The third among the Minor Prophets of the Old Testament is called, in the Hebrew Text, "'Ams." The spelling of his name is different from that of the name of Isaias's father, Amoç ; whence Christian tradition has, for the most part, rightly distinguished between the two. The prophet's name, Amos , has been variously explained, and its exact meaning is still a matter of conjecture.
According to the heading of his book (i,1) Amos was a herdsman of Thecua, a village in the Southern Kingdom, twelve miles south of Jerusalem. Besides this humble avocation, he is also spoken of in vii, 14, as a simple dresser of sycamore-trees. Hence, as far as we know, there is no sufficient ground for the view of most Jewish interpreters that Amos was a wealthy man. Thecua was apparently a shepherd's town, and it was while following his flock in the wilderness of Juda, that, in the reigns of Ozias and Jeroboam, God called him for a special mission: "Go, prophesy to My people Israel " (vii, 15). In the eyes of the humble shepherd this must have appeared a most difficult mission. At the time when the call came to him, he was "not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet " (vii, 14), which implies that he had not yet entered upon the prophetical office, and even that he had not attended the schools wherein young men in training for a prophet's career bore the name of "the sons of a prophet ".
Other reasons might well cause Amos to fear to accept the divine mission. He, a Southerner, was bidden to go to the Northern Kingdom, Israel, and carry to its people and its leaders a message of judgment to which, from their historical circumstances, they were particularly ill-prepared to listen. Its ruler, Jeroboam II (c. 781-741 B.C. ), had rapidly conquered Syria, Moab, and Ammon, and thereby extended his dominions from the source of the Orontes on the north to the Dead Sea on the south. The whole northern empire of Solomon thus practically restored had enjoyed a long period of peace and security marked by a wonderful revival of artistic and commercial development. Samaria, its capital, had been adorned with splendid and substantial buildings; riches had been accumulated in abundance; comfort and luxury had reached their highest standard; so that the Northern Kingdom had attained a material prosperity unprecedented since the disruption of the empire of Solomon. Outwardly, religion was also in a most flourishing condition. The sacrificial worship of the God of Israel was carried on with great pomp and general faithfulness, and the long enjoyment of national prosperity was popularly regarded as an undoubted token of the Lord's favour towards His people. It is true that public morals had gradually been infected by the vices which continued success and plenty too often bring in their train. Social corruption and the oppression of the poor and helpless were very prevalent. But these and similar marks of public degeneracy could be readily excused on the plea that they were the necessary accompaniments of a high degree of Oriental civilization. Again, religion was debased in various ways. Many among the Israelites were satisfied with the mere offering of the sacrificial victims, regardless of the inward dispositions required for their worthy presentation to a thrice-holy God. Others availed themselves of the throngs which attended the sacred festivals to indulge in immoderate enjoyment and tumultuous revelry. Others again, carried away by the freer association with heathen peoples which resulted from conquest or from commercial intercourse, even went so far as to fuse with the Lord's worship that of pagan deities. Owing to men's natural tendency to be satisfied with the mechanical performance of religious duties, and owing more particularly to the great proneness of the Hebrews of old to adopt the sensual rites of foreign cults, so long as they did not give up the worship of their own God, these irregularities in matters of religion did not appear objectionable to the Israelites, all the more so because the Lord did not punish them for their conduct. Yet it was to that most prosperous people, thoroughly convinced that God was well-pleased with them, that Amos was sent to deliver a stern rebuke for all their misdeeds, and to announce in God's name their forthcoming ruin and captivity (vii, 17).
Amos's mission to Israel was but a temporary one. It extended apparently from two years before to a few years after an earthquake, the exact date of which is unknown (i, 1). It met with strong opposition, especially on the part of Amasias, the chief priest of the royal sanctuary in Bethel (vii, 10-13). How it came to an end is not known; for only late and untrustworthy legends tell of Amos's martyrdom under the ill-treatment of Amasias and his son. It is more probable that, in compliance with Amasias's threatening order (vii, 12), the prophet withdrew to Juda, where at leisure he arranged his oracles in their well-planned disposition.
The book of Amos falls naturally into three parts. The first opens with a general title to the work, giving the author's name and the general date of his ministry (i, 1), and a text or motto in four poetical lines (i, 2), describing under a fine image the Lord's power over Palestine. This part comprises the first two chapters, and is made up of a series of oracles against Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, Moab, Juda, and, finally, Israel. Each oracle begins with the same numerical formula: "For three crimes of Damascus [or Gaza, or Tyre, etc., as the case may be], and for four , I will not revoke the doom"; it next sets forth the chief indictment; and finally pronounces the penalty. The heathen nations are doomed not because of their ignorance of the true God, but because of their breaches of the elementary and unwritten laws of natural humanity and good faith. As regards Juda and Israel, they will share the same doom because, although they were especially cared for by the Lord who drew them out of Egypt, conquered for them the land of Chanaan, and gave them prophets and Nazarites, yet they have committed the same crimes as their pagan neighbours. Israel is rebuked more at length than Juda, and its utter destruction is vividly described.
The second part (chaps. iii-vi) consists of a series of addresses which expand the indictment and the sentence against Israel set forth in ii, 6-16. Amos's indictment bears (1) on the social disorders prevalent among the upper classes; (2) on the heartless luxury and self-indulgence of the wealthy ladies of Samaria ; (3) on the too great confidence of the Israelites at large in their mere external discharge of religious duties which can in no way secure them against the approaching doom. The sentence itself assumes the form of a dirge over the captivity which awaits the unrepenting transgressors, and the complete surrender of the country to the foreign enemy.
The third section of the book (chaps. vii-ix, 8 b .), apart from the historical account of Amasias's opposition to Amos (vii, 10-17), and from a discourse (viii, 4-14) similar in tone and import to the addresses contained in the second part of the prophecy, is wholly made up of visions of judgment against Israel. In the first two visions --the one of devouring locusts, and the other of consuming fire--the foretold destruction is stayed by divine interposition; but in the third vision, that of a plumb-line, the destruction is permitted to become complete. The fourth vision, like the foregoing, is symbolical; a basket of summer fruit points to the speedy decay of Israel ; while in the fifth and last the prophet beholds the Lord standing beside the altar and threatening the Northern Kingdom with a chastisement from which there is no escape. The book concludes with God's solemn promise of the glorious restoration of the House of David, and of the wonderful prosperity of the purified nation (ix, 8 c -15).
It is universally admitted at the present day that these contents are set forth in a style of "high literary merit ". This literary excellence might, indeed, at first sight appear in strange contrast with Amos's obscure birth and humble shepherd life. A closer study, however, of the prophet's writing and of the actual circumstances of its composition does away with that apparent contrast. Before Amos's time the Hebrew language had gradually passed through several stages of development, and had been cultivated by several able writers. Again, it is not to be supposed that the prophecies of Amos were delivered exactly as they are recorded. Throughout the book the topics are treated poetically, and many of its literary features are best accounted for by admitting that the prophet spared no time and labour to invest his oral utterances with their present elaborate form. Finally, to associate inferior culture with the simplicity and relative poverty of pastoral life would be to mistake totally the conditions of Eastern society, ancient and modern. For among the Hebrews of old, as among the Arabs of the present day, the sum of book-learning was necessarily small, and proficiency in knowledge and oratory was chiefly dependent not on a professional education, but on a shrewd observation of men and things, a memory retentive of traditional lore, and the faculty of original thought.
Apart from a few recent critics, all scholars maintain the correctness of the traditional view which refers the book of Amos to the Judean prophet of that name. They rightly think that the judgments, sermons, and visions which make up that sacred writing centre in a great message of doom to Israel. The contents read like a solemn denunciation of the incurable wickedness of the Northern Kingdom, like a direct prediction of its impending ruin. The same scholars regard likewise the general style of the book, with its poetical form and striking simplicity, abruptness, etc., as proof that the work is a literary unit, the various parts of which should be traced back to one and the same mind, to the one and holy prophet, whose name and period of activity are given in the title to the prophecy, and whose authorship is repeatedly affirmed in the body of the book (cf. vii, 1, 2, 4, 5, 8; viii, 1, 2; ix, 1, etc.).
To confirm the traditional view of Jews and Christians in regard to authorship and date, the two following facts have also been brought forth:
Two facts contribute to give to the religious doctrine of Amos a special importance. On the one hand, his prophecies are wellnigh universally regarded as authentic, and on the other, his work is probably the earliest prophetical writing which has come down to us. So that the book of Amos furnishes us with most valuable information concerning the beliefs of the eighth century B.C. , and in fact, concerning those of some time before, since, in delivering the Divine message to his contemporaries, the prophet always takes for granted that they are already familiar with the truths to which he appeals. Amos teaches a most pure monotheism. Throughout his book there is not so much as a reference to other deities than the God of Israel. He often speaks of "the Lord of Hosts", meaning thereby that God has untold forces and powers at His command; in other words, that He is omnipotent. His descriptions of the Divine attributes show that according to his mind God is the Creator and Ruler of all things in heaven and on earth; He governs the nations at large, as well as the heavenly bodies and the elements of nature ; He is a personal and righteous God who punishes the crimes of all men, whether they belong to the heathen nations or to the chosen people. The prophet repeatedly inveighs against the false notions which his contemporaries had of God's relation to Israel. He does not deny that the Lord is their God in a special manner. But he argues that His benefits to them in the past, instead of being a reason for them to indulge with security in sins hateful to God's holiness, really increase their guilt and must make them fear a severer penalty. He does not deny that sacrifices should be offered to the Divine Majesty; but he most emphatically declares that the mere outward offering of them is not pleasing to God and cannot placate His anger. On the day of the Lord, that is on the day of retribution, Israelites who shall be found guilty of the same crimes as the heathen nations will be held to account for them severely. It is true that Amos argues in a concrete manner with his contemporaries, and that consequently he does not formulate abstract principles. Nevertheless, his book is replete with truths which can never become superfluous or obsolete.
Finally, whatever view may be taken of the authorship of the concluding portion of the book of Amos (vii, 8 c .-15), the Messianic bearing of the passage will be readily admitted by all who believe in the existence of the supernatural. It may also be added that this Messianic prophecy is worded in a manner that offers no insuperable objection to the traditional view which regards Amos as its author.
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