Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
Thus saith the Lord; For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they have threshed Gilead with threshing instruments of iron:
But I will send a fire into the house of Hazael, which shall devour the palaces of Benhadad.
I will break also the bar of Damascus, and cut off the inhabitant from the plain of Aven, and him that holdeth the sceptre from the house of Eden: and the people of Syria shall go into captivity unto Kir, saith the Lord.
Thus saith the Lord; For three transgressions of Gaza, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they carried away captive the whole captivity, to deliver them up to Edom:
But I will send a fire on the wall of Gaza, which shall devour the palaces thereof:
And I will cut off the inhabitant from Ashdod, and him that holdeth the sceptre from Ashkelon, and I will turn mine hand against Ekron; and the remnant of the Philistines shall perish, saith the Lord God.
Thus saith the Lord; For three transgressions of Tyrus, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they delivered up the whole captivity to Edom, and remembered not the brotherly covenant:
But I will send a fire on the wall of Tyrus, which shall devour the palaces thereof.
Has it ever happened that you were awakened in the middle of the night by the faint, far-off rumble of thunder? Perhaps you thought, “Oh well, it is far away,” and dropped back to peaceful sleep. But a little later, you were awakened once again by the thunder, which now was closer. Nearer and nearer comes the storm until finally it breaks forth in fury right over your head.
This shows the development of the opening of the prophecy of Amos 1:3 to Amos 2:6. The prophet brings the Word of God’s judgment upon Israel. The Lord roars from Zion at Israel, as verses 1 and 2 warn. But He begins far off from Israel with Damascus, Gaza, and Tyrus. He continues with Edom, Ammon, and Moab. As Amos begins to roar, Israel would say, “Oh, the thunder of the wrath of God is far off; the storm breaks upon the nations.” Uneasy at first, Israel is ready to go back again to her sleep, when she hears of judgment upon Damascus.
Soon, however, Israel realizes that the storm is coming ever closer: Damascus, Moab, Judah. Then it breaks with full fury upon Israel herself.
Always, the storm of judgment is intended for Israel, but as it approaches it touches the nations of the world. The roar of the Lion, directed toward Israel, does not leave the nations unscathed.
In the time of the Old Testament prophet Amos, in the days of Uzziah king of Judah and of Jeroboam king of Israel, God had a Word for the heathen nations of the world.
Today, likewise, God has a Word for the nations that are controlled by the ungodly. It is a mighty Word. It is a terrible Word. It is a Word of judgment.
Sovereign over the Nations
Our God, the God of Israel in the Old Testament and of the church in the New Testament, is not a local deity. In the Old Testament, every nation had its own god. That god functioned in that territory and took care of that particular nation. The nations recognized this. They claimed that their god was the greatest god; they did not claim that it was the only god. Much less did they assert that it governed all people everywhere.
The God of Israel, whose name is the Lord (Jehovah), was not such a local deity. Although He was the God of Israel, the sphere of His Godhead was not limited to Palestine. Nor was it the case that the only nation that should take Him into account was Israel. This God, who is the God of the church today, is the sovereign of the world. He is Lord of all nations. He raises up the nations and casts them down at His will. All nations stand before Him in judgment, not only at the end of history but throughout history. Rulers and ruled alike are subject to Him, completely at His disposal. History, the history of the world, is inexplicable apart from our God. The truth of history, the history of the world, is the mighty acts of God.
The God of Israel/church has a Word for the nations: “Thus saith the Lord” regarding Damascus, Gaza, Tyrus, Edom, Ammon, and Moab. It is a Word of judgment. It is the lion’s roar as he springs upon the prey (Amos 1:2; Amos 3:4).
The Lion’s Roar over the Nations Then
Three nations come into view in Amos 1:3-10: Syria, Philistia, and Phoenicia. The capital city of each is mentioned: Damascus, Gaza, and Tyrus (Tyre). All of these were prominent, powerful nations in the Old Testament.
The Word of God upon them is a Word of judgment, that is, a Word of their destruction. Upon them all, God will send a fire. This fire will be His awful vengeance that consumes them, so that the nations are destroyed. God will destroy the rulers of these nations: the house of Hazael, the palaces of Benhadad, the scepter of Ashkelon, and the palaces of Tyre. Thus, a fatal blow is struck against the nation.
God will also destroy the people: “the inhabitant from the plain of Aven” and the “inhabitant from Ashdod.” Many of the Syrians and the Philistines will be killed in battle (“cut off,” vv. 5, 8). The survivors of the Philistines will perish in some other way (v. 8). Those of Syria who are not killed will be exiled in the land of Kir (v. 5).
This prophecy was literally fulfilled in Old Testament times. A few years after this prophecy, Assyria destroyed Syria, killing many and carrying the rest into captivity (see II Kings 16:9). Philistia and Tyre were similarly destroyed. The Word of God did it, the Word that was announced by Amos. The Word spoken by Amos used Assyria to accomplish the destruction of the three nations, but it was the Word that did it.
The Word of God is a living, mighty, efficacious Word in time and history. History is governed, shaped, and directed by the Word of God. The ungodly, idolatrous nations are subject to the Word of God. Their rulers are subject to it—kings, czars, premiers, and presidents—as are the people.
The Lion’s Roar over the Nations Today
God has a Word for ungodly nations today. Damascus, Gaza, and Tyrus were typical of the wicked world, formed as nations, around the church. The Word of God to the nations today is proclaimed by the church. Do not forget: the Lord roars over the nations out of Zion (Amos 1:1). The thunderous roar over Damascus sounded from Jerusalem. The church has something to say to and about the ungodly world. Since the only Word that the church has is the gospel, this Word to and about the world is an aspect of the gospel.
It is the judgment-aspect of the gospel. It is the Word of divine vengeance on the world, threatening the world’s destruction. It is not a Word of love for that world in the common grace of God. It is not a Word about the church’s becoming one with the world to improve it, or win it. It is not a Word about Christianizing the world through all kinds of man-made organizations.
But “thus saith the Lord”: a fire! an overthrow of the rulers! A cutting off of the people! a perishing and a slavery—yes, an eternal perishing and an everlasting captivity.
It is the Word of the gospel that will be fulfilled upon the reprobate ungodly in that day when “the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” (II Thess. 1:7, 8). It is the Word of the gospel that already begins to be fulfilled in the outpouring upon the nations of the coming wrath of God (I Thess. 1:10).
“For three transgressions … and for four.”
“The Sins of the Nations Their Ruin Have Wrought”
This judgment of God is not arbitrary, is not unjust. It is righteous punishment for the nations’ transgressions. Amos makes this plain from the outset: “For three transgressions … and for four,” which phrase is repeated regarding each nation. The meaning is not that the nation is guilty of three or four sins. Rather, it is a way of expressing that each nation has fully developed itself in sin. Syria, Philistia, and Phoenicia have filled their cup to the full and even to overflowing. The fire that consumes them is the fire of God’s wrath, and God’s wrath is the reaction of His righteousness against those who transgress this righteousness.
The judgment upon the nations is due to the righteousness of the one, true God, whose name is Jehovah. The Lion’s roar over them is divine justice. God sees the nations and their deeds. He marks, not only the sins of His people but also those of the world. Jehovah is judge of the nations. When a nation adds the fourth transgression to the third, God punishes in perfect justice.
Oppression of the Church
But mark well what the transgression is that brings down upon the nations God’s judgment. It is sin against Israel. The three nations are on Israel’s borders. All are enemies of Israel; all have oppressed the people of God. Until the reign of King Jeroboam, Syria was the worst, constantly attacking, seizing land, killing. Throughout Israel’s history, the Philistines distressed Israel, especially during the period of the judges. And Phoenicia—that was the country of Queen Jezebel.
The specific sins charged against the nations are their wicked deeds against Israel. Damascus threshed Gilead with threshing instruments of iron. That was horrible cruelty. After conquering Gilead, the Syrians forced the people to lie down in a field. Then they dragged a heavy iron machine with sharp points over the people, tearing and crushing them. This had happened not long before the time of Amos, under Hazael, whose dreadful cruelty to Israel Elisha had foretold (see II Kings 10:32ff.).
Philistia and Phoenicia sold the people of Israel into slavery to Edom on their slave markets (vv. 6, 9). The sin was heinous, not merely because of the evil of slavery but because this was done to God’s people. The people whom He had redeemed for His own property were sold as slaves. What added to the wickedness was that the Israelites were sold to Edom, Israel’s ancient and bitter foe. One can well imagine how Edom would treat their Israelite slaves.
In the case of Tyre, this sin was aggravated in God’s sight because Tyre “remembered not the brotherly covenant” (v. 9). The reference is to the league that Hiram, king of Tyre, made with Solomon, which league was rooted in Hiram’s love for David (I Kings 5:1, 12). It was a treaty that consisted both of a trade-agreement and of a non-aggression pact. Israel observed the treaty; she never went to war against Tyre. But Tyre violated it, selling Israelites into slavery.
God judges the nations for their oppression of His church. Everything in history revolves around God’s elect church. Again and again, the nations of idolatrous, ungodly men and women persecute God’s saints. Rome persecuted the early New Testament church, on and off, for 250 years. Spain oppressed the Reformed in the Lowlands for many years. Wherever it could raise the swastika, Nazi Germany attempted to crush the true church. The totalitarian, communist regimes enslaved in their concentration camps those who confessed the Lordship of Christ. Those communist nations that survive still do imprison and torture believers. Muslim nations harass, imprison, and kill Christians.
And if the nations of the West do not yet overtly bring the power of the sword to bear against those who resist the states’ efforts to usurp the sovereignty of God, there is widespread hatred and ridicule. And bloody persecution is around the corner in the “Christian” West for those who insist in confession and life that Christ is Lord and who condemn the ungodly for their idolatrous worship of other gods, murder of the unborn, and filthiness of life in adultery (divorce and remarriage) and homosexuality.
For this, God will judge you, O world! For this, God is judging you already, O world!
The Storm Is Breaking over the Nations
Keep your hands off the church and off every member of the church!
Because the wicked world will not keep their hands off God’s church, and never have, the storm of His wrath is breaking over the world of nations.
We hear the roar, do we not? In the overthrow of rulers? In the wars between nations? In the violent strife within nations? In all the social, economic, political turmoil? It is the Lion who is roaring over the nations of the world.
Do we say, “Well and good, and it is high time too”? And are we ready to roll over and return to our peaceful slumbers?
The Storm Is Breaking over the Visible Church
We must not do this, for the storm is gathering to break forth over us, the visible church among the nations.
If God so judges the nations who do not know Him and His law, shall He not judge us, who do know Him, if we commit the same sins that the wicked world is guilty of. We can thresh God’s people in other ways than with a harrow. We can plow furrows on each other’s back with our hatred, our cutting tongue, our subtly made and exquisitely executed conspiracy.
Professing Christian husbands make slaves of their wives; covenant parents make slaves of their children; elders in the churches make slaves of their workers.
And how the real covenant of brothers is forgotten! God sees, and honors, every contract, every treaty, every vow, every sworn bond of friendship. If He destroyed Tyrus for violating a mere treaty with Israel, how will He judge the breaking of the covenant between a husband and wife; between parents and children; between pastor and congregation; between brother and brother, in His own congregation.
The Word of God’s judgment over the nations is directed toward us. The Lion roars over the nations toward Israel. “For three transgressions of Israel, and for four” (Amos 2:6). The righteous God is coming to judgment. Repent! Seek refuge in the cross, where the roaring Lion sprang in His justice upon the Prey, Jesus Christ, in the stead of all the elect church, so that every one who by His grace repents may find deliverance from the coming wrath of God! And do works worthy of repentance!
Or perish in the coming storm