The name of the prophet, Amos, means burden bearer. He was not the father of Isaiah whose name was also Amos. The book tells us the following about the history of the prophet. His home was in Tekoah the modern Tekua, located about 12 miles south of Jerusalem and about 6 miles south of Bethlehem. According to tradition it was a place where many shepherds grazed their flocks.
Amos was no prophet by profession, that is, he was no member of the prophetic guild, and came from no prophetic school. His occupation was that of a herdsman. It is a question whether he was the owner either wholly or in part of the flocks he shepherded or whether his flocks belonged to another, so that we are to think of him merely as a shepherd or hireling. The two Hebrew words which Amos uses to signify his occupation are nachad and bokar. The former means a sheep master. The word is applied to king Mesha of Moab who is called the sheep master in the English version (II Kings 3:4). According to some linguists, a nachad was not only a master of sheep, but sometimes only a mere hireling. The second word, bokar, means a shepherd. This Amos calls himself in 2:14. It must therefore remain an open question whether the prophet was a sheep master or merely a hireling. The fact that he says to the false prophet, I am a shepherd, is no positive proof at all that he owned even in part the flock he attended.
The prophet also calls himself a gatherer of sycamore fruit, 7:14. One may still find everywhere on the border of the Syrian desert shepherds nourishing a few fruit trees around the wells of their pastures in order to supplement their milk diet. The fruit was the poorest yet most easily grown. The sycamore was a fig mulberry tree that grew abundantly in southern Palestine to the size of a walnut tree. The fruit grew in clusters like grapes. And the fruit was like a small fig. What little taste it has is wooden. Because it is infested with a small insect, it must be punctured to let the insect escape and in its escaping it carries with it a bitter juice. Then the fruit ripens and becomes edible.
Both of the prophet’s occupations were humble. If he was a sheep master, he was not very wealthy, for he says of himself that he followed the flock. 7:14.
It thus appears that Amos was a hearty countryman, living in the open. His language and figures bear witness to this. Compare the following: 2:13; 3:4; 5:8: 6:12.
Thus the call reached him as he followed the sheep. Here, some would say, we have an instance of a mighty prophet with no training or previous preparation. This is not true. The call found him fully prepared. To begin with he belonged to the faithful remnant. He was an Israelite who was loyal to Jehovah, a real lover of God, who with a quickened conscience meditated on the things of God in the solitude of the desert. And he had much food for thought as the Lord at the very outset had given unto His people a revelation of Himself and of His purposes. The first one to whom this revelation came was Adam. And in the mouths of all the prophets that came after, Enoch, Abraham, Moses, etc., this revelation continued to enlarge. As was said in another connection, even the exile had been foretold by Moses. It is not true therefore as most modern commentators maintain, even the more conservative, that Amos came with a new theology. Fact is, he came with the old tried doctrine. It was while he was following the flock that Amos was led into the things of God. Also in many other ways the Lord shaped him into a vessel meet for the master’s use, by this lonely shepherd’s life. Being a poor herdsman, he would be struck by the extravagances and luxury of the rich. Being a man pure of heart, living among the hills, he would be repelled by the corruption of the aristocracy. He had further to defend his sheep against the bear and the lion. From the maul of these beasts the Lord, it may be imagined, had delivered him. Thus he went forth as a shepherd with faith in God as his defender.
Further, his occupation as a wool grower must have necessitated journeys among the markets of the land, where he had opportunity to familiarize himself with Northern Israel, her cities, and Northern life and worship. At least the prophet was acquainted with the facts, the poverty of the people, the oppression by the rich, the tyranny of the rulers, the immorality of the priests, and he knew that the sins of Israel spelled its ruin. He was not deceived by the military strength of the people, by their recent victories over Syria, and by their false doctrine according to which Jehovah is against the heathen nations, even in the interest of all apostate Israel. Such a man was Amos.
When the call came to him he left his flocks immediately and went to Bethel, the religious center of the Northern kingdom. There in sight of the royal sanctuary (7:13) he delivered his burden or message. He was rebuked by the false prophet Amaziah, but the only effect this rebuff had was to stimulate him to greater activity.
According to chapter 1:1, Amos prophesied while Jeroboam II was king of Israel and Uzziah, king of Judah. Thus his labors fall between the years 789 and 737. Amos was a prophet of the 8th century, the same as Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah. It can be shown that he did not prophesy during this entire period, but during its later half. Consider that the entire Book deals with the evil consequences of the prosperity resulting from the successful wars of Jeroboam II against Syria. These wars were fought after 760. We therefore place the activity of Amos after the middle of Jeroboam’s reign, about 760 to 755 B.C.
The period in which Amos prophesied was one of great prosperity for both Israel and Judah. For Israel this era had been immediately preceded by a period of extreme depression. During the reign of Jehu and Jehoahaz, the successor of Jehu, the anger of Jehovah, so we read in II Kings 13:3, was kindled against Israel, and He delivered them into the hand of Hazael, and in the hand of Benhadad the son of Hazael. And once more in verse 7 of this chapter, “he left none to Jehoahaz of the people save 50 horsemen, and 10 chariots and 10,000 footmen, for the king of Syria destroyed them.” Israel seemed on the verge of being destroyed. But the Lord once again sent salvation by the successor of Jehoahaz, namely, Joash (also called Jehoash.) Of him we read, “he took again out of the hand of Benhadad, son of Hazael, the cities which he had taken out of the hand of Jehoahaz, his father, by war. Three times did Joash smite him and recovered the cities of Israel (II Kings 13:25). Jeroboam II continued the successes of his predecessors. He became a “savior of Israel’’ (II Kings 14:27). He recovered all the territory that had been lost, even expanding Israel’s territory in every direction. He even captured Damascus (II Kings 14:23-29). Upon these successes in war, commerce revived and the internal resources of Israel were developed. As a result, Israel rose to a pitch of power and prosperity higher than the nation had known since the division of the kingdom.
But this prosperity was accompanied and followed by moral decay and spiritual degeneration on the part of the nation. The Book of Kings gives nothing but the briefest outline of Israel’s history during this period. For a vivid and detailed description of the social, moral, and religious condition of Israel and Judah during this eighth century, we must go to these 8th century prophets, namely Amos and Hosea in Israel and Isaiah and Micah in Judah.
We find in the prophecy of Amos, the vivid picture of the following:
a. Prosperity in Israel. The rich wallowed in luxury made possible by increased wealth. They built their palaces of hewn stone (5:2) and paneled them with ivory (3:15). They had pretentious summer and winter residences (3:15) with interiors most extravagantly furnished (3:13; 6:4).
b. A moral decay. This luxury was accompanied by drunken revelry (6:5, 6). There was extravagance on every hand, only the choicest and best of everything in the way of oils, meats, and music could satisfy (6:4, 5, 6).
c. Religious decay shrouded in a great show, religiosity consisting in sacrifice (7:13). The king patronized the sanctuary in Bethel. It was thronged with worshippers (9:1). The other sanctuaries were also diligently visited (4:4, 5; 8:4). There was a bringing of offerings and tithes in abundance (5:5, 21-23).
d. Oppression and corruption in the courts. The rich obtained their wealth by robbery (3:10); by oppressing the poor and needy who were driven into slavery by their creditors (2:7; 8:6); by dishonest trading (8:4-6); by exacting presents and bribes (5:11, 12). The women of the rich were as corrupt as the men. To satisfy their appetites, they urged their husbands to greater cruelty (4:1). There was a shameful corruption of the courts of justices (5:7, 19, 12; 6:12). The poor could get no hearing, and justice was bought and sold (5:12). Immoralities were practiced without shame (7:7). Trademen were vexed because the sacred days interrupted their greedy pursuit after gain (8:5). The leaders who should have set an example of godliness were masters in vice and crime (6:1-6). Those who wantonly championed the right and rebuked the wrong were despised and abhorred (5:10; 7:10-13).
With all this wickedness there went a feeling of absolute security and self-righteousness. The great mass of people believed that Jehovah was in duty bound to protect them as did the Jews in Jesus’ day. They said we are the seed of Abraham and God’s chosen people, hence we dwell safely (5:14). It shows that they had no insight into the character of God. It was this wickedness and these wrong thoughts of God against which Amos raised his voice. The argument of his discourse may be briefly stated thus: Israel is the people of Jehovah, His absolute possession. He chose the sons of Abraham and delivered them from Egypt, led them in the wilderness and established them in His, God’s own land.
This is fundamental to the discourse of Amos, the major premise of the remaining discourse. From the foregoing, according to the prophet, it follows that Israel is God’s handiwork absolutely, belongs to the Lord. They are His people and He their absolute King. Hence the nation is in duty bound to serve Him and to pay homage (2:9, 10; 3:1-2). But Israel forsook God and despised His covenant, but the Lord cannot relax His hold on the people that are His. Therefore He will continue to possess them to destroy them and thus maintain His sovereignty. But the Lord has His people according to election. The discourse ends with a depiction of the future glory of the church.
We find in this prophetic discourse a reiteration of the declaration made unto Abraham: “They cursing thee will I curse, they blessing thee will I bless.’’ The attitude of the surrounding nations toward Israel was that of hostility. Israel, God’s heritage, was throughout the centuries hated and persecuted by the Philistines and Phoenicians, Edom, Ammon and Moab. How the nations were disposed to the church of the old dispensation is vividly described and lamented in Ps. 83. The Psalm reads in part as follows: “Keep not Thou silent O God! Hold not Thy peace and be not still O God! For lo Thy enemies make a tumult: and they that hate Thee have lifted up the head. They have taken crafty counsel against Thy people, and consulted against Thy hidden ones. They have said, come, let us cut them off from being a nation, that the Name of Israel may be no more in remembrance. For they have consulted with one consent, they are confederate against Thee.” The nations mentioned by the Psalmist are the same as those mentioned by Amos. They curse Israel in their hearts and such is the stand taken by the Psalmist, in cursing Israel, they curse God. They hate Jehovah, and thus Israel through whom and in respect to whom Jehovah exhibited His glories, to wit, His righteousness, mercy, and limitless power. Therefore the Psalmist prays for the destruction of these nations. He does so, it should be borne in mind, as the inspired agent of God. The spirit animating from his prayer is holy and his prayer has normative value. The stand taken by the Psalmist is that of Amos and of all the prophets. What the Psalmist prays for, Amos predicts. The nations assailing Israel and thus assailing God shall be destroyed.
Place in the room of the Old Testament theocracy, the Church universal of the New Testament dispensation and in the room of the aforesaid nations, the anti-Christian power in the world and the above-cited prediction of Amos (chapters 1 and 2) are as timely today as then. Fraught with comfort are they for the people of God of the New as well as the Old dispensation.
The book has another element in it that gives it permanent value. This discourse may truly be said to be an exposition, or better said, a vivid exemplification of the vital truth that may be formulated thus: He that called Israel and brought Israel into being by His call is God, holy and righteous. Israel, therefore, must be holy in all manner of conversation if it would dwell before God’s face and live. Let Israel remember that with God there is no respect of persons that He judges according to every man’s work, be he Jew or Gentile.
Israel’s God is holy, righteous. This is especially the attribute of God emphasized by Amos, He demands righteousness in His people, and this is the same as saying that He demands of His people that they shall cleave unto Him as the God of righteousness and as their Savior and walk in His righteous ways. But His people forsook Him, and despised His righteous ordinances. The prophet Amos as a defender of God and His cause, exposes the sins of God’s people, and flays them for despising God’s covenant, and predicts their destruction. Yet Israel refused to hear for they believed that with Jehovah there was actually respect of persons; that He was partial to them no matter how sinful their conduct. This popular misapprehension of the character of Jehovah found expression in a mistaken religious zeal. The people thought that so long as the external religious requirements were met, faith of Jehovah was assured even though they worshipped with hearts far from Him and with hands full of blood. But the prophet attacks their false notion of God’s character. He will deal with the despisers of His Name in Israel as He deals with the wicked nations of the earth, for with Him there is no respect of persons. In their external religion He can take no delight. He hates this service as sin, which it is. It is an abomination to Him.
Herewith the prophet does not deny that God has His chosen people upon whom He pours His love. But the great truth that the prophet drives home is that no man may claim to belong to this people unless he be holy as God is holy. The wicked Israelites not holy unto the Lord will therefore be destroyed, yet within this nation that is destroyed, God has His remnant, the elect. This follows from the fact that the prophet closes his discourse with a promise that the tabernacle of David shall be raised up and that Israel shall possess the elect of all nations. (Here the prophet re-iterates the promise made centuries before, the promise namely, that in Abraham, that is in Christ, all the nations shall be blessed.)
We made the statement that Amos emphasizes God’s righteousness. He does this but not as seems to be the common view, to the exclusion of His love. For the prophet speaks of a remnant, of the tabernacle of David that shall be raised up. Fact is, that God lavishes His love upon this elect people, and this love is boundless. For the remnant is by nature as wicked as the reprobated element who in history appear as the despisers of God’s covenant who never come to repentance. The elect Israel was a people also drawn away by the wicked. They too deserved the exile, but in them the chastisement of God worked the peaceful fruit of righteousness. These repented and besought the throne of God for mercy, and the Lord led them with His mercy.