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27 minute read

Amos 2

25 Mar 2019

I. Introduction

From 1:3, Amos has been closing in on Israel.

  1. First, nations from Israel’s political environment:
    • Syria (1:3–5)
    • Philistia (1:6–8)
    • Tyre (1:9–10)
  2. Then, Israel’s historical cousins:
    • Edom (1:11–12)1
    • Ammon (1:13–15))2
    • Moab (2:1–3)
  3. Then, Israel’s brother, Judah (2:4–5)

  4. Finally, Israel herself (2:6–16)3

I looked at this briefly in my post on Amos 1, but now that we turn our focus to Judah ans Israel, it’s worth repeating: the ‘ground of accusation is never simply that they have acted to the detriment of Israel’4. This is important because Judah and Israel seem to have taken God’s choice of them as his people, God’s choice to make his dwelling in Jerusalem, as a licence to do whatever they felt like.

In this post, I’ll be looking at the oracles against Judah and Israel in Amos 2:4–16. I’ll focus on what these oracles have to say to Christians today.5

II. Amos 2:4–16

This is what the Lord says:

‘For three sins of Judah,
even for four, I will not relent.
Because they have rejected the law of the Lord
and have not kept his decrees,
because they have been led astray by false gods,
the gods their ancestors followed,
I will send fire on Judah
that will consume the fortresses of Jerusalem.’

This is what the Lord says:

‘For three sins of Israel,
even for four, I will not relent.
They sell the innocent for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals.
They trample on the heads of the poor
as on the dust of the ground
and deny justice to the oppressed.
Father and son use the same girl
and so profane my holy name.
They lie down beside every altar
on garments taken in pledge.
In the house of their god
they drink wine taken as fines.

‘Yet I destroyed the Amorites before them,
though they were tall as the cedars
and strong as the oaks.
I destroyed their fruits above
and their roots below.
I brought you out of Egypt
and led you forty years in the wilderness
to give you the land of the Amorites.

‘I also raised up prophets from among your children
and Nazirites from among your youths.
Is this not true, people of Israel?’
declares the Lord.
‘But you made the Nazirites drink wine
and commanded the prophets not to prophesy.

‘Now then, I will crush you
as a cart crushes when loaded with grain.
The swift will not escape,
the strong will not muster their strength,
and the warrior will not save his life.
The archer will not stand his ground,
the fleet-footed soldier will not get away,
and the horseman will not save his life.
Even the bravest warriors
will flee naked on that day,’
declares the Lord.

III. Judah and Israel

1. The Oracle Against Judah

The preceding oracles (1:3–2:3) reference crimes of conscience. There were no written rules that the nations were breaking, the focus was instead on the unwritten rules written on people’s consciences. The Judahites had the same requirements and may have been guilty of similar crimes but they also had God’s law and so they would be judged by that as well. My focus in this post is mainly the oracle against Judah, but I think the other oracles set the scene for the oracle against Israel: they gradually gain more and more acceptance of the standards that God uses to judge: the Israelites and the Judahites had the same God-given consciences as the other nations; the Israelites had the same law as Judah.

On the other hand, the oracles against the earlier nations are more specific, in that the specific rebellious acts are given. This shift emphasizes Judah’s responsibility to God by contrasting their action with the high standards that God revealed to them. The other nations were judged on the basis of common sense and a popular sense of morality, while Judah had the statutes and laws which guided them.6

As Amos moves from the surrounding nations to Judah, the charges become more specific. Judah has ‘rejected the law of the Lord’ they have ‘not kept his decrees.’ Finally, we are told they ‘have been led astray by false gods, / the gods their ancestors followed.’

Law

In our contemporary context, the word ‘law’ carries with it ‘related ideas of legalism, enforcement, reward, and punishment’,7 which is not quite how the original readers would likely have understood it. For them, ‘law’ would have meant ‘“instruction”, with the related idea of a personal contact between teacher and pupil.’ It was a relational term, the type of instruction that is given personally by a teachers to their students, not the type of instruction that is handed down impersonally from a government to its citizens. It is fitting, then, that Amos reminds the Israelites of their time in the wilderness after the law had been given when God was with them and led them. This law is not the law of a distant God who delivers a set of edicts one must obey but the law of a loving father who instructs his children in the right way to live for their own benefit.

‘Law’ signifies not ‘legislation’ (with its related ideas of legalism, enforcement, reward and punishment) but ‘instruction’, with the related idea of a personal contact between teacher and pupil. The Lord’s law implies His personal drawing near as teacher and the establishment of a personal relationship between Him and the one to whom He purposes to impart his truth.8

Liars

The NIV translators made an interpretive decision when they translated verse 4c as ‘they have been led astray by false gods, / the gods their ancestors followed.’ The original text simply says ‘lies,’ not ‘false gods.’ Smith translates the phrase ‘but their liars led them astray, / the ones after which their fathers went’,9 noting that ‘the Old Greek translated “their liars” with “their follies, idols” and adds “which they have made” which is not in the Hebrew.’

The final lines of 2:4 are sometimes interpreted to refer to Judah’s worship of ‘false gods, or idols’. On the basis of this interpretation, a specific sin against Judah is identified, but it is a crime against Yahweh rather than a social sin as in the earlier oracles. But the root meaning of kzb means ‘to lie’, and there is no other case in Deuteronomy (or the rest of Hebrew scripture) where this root clearly means ‘false gods, idols’. The prophets do describe the people as being ‘led astray’ by the ‘lies’ (kzb) of the false prophets and leaders of the nation (Isa. 3:12; 9:15–16; 28:15; Mic. 3:5; Jer. 23:14, 32). These leaders deceived the people of Judah and caused perversion in the moral, civil, ceremonial, and personal behavior or attitudes of the people.10

There is clearly some debate about this and I have no skills, training or experience in reading or understanding Hebrew, but it seems to me that ‘liars,’ referring to leaders who have led Israel astray is the appropriate reading of these verses. The ESV, HCSB, KJV, NLT, and NRSV all translate this part of verse 4 as ‘liars’ with the NIV being the only translation I looked at rendering it as ‘false gods.’ I think what we see here is a nation that has gradually abandoned God’s plan through following poor leaders.

2. The Oracle Against Israel

The oracle against Israel in verses 6–16 can be divided into three parts:

  1. The standard formula – ‘For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent’ followed by a list of the sins that led to this judgement

  2. A reminder of what God has done – they are God’s special people, they have received many blessings and benefited from divine favour

  3. A description of the coming judgement – it is inescapable

The first six oracles against the nations surrounding Judah and Israel consisted of accusations of immorality against other people. As I discussed in the post on Amos 1, God is holding them to a general standard common to all people. In Amos 2, when the prophet’s attention is turned to Judah and then to Israel, we see that they are being held to account not only for sins against this general standard everyone is expected to know and respect, but also for sins against the more specific standard, the standard God revealed to them and for sins against God. Judah, it says, ‘rejected the law of the Lord’ (v. 4) and Israel profaned God’s holy name (v. 7).11

In verses 9–12, Amos retells some of the things God has done for his people:

One of the key topics in Amos is, I think, the idea of privilege. God’s people had a unique privilege – they had the law, they had instructions from God, they knew what was right and what was wrong through more than just their conscience. The list of what God has done for the Israelites was not simply a reminder that he was good and worthy of their devotion and obedience. No, as we’re told in verse 6, God ‘will not relent.’ This wasn’t a call to repentance, this was a notice of the coming judgment.

When Amos reminded the Israelites that the God whose name they had profaned was the same God who destroyed the Amorites completely (from fruit to root), he was reminding them that God is a God of justice, a powerful God who had destroyed a powerful people before because of the very things the Israelites were now themselves doing. In Amos 3:2 it says, ‘You only have I chosen / of all the families of the earth; / therefore I will punish you for all your sins.’ The fact that they were God’s chosen people didn’t let them off the hook, God wouldn’t treat them more leniently than the Amorites. On the contrary, because they had the privileges of being led by him through the wilderness, of having prophets in their midst, of seeing holiness lived out in the lives of the Nazirites, of possessing the law, they would be judged more harshly. They wouldn’t be let off the hook because God had been so good to them, they were all the more aware of the seriousness of and responsible for their actions because God had given them every assistance to live rightly and despite all this they chose to live wrongly.

The list of things God had done for his people in verses 9–12 showed just how completely they had rejected God’s goodness and provision for them. ‘Whatever their sins against the voice of conscience, this is no longer in the forefront. They have passed the point of no return by disregarding and silencing the voice of revelation.’12

3. Israeli and Judah Together Under God’s Judgement

In 930 BC, Rehoboam began to reign and, as we learn in 1 Kings 12, due to ‘the repressive measures his father, Solomon, had initiated to fund his building projects’13

Although Judah and Israel were once one nation, rivalry between the tribes existed before the reign of David (2 Sam. 2–3), and eventually the nation split after the death of Solomon (1 Kings 12). Bitterness and mistrust resulted in open war between the two brother nations (1 Kings 12:18–24; 14:30; 15:7, 16–21, 32; 2 Kings 14:8–14). The introduction of the calves at Bethel and Dan, the acceptance of Baalism and other cultic innovations (1 Kings 12:28–33) widened the gap between Judah and Israel. In many ways the Israelites in Samaria considered Judah a foreign nation, and the audience probably greeted Amos’ condemnation of Judah with a good deal of pleasure and smug self-righteousness.14

The ten northern tribes that comprised the nation of Israel and the two southern tribes that comprised the nation of Judah would be punished for the same reason: because they were God’s chosen people (with all the blessings and privileges that came with it) and yet had still sinned, they would be punished.

Though Judah and Israel considered themselves separate nations, the list of things God had done for the northern nation of Israel applies equally to the southern tribe of Judah. They had all received the law, they had all seen God destroy the Amorites, they had all been rescued by God from Egypt, they had all been with God in the wilderness. As it says in Amos 3:1: ‘Hear this word, people of Israel, the word the Lord has spoken against you—against the whole family I brought up out of Egypt’.

IV. Theological Reflections

1. God Doesn’t Play Favourites

There is no distinction between the other nations and Israel and Judah. Amos uses the same phrase to describe the repeated transgressions of Israel as he used in the earlier oracles: ‘For three sins of Israel, / even for four, I will not relent.’ (2:4, 6)

Writing in his commentary on Amos, J. A. Motyer says this:

In the same way, the appeal to conscience, to common humanity, underlying his review of the world is another move depriving Israel of any special ground or plea. Whatever makes Israel distinct among the nations, there is no distinction at this point, that the same moral rules operate inside as outside. Thus the noose tightens until, as we shall now see, the unique position granted by grace to the church of God, far from excusing or even ameliorating the offence, aggravates the situation so that Israel’s fourth transgression is even less understandable or forgivable than that of the heathen who knew not God. The uniqueness of the church includes its unique peril.15

This truth is directly applicable to the church today. We have been redeemed through the blood of Christ. This is our rescue-from-Egypt story. But the idea that we can sit back and live however we like is totally incompatible with everything the Bible teaches through both the Old and New Testaments. It is an age-old tension – we are the rescued and redeemed people of God but that doesn’t lessen our responsibility, it increases it.

‘I will not vacillate about it’ demonstrates Yahweh’s determination to hold Judah responsible for her guilt. His wrath will not cease; the decree will be carried out; Judah will be punished for her many rebellious acts. Any privilege which Judah enjoyed through her special relationship to God is ignored. The possibility of excuse is not even mentioned; instead the advantage of Judah increases the weight of her guilt.16

In Luke 12:42ff, Jesus contrasts a ‘faithful and wise manager’ with a ‘servant who knows the master’s will and …does not do what the master wants.’ Jesus said ‘it will be good for [the faithful and wise] servant …when [the master] returns’ but the master ‘will cut [the second servant] to pieces and assign him a place with unbelievers.’

‘The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.’ (Luke 12:47–48)

Like Amos, Jesus tells us that knowing the truth isn’t enough. On the contrary, those who know what the master wants and don’t do it will receive a harsher punishment. There is no favouritism with God. But what does this mean? Perhaps there is more to it than this, but I think at least this means that growing up in a Christian family or learning about the Christian faith without actually submitting to Jesus as your Lord and God as your master isn’t going to help one bit. There are plenty of people who call themselves Christians for whom these must be terrifying verses indeed. For me, they give me pause for thought and I’d like to continue to try to understand exactly what they mean.

2. God’s People Are Vulnerable to Lies

In Amos, we see God’s chosen people falling into the sins of the Amorites. We see a gradual corruption through tradition: ‘because they have been led astray by false gods, the gods their ancestors followed’ (v. 4). It happened to God’s people in the Old Testament and we would, I think, be fools to think that it cannot happen to the church today.

Motyer made two relevant points on this topic:

  1. God’s truth (as revealed to us in the Bible) is ‘the safeguard of the church’ just as much as ‘the church is called by God to safeguard’ it. We are to look to the Bible, not to man (no matter how good their theological pedigree) for the truth about how we should live. It’s important that we don’t let the idea that we are the guardians of the truth drown out the Bible’s ability to speak to us and correct our understanding no matter how much tradition is on the line. The Bible keeps the Christian safe from bad leadership in the church just as much as the church proclaims the truths of the Bible.

    Here is a very largely forgotten and yet most vital principle. It is certainly the case that the church is called by God to safeguard, publicize and transmit His truth (e.g. 2 Tim. 1:13, 14; 2:1, 2); but it is equally the case that the truth is the safeguard of the church, both in the corporate sense of preserving the whole body and in the individual sense of guarding, defending and keeping each member. The life which walks int the truth is impregnable (cf. Jn. 8:31, 32, 34–36).17

  2. The Bible is not the only source of truth. In Proverbs 6:6, we’re told, ‘Go to the ant, you sluggard; / consider its ways and be wise!’ We can look at the world God has created and we can listen to the people God has created, the people who bear his image, to learn truth. But the instruction God has revealed to us in the Bible must be our supreme source of truth. That’s the thing we are to base our lives on.

    Now Amos is not saying that man is incapable of ever unearthing truth. He is not even saying that unless a thing can be verified by Scripture it must be false. He is saying this: when anything other than the Word of God is given the supreme place, so that we base our lives upon it and guide our lives by it, then it becomes a lie and a source of lies. To put it at its best—i.e. when ‘tradition’ expresses a truth and not an error—when a part of the truth is taken to be the whole of the truth it becomes an untruth, simply because it is stretched beyond its limit, and becomes warped and altered. And when such a misshapen ‘truth’ is taken as the guide for life, what can it do but mislead?18

I think the words of this oracle, that ‘They have rejected the instruction of the Lord, / refusing to obey his decrees. / They have been led astray by the same lies / that deceived their ancestors’ (Amos 2:4b–c, NLT) speak directly into our context today. We need to make sure we never forget God’s instruction (and the type of instruction it is, i.e., relational instruction) and fall victim to the same lies humans have been deceived by for as long as there have been humans.

3. We Cannot Save Ourselves

Verses 13–15 expand on the coming judgement. Amos corrects any mistaken idea in the people that there would be hope for escape. God will crush them and nobody will escape, not the swift, the strong, the warrior, the teacher, the archer, the fleet-footed soldier, the horseman. The bravest warriors will be humiliated – they will flee naked on the coming day of judgement.

Niehaus sees hope in verses 13ff and certainly this is in line with God’s character, but I’m not sure it can be tied back to Amos’ message here.

In the midst of all this, however, there is ultimate hope. For it is the Lord who chastises them. And the Lord is, after all, ‘God the Hero.’ ‘The Lord disciplines those whom he loves, / and chastises every child whom he accepts’ (Heb. 12:6, quoting Prov. 3:12). And he must win the battle.19

Those we rely on for help, those to whom we look to save us will not be able to do so. Against the punishment of God, all human effort fails.

It illustrates, along with verses 14–15, the principle there stated, that none of the able, skilled, or mighty will be able to do what is expected of them when the judgement of Yahweh comes. Indeed, they will not even be able to deliver themselves, not to mention making an effective stand against the foe.20

Postscript

One of the things I’ve noticed as I’ve been studying Amos is how much I don’t yet understand about God’s story. The Old and New Testaments must be understood as a whole, but I find so many unanswered questions about passages in the New Testament getting in the way of me understanding the Old. For example, what does it mean that there is no condemnation for believers (cf. Romans 8:1)? Does it make Amos’ warnings irrelevant to the Christian? Are they purely of historical value? Do they reveal the will and heart of God? I haven’t given a lot of thought to Romans 8:1 but it does seem to be related to Amos’ words that God’s anger would rage against the Israelites and nothing could turn it away. I’m sure I’ll understand more things as I continue to engage with God’s word; I’m also sure I’ll never get to the end, I’ll never know everything. Perhaps when I study Romans, I’ll find that my ideas about how to interpret Amos were wrong.

Another example of this is the New Testament teaching about obeying secular authorities in Romans 13 (‘Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.’ [Romans 13:1]) and 1 Peter 2 (‘Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.’ [1 Peter 2:13]). In Amos 2:4, the Israelites are accused of following poor leaders. Perhaps there’s some extra context since the nation of Israel and its leaders were chosen by God in a way that our secular nations are not? I think it quite likely that it’s a warning against following ungodly leaders in our churches.

Works Cited

Motyer, Alec. The Message of Amos. edited by Alec Motyer. The Bible Speaks Today. 1984. Repr., Nottingham, England: InterVarsity Press, 2011. Reprint of The Day of the Lion. Nottingham, England: InterVarsity Press, 1974.

Niehaus, Jeff. ‘Amos’. Pages 315–494 in The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary. edited by Thomas E. McComiskey. 1992. Repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009.

Rusten, E. Michael, and Sharon O. Rusten. The Complete Book of When & Where in the Bible and Throughout History. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2005.

Smith, Gary V. Amos. rev. and exp. ed. Ross-shire, Scotland, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 1998. Repr., 2017. Reprint of Amos. Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Zondervan Publishing House, 1989.

  1. ‘Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that stew! I’m famished!” (That is why he was also called Edom.’ (Genesis 25:29f) 

  2. ‘So both of Lot’s daughters became pregnant by their father. The older daughter had a son, and she named him Moab; he is the father of the Moabites today. The younger daughter also had a son, and she named him Ben-Ammi; he is the father of the Ammonites of today.’ (Genesis 19:36–38) 

  3. ‘The first three nations reviewed, Syria, Philistia and Tyre, belonged to Israel’s political environment and nothing more. But in the biblical view of things the next three, Edom (cf. Gn. 25:29f), Ammon and Moab (cf. Gn. 19:36–38), were “cousins” to Israel: divine judgment was now falling, so to say, within the family.’ (Alec Motyer, The Message of Amos, ed. Alec Motyer, The Bible Speaks Today [1984; repr., Nottingham, England: InterVarsity Press, 2011], 50; repr. of The Day of the Lion [Nottingham, England: InterVarsity Press, 1974]) 

  4. ‘It is appropriate to notice here that in condemning these nations—both the outright heathen and the related heathen—the ground of accusation is never simply that they have acted to the detriment of Israel.’ (ibid., 50) 

  5. I will not engage with questions of the source and unity of Amos in this post. I may look at it in future posts, though I make no promises. For those who would like to read about this, Smith’s ‘Unity’ section is well written and provides a good starting point. (See Gary V. Smith, Amos, rev. and exp. ed. [Ross-shire, Scotland, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 1998; repr., 2017], 110–14; repr. of Amos [Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Zondervan Publishing House, 1989]) 

  6. Smith, Amos, 115. 

  7. Motyer, The Message of Amos, 54. 

  8. Ibid., 54. 

  9. Smith, Amos, 106. 

  10. Ibid., 115–16. 

  11. ‘By agreeing with Amos’ accusations against Judah, the Israelite audience is admitting the validity of God’s law as a standard for the judgment of his people. Judah knew God’s will (and so did Israel), but she failed to follow him. Although failure to follow Yahweh’s law is never specifically mentioned in the following oracle against Israel, most agree that the Israelite legal code is the backdrop for the accusation against Israel. Therefore, the establishment of its authority immediately before the Israelite oracle is significant. The specific sins of Israel (2:6–8) are contrary to the traditions which Judah and Israel received and the proclamation of the prophets (2:11). By getting Israel to support the judgment against Judah on the basis of the law of Yahweh, Amos has prepared the nation for God’s word against the northern tribes.’ (Smith, Amos, 116) 

  12. Ibid., 109. 

  13. E. Michael Rusten and Sharon O. Rusten, The Complete Book of When & Where in the Bible and Throughout History (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2005), 22. 

  14. Smith, Amos, 114. 

  15. Motyer, The Message of Amos, 50–51. 

  16. Smith, Amos, 114–15. 

  17. Motyer, The Message of Amos, 54. 

  18. Ibid., 54. 

  19. Jeff Niehaus, ‘Amos’, in The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary, ed. Thomas E. McComiskey (1992; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 315–494. 

  20. Ibid., 373. 

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