The Roar of Judgment: Introduction to Amos
The words of Amos, who was among the herdsmen 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. He said: “Yahweh will roar from Zion, and utter his voice from Jerusalem; and the pastures of the shepherds will mourn, and the top of Carmel will wither.” – Amos 1:1-2 (WEB)
Amos holds the distinction of being the earliest Old Testament prophet to turn to the written word as a means of sharing and spreading their prophetic message from Yahweh. Some have speculated that Amos turned to the written word after being run out of Israel by Amaziah, high priest of the church at Bethel. Scottish theologian G.A. Smith wrote:
But Amaziah little knew what power he had given to prophecy the day he forbade it to speak. The gagged prophet began to write; and those accents which, humanly speaking, might have died out with the songs of the temple of Bethel were clothed upon with the immortality of literature.
Amos’s prophecies date to the mid-eighth century B.C., most likely in the 760s, around two hundred years after the division of Israel and Judah into separate kingdoms and approximately fifty years before the fall of Israel to Assyria.
These were prosperous times for both Israel and Judah. Two long-reigning kings sit on their respective thrones and they have brought stability and peace to the region. The economy is booming. The military has been victorious. Their worship centers are full of activity. Not since the days of Solomon has Israel been so prosperous.
And then, amid their success, the Lion of Judah roars from Zion—and it is not a roar of approval. It is a roar which begins on the outskirts of the nation, systematically indicting the surrounding nations, growing closer and closer before pinpointing Israel as its central focus.
After this introduction, Amos immediately turns toward eight oracles of judgment. The first three oracles indict the cities of Damascus, Gaza, and Tyre. These three nations geographically surround Israel but have no blood-related connections.
The next three oracles indict the nations of Edom, Ammon, and Moab. These three nations not only surround Israel geographically but also carry with them a blood-connection to the covenant people. The Edomites trace their lineage from Esau, the brother of Jacob. The Ammonites and Moabites trace their lineage from Lot, the nephew of Abraham.
The final two oracles strike at the heart of the covenant people. The southern nation of Judah is indicted for their failure to uphold the Yahweh’s covenant as handed down by Moses. And that’s where the people of Israel would have expected Yahweh’s roar of judgment to stop. Yahweh had systematically condemned all of their surrounding enemies. Seven was the number of perfection, of completion. But Yahweh continued on.
The final oracle of indictment goes against Israel herself and continues for the remainder of Amos’s written prophecies. The Lion of Judah roars in judgment against his covenant people. Amos’s prophecies are a clear warning to Israel: Their prosperity is not evidence of Yahweh’s approval. Their covenant with Yahweh does not guarantee His unconditional support.
Amos reminds the people that their religion cannot save them. He does not compliment them on their full churches and their busy religious schedules. Instead, he condemns them for their vain attempts to manipulate Yahweh into compliance.
For Yahweh says to the house of Israel: “Seek me, and you will live; but don’t seek Bethel, nor enter into Gilgal, and don’t pass to Beersheba – Amos 5:4-5a
Bethel, Gilgal, and Beersheba were homes to the three largest and most prominent places of worship in Israel. But God was not there. The houses of worship were full of people whose ministrations and whose activities were really worship of themselves. The people were economically prosperous, they were militarily great, and they were religiously busy. And Yahweh still comes in judgment because their heart is focused on themselves rather than others.
The Lion’s Roar Toward Us
As twenty-first century American Christians who live in comfort, in wealth, and in power, we must find ourselves confronted with the same message. When Amos points his finger toward Israel, he is also prophetically pointing past them, warning every person and nation that hears his words that if they follow in that same path as Israel, the same destruction Israel faced will await us as well.
We don’t like to hear that. We don’t want to consider the consequences of self-absorption that Amos preaches against Israel. To minimize our discomfort with that message, we disconnect from Amos’s ancient prophecies. That message was meant for those people in that time. And that’s true. But the Lord preserved this message for us as more than a historical fascination. It is profitable for instruction, for reproof, for correction, for teaching. The lion’s roar reverberates down through the ages and penetrates the hearts and souls of the modern Church.
Quite frankly, the message of the Old Testament prophets speaks more clearly to Christians in America—to Christians in power—than does the message of the persecuted and marginalized New Testament church. The value of the Old Testament is that it teaches us, as God’s people, how to handle being in power. The New Testament doesn’t do that. The New Testament is about persecution and marginalization. It’s about dealing with oppression and powerlessness.
The Law of Israel teaches us about how Christians should handle political power and governmental authority. The history of Israel serves as a cautionary warning of what happens when followers of Yahweh abuse that power and that authority. Amos’s words and warnings and judgments hold great value for us today.
If God punishes Israel based on the reality of their covenant relationship, then we modern evangelical Christians ought to be on our faces in repentance before God because our covenant and our responsibility are much greater. The sins of ancient Israel are our sins as well.
Amos’s message is an unpopular message in popular times. And, indeed, among modern evangelicals, these are popular times. Our economy is booming, our military is strong, our churches are busy—but we have sinned and are sinning against our God.
When things are good and life is easy, Amos is a burden. It is a roar of judgment. Only to the oppressed or the marginalized or the weak is his message a Gospel word of hope. Amos 1:1-2 introduces us to the overarching theme of what type of work the church should be doing—that of bringing justice and hope.