The first verse of this book identifies the author as “Amos, who was among the herdsmen of Tekoa” (1:1). Much has been made of the fact that Amos was a shepherd—a man more comfortable among hills and dales than on city streets—a man more comfortable in the company of sheep than of people—an unsophisticated man shocked at urban excess—a shrill man railing against urban lifestyles.
However, it would be a mistake to attribute the harshness of Amos’ prophecy to his lack of sophistication. He became a prophet, not because he found urban lifestyles repulsive, but because Yahweh called him. It was Yahweh who took Amos from his flocks. It was Yahweh who said, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel” (7:15). Amos frequently prefaces his prophecy by saying, “Thus says Yahweh” (1:3, 6, 9, 11, 13, 2:1, etc.).
The first verse of this book also tells us when Amos served as a prophet. It was “in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash king of Israel, two years before the earthquake” (1:1). Uzziah and Jeroboam ruled in the eighth century B.C., and scholars believe that Amos had a relatively short ministry in the middle of that century—around 760-755 B.C.
At that time, the Jewish people were divided into the ten tribes of the northern kingdom (Israel) and the two tribes of the southern kingdom (Judah). It was the time between the end of Solomon’s reign (c. 930 B.C.) and the fall of the northern kingdom (c. 721 B.C.).
Only a few years after Amos’ prophecies, the Assyrians forced the ten tribes of Israel into exile in Assyria. Unlike the two tribes of the Southern Kingdom (Judah), the ten tribes of Israel never returned to their homeland in any organized way. Instead, they were assimilated and disappeared as a people.
The Jeroboam mentioned above is Jeroboam II, who ruled c. 785-745 B.C. Jeroboam I, the first king of Israel (the northern kingdom), ruled c. 924-903 B.C., and died by Yahweh’s hand (2 Chronicles 13:20). Jeroboam II was successful militarily, but “he did that which was evil in the sight of Yahweh: he didn’t depart from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, with which he made Israel to sin” (2 Kings 14:24).
It is worth noting that the first Jeroboam was the first king of Israel, and the second Jeroboam’s son would be the next-to-last king of Israel. In between the two Jeroboams there was a succession of mostly bad kings of Israel.
We tend to think of Amos as a northern prophet, because his prophecy was directed primarily toward the northern kingdom (Israel)—but he was from Tekoa, a few miles south of Jerusalem in the southern kingdom (Judah)—and, as we will see in 6:1, he addressed both “those who are at ease in Zion” (the capital of the southern kingdom) and “those who are secure on the mountain of Samaria” (the capital of the northern kingdom).
Amos spoke against “social injustice and religious arrogance” (Tucker, 419). He warned the people of an upcoming military disaster that would reflect God’s judgment.
AMOS 8:1-3. A BASKET OF SUMMER FRUIT
1 Thus the Lord Yahweh showed me:
behold, a basket of summer fruit (Hebrew: qayis).
2 He said, “Amos, what do you see?”
I said, “A basket of summer fruit.”
Then Yahweh said to me,
“The end (Hebrew: qes) has come on my people Israel.
I will not again pass by (Hebrew: abowr) them any more.
3 The songs of the temple will be wailings (Hebrew: helilu) in that day,”
says the Lord Yahweh.
“The dead bodies will be many.
In every place they will throw them out with silence.”
“Thus the Lord Yahweh showed me: behold, a basket of summer fruit” (qayis—produce of some sort) (v. 1).
This is the fourth in a series of five visions:
• The first vision (7:1-3) was a vision of locusts.
• The second vision (7:4-6) was a vision of fire.
• The third vision was a vision of a plumb line (7:7-9).
• Now we have the fourth vision, a vision of a basket of summer fruit (8:1-3).
• The fifth vision (9:1-4) will be of thresholds shaking and shattering on the heads of the people—and people being killed by the sword—a vision of inescapable judgment.
A number of translations (KJV, NRSV, ESV) translate qayis as “summer fruit,” but qayis simply means some sort of produce, which could be any kind of fruit.
The NIV reads “ripe fruit,” which probably captures the meaning more accurately. Ripe fruit has a short shelf life and soon decays—like the “dead bodies” of verse 3 will soon decay. The qayis (fruit) is a metaphor for Israel—and both the qayis and Israel are living on borrowed time. Both will soon reach the end of their brief lives—will soon perish.
“He said, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ I said, ‘A basket of summer fruit.’ (qayis). Then Yahweh said to me, ‘The end (qes) has come on my people Israel; I will not again pass by them any more ‘” (v. 2). In each of the other four visions, the vision speaks for itself. A plague of locusts is a destructive force—as is a consuming fire. A plumb line is used for determining whether a wall is standing straight or must be torn down and rebuilt. The meaning of the fifth vision, people being killed by the sword, is also obvious.
However, the meaning of this basket of fruit is not at all obvious—at least not to the person reading this verse in the English language. We struggle to see the connection between a basket of fruit and Yahweh’s comment, “The end has come on my people Israel.” However, in the original Hebrew language, it quickly becomes clear that the connection is similar sounding words—a word play between qayis (fruit) and qes (end). Amos sees a basket of qayis (fruit), but he will soon see the qes (end) of Israel.
“I will not again pass by them any more” (abowr) (v. 2b). This is reminiscent of the first Passover, when Yahweh struck down the firstborn of the Egyptians, but passed over the homes of the Israelites who had smeared the blood of a lamb on their doorposts. However, we should note that the word abowr (used here) is not related to the words for “pass over” used in the book of Exodus. The linkage is simply that Yahweh spared Israel in that earlier time in Egypt, but has no intention of sparing them now.
“The songs of the temple will be wailings (helilu) in that day” (v. 3). Yahweh goes on to spell out what Israel can expect. The joyous songs of the temple will give way to wailings.
There is another word play here, but only implied since the word hallelujah does not appear in this verse. The songs of the temple—their hallelujahs (Hebrew: halal yaw—praise to Yahweh)—will give way to helilu (wailings).
“The dead bodies will be many. In every place they will throw them out with silence” (v. 3). The image of dead bodies scattered everywhere suggests a terrible military defeat. That, in fact, is what will happen. Only a few years after Amos’ prophecies, the Assyrians will win a decisive battle against Israel and will force the ten tribes of Israel into exile in Assyria.
AMOS 8:4-6. HEAR THIS, YOU THAT SWALLOW UP THE NEEDY
4 Hear this, you who desire to swallow up the needy,
and cause the poor of the land to fail,
5 Saying, ‘When will the new moon be gone, that we may sell grain?
And the Sabbath, that we may market wheat,
making the ephah small, and the shekel large,
and dealing falsely with balances of deceit;
6 that we may buy the poor for silver,
and the needy for a pair of shoes,
and sell the sweepings with the wheat?'”
“Hear this, you who desire to swallow up the needy, and cause the poor of the land to fail” (v. 4). Torah law includes provisions to provide for the needs of the poor. Landowners are required to leave the edges of their fields unharvested so that poor people can glean those fields and obtain enough food to survive (Leviticus 19:9-10). The law also makes provision for the next of kin to redeem land sold by a relative (Leviticus 25:25), and requires families to support indigent kin (Leviticus 25:35). The prophets emphasized concerned for the poor and condemned ill treatment of widows and orphans (Isaiah 1:17, 23; 10:1; Jeremiah 5:28; 7:6; 22:3; Malachi 3:5).
The prophets regarded predatory behavior toward the weak and vulnerable as one of the worst possible sins. That is the sin of which Israel stands accused now.
“Saying, ‘When will the new moon be gone, that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath, that we may market wheat?” (v. 5a). The new moon is associated with various Jewish ritual observances (Numbers 29:6; 2 Kings 4:23; 1 Chronicles 23:31; 2 Chronicles 2:4; Ezra 3:5; Psalm 81:3; Isaiah:1:13-14).
While these seemingly religious people keep the ritual observances, they do so with their eye on the clock. “How soon will this ceremony be over so I can get on with my life?”
The activity that preoccupies them is commerce—buying and selling—making a profit. While there is nothing intrinsically evil about commerce, it quickly becomes evil when it distorts our relationship with God or neighbor—when our love of money crowds out love for God and neighbor.
“making the ephah small, and the shekel large” (v. 5b). The ephah measures volume. Estimate of the modern equivalent vary from a half bushel (20 liters) to a bushel (40 liters).
“Shekel” is a word that means “to weigh.” At this time in Israelite history, it probably refers to an amount of gold or silver—about 4/10 oz. (12 gm.). Later, it will refer to a silver coin of approximately the same weight.
To make the ephah small is to sell someone short measure—i.e., to give them three-quarters of an ephah when they have paid for a full ephah. To make the shekel small is the same idea—to pay a shorter weight of silver or gold than is due—to give the other person 10 grams when they are due 12 grams.
“and dealing falsely with balances of deceit” (v. 5c). The scales that they would use to measure grain or precious metals would be balance scales instead of the spring scales or electronic scales with which we are familiar today.
A balance scale typically has two trays on either side of a pivot point. A person would put calibrated weights (objects whose weights are known) on one side. Then they would pour silver or gold into the other tray until the two trays balanced.
It is easy to cheat while using balance scales. All you need to do is to use false calibrated weights to get a false measurement.
Pictures of balance scales
“that we may buy the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes” (v. 6a). Cheating poor people who are already living on the edge financially has the potential to push them over the edge, making it possible for an unscrupulous person to take over their property. In extreme cases, the unscrupulous person could push a poor person into indentured servitude or slavery, along with the poor person’s family.
“and sell the sweepings with the wheat” (v. 6b). In verse 5, Yahweh talked about false weights and measure. Here he talks about adulterated goods—sweepings from the floor mixed in with the grain being sold.
AMOS 8:7-10. I WILL TURN YOUR FEASTS INTO MOURNING
7 Yahweh has sworn by the pride of Jacob,
“Surely I will never forget any of their works.
8 Won’t the land tremble for this,
and everyone mourn who dwells in it?
Yes, it will rise up wholly like the River;
and it will be stirred up and sink again, like the River of Egypt.
9 It will happen in that day,” says the Lord Yahweh,
“that I will cause the sun to go down at noon,
and I will darken the earth in the clear day.
10 I will turn your feasts into mourning,
and all your songs into lamentation;
and I will make you wear sackcloth on all your bodies,
and baldness on every head.
I will make it like the mourning for an only son,
and its end like a bitter day. “
“Yahweh has sworn by the pride of Jacob” (v. 7a). To show the seriousness of his intent, Yahweh swears an oath. Earlier, he swore an oath “by his holiness” (4:2), but now he swears an oath “by the pride of Jacob.”
This phrase, “the pride of Jacob,” appears in two other places. In Psalm 47:4, “the pride of Jacob” refers to Israel’s heritage—the Promised Land. In Amos 6:8, Yahweh said, “I abhor the pride of Jacob, and detest his fortresses. Therefore I will deliver up the city with all that is in it.”
In this verse, then, “the pride of Jacob” could refer to either of two things. One is the pride that Israel took in its own strength and wisdom. The other is the land that Yahweh gave to Israel. Whichever the meaning, Yahweh swears by this “pride of Jacob” and determines to make it a curse (see v. 8).
“Surely I will never forget any of their works” (v. 7b). Israel has forgotten both Yahweh and its covenant obligations (see Deuteronomy 4:23; 6:12; 8:11-19; Judges 3:7; Psalm 78:11; 106:13, 31; etc.), but Yahweh will never forget the evil that Israel has done.
The Psalmist prays, “Don’t remember the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions.
Remember me according to your loving kindness, for your goodness’ sake, Yahweh” (Psalm 25:7). Through the prophet Isaiah, Yahweh promises not to “remember your sins” (Isaiah 43:25). For Yahweh to say, “I will never forget any of (Israel’s) works” is to condemn Israel—to say, in effect, that the stain of Israel’s sins will be indelible—will never fade or be blotted out or forgiven.
There are instances where God determined to destroy Israel but repented and spared it. That will not be the case in this instance. When Assyria moves against Israel (the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom), that will spell the end for Israel.
“Won’t the land tremble for this, and everyone mourn who dwells in it? Yes, it will rise up wholly like the River; and it will be stirred up and sink again, like the River of Egypt?” (v. 8). Yahweh asks a rhetorical question which expects the answer, “Yes, this will happen.”
Yahweh uses two images here to portray the judgment that Israel will experience at his hands. The first is of the land trembling—a destructive earthquake. The second is the rising and falling of the Nile, which floods Egypt seasonally.
Both images would be terrifying to these people, because they have no means of protecting themselves from earthquakes or floods. The best that they can hope to do is to wait until the catastrophe runs its course—and to mourn their dead—and to try to pick up the pieces and carry on. However, in this instance, once Assyria moves against them, there will be no recovery. The catastrophe will completely overwhelm Israel (the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom).
“It will happen in that day” (v. 9a). “On that day” refers to “the day of Yahweh” (5:18, 20). The Day of Yahweh (or the Day of the Lord) will be an eschatological (end of time) event that will bring judgment to the guilty and deliverance to the faithful. There are numerous references in the prophets to the Day of Yahweh (Isaiah 13:6, 9; Jeremiah 46:10; Ezekiel 13:5; 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14; Amos 5:18, 20; Obadiah 1:15; Zephaniah 1:7, 14; Malachi 4:5). Most of these references emphasize God’s wrath, but some include a note of vindication. There will be no vindication in this instance, however.
“I will cause the sun to go down at noon, and I will darken the earth in the clear day” (v. 9b). This is another terrifying image—a solar eclipse. The people of Amos’ time did not understand the celestial mechanics of solar eclipses, and interpreted them as a sign of God’s displeasure.
That is how Yahweh intends these people to understand the coming eclipse. The day of the Lord will be “darkness, and not light”—”very dark, and no brightness in it” (5:18, 20).
These people have experienced an eclipse as a sign of Yahweh’s judgment—but the judgment was on Egypt rather than Israel. The ninth plague was “darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be felt” (Exodus 10:21).
There were two eclipses during Amos’ lifetime—one in 784 B.C. and the other in 763 B.C. (Hubbard, 222). The second of these probably occurred only a few years prior to Amos’ prophetic ministry, and would be fresh in the memory of these people.
“I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; and I will make you wear sackcloth on all your bodies, and baldness on every head. I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and its end like a bitter day” (v. 10). This series of images portrays total misery.
“I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation” (v. 10a). These two images portray reversals—the turning of good times into bad. Mourning and lamentation are how we respond when a loved one dies unexpectedly. We could be in the midst of some great joy—the birth of a child or a promotion—but the sudden death of a loved one would quickly turn our joy into grief.
“and all your songs into lamentation” (v. 10a). When mourning, we cannot enjoy pleasant songs. Only dirges have the power to express the feelings of a mourner’s heart.
“I will make you wear sackcloth on all your bodies, and baldness on every head” (v. 10b). Sackcloth is a rough material made from the hair of goats or camels. It is the kind of cloth that a person would use for heavy-duty sacks (hence its name) or tents, but its coarse texture is uncomfortable when worn against the skin, making it unsuitable for clothing.
However, people in mourning would wear sackcloth (often in combination with ashes) as a sign of grief or repentance. A more modern term for sackcloth is “hair shirt,” although the custom of wearing rough clothing as a sign of grief or repentance is no longer observed in very many circles.
We associate baldness with natural hair loss, and consider it to be unfortunate. The same was true in Biblical times. Elisha responded violently when a group of boys began taunting him, “Go away, you baldy! Go up, you baldhead!” (2 Kings 2:23).
But a shaved head was also a sign of grief or repentance (Jeremiah 16:6; Isaiah 22:12; Ezekiel 7:18; Micah 1:16)—although Leviticus prohibited priests from shaving their heads (Leviticus 21:5) and Deuteronomy prohibited all of Israel from shaving their forelocks (Deuteronomy 14:1).
“I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and its end like a bitter day” (v. 10c). All mourning is sad, but saddest of all is mourning for one’s only son. In that time and place, sons were the family’s future. Not only was a son necessary for carrying on the family name, but a son would ultimately take over the family farm or fishing boat and provide for his parents in their old age. That’s why God’s call to Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, was such a rigorous test (Genesis 22:1)—and why the Lord promised Abraham such a significant reward for his obedience (Genesis 22:15-18).
AMOS 8:11-12. I WILL SEND A FAMINE IN THE LAND
11 Behold, the days come,” says the Lord Yahweh,
“that I will send a famine in the land,
not a famine of bread,
nor a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of Yahweh.
12 They will wander (Hebrew: na’u—stagger) from sea to sea,
and from the north even to the east;
they will run back and forth to seek the word of Yahweh,
and will not find it.
“Behold, the days come,” says the Lord Yahweh, “that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of Yahweh” (v. 11). In Biblical times, famines were common—brought about by lack of rain, plagues of insects, or military sieges. Famines were also greatly feared. The author of Lamentations said, “Those who are killed with the sword are better than those who are killed with hunger;
For these pine away, stricken through, for want of the fruits of the field” (Lamentations 4:9). As supplies dwindled, food would not only become more and more difficult to find, but also more and more expensive. It was not uncommon for large numbers of people to starve to death in a famine or a siege—sometimes after devouring their own children.
But the famine portrayed here is not a famine of food or water but a famine of the word of the Lord. While that might not sound as catastrophic to our ears as a famine of bread or water, it has the potential to be so. We could not live another hour if the Lord decided to deny us our next breath? We could not live more than a few days if the Lord decided to deny us access to water? We could not live more than a few weeks if the Lord decided to deny us food? We don’t often stop to reflect on it, but our lives are in God’s hands every moment. Paul asked, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). The expected answer is “No one! No one can hurt us if we enjoy God’s protection.” The converse is also true. If God is against us, who is for us? Who can save us from God’s wrath? No one!
And so the Torah tells us: “Man does not live by bread only, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of Yahweh” (Deuteronomy 8:3).
“They will wander (na’u—stagger) from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east” (v. 12a). These are the four points of the compass—the Mediterranean Sea to the west—the Dead Sea to the south—as well as the north and east.
“they will run back and forth to seek the word of Yahweh, and will not find it” (v. 12b). They have taken the word of God for granted, and have even rejected it (2:12; 7:12). However, once the Lord withdraws his word, they will realize what a bad bargain they have struck. They will seek the Lord’s word, but will not find it.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Hubbard, David Allan, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Joel & Amos, Vol. 22b (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1989)
Mays, James Luther, The Old Testament Library: Amos (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969)
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Copyright 2009, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan