Over the next five months, the lectionary is taking a dive into the books of the prophets. These are offered as companions to the Gospel readings from the “orderly account” of Luke that we are hearing, week by week. It is, after all, Luke’s narrative which most directly depicts Jesus speaking as God’s prophet (Luke 7:16; 24:19; Acts 2:30; 3:22).
In turn, over the coming months we will read and hear excerpts from the northern kingdom prophets, Amos and Hosea; then from the southern kingdom prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah, two of the “major prophets” of Israel; followed by three “minor prophets”, Joel, Habakkuk, and Haggai; and then a section from the closing vision in the much later set of oracles collected at the end of the book of Isaiah. We should buckle up for the ride; the prophets pull no punches and speak in ways that can confront, accuse, and terrify!
We have these books in our scriptures and read and reflect on them in our services of worship because, although these voices sounded forth long ago, their message resonates still with us today. The call for justice and righteousness undergirds the entire narrative of the people of Israel, from the call attributed to Moses in Deut 16:20, “justice, and only justice, shall you follow”, through the words of Amos and Isaiah, into the declarations of Jeremiah and in the various “minor prophets” that we will encounter.
Justice is the common theme in these prophetic books—God’s justice; the justice which God desires for the people of God; the justice which God speaks through the voice of the prophets; the justice that God calls for in Israel; the justice that provides the measure against which Israel will be judged, and saved, or condemned.
In the later scriptures of the New Testament, we hear resonances from many of these selected passages of Hebrew Scripture. Jesus, the prophet of Nazareth, stands in this tradition and speaks “the voice of the Lord”, so the call for justice and righteousness sits at the heart of who we are, as people of faith, heirs of this tradition, in the 21st century.
As we read and hear these prophetic passages week after week, we are invited to reflect more deeply on how these ancient words, particular to their original time and place, can yet be for us the word of God to us, in our time, in our place.
This Sunday, we will hear the vision of the plum line (Amos 7:7–17); next Sunday, the vision of the basket of fruit (Amos 8:1–12). Amos, who came from Tekoa in the southern kingdom (1:1), was active in the northern kingdom (Israel) during the reign of Jeroboam II, the thirteenth king of Israel, who reigned for four decades (786–746 BCE; see Amos 7:10). It was a time of prosperity, built on the trading of olive oil and wine with the neighbouring nations of Assyria to the north and Egypt to the south. But the sinfulness of the time was too much for Amos.
Although the Temple in Jerusalem was the focus for religious activity in the southern kingdom (Judah), there were a number of religious sites in the northern kingdom—Dan, Bethel, Gilgal and Beersheba (Amos 5:5; 8:14)—where not only was the Lord God worshipped, but idolatrous images were used in worship services (5:26). Amos is trenchant in his criticism of the worship that the people offer (5:21–27); embedded in this crisis is a doublet of poetry, words most often associated with Amos: “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24).
Indeed, it is the perpetration of social inequity within Israel that most causes him to convey the anger of divine displeasure. He admonishes the rich for the way that they mistreat the poor: “they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way” (2:6–7); “you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain” (5:11).
Again, Amos rails: “you trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land … buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat” (8:4, 6). In a biting oracle, he criticises the “cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria” for the way they “oppress the poor, crush the needy” (4:1).
Bashan was the mountainous area to the northeast of Israel (Ps 68:15), which rejoiced in majestic oaks (Isa 2:13) and extensive pasture lands (1 Chron 5:16). The luxurious lifestyle of these people can well be imagined. The reference to “winter houses … summer houses … houses of ivory … and great houses” (3:15) is telling. Luxury and opulence is evident amongst the wealthy.
So, too, is the description of “those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils” (6:4–6). The extravagance of the wealthy is obvious, juxtaposed against the plight of the poor, as we have noted.
Amos indicates that God had given Israel a number of opportunities to repent, “yet you did not return to me” (4:6, 8, 9, 10, 11). God pleads for Israel to “seek me and live” (5:4), “seek the Lord and live” (5:6), “seek good and not evil, that you may live” (5:14).
But this is all in vain; ultimately, the prophet insists, the Lord God will bring on the day of the Lord—a day of “darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it” (5:18–20). God is determined; “the great house shall be shattered to bits, and the little house to pieces” (6:11); later, he insists again, “the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place” (8:3).
In a series of visions, Amos sees how the judgement of God will be implemented. He sees a plague of locusts (7:1–3), a shower of fire (7:4–6), a plum line (7:7–9), and a basket of summer fruit (8:1–6). Finally, he sees “the Lord standing beside the altar” (9:1–8).
The first two visions give Amos an opportunity to intercede on behalf of the people: “O Lord God, forgive, I beg you!” (7:2), “O Lord God, cease, I beg you!” (7:5). On both occasions, God relents, declaring, “it shall not be” (7:3, 6).
Not so with the following visions, however. The vision of the plum line signals that “the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword” (7:8). The vision of the basket of fruits signals that “the end has come upon my people Israel” (8:2). In the vision of the Lord at the altar, God declares a definitive judgement on Israel: “those who are left I will kill with the sword; not one of them shall flee away, not one of them shall escape” (9:1).
Interrupting the sequence of visions, Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, confers with King Jeroboam of Israel, informing him that the prophet has spoken of the king’s imminent death and the people’s exile (7:11). Amaziah, disturbed by this pronouncement, commands Amos to flee south, to Judah (7:12-13).
Amos responds with what we recognise to be the humility of a true prophet: “I am no prophet” (7:14; cf. Moses at Exod 3:11; 4:1, 10, 13; Jeremiah at Jer 1:6), yet then he proceeds to reiterate his prophecy: “you yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land” (7:16-17).
Returning to the sequence of visions, Amos notes that the day will come when God “will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight” (8:9–11). On that day, “the beautiful young women and the young men shall faint for thirst … they shall fall, and never rise again” (8:12–13).
Resolute in the intention to punish those who have perpetrated social inequity and religious idolatry, God insists that “I will fix my eyes on them for harm and not for good” (9:4); “the eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the face of the earth” (9:8).
Yet, at the very end, Amos relays the news that God has modified this intention: “I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob, says the Lord” (9:8); “on that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen, and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old” (9:11). This final oracle from Amos (9:11–15) envisages a restored and rebuilt Israel, a land once again productive, and ends with a strong expression of confidence in the people: “I will plant them upon their land, and they shall never again be plucked up out of the land that I have given them, says the Lord” (9:15).
Little did the prophet actually know what lay ahead; soon after this oracle, the king of Assyria began to deport Israelites to Assyria (2 Kings 15:29; 1 Chron 5:26), perhaps in the 730s; two decades later, a new Assyrian king captured the northern capital, Samaria (2 Kings 17:3–6). The northern kingdom had come to an end; the people taken into exile would never return to their land. They became known as “the lost tribes of Israel” (see https://www.britannica.com/topic/Ten-Lost-Tribes-of-Israel).