Leading Question: What happens when God’s people hear that they are no better in God’s eyes than the more obvious “sinners” in the world?
1. Startling Comparisons: Israel and her neighbors. The book of Amos opens with a string of judgments against Israel’s neighbors, a subtle introduction to the prophet’s primary message: warnings and judgments against the northern kingdom of Israel. The prophet Amos was actually a farmer from the southern kingdom of Judah who responded to God’s call to minister up north. But before dropping his bombshell on the prosperous regime of Jeroboam II, he tantalized his primary audience with his sharp criticisms of seven of Israel’s neighbors. The first three were traditional enemies: Syria to the northeast, Philistia to the southwest, and Tyre to the northeast. Then he inches closer with pronouncements against three of Israel closer relatives: Edom, the descendants of Esau, Jacob’s brother; then Ammon and Moab, the descendants of Lot through his two daughters. Finally, he strikes out against Judah, Israel’s immediate neighbor to the south, the other kingdom whose national deity was the same as Israel’s: Yahweh.
Of all the recipients of Amos’s wrath, however, Judah is the only one whose judgment was strictly religious: Judah has “rejected the law of Yahweh” (Amos 2:4, NRSV). In other words, Judah had broken her covenant with her God. The same charge could have been laid against Israel, but for all the other enemies and also for Israel herself the judgment focused, not on religious sins, but on sins against humanity. Two questions emerge from this sequence of judgments:
- Which is the more damning judgment, the religious one of breaking the covenant with Yahweh (Judah), or the more secular one, of sinning against one’s fellow creatures (all the other neighbors and Israel herself? Later in his book, Amos will utter scathing rebukes against Israel for practicing religious rituals while abusing the poor and the needy, but his opening salvo calls Israel to account for selling the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals; for trampling the heads of the poor into the dust, and for pushing the afflicted out of the way (Amos 2:6-7). For the church today, which would be the more damning charge: sins against God, or sins against humanity?
- What would have been the psychological effect on Israel of hearing the judgments against her neighbors first, then watching them come ever closer to home, with the last one against Judah, then finally on Israel herself? Would the judgment on Israel have come as a surprise, or as an ominous last word?
2. The Remnant: An Unhappy Label. In the history of God’s people, the idea of being called a “remnant” is a loaded concept. There are at least three potential applications, all of them with unhappy overtones:
- The Blessed and Superior Remnant. While the prophets constantly told their listeners that God had called them for responsibility rather than for privilege, the natural temptation for a religious remnant is to see themselves as superior to the non-remnant around them. This idea of a privileged remnant was exploded by Amos’s carefully crafted sequence of judgments in Amos 1-2. As the last word, Israel is finally confronted with judgment for committing the same sins against humanity as her neighbors had.
- The Tragic Remnant. The idea of tragic remnant is expressed in Amos 3:12: a shepherd finds only “two legs or a piece of an ear” after a lion has attacked and the homeowner returns to his destroyed property and finds only “the corner of a couch and part of a bed.” It would be like Joseph’s brothers bringing a blood-soaked garment as the only “remnant” of their lost brother.
- The Restored Remnant. While there is a tragic backdrop to this view of the remnant, it still reflects the idea of hope, surfacing even in the book of Amos. In 5:15, for example, the prophet declares that if Israel will “hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate,” then “it may be that the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.” And at the end of the book, Amos declares that God will “destroy” the “sinful kingdom” from the face of the earth – but follows with this hopeful note: “except that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob, says the LORD.”
Discussion question: Adventists believe that God has called them to be a remnant. How does the book of Amos inform our understanding of our calling to be a remnant today?
3. The Lion King. In his “Bible Amplifier” volume on the minor prophets (Hosea-Micah,Pacific Press, 1996), Jon Dybdahl notes that Amos’s picture of God is a strong one, typified by the image of a lion. Dybdahl notes that one British commentator (Motyer) actually entitled his book on Amos, The Day of the Lion, echoing Amos 1:2: “The LORD roars from Zion” (NRSV). In 3:7 Amos declares, “The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?” (NRSV). In short, the lion spurred Amos into action who then used that powerful image with the people of Israel. Dybdahl’s comment is one worth noting:
Yahweh, the Lion, is a problem for many believers today. We prefer Yahweh, the compassionate Parent and solicitous Shepherd. We can deal with a loving, merciful God, but the Lion who roars and enacts curses troubles us. We live in an age when many desire to domesticate God. We want to turn the Lion of Amos into a purring pet. We must remember that it is sin on the part of Israel and the righteousness and holiness of a covenant-keeping God that creates the lion. Sin today is just as dangerous and just as capable of creating the Lion. Amos will have performed a great service if he helps us remember that. – Dybdahl, Hosea -Micah, p. 112
4. Once Cursed Always Cursed? Included in this lesson is a quick glimpse at the book of Obadiah the shortest book in the Old Testament – only 21 verses. The judgment against Edom was particularly harsh because of the Edomite scorn against Judah when it had fallen on hard times. “You should not have gloated over your brother on the day of his misfortune,” declares the prophet Obadiah (vs. 12, NRSV). Amos includes a similar indictment: Edom will be judged “because he pursued his brother with the sword and cast off all pity” (Amos 1:11, NRSV). The harsh words of Psalm 137 are part of the same story. Obadiah declares that because of this hatred against his brother, Edom would be “cut off forever” (vs. 10, NRSV).
And yet for all this strong language, the Old Testament frequently portrays God as “changing his mind,” “relenting,” or “repenting” (depending on the translation) with reference to threatened judgments. This is true in Amos (cf. Amos 7:3, 6); Jonah illustrates the same point, for when the people of Ninevah repented, God also repented (Jonah 3:10)! Perhaps the most powerful illustration of all is provided by Ruth the Moabite. Even though Deuteronomy 23:3 explicitly closes the door to the Ammonites and Moabites as participants in the “assembly of Yahweh,” the book of Ruth shows that this mandate was not universal. Ruth became part of the royal geneaology, one of the progenitors of King David. And through that line she stands in Jesus’ genealogy as well, a point emphasized in Matthew’s list of Jesus’ ancestors in his opening chapter (Matt. 1:5).
Discussion question: Is it possible for us to hear the gracious possibilities lurking in the shadows of even the most vivid judgments in Scripture?