God passes judgment (June 7, 2015)

Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: Amos 2:4-8

The book of Amos is the oldest prophetic writing in the Bible. It contains the prophecies of Amos, a Judean sheep breeder whom God called to speak the truth to the northern kingdom of Israel around 760 B.C.

Amos’s unrelenting indictment of those who have become rich and powerful on the backs of the poor and needy make his prophecy an extremely uncomfortable one for many readers today just as it must have been for his first hearers.

This brief powerful pronouncement of God’s terrible judgment against the chosen people and other nations shines a bright spotlight on God as the just ruler of all. This righteous God uses the words of Amos to announce God’s imminent punishment for those who persist in doing wrong.

Amos 4:4-5: Judgment against Judah
After a series of formulaic pronouncements against the nations that surround Judah — Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, and Ammon — Amos uses the same pattern to indict the southern kingdom of Judah. “For three transgressions of Judah, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment.” This introduction to each of the indictments underlines the repetitive nature of the sins that incurred God’s judgment.

Although the transgressions that brought God’s judgment on the nations involve their heinous crimes against neighboring city-states, the indictment of Judah is based on their violations of God’s law and their following lying leaders.

The terminology in this indictment has strong similarities with the language of the book of Deuteronomy, which was edited long after Amos prophesied. For this reason scholars are generally agreed that this indictment of Judah is a later addition to the earlier words of Amos. A prophecy originally directed toward the northern kingdom was expanded to apply to the southern kingdom of Judah.

The judgment that Amos announces is that a destructive fire in the form of an invasion will destroy the protective fortifications of Judah. This prophecy was confirmed in 587 B.C. when the Babylonians captured Jerusalem and carried many Judeans off into exile.

Amos 2:6-8: Judgment against Israel
Using the same indictment formula again, Amos comes to the primary focus of his prophecy, the sins of Israel. Amos is especially concerned with how Israel treats the righteous, the needy, the poor and the afflicted.

“Selling the righteous,” those who should have been declared the winners of a law suit, refers to the practice of selling persons who could not pay their debts to be slaves of the wealthy who had the silver to purchase them. 2 Kings 4:1-7 describes such an incident. The parallel phrase has the needy being sold for a pair of sandals. The sandals may refer to the relatively insignificant amount of the debt. They could also be a symbolic reference to the land given up by the debtor.

Amos describes the rich and powerful as those who trample the heads of the poor into the dust and push aside the afflicted. But their wrongdoing is not limited to those actions. The complete loss of their moral standards is evident in the promiscuous way fathers and their sons have sex with the same young woman. This could be a reference to frequenting pagan temple prostitutes (Deuteronomy 23:7) or it could refer to abusive relationships with a female household servant. Such immoral behavior profanes God’s holy name.

Amos has still more charges against the rich in Israel. When they are banqueting in pagan temples, they use as cushions garments given to them as collateral for a debt (cf. Exodus 22:26). Even in the house of God the rich drink wine purchased with money they have collected as judgments against the poor. The picture painted by Amos reveals a morally bankrupt society divided between the rich and the poor.

The imminent punishment for Israel’s transgressions is announced in verse 13. Amos prophesies a total collapse of their capacity to defend themselves. The inevitable result will be the conquest of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.

For discussion 

Amos repeatedly emphasizes God’s concern for the poor, a theme found throughout the prophetic books of the Bible. Do you think this theme is presented too often or not enough in your congregation today? What parallels do you see between conditions in Judah and Israel in the time of Amos and the United States today? Whose voices do your hear today echoing the prophetic words of Amos?

JAMES A. BRASHLER is professor emeritus of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.