The time in which the prophet Amos lived was a time of peace and prosperity. But, the prophet could hear God roaring like a lion — in anger.
Amos the prophet was certain that there was a God to whom the nations must give account. There was a moral judge of the world.
No doubt this was a growing realization among the people of Israel. The God they worshiped was not a localized god — not simply their God, but the God of all the nations. YHWH was the God to whom all the nations were accountable.
So, in these verses, the prophet begins with this notion: the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will call the nations to accountability.
But, really, you don’t see what the prophet is doing here until you see that Amos chapters 1-2 is a unit. And, it is carefully structured. Verse 2 pictures the LORD (YHWH) roaring like a lion. Then a series or oracles of judgement follow. Each is for a different nation.
They are introduced with this repeated formula:
“For three transgressions of _____________,
וְעַל־אַרְבָּעָה לֹא אֲשִׁיבֶנּוּ
and for four, I will not turn back [the punishment?]….”
The Hebrew word translated “transgression” (פָּשַׁע) is actually a bit stronger than that: it signifies rebellion. The word suggests a revolt against all that is right and true — a revolt against God. The nations are being accused of “war crimes.”
Strictly speaking, that second phrase of the formula is just: “I will not turn back.” Our translations have provided an object for the verb: “the punishment” (KJV, ASV, NASB, NRSV, ESV), or “my wrath” (NIV). But, I really think the phrase (since it has no stated object) could be taken as “I will not turn away” or “I will not overlook.” The point is that these nations have God’s attention, their crimes will not be forgotten.
There is a certain rhetorical power in this repeated formula. But, this whole poetic prophecy is going somewhere. It’s building. It is going to end in an extended prophecy of judgement at the end (in our chapter 2). And, the weight of this prophecy of judgement is going to fall on Israel.
A somewhat similar thing happens in the early part of the New Testament book of Romans. Here the apostle Paul wishes to make the point that all the world lies under the power of sin. He begins by citing the sins of the Gentile world — and herein we find the (currently) oft-quoted statements against same-gender sex in the Gentile world. But, this is not the real burden of his message: the apostle is working his way toward this indictment:
“But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast of your relation to God and know his will and determine what is best because you are instructed in the law, and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth, you, then, that teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You that forbid adultery, do you commit adultery? You that abhor idols, do you rob temples? You that boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.'” (Romans 2:17-24 NRSV).
As Amos begins to speak, he draws his audience along with him. The nations have done wrong. They deserve to be judged. Little do they realize, as he begins his speech, that the real focus of his prophecy is on the Chosen People — the tribes of Israel.
The people recognize injustice. The nations have behaved unjustly. Something should be done. God needs to act. But, they may not recognize that, once they go down this road, they are calling upon God (in all fairness) to judge them as well.
Wisely, Jesus taught: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” (Matthew 7:1,2 NRSV.)
But, how easy we find it to judge — or maybe just analyze — the behavior of others. Why does our readiness to judge others so often blind us to our own faults? But, in the use of this rhetorical device, Amos is depending on this natural human tendency: first, he rails against the sins of the nations; then, he turns to the sins of his audience.
Here are the condemnations in verses 3-15.
(1.) Against: Damascus “…because they have threshed Gilead with threshing sledges of iron.” That is, they were brutal and cruel to the people of Gilead — Israel’s territory east of Galilee.
• Consequences: “So I will send a fire on the house of Hazael, and it shall devour the strongholds of Ben-hadad. I will break the gate bars of Damascus, and cut off the inhabitants from the Valley of Aven, and the one who holds the scepter from Beth-eden; and the people of Aram shall go into exile to Kir….”
(2.) Against: Gaza “…because they carried into exile entire communities, to hand them over to Edom.”
• Consequences: “So I will send a fire on the wall of Gaza, fire that shall devour its strongholds. I will cut off the inhabitants from Ashdod, and the one who holds the scepter from Ashkelon; I will turn my hand against Ekron, and the remnant of the Philistines shall perish….”
(3.) Against: Tyre “because they delivered entire communities over to Edom, and did not remember the covenant of kinship.”
• Consequences: “So I will send a fire on the wall of Tyre, fire that shall devour its strongholds.”
(4.) Against: Edom “because he pursued his brother with the sword and cast off all pity; he maintained his anger perpetually, and kept his wrath forever.”
• Consequences: “So I will send a fire on Teman, and it shall devour the strongholds of Bozrah.”
(5.) Against the Ammonites “because they have ripped open pregnant women in Gilead in order to enlarge their territory.”
• Consequences: “So I will kindle a fire against the wall of Rabbah, fire that shall devour its strongholds, with shouting on the day of battle, with a storm on the day of the whirlwind; then their king shall go into exile, he and his officials together….”
The list continues on into the next chapter.
The common theme here is the conduct of these nations in war. Yes, war was a commonplace during Old Testament times. But, their conduct in war was especially reprehensible — and it mattered. Israel’s anger against these nations is understandable.
When we — and those we love — have experienced injustice, the natural reaction is anger and outrage. This is not only natural but perfectly appropriate. The Scriptures tells us to go further than that, however: they challenge us to trust God with all vengeance and retribution.
But, be assured: there is a moral governor of the nations.