The call of Amos to the prophetic ministry was accompanied by five visions. Whether these visions were part of his call has been the subject of intensive scholarly debate. The question among scholars is whether the first two visions are the revelation of God’s will that prompted Amos to embark on his work as a prophet or whether all five visions came later in his career.
I believe that the first three visions are associated with Amos’ call. These three visions gave meaning to his call for they revealed to Amos the imminent judgment that was coming upon the Northern Kingdom. Visions four and five may have come later in his ministry, but they also provide Amos with knowledge of what God was planning to bring upon the Northern Kingdom.
The reason I believe the visions are related to his call is found in the superscription of Amos’ book: “This message was given to Amos, a shepherd from the town of Tekoa in Judah. He received this message in visions two years before the earthquake” (Amos 1:1 NLT). Thus, the visions provided Amos with the message he was to bring to the inhabitants of the Northern Kingdom.
The first vision of Amos (Amos 7:1-3) is focused on the coming of the locusts who serve as God’s agents of judgment. In the vision, the locusts are portrayed as devouring the vegetation of the land. Amos saw the severity of God’s judgment because the devastation left behind by the locusts would deprive the people of Israel of food until the next harvest.
In Amos’ vision the judgment had not occurred yet, for the Lord was still preparing swarms of locusts (Amos 7:1). The attack of the locust was to happen when the second crop would be sprouting, that is, “after the king’s mowing.” According to the Gezer Calendar, “the two months of late sowing” were the months of Shebat and Adar, that is, February and March (see Darrell Pursiful on Ancient Calendars).
The king’s mowing is a reference to the tax to be paid to the royal treasury. The king had the right to claim the first crop for himself as a form of taxation. When the people asked Samuel for a king, Samuel warned the people that the king would tax their crops: “[The king] will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. (1 Samuel 8:14-15).
The devastation caused by locusts was a common event in the Ancient Neat East. In the Bible, the plague of locusts was seen as an instrument of God’s punishment (Exodus 10:1-20; Joel 1:4-12).
If the locusts attacked before the harvest of the late-sown crop, the result would be devastating. The locusts would destroy not only the late crop that was just sprouting, but also the earlier crop still in the field. Such a devastation would cause famine and lead many families into utter poverty.
One of the roles a prophet played as a person called by God to address the people in God’s name was to be an intercessor. As an intercessor the prophet prayed to God on behalf of the people. He defended the people before God.
When Amos saw the destruction caused by the locusts, he prayed to God, interceding for Israel. Amos began his intercession for Israel by calling on God. The expression “O Lord God,” is the biblical language of prayer. This expression is found several times in the Hebrew Bible, especially in the context of prayers of lamentation or when a person was requesting God’s favor (Jeremiah 4:10).
Amos asked God to spare Israel: “O Lord GOD, forgive, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!” (Amos 7:2). The Hebrew word סָלַח (sālah), translated “forgive” in English, is used in the Old Testament only to describe an action of God. This unique word is applied to God’s pardon and forgiveness to a person who had transgressed his laws. The word is never used to describe a person forgiving another person.
According to Hans Walter Wolff, in the context of Amos’ prayer, the word means to “annul the guilt and the punishment entirely” (p. 224). Because Amos asked God to be merciful to Israel and to forgive its iniquity, God’s judgment was withdrawn and divine mercy prevailed.
Amos asked God to pardon and forgive the people. This is the same word Moses used when he prayed for God to forgive the people (Exodus 34:9). Amos asked God to completely forgive Israel. He prayed for an unconditional pardon so that Israel would not be destroyed.
Here Amos serves as an advocate between the people and God, in the same way Christ serves as a mediator between God and human beings (see 1 Timothy 2:5).
Amos defended the people by acting as a mediator and interceding on behalf of the people. Thus, in the words of the prophet Ezekiel, Amos defended the people by standing “in the breach” before God for the land, that he should not destroy it (Ezekiel 22:30).
As a lawyer for the defense, Amos presented his case before God. Jacob “is small,” that is, the nation was helpless and guilty before a gracious God. Amos appealed to the nature of God as a merciful God:
“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7).
Amos did not defend Israel by saying they were innocent. Rather, the prophet appealed to the gracious nature of God, pleading for a guilty people, asking that divine grace be greater than divine wrath.
Amos prevailed with God. Because of the prophet’s prayer, the judgment was averted. In response to Amos’ prayer, the Lord relented, he changed his plans about the coming judgment. However, there is no indication in God’s response to Amos that the people were forgiven. The punishment was postponed because of Amos’ prayer. In my study of the third vision, I will go into more detail about the postponement of the judgment.
In response to Amos’ prayer, God revoked his decision and changed his mind concerning the judgment he was about to bring against Israel.
Amos’ prayer on behalf of Israel shows that there is power in intercessory prayer. For a person to be effective as an intercessor, be that person Amos, Moses, or any one of us, that person must stand before God. Amos was able to intercede on behalf of Israel because, as a person called by God, he stood before God’s presence in order to know God’s will so that he could fulfill his role as a prophet and as an intercessor.
As a prophet sent by God, Amos stood in the Lord’s inner circle to see and hear what the Lord had to say (Jeremiah 23:18). Samuel Balentine wrote: “The prophet would serve as intercessor for his people, a role for which he was peculiarly qualified due to his privileged position within the council of God” (p. 331).
Because Amos was a prophet of God and because he had seen and heard God’s word, he was qualified to plead with God on behalf of a sinful nation which desperately needed God’s forgiveness. As an intercessor, Amos followed the tradition left behind by Moses and Samuel, who not only proclaimed God’s words to the people, but also brought the people’s situation to God.
In Amos, the people of God today find someone who can model for them what it means to stand before God on behalf of a sinful people.
Balentine, Samuel E. “Jeremiah, Prophet of Prayer.” Review & Expositor 78 (1981): 331-344.
Wolff, Hans Walter. Joel and Amos : A Commentary on the Books of the Prophets Joel and Amos. Philadelphia : Fortress Press, 1977.
Other Studies on Amos
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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