Amos, herdsman of Tekoa, was sent from God with a powerful message of correction for the ancient House of Israel In spite of relentless opposition, he fearlessly indicted the nation for its hollow, meaningless piety, social injustice and general immorality. Amos' message must not be lost on our modern generation!
I am no prophet," protested Amos, "nor a prophet's son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel'" (Amos 7:14-15). Amos was hardly a theologian. He was not even a member of the priestly or prophetic castes of his day. He was neither scholar nor Levite, yet God used him mightily to bring a powerful message of warning to his own people.
During the long and peaceful reign of Jeroboam II (circa 786-746 B.C.) the House of Israel had been lulled into a false sense of security. National borders had been extended to their maximum, and the country was basking in comparative opulence and prosperity. Religious activity and ceremony was at a peak, and the people had come to believe that God was benignly smiling down upon them. Into this scene of national self-satisfaction stepped the prophet Amos. His indicting message was something less than popular, and he was met with immediate opposition from the religious and political elements of his nation. He was even accused of conspiracy and disloyalty to the royal house: "Then Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent to Jeroboam king of Israel, saying, 'Amos has conspired against you in the midst of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear [tolerate] all his words'" (Amos 7:10). "The land is not able to bear all his words"! He conspired! Treason! Disloyalty! Amaziah attempted to inflame the king's emotions against this unqualified upstart who presumed to represent God and to prophesy against the nation. But Amos had a job to do through no choice of his own. He would not be intimidated by the priest's threats and false charges. He spoke out even more pointedly: "Now therefore hear the word of the Lord. You say, 'Do not prophesy against Israel, and do not preach against the house of Isaac.' Therefore thus says the Lord: 'Your wife shall be a harlot in the city, and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be parceled out by line; you yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land'" (verses 16-17). God backed up the words of his prophet. He brought about a devastating round of famines, droughts, disease epidemics and insect-induced crop failures (Amos 4:6-10). "Yet you did not return to me," said the Lord. God warned; He punished; He threatened and He pleaded through all of His prophets, including Amos (Hosea, Isaiah and Micah were contemporaries). But the stubborn Israelites still refused to repent. Within three decades of Amos' prophecy, Israel experienced the ultimate prophesied punishment — national defeat and captivity. From 721-718 B.C., the northern House went captive to the murderous Assyrians under the leadership of the dreaded Shalmaneser (II Kings 17).
Cause and Effect
Why didn't Israel heed the messages of her prophets? What made them so complacent — so intent upon self-justification? Amos described the national condition in chapter 6: "Woe to those who are at ease in Zion, and to those who feel secure on the mountain of Samaria, the notable men of the first of the nations, to whom the house of Israel come!" (Verse 1.) The problem centered on the political and religious leaders who sat
"I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and lack of bread in all your places, yet you did not return to me." (Amos 4:6)
in the seat of government. They were "at ease," lulled into a false sense of personal security. After all, were they not the leaders of the "chief of the nations" — Israel? Was not Israel the chosen nation of God, the covenant people? And did not its citizens come respectfully to these great sages for advice and counsel? Why should they become alarmed at the preachments of some self-appointed shepherd-prophet? They were willing victims of their own self-deception. The leaders and the people alike had blinded themselves to the critical seriousness of the national condition. They looked upon the deceptive barometer of temporary national prosperity as an indicator of God's approval. They allowed themselves to become preoccupied with the pleasures of high living and personal self-indulgence. Amos indicted them for their hedonism: "Woe to those who lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the midst of the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David invent for themselves instruments of music; who drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!" (Amos 6:4-6.) "Eat, drink, and be merry — for tomorrow will never come" was the national philosophy. The nation's elite was preoccupied with petty pleasures while the country disintegrated from within. No one seemed to be sufficiently concerned to take action. Somehow the nation's leaders were unable to exercise sufficient vision to see the end result of what was happening within Israel. Amos spoke of them as those "who put far away the evil day" (verse 3). Any national crisis was relegated to the distant future.
What, exactly, was ancient Israel guilty of before God? What was happening within that nation that so angered God that He was willing to bring about such devastating punishment? Amos does not leave any room for uncertainty. The record is clear. Chapters 3 through 6 of the book of Amos specifically list the many sins of which the northern House was guilty. Before itemizing the sins of the nation, God pointed out that He had entered into a special relationship with Israel that rendered her more accountable: "Hear this word that the Lord has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family which I brought up out of the land of Egypt: 'You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities'" (Amos 3:1-2). In the days of Moses, when God had brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt, He had entered into a covenant relationship with her. The nation was to become a showpiece for God's way of life upon the earth. They were to become a nation of priests, an example for all to follow (Isa. 42:6; Ex. 19:5-6; Deut. 4:6-8). Instead, the Israelites rebelled from the beginning. They failed to live up to their part of the bargain. Again and again God sent prophets to warn them and remind them of the curses that were in store for those who would disobey (Lev. 26:14-46; Deut. 29:21). Prophet after prophet reminded them of their failure to fulfill the covenant obligation (Jer. 11:1-4; 22:9, 31:32; Ezek. 16:59; 44:7; Mal. 2:10). Still, the nation rebelled. Internal decay and corruption continued to worsen. In King James terminology, "their sins waxed worse and worse." Just what were these sins?
Drastic Increase in Crime
Crime, graft, bribery, political corruption and resultant societal instability prevailed in the days of Amos. He spoke of "great tumults" and "oppressions" within Israel (Amos 3:9). He said: "They do not know how to do right... those who store up violence and robbery in their strongholds" (verse 10). It was also a time of payoffs, hush money and political corruption. Every man had his price. Therefore Amos wrote: "... How great are your sins — you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate.... it is an evil time" (Amos 5:12-13). Bribe-taking was commonplace. Political leaders could be bought and sold. When in government office — "in the gate" — these leaders were unwilling to dispense social justice; the "little man" bore the brunt of such corruption and lack of character.
Amos lived in a day when the rights of the poor were made a mockery. Only those who could buy their way out of trouble escaped political oppression. The self-indulgent, hard-drinking wives of political leaders were instrumental in grinding the poor into the dust of Israel. Amos
"For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins — you who... turn aside the needy in the gate." (Amos 5:12)
minced no words in addressing them: "Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, who are in the mountain of Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, 'Bring, that we may drink!'... the days are coming upon you, when they shall take you away... with fishhooks..." (Amos 4:1-2). Their husbands turned "justice to wormwood" and "cast down righteousness to the earth" (Amos 5:7). So greedy for wealth were the leaders that they could hardly wait for the end of the traditional holy days to resume their corrupt moneymaking activities. As always, the small and powerless citizen was the victim: "Hear this, you who trample upon the needy, and bring the poor of the land to an end, saying, 'When will the new moon be over, that we may sell grain? And the sabbath, that we may offer wheat for sale, that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great, and deal deceitfully with false balances, that we may buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and sell the refuse of the wheat?'" (Amos 8:4-6.) It was the day of the Almighty Shekel. Everything was for sale. Even the "falling off" of the grain, normally given as fodder for animals, was sold to the poor for exorbitant prices. The poor became yet poorer, and many were forced to sell themselves into slavery in order to survive. Meanwhile the idle rich became richer, at the expense of the working classes. In addition to their preoccupation with pleasure-seeking pursuits, the wealthy classes involved themselves in elaborate religious rites and ceremonies, which represented a kind of spiritual insurance policy and gave them a feeling of being right with God. But God was not pleased with their rites or their wrongs! They were denying the true essence of the faith and replacing it with elaborate ceremonies and traditions. Isaiah — a contemporary of Amos — said: "This people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote..." (Isa. 29:13). God wanted justice and righteousness more than He wanted songs and ceremonies. He demanded peace instead of pageantry. The outward forms of religious worship had become hollow, meaningless vanity. The people erroneously measured righteousness quantitatively instead of qualitatively. These endless rituals — though originally commanded through Moses — had become a stench in the nostrils of God because of hypocrisy. They had become nothing more than hollow proceedings without real meaning. Spiritually, that ancient nation was bankrupt. Therefore God said through His prophet: "I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.... Take away from me the noise of your songs... I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream" (Amos 5:21-24).
A Message for Today
The same God who sent Amos to Israel still sits on His throne in heaven looking out over the nations here below. Sin is no less sinful today than it was in Amos' time. Social injustice, the oppression of the poor, graft, bribery, corruption, crime and violence are every bit as abhorrent to God today as they were in the eighth century B.C. Today's religious ceremonies — often masquerading as Christian, but unaccompanied by true righteousness and justice — are often every bit as hollow and meaningless as those of ancient Israel. The sheer volume of violence in today's "civilized" and supposedly Christian societies is as much a stench in the nostrils of God as it was when the herdsman of Tekoa walked the trails of the northern kingdom. So long as modern politicians can be bought and sold, corrupted by political ambition, or induced to tread on the rights of the poor, they are no better than the self-indulgent women of Bashan or the "husbands in the gates" described by Amos. So long as crime — organized and unorganized — can flourish within modern society, the words of Amos have powerful meaning for today's world. The United States claims to be "one nation under God." Its coinage reads "In God We Trust." In spite of these noble and high-sounding words, how much of God do we see in Britain and the United States? How much mercy, true justice, honesty and purity of heart and intent? In Britain, Church attendance has declined over the previous year in most mainline denominations, including the Church of England and the Roman Catholic churches. In the United States, institutional Christianity is rapidly losing its influence. Noted religion writer Leo
"They do not know how to do right," says the Lord, "those who store up violence and robbery in their strongholds." (Amos 3:10)
Rosten was quoted in Saturday Review: "... The fortresses of faith are experiencing the most profound alterations in centuries. Church authority is being challenged on a dozen fronts. Traditional creeds are being drastically revised. Hallowed canons are being shelved. Religious practices are changing daily. Church leaders are beleaguered by new, bold, persistent demands — from their clergy no less than from their congregations. "It is not hyperbole to say that we are witnessing a remarkable erosion of consensus within the citadel of belief." Rosten also spoke of the "mounting skepticism about the validity or effectiveness of church teachings." He said: "About 75% of the American people think religion is losing its influence" ("Ferment in Our Churches," Saturday Review, July 12, 1975). Since Rosten wrote this, however, we have seen the explosion of the "born-again" movement in America. The informal charismatic movement has touched virtually every major denomination in this country. The "fire" is spreading everywhere. This revival of Evangelical religious activity is not without its critics, however. The movement has been panned because of its alleged anti-intellectual bias. It has been labeled emotional and subjective. One writer called it "bigotry in the name of the Lord" ("The Jesus Mania — Bigotry in the Name of the Lord," Saturday Review, September 17, 1977). At present there is no telling where this new wave of religious zeal will lead. But one thing is certain — it has not as yet changed what is wrong with America. Rosten's comments about "religion losing its influence" are still true in terms of social and moral impact. The current bribery scandals involving U.S. and Korean government officials attest to this. The continuing growth of organized crime reflects a lack of true moral fiber in the country. Terrorism continues to disrupt the orderly course of daily life in our world almost constantly. Bombings, hijackings, kidnappings, and the mindless murder of public officials are part of the daily diet of today's news watchers. Religion has done very little to change the course of human events. Religion that does not change its adherents for the better is merely a form — not the substance — of godliness. It means nothing to God. "Politics as usual" is an admission of corruption that is ultimately destined to exact a heavy national price. As long as our nations' courts and prisons are still full and overflowing, we are in deep moral trouble. So long as simple monetary greed and lust for power are the basis of union/management relationships, the nations are headed for certain oblivion. The utter pride and stubbornness of human political and religious leaders is in itself a terminal moral illness.
But Will We Listen?
God sent a herdsman from Tekoa to warn ancient Israel to help them get their priorities straight. Of course they didn't listen. They rejected the humble prophet of God and labeled him a traitor. Messages like that of Amos are rarely taken seriously by those in political or ecclesiastical power. They are relegated, most often, to the same category as those of doomsday prophets and religious fanatics who have paraded before the populace from time immemorial. But Amos' prophecies came true. The House of Israel entered a time of national captivity and suffering unparalleled in its long history of nine dynasties and nineteen kings.
Amos' Message — For Us?
Amos' message is very valid for us today. Why? Because God has one standard for all of mankind. Sin is sin wherever it is found. As the apostle Paul wrote: "... Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one..." (Rom. 3:29). Since these frightening parallels between ancient Israel and our peoples today do hold true, it is fitting to close this article with yet another message from Amos: "Prepare to meet your God, O Israel!"