Amos’ call to the prophetic ministry came directly from Yahweh and it came unexpectedly. While Amos was tending the flock, he heard the voice of the Lord telling him to “go and prophesy to my people Israel” (Amos 7:15).
The information about Amos’ experience with the Lord is given in the context of his confrontation with Amaziah, the priest of Bethel. Nothing is known as to when this confrontation between Amaziah and Amos took place. However, it is evident from the words of Amaziah that Amos had been preaching for sometime. According to Amaziah, Amos’ preaching could not continue since it posed a threat to the survival of the monarchy.
Amaziah was afraid that Amos was instigating a political revolt against King Jeroboam II. Amaziah sent words to the king saying: “Amos has conspired against you” (Amos 7:10). The word for “conspire” in the mouth of Amaziah was the same word used when Jehu, with the enouragement of the prophet Elisha, conspired against Joram, a king from the house of Omri (2 Kings 10:9).
As a representative of the king, Amaziah sent word to the palace in Samaria reporting what he believed to be a conspiracy against the king. According to Amaziah, Amos had preached a message in which he proclaimed the deportation of the nation and the violent death of the king.
Amaziah told Amos to leave Bethel and return to Tekoa: “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there” (Amos 7:12). By declaring that Amos was a “seer,” Amaziah recognized Amos’ authority to preach the Word of God. This is the reason Amaziah did not forbid Amos from preaching. Rather, Amaziah commanded Amos to leave the country and return to his home.
In order to defend himself from the accusations lodged against him by Amaziah, Amos explained to the priest of Bethel that Yahweh had called him to act as his representative. Amos’ answer to Amaziah has caused much debate among scholars. The reason is that in Hebrew, Amos’ sentence contains no verbs. The nominal clauses in Hebrew could be translated either in the past or in the present.
The Hebrew of Amos 7:14 could be translated literally as follows:
“No prophet I, and not a son of a prophet I.”
In English, Amos’ words can be translated two different ways: “I am not a prophet nor a son of a prophet” or “I was not a prophet nor a son of a prophet.”
The English versions differ in how they translate Amos 7:14. The following two translations translate the words of Amos using the present tense:
“Then Amos answered and said to Amaziah, ‘I am not a prophet, nor am I the son of a prophet; for I am a herdsman and a grower of sycamore figs’” (New American Standard Version).
“‘I am not a prophet,’ Amos replied to Amaziah, ‘nor do I belong to a prophetic brotherhood. I am merely a herdsman and dresser of sycamore-figs’” (New Jerusalem Bible).
The following two translations translate the words of Amos using the past tense:
“Amos answered Amaziah, ‘I was neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore-fig trees’” (New International Version).
“Then Amos answered and said to Amaziah, ‘I was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs’” (English Standard Version).
The issue related to the proper interpretation of Amos’ words is whether his words refer to his past, “I was no prophet …. I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs,” or to his present: “I am not a prophet . . . I am merely a herdsman and dresser of sycamore-figs.”
The words of Amos in 7:14-15 describe how he became a messenger of Yahweh and was sent to Israel with a message. Before he became a prophet, Amos was a shepherd and a gatherer of sycamore figs, and not a prophet. He earned his living as a shepherd and what he did was not related to a prophetic ministry.
It was when Amos received the commission from Yahweh that he left his work and began preaching as instructed by God. Although scholarly opinions differ on how Amos’ words should be interpreted, it seems that Amos was saying to Amaziah that he was compelled to speak on behalf of Yahweh, even though he was not a prophet and did not receive any training to become a prophet.
In another context, Amos explained the reason he was proclaiming Yahweh’s message: Amos said: “A lion has roared! Who is not afraid? The sovereign LORD has spoken! Who can refuse to prophesy?” (Amos 3:8). In this passage Amos seems to indicate that one does not need to be trained as a prophet to proclaim Yahweh’s words.
Amos denied that he was a professional prophet, but that he was prophesying because he had received a command from the Lord. He was not making his living as a prophet, since his work was other than being a prophet.
Based on Amos’ words to Amaziah, most scholars believe that Amos’ ministry as a prophet was brief. According to Amos, he was taken from his work: he was “following the flock.” This statement, however, does not mean that Amos gave up his work as a shepherd. He was not a prophet for life. Since Amaziah told Amos to return to Tekoa and earn his living there, this probably means that Amos’ ministry had come to an end. He had a message to deliver and once the message was delivered, he probably went home to continue his vocation as a shepherd.
In the Old Testament, many of the prophetic calls were followed by visions in which Yahweh told the prophets his plans for the nation. Amos received five visions from the Lord. These five visions are related to his call and the reason he was being sent. The five visions are:
1. The Vision of the Swarming Locust, Amos 7:1-3
2. The Vision of the Devouring Fire, Amos 7:4-6
3. The Vision of the Plumb Line, Amos 7:4-6
4. The Vision of the Basket of Summer Fruits, Amos 8:1-3
5. The Vision of the Lord’s Judgment, Amos 9:1-4
Amos’ dialogue with Amaziah provides the reader with a clear understanding of what it means to be called to a prophetic ministry. The call of Amos came while he was involved in his daily activity as a shepherd. It was on that occasion that an authoritative hand took hold of him and commanded him to fulfill the role of a prophet.
The call of Amos has many lessons for those who have received a call from the Lord. Amos was a layman on a mission and what gave him the authority to speak of behalf of God was the fact that God commissioned him after taking him out of his daily responsibilities. It was Amos’ obedience to the one who called him that gave him the authority to speak against the nation and its king. It is in being obedient to the call of God that Amos and today’s ministers find their identity in Christ: “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to accomplish His work” (John 4:34).
My next post on Amos will deal with Amos’ first vision: The Vision of the Swarming Locust, Amos 7:1-3.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary