Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
THE BROAD CONTEXT:
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 the Lord 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 the Lord’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 highlighted Israel’s two great sins: “ardent worship without a corresponding concern for justice (5:18-27) and opulent indolence without an appropriate awareness of pending calamity (6:14)…. (He predicted) exile (5:27) and invasion (6:14)” (Hubbard, 176).
CHAPTER 5. THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT
The following is technical, but worth reading.
A chiasmus is a literary form, in the same way that a sonnet is a literary form. Literary forms of this sort don’t happen by accident. They are the product of a careful and sophisticated author—a true work of art.
Chiasmi (the plural of chiasmus) occur frequently in the Old Testament. Understanding their structure opens the door to a broader understanding of scripture.
Amos 5:1-17 is structured as a chiasmus, as follows (J. DeWaard, cited in Hubbard, 164):
A. Lamentation as a response to judgment (vv. 1-3)
B. A call to seek the Lord and live (vv. 4-6)
C. Indictment for perverting justice and righteousness (v. 7)
D. A hymn to honor the creator of heaven and earth (8a-e)
E. The Lord is his name (v. 8f)
D’. A hymn to honor the one who destroys the strong (v. 9)
C’. Indictment for hating reproof and trampling the poor (vv. 10-13)
B’. A call to seek good and not evil, so that you may live (vv. 14-15)
A’. Lamentation as a response to judgment (vv. 16-17)
The middle item (E in this example) constitutes a “bulls-eye” that is heart of the chiasmus—the most important part—”The Lord is his name.”
Chiasmi draw the reader from the edges of the work toward the center—toward the most important part. In the above example, the center is the middle line, E: “Yahweh is his name” (v. 8f). If the people for whom this book is written can learn to remember, “The Lord is his name,” the problems outlined in this book will go away.
Note that A (the first line) parallels A’ (the last line). B parallels B’—etc. We might think of the above chiasmus as a series of concentric rings:
A. The outer ring is composed of A and A’ (Lamentation).
B. The next ring is composed of B and B’ (A call to seek the Lord/good).
C. The next ring is composed of C and C’ (Indictment).
D. The next ring is composed of D and D’ (A hymn to honor God).
E. The center circle is composed of E (Yahweh is his name).
Understanding that the first half of chapter five is a chiasmus helps us see that the lectionary has selected portions (vv. 6-7, 10-15) of a carefully and artistically designed whole. While it is legitimate to focus on these verses, understanding the chiasmus structure can help us to see how these verses relate to the whole chapter.
Chapter five is distinctive in another way as well. While most of this book is composed of indictments and announcements of judgment, this chapter includes calls to repentance that hold out the hope of averting disaster (Tucker, 437).
AMOS 5:6-7. SEEK YAHWEH, AND YOU WILL LIVE
6 Seek Yahweh, and you will live;
lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph,
and it devour, and there be no one to quench it in Bethel.
7 You who turn justice (Hebrew: mis∙pat) to wormwood,
and cast down righteousness (Hebrew: seda·qa) to the earth:
“Seek Yahweh, and you will live” (v. 6a). This is an example of the calls to repentance that are characteristic of this chapter, but not of the book as a whole.
To seek Yahweh is to ask for Yahweh’s guidance (easily accessible in the Torah) and to follow the guidance that Yahweh gives. This verse holds out the hope that Yahweh will turn back from judgment if Israel (the ten tribes of the northern kingdom) will only seek the Lord. The promise is that the people of Israel can expect to live if they seek the Lord. Seeking the Lord, then, is literally a matter of life and death.
“lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and it devour, and there be no one to quench it in Bethel” (v. 6b). Judgment lies just around the corner. Yahweh is just about to strike—to break out against the house of Joseph like fire—to devour Bethel. There is urgency here. Only immediate repentance can save Israel (the northern kingdom).
“like fire.” Fire is often used as a metaphor for judgment in both Old and New Testaments (Deuteronomy 4:23-24; Isaiah 42:25; Jeremiah 11:16; Psalm 80:16; Ezekiel 15:4-7; 19:12-14; 24:10-12; 38:22; 39:6; Zephaniah 1:18; 3:8; Zechariah 12:6; Matthew 3:12; 13:24-30, 37-42; John 15:1-6; 2 Peter 3:7-12; Revelation 8:7-10; 9:17-19; 16:8; 18:8: 20:9). Fire is a frightening metaphor, because it moves quickly and destroys utterly. It is difficult to quell an out-of-control brush fire or house fire—and absolutely impossible to quell a fire sent as judgment by Yahweh.
“the house of Joseph” could have either of two meanings. Joseph was one of the twelve sons of Jacob/Israel—and there were twelve tribes of Israel, each occupying a tribal territory, named after these sons—but there was no territory named after Joseph or Levi. There was no need for a tribal territory to support the descendants of Levi, because they were supported by temple offerings. To bring the number of tribal territories to twelve, two (Ephraim and Manasseh) were named after two sons of Joseph—so “the house of Joseph” could refer to the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh.
But when Amos speaks of “the house of Joseph” here, the context suggests that he means it to refer to the ten tribes of the northern kingdom.
“Bethel” is a city of the northern kingdom located 12 miles (19 km) north of Jerusalem. Jeroboam, the first king of the northern kingdom, feared that his people would switch their loyalty to King Rehoboam of the southern kingdom if they had to go to Jerusalem (in the southern kingdom) to conduct their worship. Therefore, he made two calves of gold, and set one up in Bethel and the other in Dan, telling his people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Look and see your gods, Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (1 Kings 12:28). The Biblical account of this story concludes, “This thing became a sin; for the people went to worship before the one, even to Dan” (1 Kings 12:30)—Bethel being in the far south of the northern kingdom and Dan being in the far north. Later, Josiah will pull down the altar at Bethel—and burn the high place (the place of worship)—and the sacred pole (the symbol of worship) (2 Kings 23:15).
“You who turn justice (mis∙pat) to wormwood, and cast down righteousness (seda·qa) to the earth” (v. 7; see also 6:12). Justice (mis·pat) and righteousness (seda·qa) are related. Justice involves bringing people into a right relationship with Yahweh and each other, and letting these right relationships produce righteous lives. Righteousness is life lived in accord with ethical principles—life lived in accord with God’s law and God’s will.
God’s law provides very specific guidance with regard to just behavior. It requires witnesses to be honest and impartial (Exodus 23:1-3, 6-8). It requires special consideration for widows, orphans, and other vulnerable people (Deuteronomy 24:17). While Israel is always tempted to define its service to God by the performance of cultic duties (ritual sacrifice, Sabbath observance, etc.), the prophets keep reminding them that justice is a basic duty of the faith community (Micah 6:8).
“turn justice to wormwood.” But Amos says that Israel has turned justice into wormwood, a plant known for its bitter taste. Wormwood is often used as a metaphor for judgment (Jeremiah 9:15; 23:15; Lamentations 3:15, 19). In this verse, Amos uses it as a metaphor for the poisonous quality of justice in Israel.
“and cast down righteousness to the earth” Righteousness is a heavenly virtue, but these people have brought it to the ground—have ripped it from its heavenly moorings and made it into something to be trampled underfoot.
AMOS 5:10-13. FOR I KNOW HOW MANY ARE YOUR OFFENSES
10 They hate him who reproves in the gate,
and they abhor him who speaks blamelessly.
11 Forasmuch therefore as you trample on the poor,
and take taxes from him of wheat:
You have built houses of cut stone,
but you will not dwell in them.
You have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
12 For I know how many your offenses,
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the just,
who take a bribe,
and who turn aside the needy in the courts.
13 Therefore a prudent person keeps silent in such a time,
for it is an evil time.
“They hate him who reproves in the gate” (v. 10a). “They” is the people of Israel (the northern kingdom)—the guilty ones. The prophet uses the third person (“they”) here, but will switch to the second person (“you”) in the next verse.
“in the gate.” City gates are busy. They are the only way to enter or leave the city, so people have to go through the gates to attend to their fields during the day and return through the gates at night. City elders administer justice at the city gates (Deuteronomy 21:19; Joshua 20:4; Ruth 4:1). Prophets deliver prophecies there.
But those who are in the wrong hate those who offer correction at the gates, because they want freedom to act without restraint. They resent anyone who would curtail their greedy ways.
“and they abhor him who speaks blamelessly” (v. 10b). The ones who are in the wrong also despise those who speak the truth—who manifest integrity. Darkness hates the light, because light drives out darkness. Evil people love the darkness, because it allows them to proceed without fear of discovery.
The Ninth Commandment says, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor,” (Exodus 20:16), but the people about whom Amos is talking here bear false testimony as a matter of course. Bearing false testimony is the way they make their living.
“Forasmuch therefore as you trample on the poor, and take taxes from him of wheat” (v. 11a). 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 emphasize concern for the poor and condemn ill treatment of widows and orphans (Isaiah 1:17, 23; 10:1; Jeremiah 5:28; 7:6; 22:3; Malachi 3:5).
Greedy people have several ways of trampling on the poor and taking levies of grain from them. They are guilty of “making the ephah small, and the shekel large, and dealing falsely with balances of deceit” (8:5b)—i.e., they use false weights and measures to cheat the poor. They “buy the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes” (8:6a)—i.e., they push poor people into indentured servitude or slavery. They sell “the sweepings with the wheat” (8:6b)—i.e., they adulterate grain with floor-sweepings and sell the adulterated grain for full price.
The prophets regard predatory behavior toward the weak and vulnerable as one of the worst sins. That is the sin of which Israel stands accused now.
“You have built houses of cut stone, but you will not dwell in them. You have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine” (v. 11b). Yahweh has devised a punishment to fit the crime. The guilty parties practiced unscrupulous methods to make money. They used their ill-gotten money to build “houses of cut stone” rather than houses of clay brick, the usual (less expensive) building material. They also purchased lovely vineyards.
However, Yahweh will see that they neither live in their expensive houses nor drink the wine from their lovely vineyards. Their devious work will come to naught when Israel is defeated and they are either killed or taken into exile.
However, at the end of this book, Yahweh promises a new day when, “I will bring my people Israel back from captivity, and they will rebuild the ruined cities, and inhabit them; and they will plant vineyards, and drink wine from them. They shall also make gardens, and eat their fruit” (9:14).
“For I know how many your offenses, and how great are your sins— you who afflict the just, who take a bribe, and who turn aside the needy in the courts” (v. 12). This verse lists three categories of transgressions: (1) Oppressing the righteous; (2) taking bribes; and (3) pushing aside the need in the gate. Each of these has to do with the improper administration of justice, and each violates Torah law (Exodus 23:1-8; Deuteronomy 16:18-20).
“Therefore a prudent person keeps silent in such a time, for it is an evil time” (v. 13). The meaning of this verse is unclear. It could mean that the times are so evil that prudent people will keep silent, knowing that they cannot correct the evil system—and that trying to do so will only get them in trouble.
Our colloquial expression for this is, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”
AMOS 5:14-15. SEEK GOOD, AND NOT EVIL, THAT YOU MAY LIVE
14 Seek good, and not evil,
that you may live;
and so Yahweh, the God of Armies, will be with you,
as you say.
15 Hate evil, love good,
and establish justice in the courts.
It may be that Yahweh, the God of Armies,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.”
“Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so Yahweh, the God of Armies, will be with you, as you say” (v. 14). Note the similarity between this verse and verse 6. As noted in “The Immediate Context” (above), verses 6 and 14 are parallel verses in the chiasmus structure of this chapter. In verse 6, the admonition was to seek God. Here it is to seek the good. While God and good are not identical, they are complementary, because God is good.
The promised reward for heeding this call to righteousness is life and the presence and help of Yahweh, the God of hosts.
“Hate evil, love good, and establish justice in the courts. It may be that Yahweh, the God of Armies, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph” (v. 15). “Hate evil, love good” (v. 15) is a corollary to “Seek good, and not evil” (v. 14). It is not enough to seek the good—these people need also to learn to love what is good. It is not enough to avoid evil—they must also learn to hate evil. Only when these values are rooted in their hearts will they truly be able to please Yahweh.
The promise of this verse is less than a full-fledged promise. PERHAPS if these people learn to hate the evil and to love the good, then MAYBE Yahweh will be gracious to “the remnant of Joseph”—those who survive the coming exile.
“the remnant of Joseph.” The word “remnant” is important in both Old and New Testaments. The concept (if not the word itself) was introduced with Noah and the flood. In that story, God destroyed the evil populace, but saved righteous Noah and his family (Genesis 6-9). In that instance, Noah and his family constituted the remnant—the righteous nucleus preserved by God to reestablish the people of God.
The idea behind the remnant is that God will be faithful even when his people are not. The people’s apostasy will not nullify God’s promise. God will sometimes impose a harsh judgment, but for the purpose of purifying rather than destroying. A righteous remnant will survive.
The prophets had a great deal to say about the remnant:
• Amos prophesied that a remnant would survive the Assyrian exile (Amos 3:12; 5:3, 15; 9:11-15).
• Isaiah delivered the message to King Hezekiah, “The remnant that has escaped of the house of Judah shall again take root downward, and bear fruit upward. For out of Jerusalem a remnant will go out, and out of Mount Zion those who shall escape. The zeal of Yahweh will perform this” (2 Kings 19:30-31). Isaiah also spoke of the remnant as the stump of an oak and a “holy seed” (Isaiah 6:13).
• Speaking to a people in exile, Jeremiah promised that Yahweh would “gather the remnant of (his) flock out of all the countries where (he has) driven them, and will bring them again to their folds; and they shall be fruitful and multiply ” (Jeremiah 23:3). He also said that God would make a new covenant with the houses of Israel and Judah—a covenant written on their hearts. God promised, “I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
• Ezekiel reported the Lord saying, “Whereas I have removed them far off among the nations, and whereas I have scattered them among the countries, yet will I be to them a sanctuary for a little while in the countries where they have come. Therefore say, Thus says the Lord Yahweh: I will gather you from the peoples, and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel” (Ezekiel 11:16-17).
• Zechariah reported that “two parts in it will be cut off and die; but the third will be left in it” (Zechariah 13:8). He went on to say that the remaining one-third would be put into the fire. Yahweh “will refine them as silver is refined, and will test them like gold is tested.” When that happens, “They will call on my name, and I will hear them. I will say, ‘It is my people;’ and they will say, ‘Yahweh is my God'” (Zechariah 13:9).
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.
Achtemeier, Elizabeth, New International Biblical Commentary: Minor Prophets I (Peabody, Massachusetts, 1996)
Birch, Bruce C., Westminster Bible Companion: Hosea, Joel, and Amos (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997)
Gowan, Donald E., The New Interpreter’s Bible: Introduction to Apocalyptic Literature, Daniel, the Twelve Prophets, Vol. VII (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2001)
Guenther, Allen, Believers Church Bible Commentary: Hosea, Amos (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1998)
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)
Niehaus, Jeff, in McComiskey, Thomas Edward (ed.), The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1992, 1993, 1998)
Ogilvie, Lloyd, The Preacher’s Commentary: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Vol. 22 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2002)
Simundson, Daniel J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005)
Smith, Billy K. and Page, Frank S., The New American Commentary: Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Vol. 19b (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1995)
Stuart, Douglas, Word Biblical Commentary: Hosea-Jonah, Vol. 31 (Dallas: Word Books, Publisher, 1987)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan