The Warning Trumpet
The trumpet had sounded its warning, and the lion had roared while springing upon its prey. Israel was doomed, said Amos, not only because they had persisted in sin, but because they had rejected the prophetic warning to repent.
So God then called two witnesses from neighboring nations to witness the judgment against Israel. In Amos 3:9 and 10 we read,
9 Proclaim on the citadels in Ashdod and on the citadels in the land of Egypt and say, “Assemble yourselves on the mountains of Samaria and see the great tumults within her and the oppressions in her midst. 10 But they do not know how to do what is right,” declares the Lord, “these who hoard up violence and devastation in their citadels.”
Ashdod was one of the Philistine cities of Gaza that God had condemned already in Amos 1:8. Yet God called the people to come to the mountains of Samaria to witness the destruction of Israel and its capital, Samaria.
Perhaps this is similar to Jesus’ statement in Matthew 11:21-24, where Jesus pointed out that the judgment upon Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum was to be worse than the judgment upon Tyre, Sidon, and even Sodom. Why? Because if the miracles of Jesus had been seen in those cities, they would have repented.
Perhaps the same could be said about Ashdod and, to some extent, about Egypt. Egypt saw miracles in the time of Moses, and many of the Egyptians repented. We know this because many of them left their homeland and joined with the Israelites (Exodus 12:38). Hence also, Moses found reason to tell Israel that there was to be one law and equality for both Israelites and others (Exodus 12:49).
As for Ashdod, there had been no witness of truth sent to that city, at least none recorded in Scripture. Hence, by the law of ignorance (Lev. 4:2), their liability for sin was far less than for Israel which had rejected the light of many prophets. Israel was held more accountable than other nations simply because God had given them His word.
The Law of Ignorance
Jesus expounded upon this law in Luke 12:47, 48,
47 And that slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, shall receive many lashes, 48 but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. And from everyone who has been given much shall much be required, and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.
Paul too appealed this law in 1 Tim. 1:12-14,
12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service, 13 even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. And yet I was shown mercy, because I acted ignorantly in unbelief. 14 and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus.
Those who sin knowingly are more liable than those who sin ignorantly. Likewise, those who continue in sin after God sends a warning through some witness have still greater liability.
The Nation Devoured
God told Ashdod and Egypt to witness the rebellion of Israel in their capital city (Samaria). In effect, God told them to see how Israel did not know how to do what was right (Amos 3:10). Instead of casting off their sin, they hoarded it in their citadels and protected it like valuable treasure. But their “treasure” was the right to sin, which was about to destroy them, said the prophet in Amos 3:11,
11 Therefore, thus says the Lord God, “An enemy, even one surrounding the land, will pull down your strength from you, and your citadels will be looted.”
The enemy was Assyria, whom God had raised up to judge Israel for violating their promise at Mount Sinai.
God continues in Amos 3:12,
12 Thus says the Lord, “Just as the shepherd snatches from the lion’s mouth a couple of legs or a piece of an ear, so will the sons of Israel dwelling in Samaria be snatched away—with the corner of a bed and the cover of a couch!”
In those days, when a lion took a sheep and dragged it away to eat, the shepherd might later retrieve “a couple of legs or a piece of an ear.” Not much was left of the sheep after the lion had eaten his fill. So also would it be with the house of Israel after being eaten by the lion of Assyria.
Yet even in the horror of this imagery, we see hope for a remnant. Pieces of the Israelite nation would be left for the Good Shepherd to retrieve later. Even though the sheep-nation was dead and consumed by Assyria, portions of the nation (individuals) would live to fulfill the original destiny and calling of the nation of Israel.
As we will see later in our study, Amos 9:8 says,
8 “Behold, the eyes of the Lord are on the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the face of the earth; nevertheless, I will not totally destroy the house of Jacob,” declares the Lord.
The manner in which this is fulfilled is more fully shown in other prophetic writings which are beyond the scope of our present study. Nonetheless, it should be noted that the so-called “lost tribes of Israel” were not totally destroyed by the Assyrians. They were exiled.
Even though God said, “I will destroy it [Israel as a nation] from the face of the earth,” individuals were to be recovered by the Good Shepherd and used to build something new, something greater and universal, a new nation under the headship of Jesus Christ. Ultimately, His Kingdom will include all the nations of the earth.
Metaphors of Beds and Couches
Amos 3:12 says that the Israelites will be snatched away, like a lion snatching away his prey, “with the corner of a bed and the cover of a couch.” What do beds and couches have to do with this?
The KJV reads quite differently: “so shall the children of Israel be taken out that dwell in Samaria in the corner of a bed, and in Damascus in a couch.” What does Damascus have to do with this? Are these Israelites being dragged out of bed, put on a couch, and taken to Damascus in the lap of luxury?
The word translated Damascus is demeshek. Its meaning is uncertain, but damask is a certain silk fabric that was made in Damascus. Hence, whereas the KJV translates the word “Damascus,” making it a place name, the NASB renders it “the cover” (upholstery), or a couch covering.
The Hebrew couplet seems to favor the NASB in this case: (1) the corner of a bed, and (2) the cover of a couch. The passage is not talking about cities, but about furniture.
So what the does the verse actually mean? The first part of the verse gives the metaphor of a shepherd picking up the remains of a sheep that has been eaten by a lion. Amos says that “so will the sons of Israel… be snatched away—with the corner of a bed and the cover of a couch.” In other words, they will be dragged away to Assyria, the lion’s den, carrying only a few of their possessions.
On another level, Israel itself was to survive only as a remnant for the Good Shepherd to retrieve. Nationally speaking, Israel was to be killed and eaten by the lion of Assyria.
Amos 3:13, 14 says,
13 “Hear and testify against the house of Jacob,” declares the Lord God, the God of hosts. 14 “For on the day that I punish Israel’s transgressions, I will also punish the altars of Bethel; the horns of the altar will be cut off, and they will fall to the ground.”
Not only Israel as a nation, but also “the altars of Bethel” were to be judged. God intended to use Assyria to bring judgment upon their entire religious system. In previous times, Bethel had been a sacred place, where Jacob poured oil upon the stone after his famous dream (Gen. 28:18, 19). But original purity is no guarantee of perpetual purity. Neither is the goodness of a religious founder any guarantee that his organization will continue to be good.
Moses founded the nation of Israel and its form of worship. But by the time of Christ, even Moses would have repudiated the worship in the temple. So Jesus said in John 5:45-47,
45 Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; the one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have set your hope. 46 For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote of Me. 47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?
Likewise, Bethel, the “house of God,” was no longer anything like what Jacob had consecrated. The priests had corrupted the place and its altar, and so God pronounced judgment upon the place.
Even “the horns of the altar will be cut off,” Amos says. The altar in Bethel apparently was similar to the one in Jerusalem, having four horns on the corners, as prescribed in Exodus 27:1, 2,
1 And you shall make the altar of acacia wood… 2 And you shall make its horns on its four corners…
The horns curved inward and were used to tie the sacrificial animal to the altar while it was yet alive, as we read in Psalm 118:27, “Bind the festival sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar.” This shows that the horns were curved inward so that the rope would not slip.
Horns represented strength and the power to defend and enforce the will of a horned animal, such as a bull. The strength of the altar was its power to atone for sin. Yet the corrupt altar at Bethel had long since lost its spiritual power, for it had been enabling Israel to sin even more. It had become a farce, giving absolution to those who remained unrepentant in their rebellion against God.
When priests claim to have the power of absolution, but are in a state of rebellion against God, the day will come when their supposed power (“horn”) will be broken.
Amos 3:15 concludes, saying,
15 “I will also smite the winter house together with the summer house; the houses of ivory will also perish and the great houses will come to an end,” declares the Lord.
Solomon had built a throne out of ivory and had overlaid it with gold (2 Chron. 9:17). King Ahab of Israel later built his house out of ivory (1 Kings 22:39). Amos used the term “houses of ivory,” so it seems that other wealthy men—or perhaps other kings of Israel—had followed Ahab’s example.