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Now let us consider the prophecy of Amos. Apart from what is revealed in the course of his writing here, we know nothing about the man. Among the minor prophets, he occupies the vanguard in this period of Israel’s history, even though he is placed third in the canonical order. He is very much a prophet.
“The words of Amos, who was among the herdmen of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of Uzziah king of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash king of Israel, two years before the earthquake. And he said, The LORD will roar from Zion, and utter his voice from Jerusalem; and the habitations of the shepherds shall mourn, and the top of Carmel shall wither” (Amos 1:1-2).
Tekoa was about ten miles south of Jerusalem, and this small town in Judah is where Amos was from (v. 1). But Amos was a prophet to the northern kingdom of Israel, and so it was that he conducted that ministry as a satiric outsider. He prophesied two years before “the earthquake,” a notable event remembered in Zechariah 14:5. The most likely date for his ministry is between 760 and 755 B.C., right near the end of Jeroboam II’s reign. The earthquake serves as a great metaphor for Amos’ message of impending judgment. As mentioned at the first, Amos was a shepherd, and if there is anything that a shepherd dreads, it is the sound of a lion’s roar (v. 2). The Lord, who had been Israel’s shepherd, had now become Israel’s predator. In the prophecy of Amos, the Lord was roaring. Moreover, He was doing this from Zion, and His voice was from Jerusalem. That was where God had established His name, and yet the northern kingdom had established false worship at Dan and Bethel. As a result of God’s predation, the pastureland of Carmel was going to wither, and the habitations of the shepherds would wither.
A Host of Sevens
Amos is from an obscure place because God loves to rebuke the sleek and fat of this world with those who are little in the eyes of the world (1 Cor. 4: 9). But Amos is far from being some kind of hick or cornpone. This is a book of magnificent poetic force, and the literary abilities exhibited by the prophet are considerable. He is no court flatterer, but his abilities are not at all beneath the task of rebuking a corrupt aristocracy.
One of his favorite literary and structuring devices is that of the organizing power of seven. There are at least twenty-three places where Amos relies on the number seven to organize his material, which you can find throughout the book. He asks seven rhetorical questions (3:3-6), there are seven empty rituals that Israel performs (5:21-23), there are seven plagues (4:6-11), seven verbs of exhortation (5:14-15), and so on. Moreover, the entire book is structured in a seven-fold chiasm.
a Judgment coming toward Israel and her neighboring countries (1:1-2:16)
b Destruction of Israel and Bethel’s cultic worship (3:1-15)
c Condemnation of fat cat women (4:1-13)
d Call to repentance (5:1-17)
c’ Condemnation of fat cat men (5:18-6:14)
b’ Destruction of Bethel’s cultic worship (7:1-8:3)
a’ Judgment coming toward Israel and promised deliverance (8:4-9:15)
The Great Themes
The book of Amos is a book of rebuke and denunciation. According to Amos, the two great sins committed by Israel were, first, compromised and corrupt worship, and second, a resultant abuse of power. The same thing comes up in the book of James, a New Testament book with a strong similarity to the book of Amos. What is pure and undefiled religion? The answer to that question is two-fold, not solitary. The famous part of the answer is to visit widows and orphans in their affliction (1:27). But James also says that pure and undefiled religion keeps itself “unspotted from the world” (v. 27).
It is not the case that good deeds stand alone. Good deeds cannot justify a sinner, as we all know (Eph. 2:8-9). But good deeds cannot even justify themselves. All true living flows from true worship. Any one who worships at Dan and Bethel will inevitably grind the poor. And any one who tries to implement a syncretistic alliance between Zion and Bethel will do the same. Wisdom says that all who hate her love death (Prov. 8:36).
This is why the great order of the day today is reformation of the Church, and restoration of true worship. This is not because we want to bottle true worship up to hide it from the world, but rather because we want unspotted religion to be what visits the widow and the orphan. To skip over the question of right worship, discarding the question of immoralities and heresies, for the sake of the poor and oppressed, is extremely short- sighted. To say, as one evangelical leader (Jim Wallis) has done, that we should not be that concerned about sodomy in the church because we mustn’t get distracted by secondary issues when the question of global poverty is so pressing, is to fly in the face of the message of Amos. To argue this way is to assume that Amos would agree that so long as we quit grinding the poor, worship at Dan and Bethel would be fine with God. It is to assume that it would be fine with James to be corrupted by the world so long as we visited widows and orphans. But not only is it not fine, we need to flip this around. So long as you worship at Dan and Bethel, no matter what you say, or how eloquently you say it, the poor are going to catch it in the neck. False worshippers always stand up for the poor . . . the way that Judas did.
The Engine and Drive Train
To say that worship is the center of everything, is not to say that worship is everything. In our worship of God, we have our names and identities established. Once we are named by God, we are then commissioned to go out into the world, and to represent Him there. One of the central tasks that God has assigned to the Church in this regard is the task of mercy ministry—which in recent years we have been doing more and more. But this is just like everything else we do. We worship God on the Lord’s Day. Everything else we do—art, literature, education, business, politics, economics, and mercy ministry—must be connected to this worship. The drive train has to be connected to the engine, which is true and faithful worship.
Amos is a fierce and biting book, and our generation needs to hear and heed its message. We need to be ready to be convicted, prodded, encouraged, and rebuked. But the book drives inexorably toward a glorious conclusion, one where the promised salvation of God does come into the world. As we allow the unbending righteousness of God to speak to us, we must constantly fix our eyes on the promise fulfilled in Christ.