Here are some helps as you study the book of Amos:
The prophet Amos was a resident of the southern kingdom, Judah, but ministered to the northern kingdom, Israel. We get some historical context of his prophetic words from Amos 1:1 which mentions Uzziah king of Judah and Jeroboam king of Israel. In 793 B.C. Jeremiah II began his reign, and Uzziah died in 739. So that helps to place the events discussed by Amos.
The justice of God and his determination to see justice reign among men is a leading theme of this prophetic book. The importance of justice, and divine judgment on the sin of injustice, is a major emphasis of the book’s nine chapters. As Amos 5:24 puts it: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Peter Craigie offers this introduction:
The preaching of the prophet Amos is dominated by his awareness of the righteousness and justice of God. When he visited Israel, in the north, he perceived a country which was, on the surface at least, strong in economic and military terms. There was no shortage of money; law and order appeared to rule in society. But Amos had the capacity to see beneath the surface. He knew that the true health of a society could not be measured merely in terms of economic prosperity, but must be assessed from the moral pulse of the nation. And in moral terms, he perceived a nation on the verge of collapse, with great gulfs separating the rich from the poor, merchants from customers, priests from people, and judges from the innocent accused. Power and wealth were in the hands of a few, and the populace was oppressed and exploited.
So severe, so entrenched, and so wicked is the sin and rebellion of Israel that judgment is the only response. As Elizabeth Achtemeier remarks:
God will spare this people no longer. The prophet’s task is no longer simply to expose the people’s sin and call them to repentance and return to their God. Repentance is no longer possible. The nation’s sin is now so severe that it can be corrected only by their being wiped out.
In short, Amos is a prophet of total judgment, announcing the death of the northern kingdom. He is not a social reformer but an exposer of rebellion against God. He is not a humanitarian but a herald of God’s coming action. He is not announcing new ideas about God but rather is proclaiming that the God of the covenant is on the move, toward the goal of the day of the Lord, when God will set up his kingdom on earth.
God is coming personally to do Israel to death, according to Amos, and so throughout the prophet’s oracles, the divine “I” predominates: “I will send fire…” (1:4); “I will not turn back…” (2:1); “I will punish…” (3:2); “I will astir up a nation against you…” (6:14); “I will kill…” (9:1); and so on.
Indeed, perhaps the central word of Amos is, “Prepare to meet your God, O Israel” (4;12).
This is pretty hardcore stuff. No wonder so few today will preach or teach from this book. It is a bit too much for modern sensibilities – and that includes most Christians as well. We want a tame, domesticated God, one that never rebukes or judges, but one that simply smiles at us and lets us do our own thing.
Let me focus on two other themes and segments of this book. The first is found in Amos 4:1-3:
Hear this word, you cows of Bashan,
who are on the mountain of Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
who say to your husbands, ‘Bring, that we may drink!’
The Lord God has sworn by his holiness
that, behold, the days are coming upon you,
when they shall take you away with hooks,
even the last of you with fishhooks.
And you shall go out through the breaches,
each one straight ahead;
and you shall be cast out into Harmon,”
declares the Lord.
This is a strong rebuke of the wealthy and arrogant elite women of Israel. Sometimes the Old Testament prophets single out women for judgment. See for example Isaiah 3:16-4:6; 32:9-14; and Ezekiel 13:17-19. That is the case here. Gary Smith offers this comment about the passage:
“Cows of Bashan” is a fitting symbol for these wealthy women, because the area north of the Yarmuk river in Transjordan was known for its fertile fields and its well-fed cattle (Deut. 32:14; Ps. 22:12; Ezek. 39:18). These pampered, self-indulgent, and bossy ladies maintain their lifestyle by exploiting the poor, crushing the needy, and speaking demandingly to those around them. The exact method of doing this is not explicitly described, but the result is the subjugation and impoverishment of many poor people to produce greater wealth for those who are already rich. There is no concern, compassion, or care of the weak, only further crushing demands and more injustice. These women also treat their husbands (lit. “lords”) the same way, demanding that they wait on them hand and foot so they can indulge themselves in satisfying their pleasures.
A second passage I have often discussed before is Amos 6:1-6. This deals with the apathy and indifference of God’s people. Amos pronounces a ‘woe’ on such folks. As I wrote some years ago: ????
Writing some 2800 years ago, the prophet Amos also spoke about the cavalier indifference and sinful apathy of his fellow Israelites. In chapter 6 we especially find strong words of rebuke for such attitudes. Consider this rebuke from Yahweh in Amos 6:1, 6: “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion … Woe to those who do not grieve over the ruin of Israel”. Verse one warns about complacency, indifference and apathy. The people seemed to have everything they wanted – at least in material terms – so they were at ease.
As James Montgomery Boice writes, “There is an ease that should not exist among God’s people. . . . In itself being at ease is not bad. In fact, there are verses in the Bible that invite us to rest or promise rest at the end of life’s labours. [But], there is also a wrong kind of rest about which Amos is talking. It is the rest of indifference.”
As for verse 6, the Hebrew term being used is quite strong: it can better be translated, ‘Woe to those who “are not sick in their stomach” over the sin and decadence of Israel,’ and the fact that it will be under God’s judgment. As Alec Motyer comments, v. 6 points to “the cardinal defect of the days of luxury and lolling: failure to care for the break-up of the state and the broken lives of its people.”
Sounds just like the situation we find ourselves in today. Our societies are crumbling, our churches are disintegrating, and all around us are broken and needy people. But where are the caring Christians? And the first indication of genuine care is caring enough to act. Those who are not apathetic and indifferent, but are moved by what they see, will be moved to action. Pagans know all about this, so why don’t believers? billmuehlenberg.com/2012/07/13/do-we-really-care/
As always, I finish by offering some select commentaries for further study. And as usual, they are mainly more recent works, reflecting a conservative and evangelical point of view.
Achtemeier, Elizabeth, Minor Prophets 1 (NIBC)
Carroll, M. Daniel, The Book of Amos (NICOT)
Craigie, Peter, The Twelve Prophets, vol. 2 (DSB)
Goldingay, John, Hosea – Micah (BCOTPB)
Hadjiev, Tchavdar, Joel and Amos (TOTC)
Hubbard, David, Joel & Amos (TOTC)
Kelley, Page, Amos: Prophet of Social Justice (Baker, 1966)
McComiskey, Thomas, Amos (EBC)
Mays, James Luther, Amos (OTL)
Motyer, Alec, The Message of Amos (BST)
Niehaus, Jeffrey, Amos, in Thomas McComiskey, ed., The Minor Prophets, vol. 1 (Baker, 1992)
Smith, Billy and Frank Page, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah (NAC)
Smith, Gary, Hosea, Amos, Micah (NIVAC)
Stuart, Douglas, Hosea – Jonah (WBC)
Devotional and expository commentaries
Boice, James Montgomery, The Minor Prophets, vol. 1 (Zondervan, 1983)
Wiersbe, Warren, Be Concerned: Making a Difference in our Lifetime (Victor Books, 1996)
As to my preferred commentaries, perhaps run with the very recent and thorough volume by Carroll, as well as Hadjiev, Gary Smith and Stuart.
Happy reading and study.