Beginning next week, I will be spending the Fall quarter teaching the book of Amos to my students. This course will help students gain an understanding of the content and message of the book of Amos.
The course is designed to provide students with guidelines for the interpretation of the biblical material in its literary, historical, and theological contexts. The course will also help students preach and teach from the book of Amos to meet the needs of today’s society.
In the past I have written several posts dealing with Amos and his message. During the Fall quarter I hope to publish other posts on Amos. These posts are designed to help my students gain a better knowledge of Amos and his book. If you are interested in learning more about Amos, read the posts that are listed on my “Studies on Amos.”
Today I want to study Amos’ oracles against the foreign nations. These seven oracles against Israel’s neighbors reflect the biblical view that Yahweh exercises his sovereignty over all the nations of the world. With his words of judgment against these nations, Amos was affirming the universal sovereignty of Yahweh over the nations.
Amos’ oracles against the foreign nations are not peculiar to his book alone. Most prophets of Israel spoke oracles against the foreign nations or have messages against the empires that ruled the Ancient Near East during the days of their ministry.
What is so peculiar about Amos is that he begins his book with several oracles against nations that were Israel’s neighbors. In his oracles Amos condemns the atrocities committed by these nations. Amos also condemns the violence committed against defenseless people. These violations of human dignity brought the severe judgment of God upon these nations.
There are eight oracles in the book of Amos against the nations. There are six oracles against foreign nations: Damascus (1:3-5), Philistia (1:6-8), Tyre (1:9-10), Edom (1:11-12), Ammon (1:13-15), and Moab (2:1-13). There is one oracle against the kingdom of Judah (2:4-5), and one oracle against the kingdom of Israel (2:6-16).
These oracles follow the same pattern, with a few variations in some of the oracles. The following statements can be seen in these oracles:
1. “Thus says the LORD.”
This expression is the messenger formula that appears often in the prophetic books. This formula was generally used by royal messengers who carried a message of a king to a designated individual.
This formula is found in the message that the Rabshakeh, the envoy of Sennacherib, king of Assyria, brought to Hezekiah, king of Judah. The Rabshakeh said: “Say to Hezekiah: Thus says the great king, the king of Assyria” (2 Kings 18:19).
In the case of Amos, the prophet is the messenger of God who is proclaiming a message he received from Yahweh. The messenger formula gives authority to what the prophet says. He is not proclaiming his own words, but the words he received from Yahweh to proclaim to the nations.
2. “For three transgressions of . . . , and for four.”
The numerical sequence, three and four, probably means an undetermined amount, many sins. The numbers three and four add to seven, a number that indicates fulness or completeness. Thus, the three-four pattern could indicate all transgressions of a nation.
The numerical pattern n + 1 appears more than thirty times in the Old Testament (e.g., Prov. 30:15; Mic. 5:5). The number three-four should not be understood to be a precise number of sins committed by a nation. Rather, the number indicates many or all the transgression of a nation. However, in listing the sins committed by a foreign nation, Amos will cite only a few to exemplify the pattern of violence and atrocities committed by the nation being judged by Yahweh.
The Hebrew word for “transgression” is pasha‘, a word that can have different meanings, depending of the context in which the word is used. The word is used eight times in the oracles against the foreign nations. The word is used to describe the action of a nation against another nation, the acts of a nation against God, and the acts of individuals against other individuals.
In the context of Amos’ message, the word means a violation of God’s moral laws present in the moral laws of the universe. In other contexts, the word can have a political connotation. For instance, in 1 Kings 12:19 the word is used to describe the ten northern tribes’ defection from the united monarchy: “So Israel has been in rebellion against the house of David to this day.”
In 2 Kings 8:20 the Hebrew word is translated “revolted” to indicate Edom’s independence from Judah: “In his days Edom revolted against the rule of Judah, and set up a king of their own. “
3. “ I will not revoke the punishment”
The literal translation of this expression is “I will not cause to return” or “ I will not take it back.” This expression means that God’s judgment is irrevocable. The inhumanity of the foreign nations was so flagrant that the divine judgment could not be avoided.
4. “So I will send a fire”
The sentence that will come upon the nations will be in the form of fire (except in the case of Israel). The judgment against the nations will also include other forms of punishment, such as the destruction of cities and deportation. God was using other nations as instruments of his justice against these sinful nations in the same way he used the Assyrians and Babylonians against sinful Israel.
What Amos is saying is that the punishment against the sinful nations will come in the form of war. In combat, the invading army would burn down a city and everything in it. This practice of war has been confirmed by the work of archaeologists.
There are many lessons to be learned from Amos’ oracles against the foreign nations. The first and most important lesson is that five nations against whom Amos proclaimed God’s words were pagan nations, nations which had not received the revelation of God as Israel had.
And yet, these nations were responsible to God because God’s moral laws are revealed in creation and people and nations must answer to God as creator. As the apostle Paul wrote: “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).
The fact that God’s moral law has been revealed in creation is seen, for instance, in Mesopotamia where the Code of Hammurabi emphasizes the king’s desire to promote justice in the land. Hammurabi believed that the gods required him to promote justice in his kingdom. The Code of Hammurabi precedes the law of Moses by a few centuries, and yet, even at this early time, the idea of social justice present in ancient law codes was seen as a requirement of the gods.
Again, the words of Paul explain the reason God was bringing judgment against these foreign nations:
“When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them” (Romans 2:13-15).
These nations are responsible to God even though they knew little about the God of Israel. In the same way, every nation of the world, including the United States of America, must give an account to God for what they do or fail to do. As J. A. Motyer wrote about the nations against whom Amos preached:
They have one negative common denominator: none of them had ever received any special revelation of God or of His law; He had never sent prophets to them; there was no Moses in their historical past; the voice of God had never sounded in the ears of the founding-fathers. Yet Amos presents them as nations under judgment. They were without special revelation but not without moral responsibility; they were without direct knowledge of God but not without accountability to God; they were without the law written upon tablets of stone but not without the law written in the conscience (1974: 36).
Nations under judgment. This is the message we must preach to our nation.
Other Studies on Amos
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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If you are looking for other series of studies on the Old Testament, visit the Archive section and you will find many studies that deal with a variety of topics.
J. A. Motyer, The Message of Amos: The Day of the Lion. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1974.