Discovering Amos

Background Information

God provided the message of this book through a man named Amos. This man was He was from the village of Tekoa, approx. 10 mi. southeast of Jerusalem and 18 mi. west of the Dead Sea. This town was a military outpost that likely provided Amos with easy access to international news (2 Chron 11:5-6).

Amos was a shepherd by profession. The word used for his occupation, though, is not the usual Hebrew word for shepherd, but is a more specific word that means “sheep breeder.” The only other occurrence of this word in the Old Testament (OT) is 2 Kgs 3:4, in reference to Mesha, a wealthy king and flock breeder who provided King Joram, of Israel, with large supplies of sheep and wool. This means that though Amos may have been a low-class shepherd, financially and culturally, he may also have been a more successful, wealthy breeder.

In addition to shepherding (or breeding), Amos also worked with sycamore-fig trees (Isa 7:14). This probably means that he harvested sycamore figs from lower elevations, bringing them up to the flocks for food.

We generally date this book to the early eighth century (700s BC), roughly contemporary with other prophets like Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah. He was likely the earliest of them all, however, as his ministry occurred during the reigns of Uzziah in the Southern Kingdom (790-740 BC) and Jeroboam II in the Northern Kingdom (786-746 BC). This means that though other prophets preceded him (such as Deborah, Samuel, Natha, Elijah, Elisha, Micaiah, Huldah, etc.), his was the first to record his message in a dedicated book.

These were times of relative economic prosperity for both kingdoms, which provides a fitting background for the message that Amos brought. It’s interesting to note that though Amos lived and worked in the southernmost parts of the Southern Kingdom, his message was given specifically to the Northern Kingdom. Interestingly enough, Amos mentions “the earthquake” (Amos 1:1), which occurred “two years” after this message was given. Zechariah would refer to this same earthquake in retrospect, during exile, as “the earthquake in the days of Uzziah” (Zech 14:5) and archeological research has unearthed evidence of an earthquake from sometime between 765-760 BC, so perhaps this is when the book was written.

Purpose for the Book

As mentioned previously, this message was given during a period of relative economic prosperity for both Israel and Judah. Though Israel was technically a vassal state to the Assyrian Empire at this time, the kings of Assyria to the east (as well as the kings of Egypt to the west) were generally weak and nonthreatening. This enabled both the Northern and Southern kingdoms to enjoy peace, prosperity, and territorial expansion.

This time of peace and prosperity was also marked by a rise in religious activities. While Temple worship in Jerusalem proceeded in Jerusalem, the Northern Kingdom’s misplaced shrines at Beersheba, Bethel, Dan, and Gilgal also experienced an increase in activity. Hosea denounced the use of these shrines as unacceptable to God (Amos 3:14; 4:4-5; 5:4-5; 5:22-24).

Ironically, this uptick in religious activity did not produce an increase in morality, spirituality, or justice. Instead, wealthy people pursued opulent lifestyles, exhibited greed, took advantage of others, oppressed the poor, refused justice to the oppressed, and participated in immoral behavior (2:6-8; 3:10; 4:1; 5:11-13; 8:4-6). So, God called Amos from breeding sheep (or perhaps cows) in the lower Southern Kingdom to prophesy of his disfavor of greed and injustice in the Northern Kingdom (Isa 7:14-15). In the big picture, Amos foretold of a time when God would destroy the Northern Kingdom as judgment for its sins. Though this judgment would be final, God would eventually restore his people through the original “house of Jacob” (9:8-15).

It’s fascinating that Amos refused to tout his role or title as a prophet but insisted instead of being identified and addressed as a shepherd and farmer. Perhaps he did so to distance himself from any semblance of prestige, not wanting to gain unwarranted respect through titles and positions, leaving his message to speak for itself.

Outline and Content

Commentator Douglas Mangum outlines the book this way:

  • Introduction (1-2)
  • Words (3-6)
  • Visions (7-9)

This outline follows the way Amos introduces his book as both “words” and “visions” (Amos 1:1). Another commentator (Billy Smith and Franklin Page), then, identifies five kinds of material in the book:

  • the title (1:1)
  • oracles (or sayings) spoken by Amos
  • vision-reports
  • a third-person narrative reporting Amaziah’s opposition to Amos (7:10-14)
  • three stanzas cited from of an old hymn (4:13; 5:8-9; 9:5-6)

In Amos’s introduction, he identifies himself and then announces a series judgement announcements to six people groups surrounding the Promised Land (Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, and Moab), followed by similar messages to Judah and Israel.

Next, he offers a series of engaging messages (“oracles”) directed specifically to the “people of Israel,” akin to a series of harsh mini sermons.

He then follows these messages with a series of meaningful visions, which include: (1) locusts, (2) fire, (3) a plumb line, (4) ripe fruit, and (5) God at the altar. Each of these visions present a strong message of God’s disapproval and impending judgment due to their sins.

While other OT prophets usually delivered joint messages of judgment and hope interwoven together throughout their books, Amos takes a different approach. He almost exclusively delivers a message of sharp rebuke and impending judgment, reserving any message of hope to the very end, in the last five verses (9:11-15).

This approach conveys a harsh and unrelenting tone which demonstrates quite forcefully just how strongly God resented the arrogance, greed, hypocrisy, self-centered, pleasure-crazed, and worldly-minded lifestyles and values of those people in the Northern Kingdom who misused their material prosperity and social positions (Amos 5:21-24). His people had turned their back on him in a time of blessing rather than leverage and steward the resources and positions God had given them to exercise humility, justice, mercy, and love towards others.

Like Joel, though not as frequently, Amos looks forward to the coming Day of the Lord (Amos 5:18, 20). In his case, he points out that though Israel may have looked forward to the Day of the Lord, they should actually be afraid of it instead. Why? Because due to their faithless hearts and ungodly lives, they would not benefit from the blessings that the Day of the Lord would provide but would be judged and destroyed through it instead.

Personal Takeaways

God’s message through Amos has powerful, heart-searching implications for us today, for God has certainly blessed us (I speak to those followers of Christ who live in materially prosperous and free places, like the United States of America) with relative and remarkable economic success and social privileges.

Are we content to live self-absorbed, opulent lives for ourselves and to take advantage of others to benefit ourselves? Or will we utilize our resources and privileges of freedom and influence not only to worship God as we should, but to serve and meet the needs of others as well? In other words, how are we using the resources and privileges that God has given us to meet both the material and spiritual needs of people around us?

While we must certainly and faithfully do what we can to spread the gospel message of Christ’s salvation from sin, death, and hell to people without hope, we must accompany that message with actual, tangible expressions of God’s love and care, meeting the material and physical needs of others as well. This was God’s heart for his people in the OT and he has not changed since. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever – therefore the message of Hosea remains clear and impactful for us today.

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