by Donnie Bryson
The prophet Amos seems the most socially conscious prophet in the old testament. For example, Amos called the pleasure seeking Samaritan women heifers (Hebrew: parah) for standing on the backs of the poor (Amos 4:1). It is, however, a serious mistake to reduce this great man of God to nothing more than the Woody Guthrie of Tekoa. Amos was not a mere social commentator like the late night talking heads that infest our airwaves. Amos, contrary to his modest protest before the priest of Bethel, was not only one of the first writing prophets, he was one of the greatest. First and foremost, he called each Israelite to personal holiness and covenant renewal. Amos correctly viewed the social ills of his day as symptomatic of a neutral culture composed of sick sinners rather than a sick society corrupting poor powerless pawns. Amos cried for the regeneration of sin hardened hearts because he knew social structures only mirror the brick and morter from which it’s made.
His poetry lends itself to two completely different approaches, and it is usually indicative of one’s primal, and surprisingly unspoken, beliefs which approach is taken. Our understanding of the mission of Christ on earth, our vision of the sphere of the kingdom of God, our expectation of the things to come, and our understanding of our call on earth predetermine our approach. For example, Social Gospel proponents such as Walter Rauschenbusch or Washington Gladden would interprete it as a group message — a great revolutionary manifesto calling for a new social order. Why? As noted in the article, “Social Gospel”, on ENCYCLOPEDIA.COM, “They believed in social progress and the essential goodness of man.”  Thus, it is natural for them to interprete the book as condemning a sick society and calling for a new order. How can our problems be within the individual? The individual is basically good. How can the world improve unless we cast off our these defective institutions?
In contrast to the approach of Rauschenbuch and Gladden, however, would b the approach of men like Wesley or Calvin. They believed in the total depravity of man and that there would “come a falling away” (II Th 2:3) before the second coming of Christ. Their estimation of the fallen state of man and their expectations of the things to come naturally defined their individualistic approach to Amos. Man without Christ cannot control his actions. It is an individual’s sin that causes the root problem. Man cannot depend on society to solve his problems because the world will only degenerate until the time of trouble foretold in Matthew 24. It is only acceptance of a personal Christ and personal obedience to His commands that solves our problems.
Truly, there are two completely opposing schools of thought, and this controversy, coupled with the current pervasive politically correct Zeitgeist, probably accounts for the current intense interest in the book. Dillard and Longman in “An Introduction to the Old Testament” cite Hasel who counted sixty different commentaries on the book between 1960 to 1980 and over eight hundred publications from 1969 to 1990 (373). For such a small book, Amos has more than its fair share of comment.
The Man Amos
As noted in the online entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia, “Amos”, he was a working class man from a small village in the Judea. The article admits that this view is contrary to the view held by many Jewish scholars. Many Jewish scholars, both past and present, assert that Amos was a wealthy man.
Moreover, Longman and Dillard gave an overview of academic discussions regarding his status from scholars like Craigie and Rosenbaum (376). While his status seems perfectly clear in English, Craigie and Rosenbaum raised a few valid questions. The word used for shepherds (Hebrew: noqed in Amos 1:1) is not the normal word (ro’eh) used for shepherd elsewhere. A Ugaritic cognate of ‘noqed’ may suggest that Amos was “a large scale breeder or broker of herds” according to Craigie (quoted in Longman and Dillard, 376). Furthermore, Rosenbaum contended that the phrase “dresser of sycamore trees” (Amos 7:14) actually meant some type of “government commissioner” via the same type of linguistic argument used by Craigie.
The majority opinion does seem more satisfying, however. Longman and Dillard countered the questions of Rosenbaum and Craigie with “Ugaritic or Akkadian cognates require a jump in culture, time, and geography” (376). Certainly, that jump does weaken their counterintuitive interpretation. More telling, however, is the implied charge of being a mercenary layed by the priest, Amaziah (Amos 7:12). The charge of preaching for pennies would be ridiculous if he were rich. Moreover, Amos spent his time “following the flock” (Amos 7:15) like any common shepherd. A rich breeder would not be tending his flock; his employees would be doing such tasks.
So, it does seem that Amos was nothing more than a common laborer. Even more astonishing, especially when we consider his rich tapestry of poetical devices, he was not an official court prophet nor was he educated in the prophetic schools. Amos told Amaziah that he was neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son (a common term used to indicate a student of one of the prophetical schools) (Amos 7:14).
His lack of training is amazing when one gleams that sublime book. James Limburg notes in “Sevenfold Structures in the book of Amos” that Amos used the number seven repeatedly, and often in multiple layers, to symbolize the message that the cup of iniquity was full and God’s judgement was certain. Limburg notes the seven accusations against Israel (Amos 2:6-7), the seven punishments (Amos 2:14-16), and the seven activities of the Lord (Amos 5:8-9). Limburg also notes a seven-plus-climax formula in Amos. He notes the seven rhetorical questions that end with the climax of “The Lord God has spoken, who can but prophecy?” (Amos 3:8). He notes a sevenfold sarcastic call to worship that ends with the climax “for so you love to do, O people of Isreal” (Amos 4:4-5). Limburg counts “forty-nine divine speech formulas in Amos” which is, in reality, just seven times seven (221). He also notes that the book may be grouped into seven natural sections (Amos 1:1-2, 1:3-2:16, 3:1-15, 4:1-13, 5:1-6:14, 7:1-8:3, 8:4-9:15) (218). Thus, while Amos may have been a common day laborer, it is a mistake to dismiss him as an illiterate country bumpkin. God inspired him to craft layer upon layer of beautifully balanced poetry with consumate skill.
While Amos was a Judean, his audience was the materially rich but spiritually bankrupt Northern Kingdom. Amos was a poor outsider in a rich hostile land. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes the following about them: (1) Jeroboam II had restored the Northern Kingdom to the northern boundries held by Solomon after Jeroboam conquered Syria, Moab, and Ammon (2) the land enjoyed rich artistic development (3) the people had been blessed with a long period of peace (4) material wealth abounded (5) religious observence was carried out with great pomp. Unfortunately, as also noted in the Catholic Encylopedia, “Social corruption and the oppression of the poor and helpless were very prevalent.” John Calvin said it best in his classic commentary on Amos when he judged them as “given to rapacity, avarice, and cruelty of every kind.”
Amos preached for the protection of the poor, and certainly no one can argue against those righteous words. The Princeton Review notes that, “This idea that the poor and suffering were a sort of legacy or inheritance to the church, over which she must watch with peculiar tenderness and care, penetratrated so deeply into the Christian mind, that it continued to exercise a great influence even the in the midst of general decline and apostasty” (610). Moreover, Amos rebuked Israel for creating a government that was an instrument of oppression instead of a watchdog for equity. Few would argue for officially sanctioned oppression and against rightfully protecting the unfortunate. As Sider and Clark note in their essay in Christianity Today, the radical libertarian doctrine of non-governmental intervention “ignores centuries of biblical based Christian thought and teaching on the distinct but complementary roles of state, family, and church (exemplified in the Catholic idea of “subsidiarity” and the Reformed concept of “sphere of sovereignty”)”. The Christian is obligated, whenever within his peaceful power, to promote a government that responds to the needs of its people. The question here, however, is understanding his message as a call for social reform or personal action.
Amos was not proclaiming a new social order; he was preaching to backsliders living in an old order. In the “Institutes of the Christian Religion”, Calvin warns, “should those to whom the Lord has assigned one form of government, take it upon them anxiously to long for a change, the wish would not only be foolish and superfluous, but very pernicious” (Book 4, Chapter 20). A greater witness than Calvin, the Apostle Peter, states, “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well” (I Peter 2:13-14). A greater witness than Peter, the Lord Jesus, stated, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). There can be no mistake — Christians are called to preach a revolutionary message, not to become revolutionaries.
However, from its beginning when Zealots encouraged Christ to cast the hated Romans from the land, the history of Christianity has had a long list of social reformers arrogating the words of Jesus for purely political ends. Today, a classic example is liberation theology. Liberation theology emerged in the late ’60s in Latin America as an answer to the horrific poverty that the clergy saw crushing their parishes. Hillar, in her classic summary of the movement, grouped their methodolgies under three headings: (1) socio-analytical — they judge capitalism as the source of evil (2) hermeneutic — they interprete social realities by the Bible which unfortunately brings them to the conclusion that “the Christian ideal is closer to socialism than capitalism” (3) pastorial service — they consider it their duty to act as an agent of liberation.
Nash states that librationists believe “commitment to the revolution is an essential part of what it means to be a Christian”. Andrew Bell even recommends that “liberationists need to recast Christianity, not as the apolitical custodian of abstract values, but rather as a social, political, economic formation vying with other formations on a single field of experience.” Why such an unashamed call for worldly entanglement, and, to some degree, open rebellion for the entire body of Christ? Their call, righteous by humanistic standards, is borne from living the reality of the political and economic oppression in their society.
However, while understandable, their call is sin when directed to the corporate body of Christ. Their choices may be correct for them, but those choices should be made according to their own conscience and apply solely to themselves. Conversely, no one can stand outside a fight and decide right and wrong for the bloody. We captitalistic brethren would be just as wrong for condemning their personal choices. It is sin for us or them to attempt to bind the entire body of Christ to assist or resist their rebellion under bondage of a few quoted scriptures. As Gordon asserts in “The Role of the Missioanry in Revolution”, “Nobody has the right to set his own agenda and then read that agenda into God’s word.” Thus, personally we should participate in whatever political processes our conscience dictates, but the world-wide cause of Christ must be kept unencumbered from all socio-political movements.
Why must ‘THE Cause’ be unencumbered? There are three primary reasons: (1) political causes are temporal while the cause of Christ is eternal. Linking the Gospel with any political movement dates the eternal with the temporal. The Gospel, when linked together with the earthly, seems superannuated when the temporal inevitably ceases to be relevant. (2) the church will alienate lost souls over these temporal causes. Cal Thomas, in his essay “Have We Settled for Caeser?”, states “The unbeliever is unlikely to accept biblical truth when it comes wrapped in the voter guides of the Christian Coalition.” The lost souls of our political opponents entrench when eternal truth is presented to them under any political placard (3) political solutions do not address the real problem. Cal Thomas further states, “Real change comes heart by heart, not election by election, because our primary problems are not economic and political but moral and spiritual”(op. cit.).
So, should our goal only be seeing everyone shout “Glory!” even if their feet are still on their neighbors’ necks? No. Salt that has kept its saltiness forever changes the meat when it is cooked into the pot. The history of slavery is a perfect example of this principle. Slavery permeated the Greco-Roman world. The church, knowing that it was not the time or place to wage a war for equality, freely ministered to both master and slave. Philip Schaff in “History of the Christian Church” states that, “The church exerted her great moral power not so much towards the abolition of slavery as the amelioration and removal of the evils connected with it.” The indirect influence of evangelism moved the inequitable world known by the apostles to the world that natures voting booths and freedom rides. Moreover, Schaff notes the ecclessia humbled the master and elevated the slave. Both were equally offered salvation as common seed of Adam and equal brothers in Christ. The church, throughout the long period of slavery, worked for the protection of the individual slave and ministered the needed instruction in agape to the master. The church occasionally gave asylum to fugitive slaves and ordained their children to a life of freedom. In other words, the church improved the life of all individuals within the constraints of her milieu.
As an additional example, John Wesly found himself within a veritable chapter from a Dicken’s novel. Rather than attempt to overthrow his government (which could have been argued as it was an instrument of oppression), Wesley preached the Gospel and materially helped individuals whenever he could. Singleton notes that it was common for the early Methodist to feed 100 to 250 people a day during those harsh English winters . In 1740, after seeing many unemployed, Wesley devised a scheme to employ as many as possible. He opened up the society rooms and started a small spinning mill. His self-made WPA only cost the difference between expenses and revenue. Wesley had two goals: keep his flock from want and keep his flock from idleness (op. cit.).
Wesley believed in Christian charity — true Biblical charity. In his sermon, “On Charity”, Wesley made a clear distinction between how the world used the word “charity” and how the Bible used it. Wesley stated it was “in an unhappy hour” when agape was translated to charity in English and that “the ill effects of it remain until this day.” Wesley lamented that many Christians understand charity as nothing more than almsgiving. Almsgiving is only the sign of charity. Charity is the deep abiding love of God in our hearts toward others. Charity is not a social program. Naturally, acts of kindness grow from agape, but acts of kindness are not agape no more than gray hair is old age.
George Whitefield held similar views. In his sermon, “The great duty of charity recommended”, he gave three signs of charity: (1) it is not theatrical. (2) it is not performed “purely to indulge them in vice.” (3) it proceeds from our love of God. Again, with Whitefield as with Wesley, the emphasis is on a regenerated heart causing changed personal actions and not on socio-political plans and methods.
However, the church, particularly in periods of great revival, has a significant impact on the world around it. Christ told us to be the salt of the earth counterbalancing the forces of corruption (Matt. 5:13). This perservative effect, however, is from the totalality of many individual acts of kindness and fresh converts from the bars and brothels to the Biblical values of hard-work, honesty, and thrift.
The one exception to this atomic view of causal relationships, however, is the aggregate efforts of organized Christian education. The corporate church has always considered education a solemn obligation. The depth and breadth of that education have always had a positive effect on society on many different levels. For example, Gary S. Becker, the 1992 Nobel larueate in economic science, in a paper delivered at the International Symposium organized by the Pontifical Council for the Family, quotes two recent Chicago studies that indicate Catholic schools raised the future earnings of its students. The study made statistical corrections for unobserved differences between private and public students according to Becker. However, most significant to this discussion is the indication that the lowest family incomes exhibited the greatest increase in the student’s future income .
It is the individual that is commanded to love his neighbor, not the collective. People within a society may be totally depraved, but that society, much like a dumb animal, cannot sin as it does not have a soul. Yet much of the language of Amos seems directed to the society (Amos 3:1, 4:7, 5:1). The words of Amos are in stark contrast to language like “the soul that sinneth, it shall die” and “in the righteousness that he hath done, he shall live” (Ezekiel 18:1-32) . Arvid Kapelrud explains that Amos was speaking more to the collective because Amos believed that “sin had permeated the whole of society” (35). Kapelrud summarized those sins as twofold: turning away from God to idols and rejection of general ancient moral standards (36).
Lawrence Sinclair strikes at the heart of the apparent tension between individual and group sin. Sinclair sees the promised punishment as the judgment for a breach of contract between Yahweh and His people. He classifies Amos as a lawsuit oracle as defined by Hubert Huffmon, Hermann Gunkel, and Joachim Begrich. According to Sinclair, it is that breach of contract, not any individual sin, that caused the Samaritans to lose their lease on the Northern Kingdom. The prevasiveness of many individual sins (i.e., “for three sins and for four”) constituted that breach of contract.
Basically, according to Hoffman, a lawsuit oracle has five componets: (1) an acknowledged agreement between God and His people (2) some breach of that agreement (3) a prophet, “acting as lawyer for the plaintiff, Yahweh, appeals to heavens and earth to hear the case” (Hoffmon, 286) (4) a statement of the charges (5) pronouncement of judgement (op. cit.).
Sinclair compared Gunkel’s judgement pattern and Amos 3:9-12 as (1) judgement scene (2) speech of the judge (3) address to the defendant (4) indictment (5) sentence. He also compared Amos 3:1-2 and the Huffmon covenant lawsuit pattern as (1) setting the scene (2) historical prologue (3) indictment (Sinclair, 353).
There are, consistent with the prophet’s affinity with the number, seven lessons that can be drawn from the book. First, it is the Christian’s solemn responsibility to personally aid the downtrodden. Second, while nations do not sin, punishment may fall on an entire nation if the majority cleave to sin. However, it is too easy to spread responsibility to nothingness if we use words like “we”, “us”, and “them”. Christianity flows from the heart, to the home, to the neighborhood, to the city, to the nation, and finally to the world. Sin and righteousness are personal, not corporate. Third, sometimes a few blameless will suffer when judgement falls. No one would contend that every single Israelite was guilty of all the sins outlined in Amos, yet the Assyrians did not take a spiritual inventory before applying the sword. However, God remembers our deeds in the end (Ezekiel 18). Fourth, it is the Christian’s responsibility, like the illiterate outsider Amos, to speak when called even if it seems that we are unqualified and uninvolved. Fifth, listen to the truth from anyone even seemingly unqualified. The great priest of Bethel, Amaziah, would have done well to listen to the lowly shepherd from Tekoa. Sixth, wealth without righteousness is worthless. The Assyrians left little gold in the land in the end. Seventh, religious pomp without God is an insult.
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