Amos was the prophet who was not a prophet. By trade Amos was a shepherd who lived in the city of Tekoa in Judah (Amos 1:1). He also was a farmer who grew sycamore figs (Amos 7:14-15). While tending the livestock and growing sycamore figs, Amos would have lived a life of general comfort and prosperity. At the beginning of his writing, he informs the reader that he lived and ministered during the reigns of Jeroboam II in the north and Uzziah in the southern kingdom. Jeroboam reigned for over 50 years, while Uzziah reigned for 40. These were years of peace and prosperity in Israel and Judah as the Assyrian Empire was in a state of inner-turmoil. Incredibly, Israel and Judah had not had such a high standard of living since the glorious reign of King Solomon before the kingdom was divided in two. Because of the success Israel and Judah were experiencing, we might expect Amos to have been a prophet who brought good news, who spoke of God’s blessings upon His people, or who had a ministry that looked powerful with thousands of people repenting and believing God’s Word. Tragically, that was not the case. The prophet who was not a prophet had the unenviable task of bringing a message of judgment and destruction to the people of Israel. At the height of their prosperity, Amos came on the scene to declare God would destroy them.
The book of Amos has often been a favorite of proponents of “social justice” or other forms of “justice” that have been promulgated over the past century. Famously, Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted Amos 5:24 during his “I Have a Dream” speech, noting that the leaders of the civil rights movement in America would not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” King’s use of this verse was rhetorically powerful, and it has shaped the way many people conceive of this verse and the rest of Amos to this day: as a book about civil rights or social revolution. However, the book of Amos was not written to advance whatever temporal cause or concern we might champion in this nation or any other. When the leaders of the church in the book of Acts quoted the book of Amos, it was not to criticize the Roman Empire but to remind Israel of her idolatry and unfaithfulness to God (Acts 7:42-43 quoting Amos 5:25-27) or to explain the significance of the salvation of Gentiles following the resurrection of Christ and outpouring of the Spirit (Acts 15:16-17 quoting Amos 9:11-12). To put it another way, the New Testament writers understood the book of Amos to be about condemning idolatry and pointing to the salvation promised by God through the resurrection of Christ. When we understand Amos as the New Testament explains it, we are able to see that not only have we been victims of the sins and injustices of others against us, but more importantly we have been perpetrators of sin and injustice against other people. The problems in the world do not exist because of the sinners “out there” but because of the sin that lies in every human heart, including our own.
Relentlessly and vigorously, Amos pursues this theme of the sinfulness of humanity and the righteous judgment of God against our sin. He spares no one in developing his argument. God’s judgment falls on the unrighteous Gentiles that surround Israel and Judah just as it falls on the idolaters within the covenant people (Amos 1-2). When Amos turns his attention to the sins of Israel in Amos 3-6, he reminds them not only of the magnitude of their sin but of the holiness of the one against whom they have sinned. He is the one who creates mountains and wind and knows men’s thoughts (Amos 4:12-13). Who is the one who made the constellations, who keeps the world spinning so that day and night continue unabated, who created the hydrological cycle so that rain would fall upon the earth? The very God Israel has spurned for idols (Amos 5:8-9)! These graphic depictions of God ought to cause Israel to fall on their faces in repentance and to lament the folly of abandoning the true God for weak, mute, dumb idols. Israel, however, will not listen. Judgment, therefore, must fall.
Amos concludes his work with five visions of God’s judgment (Amos 7-9). Because God is just, He must judge the unjust. He cannot simply forget sin (Amos 8:7). Shockingly, as Amos closes his work, he hints that God’s just judgment on His people will result not in their destruction but in their salvation – in the fulfillment of all of His covenant promises. Judgment will fall as on an only son, accompanied by earthquake, the sun going dark at noon, and darkness covering the land. It will be a bitter day (Amos 8:7-10). After judgment springs hope, hope that the fallen booth of David will be raised up (Amos 9:11). From the New Testament, we see that God does not forget His people’s sins. He judges the unjust by charging their sins to His only Son, who bears them on a cross while the sun goes black, the land is blanketed with darkness, and the earth quakes. After three days, this Son, the Son of David according to the flesh, is raised up, resulting in the salvation not only of Jews but of the nations also.
The book of Amos ultimately is about Jesus Christ bearing the judgment of God for the unjust people He came to save. To make Amos about “social justice” or any other earthly cause is not only to demean the message of this vital part of Scripture but to use this book to bar shut the path to salvation. While Amos certainly recognizes that many people are victims of oppression and violence, it makes even more clear that all people are perpetrators of idolatry against a holy God. We are all unjust and under the sentence of God’s righteous judgment, and that is the real issue in Amos. Only through the death and resurrection of Christ can the Day of the Lord be a day of light rather than darkness for us.