Amos, Missionary to Israel, Part 1
Issue No. 349
Bible scholars often link Amos with Hosea, because they were contemporaries, and both of them were missionaries from Judah to Israel. Hosea prophesied during the reign of Uzziah, king of Judah, and Jeroboam II, king of Israel (Hos. 1:1). Amos prophesied “in the days of Uzziah, king of Judah and in the days of Jeroboam, son of Joash, king of Israel” (Amos 1:1).
Uzziah is also known as Azariah.
2 Kings 15:1 says,
1 In the twenty-seventh year of Jeroboam king of Israel, Azariah son of Amaziah king of Judah became king.
2 Chron. 26:1 speaks of the same coronation, saying,
1 And all the people of Judah took Uzziah, who was sixteen years old, and made him king in the place of his father Amaziah.
Azariah, or Uzziah, was crowned king of Judah in the 27th year of King Jeroboam II of Israel. Jeroboam ruled 41 years in Samaria, so Uzziah ruled in Jerusalem during the final 13 years of Jeroboam in Samaria.
This seems to be the general time frame in which Amos was sent to preach in Israel. It was about 766-753 B.C.
Judah and Israel
To understand the historical context of these prophets, one must not confuse Israel with Judah. After the death of Solomon, the kingdom was divided in 931 B.C., and from then on, each kingdom had its own separate kings.
All of the commentators know that Israel and Judah were distinct nations, but yet many of them continue to call everyone “Jews,” rather than distinguishing between Israelites and Judahites. The term Jew is a shortened form of the name Judah and has reference to the people of the southern kingdom of Judah.
Prior to the divided kingdom, Jews were people of the tribe of Judah. After the kingdom was divided, the definition of Jew was no longer tribal, but national. Hence, a Jew was a citizen of the Kingdom of Judah, which included Benjamin and a portion of Levi.
Israel, of course, was deported to Assyria from 745-721 B.C. Judah remained in the land until the deportations to Babylon began a century later from 604-586 B.C. Judah returned after 70 years; Israel did not return, though the prophets promised them restoration in the latter days.
By the time of the New Testament period, Israel had been away from the old land for more than 700 years. So the term Jew took on a religious nuance. Perhaps this was necessary after the incorporation of Edom (Idumea) in 126-125 B.C. Edom adopted Judaism at that time, and so, like the tribes of Benjamin and Levi, they too were known as Jews. Hence the definition moved from a tribal designation to a national designation to a religious designation as the historical situations changed over the centuries.
Amos 1:1 says,
1 The words of Amos, who was among the sheepherders from Tekoah, which he envisioned in visions concerning Israel in the days of Uzziah king of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam son of Joash, king of Israel, two years before the earthquake.
Scholars do not know when this earthquake occurred. Being on a fault line, Israel experienced many quakes over the centuries. However, this one must have been notable in some way in order for Amos to use it to date his prophecy.
In fact, the quake is mentioned in a later prophecy in Zech. 14:4, 5, saying,
4 And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which is in front of Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives will be split in its middle from east to west by a very large valley, so that half of the mountain will move toward the north and the other half toward the south. 5 And you will flee by the valley of My mountains, for the valley of the mountains will reach to Azel; yes, you will flee just as you fled before the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah. Then the Lord, my God, will come, and all the holy ones with Him!
In other words, the quake in the days of Uzziah is prophetic of another quake to hit Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives at the second coming of Christ, when “the Lord, my God, will come, and all the holy ones with Him.”
Quakes struck Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified, but the statement, “all the holy ones with Him” speaks of the second coming of Christ. This prophecy is outside the scope of our present study, but no doubt the cause of the future quake will be connected to the story of Uzziah’s unlawful attempt to be both king and high priest. It is an unlawful fulfillment of the Melchizedek priesthood, where those who are unqualified lay claim to that priesthood without submitting to the High Priest of that order.
The quake must have devastated Israel as well and must have disrupted its government for about 24 years, because we find a long gap in the history of the kings of Israel at that time. Jeroboam ruled 41 years (2 Kings 14:23), and Uzziah ascended to the throne in Jerusalem during Jeroboam’s 27th year, as we said. That means Jeroboam died in the 13th year of Uzziah. But then we find no record of kings ruling in Israel until Zechariah (not the prophet). Zechariah became Israel’s king in the 38th year of Azariah/Uzziah (2 Kings 15:8).
It appears that there are no kings from Uzziah’s 13th year to his 38th year, leaving a 24-year gap in Israel’s political leadership. Amos prophesied during the reign of Jeroboam and “two years before the earthquake.” It appears that the earthquake coincided in some way with the death of King Jeroboam, although he apparently did not die in the quake itself, but by the sword (Amos 7:11).
Perhaps Jeroboam’s son, Zechariah, was simply too young to assume the throne of Israel when his father died. We are not told in Scripture. Whatever the case, Zechariah did not ascend to the throne for 24 years. But since many kings had already been crowned at an early age, it is not likely that Zechariah’s youth was the problem. It is more likely that the devastation of a huge earthquake resulted in a long power struggle.
When Zechariah came to the throne, he only reigned six months (2 Kings 15:8). Verse 10 then reads,
10 Then Shallum the son of Jabesh conspired against him and struck him before the people and killed him, and reigned in his place.
Shallum himself reigned only one month in Samaria (2 Kings 15:13). He was killed and replaced by Shallum’s general, Menahem (2 Kings 15:14), who then ruled Israel with great cruelty for the next ten years. Verse 17 says that Menahem took the throne in Azariah/Uzziah’s 39th year.
These short reigns paint a picture of political turmoil in the aftermath of the great earthquake. And keep in mind that Amos prophesied two years prior to the earthquake. His message of divine judgment had an immediate fulfillment in Israel. This turmoil greatly weakened Israel, and so just a few years later, Assyria began to conquer and deport the tribes of Israel who lived on the east side of the Jordan (745 B.C.).
But Judah was also weakened by the earthquake. In fact, Josephus implies that King Uzziah/Azariah was the spiritual cause of this earthquake. As the story goes, Uzziah “was unfaithful to the Lord his God, for he entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense” (2 Chron. 26:16). Uzziah ignored the objections of the chief priest and insisted on taking on the duties of a priest. 2 Chron. 26:19, 20 says,
19 But Uzziah, with a censer in his hand for burning incense, was enraged; and while he was engaged with the priests, the leprosy broke out on his forehead before the priests in the house of the Lord, beside the altar of incense. 20 And Azariah the chief priest and all the priests looked at him, and behold, he was leprous on his forehead; and they hurried him out of there, and he himself also hastened to get out because the Lord had smitten him. 21 And King Uzziah was a leper to the day of his death…
When Uzziah died, of course, the prophet Isaiah saw his great vision of Yahweh seated upon His throne (Isaiah 6:1). It appears that Uzziah was a leper for the last 13 years of his 52-year reign.
As I said, Josephus linked the earthquake to Uzziah’s breach of temple protocol. After telling how the chief priest had argued unsuccessfully with the king who was insisting on offering the incense, Josephus writes in Antiquities of the Jews, IX, x, 4,
“In the meantime, a great earthquake shook the ground, and a rent was made in the temple, and the bright rays of the sun shone through it, and fell upon the king’s face, insomuch that the leprosy seized upon him immediately; and before the city, at a place called Eroge [En-rogel], half the mountain broke off from the rest on the west, and rolled itself four furlongs, and stood still at the east mountain, till the roads, as well as the king’s gardens, were spoiled by the obstruction. Now, as soon as the priests saw that the king’s face was infected with the leprosy, they told him of the calamity he was under, and commanded that he should go out of the city as a polluted person.”
Eroge, or En-rogel, was located just south of Jerusalem at the juncture of the Kidron Valley and the Valley of Hinnom (gehenna in Greek, which the KJV renders as “hell”). This has great end-time prophetic significance.
Overall, we may say that when Zechariah’s prophecy is fulfilled, the story of Uzziah’s earthquake and the reason for it will be evident. That study is for another time, when we are led to study the prophecies of Zechariah. For now, we can say that the prophecies of Amos are applicable to the present time. Heeding those prophecies and repenting could stop the disastrous earthquake. But ignoring Amos and usurping the authority of the Melchizedek priesthood could result in the mountain (nation) being cast into gehenna.
Meanwhile, in our study of Amos, we find that this quake helps date his prophecies and also provides us with a glimpse of the judgment that is to come upon disobedient people.
To Whom did Amos Prophesy?
Amos was from Tekoah, a town about six miles south of Bethlehem and twelve miles south of Jerusalem. It was a pasture land, and Amos was a shepherd and herdsman. He was not a professional prophet, yet he was given visions from God and commissioned to preach to the spiritually corrupt House of Israel.
His prophecies, then, applied specifically to Israel, not to Judah, although the underlying principles set forth in his writings apply universally to all nations, including Judah. It is a common mistake among commentators to apply Amos’ prophecies to the Jews or to the Jewish state (misnamed Israel). The Jews trace their origins to back to Judah, not to Israel. Hence, if we were to apply Amos’ words specifically to the descendants of the Israelites who formed his main audience, we would have to find the “lost tribes of Israel” who are distinct from today’s Jews.
For that study, see my commentary on Hosea, where it seemed to be a more appropriate place to trace those lost tribes in their migrations from Assyria into Europe.
Nonetheless, the warnings and instructions of Amos can be applied to all nations, because “all have sinned” (Rom. 3:23) and all the world has become guilty and accountable before God (Rom. 3:19). The problem of Israel was that they had adopted the idolatrous and corrupt ways of the other nations. So all of them had the same problem, though Israel was more accountable, because it had received the revelation of God’s law and yet had rejected it.
The Structure of the Book of Amos
The book of Amos comes to us four sections:
I. Divine judgments against Israel’s neighboring nations
A. Superscription and proclamation (1:1, 2)
B. Indictment of neighboring nations (1:3 to 2:3)
C. Indictment of Judah (2:4, 5)
D. Indictment of Israel (2:6-16)
II. Three sermons against Israel
A. declaration of judgment (3:1-15)
B. The depravity of Israel (4:1-13)
C. Lamentation for Israel’s doom (5:1 to 6:14)
III. Five Visions of Israel’s condition
A. The devouring locusts (7:1-3)
B. The flaming fire (7:4-6)
C. The plumb line (7:7-9)
D. Ecclesiastical opposition (7:10-17)
E. The basket of ripe fruit (8:1-14)
F. The judgment of God (9:1-10)
IV. The promise of Israel’s restoration (9:11-15)
Who was Amos?
In Amos 1:1 Amos identifies himself as coming from “among the sheepherders from Tekoah.” Tekoah was town surrounded by rich pasture land, so it is not surprising that he would be a sheepherder. Less understood, however, was that he herded a special breed of sheep.
The word translated “sheepherders” (NASB) or “herdsmen” (KJV) is nokdim, who owned short-legged sheep called noked. These noked had very fine wool compared to regular sheep. It is likely that Amos’ family owned these expensive herds, because he had had a good education. The Wycliffe Bible Commentary tells us,
“The writing of Amos shows that he was not an untutored rustic, but had a deep knowledge of history and of the problems of his day. His language, rich in figures and symbols, stands with the finest literary style in the Old Testament” (p. 829).
It appears, then, that Amos was from a wealthy family in Judah. Not only did they own noked, but also a herd of oxen, for in his dispute with Amaziah, the idolatrous priest of Bethel, he writes in Amos 7:14, 15,
14 Then Amos answered and said to Amaziah, “I am not a prophet, nor am I the son of a prophet; for I am a herdsman [bokar] and a grower of sycamore figs. 15 But the Lord took me from following the flock and the Lord said to me, ‘Go prophesy to My people Israel’.”
A bokar, translated as “herdsman” in the NASB, is one who herds bakar, “an ox.” Oxen were used for plowing, so one might say that he had a tractor dealership in addition to his wool manufacturing business.
Further, his family supplemented its income by growing sycamore figs, a variety of wild figs, which were brought to that part of the world by the Philistines, who came from the Aegean Sea (probably from Crete) and settled along the coast.
The Philistines also brought opium poppies with them, which soon became the main crop of Sodom and Gomorrah. As we will see later, Amos likened poppies (rosh) to injustice and opium (lahana) to unrighteousness (6:12).
Sycamore figs were venerated in Egypt, where they were pictured as the Tree of Life. They bore fruit continuously, peaking from July to December each year.
Amos, then, seems to have come from a prosperous family in Judah. He had received a good education as well, as proven by his educated writing style. But he did not claim to be a prophet, but only a man with revelation and a word to give to Israel.
Even so, the fact that he was told by God to “prophesy to My people Israel,” shows that prophecy is not just for prophets. Just because someone prophesies does not mean that he holds a prophetic office, nor is it necessary to be a prophet to prophesy. In fact, all who are called to one of the five-fold ministry (Eph. 4:11) ought to minister to the body by revelation and prophecy.
The Response to Amos’ Message
God sent Amos to the northern House of Israel, where he preached the gospel of repentance. If anyone listened to him, we have no record of it. We are told only of the threat to his life from Amaziah, the priest of Bethel. Presumably, Amos soon returned to his home in Tekoah.
Israel had prospered militarily and politically in the years leading to the great earthquake. Amos’ message must have seemed ludicrous to the Israelites, for those who prosper usually believe that the gods are on their side. But two years after the start of his prophecy, the earthquake devastated both Israel and Judah.
Assyria then became more powerful than Israel, and within less than fifteen years Assyria began to conquer Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh, who lived on the east side of the Jordan. This was in 745 B.C. It took 24 years for Assyria to conquer Samaria and put a full end to the House of Israel (in 721 B.C.), but the warnings of Amos proved to be true.
Amos’ final words about Israel’s restoration (9:11-15) are undated. We cannot say for sure if he wrote of restoration before Samaria was destroyed or afterward, but it seems likely that he gave comfort to Israel after seeing at least some destruction and deportation.
Amos’ message is relevant to us today, because we too are plagued with idolatry and apostasy. Our gods are more modern, of course, but the heart idolatry is the same. Heart idolatry begins with a rejection of God’s word, whether written or spoken. Such rejection sets up a false opinion, a misunderstanding of the nature and will of God, and also puts a veil over men’s faces, so that they walk in spiritual blindness.
The Holy Spirit has been sent to overcome this problem and to lead us into all truth (John 16:13). Because God promised restoration, He sent the Holy Spirit to fulfill His promise. His promises are the basis of the New Covenant, whereas man’s promises are the basis of the Old Covenant. Therefore, it is clear that the Holy Spirit was sent, not to help men fulfill their Old Covenant vows, but to fulfill the vows and promises of God.
Since 1948 it has appeared to many that the formation of the state of “Israel” is the fulfillment of the prophecies of Amos and other prophets. It is not. First and foremost, the Jews are not the Israelites. We should never confuse Judah with Israel, for each nation had its own calling and its own set of prophecies to fulfill.
What men call Israel is a Jewish state. In 1948 they debated what to call their state. Some wanted to name it Judah or the Kingdom of Judah. But others insisted that it be called Israel in order to make it appear to Christians that it was the fulfillment of Israel’s prophecies.
This has been a source of confusion for many Christians to this day. I believe that the final outpouring of the Holy Spirit will clarify many things and overturn many false assumptions. In that day the true Israelites will receive the promises of God. Their status as Israel will not be based upon any biological connection with Abraham, but will be based upon their quality of faith (Gal. 3:9, 29). Daniel 7:27 says that the Kingdom will be given to “the saints.”