During the second quarter of my education at Fuller Theological Seminary, I took a class on the Hebrew prophets. It was one of the most important classes I've ever taken, because the class inspired in me an appreciation for God's harsh message. Of course, if you read my blog at all, you will know that often I write about the Lord's mercy and love, his goodness and compassion, which I am convinced are behind everything that God does. Nevertheless a faithfulness to the language of the bible demands that appropriate respect be paid also to the 'hard sayings' of the Hebrew prophets and their radical message.
Amos is one of those prophets who spoke harshly to the people. He had good reason to do so: first, he was obeying the command which God had given him; second, the people of Israel had been corrupted and lived in sinful decadence. So he addresses them with fire and brimstone in a way that condemns their injustices.
One of my favorite lines is this:
Hear this word, you cows of Bashan
who are on Mount Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
who say to their husbands husbands, "Bring something to drink!" (Amos 4.1)
These immoral upper-class women live decadent lifestyles. They spend their days partying, having a good time, enjoying themselves -- all at the expense of the poor and needy. They lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; they sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; they drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! (Amos 6.4-6). They might think much of themselves, but Amos calls them cows and prophesies their doom. Because they live in luxury and ease while others are suffering and are in need of their help, Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away (v. 7). The LORD wants us to care for those who are suffering, and to do what we can to help them. Because these women lived in luxury and didn't feel for those in need, they found themselves suffering the same fate, if not a worse one.
Of course, people in general don't want to hear these kinds of messages. Amaziah, the high priest of Bethel, tells the king of Israel that this prophet Amos is conspiring against him (7.10), since he constantly prophesied the doom of Israel. Amaziah tells Amos:
O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom (7.12-13).
Get out of here, go bother someone else! But Amos refuses to back down; in fact he goes even harder:
I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel.'
Now therefore hear the word of the LORD.
You say, 'Do not prophesy against Israel,
and do not preach against the house of Isaac.'
Therefore thus says the LORD:
'Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city,
and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
and your land shall be parceled out by line;
you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land'" (7.14-17).
There is an important lesson to learn here: God can make use of nobodies like Amos to upset the worlds of the Somebodies like Amaziah and the cows of Bashan. Those who think they are somebody, who are proud and who are certain they are above the rest will find themselves confronted by God's messenger in one of the least of these. And typically God will not speak kindly, precisely to upset the pride of the lofty. If they would humble themselves and repent, they could have life; but if they harden their hearts, they will learn -- like the cows of Bashan learned -- that God's little guys always turn out to have been right.