concluded, then, that the philosophy of contextual ethics will not enable man to achieve his fullest selfhood but will only result in the repetition of another era such as the one in Israel’s history when it was said that “every man did that which was right in his own eyes.”[26]Judges 21:25.

The message of Amos is also relevant to the current God-is-dead controversy. The God-is-dead theologians proclaim that man has come of age and may realize his highest potential only when he has been liberated from belief in a living God. The Israelite to whom Amos preached did not say that God had died, but he felt no sense of responsibility for keeping the laws of God. The result was not a superior society which the God-is-dead theologian envisions, a society that has come of age, but the result was a people so decadent, so unconcerned about the poor and oppressed, that the only message from God through Amos was a message of doom. Man liberated from God does not create a morally superior society, a golden age, but destroys himself.

With regard to another widely discussed question today, that of the church’s involvement in the social issues that confront the world, the example of Amos teaches that the man of God must involve himself in the burning social and moral problems of his day. It would have been easier for Amos to pursue the uncomplicated, peaceful life of a shepherd, but God spoke, and Amos felt compelled to deliver the message, even at Bethel, the king’s sanctuary (7:13). He denounced the sins of Israel publicly in spite of ridicule and the seeming futility of the mission. The modern churchman must be on his guard to be sure that he does not work out a comfortable kind of religion that never really seriously inconveniences him or endangers his personal safety. He cannot ignore the four great social issues of the day—war, racism, poverty, and moral disintegration. It is possible for a Christian to insulate himself so completely that he never becomes involved or feels any sense of responsibility to correct the injustices that exist; Involvement is a word that needs to be emphasized in this day if the church is to overcome the growing resistance to organized religion, especially by young people. As never before, the institutional church must be able to justify its existence. Whether one accepts them or not, the “new morality” and the “new theology” are at least shaking the church from a long-standing lethargy.

Amos is relevant also in that he demonstrates the fact that one who denounces the sins of his time often finds himself standing alone. Though his message carried the note of authority of “Thus saith the Lord,” there is no evidence that Amos had a popular reception. In fact, it was quite the opposite. He was insulted, accused of being a professional prophet, and told to preach elsewhere (7:12). The one who protests against the wrongs of his society often finds himself standing alone and his message rejected. How many pulpits today are remaining silent about the current social issues rather than defend what might be an unpopular position?

Amos also contains a warning for any nation that feels secure because of its material prosperity. Many Israelites dwelt in houses of ivory (3:15), drank wine from bowls (6:6), and were at ease in Zion (6:1) .They felt that surely such prosperity was positive evidence of God’s blessing upon them, but Amos pronounced God’s approaching judgment: “I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword (7:9). Luxuries obtained at the expense of others had become necessities, or as Voltaire said, “The superfluous had become a very necessary thing.” The pages of history are littered with the debris of nations whose material prosperity exceeded their spiritual resources. Luxuries gained at the expense of another must be paid for eventually.

Closely related to the problem of material affluence is the increase of leisure time which such affluence makes possible. Leisure time in itself is not wrong, though an activist-oriented Protestantism has developed an uncomfortable feeling that there is something inherently sinful about leisure time. How to make leisure creative has not yet been learned, for it is still used principally for entertainment. The result is that “affluent societies are full of bored people, jaded with every form of entertainment, unable to find meaning in their work or their leisure time.”[27]Roger L. Shinn, “The Church in an Affluent Society,” Christian Social Ethics in a Changing World, ed. John C. Bennett (New York: Associat10n Press, 1966), p. 275. The Israelites to whom Amos preached had affluence and leisure, but the prophet perceived that they were being used only for sensual satisfaction. The rich lay upon their beds of ivory (6:4), with seared consciences, plotting what they might do to exploit their fellow man (8:5-6).

Amos, especially, of all the Old Testament prophets, is associated with social justice. In no uncertain terms he lashed out at the callousness of the rich toward the poor. They sold the poor for profit (2:6), crushed the needy (4:1), and trampled upon them (5:11) in their greed for gain. It is man’s nature to shrug off his responsibility to his brother, even when he has been directly responsible for the other’s suffering. Social injustice is the point at which Amos speaks most devastatingly to the present age. Although cloaked in modern dress, many of the fundamental demands of God expressed by Amos are still violated today. Although human slavery as an institution has nearly disappeared from the world, there are nations today plotting to enslave other nations politically. There are countless millions who have never experienced the dignity of life, the respect, and the freedom from want and fear which should belong to every man. There are still courts where the color of skin social position or money determine the brand of justice administered. Million live in unbelievable poverty, filth, disease, and hunger because man still is not willing to accept his responsibility toward the less fortunate. He has not yet learned that every life is sacred to God, regardless of race, color, or outward attractiveness.

The challenge to assume responsibility for the less fortunate, to treat every person with dignity, has been well expressed by Leslie Hunter:

I am under obligation to think of my neighbour, all my neighbours, all my fellow-men as people like myself, to be treated as I would treat myself . . . . It is the price of freedom in a free democracy. The cost to the individual or to one single group in the community may be high. It will demand training, discipline, self-mastery, sacrifice. A proof that this is the true way of life is the harmony and satisfaction that it brings to the individual, and the peace and fellowship that it brings to a community—even joy in the act of sacrifice.[28]Leslie Stannard Hunter, The Seed and the Fruit (London: SCM Press, Ltd., 1953), p. 36.

Amos preached to a prosperous, licentious, self-sufficient society that ignored its responsibility toward the less fortunate, but which, nevertheless, considered itself to be religious. The people brought abundant sacrifices to the cultic places of worship (4:4-5). However, their religion was only formal and ritualistic, for they had no personal relationship with God. God’s response to their religious practices was: “I hate, I despise your feasts, . . . Even though you offer me your burnt offerings . . . I will not accept them” (5:21-22).

The message of Amos may be applied in this day to a society in which “religion never had it better”-freedom from persecution, membership at an all-time high, social acceptance, mission programs in operation around the world, comfortable church buildings in every section of the city. Should not God be satisfied? What more does he want? Surely the answer would be the same that Amos gave to Israel: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream (5:24). What God wants is justice and righteousness. An abundance of lifeless ritual and material offerings which do not affect moral conduct is not acceptable to God.

Emilio Castro forcefully expresses the necessity of a right attitude toward one’s neighbor:

No relationship with Jesus Christ exists that is not a relationship with our neighbor. “He who says he loves God, whom he has not seen, and loves not his brother whom he has seen, is a liar.” The lack of a correct relationship with one’s neighbor is authentic proof of the absence of a correct relation with God.[29]Emilio Castro, “Conversion and Social Transformation,” Christian Social Ethics in a Changing World, ed. John C. Bennett (New York: Association Press, 1966), p. 354.

Amos would be the first to agree with this statement. The burden of his message was that the people had no relationship with God because they did not have the right kind of relationship with their fellow man.

What happens to a people which forfeits its moral leadership is another important lesson to be learned from Amos. Nations have ever struggled for military, economic, and political supremacy, but few have felt that moral leadership was a prize worth seeking. Because of her covenant relationship with God, Israel had a unique opportunity to grasp the moral leadership of the ancient world, but Amos, as well as the other prophets, reveals the sorry story of her failure. One wonders what the result would be if nations and races would seek the moral leadership of the world half as earnestly as they seek supremacy in other realms.

Perhaps the most sobering message from Amos for today is the revelation which he received from God that there would be no more hope for a nation that continually ignored all his warnings and that a day of reckoning from which there would be no escape had become absolutely necessary (4:12, 5:27, 7:8-9, 7:17). The response of Israel to this message was typical of the usual response to such a message whenever it is proclaimed—one of indifference and unbelief. The cynicism of the people was expressed by Amaziah the priest when he told Amos to leave the country and prophesy elsewhere (7:12-13).

The preaching of Amos—pointed, devastating, and accurate-correctly analyzed the moral condition of the people of Israel. It contained an unrelenting message of doom, but the warning was ignored. Israel continued on her self-chosen road to destruction and refused to acknowledge any responsibility or contrition for her sin.

“Sin . . . is the one great negative mystery of our existence, of which we know only one thing, that we are responsible for it, without the possibility of pushing the responsibility on to anything outside ourselves.” The possibility of sin lies in man’s existence in the image of God: it lies in his nature as a spiritual being, i.e., as a personal being with the power to make significant moral decisions and respond to God’s action and will.[30]Gardner, p. 152.



The great burden of the prophet Amos was that Israel did not have a social consciousness. She did not feel any guilt for the oppression and injustice inflicted upon the common people by the affluent and privileged members of the nation.

Unfortunate has been the church’s tendency throughout history to defend the status quo, to be slow to speak out on matters of social injustice, to be a follower and not a leader in demanding social reform. Expressed in Christian terminology, the church has not dared to live the radically different life exemplified and encouraged by Jesus, a life to be lived regardless of the consequences. The failure cannot be laid to an inherent weakness in the biblical teachings. The Old Testament prophets were revolutionists in the truest sense of the word—relentlessly exposing corruption wherever they found it and challenging the status quo that was maintained in the name of religion. Jesus exposed the hypocrisy of those who claimed to be religious but exploited their fellow men (Matthew 23:14). One who condones or encourages social injustices or who feels no compassion or pity for the less fortunate or for the oppressed of the world has missed the true spirit of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

Amos continues to challenge each generation to an introspective search to discover whether it might not also find itself guilty of the same sins as ancient Israel.


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