The times of Amos
The date of the earthquake (1:1) cannot now be settled and therefore we do not know exactly when Amos prophesied. Uzziah of Judah reigned from 767–740 bc and Jeroboam II of Israel from 782–753 bc and, within these limits, a date around 760 bc is suitable for Amos. See the chart ‘The prophets’ in The Song of Songs.
Jeroboam was an energetic king, ready to take every opportunity for his country’s expansion. The time favoured him: in 805 bc Adad-nirari of Assyria had conquered Syria, thus disposing of a long-standing enemy of Israel. Assyria itself then entered into a period of decline and so the way was open for Jeroboam to restore his kingdom to the boundaries it had enjoyed under Solomon. This in turn gave him control of trade routes and therefore commercial prosperity which was reflected in a dominant wealthy class living in great luxury. As often happens this went hand-in-hand with exploitation of the poor (5:11; 6:6). Amos’s prophecy against the excesses of Israel, the northern kingdom, were even more unwelcome in that he came from Judah in the south (7:10–17).
While, therefore, the land had known its troubles within living memory (4:6–11) the prospects seemed good. It was possible to defer anxiety to the remote future (5:18; 6:3) and to forget that while Assyria might be asleep it was not dead.
The teaching of Amos
While Amos stresses the unique privilege of Israel (2:9–11; 3:2) he never speaks of the Lord as ‘the God of Israel’; neither, indeed, does he use the word ‘covenant’. He seems to avoid anything that might foster Israelite complacency or false security. His favoured divine titles are ‘the Sovereign Lord’ (e.g. 1:8; 8:1, 3, 9, 11; 9:8) and ‘the Lord God Almighty’, i.e. the God who is in himself every potentiality and power (4:13; 5:14–16, 27; 6:8, 14). Amos does, of course, use the divine name ‘Yahweh’ (‘The Lord’) more than any other name, but throughout his prophecy he stresses the features of God’s character which underlie universal rule and government. He sees the Lord as Creator (4:13; 5:8; 9:5, 6), the agent in all history (3:6; 4:6–11; 9:7) and the moral governor or judge of all the nations (1:3–2:16). He acknowledges one only God but recognizes that there are other objects of worship (5:26f; cf. 1 Cor. 8:5f.) to which people can be drawn away.
The only God is the judge of all the earth. Over the whole wide world, crimes against humanity, wherever, whyever and however committed, whether recorded by man or noted only by God, are abhorrent to him and will receive an appropriate recompense. To be brought near to such a God through the privilege of being his chosen people carries the consequence of weightier and more certain judgment (3:2), for the sins of God’s people are not just offences against conscience (as in the case of the nations) but specific rebellions against the light of revelation (2:4ff.). Both affronts to God and offences against mankind are offensive to God and his judgment will fall.
The assumption that crimes (social offences) are sins (offences against God) lies at the heart of Amos’s sociology. In every aspect of society it is with the Lord that we have to deal, whether conduct pleases him and comes under his blessing, or offends and merits wrath. Society does not rest on independent, mechanical principles—market forces, money supply, Gross National Product—for its prosperity. Prosperity comes with divine blessing and no matter how efficient the economy it cannot prosper if it is under his curse.
The Lord is concerned with how war is waged (1:3, 13), how commerce is carried on (1:6; 8:5–7) and whether obligations solemnly undertaken are fulfilled (1:9). He is offended by the acquisitiveness which allows the end to justify the means (4:1–3), when ruling classes become self-important and callous (4:1; 6:1), and when wealth is only a means to luxury for some to the neglect of those less well supplied (3:12–15; 4:1; 6:4–6). The perversion of justice in the courts rouses his animosity (2:6, 7; 5:7, 10, 12, 15) as does commercial dishonesty—the petty fraud of the shopkeeper who tampers with his scales (8:5–7) and the inhumanity of ‘big business’ when it treats people as commodities (1:6). On all these grounds, Amos’s people came under judgment and by extension our modern industrialized, post-biblical world falls under God’s judgment too. These aspects of commercial and materialistic society, which makes a god out of prosperity, have an ominously familiar ring.
For Israel, as for the world, will judgment spell an utter end? Amos is a prophet of Yahweh, and this alone should have been sufficient to preserve him from the charge that he lacked a message of hope (possibly more unhesitatingly made twenty years ago than today) and that passages like 9:11–15 are later contributions by other writers. ‘Yahweh’ revealed the meaning of his name (Ex. 3:15; 6:6–8) in a single exodus-event which both saved his people and overthrew his foes. Preaching about such a God cannot exclude hope because it is of the essence of his nature. This becomes clear in 7:1–6 where Amos is made to face the full consequence of Israel’s sin in great judgments which would leave no survivor. When he prays against such eventualities he is assured that ‘this will not happen’. The commentary will show that the negative statements of 7:3, 6, denying total destruction, develop into the positive hope of 9:11–15: a restored ‘David’, a restored creation and a restored people.
Ch. 7:14 is a key verse. In Hebrew the omission of the verb ‘to be’ (lit. ‘I not a prophet’) usually implies a present tense (rsv, ‘I am no prophet’). Those who follow this interpretation (e.g. Wolfe, Joel and Amos, Fortress Press , pp. 306, 312f.) suggest that Amos is denying that an office or official position has anything to do with the case, for what matters is the proclamation of the divine word. Wolfe must deny that 2:11 and 3:7, which are positive about the prophetic office, come from Amos himself, and then assert that Amos says ‘I am not a prophet’ (7:14) immediately before he says that ‘the Lord sent me to be a prophet’ (7:15).
As far as the Hebrew is concerned, while possibly the majority of cases where the verb ‘to be’ is left unstated needs a present tense, each case must be decided by its own needs. Thus, in the present context, in reply to the challenge from the priest, Amos looks back to a time when he was a prophet neither in fact nor prospect, until divine appointment and commissioning gave him prophetic status and work, as the niv correctly implies. He also stands within the tradition of classical OT prophecy as one endowed with the divine word. Like all the prophets who speak on this point (cf. Je. 1:9; Ezk. 2:7–3:4) Amos asserts the exact identity between his words and the Lord’s words (1:1, 3).
This is the unique fact of verbal inspiration: that the Lord did not just share with the prophets the ‘drift’ of what he wanted them to say but that they were people so worked upon by God that the words which were naturally theirs, bearing the imprint of their times, personalities and studies, were the very words in which the Lord intended his truth to be perfectly enshrined.
Israel in Amos’s day was extremely religious but it was a religion astray from the law of God (2:7–8), devoid of spiritual benefit (4:4–5), incapable of protecting its devotees (3:14; 5:5–6) and lacking moral and social justice (5:21–25). Did Amos then swing to the opposite extreme, looking for a religion of ethical behaviour without cultic, sacrificial expression? His question in 5:25 seems to suggest this and, indeed, has often been so understood (C. F. Whitley, The Prophetic Achievement, Blackwell  p.73). But for a preacher to ask a question makes him dependent on the answer his hearers will give, and there can be no doubt that Amos’s congregation would have replied heartily that indeed they were obeying divine law that reached back to the days of Moses. On any view of the dating of the Pentateuch, but particularly if the Pentateuch stems from Moses, sacrifices were a fundamental part of the Israelites’ religion as received from God. This leads us to the view taken in the commentary (cf. H. H. Rowley, The Unity of the Bible, Carcy Kingsgate  p.42) that Amos’s question is not whether sacrifices were right but what place they were intended to have. The Lord’s priority was that his people should obey him (Ex. 19:4–5; 20:2–3ff.), and the sacrificial code was a provision for their lapses in obedience. Then, as now, the divine call was to holiness, but if people sinned they had an advocate and a propitiation for their sins (1 Jn. 2:1–2). Ritualized religion, then and now, is a reversal of this priority. (See further on 5:24ff.)
The book of Amos
The book of Amos has come to us as a carefully edited piece of literature and there is no reason to doubt that Amos was his own editor. In fact, when we consider his conviction that his words were God’s words it is unlikely that he would have left them to the risk of oral tradition or to unpredictible later editors (cf. Is. 8:16–20; Je. 36). But the question must be asked, nonetheless, whether there are parts of the book as we have it that might more reasonably be seen as the work of others.
(i) The oracles against Tyre, Edom and Judah (1:9–12; 2:4–5). These are often treated as additions because they are briefer than the oracles against Damascus (1:3–5), Gaza (1:6–8), Ammon (1:13–15) and Moab (2:1–3). But when the evidence is added up there are, after all, three oracles in the short form and four in the longer form and, as Hubbard says (TOTC, p. 97), ‘variety may be as strong an evidence for authenticity as similarity is’. Furthermore, as a Judahite (1:1) the condemnation of Judah is the one thing Amos dare not leave out unless he wishes to discredit his message by partiality.
(ii) The hymn-like fragments (4:13; 5:8–9; 9:5–6). Hyatt (‘Amos’, Peake’s Commentary (1963), p. 617) urges that the doctrine of God the Creator evident in these passages requires a later date than the time of Amos (cf. H. W. Robinson, Inspiration and Revelation in the Old Testament, OUP (1946), p. 22). But archaeology has shown that the concept of the gods as creators is as old as religion. It would be remarkable indeed if the OT was laggard in ascribing this glory to the Lord! Furthermore, as the Commentary shows, the passages are carefully embedded in their respective contexts. So perhaps Amos was quoting well-known hymns on the topic of God the Creator, but doing so with an eye to the needs of his message at each point.
(iii) The words of 9:11–15 are much disputed because they have such a golden message of hope as compared with the solemnity of the rest of the book. It used to be held that, in any case, such a doctrine of hope required a post-exilic date. The language of the passage fits well with the rest of the book, however. Besides this, there is an inherent absurdity in thinking that it was a later editor who added the note of hope, presumably when the full-blown message of doom did not eventuate and an Israelite people continuing to exist after the exile. For if Amos is only a prophet of doom, foreseeing only the end of the covenant and of the covenant people, hope could only be added at the expense of making him a false prophet! On the other hand, if Amos really believed his own message about fire on Judah and Jerusalem (2:5) it is reasonable to expect that he would look to the Lord for some word about the future beyond the fire and then express it in symbols and motifs familiar in his own day.
J. A. Motyer, The Message of Amos, BST (IVP, 1974).
P. C. Craigie, Twelve Prophets, Vol. 1, DSB (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1984).
J. M. Boice, The Minor Prophets, 2 vols. (Zondervan, 1983, 1986).
D. A. Hubbard, Joel and Amos, TOTC (IVP, 1989).
T. McComiskey, Amos, EBC (Zondervan, 1985).
J. Niehaus, Amos, in T. McComiskey (ed.), The Minor Prophets, vol. 1 (Baker Book House, 1992).
rsv (New) Revised Standard Version
niv New International Version
OT Old Testament
TOTC Tyndale Old Testament Commentary
BST The Bible Speaks Today
DSB Daily Study Bible
EBC Expositor’s Bible Commentary