Here we see the prophet Amos at prayer. Most often, in the book of Amos, we hear the prophet’s voice denouncing the nations and predicting their coming doom. Here we see him at prayer for the nation of Israel — pleading for them to be spared.
We often find mixed emotions among the prophets — I think of it particularly with Jeremiah, sometimes called the weeping prophet. In Jeremiah’s prophecies we find prophetic denunciations mixed with genuine expressions of sorrow for the fate of the nation.
Here we see Amos the intercessor praying that the nation of Israel will not be completely destroyed.
These verses introduce us to the record of four visions of the prophet Amos. They are:
- the vision of the locust plague (7:1-3),
- the vision of the fire (7:4-6),
- the vision of the plumb-line (7:7-9),
- the vision of the basket of summer fruit (8:1-3).
In between the visions of the plumb-line and the summer fruit is the story of Amos’ conflict with Amaziah, the priest of Bethel (Amos 7:10-17).
The prophets were people who had visions. Often their very calling as a prophet was tied to one of their visions. The most obvious example of this is Isaiah’s call, which was tied to a vision of God’s Throne Room (Isaiah 6:1-8). And, I think that may be what we are dealing with here. This section of the book of Amos gives us background information about the prophet. These are early visions. And, the story of Amos’ conflict with Amaziah comes in the midst of them. Amos’ vocation as a prophet began with his prayers and his visions.
So, this chapter contains important background information for the whole book. Here is the story of Amos’ calling as a prophet and the story of the resistance he encountered. Chronologically, this material comes before the earlier chapters of the book. After hearing the substance of Amos’ prophecies, we are now invited to hear the story that lies behind it.
Amos has been interceding for the nation of Israel. We are reminded that Amos is a man of prayer.
כֹּה הִרְאַנִי אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה וְהִנֵּה יוֹצֵר גֹּבַי בִּתְחִלַּת עֲלוֹת הַלָּקֶשׁ וְהִנֵּה־לֶקֶשׁ אַחַר גִּזֵּי הַמֶּלֶךְ
“This is what the Lord GOD showed me: he was forming locusts at the time the latter growth began to sprout (it was the latter growth after the king’s mowings).”
וְהָיָה אִם־כִּלָּה לֶאֱכוֹל אֶת־עֵשֶׂב הָאָרֶץ וָאֹמַר אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה סְלַח־נָא מִי יָקוּם יַעֲקֹב כִּי קָטֹן הוּא
“When they had finished eating the grass of the land, I said, ‘O Lord GOD, forgive, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!”
נִחַם יְהוָה עַל־זֹאת לֹא תִהְיֶה אָמַר יְהוָה
“The LORD relented concerning this; ‘It shall not be,’ said the LORD.”
The first threat to the survival of the nation is an infestation of locusts. These would descend on the land like a huge cloud, eating everything in their path.
In fact, the prophecies of Joel refer to just such an event.
“Hear this, you elders; listen, all who live in the land. Has anything like this ever happened in your days or in the days of your forefathers? Tell it to your children, and let your children tell it to their children, and their children to the next generation. What the locust swarm has left the great locusts have eaten; what the great locusts have left the young locusts have eaten; what the young locusts have left other locusts have eaten.” (Joel 1:2-4 NIV)
The terminology is different. The idea is the same. The word here is גֹּבַי (goḇay) for “a swarm of locusts” whereas in Joel the word is גָּזָם (gāzām). (The word used here also appears in Nahum 3:17 where the scribes are compared to grasshoppers or locusts.)
I am reminded of Abraham’s prayers for Sodom recorded in Genesis 18:16-33. Here Abraham pleads — or negotiates, if you will — with God to show mercy on Sodom. Concerning Abraham’s prayer, Adam Clarke remarks:
Every man who loves God loves his neighbor also; and he who loves his neighbor will do all in his power to promote the well-being both of his soul and his body. Abraham cannot prevent the men of Sodom from sinning against God; but he can make prayer and intercession for their souls, and plead, if not in arrest, yet in mitigation, of judgment. He therefore intercedes for the transgressors, and God is well pleased with his intercessions. These are the offspring of God’s own love in the heart of his servant.
Amos was acutely aware of the injustices of the nation. His sense of cosmic justice caused him to believe that such sins could not be simply ignored by the moral governor of the universe. His belief in justice and his belief in God were intertwined. So, it was only natural for him to believe that the moral corruption of the nation would result in destruction. In his vision he sees a very likely form of destruction: a locust plague.
And, his mind recoils: “O Lord GOD, forgive, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!” Israel is small. It cannot stand such an onslaught. It might seems strange that Amos does not appeal to the idea of God’s covenant with Israel — but it is likely that the idea of the broken covenant is the very thing that makes him think some sort of destruction is at hand.
There is always this mixed emotion that surrounds the idea of God’s judgement. Yes, justice seems to demand it. Yet, the desire of the heart is for mercy.
“How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” (Hosea 11:8 NRSV.)
כֹּה הִרְאַנִי אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה וְהִנֵּה קֹרֵא לָרִב בָּאֵשׁ אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה וַתֹּאכַל אֶת־תְּהוֹם רַבָּה וְאָכְלָה אֶת־הַחֵלֶק
“This is what the Lord GOD showed me: the Lord GOD was calling for a shower of fire, and it devoured the great deep and was eating up the land.”
וָאֹמַר אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה חֲדַל־נָא מִי יָקוּם יַעֲקֹב כִּי קָטֹן הוּא
“Then I said, ‘O Lord GOD, cease, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!’”
נִחַם יְהוָה עַל־זֹאת גַּם־הִיא לֹא תִהְיֶה אָמַר אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה
“The LORD relented concerning this; ‘This also shall not be,’ said the Lord GOD.’”
This calamity envisioned by Amos is more in line with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah — fire from heaven. Adam Clarke thought that this was a symbol of some sort of war against the nation. Maybe. But, I think the prophet feels that the kind of judgement that rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah must surely be about to rain down on Israel.
Remember, the Israelites, at this time, had no developed doctrine of the afterlife. They thought the rewards and punishments of life must play out in the present world. This is why the prophets often feel that destruction must surely be on the way — in fact, it has been delayed too long! Injustice and sin corrupt the nation at its foundations. Judgement must fall.
But, again the prophet’s mind recoils: “O Lord GOD, cease, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!”
Again, destruction is averted. But, how long can this go on? This sense of impending doom impels the prophet to speak to the nation, while there is still time.
There is a sense in which even this — harsh sounding, though it is — is an errand of mercy.