Amos in the eye of the storm
By Bill Shiell
The months of April-November provided interesting times in Pensacola, Fla., the city where I grew up.
This was the annual hurricane season, when many people became overnight crack meteorologists. They eagerly watched the weather and plotted the course of oncoming storms, using a blank map provided in the local paper. As a tropical wave turned to a depression then to a storm and finally a hurricane, we usually watched with great anticipation to see which would be the next unlucky city to feel the brunt of nature's wrath.
The book of Amos opens much like a weather forecaster charting the course of an onco
ming hurricane. Amos describes the destruction that will occur to the Canaanite tribes and villages surrounding Israel, many of whom had fought them ever since they occupied the Promised Land. In order to understand the effect Amos' words might have had on his audience, we will note his earlier words regarding God's coming wrath.
Seven nations surrounding Israel during Amos' time also had violated God's commands. In order to indicate how dangerous the times were for Israel, Amos begins by citing others' shortcomings. These oracles or prophetic sermons followed a simple pattern. He preached by by announcing that judgment was coming, discussing the irrevocable punishment from God, listing the evidence that demanded a verdict of guilt, announcing the punishment and offering a concluding statement.
With the exception of Judah, every nation around Israel had violated the commands of God against other nations. They had committed atrocities such as genocide or infanticide against other peoples.
For instance, in the judgment announced on the Aramaeans (Syrians), these people evidently rebelled against God by committing war crimes (1:3-5).The word for “transgression” in 1:3 indicates they were guilty of immoral acts against people of other nations. Their punishment was not simply a result of political disagreements with Israel. Even though Israel and Aram were frequently at war, the political disagreement was merely a byproduct of the Aram's broken relationship with the almighty God.
As Roy Honeycutt noted, God established a covenant relationship with all peoples, whether or not they had ethnic ties with Israel; and he promised to correct those who violated the terms of this agreement as well. In Aram's case, this prophecy was fulfilled when Tiglath-Pileser conquered and deported the citizens around 732 B.C.
The judgment Amos announced on Aram was very similar to the punishment looming for six other nations and their respective capital cities: Philistia (Gaza), Phoenicia (Tyre), Edom (Teman), Ammon (Rabbah), Moab (Kerioth) and Judah (Jerusalem). He uses the same formula repeatedly as a rhetorical device to gain his early Israelite audience's attention: “For three transgressions of ____ and for four, I will not turn back my wrath.”
relationship with God
The forecast for Israel was just as bad as the ones for the other nations. They would not escape God's judgment either, because they too had done things that would naturally result in violent destruction of their society. Beginning in 2:6, we see massive problems unfolding in the wake of God's wrath. The sins they committed were different than those of the other nations.
Whereas the Gentile nations were guilty of moral atrocities against their international neighbors, and Judah was accused of apostasy against the Lord, Israel was indicted for violation of daily moral and ethical living. Although they were living at peace with other nations politically, spiritually they were complete failures in the sight of God. Amos lists four sins they had committed in the focal text for this lesson.
Selling the righteous
for silver (2:6)
Judges in 760 B.C. Israel were corrupt; often the rich could bribe their way out of their sentences. The poor, however, could not afford to pay the bribes and were left to the whims of the judicial system. This phrase in verse 6 is a metaphor of how the righteous were acquitted easily, but the poor were left helpless.
Selling the needy
for a pair of sandals (2:6)
When the poor were brought to court, often they were falsely accused. Judges would sentence them to fines they could not afford to pay. The resulting punishment was enslavement, sometimes for just a lowly pair of flip flops. Amos calls for repentance from the act of slavery and the attitudes that bred such a practice. The people lacked any pity, concern or compassion for others.
Trample on the heads
of the poor (2:7)
The third sin was another violation of their relationships with the needy. Not only did they treat them badly in their judicial system, but in their daily dealings with the impoverished, they “trampled on their heads,” or showed contempt toward them for no apparent reason other than their economic status. The prophet Isaiah expressed a similar concern (Isaiah 3:15).
to the oppressed (2:7)
By denying justice to the oppressed, the Israelites exhibited a fourth problem. They were known for their “me first/everyone else second” attitude. Amos indicated the poor did not have the same access to due process of law everyone else did. The poor should have been entitled to the same privileges, but the Israelites shoved the poor out as if to say, “Get out of my way.” When it came to the poor or anyone else for that matter, the Israelites said, “I'm looking out for No. 1.”
Holy Name (2:7-8)
If the social conditions were bad enough, the moral failings of the people were just as abhorrent to God. In verses 7-8, Amos showed the people were violating God's moral laws, a direct result of their misplaced priorities. To make matters worse, they committed these incestuous acts on the very garments received from the poor as a pledge they would pay the fines levied against them unjustly.
before the storm
Chapter 2 is a preview of what is to come in the book of Amos–a nine-chapter sermon on the choices Israel has made and the consequences of those choices. These themes will be repeated throughout the book, and we will return to these throughout these lessons. The people will soon see natural disasters all around them, and it will be the sign they need to turn their hearts to the Lord.
When read alongside chapter 1, the two chapters function together like the opening diatribe of a modern-day sermon. You could almost imagine Amos standing in the pulpit of a Texas church and warming up the crowd quietly with a discussion of the problems of the “world” today.
In his day, the “world” would be such great empires as the Aramaeans and the Ammonites. The likely response from the crowd to this kind of message would be “Amen,” or “That's good preaching.” When we cross from 2:5 to 2:6, however, I imagine that the crowd would have gotten very quiet. The preacher/prophet was not just talking about them; he was talking about the very people in his audience that day–the Israelites. They were just as guilty as the rest of the sinners in the world.
Amos uses political analogies from the surrounding communities and applies them to his day. The ingenious prophet knows, however, that life is about more than just strategic alliances. The struggles politically were markers indicating deeper spiritual problems only a prophet could see and address under inspiration from God. Amos saw the political, moral and theological issues intertwined into a complete breakdown of the fabric of society. The resulting judgment would feel much like the thunder, lightning and earthquakes of natural disasters on the people–but worse.
In his opening foray, Amos stands in the eye of the storm, a calm place preceding the coming destruction. He notes the one problem the people have had all along. The Israelites thought that as God's people, the covenant provided a safety net underneath them and a hedge around them so that when they acted unlawfully, they would be protected from the punishment other nations received for committing the same wrongs.
Amos will show them that just because they were a part of the covenant Moses handed down and that was reaffirmed in David's reign does not mean they are exempt from responsibility. When they have made all the wrong choices and repeatedly violated God's commands, eventually God would not bail them out any longer. He has to let nature and the consequences of sin run their course.
In a world of moral failures in society and injustice in our own court system, it is easy to turn Amos' message into a sermon directed toward everyone outside the walls of the church. But Amos is very careful to forecast a warning to God's people, and as New Testament believers, that includes us. The storm is brewing, and we have brought it on ourselves. We are left to take the next seven chapters to heart and correct our conduct.
Questions for discussion
How did Ammon, Moab and Judah show they were deserving of judgment?
Think of a time in your life when the events in the world served as a wake-up call to you. How did that affect your actions? Your worship? Your relationships?
In a covenant relationship, God agrees to do his part, and by participating in the covenant, we agree to do our part. How many different ways had God continued to fulfill his covenant toward Israel but instead, he was rejected?
Read the prophecies of Amos aloud to yourself. Begin the first prophecy with Damascus in a quiet tone and increase the volume in your voice as you move to the next country. What affect does a reading such as this have on the intensity of the moment when you get to chapter 2's prophecy against Israel? Could Amos have possibly used this simple device to get his point across?
Bill Shiell is pastor of Southland Baptist Church in San Angelo