In my previous post I began to explain the book of the prophet Amos, the earliest named author of the Bible, in particular his portrayal of the coming “wrath of God.” My ultimate reason for dealing with Amos is to set up a later discussion of the book of Revelation, where the portrayal of God’s wrath is even more stunning. But Amos’s message was certainly stunning enough for his original readers, the Israelites living in the northern kingdom of Israel. Amos was telling them in rather direct and uncomfortable terms that God was soon going to wipe them out in an act of judgment.
Prophets were rarely the bearers of good news. But their condemnations were always brought against people precisely because they had sinned and God was soon to do something about it. Here is more of how I describe Amos in my book The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2017).
Amos stresses that the coming suffering for the nation will derive not from the accidents of history, the misfortune of living near a mighty world empire, the bad luck of being a relatively weak and minor nation in the path of an aggressive foreign power. The suffering will come because God is punishing the people for their sin. It is all his doing. Nowhere is this stressed more than in the rhetorical questions of 3:3-6. Each of these questions is to be answered “no,” until the logic of the sequence forces one to answer even the final one “no.” Do people walk together if they haven’t agreed to do so? (Answer: no.) Do lions roar if they don’t have any prey? Does a bird fall into a snare if there isn’t a trap set for it? Does a snare spring up if nothing falls into it? Does the trumpet that indicates a military attack sound in the city without making people afraid? And then the climax: “Does disaster befall a city, unless the LORD has done it?” (3:6). Again, the answer must be no. The disaster that is about to fall is not the doing of some foreign, hostile power. It is the act of God.
And why is God so set on punishing Israel? For Amos it is principally because of ethical violations involving issues of social injustice. It is because you “oppress the poor… crush the needy”; it is “because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain…. You… afflict the righteous … and push the afflicted out of the way” (3:6-7) Amos portrays Israel as rotten to the core: “They do not know how to do right, says the LORD, those who store up violence and robbery in their strongholds” (3:10).
And what will God do in response? There will be military attack, and the nation will fall. “Therefore thus says the LORD God: An adversary shall surround the land, and strip you of your defense; and your strongholds shall be plundered” (3:11); “they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away” (6:7). And so, in Amos’s famous lament: “Fallen, no more to rise, is maiden Israel; forsaken on her land, with no one to raise her up” (5:1).
The people of Israel cannot complain that they have not been given fair warning. Not only have the prophets made proclamation, but God himself has brought suffering on the people in order to get them to turn back to him. This is stated in a series of divine laments in 4:6-12. God indicates that he brought famine, to try to get the people to repent: “yet you did not return to me”; he brought a serious drought: “yet you did not return to me”; he destroyed their crops with blight and mildew and locusts: “yet you did not return to me”; he brought an epidemic and military defeat: “yet you did not return to me.” And since they have failed to return to him, despite everything that he has tried to do in order to get them to sit up and take notice, the outcome will be dire: “Therefore thus I will do to you, O Israel; because I will do this to you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel!” (6:12). In this context, “meeting your God” is not a happy occasion. At all.
Amos goes on to stress that what God wants is social justice and ethical behavior. What he does not want is the attempt to thwart his purposes by performing seemingly highly religious activities, instead of caring for the poor and hungry. Some people in Israel – probably like many other people in many other times and places – appear to have thought that what God wants is the proper worship: performing the sacrifices to God in the proper way, remembering to celebrate religious festivals, conducting proper worship services. But for Amos, this is not at all what God really wants. He wants a just society. And so, Yahweh himself is portrayed as saying in no uncertain terms:
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them, and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (5:21-24)
Like other prophets, Amos often spoke using metaphors and parables. In Chapters 7-9 he is said to have seen five visions, each of which were images of judgment – for example, an attack of locusts, a wild fire, and a “plumb line” (which is used to see if a wall is straight; if not, you have to tear it down and start again. This is not a hopeful metaphor for the people of God, if they do not “line up” well.)
In many ways Amos is typical of all the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. The following points about the prophets, based on this reading of Amos, are worth noting:
- The prophets are presented as spokespersons of God, who were intervening in the affairs of the nation of Israel (or Judah) when things were not going well.
- The prophets are particularly concerned about social and religious transgressions of the people (Amos is more concerned about social issues; other prophets will be focused more on religious issues—the proper worship of Yahweh).
- The prophets do make predictions, but they are not predicting events that will transpire hundreds or thousands of years after their day. They are speaking to their own situations and must be rooted in their own historical contexts. Their predictions are about what God will do to the people if they do not return to him and behave as he requires.
- The suffering of the nation rests in the hands of God. Yes, people can and do act in ways harmful to others (that’s a big part of the problem). But the demise of the nation itself will come because of the act of God. He is the one who brings drought, famine, epidemic, economic hardship, and military disaster. If the nation is faithful to God, it will be rewarded. But if not, it will be harshly punished.
- God is not simply the God of his people. He is the sovereign Lord of the entire earth, and all the other nations do his bidding. He is the creator of all, and he uses all nations to perform his will.