We have come to the end of the Book of Amos, prophet to the northern kingdom of Israel. Our reading begins with the fourth out of five visions, this one a basket of ripe fruit. Some translations call this a basket of ripe summer fruit which would have been grapes, pomegranates, and figs. Everyone calls this ripe fruit because Israel is ripe for punishment. The end has come for God’s people Israel because they were ripe fruit, ready to be harvested in judgement. Usually the harvesting of the ripe fruit is a time for celebration and rejoicing and songs of thanksgiving would be sung in the temple. But now the songs would be turned to wailing because the harvest would be death. Verses 4-14 form an interlude that expands the indictments and judgements listed earlier.
The Israelites have mistreated the poor, widows, and orphans; the very people the Lord told them they were to take special care of. Instead they took advantage of them. The new moon was a day of special sacrifices, a feast day, and a sabbath. Work was forbidden on the sabbath but rather than observing the new moon and weekly sabbath with worship, thanksgiving, and rest, the Israelites were impatient to resume their cheating and oppression of the poor. They paid too little for goods and sold them for more than they were worth. The rich merchants swept the threshing floor and added the chaff, other refuse and perhaps even moldy or mildewed grain to the good grain to stretch what they sold even farther. Israel’s system of indentured service for members of the covenant community was to be humane and limited in time. But the rich and powerful in Amos’s day were making slaves of Israel’s poor and paying very little for them. The Lord swore an oath in His own name, making this very serious and ensuring what He has spoken will occur. Amos called the Lord the Pride of Israel, a name for God who is the legitimate object of Israel’s pride. Some believe this pride of Israel refers to the promised land, in which case it means Israel’s perverse pride in its National and geographic identity. The wicked things in verse 7 refer to the injustices that have been done to the poor.
There were always heavy seasonal rains in Ethiopia and because of that the Nile River often rose by as much as 25 feet, flooding the whole area except for the towns and villages situated above the Nile valley. It’s waters carried a large amount of rich, fertile soil which was deposited on the land as the water rushed along. It is possible that Amos intended to portray a severe earthquake where the land’s rise and fall would be as dramatic as the rise and fall of the Nile. The flood of the Nile was usually quite gentle, an earthquake would be a violent act of nature. God’s judgement here would be a great reversal, of light to darkness and joy to mourning. The day of the Lord would invert the cosmos! Nothing would remain as it had been and the people would go about in mourning..wearing sackcloth, shaving their heads, and weeping bitterly. God had sent prophets to Israel to speak His words directly to them, but Israel commanded the prophets not to prophesy. Israel got what they wanted but the silence was more terrible than God’s roar and thunder. God became distant. The time for speaking was over and the time for judgement had come. Amos reminded the people that God had sent famine upon them once again, but this time it was not a famine of food. It was a famine of hearing the word of the Lord.
From sea to sea; Mediterranean to the Dead Sea people would stagger and wander. From north to south the people would search for the word of God. And they would not find it. Even the strongest and most vigorous would fail and fall short of finding the word of the Lord. Dan in the north and Beersheba in the south were the boundary limits of significant Israelite settlement. The god of Dan referred to the golden bull Jeroboam I had established when the kingdom split in two. And it appears Beersheba had become a center of worship in the southern kingdom. None of this worship and seeking would relieve the famine of God’s Word.
In the final vision Amos saw the Lord standing at the altar. Normally this vision would bring the expectation of God’s blessings for His people but not this time. God would begin at the altar, commanding that the destruction of the sinful nation begin there, at the center of their false worship. This altar could refer to either the Bethel shrine or the temple in Jerusalem. What Amos shares is that God is inescapable. Think Psalm 139:7-12. If people are obedient this is a huge blessing for them but because Israel had been disobedient and rejected the Lord, His Word, and His prophets, God’s presence would mean judgement. No matter where the Israelites went to hide, the Lord would find them. From the highest mountain to the place of the dead, Sheol; to exile in a far away land the Lord would find them and punish them with the sword. Even in the depths of the sea, God would use the sea serpent as a means of punishment. Verses 5-6 seem to be another hymn fragment, used to remind Israel that the Lord’s domain is universal. You can run but you cannot hide from the Lord. Sifting grain through a sieve was the final step in cleaning the grain before it was gathered for storage. In the winnowing all the chaff was blown away so that only small pebbles and small clumps of mud remained. The sieve was constructed so that the holes were the size of the grain. When shaken, the grain would fall through the holes to be gathered and the rest of the impurities would be caught in the sieve to be thrown away.
Ethiopia was a region south of Egypt and probably not the exact place we know it is today. God’s rhetorical question here told the Israelites that they were not the only ones who were recipients of God’s attention and care. In fact, God loves all the people of the world. Here Amos compared Israel’s exodus out of Egypt with the Philistines leaving the island of Crete, and the Arameans leaving Kir. There has been a lot of talk about judgement and punishment in Amos and it is clear God is angry with His people. No doubt some of that anger is disappointment and maybe some hurt as well. But God is just and He will not destroy everyone. There will always be a remnant. Only the true sinners will be destroyed. God will save the righteous who are faithful to Him.
The Book of Amos ends on a high note. As many of the prophets did, they pronounce judgement on the people but there is a message of hope and restoration. Even though Jerusalem, Judah and the temple will be totally destroyed; even though the line of kings after David will be cut off for a time, God would restore the remnant of Israel. Amos portrays the true worship of the Lord as built around the temple in Jerusalem along with a true descendant of David ruling over a United Kingdom that includes both Judah and Israel. He also pictures the fallen house of David like a booth fallen into disrepair. Judah was a fallen, ruined shelter, incapable of protecting its people from any storm that might come along. Edom here represented the enemies of God and of Israel. But in times of restoration, God’s enemies are subject to His people and to God Himself. Gentiles here is a reference to the people who live around Judah and Israel, and the people God has called by His name shows a designation of God’s sovereignty and ownership. Back in The Book of Genesis God promised Abraham that he would be a blessing to all the people of the earth. God’s kingdom would embrace the outcasts and foreigners who had previously been excluded.
In the day of restoration there would be harmony between people and nature. Israelite farmers plowed at the beginning of the rainy season , from mid October. They harvested the grain crop, first the barley and then the wheat, from late March to early June. For the plowman to overtake the reaper would mean such an abundant harvest that it would last all summer and would not be gathered until the plowing had to begin again. Grapes were harvested from mid summer to early fall. For the treader of grapes to overtake the one who sows seed would mean the grape harvest was extended by several weeks. The harvest of grapes would be so great it would seem like the mountains and hills were overflowing with rivers of sweet wine. The promised day of restoration would be a total reversal of the punishment God was bringing on His people. As Israel planted fields and vineyards, so God would plant His people in their land. Never again would He pull them up and send them into exile. “Says the Lord your God” are the final words of Amos the prophet. God would do what He said He would, if Israel did not return to Him. But God would also do what He had promised to do in the last words of the prophecy. God does not abandon His promises or His covenant. He does not leave His people without hope. His punishment is certain, but so is His restoration. God’s word of hope was a breath of fresh air for his people…then and now.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W