Background of Amos
Author and Date
Amos was not a prophet by profession (see Amos 1:1; 7:14–15) but nevertheless was entrusted with bringing a message from the Lord to the northern kingdom of Israel. He prophesied sometime between 793–739 BC, probably nearer the end of that period.
The theme of Amos is the universal justice of God. The Israelites clearly expected a “day of the Lord” when all their enemies would be judged (Amos 1:2–2:5). What they were not prepared for was that they too would be judged (Amos 2:6–9:10). In fact, they would be held more accountable than their neighbors.
Purpose, Occasion, and Background
After about 780–745 BC, the Assyrian Empire was unable to continue the pressure it had put on the nations of the Canaanite coast during the previous century. At this same time, both Judah and Israel were blessed with fairly stable governments. As a result of these two factors, the two nations (especially Israel) were experiencing a time of wealth and prosperity. But what the Israelites saw as the beginning of a new “Golden Age” was really the end for them. It was Amos’s unhappy task to tell them of God’s coming judgment. Within just a few years Israel would no longer exist as a nation. They would continue to exist as a scattered people only by God’s unmerited grace ( Amos 9:11–15). “The day of the Lord,” far from being a day of blessing, was going to be a day of darkness. By 722 BC Assyria would regain its strength, and the Israelites would be conquered and exiled.
1. The Lord is the Creator of the universe. Therefore his ethical norms are universal, and all people are subject to judgment in light of them.
2. Justice and righteousness in the treatment of other people are the key evidences of a right relationship to the Lord.
3. Religious observances in the absence of social justice are disgusting to God.
4. Israel’s covenant with the Lord did not guarantee special protection for them when they broke that covenant. Rather, it meant that they would be held to a higher standard of obedience.
5. Thus, the “day of the Lord” would not be a time of miraculous deliverance for unrepentant Israel. Rather, it would be a time of terrible destruction.
6. A faithful remnant of Israel would be preserved and would someday see glorious restoration and blessing.
I. Superscription (1:1)
II. Oracles of Judgment (1:2–6:14)
III. Visions of Judgment (7:1–9:15)
The Near East at the Time of Amos
The Global Message of Amos
The message of Amos lands on the global church today with as much force and necessity as it landed on the people of God 2,700 years ago. The key idea in Amos is that God is just and impartial and will judge not only the nations but also his own people for their life of ease and apathy amid human suffering. To prosperous nations around the world today, and particularly prosperous Christians in those nations, the prophecy of Amos is a clear call for active engagement with the poor and afflicted, especially among God’s people.
Amos in Redemptive History
The Purpose of Prosperity
God created humanity to flourish. When sin entered the world, the ground was cursed so that only through toil and hardship would mankind’s work prove fruitful (Genesis 3:17–19). Yet in his great kindness, or as a hint of the prosperity to come in the new earth, or to test his people, or for other reasons, God often allows human beings to flourish in terms of material prosperity. During such times of prosperity, God’s people are called to embody his character, gladly extending mercy, compassion, and generosity to those in need. God had called Abraham in order that his descendants, the children of Israel, might exercise precisely such mercy and justice, so that they would be a light to the nations of the world (Genesis 12:1–3; compare Amos 3:2).
Israel’s Misuse of Prosperity
In Israel and Judah during the eighth century BC, at the time of Amos’s prophecy, the people of God were prospering materially. Yet as was so often the case down through Israel’s history, they failed to love one another as they had been called to do (Amos 3:10; 5:7, 12; 8:4). God had redeemed Israel in mercy from Egypt (Amos 2:10; 3:1), and the Israelites were now to act in mercy toward one another accordingly. Yet, lazily indulging in God’s gift of prosperity, their worship of God had turned hollow (Amos 5:21–23; compare Amos 4:4–5) and heartfelt concern for one another had withered (Amos 2:6–7).
Judgment for Israel’s Lack of Mercy
Because of all this, the Lord will exile his people (Amos 5:27; 7:17) and will bring upon them the “day of the Lord,” a day of climactic judgment. More than any other prophet, Amos describes this coming day of judgment in terms of darkness. “Why would you have the day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light. . . . Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?” (Amos 5:18, 20; compare Amos 4:13; 5:8). Toward the end of Amos we even hear the Lord say regarding the day of final judgment, “I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight” (Amos 8:9).
Ultimate Prosperity in the New Earth
In the next verse we are told that this cosmic darkening will be linked with mourning that is “like the mourning for an only son” (Amos 8:10). This is an arresting passage in Amos’s prophecy because it describes precisely what took place when Jesus hung on the cross seven centuries after Amos lived: the earth grew dark at noon, for three hours, signifying God’s judgment, as an only son, God’s only Son, perished (Mark 15:33; John 3:16). Amos’s prophecy then concludes with a deeply comforting promise of restoration through faithfulness to David (Amos 9:11–15). Through this restoration God’s people will be reinstated in the land, and “the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it” (Amos 9:13).
On the cross, Jesus experienced the judgment of the prophetic day of the Lord for all those around the world who trust in him. These believers “from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9) will one day enter into the lavish abundance described in Amos 9, a restored paradise, a new earth—a true and final Eden.
Universal Themes in Amos
God’s Impartial Justice
The Lord does not overlook injustice on the part of his own people simply because they are his. Indeed, God’s covenant relationship makes justice and righteousness in the lives of his people all the more crucial, for they are representing the Lord to the nations (see Romans 2:17–24). Thus when his people “trample on the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end” (Amos 8:4), God will certainly not exempt them from the judgment that such selfishness deserves. Amos reminds the global church of the commitment to justice that is embedded in the very character of God.
The Dangers of Wealth
“Woe to those who are at ease in Zion,” say the Lord in Amos 6. “Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory and stretch themselves out on their couches . . . who drink wine in bowls and anoint themselves with the finest oils” (Amos 6:1, 4, 6). Not only are God’s people living in luxurious ease, however, but in their self-satisfied greed they are also trampling on the needs of the poor, dealing deceitfully in business transactions, and profaning the sabbath to make more money (Amos 8:4–6). Such is the tendency of the human heart when prosperity comes. While material prosperity is a blessing from the Lord (Proverbs 10:22) and is appropriately earned by those who work diligently and wisely (Proverbs 21:5), the accumulation of wealth tends to lead to a variety of temptations and sins (1 Timothy 6:9–10). Material wealth is to be received gratefully and yet must never displace God as the center of our affections—and the main practical way to keep wealth in its proper place is to be generous toward those in need, especially in light of the generosity God has shown us in Christ (2 Corinthians 8:9; compare 2 Corinthians 9:11).
The Global Message of Amos for Today
The prophecy of Amos carries an urgent message for the global church in the twenty-first century. Where God has brought material blessing to his people through honest hard work and diligence, such blessing should be received gratefully and enjoyed. Yet in light of massive worldwide needs such as poverty, lack of clean water, malnutrition, and inadequate medical care, material blessing granted to some believers must go out to those parts of the world where help is needed. To do anything less is to tragically imitate the people in Amos’s day who neglected the poor among them. Such neglect deserves, and will receive, God’s judgment.
The church must never presume upon God’s favor. His justice is universal. He will deal in perfect justice with those who claim his love and compassion but fail to extend that love and compassion in concrete ways to others. As those who have been shown mercy, may we as the church universal love our neighbors, both near and far, with the radical, self-giving love shown to us in the gospel. “Be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Ephesians 5:1–2).