There are two statements that I could immediately identify as being from Amos, even though I haven’t spent much time in the book. One is the rhetorical question, “Does disaster come to a city unless the LORD has done it?” (3:6), a question that is really a statement about the sovereignty of God over all things. And then there is Amos’s call: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24). But what is the book’s message?
According to Michael McKelvey—associate professor of Old Testament at RTS Jackson, and author of the commentary on the book of Amos in the ESV Expository Commentary Volume 7—the thesis for the book of Amos is found in Amos 3:2, where God says to Israel: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” Israel’s chosen and privileged position as God’s people makes their rejection of him and his covenant particularly egregious, especially in light of the exodus and conquest of Canaan (2:9–10).
“It would be easy to fatigue listeners with the book’s heavy and pervasive message of judgment,” McKelvey says. But he encourages teachers to “let God’s Word convict of sin so that the good news of Christ will transform those who hear.”
- Sermon series on Amos by Phillip Jensen
- Does God Care? The Message of Amos by Mark Dever
- Sermon series on Amos from University Reformed Church
- Sermon series on Amos by Hugh Palmer
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Michael McKelvey: We have a tendency to stereotype things, especially in our world. And when people think of Amos because it’s been used popularly to refer to things of social justice, and particularly in terms of movements in our past culture and present culture, it takes on a persona that it really doesn’t have. Now, I don’t wanna be misunderstood, but I wanna make it clear that the entire Bible is about justice. And to not understand that is to misrepresent one book or the whole Bible.
Nancy Guthrie: Welcome to “Help Me Teach The Bible.” I’m Nancy Guthrie. “Help Me Teach The Bible” is a production of “The Gospel Coalition” sponsored by Crossway, a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible, Christian books and tracts. Learn more at crossway.org. Today, I am at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, and I’m in the office of Dr. Michael McKelvey. Dr. McKelvey is associate professor of Old Testament here at RTS, Jackson. Dr. McKelvey, thank you for being willing to help us teach the Bible.
McKelvey: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Guthrie: We’re gonna talk about the prophetic Book of Amos today. And you wrote the section on Amos in the new “Expository Commentary” series that Crossway put out. So, we’re counting on you being the absolute expert.
McKelvey: Well, I don’t know about that, but I’ll do my best to help.
Guthrie: Is there something about Amos that you think here’s why you’ve really got to teach this book or at least consider it?
McKelvey: Yeah. I would say…well, I’d probably see several things, but one of the things is its beauty and its structure. It’s highly structured, you can see that the crafting of it is sectioned out in an easy manner to follow.
Guthrie: It’s interesting you say that because I think of so many of the prophetic books, they’re this collection of oracles and sometimes they can seem so circular and it’s really hard to find a structure.
Guthrie: So, you’re saying that uniquely amongst prophetical books, there is a clearer structure to this one?
McKelvey: Yes. Some are more structured than others in terms of being able to have a sense of compartmentalizing the book to have the pegs you can hang things on. And Amos is one of those where there’s, I think, overall is a very clear three-part structure that once you get that structure in your mind, you’re able to follow his message in each part.
Guthrie: Oh, that’s very helpful.
McKelvey: The other thing about Amos I think is that within those sections, there’s highly-structured material. So, for instance, in the first two chapters, you have a repetition of a formula for three transgressions and for four. And so, and it goes on and there’s this highly-repetitious nature. Plus, as you understand the geographical region, there’s a zeroing in on the primary target, which is Israel, geographically. And so you just begin to appreciate, once you study it, how Amos understanding the structure and what’s going on brings a message to life even more.
Guthrie: So, if you were going to teach an adult Sunday school class at your church on Amos, how many weeks are you gonna do it? How many weeks are you gonna give to it? And how are you gonna organize it? You’ve said it has a three-part structure, does that mean a good way to approach this book is maybe to think about three lessons or how would you do it?
McKelvey: I think it’s a little ambitious to just do Amos in three lessons. If you’re going to teach the book, I would say it may be helpful to consider the three sections and then the subsections. So, the subsections within each section may be easier to divide. So, for instance, in the first two chapters, you have that repetition for three transgressions and for four, and you have it focus on all these different Gentile nations. And even it seems like Judah is included in that because of its brief focus. And maybe teaching on those one Sunday or two Sundays to highlight what God’s condemning them for, and then moving on to Israel in Chapter 2 because Israel then takes a large subsection where God is condemning them as its own focus, its own topic because then Israel is the focus of the rest of the book. No, the Northern kingdom of Israel.
Guthrie: Yes. And he’s very specific about what they’re being condemned for.
McKelvey: Right. Yes.
Guthrie: As I was reading through Amos…I guess that brings up one of my questions for you. We know that when we teach the Old Testament, we don’t wanna race immediately to applying everything to us. So, we’ve got to figure out, okay, what was the message for them? And then, of course, we have to go through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and then come out to its application for us. If you were teaching Amos, how would you go from, “Okay. Here’s what these nations were being condemned for. Here’s what Judah was being challenged with, and then, of course, Israel, things that have deserved the judgment of God.”? How would you make that leap from some of those things to applying it to people today?
McKelvey: One of the things I teach my students here at the seminary is when we enter the prophets is understanding their message and we want to complicate things. But essentially, the message of the prophets is threefold. It’s judgment for sin, mercy for sinners, and restoration for God’s people. That’s essentially what the prophets are saying. So, no matter what passage you’re dealing with, you’re dealing with that idea. It may be a mixture of them, it doesn’t matter, but that’s in view. So, if you’re dealing with sin, God’s judgment of sin is universal. And so, what lies behind the particular sins that might be being called are things that we’re guilty of. Murder, not loving one’s neighbor, all of these things if we go behind to the moral of God, there’s clear application for us in our day.
Now, we may not be guilty of sacking Gilead with the description of these farm wares and farm material to kill them, but Jesus tells us that, “Hey, harboring anger in our heart towards our brother is murder.” And so we can easily move on from the principle that we get to underneath the text and bring that into our day and age. God will judge sin and he will judge sin and he has judged sin. And for Christians, He’s judged sin at the cross. So, the message, the threefold message of the prophets for judgment for sin, mercy for sinners, restoration for God’s people climaxes at Calvary. All of that is seen there. And so that message is now how relevant? It’s relevant for every day and age. And God’s judgment for sin is real. Mercy for sinners is real with the Merciful God and that restoration is found in Jesus Christ.
Guthrie:Well, maybe we should dive into the three sections and subsections that you’re talking about that would help us figure out both what we’re gonna teach and how we would handle it. So, as you mentioned, the first part of Amos Chapter 1, the headline in my ESV says “Judgment on Israel’s neighbors.” And as you were talking about that, the way it circled around, I did think to myself, this is one of those sections of the Bible… Maybe I’d want everybody to turn to their maps in the back of the Bible because you’re gonna see all the places he’s talking about. Because I think so often, these Old Testament names and places they can seem interchangeable, but there’s a method to what Amos is doing here, isn’t there?
McKelvey: Right. Yeah. The first two chapters are really its own section, begins with this great image of the Lord roaring from Zion. So, this is the image of God as a lion roaring from his home, his throne. And this lion imagery you’ll find throughout Amos as well. So, you got to take your keys here with some of the images that you find at the beginning you’ll see repeated. But when he goes first to Damascus, this is the first mention of a Gentile land. Damascus is Syria, so it is Northeast of the land of Canaan. And then when he goes to the next Gentile land, he goes to Gaza, which is Southwest of Canaan on the coast, and then Tyre.
Guthrie: Now, when we hear Gaza we should think Philistines, shouldn’t we?
McKelvey: Philistines. That’s exactly right. One of the strongholds. In fact, several of the strongholds of the Philistines are mentioned here. You have Ashdod mentioned, Ashkelon and Ektron, which are one of the four of the five typical strongholds of the Philistines. Then when you go to Tyre, you go Northwest on the coast. And then in verse 11, you go to Edom, which is Southeast. So, you pretty much have formed an X around the land of Canaan. And then you go up just North of Edom to the Ammonites, to Ammon, verse 13, and then just North of Ammon to Moab. So, you’re going up the Jordan and then you cross over the Jordan into Judah, verse 4, and then finally verse 6, Israel. So, it’s almost like if you think about artillery shells and you’re shooting artillery, you’re zeroing in on the main target. God is attacking these different places, but his main target is the northern kingdom of Israel. And once you get to verse 6, Israel’s in view and the rest of Amos is dealing with Israel, the northern kingdom.
Guthrie: You mentioned earlier this formula that for each of these nations and places, we read this same formula. And I am in Chapter 1 verse 3. The first one is, “For three transgressions of Damascus and for four, I will not revoke the punishment.” And he does that same thing for each of these targets that He’s shooting at. What’s happening there?
McKelvey: Somewhat of a proverbial device we see things like in Proverbs where there are three things the Lord hates, four, [inaudible]. This isn’t the only thing, but it’s saying this and even what is more this. And so it’s a formulaic way of introducing something. So, he’s introducing the fact that it’s not just three transgressions for he’s saying, “For all that they have done.” And then in particular, he says, “I will not revoke the punishment.” And literally, he just simply says, “I will not turn back.” You can see that in the footnote for the ESV, “I will not turn back.”
So, the idea is God is coming in judgment and He’s not gonna stop. So, it’s the idea that when God comes, when God shows up like a theophanic coming, the earthquakes, and of course, this is said about the earthquake, two years before the earthquake in the superscription. So the earthquake has a lot of images throughout Amos as well. So, when God comes, things get crazy and judgment comes with him. And so I will not turn back what he has purposed for them. And what’s also interesting is not only do you have this, sometimes sins are mentioned, particular sins, and sometimes they’re not. It just depends on which people we’ll be looking at. Now, when you come to verse 4, you see, “I will send fire upon the house of Hazael, and it shall devour the strongholds.” You have this sending fire mentioned in each message to each nation. So, you have an additional formulaic concept here. And fire in the Old Testament is the idea of consuming, which can be good and bad. Bad in the sense of judgment, but also…
Guthrie: Can destroy or purify.
McKelvey: Purify. Right. So, the idea is God is coming in judgment. It’s really not an either or because when God comes in judgment, he’s purifying. So, when he burns up the earth in the final judgment with fire, he’s purifying it for the new heavens and new earth.
Guthrie: All right, Michael, I’m thinking about sitting in your class that first week. And all you’ve done is you’ve gone through the whole known world in this time and you’ve told me how much the Lord hates what’s been going on and that He’s coming with fire. We know we’re gonna get to some sections of the book that do speak of mercy and restoration, but if you’re teaching that first week, you haven’t gotten there yet really, have you? So, as a teacher, what are you gonna do when your whole section for that day is only judgment?
McKelvey: Well, we never give half the message of the gospel. I’m of that opinion. You don’t tell somebody what’s wrong and not give them hope or the remedy. And even God in his messages, his message of judgment was never given without the idea of repentance being available. Even if he said, “I’m not turning back, the judgment is coming anyway,” like he says in Ezekiel, it doesn’t mean he won’t show mercy towards the individual who repents. And so that always needs to be in view here. God’s message of judgment is evangelistic and I try to make that very clear. One of the unfortunate things in a lot of preaching is that a judgment is conveyed with a sense of hatred and anger, but God’s purpose of judgment…
Guthrie: And pointing to people out there.
McKelvey: Right. And God’s purpose of judgment is to turn people to himself. What’s really interesting is that when you go to the archetypal picture of judgment in the plagues of Exodus, it was evangelistic as well because what we’re told in Chapter 12 is that a mixed multitude went up with the Israelites. So, many mixed multi-Gentile saw the reality of God in his judgment and turned to that God. And I think that we always have to keep that in view. God’s message of judgment isn’t just to say, “Here it comes and no hope for you,” it’s to turn people back to himself.
Guthrie: Well, let’s move into the next section because you told us… We’ve covered all of these other nations, but we know in the center of his target is the nation of Israel. So, the Northern 10 tribes. What is God’s beef with them that is articulated in Amos?
McKelvey: One of the important things to know about the backdrop of Amos is the time period in which Amos ministered. And syncretism was a huge thing, the mixture of other religions into the belief in [crosstalk 00:14:22].
Guthrie: Yeah. So, they would have said, “Oh, we worship Yahweh.” Ignoring the fact that they were also worshiping other gods.
McKelvey: Yeah. Especially Baal. And so Canaanite Baalism is important to have in view here. And so you see the imagery of a man, verse 7, a man and his father go into the same girl, the idea of sexual intercourse in worship. That is Canaanite Baalism to worship the fertility god, which is who Baal was, involved sexual immorality. And so when you come to Hosea, that’s all in view there. And so the idea of what we worship is what we become. So, if we worship fertility…
Guthrie: I think I’ve heard that before from somebody. Thank you, Dr. Beale.
McKelvey: Yeah. I think so. If we worship a fertility god, we’re gonna become like that fertility god, and do the things that the fertility god needs or envisions. And so you see that here, this worship of other gods or what’s in view, plus what’s in view is the mistreatment of one’s fellow neighbor, one’s fellow brother. You see that garments taken in pledge, verse 8, and other people drinking in the House of God and enjoying themselves while other people are going to ruins. What we see very clearly here is that when we worship a false god, we become like that false god. And to worship the one true God means to become like him, which implies the holiness and implies faithlessness by loving him and loving our neighbor. And that’s the undergirding reality we see in the Old Testament and here in Amos is that what the problem was is they didn’t love the Lord and that love wasn’t shown in their love for one another. But you see this very clearly as you move on that the major issue here is that they did not respond to God’s grace.
Guthrie: Yeah. Because I’ll say verse 10, “It was I who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” Don’t we hear the heart of God speaking in the midst of all this judgment?
Guthrie: It’s the heart of a spurned lover right there. I loved you and I brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of Egypt. It says, “And led you for 40 years in the wilderness to possess the land of the Amorites. And I raised up some of your sons for prophets. You’re doing these things in context of forgetting all of what our relationship was meant to be about, faithful love.”
McKelvey: “I have loved you and I have saved you and you are responding to me in unbelief and unfaithfulness.” And so the covenant context, covenant relationship is what’s in view here and that’s grace. It’s sinning against grace. And because he loves his people, he cannot let them continue in their rebellion against his mercy. And so, we see him saying this, “I will press you down in your place,” verse 13. “Flight shall perish to the swift, you won’t be able to escape. I’m going to do this because you have rejected me as your King.” So, the covenant relationship is in view here and think marriage, but also think in terms of the fact that God has shown them grace and their disobedience to his grace is what is provoking his chastisement that’s coming upon them.
Guthrie: I think you wrote in your notes on Amos in that expository commentary. Then we get to Chapter 3 verse 2, that this is perhaps the center point of the book, the theme statement of the book. Is that what you called it?
McKelvey: I don’t remember what I exactly wrote, but yes, I would say that.
Guthrie: Chapter 3 verse 2 says, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth, therefore, I will punish you for all your inequities.”
McKelvey: Yeah. And if you go back one verse, you see the word here. That’s a clear stylistic break because verse 13…
Guthrie: From chapters 1 and 2?
McKelvey: Yeah. Verse 13 here, Chapter 4 verse 1 here. So, these are messages that are divided up. And then when you come to Chapter 5 here, verse 1. So, those are clear markers of this being connected section and then when you…
Guthrie: I can see the outline for this talk then, right?
Guthrie: It’s the three messages maybe of what we’re to hear.
McKelvey: Right. And then we go into verse 18 of Chapter 5 we have “Woe.” Then Chapter 6 verse 1, “Woe.” So, when I tell my students when you read the word, “woe,” you need to say it yourself, “Woe” because woe, woe calls is almost ratcheting things up a notch. Things have been bad in judgment, but when woe comes, it is almost overemphasizing the judgment of God. So, think about Jesus saying “Woe to you, Pharisees. Woe to you.” So, it’s not just condemning them, it is condemning them at a higher level in a more intensified manner.
If we go back to Chapter 3 verse 1, you have “Hear this word that the Lord has spoken to you, O people of Israel, against the whole family that I brought up out of Egypt.” So, he’s tying it back into what he just said, and then verse 2 emphasizes the fact that that saving mercy is unique. “You only have I known of all the families of the earth. Therefore, I will punish you for all your iniquity.” So, like you said, this is almost the thesis statement of the book, the central idea, God has elected Israel for himself and not any other nation in the same way.
Guthrie: This makes me think about a parent. Most of us as parents don’t go around disciplining other people’s kids. It seems like he’s talking about we have this unique relationship. And this punishment, as you said, it’s redemptive. It’s intended to be evangelistic redemptive, but he’s saying, “We are so intimately related, and therefore, I’m going to be a good dad to you to seek to rid you of this sin that’s killing you.”
McKelvey: Yeah. That’s a great analogy. And then when you stop and think that it’s even more than a parental idea because you’re stuck with your kid in one sense, he says, “I chose you out of all the nations.” So, there is a unique electing love in view here that they are recipients of what a privilege, what a blessing that no one else has. And therefore, they’re held to a higher degree of accountability before God. Of course, the rest of Scripture teaches that idea as well. And so God is saying, “Because of our relationship, because of the love that I have lavished on you, and you’ve turned from me, I am bringing this on you.”
Guthrie: If you were teaching this to modern-day people, would you suggest that we who call ourselves by the name of Christ that in a sense more is expected of us because of naming that name? Would you make that connection?
McKelvey: I absolutely would because I think there’s an idea of accountability in view here that those who have received much, much is expected from them. I think it’s very clear in terms of theologically, those who have received the light are held to greater accountability than those who have not. So, Jesus says “Woe to you Chorazin and Bethsaida, because of what was done in you, the miracles done in you were done in Sodom and Gomorrah, or Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented.” That is quite a statement. God is saying these places, Sodom and Gomorrah, Tyre and Sidon, they had not had the message of the gospel, they had not seen Christ in his miracles. But Bethsaida and Chorazin had and they rejected him. They had greater light, but God says, “It will be worse for you in the day of judgment than it will be for these nations.”
Guthrie: Amos goes on to ask a number of rhetorical questions. Do two walk together unless they have agreed to meet, that little section from 3 to 6 ends with one of those statements from Amos that I think there’s only two or three that I can always identify. Okay, that’s in Amos. It’s this one at the end of verse 6, the question “Does disaster come to a city unless the Lord has done it?” Which is a profound statement of God’s sovereignty over suffering in this world, over everything in this world. So, why is he asking this series of rhetorical questions?
McKelvey: I think the idea here is he’s asking these rhetorical questions to make them stop and to think about the inevitability of the judgment that’s coming. These answers are yes, right? Yes, yes, yes. So, the inevitability of the fact that God is saying what he is about to do is coming. It is inevitable, just as inevitable as these things. So, it is inevitable that what’s coming is surely coming. And you can see that idea when he goes on, he says, verse 7, “For the Lord God does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants.” The prophets, they’re telling them what’s happening, it’s coming. “The lion has roared,” verse 8. Isn’t that great? There’s that lion imagery. “Who will not fear? The Lord Has spoken who can, but prophesy.” And so that’s the focus of these rhetorical questions.
I think it helps us to see the stylistic nature of Amos. Back to the idea of his style and his structure is that it’s not just merely saying “God is coming to judge you,” but he is doing it in such a way that will grab the attention. You hear these rhetorical questions and it’s like, “Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.” Well, then how much more is what God is saying that’s coming that is going to come?
Guthrie: In Chapter 3 verse 12, there comes the lion again. “As the shepherd rescues from the mouth of the lion two legs or a piece of an ear, so shall the people of Israel who dwells in Samaria be rescued with the corner of a couch and a part of a bed.” What vivid imagery he’s using here? What is he saying about these people? So, when I see Samaria, I think immediately Northern 10 tribes, and they’re up there with this syncretistic worship.
McKelvey: And you’ve got a mention of the elite throughout the Book of Amos. The idea of the corner of the couch and part of the bed, the place where they would enjoy themselves at ease, the very things that they found their complacency in, and their enjoyment will be torn to shreds, just like the shepherd finds piece of the animal torn to shreds. So, you get this idea of God saying that just as the lion tears it’s prey to shreds, so the lion, who is God, is coming to you in your comfort and going to tear you to shreds.
Guthrie: And it’s specifically, “I will punish the altars of Bethel.” The horns of the altar shall be cut off and fall to the ground because of this false worship.
McKelvey: Bethel is mentioned several times in this book and that brings us back to the sin of Jeroboam, the son of Nebat Jeroboam I when he set up the golden calves in Dan in the North and Bethel. His purpose which was somewhat politically ingenious was to keep the people of the North from going to Jerusalem in the South. But in doing so, he sins against the Great King, God, by setting up false worship. And so Bethel has become synonymous with idolatry.
Guthrie: That’s probably one of those things we’re probably always going to have to remind our listeners of.
Guthrie: Whenever something like Samaria, Bethel, it’s not simply a geographic reference, it’s all that that represents during this era of history, which is false worship.
McKelvey: Yeah. And there’s even more when you think about it, there’s almost an irony here because Bethel, it goes back to Genesis, was named by the patriarchs as the House of God, where they met God. And so, now, Bethel has become the house of idolatry, not the House of God that the patriarchs knew.
Guthrie: Which is why God hates it so much. Second aberration.
McKelvey: Right. Yeah. So, there’s so much in view here. The better we know our historical background, the better we know our Bibles, the more comes out and it becomes applicable, we begin to see just how atrocious sin is in the Bible and in our own lives.
Guthrie: When we get into Chapter 4, it says, “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan.” And I don’t think it’s talking about literal cows.
McKelvey: No, no, it’s not. It seems to be the privileged women in Samaria. So, if you read as “You cows of Bashan,” which Bashan was a place of fertility. So, the cows that would come in there were plump and the best steak you’ve ever had. That kind of idea. So, they’re well-fed and nourished. “Who are on the mountain of Samaria. [inaudible] Who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to your husbands, ‘Bring that we may drink.'” So, you get this idea of the image of the socialite who is only concerned with what she has, what she gets. And you see that in the sense of even turning the order of the world upside down and commanding her husband, which is not something that would have been done in these days. And so there’s the idea of disorder in view here, and they’re representative of the whole. And that’s what I want you to see. It’s not just that perhaps these women in view here being condemned, but it’s representative of the whole disorder in Samaria. And that’s why we have to be careful not to take things out of context and say, “Well, He’s only condemning these particular women here.” No, no. He’s condemning the disorder that has infiltrated his people because they have chosen to worship other gods.
Guthrie: The picture of what’s going to happen to them is also very vivid. “They’re gonna take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fish hooks.”
McKelvey: That was a practice of the Assyrians, which the Babylonians then continued of treating captives like they were a mess of fish that you had just caught. And they would string them up with hooks through their jaws, their lower jaws, and with ropes and they would lead them away as though that they were just a line of fish being captured and taken away. The Babylonians, we found released with the Babylonians that the god Marduk, their chief deity, would have a fishnet and the people in the fishnet with their arms hanging out would be dragged back to Babylon. And so the idea of fishing here is this is the backdrop. These other nations are gonna come in and capture the people of God like they’re fish and drag them back, and hook them, and take them back to their own land and they will no longer have their home land anymore.
Guthrie: In verse 6, God says, “I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities.” They’re not eating, right? So, their teeth are clean. “And the lack of bread in all your places, yet you did not return to me.” That’s a strong theme throughout this, isn’t it?
McKelvey: Yes. “You have this, you will not return to me,” several points in this chapter.
Guthrie: Have we already passed some?
McKelvey: Nope. It starts in verse 6 and then you see it in verse 8 and you see it in verse 9, verse 10, verse 11. So, there’s almost punch after punch after punch. “I brought chastisement upon you, famine, no food. I withheld rain from you, drought,” verse 7. “I struck you with blight and mildew,” verse 9. “I sent pestilence among you like I did to Egypt,” verse 10. “I overthrew some of you like Sodom and Gomorrah,” verse 11. God kept warning them through judgment, through trial, through these sort of many judgments, very similar like we see in Egypt, to cause them to turn back to him. So, you see God in his mercy…
Guthrie: Which is such a loving thing to do, isn’t it?
McKelvey: It’s a grace concept here that we don’t wanna miss. And so while it’s very negative here, it’s very important for us to teaching this to bring out grace. God warns us through chastisement, God warns us through bringing hardship upon us so that we’ll turn back to him. And it’s not him being mean, it’s for what’s best for us. And so, he still wants them to turn to him, but they won’t do it. And that ties into the idea of Israel as a stiff-necked people.
Guthrie: I’m thinking if you were teaching this, not only would you want to get the message right, but that part of getting the message right is getting the tone right.
McKelvey: That’s right.
Guthrie: And you just can’t simply read this, “Yet you did not return to me,” flatly or deliver it flatly because it’s a very heartfelt communication from God through his prophet.
McKelvey: Scripture conveys God in human terms so that we can grasp him. And so you can almost hear a trembling in a sense of the voice cracking up, “Yet you did not return to me. I did this because I warned you.” But you just wouldn’t have a sense of compassion and desire there. And so, to miss the tone of God and the tone of Christ so oftentimes it’s really to miss the message. And so that’s why important when we teach through this know that Amos is a very dark book, probably one of the darkest of all, it’s very important for us to see the compassion of God in statements like this throughout. It’s not because he wants to destroy them, it’s because they’ve turned from him and they need to be safe from it. And he’s trying to get them to turn back to him.
Guthrie: As I read through that, somehow I picture myself if I were teaching this that I’d have to come to a point at one point and just look the people in the eye and just ask, “So, what’s it gonna take for you?”
McKelvey: That’s right.
Guthrie: Are you going to continue dalliances that just take you further away from him and say, “You know, maybe someday I’m gonna deal with this”? Toying with the reality of God’s discipline in your life. What’s it gonna take for you to turn around and return to him? Because that’s his heart. He’s calling to you and saying, “Come to me.”
McKelvey: Yeah. One of the things I know you’ll agree with this is that I tell my students is before it’s the you, it’s the me. What is it going to take for me to keep harboring the things that I know he does not want me to harbor? What is it going to take? Because God will do what it takes to return us to him. If we are his, he will go to the most extreme measures to keep us from wandering. He knows we’re prone to wander, but he has promised he will not let us go and suffer. Some of us, he can cause great trial and angst in order to keep us from leaving him. But thankfully, he does that.
Guthrie: A God of mercy.
Guthrie: When we get to Chapter 5 in the ESV, it has the headline “Seek the Lord and live.” And that seems very appropriate because if I just skim through Chapter 5, I see that I think at least three times or one that’s similar to it, and verse 4, “Seek me and live,” verse 6, “Seek me and live,” verse 14, “Seek good and not evil that you might live.” And I guess that’s what you were referring to about structure within a structure that right there in Chapter 5 we’ve got a structure to approach this passage. How is he continuing his message uniquely in this chapter?
McKelvey: Chapter 5 verse 1, “Hear this again.” And then he goes, “Seek me and live.” So, he’s saying, “I’ve done all this yet you wouldn’t return to me. It’s not too late now.” And that’s one of the beautiful things about the Scriptures and much of the prophets is even when God is declaring that judgment is coming, and even when he says it’s inevitable, there are still these messages of “Turn to me. Turn to me. Temporal judgment may be inevitable, but you still may have life in me if you will turn.”
Guthrie: Continuing in the middle of Chapter 5.
Guthrie: The first “woe” in the middle of Chapter 5 is in verse 18, “Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord.” This is one of those books that… We hear about the day of the Lord throughout the Scriptures. I just did an interview last week on the Book of Joel with Paul House. And we talked a lot about the day of the Lord and Amos is kind of in the same time period. And once again, he’s talking about the day of the Lord. So, will you give us your best stab at a definition of the day of the Lord, and then why Amos is bringing it up here?
McKelvey: The day of the Lord is when God comes. And so the idea of God is coming in a manner and showing up. So, you get this idea of theophany, his coming in a different way. The day of the Lord can be both positive and negative. It can be negative in the sense of judgment, or it can be positive in the sense of restoration.
Guthrie: You’re saying either or rather than and?
McKelvey: Actually, it can be both or and, both. So, it just depends on the context.
McKelvey: So, it can be both and it is both because there’s judgment for the wicked and then there’s restoration for his people and you get a mixture of those things. Like in Joel, you get a mixture of those things. Here, the day of the Lord is solely negative. So, it’s darkness and not light.
Guthrie: It is darkness and not light. It says in verse 18.
McKelvey: Yeah. So, the emphasis on it is that God’s coming is in judgment. And the idea of his coming in view of restoration and redemption. Salvation is not in view in this immediate context. What also make clear is that there are mini days of the Lord. And so in the sense of mini, and it’s written M-I-N-I. So, there’s mini days of the Lord. We see it throughout the Old Testament, we see it throught the New Testament, and these are all pointing forward to the great and final day of the Lord. So, there’s mini days of the Lord where God shows up in terms of judgment and salvation pointing forward to the final day of judgment and salvation. So, the day of the Lord is coming when God will come and judge his enemies and save his people. Here in Amos, particularly in this first thing is that the negative side of it in terms of judgment of God’s coming is what’s in view. That lion that’s roaring, he’s coming to devour. And as we know, darkness and light in Scripture are those categorical ideas, darkness, bad, light, good. So, this day of the Lord is bad.
Guthrie: Immediately following that God speaks. He says, “I despise your feasts. I take no delight in your solemn assemblies or your burnt offerings.” And I assume what he’s talking about here is because their worship is so mixed and because it’s not pure and neither is it from the heart, maybe they’re just going through the motions. Is that what you would get at here?
McKelvey: Yeah. “So, these people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” That’s in view of what’s going on in this context.
Guthrie: And then that section ends with probably the other verse that we all think of when we think of Amos and this verse, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” It’s interesting, when I mention Amos to people, a lot of people will say, “Well, this is a book that has a lot to do with justice, social injustice and social justice.” Is that how you think of Amos? And if so, how do we handle that?
McKelvey: Yeah. Actually, it’s not what I think of when I think about the Book of Amos. And there’s a reason for that because we have a tendency to stereotype things, especially in our world. And when people think of Amos because it’s been used popularly to refer to things of social justice, and particularly in terms of movements in our past culture and present culture, it takes on a persona that it really doesn’t have. Now, I don’t wanna be misunderstood, but I wanna make it clear that the entire Bible is about justice. And to not understand that is to misrepresent one book or the whole Bible.
The things Amos is saying in this book, Isaiah is saying at the same time, Hosea is saying as well. And so when people say this book is about this, they really don’t understand what all of Scripture is about. And let me put this in another way. God says that to love God and to love our fellow man is the law. Jesus said the fulfillment of the law is love and that if we love God and we love our fellow men, then we’re going to treat them as God treats humanity, justly and righteously. And so the fact that they are not worshiping God is seen in the way they live. So, they’re mistreating their fellow men. And that is the heart of what’s in view here. Idolatry leads to mistreatment of others because of not loving God.
So, any justice, ultimately, has to begin with love for God, and that will lead to a love for man. So, the people of God, Christians today, if we’re not loving our fellow men, we’re not loving God. And that’s what I want us to see more than anything because the Bible speaks to injustice in our world and speaks to issues today, but the entire Bible speaks to the same issue of justice, not one book, not one idea. And so what I wanna do is just bring further clarity to our thinking about what does it mean to treat people justly in our world. It begins with love for God, and that will flow out into love for man. But if we’re not loving our fellow men and treating them just and righteously, then it shows a lack of love for God.
Guthrie: And it does seem, from the Book of Amos, that the heart of God for his people is that they would be living in the kind of relationships with each other that reflect that loving your neighbor as yourself, which he gave way back in the law, that the heart of God is for his people to live with each other in a way that reflects his character, and his kindness, and his sense of justice. And that certainly he’s concerned about it, but the bigger issue is not living in line with what they claim to be in terms of being God’s covenant to people.
McKelvey: Exactly. And I think what’s also important here is for us to see God’s heart for justice in view of the lesser of society. The orphan, the sojourner, the widow, that’s God’s great concern. Those who are less fortunate, those who are in need and that’s all around us. I think it’s important for as Christians that we don’t compartmentalize our thinking of justice, that we have a broader concept that my life is to be about treating others justly. And if I only seek and do it in one area and not another area, then I am failing to live out the love for God that I claim to have when he calls me to love our fellow men.
Guthrie: When we get to Chapter 7, he has these warning visions. It’s organized around four things that he sees. He sees locusts, he sees fire. Then we get to verse 7, this plumb line that he sees at the beginning of Chapter 8, a basket of summer fruit. So, I almost picture us teaching this as a section.
Guthrie: And maybe we get some really great artist to do some kind of visual demonstration of these four things or give our people something…ask them to create it artistically to get engaged with it. But what was Amos drawing these pictures for? What was his intent?
McKelvey: What’s interesting is you see that these images are showing aspects of judgment and reason for judgment. So, the locust. The idea here is that God is going to bring judgment upon the land after the king gets his crop. So, the judgment is going to come on the common poor people, but not the kings. So, if you look at the idea of the latter, the king’s mowings after a lot of growth after the king’s mowings. So, it’s going to become worse upon the common person, but the king will still have theirs. So, the idea God is going to allow what’s been going on to keep going on and even be worse because of things he sees going on. And so you see Amos cry out, “Lord, please forgive. How can Jacob stand?” Here is the great picture of intercession from the heart. He’s so small, and the Lord relents, or here’s his intercession. And then God says, “Okay. Fire is going to burn up the great deep, the seas, and the land.” So, complete judgment. And he says, “Please cease.” He intercedes.
Guthrie: So, he being Amos?
Guthrie: Is this what’s happening? The Lord shows him a picture and then each time Amos intercedes based on that picture and says, “Please don’t do this.”
McKelvey: Yeah. “The adjustment is too gray, please have mercy.” And God does.
Guthrie: And the Lord relents.
McKelvey: But when you come to that plumb line picture, Amos doesn’t intercede, there is no relenting. So, you get this idea of “I’m coming in judgment hard,” and he intercedes and God says, “Okay. I’ll relent.” The second time, but the third time what he shows is coming. And so the plumb line is the idea of if you’re building a wall and you’re measuring it for to make sure it’s leveled.
Guthrie: The only time I ever used a plumb line was when…right before we got married, my husband and I tested the veracity of our relationship by wallpapering the bathroom together. And someone said, “If your relationship can withstand wallpapering a room together, then your marriage will last.” And we’re 33 years in, so I guess it works. But anyway, that’s the only time I’ve used a plumb line.
McKelvey: And we’re thankful for that.
Guthrie: Thank you.
McKelvey: The plumb line proved you.
Guthrie: But a plumb line. And so yeah. It uses gravity…
Guthrie: …to show if something is straight. That’s the way I think of a plumb line.
McKelvey: Yeah. And what’s interesting here is He’s holding a plumb line up against a wall that was built with a plumb line. So here is God is saying, “I made this wall straight with a plumb line.”
Guthrie: And is he speaking of the nation of Israel?
McKelvey: Israel, yeah.
McKelvey: And he says, “I’m coming back to measure it.”
Guthrie: How is he doing?
McKelvey: And it’s not straight, it’s crooked. So, the idea is “What I have sanctified has now become unsanctified because of sin. They’ve done this to themselves. And because of that, I’m going to bring judgment.” And you see that why he’s going to bring judgment, the high places of Isaac, verse 9. This is a place of pagan worship, the sanctuaries of Israel. You see in verse 8, “I will never pass by them again.” That’s the same language of the Passover. You can actually tell that I’ll never pass over them again. And you have Egypt in view when you go into Chapter 8 and Chapter 9. So, the Egyptian background is the idea of God passed over them once.
Guthrie: So, the mercy he showed them back in Egypt he’s not gonna show to them now?
McKelvey: Yeah. Or in other words, the judgment he judged Egypt with, he is bringing upon them.
Guthrie: Is gonna fall on them.
McKelvey: Yeah. That’s what’s in view. And that’s a very common theme in the prophets.
Guthrie: Before he gets to this other picture of summer fruit, it’s kind of an interesting section in Amos. It’s like he begins to speak personally about something that happened, this priest of Bethel. So, I have to assume that is a false priest.
Guthrie: A priest of pagan worship. He’s complaining that Amos is saying that the king is going to die and that Israel is going into exile. And they basically want Amos to just be quiet.
McKelvey: Yeah. Amaziah is benefiting from the way things are. He’s benefiting from the administration that’s in place. He’s one of those who is getting handouts and bribes, and he doesn’t want things to change. He’s one of those who are at ease and zoned. And so when things are good, you don’t want that to change. And so he’s going to the king saying, “Look, this guy is stirring up strife and it’s not gonna benefit you as a king politically and it’s not gonna benefit me either in my pocketbook. Therefore, do something about it.”
And so Amos responds to him and says, “Because of what you have done and what you’re doing,” he says, “you’ll actually be the first to go into exile.” So, you can see that here in verse 17, “Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city. Your sons, your daughter shall fall by the sword and your land will be divided up with measuring line. And you shall also die in an unclean land. And then you yourself, Amaziah, will go off into exile and die there, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.” So, it’s a direct personal prophecy to Amaziah and his family. When you read what will happen to his wife and sons, it helps you to see that our sins affect others.
Guthrie: They just want him to go back where he came from, down there in South of Judah. And just like, “You stop talking to us,” but he responds, “The Lord took me from following the flock. The Lord said to me, ‘Go prophesy to my people, Israel.'” So, he basically responds saying, “I’ve got to tell you this because the Lord sent me to tell you this.”
Guthrie: Then we get to that basket of summer fruit in Chapter 8. And what’s this about?
McKelvey: There’s a play on words here that’s important to see. When you see this basket of summer fruit and you come to verse 2, “When the Lord said to me, the end has come upon my people, Israel.” In the ESV, you see footnote number one, the word for end and summer fruit sounds alike. They’re very similar in Hebrew. And so the idea is that the summer fruit is indicating that the end is here, the end is hastening, it’s coming quickly. So, just think about like a harvest, summer fruit is here. The idea is that the end is near. So, it’s a play on words, it’s a pun. We can’t see this in English, but thankfully, you have a footnote in your ESV that highlights that. But it becomes very clear that the picture is indicating the end that’s coming. “I will never pass over them.” He said again?
Guthrie: [crosstalk] again.
McKelvey: And then you go into the idea of the mistreatment of the people in the land, verse 4. “You trample on the needy, you bring poor to the land to an end on and on. You do this while you worship me,” verse 5. Then he’s saying, “I don’t want your worship claiming you love me when you don’t love your fellow man.” Great message to Christians today.
Guthrie: When I was looking through the Book of Amos, I was wondering as a teacher, where are those places I’m gonna go to present the person and work of Jesus Christ? Because in the midst of all this judgment, we certainly need a lot of hope. It seems to me that I’m going to be wanting to make clear that ultimately, this judgment, it either falls on us or falls on Christ. And that if we are hidden in Christ, it has fallen on him. And I wondered if one place I might go to that is in the middle of Chapter 8, verses 9 and 10, “And on that day, declares the Lord God, I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight.” And that made me think of the death of Christ. “I will make it like the morning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.” Is that a stretch or would you use that as an opportunity to get to Christ?
McKelvey: Go back in the Bible and think about those images.
McKelvey: Where do we see morning for a sun and darkness during the middle of the day?
Guthrie: Once again, it was when they’re coming out of Egypt. It was in the midst of the [inaudible].
McKelvey: Right. So we have the ninth plague of darkness for three days and then you have the 10th plague of the firstborn son. And you have the Nile mentioned in verse 8. So, clearly, Egypt and the exodus is in view here with regard to the imagery. And so this judgment here is a picture of what was judged, how Egypt was judged, and how they will be judged, and then you think about the judgment that was laid on Christ.
Guthrie: He was not passed over.
McKelvey: He is the lamb of God, he was not passed over darkness. And this is the picture of hell cast in utter darkness, a firstborn son, God’s firstborn son. You see the biblical-theological connections between that still on the context of judgment, but it is in view pointing forward that judgment is necessary. God is just. We were speaking about justice earlier. God is just. He has to punish sin and He does. He does it at the cross. And we see these things pointing us to that great, terrible day on Calvary when all the pictures of judgment we’ve seen before were just unleashed on him at Calvary.
Guthrie: We could call that the day of the Lord also, couldn’t we?
McKelvey: The day of judgment. Absolutely. The day of judgment, day of mercy, and day of salvation.
Guthrie: Absolutely. All right. We’re finally to Amos 9. And I don’t know how many weeks you’ve taken teaching through this, but we’re finally glad we get to offer some very, very clear hope. But it really comes at the end of Chapter 9.
McKelvey: Yeah. There are some interesting things to bring in view here. The last vision actually is Chapter 9. So, if you look at Chapter 9 verse 1, “I saw the Lord standing beside the altar.” [unintelligible]. The Lord is coming, He’s here. He shakes the capital. So, he’s coming in judgment, earthquake imagery. And then you move through that judgment to the day of restoration. So, here you have the idea of the day of the Lord as judgment and restoration here. “In that day, I will raise up the booth of David.” Scholars discuss this word, “booth.” It’s the same idea of the Tabernacle of Booths or the Tabernacle. And the question is, is this referring to the house of David in terms of kingship or is it referring to the temple? Because booth is more associated with the temple and God in the tabernacle in the booth wandering in the wilderness. And perhaps there’s a both and here because they don’t have the Davidic king, they need the Davidic king, but they also don’t have the true temple, they have Bethel.
McKelvey: And so what seems to be in view here is the idea of God will raise up the booth of David, will raise up his presence among the people in a restorative way. And we see that tied to David himself. So, I think what we see here is the idea of God restoring his presence in a connection to David in some way. When you think biblically and theologically, Christ is that reality.
Guthrie: Yeah. If we open up Matthew, the first thing he’s going to tell us about Jesus is that he is the son of David.
McKelvey: Yeah. And the first thing you see John telling us is that he is the tabernacle. He is God’s tabernacle among us. So, you’ve got both of those great pictures of the temple, the true temple, Jesus and David’s greater son in the same person.
Guthrie: The book ends with very clear, distinct hope and promises this repeated. “I will. I will.” First, he says, “I will restore the fortunes of my people, Israel. They shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit it. They shall plant vineyards and drink of their wine. They shall make gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant them in their land. They shall never again be uprooted out of the land that I’ve given them.” So, you read that, it feels very exciting. But we know from the history of the Old Testament that these people are gonna be…Israel is gonna be taken off into captivity. And there’s no real great singular return of these people like it happens for the tribes of Judah that go to Babylon later. And yet we do know a remnant of Israel does make its way back in. But still, this is a bit of a challenge for us to handle as teachers, I think.
McKelvey: Yeah. I think the important thing to see here is that when you go to the post-exilic prophets, and even the prophets like Jeremiah after the fall of the Roman Kingdom, they refer to Judah as Israel. They refer to the collective return as both Judah and Israel. So, they saw the return from exile as a return of both nations together. That’s something that we often miss and we think, well, you’ll hear the saying “The 10 lost tribes.” Well, actually, there’s nine biblically speaking. There was a reunification in their return. And the Old Testament itself testifies to that. And Jesus testifies to that as well.
So, there has already been a sense in which Israel and Judah are back together. And a lot of Israel sought refuge as refugees in Judah. Sometimes there’s a little bit of legendary ideas associated with the northern tribe. That really isn’t true biblically. So, I think that’s helpful to see here. One of the things I say it’s important here is to consider this idea of restoration. It always has an eschatological component that God is pointing to something greater than what we may perceive. God is pointing to a restoration greater than what we expect.
I’ve been reading something recently that just stirred my thinking about how death comes before resurrection, suffering comes before restoration. That’s important, I think, for us to keep in view of the Christian life and even the life of Israel. The restoration can’t come before death and won’t come before death. And so there’s a sense in which when you’re looking at this idea of restoration is pointing towards something that won’t happen ultimately until God has finished his purposes, which implies there being some sort of death for us in terms of our sin, our bodies before the restoration cometh. I think having that sort of already not yet tension is important when you look at a passage like this so that you’re not overly literal in your interpretation.
Guthrie: Well, Dr. McKelvey, thank you for helping us…
McKelvey: My pleasure.
Guthrie: …in teaching this Book of Amos. I wonder if we would finish this way. If you would speak directly to someone who’s listening to this, who’s perhaps considering teaching through the Book of Amos, perhaps giving them a word of challenge and encouragement?
McKelvey: I would. I’d say if you wanna teach the Book of Amos that you need to teach it. You need to be clear on what the message is and clear on applying it to yourself first before you apply it to others. But one thing I would say is just to be balanced. This book has a lot of judgment. It is very dark and you can wear yourself out and wear people out with the message of judgment unless you have the balance of always keeping view the mercy of God in Christ, which is always relevant in view of his proclamation of judgment. It is always important to see that there is hope for those who turn to the Lord, and he shows mercy to them.
Guthrie: Thank you so much, Dr. McKelvey. You’ve been listening to “Help Me Teach The Bible” with Nancy Guthrie. A production of The Gospel Coalition sponsored by Crossway. Crossway is a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible, Christian books and tracts, including the “Expository Commentary” series, which has a volume on the prophets, including a very helpful section on the Book of Amos written by our guest today, Michael McKelvey. Learn more about Crossway’s gospels and resources at crossway.org.