The Book of Amos begins (1) by introducing the prophet for whom the book is named, (2) by telling us something of the times in which his prophetic activities occurred, and (3) by revealing something of the nature of his message.
The book gives us little information concerning Amos' personal life. His name may derive from the Hebrew verb meaning 'to load' or 'to carry a load or burden.' Certainly, Amos had a load to bear as he delivered God's message. One scholar has suggested that the name may have been given to Amos by the recipients of his message who saw the prophet himself as a burden or pain. In other words, they might have said something like, 'Here comes that "Pain" to give us more grief by preaching at us.' If so, Amos seemed to be willing to take on such an epithet if it meant he was being obedient to God's call upon his life. Another possible meaning to Amos' name is 'one sustained by Yahweh.' Certainly, Yahweh did sustain Amos as he faced opposition to his ministry.
Furthermore, the text tells us that Amos was 'among the sheepherders of Tekoa' (1:1). Tekoa was about ten to eleven miles south of Jerusalem, five miles south of Bethlehem, and about eighteen miles from the Dead Sea. He lived on the border between two very different types of landscape. To his east was the barren wilderness that stretched to the Dead Sea, and to his west were the fertile agricultural lands of Judah that reached to the coastal plain on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea. He lived in a land of ridges and deeply cut valleys. Since the time the united monarchy of Israel divided into two kingdoms around 930 b.c. with Israel in the north and Judah in the south, Tekoa had a military garrison stationed there (2 Chron. 11:5-12; 17:2; 26:10). Therefore, Amos probably was quite aware of military activities that had taken place since the time of Rehoboam, who was the son of Solomon and the first king of the southern kingdom.
Evidence seems to suggest that Amos might have had more responsibilities than what a mere shepherd in the fields was accustomed to having. The word, nõqêd, is only used one other time in the Old Testament in 2 Kings 3:4. In this instance, the term apparently refers to the breeding and marketing of sheep and rams. The occupation is well documented in Mesopotamian history as one who was an overseer of herdsmen.This understanding of the nature of Amos' occupation is consistent with his description of himself to Amaziah (7:10-17) where in 7:14 Amos calls himself a herdsman and one who tended sycamore trees. Perhaps the figs were somehow used as feed for his herds. Whatever the specific nature of his work might have been, Amos labored in very common occupations for his time and place. In 7:10-17, Amos told Amaziah that these were his occupations and that he placed no special claim on holding the office of a prophet or having had training in the prophetic office previous to God's call. At one moment he had been minding his own businesses and in the next God had sent him from his home in Judah to Samaria in the northern kingdom to deliver God's Word to Israel.
Amos' background should remind us of the kind of people God calls to His service. God calls people from a variety of backgrounds to serve Him, and many are called from very common backgrounds. Often, we might be tempted to believe that God only calls people who are especially gifted or talented to serve Him. A pastoral search committee would not have been very impressed by Amos' credentials (or lack thereof), and yet throughout the Scriptures we discover a God who does many extraordinary things through very ordinary people. Amos demonstrated a willingness to be obedient to God's call. He was very much aware of his own ordinary background, and he was more than ready to confess it to others. In fact, Amos might have experienced great joy in realizing that it was God who was sustaining him rather than his own abilities. Many of us in the church might say that we are inadequate to do what God has called us to do in His service. The truth is we are all inadequate. Jesus said, Apart from me you can do nothing' (John 15:5). Nevertheless, as the apostle Paul understood, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Phil. 4:13). Instead of using his background and lack of formal training as an excuse to disobey God, Amos trusted and obeyed Him. There was nothing innately extraordinary about Amos himself except his faith in God and his faithfulness to God.
A number of factors surrounding Amos' circumstances made his task more difficult than it already was. First, Amos lived in a time of national disunity. In 931 b.c., the northern tribes of Israel rebelled against King Rehoboam, King Solomon's son, and the nation of Israel split into two monarchies. The north retained the name Israel, and its first king was Jeroboam. The south called itself Judah since Judah was the name of that region since God had given it to the tribe of Judah at the time of the conquest. Rehoboam remained king in Judah. Since the split between the ten tribes of Israel in the north and the two tribes of Judah in the south, their history consisted of periodic seasons of civil war, unrest, and cooperation. Amos indicates that Jeroboam (II) was the king over Israel and that Uzziah was the king over Judah during his ministry. Jeroboam II reigned over Israel from about 793-753 b.c., and Uzziah reigned over Judah from about 792-740. Both the fathers of Jeroboam II and Uzziah had been at war with one another.
Jehoash was the father of Jeroboam II and had already been on the throne in Israel for about two or three years when Amaziah, Uzziah's father, came to the throne in Judah as the result of his father's assassination. Amaziah's first order of business was to establish control in his government by punishing those who had assassinated his father. Next, in order to protect his kingdom from a much more powerful threat to the north in Israel and to possibly regain territories that had been previously lost in the south, Amaziah began rebuilding Judah's military and fortifications. Apparently, Jeroboam and Amaziah initially got along with one another. Amaziah even hired mercenaries from Israel to help him in his campaign to recapture territory in the south from Edom (2 Chron. 25:5-13). However, the Lord was not pleased with Amaziah's hiring of these mercenaries since Israel had already rebelled against God. It was when Amaziah decided he no longer needed the Israelite mercenaries that tensions began to mount. As the mercenaries returned home they 'raided the cities of Judah, from Samaria to Beth-horon, and struck down 3,000 of them and plundered much spoil' (2 Chron. 25:13, NASB). Either there were a number of Judean settlements that existed in the north or Samaria and Beth-horon were the places from which these mercenaries attacked cities in the south. Either way, this turn of events certainly must have outraged Judah.
Having just accomplished a major victory over Edom, Amaziah believed he was ready to attack a more powerful Israel to his north. He sent a challenge to Jehoash to come and face him in battle. When Jehoash received the message he replied with a parable about a mighty cedar of Lebanon representing Israel and a scant thistle representing Judah. The thistle demanded that the great cedar provide its daughter as a bride for the thistle's son, but a mighty beast came and trampled the thistle into the ground. Jehoash warned Amaziah not to allow his victory over Edom to cloud his judgment and lead him to disaster in a war with Israel. However, Amaziah ignored Jehoash's warning and marched his army against Israel at Beth Shemesh. The Israelites routed Amaziah's army and Amaziah was captured and taken back to Jerusalem as Jehoash's prisoner. There, Amaziah watched as the Israelites destroyed a portion of the northern wall of Jerusalem and plundered the city, especially the temple and palace treasures (2 Chron. 25:21-24). Perhaps it was only the northern wall that they destroyed to demonstrate that Judah was powerless to defend themselves against their powerful enemy to the north. Moreover, Amaziah was taken back north to Samaria as Jehoash's prisoner (2 Kings 14:13-14). He was later released, probably at the time of Jehoash's death, since the author of 2 Chronicles clearly indicates that Amaziah lived fifteen years after the death of Jehoash. Jeroboam II and Uzziah both probably co-reigned with their fathers during the time these events occurred.
After the deaths of Jehoash and Amaziah, Jeroboam II and Uzziah apparently never engaged in military hostilities toward one another. In fact, there seems to have been a spirit of cooperation that existed between the two monarchies. Nevertheless, with the events that had taken place between their previous kings only some twenty years before, the sentiments between the people of Israel and Judah were probably mixed. Jehoash's parable of Israel as the great cedar of Lebanon while Judah was a mere thistle probably represented the northerners' attitudes toward those in the south, not only during his reign but also during the reign of his son. One might detect this attitude of superiority from Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, towards Amos (Amos 7:10-13). Also, Jehoash's march to Jerusalem was in many ways similar to Sherman's March to the Sea through Atlanta in the American Civil War. Nearly one hundred and fifty years later, one may still find those who resent the Northern States because of that incident. I have met people who act as if they are still fighting that war. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that, while their leaders might have developed a spirit of political cooperation for the well-being of their respective monarchies, it would be naïve to assume there no longer existed any latent hostility between the peoples of the north and the south. All of this history is important, because Amos was from the south in Judah, and God called him to go north to Israel and preach a message of judgment. Amos, the southerner from Judah, the insignificant thistle, had the unsavory task of proclaiming a difficult message to an arrogant and less than receptive crowd in Israel, the mighty cedar of Lebanon to the north.
Second, Amos lived in a time of military superiority. For some time, Aram-Damascus had waged war on Israel, but in 802 b.c. the Assyrians conquered Damascus, and Israel enjoyed a time of relative peace. Nevertheless, a change in leadership and a new threat to the Assyrians caused them to relinquish their tight grip on Aram-Damascus, and once again the Arameans began acting aggressively toward Israel. Under King Jeroboam's rule, Israel prevailed against them. In fact, God blessed Israel's military so much that Israel expanded its borders in the north all the way to Hamath and Damascus and in the south as far as the Dead Sea in the Transjordan. Jeroboam had control of much of Lebanon, control of Aram-Damascus, control of Moab, and was confident of his superiority over Judah since his father had decidedly defeated her also. During the ministry of Amos, Israel was experiencing a time of strong national security. The prophet Jonah had prophesied that God would indeed increase the borders of Israel. However, God blessed Israel with this expansion and these military victories because of His mercy and grace on Israel even though Jeroboam 'did evil in the sight of Yahweh' (2 Kings 14:23-29).
Furthermore, even though Judah was less formidable than Israel, under Uzziah's leadership she too experienced military successes. Uzziah raised an army that numbered more than three hundred thousand men. He launched attacks against the Philistines to his west, against the Arabs to his south, and against the Meunites and Ammonites to his east. Judah was victorious in all of these military campaigns. Uzziah turned the defensive positions of his enemies into his own defensive positions thus strengthening his military even more. He also constructed impressive defences in and around Jerusalem. With the peace between Israel and Judah established, Judah had eliminated all of its threats to national security under Uzziah (2 Chron. 26:6-15). Between Israel and Judah, they nearly controlled as much land as they ever had, even when all of Israel had experienced its 'golden era' under Solomon.
Third, along with these military advances a season of economic prosperity came for both Israel and Judah. Their economies flourished as new opportunities for trade opened up seemingly in every direction. A number of people in Israel's capital, Samaria, became very wealthy. They furnished their homes with exquisite wood and ivory furniture. The wealthy had the finest of foods and surroundings. Many were able to afford both winter and summer homes. In Judah, Uzziah was able to establish settlements in areas that had nearly been uninhabitable. It required amazing engineering and agricultural technology.Not since the time of Solomon had so many in both the north and the south experienced such good fortune.
With the military successes that they experienced and the explosion of economic prosperity, no doubt many believed these happenings were a sign of God's favor. This conclusion would have arisen out of a naïve understanding of the Retribution Principle. The Retribution Principle is the basic understanding that when one obeys God He will bless them and when one disobeys God He will curse or punish them. Certainly it is true. Ultimately, God will bless those who obey Him, and He will judge those who disobey Him. However, God's blessing is no more a sure sign of God's pleasure than is difficulty in the life of an individual necessarily a sign of God's displeasure (cf. John 9:1-3). As we already observed, God blessed Jeroboam and Israel with increased borders, but it was in spite of the fact that Jeroboam had done evil in the sight of Yahweh.
According to Hosea and Amos, the people under Jeroboam were doing evil in the sight of Yahweh also. God's blessing came out of God's mercy and grace upon His chosen people. It had nothing to do with Israel's obedience to God. Perhaps, God did it in order to give them an opportunity to repent in the face of His lovingkindness. It was probably a matter much like the apostle Paul addressed when he wrote the church at Rome saying, 'do you think lightly of the riches of his kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to each person according to his deeds' (Rom. 2:4-6, NASB). The people in Israel were storing up wrath for themselves in the day of judgment because of their stubbornness and unrepentant hearts even though they experienced God's kindness, tolerance, and patience. The Lord indicates that He even sent a number of hardships upon the people as well, but the calamities failed to drive the people back to Him (4:6-13).
If they had deceived themselves into thinking that God's blessing was the result of their obedience, then Amos would have had a difficult time convincing them otherwise. It is difficult for the wealthy to turn to God. Either they may see no need for God because life is as they want it, or they may see their wealth as a sign of His pleasure in them. It was to a people who felt more secure both militarily and financially than they had felt in quite a number of years that God sent Amos to preach a message of impending judgment and utter destruction - no easy task. Kaiser describes this period of Israel's history well, saying:
in less than twenty-five years Jeroboam II was able to take a nation that was just about ready to die and turn it into one of the great powers of his day. The wealth and economic turn-around were so dramatic that it became a matter of concern for the prophets as they inveighed against those who 'adorned [their] houses with ivory,' both 'winter house' and' summer house' (Amos 3:15). In fact, so prosperous had they become that their wives were said to Tie on beds inlaid with ivory and lounge on [their] couches... din[ing] on choice lambs... strum[ming] away on [their] harps like David and improvis[ing] on musical instruments,... drink[ing] wine by the bowlful and us[ing] the finest lotions, but... not [being] griev[ed] over the ruin of Joseph' (Amos 6:4-6). Hosea had warned as well (12:8) that 'Ephraim boasts, "I am rich; I have become wealthy. With all my wealth they will not find in me any iniquity or sin."' But Samaria, unknown to its inhabitants, was a 'fading flower,' whose 'glorious beauty' was about to be 'laid low' (Isa. 28:1).
Fourth, Amos lived in a time of religious activity. He confronted a people who had developed a syncretistic approach to religion. It was a mixture of pagan idolatry alongside rituals and theological concepts taken from God's Word. Apparently, along with worshiping idols they were quite zealous in offering up worship to the Lord in the way of solemn assemblies, cultic feasts, worship songs, and tithes, and by observing the Sabbaths. Nevertheless, God was displeased with their hypocritical displays of worship. They clung to the words of Moses that best suited them. Israel knew they were God's chosen people. They remembered the Lord had brought them out of the bondage of Egypt. They knew they lived in the land that God had given them as their inheritance. They believed that they were enjoying the presence of the Lord just as they had since the days of Moses. They recognized God's judgment upon those who opposed them and continued to hope in God's protection from their enemies, anticipating the Day of the Lord when He would come and destroy their enemies. They counted on God's promise to Abram that He would be faithful to curse those who cursed them. Yet they had replaced sincere spirituality with insincere religiosity. Israel rejected righteousness and justice. The notion that they were sinful and in need of repentance was far from them. They had created an image of God in their minds that suited their purposes but contradicted reality. Their perverted theology and misrepresentation of God led to false hopes. They had deluded themselves into thinking that they were secure and right with God when, in fact, they were in danger and far from Him.
Amos begins his message by identifying his source. This message originates with the Lord. Amos is but His messenger. What gives Amos authority is not his background or even the content of what he has to say, but it is the Lord Himself as Amos' source that gives authority to his message. The content of Amos' message is authoritative because it comes from God. Pastors and teachers of God's Word would do well to remember this truth today. What gives us authority is not our education, position, or talents, but it is God's call as He has called us to be messengers proclaiming and teaching His authoritative Word. To stray from the Scriptures is to stray from God's call and message.
Furthermore, Amos uses the Hebrew covenantal name of God, Yahweh, as he reveals the source of his message. Israel was an especially called people of God in a covenantal relationship with Yahweh. Yahweh had called their father Abraham out of a distant place in Ur of the Chaldeans to come to the land of Canaan, the land that became the location of the nation of Israel. Yahweh said that He would bless Abraham so that Abraham would be a blessing to the nations (Gen. 12:1-3). Yahweh delivered the people out of Egyptian bondage and established His covenant with the nation of Israel at Sinai where He said he would be their God and they would be His people. Yahweh established their nation and kept His promises to Abraham and their forefathers. He established the place where Israel was to worship Him on Mt Zion in Jerusalem. God manifested His presence in the midst of the nation at the temple in Jerusalem, the temple planned by David and built by Solomon. Amos' message comes from this God.
How does this message come? It comes with a roar. Why? It was because God's covenant with Israel involved responsibility and obedience. The Israelites were responsible to be faithful to Yahweh in obedience and service as His chosen people. According to God's law, if Israel would be loyal to Yahweh and worship Him only, then God would bless the nation. However, if they were to become disloyal to Yahweh and disobey His commandments and statutes, then they would be under the curse of God (Deut. 30:15-20). Yahweh's roar from Zion anticipates a word of judgment upon Israel because of her unfaithfulness. Amos poetically describes what Israel can expect as the result of God's judgment upon her. He begins by describing the results of a famine. While Amos' message nowhere else speaks of an actual famine coming upon the land, verse two describes what will happen to the land as a result of God's judgment. It will look as if a famine happened. Furthermore, Amos later speaks of a famine that will come, not a famine where food is lacking but a famine where God's Word is lacking and nowhere to be found (8:11-14). It is possible that as Amos employs this poetic description of events to come he implies both meanings.