Amos: A Critical Study

By the Reverand Professor James L. Kelso, A.M., TH.D.


To ACQUAINT one’s self with the prophecy of Amos is a three-fold study: (1) the personality of the prophet, (2) the manner of life of his audience, (3) the message of Jehovah which the prophet brought to that audience.

First then to the prophet. He was a called man (7:15), whose warring was not of his own charge. God had found him a faithful shepherd of the nokedh flock (1:1) and God called him up higher to shepherd men. He lacked the training of the prophetic guilds (7:14), but God Himself had been his teacher in the lone watches of the Judean wilderness. Here beneath the Pleadies and Orion (5:8) he had learned to think God’s thoughts after him. And here in the wilderness of Tekoa where he shepherded his flock, he was himself shepherded of Jehovah.

By nature then Amos was only a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores (7:14); but by super-nature he was a prophet (7:15), God’s spokesman. This dual nature of his work is reflected in his writings, for he speaks in the vocabulary of the shepherd but his thoughts are of the mind of God (7:15), and his authority is the voice of the Almighty. But the divine nature of his message must wait for a time until one has first studied the prophet as a common man.

Amos comes upon the stage of human history as a prophet in the days when Jeroboam the Second ruled in Israel and Uzziah was King of Judah (1:1). To make the date more specific he adds “Two years before the earthquake”; but history has forgotten that exact year, though she has remembered that event well as Zechariah1 witnesses. The two great plagues of 765 B. C. and 759 B. C. which Assyrian history records,2 may be the chastening mentioned by the prophet:

“I have sent among you the pestilence after the manner of Egypt—yet ye have not returned unto Me, saith Jehovah” 4:10.

The eclipse of the sun on June 15th, 763 B. C, which Assyrian astronomy knows,3 may be the fulfillment or the familiar source of the prediction of the “dark day.”

“And it shall come to pass in that day, saith the Lord Jehovah, that I will cause the sun to go down at noon, and I will darken the earth in the clear day” 8:9.

Certainly the luxury and ease which the prophet depicts came only after the military successes of Jeroboam the Second. Uzziah had also destroyed Gath.4 But all such present available evidence cannot yet definitely specify the exact year in which Amos prophesied, although most students of the prophet agree that his ministry came somewhere around 760 B. C. to 750 B. C.

Even as the general date of his ministry is well described but its specific year unknown, so the general facts of his life are plain though at times one craves more detailed information. He is the only person in the Old Testament called by the name Amos, which by natural etymology means the “burden bearer.” As to his genealogy we have no data given. Some see in this fact a humble parentage for the prophet; but, as the ancestry of less than half of the minor prophets is mentioned, this is a precarious conclusion. By profession he was a shepherd. Jehovah took him from “following the flock.” Some see in the nokedh of the first verse a common designation for shepherd as it is in Assyria. Others think this word proves that he tended a special breed of sheep which were grown for their prized long wool. This seems the more likely view. His descriptions of Samaria and Bethel sound like the voice of a first-hand witness; as if he had visited these centers sufficiently often to speak with detailed accuracy concerning them. Certainly he who was so bitterly opposed to the false worship of Samaria and Bethel, would not be selling sheep in those cities where they would likely be used in the false sacrificial rites of those sanctuaries. But wool formed an article of commerce which had no relationship to either the true or the false sacrificial systems. Therefore Amos could trade in wool with all freedom of conscience at these northern cities, but it is extremely doubtful if his conscience would have permitted him to sell sheep here where they might enter the false sacrificial system of northern Israel.

In 7:14 he speaks of himself as a herdsman, a worker with cattle; and his phraseology of the women of Samaria as “the kine of Bashan” takes on an added invective from one who knew cattle so well. In view of the close reference to the flock in the following verse it is likely that both cattle and sheep came under his care.

The vocabulary of the prophet is that of a shepherd. Watch the phraseology of this verse:

“Thus saith Jehovah: As the shepherd rescueth out of the mouth of the lion two legs, or a piece of an ear, so shall the children of Israel be rescued that sit in Samaria in the corner of a couch, and on the silken cushions of a bed” 2:12.

The doxologies that are so prominent are all in the language of a man of the wilderness. The beauty of luxuriant vegetation is missing in them all. The glory of the vast mysterious Judean wilderness, which helped to mould the life of John the Baptist and Jesus, the Christ, is in these shepherd doxologies5 of Amos.

“For, lo, He that formeth the mountains, and createth the wind and declareth unto man what is his thought; that maketh the morning darkness, and treadeth upon the high places of the earth— Jehovah, the God of Hosts is His name” 4:13.

When one contrasts the hard stern life of the wilderness with the sensuous sinful luxury of Bethel and Samaria, one understands the philippics of the prophet. To him the nation was already dead when the chief ambition of the rulers was to

“lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat the lambs out of the flock and the calves out of the midst of the stall; that sing idle songs to the sound of the viol; that invent for themselves instruments of music, like David; that drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the chief oils; BUT THEY ARE NOT GRIEVED FOR THE AFFLICTION OF JOSEPH!” 6:4–6.

In addition to his flock Amos was a worker with the sycamore fig, helping to prepare the fruit for market, perhaps even marketing it in these northern cities. But this work was simply a sideline for the prophet. The orchard and the farm never left their imprint in any such unique way upon his vocabulary as did the flock. But the farm did leave its imprint upon his hopes and ideals, for the conclusion of the prophecy (9:13–15) sees Israel in the Garden of the Lord. Like Abraham he was a wanderer with his flocks and herds, but for his people he dreamed the life of the garden. The Jew always saw Paradise in a garden.

Amos had his headquarters at Tekoa (1:1) about a dozen miles south of Jerusalem, but the mind of the prophet ran to the ends of the earth. Geography brought him her tribute from Kir to Cush (9:7); and he knew the Cretan6 home of the Philistines. History told him the moral failures of a dozen nations. And his own keen eyes saw through the transient glory of Samaria to the grave that her own sins were digging.

The intimate picture of Israel’s sins is that of an eye witness who has studied them at first hand more than once. And it is not unlikely that the wool market called him at least several times to such trade centers as Samaria and Bethel. Oriental trade is slow; and a man with keen eyes can see much before his business is concluded. It may be questioned if he ever visited the foreign cities which he condemns. Their sins were likely made known to him in the conversation of the Judean and Israelite market places. His phraseology of these foreign sins is not in the dramatic and unique vocabulary that he uses upon Samaria and Bethel, but in a more colorless style.

He seems as well acquainted with the ideals of the spiritual life as with the actualities of the sinful world about him. Yet he insists that he was not connected with the prophetic guilds (7:14). The secret of his religious conceptions is probably traced to the temple worship at Jerusalem, whither his spiritual life and his shepherd life would both lead him at the feast seasons. Although his own flock seems to have been raised for wool, and not for sacrifice, it is likely that his fellow shepherds who tended flocks for temple demands may well have pressed him into service on these special days. At any rate, as a true Israelite he would worship at Jerusalem. And his appreciative acquaintance with the Torah and his lofty conception of God show that he must have done so often. It is sufficient now to note that God considered him a man spiritually worthy to wear the prophetic mantle.

Before one goes further, however, into the study of the personality of the prophet, it is well to examine the audience to whom he preaches and the substance and spirit of his sermonizing. For the data so gathered is in reality a prerequisite to a further study of the prophet. Then we can see better yet the mental makeup of the prophet—the homely common sense that convinces, the well informed mind that smacks of real culture, the tongue of eloquence, and the soul of audacious obedience to the strong call of Jehovah.

Sin was running high in the Northern Kingdom, and driving fast for a crisis. Civil righteousness seemed a thing of the past (3:9–10). Graft and corruption sat in high places and society in general seemed to hate him who reproved in the gate and to abhor him who spoke uprightly (5:10). The whole spirit of justice seemed to have gone wrong. They turned righteousness to wormwood and justice into poison (6:12). Righteousness was cast down (5:7) and the just afflicted (5:12). The Jewish legal code always demanded sympathy with the poor, but now the case of the poor day laborer was perverted in the gate (5:12) and he might even be turned into slavery for a debt so small as a pair of sandals (2:6). And the small farmer fared no better (8:6), for both his property and his person were jeopardized before the bribe-taking judges (5:12). And these officials of justice in the very temple precincts winked at the Shylocks with their unreturned garments taken in pledge and they themselves drank the wine collected as court fines (2:8).

Administration went the way of justice. Executives gloried in self-power (6:13), wallowed in luxury (6:3, 7), leading their followers into sin and making the palaces citadels of violence and robberies (3:9–10). They sat at idle ease in Samaria (6:1) and winked at the tax collector pocketing an unjust exaction of wheat (5:11).

Sometime before this, political and economic prosperity had not been so prominent (4:6–11). Famine had ravished the land; drought and the blasting sirocco, the green mildew and locust had desolated the country. Plague and war had taken off the choicest of the people. The nation was as a brand plucked out of the burning. But all these chastisements were meaningless to Israel now.

Had not Jeroboam’s army extended the boundaries far beyond previous ones of the Northern Kingdom? Were not the conquered territories pouring into Samaria their streams of tribute gold? Yes, even the poor Israelite felt the heavy hand of the gold-greedy aristocracy that panted after the land of the small farmer (2:7), “as the hart panteth after the water brooks.” They confiscated his property with unjust taxes (5:11). The honest workman with nothing to sell or mortgage but the labor of his hands, he was oppressed, turned aside in his rights (2:7), his abyia illegally withheld from him in the cold night hours (2:8), and finally he himself sold into slavery (2:6). In the market place the storekeeper cursed the religious holidays, saying,

“When will the new moon be gone, that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath, that we may set forth wheat, making the ephah small, and the shekel great, and dealing falsely with balances of deceit; that we may buy the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes, and sell the refuse of the wheat?” (8:5–6). And after thus using short measure, an inflated currency and false scales, what they sold was a low grade wheat. And in all this worship of Mammon, the women of aristocracy were cooperating participants with their husbands. But Amos characterizes them well, “kine of Bashan,” fit plunder for an invading army.

With this blood money winter and summer houses grew apace (3:5), great houses (6:11), houses with finely wrought stone work (5:11), even ivory houses (3:15). And within the house was luxury; ivory must be the bed (6:14) and silk the cushions thereof (3:12). And revelry on every hand.

“They stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat the lambs out of the flock, and the calves out of the midst of the stall; that sing idle songs to the sound of the viol; that invent for themselves instruments of music, like David; that drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the chief oils” 6:4–6.

Such evil spending of such ill gotten gains tells too well the story of Israel’s social life. Amos sums it up in a single philippic of eight Hebrew words, “And a man and his father go unto the same maiden, to profane my holy name” (2:7). And it was all in the name of religion! God had found another Sodom and Gomorrah and they were ripe for burning!

But there were other blasphemies than this in the name of religion. Israel had spurned the chastisements of God, encouraged the Nazarites to drink wine and commanded the prophets not to prophecy (2:11–12). The false sanctuaries of the Northern Kingdom were still minting a counterfeit spirituality. Bethel, Gilgal, Samaria, Dan, and other sanctuaries and high places in Israel were running night and day; and even the coinage of the distant Judean Be’er Sheba (8:14) was recorded at par value. The false altars groaned beneath the false sacrifices of beast and meal and drink offering.7 Thank offering, peace offering, freewill offering, feast, music, song, even tithes abounded at their sanctuaries; but beneath this ostensive ritual worship of Jehovah was to be seen the fiend form of Ba’alism. Alas for Israel, she had discovered she could not serve two masters—Jehovah and Ba’al—and she had chosen Ba’al! She had chosen death.

“I saw the Lord standing beside the altar: and he said, Smite the capitals, that the thresholds may shake; and break them in pieces on the head of all of them; and I will slay the last of them with the sword: there shall not one of them flee away, and there shall not one of them escape. Though they dig into Sheol, thence shall my hand take them; and though they climb up to heaven, thence will I bring them down. And though they hide themselves in the top of Carmel, I will search and take them out thence; and though they be hid from my sight in the bottom of the sea, thence will I command the serpent, and it shall bite them. And though they go into captivity before their enemies, thence will I command the sword, and it shall slay them: and I will set mine eyes upon them for evil, and not for good” 9:1–4.

Since God’s chastisements had been of no avail to a wayward and blasphemous Israel, God was compelled by his own moral personality to pronounce the judgment of doom upon the Northern Kingdom. The outline of that message of judgment as given through his spokesman Amos is briefly as follows:

Introduction To Entire Prophecy 1:1

Title of book—Words of Amos.

Author of book—Amos.

Occupation of author—shepherd.

Subject of the prophecy—Israel, i.e., Northern Kingdom.

Date of prophecy—reigns of Uzziah, King of Judah and Jeroboam, son of Joash, King of Israel, two years before the earthquake.

I. The Universal Sentence Of Punishment Pronounced Upon Sinful Nations I-II

Introduction. God is now ready to judge the nations.

A. Damascus for atrocities in war.

B. Gaza for slave catching and trading.

C. Tyre for slave catching, trading and violation of treaty.

D. Edom for bloody violation of racial ties.

E. Ammon for crimes against womanhood in war.

F. Moab for desecration of the dead.

All the above are sins involving the violation of the conscience. They are sins even according to natural theology, and even according to natural theology must be punished.

G. Judah for rejecting the Law of Jehovah.

The above sin was more; it was the violation of Revelation. According to that revelation was to be its punishment.

H. Israel for violating both laws of conscience and Revelation.

Conclusion: The Amorite was destroyed from Palestine for sins involving the violation of conscience. How much greater shall be the doom of Israel which has violated not only the laws of conscience but also the Law of Revelation.

II. A Specific Indictment Of Israel’s Sins. 3–4

Introduction. God has revealed his purpose to judge Israel.

A. Serious nature of the crimes.

Violence and robbery in the palaces—conscience.

False worship in the sanctuaries—Revelation.

Degenerate womanhood—conscience.

Corrupt church—Revelation.

B. Ineffectualness of previous warnings.

Conclusion: “Prepare to meet thy God, Oh Israel”.

III. A Final Opportunity For Israel To Plead Guilty To Her Sins And Repent. 5:1–15

Introduction. Judgment shall leave only a tithe to Israel.

A. Seek ye Jehovah and ye shall live.

B. Seek ye good and not evil that ye may live, i.e., seek to pro mote good.

Conclusion: Jehovah may be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

IV. Judgment Pronounced Upon A Guilty And Unrepenting Israel. 5–16—9:4

Introduction. Lamentation shall be the only language of the nation.

A. The day of Jehovah which Israel expected to bring blessing to her shall bring inescapable doom.

B. False worship cannot avert the doom.

C. Israel of Palestine shall suffer the same judgment as the Israel of the wilderness for each worshipped Jehovah and other gods.

D. The revelling leaders of Israel and Judah’s sin shall go first into captivity. Nation shall follow.

E. Israel shall be destroyed from Hamath to brook of Arabah.

F. Visions and interludes intensify the message of doom. The theme is the same as before. The introduction of the visions gives an opportunity to reiterate the message.

1. The chastisement of the locust and the fire visions is superceded by the doom of the plumb line vision.

2. Episode of Amos and Amaziah.

3. Doom reiterated by vision of basket of summer fruit.

4. Israel shall face a famine for the word of God.

5. Vision of the Lord at the altar—none can escape the Omnipotent Jehovah. Conclusion: Same as that for the whole book, i.e.

Conclusion To Entire Prophecy. 9: 5–14

A. To all nations, the wages of sin is death. Israel is no exception.

B. To the faithful in Israel, i.e., the remnant, is the glorious Messianic promise.


It is now time to summarize very briefly the theological message of the book. The most common designation of God that he uses is Jehovah.8 Very often this title is combined with others, one of the longest combinations being “Jehovah, God of Hosts, the Lord” (5:16).

The doxologies9 speak of God’s work as Creator; and the chastisements (4:16 ff) show His Providence in the natural world. His part in history is shown by such episodes as those related to the Amorites (1:9), the Ethiopians (9:7), and the Philistines (9:7). The omnipresence and omnipotence of God are seen in the vision at the beginning of Chapter 9. The uniqueness or holiness of God is shown by the oath taken by His holiness (4:2). Righteousness is the outstanding attribute of God which the prophet stresses; although he also treats the grace of God, especially in Chapter 5.

Concerning man, the prophet teaches that he is a moral being responsible to God and that conscience is sin-condemning (1:2). Men have a moral choice and the prophet calls on them to use that choice and to repent of their evil actions (5:4 ff). All men are the recipients of God’s common grace, but in addition to this Israel has been given a divine revelation (2:4, 9–12; 3:7).

Concerning the reconciliation of men to God, the prophet gives God’s call to repentance (5:4 ff) as “the way.” But after repentance men must show their faith by their works (5:14). Upon the unrepentant is the doom of God’s wrath (9:1–4). Worship and ritualism are worthless (4:4–5; 5:21–27) unless devoted to the one living and true God. Chastisements and extraordinary providences are a special means of grace to turn man to his God (4:6–11). The prophet is God’s human agent to urge men unto this reconciliation (3:7; 7:14–15).

And down through the centuries this Amos call for men to be reconciled to God has been echoing and to-day it challenges us to consider both our faith and our works to see if they are of Jehovah or of Ba’al.


1) Zech. 14:5.

2) Olmstead “History of Assyria”. P. 164. Note also earlier and later pestilences.

3) Eclipses are catalogued by Ginzel. Olmstead also treats them. Special cases within the life of a person seventy years old: — Aug. 15, 831 B. C. through south Palestine; almost total at midday. Apr. 2, 824 B. C. not so great totality and two hours before noon. June 15, 763 B. C. not so great totality and three hours before noon. Sellin also dates one 784 B. C. Cf. his introduction.

4) Amos 6:2 Cf. 2 Chron. 26:6.

5) 4:13, 5:8–9, 9:5–6.

6) The Cretans were one branch of the Philistines.

7) 4:4–5, 5:21–23.

8) Fifty-two times.

9) 4:13; 5:8–9; 9:5–6.