Amos – Overview & Introduction

Amos is a book of prophecies and condemnations proclaimed by a shepherd from Tekoa – a town just south of Bethlehem in Judah.  Not a prophet by trade, Amos describes himself in the book as a herdsman and a grower of sycamore figs (7:14).  Amos is called by God to prophesy against the Northern Kingdom in the time of Jeroboam II (793-753).

Historical Context
Per the first verse of Amos 1, the proclamations of this book take place during the reign of Jeroboam II in Israel (Northern Kingdom).  Jeroboam II is the third generation of Jehu to rule the north.  Jehu destroyed the house of Ahab per the prophecy of Elijah (I Kings 21:17-29) and the commission of Elisha (II Kings 9:1-10).  For his obedience he was promised that his sons to the fourth generation would rule Israel (II Kings 10:30).  Jehu’s son was Jehoahaz.  Jehoahaz’s son was Jehoash (or Joash).  Joash’s son is Jeroboam II.  The son of Jeroboam II (Zechariah) will be the final ruler of Jehu’s line.

Though Jehu obeyed God in destroying the house of Ahab and eradicating the worship of Baal, neither he nor any of his family followed Yahweh.  Consequently, God began to reduce the size and prestige of Israel by allowing its enemies to successfully attack it.  This began even before Jehu was dead.  Per II Kings 10:31-33, God allowed Aram (Syria) to defeat Israel repeatedly during Jehu’s reign and steadily reduce the size of the Northern Kingdom.

During Jehu’s reign of 28 years, Israel was continually harassed by Hazael, king of Aram.  Jehoahaz, son of Jehu, reigned for 17 years and was continually harassed first by Hazael and then by his son Beh-Hadad II.  During the reign of Jehoahaz, however, God provided a deliverer to save Israel from further harm from Aram (II Kings 13:5).  This deliverer could very well have been the king of Assyria, who attacked Aram and fully engaged its armies such that they could no longer focus on Israel.  Jehoahaz had peace through the end of his reign, but God did not allow him to regain power or prestige because of his sin (II Kings 13:6-7).

Joash, son of Jehoahaz, reigned 16 years.  Per II Chronicles 25:17-24, it appears that he was able to increase the military might of Israel from the depths it had fallen to under his father.  He soundly defeated Judah after Amaziah, king of Judah, foolishly challenged him.  Joash not only defeated the armies of Judah, he destroyed the wall of Jerusalem and took Amaziah hostage.

It was during Joash’s reign that Elisha died.  Shortly before his death, the king visited him and Elisha prophesied that Joash would defeat Aram three times (II Kings 13:14-19).  During these three victories Joash was able to recover cities lost to Aram during the reigns of his father and grandfather (II Kings 13:25).

This brings the story to Jeroboam II, son of Joash.  He reigns 41 years – the longest of the descendants of Jehu.  His kingdom benefits from a perfect geopolitical climate.  Aram is in decline because of defeats at the hands of Joash and Assyria, and Assyria, after a period of rising military and political influence in the area, is also in a temporary period of decline (during which Jonah visits Nineveh) because of internal strife and rebellions to its north that will not end until Tiglath-pileser III ascends to the throne (shortly after the rule of Jeroboam II).  Because of this, Jeroboam II is able to initiate a golden age of Israeli expansion, military might, and prosperity – the greatest the kingdom has seen since it was united under Solomon.  He expands the southern border of Israel to the Dead Sea (Sea of the Arabah) and the northern border to Hamath, a northern city of Aram (II Kings 14:25 – events prophesied by Jonah).  As a result, Israel controls all the main trade routes throughout the area and prospers dramatically in a time of peace.  All this happens in spite of the evil practiced by both king and people throughout Jeroboam II’s reign.

The people of Israel do not all prosper equally, however.  Because of the political changes that took place at the beginning of the eighth century, Israel was able to widen its economic interest and restore its hegemony over a greater area of the Transjordan.  In addition, both Israel and Judah were ruled during the first half of the century by strong kings (Jeroboam II and Uzziah respectively) with long reigns.  This made it easier to establish a comprehensive economic policy that concentrated on the mass production of export items such as grain, olive oil and wine.  Large areas of the Shephelah and the lowland valleys had already been given over to wheat production (II Chron. 26:10).  Now, in the eighth century, the elite were able to impose this economic policy on the small hill country farms and villages.  As a result, previous agricultural strategies that attempted to distribute potential risks between herding and farming were overturned, and the land was given over to specific cash crops.  The smaller holdings of the peasant farmers, overburdened with debts, were enclosed into large estates.  This very efficient use of the land, however, eliminated the mixed crops that had formerly been grown in the village culture and more quickly exhausted the soil.  Leaving fields fallow and grazing animals on harvested fields was eliminated or rigidly controlled.  Under this new policy, an attempt was made to increase exports to the extent that there was a real hunger problem for the peasant class, while the nobility and merchant-class were able to indulge in the luxury goods supplied by their Phoenician trading partners.  Thus in addition to facing rising prices at home on basic goods, such as wheat and barley, the impoverished peasant farmers found themselves forced into debt servitude or day labor. (Chavalas, M., Matthews, V., & Walton, J. The IVP Bible Background Commentary – Old Testament; 767.)  

Items to Understand

  • Shortly after the ten tribes split from Judah during the early reign of Rehoboam, Jeroboam, king of the northern kingdom, decided to institute his own version of Yahweh worship. He did this so the people of the north would not travel to Jerusalem to worship at the temple and then rethink their allegiance.  He set up golden calves in Bethel (southern tip of the kingdom) and Dan (northern tip of the kingdom), and appointed priests to carry out a counterfeit version of the temple worship (I Kings 12:25-33).  He also expelled all the Levites from the north (II Chronicles 11:13-17).  This system is still in place almost 200 years later as Amos prophecies during the reign of Jeroboam II.
  • God honors His covenant with Jehu through over 100 years of disobedient kings. Jeroboam II’s reign is a direct result of God staying true to His covenant even in the face of rampant evil.  Even more, God made the covenant with Jehu knowing that neither he nor any of his sons would follow Him.  Amos prophesies to a king and kingdom whose very existence is predicated on the unmerited favor of God.
  • God’s message of judgment through Amos comes only after He’s mercifully delivered Israel from its enemies time after time. II Kings lists several occasions when God CHOOSES to be merciful to Israel simply because of His compassion (13:4, 13:23, 14:26) even in the midst of its unrelenting evil.  Israel has suffered as a direct result of its disobedience, but God STILL has had compassion on the people and mercifully given them opportunity after opportunity to return to Him.
  • Along with practicing mercy, God has punished the northern kingdom time after time in an effort to bring them back to Him. He has used Aram and Assyria and Judah and Moab at different times to afflict Israel and make them know they are in danger of ultimate destruction.  Amos will refer to these times of affliction and Israel’s refusal to learn from them in his condemnation of the country.
  • God warned Israel in Leviticus 26:27-33 that if they repeatedly did not obey His law He would act with wrathful hostility against them. He would lay waste to their cities, make their sanctuaries desolate, make the land desolate, and scatter them among the nations.  At the time of Amos, the Northern Kingdom has lived in evil rebellion against God for almost two centuries without God bringing about this ultimate judgment.  Amos now gives them a last warning that it is coming.

The overall theme of the book is the universal justice of God and how it applies to both God’s people and those who are not God’s people.  Specific themes include (some of these general ideas come from the ESV Study Bible):

  • God is the divine Sovereign of the universe. His righteous standards are universal and all people are subject to judgment in light of them.  (1:2, 1:3-2:3, 4:13, 5:8, 9:5-6)
  • Justice and righteousness in the treatment of other people are key evidences of a right relationship to God. (2:6-7, 4:1, 5:11-12, 8:4-6)
  • Religious ritual in the absence of just and righteous treatment of others is disgusting to God. (4:4-5, 5:21-24)
  • God’s chosen people are not exempt from His judgment but are actually held to a higher standard of obedience. (3:2)
  • Peace and prosperity are not necessarily signs of God’s blessing and favor. (3:15, 6:1, 6:4-6)
  • God’s judgment only comes after extended times of mercy – but it DOES come. (1:2, 2:6)
  • God will punish His people but never forget His covenant. (9:7-15)
  • It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (3:11-15, 7:8-17, 8:1-9:4)

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