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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

Amos 5

Verses 1-27


Amos 5:1-27

In the next of these groups of oracles Amos continues his attack on the national ritual, and now contrasts it with the service of God in public life-the relief of the poor, the discharge of justice. But he does not begin with this. The group opens with an elegy, which bewails the nation as already fallen. It is always difficult to mark where the style of a prophet passes from rhythmical prose into what we may justly call a metrical form. But in this short wail, we catch the well-known measure of the Hebrew dirge; not so artistic as in later poems, yet with at least the characteristic couplet of a long and a short line.

"Hear this word which I lift up against you-a Dirge, O house of Israel":-

"Fallen, no more shall she rise, Virgin of Israel! Flung down on her own ground, No one to raise her!"

The "Virgin," which with Isaiah is a standing title for Jerusalem and occasionally used of other cities, is here probably the whole nation of Northern Israel. The explanation follows. It is War. "For thus saith the Lord Jehovah: The city that goeth forth a thousand shall have a hundred left; and she that goeth forth a hundred shall have left ten for the house of Israel."

But judgment is not yet irrevocable. There break forthwith the only two promises which lighten the lowering darkness of the book. Let the people turn to Jehovah Himself-and that means let them turn from the ritual, and instead of it purge their civic life, restore justice in their courts, and help the poor. For God and moral good are one. It is "seek Me and ye shall live," and "seek good and ye shall live." Omitting for the present all argument as to whether the interruption of praise to the power of Jehovah be from Amos or another, we read the whole oracle as follows.

"Thus saith Jehovah to the house of Israel: Seek Me and live. But seek not Bethel, and come not to Gilgal, and to Beersheba pass not over"-to come to Beersheba one had to cross all Judah. "For Gilgal shall taste the gall of exile"-it is not possible except in this clumsy way to echo the prophet’s play upon words, "Ha-Gilgal galoh yigleh"-"and Bethel," God’s house, "shall become an idolatry." This rendering, however, scarcely gives the rude force of the original; for the word rendered idolatry, Aven, means also falsehood and perdition, so that we should not exaggerate the antithesis if we employed a phrase which once was not vulgar: "And Bethel, house of God, shall go to the devil!" The epigram was the more natural that near Bethel, on a site now uncertain, but close to the edge of the desert to which it gave its name, there lay from ancient times a village actually called Beth-Aven, however the form may have risen. And we shall find Hosea stereotyping this epigram of Amos, and calling the sanctuary Beth-Aven oftener than he calls it Beth-el. "Seek ye Jehovah and live," he begins again, "lest He break forth like fire, O house of Joseph, and it consume and there be none to quench at Bethel. He that made the Seven Stars and Orion, that turneth the murk, into morning, and day He darkeneth to night, that calleth for the waters of the sea and poureth them out on the face of the earth-Jehovah His Name. He it is that flasheth out ruin on strength, and bringeth down destruction on the fortified." This rendering of the last verse is uncertain, and rightly suspected, but there is no alternative so probable, and it returns to the keynote from which the passage started, that God should break forth like fire.

Ah, "they that turn justice to wormwood, and abase righteousness to the earth! They hate him that reproveth in the gate"-in an Eastern city both the law-court and place of the popular council-"and him that speaketh sincerely they abhor." So in the English mystic’s Vision Peace complains of Wrong:-

"I dar noughte for fere of hym fyghte ne ehyde."

"Wherefore, because ye trample on the weak and take from him a present of corn, ye have built houses of ashlar, but ye shall not dwell in them; vineyards for pleasure have ye planted, but ye shall not drink of their wine. For I know how many are your crimes, and how forceful your sins-ye that browbeat the righteous, take bribes, and bring down the poor in the gate. Therefore the prudent in such a time is dumb, for an evil time is it" indeed.

"Seek good and not evil, that ye may live, and Jehovah God of Hosts be with you, as ye say" He is. "Hate evil and love good; and in the gate set justice on her feet again-peradventure Jehovah God of Hosts may have pity on the remnant of Joseph." If in the Book of Amos there be any passages, which, to say the least, do not now lie in their proper places, this is one of them. For, firstly, while it regards the nation as still responsible for the duties of government, it recognizes them as reduced to a remnant. To find such a state of affairs we have to come down to the years subsequent to 734, when Tiglath-Pileser swept into captivity all Gilead and Galilee-that is, two-thirds, in bulk, of the territory of Northern Israel-but left Ephraim untouched. In answer to this, it may of course, be pointed out that in thus calling the people to repentance, so that a remnant might be saved, Amos may have been contemplating a disaster still future, from which, though it was inevitable, God might be moved to spare a remnant. That is very true. But it does not meet this further difficulty, that the verses (Amos 5:14-15) plainly make interruption between the end of Amos 5:13 and the beginning of Amos 5:16; and that the initial "therefore" of the latter verse, while it has no meaning in its present sequence, becomes natural and appropriate when made to follow immediately on Amos 5:13. For all these reasons, then, I take Amos 5:14-15 as a parenthesis, whether from Amos himself or from a later writer who can tell? But it ought to be kept in mind that in other prophetic writings where judgment is very severe, we have some proof of the later insertion of calls to repentance, by way of mitigation.

Amos 5:13 had said the time was so evil that the prudent man kept silence. All the more must the Lord Himself speak, as Amos 5:16 now proclaims. "Therefore thus saith Jehovah, God of Hosts, Lord: On all open ways. lamentation, and in all streets they shall be saying, Ah woe! Ah woe! And in all vineyards lamentation, and they shall call the ploughman to wailing and to lamentation them that are skillful in dirges"-town and country, rustic and artist alike-"for I shall pass through thy midst, saith Jehovah." It is the solemn formula of the Great Passover, when Egypt was filled with wailing and there were dead in every house.

The next verse starts another, but a kindred, theme. As blind as was Israel’s confidence in ritual, so blind was their confidence in dogma, and the popular dogma was that of the "Day of Jehovah."

All popular hopes expect their victory to come in a single sharp crisis-a day. And again, the day of any one means either the day he has appointed, or the day of his display and triumph. So Jehovah’s day meant to the people the day of His judgment, or of His triumph: His triumph in war over their enemies, His judgment upon the heathen. But Amos, whose keynote has been that judgment begins at home, cries woe upon such hopes, and tells his people that for them the day of Jehovah is not victory, but rather insidious, importunate, inevitable death. And this he describes as a man who has lived, alone with wild beasts, from the jungles of the Jordan, where the lions lurk, to the huts of the desert infested by snakes.

"Woe unto them that long for the day of Jehovah! What have you to do with the day of Jehovah? It is darkness, and not light. As when a man fleeth from the face of a lion, and a bear falls upon him; and he comes into his home, and, breathless, leans his hand upon the wall, and a serpent bites him. And then, as if appealing to Heaven for confirmation: Is it not so? Is it not darkness, the day of Jehovah, and not light? storm darkness, and not a ray of light Upon it?"

Then Amos returns to the worship, that nurse of their vain hopes, that false prophet of peace, and he hears God speak more strongly than ever of its futility and hatefulness.

"I hate, I loathe your feasts, and I will not smell the savor of your gatherings to sacrifice." For with pagan folly they still believed that the smoke of their burnt-offerings went up to heaven and flattered the nostrils of Deity. How ingrained was this belief may be judged by us from the fact that the terms of it had to be adopted by the apostles of a spiritual religion, if they would make themselves understood, and are now the metaphors of the sacrifices of the Christian heart. {Ephesians 5:2 etc.} "Though ye bring to Me burnt-offerings and your meal-offerings I will not be pleased, or your thank-offerings of fatted calves, I will not look at them. Let cease from Me the noise of thy songs; to the playing of thy viols I will not listen. But let justice roll on like water, and righteousness like an unfailing stream."

Then follows the remarkable appeal from the habits of this age to those of the times of Israel’s simplicity. "Was it flesh or meat offerings that ye brought Me in the wilderness, forty years, O house of Israel. That is to say, at the very time when God made Israel His people, and led them safely to the promised land-the time When of all others He did most for them-He was not moved to such love and deliverance by the propitiatory bribes, which this generation imagine to be so availing and indispensable. Nay, those still shall not avail, for exile from the land shall now as surely come in spite of them, as the possession of the land in old times came without them. This at least seems to be the drift of the very obscure verse which follows, and is the unmistakable statement of the close of the oracle. But ye shall lift up your king and your god, images which you have made for yourselves; and I will carry you away into exile far beyond Damascus, saith Jehovah-God of Hosts is His Name!" So this chapter closes like the previous, with the marshaling of God’s armies. But as there His hosts were the movements of Nature and the Great Stars, so here they are the nations of the world. By His rule of both He is the God of Hosts.

Verses 8-9


Amos 3:3-8; Amos 4:6-13; Amos 5:8-9; Amos 6:12; Amos 8:8; Amos 9:5; Amos 8:4-6

FOOLS, when they face facts, which is seldom, face them one by one, and, as a consequence, either in ignorant contempt or in panic. With this inordinate folly Amos charged the religion of his day. The superstitious people, careful of every point of ritual and very greedy of omens, would not ponder real facts nor set cause-to effect. Amos recalled them to common life. "Does a bird fall upon a snare, except there be a loop on her? Does the trap itself rise from the ground, except it be catching something"-something alive in it that struggles, and so lifts the trap? "Shall the alarum be blown in a city, and the people not tremble?" Daily life is impossible without putting two and two together. But this is just what Israel will not do with the sacred events of their time. To religion they will not add common-sense.

For Amos himself, all things which happen are in sequence and in sympathy. He has seen this in the simple life of the desert; he is sure of it throughout the tangle and hubbub of history. One thing explains another; one makes another inevitable. When he has illustrated the truth in common life, Amos claims it for especially four of the great facts of the time. The sins of society, of which society is careless; the physical calamities, which they survive and forget; the approach of Assyria, which they ignore; the word of the prophet, which they silence, -all these belong to each other. Drought, Pestilence, Earthquake, Invasion conspire-and the Prophet holds their secret.

Now it is true that for the most part Amos describes this sequence of events as the personal action of Jehovah. "Shall evil befall, and Jehovah not have done it? I have smitten you. I will raise up against you a Nation Prepare to meet thy God, O Israel!" {Amos 3:6; Amos 4:9; Amos 6:14; Amos 4:12} Yet even where the personal impulse of the Deity is thus emphasized, we feel equal stress laid upon the order and the inevitable certainty of the process Amos nowhere uses Isaiah’s great phrase: "a God of Mishpat," a "God of Order" or "Law." But he means almost the same thing: God works by methods which irresistibly fulfill themselves. Nay more. Sometimes this sequence sweeps upon the prophet’s mind with such force as to overwhelm all his sense of the Personal within it. The Will and the Word of the God who causes the thing are crushed out by the "Must Be" of the thing itself. Take even the descriptions of those historical crises, which the prophet most explicitly proclaims as the visitations of the Almighty. In some of the verses all thought of God Himself is lost in the roar and foam with which that tide of necessity bursts up through Chem. The fountains of the great deep break loose, and while the universe trembles to the shock, it seems that even the voice of the Deity is overwhelmed. In one passage, immediately after describing Israel’s ruin as due to Jehovah’s word, Amos asks how could it "have happened otherwise":-

"Shall horses run up a cliff, or oxen plough the sea? that ye turn justice into poison, and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood." {Amos 6:12} A moral order exists, which it is as impossible to break without disaster as it would be to break the natural order by driving horses upon a precipice. There is an inherent necessity in the sinners’ doom. Again, he says of Israel’s sin: "Shall not the Land tremble for this? Yea, it shall rise up together like the Nile, and heave and sink like the Nile of Egypt." {Amos 8:8} The crimes of Israel are so intolerable, that in its own might the natural frame of things revolts against them. In these great crises, therefore, as in the simple instances adduced from everyday life, Amos had a sense of what we call law, distinct from, and for moments even overwhelming, that sense of the personal purpose of God, admission to the secrets of which had marked his call to be a prophet.

These instincts we must not exaggerate into a system. There is no philosophy in Amos, nor need we wish there were. Far more instructive is what we do find-a virgin sense of the sympathy of all things, the thrill rather than the theory of a universe. And this faith, which is not a philosophy, is especially instructive on these two points: that it springs from the moral sense; and that it embraces, not history only, but nature.

It springs from the moral sense. Other races have arrived at a conception of the universe along other lines: some by the observation of physical laws valid to the recesses of space; some by logic and the unity of Reason. But Israel found the universe through the conscience. It is a historical fact that the Unity of God, the Unity of History, and the Unity of the World, did, in this order, break upon Israel, through conviction and experience of the universal sovereignty of righteousness. We see the beginnings of the process in Amos. To him the sequences which work themselves out through history and across nature are moral. Righteousness is the hinge on which the world hangs; loosen it, and history and nature feel the shock. History punishes the sinful nation. But nature, too, groans beneath the guilt of man; and in the Drought, the Pestilence, and the Earthquake provides his scourges. It is a belief which has stamped itself upon the language of mankind. What else is "plague" than "blow" or "Scourge?"

This brings us to the second point-our prophet’s treatment of Nature.

Apart from the disputed passages (which we shall take afterwards by themselves) we have in the Book of Amos few glimpses of nature, and these always under a moral light. There is not in any chapter a landscape visible in its own beauty. Like all desert-dwellers, who when they would praise the works of God lift their eyes to the heavens, Amos gives us but the outlines of the earth-a mountain range, {Amos 1:2; Amos 3:9; Amos 9:3} or the crest of a forest, {Amos 2:9} or the bare back of the land, bent from sea to sea. {Amos 8:12} Nearly all, his figures are drawn from the desert-the torrent, the wild beasts, the wormwood (Amos 5:24; Amos 5:19-20; etc.; Amos 7:12). If he visits the meadows of the shepherds, it is with the terror of the people’s doom; {Amos 1:2} if the vineyards or orchards, it is with the mildew and the locust; {Amos 4:9 ff.} if the towns, it is with drought, eclipse, and earthquake. {Amos 4:6-11; Amos 6:11; Amos 8:8 ff.} To him, unlike his fellows, unlike especially Hosea, the whole land is one theatre of judgment; but it is a theatre trembling to its foundations with the drama enacted upon it. Nay, land and nature are themselves actors in the drama. Physical forces are inspired with moral purpose, and become the ministers of righteousness. This is the converse of Elijah’s vision. To the older prophet the message came that God was not in the fire nor in the earthquake nor in the tempest, but only in the still small voice. But to Amos the fire, the earthquake, and the tempest are all in alliance with the Voice, and execute the doom which it utters. The difference will be appreciated by us, if we remember the respective problems set to prophecy in those two periods. To Elijah, prophet of the elements, wild worker by fire and water, by life and death, the spiritual had to be asserted and enforced by itself. Ecstatic as he was, Elijah had to learn that the Word is more Divine than all physical violence and terror. But Amos understood that for his age the question was very different. Not only was the God of Israel dissociated from the powers of nature, which were assigned by the popular mind to the various Ba’alim of the land, so that there was a divorce between His government of the people and the influences that fed the people’s life; but morality itself was conceived as provincial. It was narrowed to the national interests; it was summed up in mere rules of police, and these were looked upon as not so important as the observances of the ritual. Therefore Amos was driven to show that nature and morality are one. Morality is not a set of conventions. "Morality is the order of things." Righteousness is on the scale of the universe. All things tremble to the shock of sin; all things work together for good to them that fear God.

With this sense of law, of moral necessity, in Amos we must not fail to connect that absence of all appeal to miracle, which is also conspicuous in his book.

We come now to the three disputed passages:-

Amos 4:13:-"For, lo! He Who formed the hills, and createth the wind, and declareth to man what His mind is; Who maketh the dawn into darkness, and marcheth on the heights of the land-Jehovah, God of Hosts, is His Name."

Amos 5:8-9:-"Maker of the Pleiades and Orion, turning to morning the murk, and day into night He darkeneth; Who calleth for the waters of the sea, and poureth them forth on the face of the earth-Jehovah His Name; Who flasheth ruin on the strong, and destruction cometh down on the fortress."

Amos 9:5-6:-"And the Lord Jehovah of the Hosts, Who toucheth the earth and it rocketh, and all mourn that dwell on it, and it riseth like the Nile together, and sinketh like the Nile of Egypt; Who hath builded in the heavens His ascents, and founded His vault upon the earth; Who calleth to the waters of the sea, and poureth them on the face of the earth-Jehovah His Name."

These sublime passages it is natural to take as the triple climax of the doctrine we have traced through the Book of Amos. Are they not the natural leap of the soul to the stars? The same shepherd’s eye which has marked sequence and effect unfailing on the desert soil, does it not now sweep the clear heavens above the desert, and find there also all things ordered and arrayed? The same mind which traced the Divine processes down history, which foresaw the hosts of Assyria marshaled for Israel’s punishment, which felt the overthrow of justice shock the nation to their ruin, and read the disasters of the husbandman’s year as the vindication of a law higher than the physical-does it not now naturally rise beyond such instances of the Divine order, round which the dust of history rolls, to the lofty, undimmed outlines of the Universe as a Whole, and, in consummation of its message, declare that "all is Law," and Law intelligible to man? But in the way of so attractive a conclusion the literary criticism of the book has interposed. It is maintained that, while none of these sublime verses are indispensable to the argument of Amos, some of them actually interrupt it, so that when they are removed it becomes consistent; that such ejaculations in praise of Jehovah’s creative power are not elsewhere met with in Hebrew prophecy before the time of the Exile; that they sound very like echoes of the Book of Job; and that in the Septuagint version of Hosea we actually find a similar doxology, wedged into the middle of an authentic verse of the prophet. {Hosea 13:4} To these arguments against the genuineness of the three famous passages, other critics, not less able and not less free, like Robertson Smith and Kuenen, have replied that such ejaculations at critical points of the prophet’s discourse "are not surprising under the general conditions of prophetic oratory"; and that, while one of the doxologies does appear to break the argument {Amos 5:8-9} of the context, they are all of them thoroughly in the spirit and the style of Amos. To this point the discussion has been carried; it seems to need a closer examination. We may at once dismiss the argument which has been drawn from that obvious intrusion into the Greek of Hosea 13:4. Not only is this verse not so suited to the doctrine of Hosea as the doxologies are to the doctrine of Amos; but while they are definite and sublime, it is formal and flat-"Who made firm the heavens and founded the earth, Whose hands founded all the host of heaven, and He did not display them that thou shouldest walk after them." The passages in Amos are vision; this is a piece of catechism crumbling into homily. Again-an argument in favor of the authenticity, of these passages may be drawn from the character of their subjects. We have seen the part which the desert played in shaping the temper and the style of Amos. But the works of the Creator, to which these passages lift their praise, are just those most fondly dwelt upon by all the poetry, of the desert. The Arabian nomad, when he magnifies the power of God, finds his subjects not on the bare earth about him, but in the brilliant heavens and the heavenly processes.

Again, the critic who affirms that the passages in Amos "in every case sensibly disturb the connection," exaggerates. In the case of the first of Amos 4:13, the disturbance is not at all "sensible": though it must be admitted that the oracle closes impressively enough without it. The last of them, Amos 9:5-6 -which repeats a clause already found in the book {Cf. Amos 8:8} -is as much in sympathy with its context as most of the oracles in the somewhat scattered discourse of that last section of the book. The real difficulty is the second doxology, Amos 5:8-9, which does break the connection, and in a sudden and violent way. Remove it, and the argument is consistent. We cannot read chapter 5 without feeling that, whether Amos wrote these verses or not, they did not originally stand where they stand at present. Now, taken with this dispensableness of two of the passages and this obvious intrusion of one of them, the following additional fact becomes ominous. "Jehovah is His Name" (which occurs in two of the passages), or "Jehovah of Hosts is His Name" (Which occurs at least in one), is a construction which does not happen elsewhere in the book, except in a verse where it is awkward and where we have already seen reason to doubt its genuineness. But still more, the phrase does not occur in any other prophet, till we come down to the oracles which compose Isaiah 40:1-31; Isaiah 41:1-29; Isaiah 42:1-25; Isaiah 43:1-28; Isaiah 44:1-28; Isaiah 45:1-25; Isaiah 46:1-13; Isaiah 47:1-15; Isaiah 48:1-22; Isaiah 49:1-26; Isaiah 50:1-11; Isaiah 51:1-23; Isaiah 52:1-15; Isaiah 53:1-12; Isaiah 54:1-17; Isaiah 55:1-13; Isaiah 56:1-12. Here it happens thrice-twice in passages dating from the Exile, {Isaiah 47:4 and Isaiah 54:5} and once in a passage suspected by some to be of still later date. In the Book of Jeremiah the phrase is found eight times; but either in passages already on other grounds judged by many critics to be later than Jeremiah, or where by itself it is probably an intrusion into the text. Now is it a mere coincidence that a phrase, which, outside the Book of Amos, occurs only in writing of the time of the Exile and in passages considered for other reasons to be post-exilic insertions-is it a mere coincidence that within the Book of Amos it should again be found only in suspected verses? There appears to be in this more than a coincidence; and the present writer cannot but feel a very strong case against the traditional belief that these doxologies are original and integral portions of the Book of Amos. At the same time a case which has failed to convince critics like Robertson Smith and Kuenen cannot be considered conclusive, and we are so ignorant of many of the conditions of prophetic oratory at this period that dogmatism is impossible. For instance, the use by Amos of the Divine titles is a matter over which uncertainty still lingers; and any further argument on the subject must include a fuller discussion than space here allows of the remarkable distribution of those titles throughout the various sections of the book.

But if it be not given to us to prove this kind of authenticity-a question whose data are so obscure, yet whose answer frequently is of so little significance-let us gladly welcome that greater Authenticity whose undeniable proofs these verses so splendidly exhibit. No one questions their right to the place which some great spirit gave them in this book-their suitableness to its grand and ordered theme, their pure vision and their eternal truth. That common-sense, and that conscience, which, moving among the events of earth and all the tangled processes of history, find everywhere reason and righteousness at work, in these verses claim the Universe for the same powers, and see in stars and clouds and the procession of day and night the One Eternal God Who "declareth to man what His mind is."

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Amos 5". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".