Amos, the first of the literary prophets, is also one of the greatest. Hosea may be more tender, Isaiah more serenely majestic, Jeremiah more passionately human; but Amos has a certain Titanic strength and rugged grandeur all his own. He was a shepherd, i.1, vii.15, and the simplicity and sternness of nature are written deep upon his soul. He is familiar with lions and bears, iii.8, v.19, and the terrors of the wilderness hover over all his message. He had observed with acuteness and sympathy the great natural laws which the experiences of his shepherd life so amply illustrated, iii.15., and his simple moral sense is provoked by the cities, with the immoral civilization for which they stand. With a lofty scorn this desert man looks upon the palaces, i.4, etc., the winter and the summer houses, iii.15, in which the luxurious and rapacious grandees of the time indulged, and contemplates their ruin with stern satisfaction.

Those were the days of Jeroboam II, i.1, and, as the period is marked by an easy self-assurance, and the ancient boundaries of Israel are restored, vi.14 (cf.2 Kings xiv.25, 28), Amos belongs, no doubt, to the latter half of his reign, probably as late as 750 B.C., for he knows, though he does not name, the Assyrians, vi.14, and he finds in their irresistible progress westwards an answer to the moral demands of his heart, Israel's exhausting wars with the Arameans were now over. Aram herself had been weakened by the repeated assaults of Assyria, and Israel was enjoying the dangerous fruits of peace. Extravagance was common, and drunkenness, no less among the women than the men, iv.1. The grossest immorality is associated even with public worship, ii.7, and religion is being eaten away by the canker of commercialism, viii.5. The poor are driven to the wall, and justice is set at defiance by those appointed to administer it, ii.6, v.7. Such was the society, brilliant without and corrupt within, into which Amos hurled his startling message that the God who had chosen them, iii.2, guided their history, ii.9, and sent them prophets to interpret His will, ii.11, would punish them for their iniquities, iii.2.

It is not certain whether the unusually skilful disposition of the book of Amos is due to himself or to a much later hand.[1] It has three great divisions: (a) the judgment (i., ii.), (b) the grounds of the judgment (iii.-vi.), (c) visions of judgment, with an outlook on the Messianic days (vii.-ix.). In chs. i., ii., with his sense of an impartial and universal moral law, Amos sees the judgment sweep across seven countries in the west -- Aram, Philistia, Phoenicia, Edom, Ammon, Moab and Israel.[2] The sins denounced are, e.g., the barbarities of warfare and the cruelties of the slave trade; but Amos dwells with special emphasis and detail on the sins of Israel, as that is the country to which, though a Judean, he has been specially sent, vii.10, 15.
[Footnote 1: Note the refrains in i., ii., cf. i.3, 6; iii.-vi. are held together by three "hears," iii.1, iv.1, v.1, and apparently by three "woes," v.7 (emended text), v.18, vi.1; so the visions in vii.-ix. are introduced by "Thus hath (the Lord Jehovah) shown me."]
[Footnote 2: It is difficult to believe that the colourless oracle against Judah, ii.4, 5, couched in perfectly general terms, is original. Doubts that are not unreasonable have also been raised regarding the oracle against Edom, i.11, 12.]

In the next section (b) he begins by asserting that Israel's religious prerogative will only the more certainly ensure her destruction, and justifies his threat of doom by his irrepressible assurance of having heard the divine voice, iii.1-8. The doom is deserved because of the rapacity, luxury, iii.9-15, and drunkenness, iv.1-3, nor will their sumptuous worship save them, iv.4, 5. Warnings enough they have had already, but as they have all been disregarded, God will come in some more terrible way, iv.6-13. Then follows a lament, v.1-3, and an appeal to hate the evil and seek God and the good, v.4-15; otherwise He will come in judgment and the "day of Jehovah," for which the people long, will be a day of storm and utter darkness, v.16-20. To-day, as in the time of the Exodus, Jehovah's demands are not ritual but moral, and the neglect of them will end in captivity, v.21-27. The luxury and self-assurance of the people are again scornfully denounced, and the doom of exile foretold (vi.).

(c) Then follow visions of destruction from locusts and drought, vii.1-6, the vision of the plumbline, symbolical of the straightness to which Israel has failed to conform, vii.7-9, the vision of the summer fruit, which, by a play upon words, portended the end, viii.1-3, and the vision of the ruined temple, ix.1-7. These visions are interrupted by the exceedingly interesting and instructive story of the encounter of the prophet with the supercilious courtier-priest of Bethel, and Amos's fearless reiteration of his message, vii.10-17; and also by the section viii.4-14, with its exposition of the evils and its threats of judgment -- a section more akin to iii.-vi. than to vii.-ix. The book concludes with an outlook on the redemption and prosperity which will follow in the Messianic age, ix.8-15. It is hardly possible that this outlook can be Amos's own. In one whose interest in morality was so overwhelming, it would be strange, though perhaps not impossible, that the golden age should be described in terms so exclusively material; but the historical implications of the passage are not those of Amos's time. It is further an express contradiction of the immediately preceding words, ix.2-5, in which, with dreadful earnestness, the prophet has expressed the thought of an inexorable and inevitable judgment from which there is no escape. Besides, while Amos addresses Israel, this passage deals with Judah, presupposes the fall[1] of the dynasty (cf. v.11) and the advent of the exile (ix.14, 15).[2]
[Footnote 1: Even if only the decay were pre-supposed, the words would be quite inapplicable to the long and prosperous reign of Uzziah, i.1.]
[Footnote: The authenticity of a few other passages, cf. viii.11, 12, has been doubted for reasons that are not always convincing. Most doubt attaches to the great doxologies, iv.13, v.8, 9, ix.5, 6. The utmost that can be said with safety is that these passages are in no case necessary to the context, while v.8, 9 is a distinct interruption, but that the conception of God suggested by them, as omnipotent and omnipresent, is not at all beyond the theological reach of Amos.]

Amos must have had predecessors, ii.11; but even so the range and boldness of his thought are astonishing. History, reflection and revelation have convinced him that Israel has had unique religious privileges, iii.2; nevertheless she stands under the moral laws by which all the world is bound, and which even the heathen acknowledge, iii.9 -- Amos has nothing to say of any written law specially given to Israel -- and by these laws she will be condemned to destruction, if she is unfaithful, just as surely as the Philistines and Phoenicians (i.). Indeed, so sternly impartial is Amos that he at times even seems to challenge the prerogative of Israel. The Philistines and Arameans had their God-guided exodus no less than Israel, and she is no more to Jehovah than the swarthy peoples of Africa, ix.7. The universal and inexorable claims of the moral law have never had a more relentless exponent than Amos; and, though there is in him a soul of pity, vii.2, 5, it was his peculiar task, not to proclaim the divine love, but to plead for social justice. God is just and man must be so too. Perhaps Amos's message is all the more daring and refreshing that he was not a professional prophet, vii.14. His culture, though not formal, is of the profoundest. He is familiar with distant peoples, ix.7, he has thought long and deeply about the past, he knows the influences that are moulding the present. The religion for which he pleaded was not a thing of rites and ceremonies, but an ideal of social justice -- a justice which would not be checked at every step by avarice and cruelty, but would flow on and on like the waves of the sea, v.24.

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