The opening verses of chapter 3 identify the people against whom Amos is prophesying: “the whole family that [God] brought up out of the land of Egypt.” They are the people that God has especially known. But, their special relationship with God implied a responsibility to live a life that reflected the character of the God who redeemed them.
Now, in verses 3-8, Amos talks about his own role as a prophet.
It begins with a series of cause and effect questions: when you see a certain effect, you can infer its cause? Or, as we might say: “Where there is smoke, there is fire.” They go like this:
- Two people are walking together —> they must have made an appointment
- A lion roars in the forest —> the lion must have caught something
- A bird falls into a snare —> there must have been a trap
- A snare springs up —> it must have taken something
- A trumpet is blown in the city —> the people must be afraid
This is another one of Amos’ rhetorical devices, he is leading up to something — the last cause and effect is a little different:
- Disaster befalls a city —> it must be the LORD who has done it
Here is the actual wording of verses 3-6:
הֲיֵלְכוּ שְׁנַיִם יַחְדָּו בִּלְתִּי אִם־נוֹעָדוּ
Do two walk together unless they have made an appointment?
הֲיִשְׁאַג אַרְיֵה בַּיַּעַר וְטֶרֶף אֵין לוֹ
Does a lion roar in the forest, when it has no prey?
הֲיִתֵּן כְּפִיר קוֹלוֹ מִמְּעֹנָתוֹ בִּלְתִּי אִם־לָכָד
Does a young lion cry out from its den, if it has caught nothing?
הֲתִפֹּל צִפּוֹר עַל־פַּח הָאָרֶץ וּמוֹקֵשׁ אֵין
Does a bird fall into a snare on the earth, when there is no trap for it?
לָהּ הֲיַעֲלֶה־פַּח מִן־הָאֲדָמָה וְלָכוֹד לֹא יִלְכּוֹד
Does a snare spring up from the ground, when it has taken nothing?
אִם־יִתָּקַע שׁוֹפָר בְּעִיר וְעָם לֹא יֶחֱרָדוּ
Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid?
אִם־תִּהְיֶה רָעָה בְּעִיר וַיהוָה לֹא עָשָׂה
Does disaster befall a city, unless the LORD has done it?
I don’t want to read too much into these. But, notice how they become more and more threatening as they go along. It seems interesting to me that the personal name of God (יְהוִה) is used in verse 6: “YHWH has done it.” This is a reminder that the issue here is the covenant and the keeping of the covenant.
כִּי לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה דָּבָר כִּי אִם־גָּלָה סוֹדוֹ אֶל־עֲבָדָיו הַנְּבִיאִים
“Surely the Lord GOD does nothing, without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.”
It has often been pointed out — and quite correctly — that the prophets were primarily not fore-tellers but forth-tellers. Their role was not primarily to predict future events, but to speak the word of God to their generation. Their role was to be the true interpreters of the times.
The prophet speaks the mind of God (Adonai YHWH). The prophet interprets events, so that their significance can be understood. It is natural for societies to value success and wealth and comfort and well-being. The prophet is the one who sees that this is false and deceptive. The prophet is the one who believes in justice and righteousness. It is the prophet who sees through things. The prophet sees that the trappings of success hide an impending destruction. God cannot and will not abide a society that does not care for the poor. God cannot allow an unrighteous society to stand.
But, who could know the meaning of events unless a prophet spoke? The people could assume their good-fortune was blessing from God — the seal that they were indeed God’s favored people. Only the prophet can see and tell them the truth — their society was corrupt and it would fall. God’s confidential plan (סוֹד) is revealed to the prophet.
We naturally give meanings to the events of life: drawing out little moral lessons for ourselves and others. We do it even if we know that such things are foolish most of the time. But, how do we know if the meanings are correct? The prophet has the key to understand the times. No, Israel was not being favored by God. Its temporary good fortune meant nothing.
The prophet sees what others do not — the prophet sees that justice is God’s standard for evaluating a society, not its GNP.
We need prophets. We need people who can interpret the times from the standpoint of God’s charter and values. They force us to look beyond the apparent realities, and see things from a new perspective.
Prophets were needed and valued in the early Church, as well. In the days when the New Testament writings were being composed and collected the living word of prophecy was expected and needed and valued. And, the Church needs the prophetic voice now — the voice that can focus us back on the will of God. In 2 Peter 1:19-21 we read: “So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”
אַרְיֵה שָׁאָג מִי לֹא יִירָא אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה דִּבֶּר מִי לֹא יִנָּבֵא
“The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord GOD has spoken; who can but prophesy?”
From the standpoint of human self-interest we can’t help but ask: why would someone do such a thing? He excited opposition. He faced misunderstanding. There was no money in it for him. It takes the inspiration of God for people to take this kind of a stand — not only their words but their very lives speak of the reality of God — the reality that society was consistently ignoring.
Who was this man? Yes, I know, Amos tells he was just a shepherd (7:14), but the book we have shows him to be a man with a great deal of literary talent. He was a man who had traveled, and who was able to survive financially even as the preacher of an unpopular message. It is possible that the word used in Amos 7:14 for “shepherd” (בּוֹקֵר) signifies an owner of flocks — maybe Amos himself was being modest in that passage. We don’t really know. But, here was a man who left his life and his home country (Judah) to speak an unpopular word to Israel. He was filled with passion for his cause, but he also recognized that it was a message they needed to hear. Only a transcendent vision can produce something like this — a realization that there is something greater than the visible realities of life. Amos had a connection with God, and he was filled with passion for God’s vision of justice and righteousness.
Only a person of faith would do such a thing.