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The Book of Amos is about the sovereign God of creation and covenant who announces judgment upon disobedient Israel, and yet proclaims a future kingdom hope for the people of God. In one sense, this could describe most prophetic books of the Old Testament. Yet Amos does not throw away his shot, highlighting these features in several distinctive ways.
The opening verse of Amos sets the historical context within which the book is to be read. Amos 1:1 identifies the prophet Amos as a shepherd from a city in the Southern Kingdom (cf. Amos 7:13–14). This Judean prophet is given a message “concerning Israel” (on the divided kingdom, see 1 Kings 12:1–20).
The two kings mentioned in the superscription, Uzziah king of Judah and Jeroboam (II) king of Israel, anchor the ministry of Amos in the 8th century BC. Apart from the opening verse, the only other biographical information known about the prophet Amos occurs in Amos 7:10–15, where he denies being a professional prophet (i.e. he did not earn his living by divination). Before God called him as a prophet, Amos was likely a wealthy herdsman and farmer (7:14).
The opening verses of this book do far more than provide general information about the person and time of Amos. These verses alert readers to the foundational reality that everything that follows is divine revelation (“The words of Amos . . . which he saw,” 1:1).
While Amos was the messenger, the message was something he received from God, who roars from Zion (1:2). In other words, this prophecy of Scripture was not produced by the will of man, but Amos spoke from God as he was carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:21). Before the Book of Amos is about anything else, it is about the triune God of our two-Testament Bible.
God of Creation
Amos emphasizes two aspects of God that are essential to the book. First, he says that God is creator. Three hymnic statements throughout the book illumine this characterization (4:13; 5:8–9; 9:5–6). Together these hymns proclaim the majesty and sovereignty of God over all creation. He is the one who forms mountains (4:13) and ordains the rhythms of planetary movement and the hydrologic cycle (5:8). The highest places of earth are under his feet (4:13). In short, all things were created by him and for him (cf. Rom. 11:36; 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:16).
Before the Book of Amos is about anything else, it is about the triune God of our two-Testament Bible.
This gives a much-needed perspective for readers. The Book of Amos is replete with gross exploitations of power (cf. 2:7; 4:1; 5:11; 8:4, 6). In a world where the powerful oppress the weak, and the weak oppress those who are weaker, it is important to remember where true power resides. The Sovereign God over all creation puts all human agency in perspective. Significantly in Amos, the God who wields all power also demonstrates kindness to the weak.
God of Covenant
A second aspect of God that is essential to Amos’s message is that God is the God of covenant. In Amos 3:1–2, God notes his unique covenantal relationship with Israel. Instead of this covenantal status securing unassailable prosperity, it brought a heightened responsibility. According to the law, Israel was to live in a way that heralded the greatness and nearness of God (cf. Deut. 4:5–7), as well as mediated blessing to the world (Exod. 19:5–6).
Instead of imaging God, however, the people of God looked more like their wicked neighbors (Amos 1:3–2:12). In the Book of Amos, God is shown to be faithful to the covenant in announcing the terms and judgments of the covenant, particularly as it relates to the peoples’ treatment of one another. This latter point is significant for the way Amos portrays the central theological issue in the book.
The sin of idolatry is at the core of the Israelites’ faithlessness in the Old Testament, especially in the prophets (cf. Jer. 1:16; Eze. 8:10; Isa. 2:8; 42:8; Hos. 3:1; Mic. 1:7; Zech. 10:2). Yet in Amos, other gods are very rarely mentioned (e.g., Amos 5:26; 8:14). At issue, rather, is the horizontal dimension of the people’s covenantal life.
Instead of caring for the poor, those with power enriched themselves at the expense of the destitute (2:6; 8:5–6). This stood in stark contrast to the character of God shown in the exodus. He cared for the people when they were weak, defeating their enemies, establishing them in the land, and raising up leaders (2:9–10). Considering the kindness of God, the call upon the people was to do unto others as God had done unto them. Indeed, history had its eyes on Israel. But where justice and righteousness should have flowed like water (5:24), cruelty and injustice flooded the land.
The call upon the people was to do unto others as God had done unto them.
Nevertheless, the people were no less active in religious life (4:4–5). In fact, they claimed that Yahweh was with them (5:14). Their treatment of one another made clear that they served another god entirely. A god who permits piety alongside injustice is not the God of the Bible. Scripture makes clear that we can never separate what we say we believe from how we live (cf. James 2:18). Bad theology produces bad fruit, and bad fruit evidences bad theology.
For Israel, the only response from a faithful God toward his covenantally faithlessness people was judgment. This would come through a future exile from the land (3:11; 7:11, 17; cf. Lev. 26:33). God announces that in this judgment, “the end has come upon my people” (8:2).
Hope for the Nations
The predominant tone of the Book of Amos is one of judgment. Indeed, there are only a few glimpses of hope in the book (5:4–6, 14–15). While readers may find this disorienting, it’s an important reminder that sin, both vertical and horizontal, is no small matter to the God of creation and covenant. And though judgment is paramount, the ending of Amos makes clear that there is hope beyond judgment (9:11–15).
Following a winnowing judgment (9:9–10), God announces that “on that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen” (9:11). This designation may indicate not only that a purely political entity is not in view, but also may trigger anticipation of a new exodus (cf. Lev. 23:42–43) in line with the Davidic covenant (2 Sam. 7).
One of the purposes of this restoration is that “they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name, declares the LORD who does this” (9:12). The fact that Edom and the nations are called by YHWH’s name, I believe, indicates that they are here joined to the people of God.
This passage is cited in Acts 15 as support for the inclusion of the Gentiles in the Christian church. In accordance with the Abrahamic promise, all the nations of the earth are blessed through Christ, the true Israel (Gen. 12:3; Gal. 3:8). Though only in seed form, the book of Amos signals God’s redemptive purpose seen in the whole of Scripture. From beginning to end, the triune God of creation and covenant is shown to be faithful in judgment and salvation for the fame of his name.