The prophet Amos, like other Old Testament prophets, sought to convince God’s chosen people that they must live according to the agreement they had made with the Lord at Mount Sinai. But the people of the northern kingdom of Israel believed they were in good standing with God because they were doing so well materially. They reasoned that if they were this wealthy, with summer and winter homes adorned with ivory (Amos 3:15), surely God must be pleased with them. So the prophet focused on their treatment of people.
God is extremely concerned with how His people treat others. No doubt this is based on the fact that all people are created in the image of God. In a marriage a husband or wife may insist, “I love my spouse,” but it’s the actual treatment of that spouse through courtesy and loving acts that really tells the story. So it is in the Book of Amos. The way God’s people treat others really tells the story.
But just how does a spokesman for God win the right to be heard by a people who feel satisfied with their lives? We see how Amos developed the justification of his theme in Amos 1–2. There he demonstrated, no doubt to the rousing approval of his listening audience, that God was about to judge all the surrounding nations because of how they treated people.
Amos declared that the people from Damascus treated others like they would treat a pile of grain (1:3–5). Those from Gaza decided that commercial profit should have a priority over people, so they sold them as slaves (vv. 6–8). Amos accused the people of Tyre of selling people as slaves in complete disregard for the promises of protection they had given them (vv. 9–10).
For the related people of Edom (through Esau) Amos pointed out that they had nourished hatred toward the descendants of Jacob. Down through the years they had been cruel to them (vv. 11–12).
The descendants of Lot, through his two sons Ben-Ammi and Moab (Gen. 19:37–38), killed unborn children and their mothers (Amos 1:13–15). Also, in a spirit of revenge they sought to remove any remembrance of those before them even to the point of desecrating their bodies (2:1–3).
Finally, the seventh nation that Amos addressed was the southern kingdom of Judah. While he did not explicitly call their attention to unfair treatment of people, in a more general way he noted that God’s covenant people had broken the covenant and had followed the ways of other gods (vv. 4–5). At this point the children of Israel were probably clapping, shouting their “Amens!” and delighting in the prospect of the Lord’s judging their enemies.
At precisely this point Amos turned on them. Perhaps because seven is the number of completion, they weren’t expecting an eight-point sermon. But Amos had their attention and they were nodding their approval of the standard he had developed.
The prophet used this very standard of the proper treatment of people to then try to convince and convict the stubborn, idolatrous, materialistic Israelites that they were far from God. Amos, while not completely ignoring Israel’s abhorrent religious practices (e.g., 4:4–5; 5:21–23), centered primarily on their social sins. In his initial message to them (2:6–16) he pointed out that they were oppressing the poor (vv. 6–7), abusing women (v. 7), exacerbating the system of pledges and fines intended to protect people (v. 8), and lacking respect for God’s servants (v. 12). He left no doubt that this nation was far from having a true relationship with the God they claimed to serve. They would not treat people that way if they truly loved God.
Amos continued to defend his theme, using various logical arguments and references to the past workings of God (3:1–5:17). This theme, which dominates the book, is stated in succinct form in 5:24 as the prophet developed the “woe oracles” of chapters 5 and 6. There Amos called for social justice as an essential part of true piety: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
Amos described the coming judgment in a visionary form in Amos 7:1–9:10. He demonstrated how, if only they would come to the Lord in repentance, the judgment could be averted. Yet they remained stubborn, unwilling to humble themselves. So judgment was declared, for God would “spare them no longer.”
Of course God is a God of His word, so through the prophet He promised hope for a judged people (9:11–15). God loves people and wants them to be part of His future kingdom.
The theme of justice that permeates the Book of Amos has appealed to liberation theologians in their emphasis on social justice. Traditionally it has had much less appeal among some evangelicals who fear that emphasizing social justice may somehow corrupt our understanding of salvation by faith alone. But the reader of Amos must understand that the prophet was not describing the means of salvation, which has always been by faith alone. Rather, he was describing how a delivered person—in his case a delivered nation—should treat others.
Only two things from this present world will last for all eternity—the Word of God and people. As Bible-believing Christians let us never find ourselves in the position of the northern kingdom of Israel. In the midst of our tremendous material blessings let’s love people! Our treatment of people, especially the disadvantaged and helpless, shows how we feel about our God, since others too were made in His image and Christ died for them as well as for you and me. John encourages us in the words found in 1 John 3:11, “This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.” So let’s love God by loving people, so that they will realize they too should love God!
Dr. Stephen Bramer (PhD, 1997) is professor of Bible Exposition at Dallas Theological Seminary.