4.1 The Date (of the prophet’s ministry and work)
Amos was a contemporary to the prophet Hosea, but his ministry to the northern kingdom of Israel did not last as long. Amos dates his book during the reigns of King Uzziah (791-740) of Judah, and Jeroboam II (793-753) king of Israel (1:1). The prophecy is further dated “two years before the earthquake” (1:1), but Wood warns that although this must have been a severe earthquake since Zechariah refers to it centuries later (Zech. 14:5-7), the earthquake’s date is impossible to ascertain unless new evidence is found. After accounting for additional historical clues in the prophecy and the biblical history of the monarchies, his ministry may be conservatively confined to years between 767 and 753 B.C.
4.2 Background History (historical setting of the prophet)
The historical background of Amos is the same as Hosea, but confined to the reign of Jeroboam II. During this period both Judah and Israel were experiencing “prosperity and luxury, which led to a life of indulgence and sin.” Both kingdoms’ militaries had expanded their borders and acquired great wealth. Dillard and Longman summarize the spirit of the day and the judgment that hovered on the horizon.
A powerful and profligate wealthy class had developed in Samaria; it was the abuse of wealth, power, and privilege by the wealthy in Samaria that formed the focus of so much of Amos’s preaching. But this period of material and military success was to be only a brief and glorious sunset for the Israelite kingdoms: the Assyrians were already building their empire to the north, and both kingdoms would soon fall under its sway. Amos’s preaching occurs under the ominous shadow of a threatened invasion (3:11; 5:3, 27; 6:7-14; 7:9, 17; 9:4).
4.3 Work and Person (character and ministry of the prophet)
More is known about Amos than many other biblical prophets. He identifies himself as a sheepbreeder and a tender of sycamore fruit from the town of Tekoa (1:1; 7:14), which traditionally is regarded as a Judean town five miles south of Bethlehem. His occupation seems to suggest he was from a lower social class, certainly not a “son of a prophet” (7:14), although his penetrating literary style demonstrates he was well educated. His normal vocation distinguished him from other prophets, who served as God’s spokesmen full time. It is impossible to discern how long he continued in the office of prophet once he received his divine calling, but Wood ascertains that
he evidently returned to his home in Tekoa after this [his prophetic ministry] and sometime later, following the earthquake, penned the words that are recorded. Whether he continued in any prophetic ministry after returning to Judah is not indicated, but it is quite possible that God permitted him to return to his former occupation.
Prior to his calling, Amos was a layman who “must be thought of as a dedicated person and spiritually mature in the ways of God.” Wood also observes other characteristics of Amos: he was probably “energetic and hard-working;” knowledgeable of the world of his day, both of the politics of Israel/Judah and the surrounding nations; he probably studied the Old Testament Scriptures of his day as evidenced by the “numerous references in his book, especially to the Pentateuch;” and “above all he was fully dedicated to God and ready to serve in whatever way he could.” The spiritual character of Amos undoubtedly qualified him to minister to the level of God’s calling.
Although critical scholarship has questioned Amos’s “social status, his relationship to other prophets and to the cult, the location of the Tekoa that was his home, and how much of the book actually reflects the writing or preaching of the prophet himself,” Dillard and Longman conclude that “the traditional understanding [of Amos’s social status] yet has much to commend it.” They similarly argue in favor of the traditional interpretation of Amos over against other higher-critical conclusions that cast suspicion on the claims of the text itself.
4.4 The Book (abbreviated outline and brief summary)
Superscription and thesis (1:1-2)
I. Oracles against the nations (1:3-2:16)
A. Aram (1:3-5)
B. Philistia (1:6-8)
C. Phoenicia (1:9-10)
D. Edom (1:11-12)
E. Ammon (1:13-15)
F. Moab (2:1-3)
G. Judah (2:4-5)
H. Israel (2:6-16)
II. Five oracles (3:1-6:14)
A. First oracle (chap. 3)
B. Second oracle (chap. 4)
C. Third oracle (5:1-17)
D. Fourth oracle (5:18-27)
E. Fifth oracle (6:1-14)
III. Five visions of judgment (7:1-9:10)
A. Locusts (7:1-3)
B. Fire (7:4-6)
C. Plumbline (7:5-9)
Ca. Autobiographical parenthesis (7:10-17)
D. Summer fruit (8:1-14)
E. Desolate sanctuary (9:1-10)
IV. Epilogue (9:11-15)
Dillard and Longman identify the major theological themes of Amos as (1) Divine Sovereignty and Judgment; (2) Idolatry and Social Injustice; (3) the Covenant and the Remnant; (4) the Day of the Lord; and (5) God’s Word. Robertson rightly unifies these themes in the biblical covenantal concept.
…the frame of reference in Amos presupposes both the covenant with the fathers and the covenant made through Moses. This nation, these families alone of all the families of the earth, has been favored beyond all other peoples. They are the ones the Lord brought out of Egypt by the exodus. For this reason of special privilege, they stand under special judgment. Because of the covenant they came to possess the land, and because of the covenant they will be exiled from the land. All the awesome judgments described so vividly in Amos’s prophecy will fall on this nation just because they have been specially favored of the Lord.”
Wood concurs by stressing the people’s sin against the Mosaic Law—the covenantal treaty between the Israelite vassal nation and their Divine Suzerain.
Amos’s message was that people should leave off their sinful ways and return to seeking God and His will. They should heed the regulations laid down in the Mosaic Law given long before. If they did not, there would be a day of punishment from God. This would be a day of darkness rather than light, one of punishment and sorrow rather than reward and gladness.
But the oracles of doom, fulfilled in the imminent exile, are balanced with hope in the eventual and certain promises of God. Specifically, the Davidic Covenant is recalled as the basis for this hope. The Lord will “raise up the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down, and repair its damages; I will raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old; that they may possess the remnant of Edom, and all the Gentiles who are called by My name” (9:11-12). In Acts 15:15-19, James recognized that these words were fulfilled in the new covenant. The King of Israel and Son of David, namely the Lord Jesus, would raise Israel to victory over its enemies by extending his kingdom rule through his church over the nations.
41. Wood, Prophets of Israel, p. 284.
44. Dillard and Longman, Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 375.
45. Wood, Prophets of Israel, p. 286.
47. The list of Amos’s characteristics (quoted in this paragraph) is from Wood, Prophets of Israel, p. 287.
48. Dillard and Longman, Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 376.
50. Willem A. Van Gemeren, Interpreting the Prophetic Word (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990), pp. 130-31.
51. Dillard and Longman, Introduction to the Old Testament, pp. 382-84.
52. Robertson, Christ of the Prophets, pp. 208-9.
53. Wood, Prophets of Israel, p. 288.