“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” This famous introduction from Charles Dickens’ classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities, describes the conditions during the preaching of Amos in the northern kingdom of Israel. The times were wealthy and prosperous for the elite few living in the Promised Land, but for the majority of others the times were destitute and reminiscent of the oppression of Egypt. The best of times and the worst of times is often a matter of a person’s perspective. The thesis of this essay is to analyze the response of those who heard Amos’ message on, “Israel among the nations” according to Amos 9:7-15. The categories I will present in order to illumine the original audience’s response to Amos’ message are the people who “heard” the message, the prophet who spoke the message, the problem stated in the message, and the promise at the end of the message for Israel’s restoration.
The Israeli kingdom during the preaching of Amos was riding a wave of economic prosperity. The prosperity was earned by all of Israel, but shared only amongst an elite few. Amos preached during the rule of the last substantial king of the northern kingdom, Jeroboam II. Jeroboam was able to restore the boundaries of Israel and further the economic recovery started by his father, but at the expense of the poor and traditional Yahweh-worship. The author of 2 Kings and Amos are less concerned about the boundaries of the kingdom under Jeroboam as they are the injustice in the distribution of resources and the adaptation of Yahweh-worship. While there is mention of the expanse of Israel’s borders by Jeroboam, the focus of his reign in 2 Kings 14:24 is on his religious system, “He did evil in the eyes of the LORD and did not turn away from any of the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit.” Religious enthusiasm under Jeroboam became as lavish as the growing number of fortresses of the wealthy. Extravagant quantities of sacrifices and an expansive, syncretistic state sponsored religion were funded on the backs of the farmers and the other proletariat of Israel. In addition to the corrupt rule of Jeroboam, “abuse of wealth, power, and privilege by the wealthy in Samaria” set the background of Amos’ preaching.
It is during the preaching of Amos that there emerges classical, written prophecy. Sandra Richter gives a helpful reminder of the office of prophet in the Old Testament, “the prophets were understood as God’s messengers, who had stood in his very throne room, received his message, and were delivering it (as would a diplomat) to God’s vassal king and people.” This is a helpful reminder of the difference between the NT prophet and that of the OT prophet. The particular verses of interest (9:7-15) do not come from God to Amos and then to the people, but directly from Yahweh himself to His people. In verse 9:1, we find that Amos is an observer and listener of Yahweh who is speaking next to the altar to his people. Amos, a self-described “shepherd” (1:1) and a “farmer” (7:14) hails from the Judean state, but preached in the northern kingdom. Despite the over zealousness of the “search for the historical Amos,” the text shows that Amos had a clear understanding of agriculture and shepherding imagery. The prophet sees the abuse of the land and the people as an indictment against the vassal king, Jeroboam. Those in the northern kingdom, especially those who had the most to lose, did not receive the preaching of Amos with joy, however. The priest of Bethel sent a message to Jeroboam that is recorded in Amos 7:10, “Amos is raising a conspiracy against you in the very heart of Israel. The land cannot bear all his words.” Amos was shaking the very foundations and principalities that were breaking the backs of the people and the heart of Yahweh.
The problem is stated concisely in the first half of the selection of Scripture, Amos 9:7-10. Essentially the problem for Amos was a King who was not submitted to Yahweh, an economic system that transformed rural farmers into the urban poor, and a gluttonous, state-sponsored religious system. The preceding verses in Amos chapter 9:1-6, highlight the extent to which Yahweh will go to have justice, a justice that no one in the nations or Israel can escape. Amos 9:7 is reaching back, reminding the Israelites of the exodus, and also how the Lord has worked in all the nations (Dt. 2:23). Amos 9:8-10, is a reminder that Yahweh not only sees the “sinful kingdom,” but will also move against them, destroying them from the earth. For the sake of the nations, there will remain a remnant from the house of Jacob. It is clear in the text whom is not included in this remnant: all the sinners and all those deceived in the land (those who say ‘Disaster will not overtake or meet us.’). The reception of this news by the people would depend a lot on the ears hearing Amos’ words. To the proletariat who have been taken from the land of promise and turned into the urban poor, these words could call them to repent, but to the wealthy and those in power they were “a conspiracy in the very heart of Israel (Amos 7:10).”
The preaching of Amos, especially the problem faced in Amos 9:7-10 must be looked at alongside 2 Kings 14:26-27, “ The LORD had seen how bitterly everyone in Israel, whether slave or free, was suffering; there was no one to help them. And since the LORD had not said he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam son of Jehoash.” The problem that Amos faced was not just that of Jeroboam, but a lukewarm and superficial religious system and an economic system that was unjust. Amos’ words stated that the problem went deeper than Jeroboam, and so Israel would go into exile (Amos 7:10-17).
The promise of restoration is the second part of the text of interest in this essay, Amos 9:11-15. This text is important for it shows that there is indeed a future hope for those urban poor who were stuck in thralldom in the northern kingdom system. The purpose of Israel’s restoration, however, is not what most would expect. The restoration of David’s fallen tent in verse 11 and the repair of broken places is for the purpose that they may possess all the nations that are called by my name. This is the very verse that is picked up in the Jerusalem counsel recorded in Acts 15:16-17 to show the legitimacy of Gentiles being made a people for God. The promise of Israel’s restoration is not just for those in Israel and Judah, but also for all the nations. Amos was “associated with the development of a new phase of Israel’s religious understanding the innovation of a genuine ethical monotheism that would become the basis for the preaching of Israel’s classical prophets.” The promise of restoration does not come devoid of persecution from within and destruction from outside, but is guaranteed by the same LORD who promised both in judgment.
The preaching of Amos was most likely heard by his people as a storm, but for those who could hold on until the end, they would see a rainbow. The majority of people did not heed the words of Amos (and hence the fulfilled prophecy and Israel’s exile). Despite the death of Jeroboam, the corruption and injustice that came into the land mixed with economic prosperity eroded the hearts of most in Israel. The message of hope and a return to a state reminiscent of Eden, comes only at the end of a sermon on the judgment of the nations and Israel. No one wants to hear doom and gloom news, especially from someone who claims to speak for God. I would expect very few to listen long enough to Amos to actually hear the hope of restoration. For those who did have ears to ear, they were blessed with the promise of future restoration. A restoration not just of Israel, but a restoration of “those who live on the earth—to every nation and tribe and language and people.”
Believers and Humanity
The warning of Amos stands not only as a stinging critique of Israel, but of believers and humanity today. The context of Amos is even a wake up call for believers today, “The recovery of Israel, while it had created wealth, had not produced social justice, and the religious piety of the people was pretense.” The economic comfort and stability that believers in most Western nations experience today, comes with a price greater than gold. The accumulation of wealth often leads to the abuse of power that the wealth brings. The call of Amos today is for believers to live out our faith ethically in the midst of polluted economic, social, political, and even religious systems.
The verse from Amos that Martin Luther King Jr. popularized during the civil rights movement was from Amos 5:24, “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” Oh, how dangerously glorious for this verse to be true today, but do we truly desire the day of the Lord revealed by the prophet Amos? Do we as believers contribute to the freedom of society from sin, or do we shrink back to a privatized religion of pretense? The theology of Amos presents us with a just and holy God who demands that justice starts amongst his covenant people (5:15), and who desires obedience rather than sacrifice (5:18-24). The concern of Amos is picked up in the New Testament in the true religion captured in James 1-10. The believers should show no partiality between the rich and the poor; however, we court the wealthy of our congregations, serve the poor out of our own guilt, and rejoice when a community celebrity converts to our church. The belief we are called should do nothing less than what it did in the apostle Paul’s age: turn the world upside down. The call of the believer to humanity is captured well in Dr. Mulholland summarization of Revelation; “it is a call to radical discipleship in a fallen Babylon world.” The Lord transforms us into the image of his Son so that through our actions and inactions, the world may know the hope that we have. Believers must consider more carefully how we spend our economic, religious, political, and social currency. For instead of advancing the Kingdom of God, we may be falsely advocating the systems of Jeroboam.
 Iaian Provan, V. Philips Long, Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 270.
 Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament. 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 423.
 Sandra Richter, The Epic of Eden (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008), 254.
 Provan, 426-427.
 Longman III, 426.
 Provan, 270.
 Longman III, 432.