Amos: The Preacher of the Gospel of Law

By the Reverend L. O. Luneberger, Ruthland, Ohio


“But let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24).

Robert Browning in his poem entitled “Saul” makes David utter these arresting words: “I report as a man may of God’s work—all’s love, yet all’s law.” No one who has a worthy opinion about God and His universe can question for a moment that God is love. And no one who has deep insight into the character of God and His universe can question that God is also law, and that His universe is governed by the most inexorable of moral and physical laws. Law is everywhere as God is everywhere. Law is as much a part of things as love is a part of things. Law is as much a part of God as love is a part of God. Law is as much the method of God as love is the method of God. Love and law are the two sides of God. Justice and mercy are the two cardinal elements of His being.

Amos was a prophet of the justice of God; a preacher of the gospel of law. But,

“God is law, says the wise; O soul, and let us rejoice,
For if He thunder by law, the thunder is yet His voice.”

I. The Man And His Times

Amos was among the earliest of the Hebrew prophets, the first it seems, to write and preserve his message. He lived and prophesied about 750 B. C, during the silver reign of Jereboam the Second, king of Israel. It was a golden era of unexcelled material prosperity for the Northern Kingdom. In a recent victory over the king of Damascus Israel had won back the whole region east of the Jordan, which they had lost long before, much to their impoverishment. In this new expansion was Bashan, one of the most fertile and productive areas anywhere. The wealth which had been going to enrich Syria and Damascus was now turned into the coffers of Israel. A poor and insignificant people had suddenly become rich. Blessed with such unusual wealth and full of the sense of victory, they soon came to feel themselves a quite superior people. They took it as the sure sign that heaven was on their side.

And now the thing happened in Israel which almost always does happen—great material prosperity was followed by moral and spiritual poverty. Strange, but true, these so often go together—prosperity and spiritual depravity, adversity and spiritual prosperity. It ought to be just the reverse, but it seldom is. And this was never more true than in the days of Amos and Jereboam II.

A great Bible scholar has said: “Amos is one of the most wonderful appearances in the history of the human spirit.” And yet he was a simple herdman and dresser of “sycamore” trees. This “sycamore” tree which Amos cultivated was a kind of figtree which produced a very low order of figs. They could not be eaten until they had been punctured so as to promote their quality and cause them to ripen. The sycamore fig was not much in demand. Only shepherds, herdmen and the poor ate them. They were the prophet’s chief article of food.

So Amos was a poor man, but an independent spirit; a good talker and a good thinker. He was one of the few of his day who still had a conscience and a soul: a man deeply religious and thoughtful. As he pastured his sheep and cultivated his figs out there in the solitudes, he meditated deeply upon God, and thought much about the sad religious conditions of his people. Day after day he reflected, pondered, meditated; and when a man gets to thinking, watch out for him, for soon he will be up and doing. Take note of the man who THINKS; especially of the man who thinks about God, man, and man’s relation to God. Emerson once said, “Beware when God lets loose a thinker.” In Amos God had let loose a great thinker. His head was as clear as the desert air in which he had lived so long. He thought until, like Hamlet, he felt the times were out of joint. He had an intimate knowledge, not only of Israel, but of the nations beyond her border. He kept his inner eye on God and his finger on the moral and political pulse of the nations. Doubtless he had often visited the markets of the land to sell his wool, and his lambs for religious sacrifices. He had closely observed the moral conditions of these human throngs in the market places of the cities, returning to his work on the shores of the Dead Sea to weigh and brood over them.

While thinking upon these things one day he felt the hand of God upon him, and heard Him say, “Go, prophesy unto my people Israel.” Amos arose to obey. He started for the Northern Kingdom and did not stop until he made his appearance on the streets of Bethel, the royal shrine of the king.

II. The Religious Conditions

Amos arrived at Bethel on a great festal occasion. The place was thronged with people paying their compliments to religion. He found them like Saint Paul found the Athenians—very religious. Religion was most popular and was carried on with a pomp and splendor that appealed to the superficial crowd. They styled themselves the House of Isaac, the people of the Lord. Thinking themselves the darling of Jehovah’s favor, they became proud and self-assertive. But they were most religious. Never were the shrines attended by such throngs of worshippers. Never did religion seem to flourish better. They were offering sacrifices every morning instead of once a year, and tithes every three days instead of every three years, as their religious law directed. Their religious zeal was the greatest ever. But their religion was hollow; their offerings offensive to God, because brought by stained hands and Godless hearts. For the prophet had investigated and found that oppression was rife. Corrupt judges, for bribes, were perverting justice, crushing the poor, and making a paradise for criminals. Many were rich, but at the impoverishment of the masses. It was true then, it is true now: there cannot be idleness and luxury at one end of the social scale without poverty and suffering at the other. This is a form of cruelty of which the modern world is very guilty. The wealthy and powerful had their winter houses and their summer houses and their palaces of ivory. They sprawled upon silk couches and ate the plump lambs from the flocks and the fat calves from the stalls. They drank their ill-gotten wine from huge, beautiful bowls and anointed themselves with costly perfumes; and what so kindled the fierce fury of the prophet, they were doing these things, thereby causing many of God’s poor to perish. The wealthy were so absorbed in senseless luxuries as to be utterly oblivious to the plight of the needy. They were bowing themselves down before their altars upon garments taken from -the poor, which they were pledged in their religious law to return before sundown. Some were so land-greedy, Amos said they coveted the dust which clung to the poor farmer as he worked his ground. They coveted “the dust on the head of the poor—the poor mourners who, unable to purchase the black band as a sign of mourning, took black mud and made a mark on their foreheads”—Amos says they coveted even that! What a shocking picture of their restless avarice! Moreover, many were being sold into slavery for debts amounting to no more than the price of a pair of wooden shoes, for which they could not pay. Injustice and folly so strongly prevailed that the mouths of the good and the wise were silenced. And the priests —quite in keeping with priestcraft and priestly tendencies of all ages—had accommodated themselves to the times and kept the people feeling that they were really God’s people.

These people were long on profession, but short on practice; loud in creed, but low in conduct; elaborate in ceremony, but lax in ethics. There was no end of attractive forms, no lack of beautiful ritual, but a perfect famine in actual righteousness. Had Jesus lived in Amos’ time, like him He would have condemned these insincere worshippers as beautiful white tombs, outwardly very pleasing to look at, but inwardly full of dead man’s bones. In an age of such spiritual lawlessness God must raise up His Amoses to proclaim the gospel of law.

III. The Man And His Message

The prophet took his stand under the very shadow of the sanctuary and began to speak to the moving, worshipping crowd. He was a hard-looking man, clad in sheep-skin, carrying a staff. His hands were doubtless scarred from toil and stained with the biting juices of the fig. His face was lined with toil-marks and the effects of exposure. What a sensation this rude rustic from the hills must have created! Would these fashionable people be glad to hear him preach about righteousness? Certainly not. They were interested in religion, but not in righteousness—and this Amos knew. So he did not come at once to the heart of his message. He was too shrewd for that; and, anyhow, he had an international vision. His message concerned not only Israel, but the neighboring nations. So he began with Syria, with whom Israel had just closed a war: “Thus saith the Lord; For three transgressions of Damascus, yea, for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof.” Ah, this was Israel’s hated foe. In the recent war Syria had committed brutal crimes against Israel. Think how delighted they would be to hear the prophet predict their ruin! They said, “O good, the prophet is right. These enemies of ours SHALL BE DESTROYED!” They would hear him gladly NOW, and go out, I doubt not, to persuade all Bethel to come and hear a true prophet of the Lord.

Then the prophet took up the Philistines, who had made slaves of some of the Hebrews and worked them in the mines of Gaza; again they were delighted, and believed him. It is so easy to believe what pleases us. Then he prophesied against Tyre, because the people of Tyre had scrapped as a piece of paper a friendly treaty with the Jews; and again they cheered him. Then he took up Edom, then Ammon, then Moab, and finally he came to Judah, his own country which they hated cordially: “Thus saith the Lord: For three transgressions of Judah, yea, for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they have rejected the law of the Lord.” Now they were pleased immeasurably.

The feasters of Bethel were now hanging upon his words. He had captured their attention. What skill! What a psychologist this sheep-master is! He has now come to the theme and burden of his message. As yet he had said not a word about Israel, the Northern Kingdom; and surely he will not. But look! the preacher takes on a yet sterner aspect, and suddenly, like an unexpected bolt from the blue, he thunders against Israel: Thus saith the Lord: “For three transgressions of Israel, yea, for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they have sold the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes.” As usual it is cruelty that he denounces—this time the cruelty of peace. He said Jehovah would throw down their altars, destroy their palaces, and disrupt their kingdom. Imagine their surprise, their consternation, their anger! All is changed now: the fearless man went on and ,

“Read each wound, each weakness clear,
And put his finger in the place,
And said, ‘Thou ailest here and here’.”

He was not content until he had dragged all their sins into the light, and unsparingly denounced them—bribery, greed, oppression; luxury, idleness, injustice; intemperance, hypocrisy, immorality; and social sins, such as short measure, the sale of adulterated food, and violence. This was an unexpected turn of the preacher; his hammer-like refrain, “For three transgressions, yea, for four,” fell upon them with terrific force. He had smitten them with words. He had uttered the sickening truth, adding the logical reason: “BECAUSE THEY SOLD THE RIGHTEOUS FOR SILVER, AND THE NEEDY FOR A PAIR OF SHOES.”

In the face of all this injustice and wrong, the prophet with his whole soul speaking, bade them “let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.” None ever had a greater passion for social justice and moral straightness than Amos. He wanted to see truth and right flow through the land like a never-failing stream, cleansing and making healthy every phase of life.

Amos had found the women of Samaria deeply degraded; they were haughty, intemperate, immodest and immoral. Speaking to the great ladies of the capitol, “with almost brutal candour,” he calls them cattle. They are prize cows, fat and pampered, who gratify their fads and fancies at the expense of the poor. He said, “Hear this word, ye cows of Bashan, that are in Samaria, which oppress the poor, crush the needy and drink”—and went on to promise punishment for them. This was not only burning sarcasm but deep pathos. To Amos the degradation of Israel’s women was pathetic beyond words. He knew what we know: that the morals of any country cannot be higher than the morals of its women. The quality of any civilization is largely what its women make it. And when the prophet saw the womanhood in foul decay, he foresaw the nation’s doom. A pure and womanly womanhood is any nation’s greatest treasure; an unwomanly womanhood is its gravest peril. The woman of Samaria were given to luxury and drink, and unchastity; social abuse and irreligion followed. These go hand in hand to-day. Drink, inhumanity and irreligion always go together.

For these social and religious evils Amos declared Israel would be punished. He said Jehovah hated their sacrifices; that He regarded their Temple-songs as nothing but hideous noise. He said their very worship was a sin. God was saying, “Away with church-going, and sacraments; seek not Bethel, seek Me.” God was not in their churches. “Bethel and Gilgal shall taste the gall of exile.” God will destroy them, says Amos.

Now Gilgal, Beersheba and Bethel were hoary with memories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Will God forget these great ones and fall in judgment upon the sanctuaries thrice hallowed by their memories? Surely the prophet is mad! It was at this same Bethel where Jacob saw the golden incline reaching to heaven, on which there passed downward and upward the angels of God; it was here that heaven and earth and God and man had early met each other. Was Bethel to be destroyed? Does the foolish prophet suppose that this HOUSE OF GOD, this GATE OF HEAVEN is to be spoiled by God, to whose glory it has stood through the years? It seemed to them the height of improbability. It was absurd to say that God was so displeased with them as this innovator said. Their present prosperity gave his words the lie. They could not believe him, and they would no longer endure his smiting words.

Then the head priest of Bethel called Amos a visionary, and told him to go back to Judah and play the prophet there where they would gladly hear his scathing words against Israel. The priest had little but contempt for the prophet. He used the most contemptuous name for a prophet known—he called him a “seer.” It was hard for Amaziah, being a priest, to do justice to Amos, the prophet. He misrepresented him, said he had formed a party in conspiracy against the land. This Amos had not done, but stood alone with God against Israel. The prophet had spoken against the shrines and the ruling house, but the priest gave his words a priestly twist and accused him of treason and impiety. He said he had spoken against God and the king. In the same way the priests of a later day said Jesus had spoken against Caesar. We can never forget that our Lord was killed on false charges which had been given a priestly twist to make them seem true. This was one of those priestly suppressions of the truth of which the world knows too much. Jereboam seems to have guessed this and took no notice of the charges. The priest did not wait for the king to expel the prophet, but himself ordered him to leave Bethel. This was a government function usurped by a priest—another familiar thing in priestcraft. This is an old thing and a new thing in the world.

Here is a parable of the ages. The priest and the prophet are in perpetual conflict. The one stands for spirit in religion; the other for form. The priest says ritual is the big thing in worship; the prophet says it has little to do with true worship, which is adoration of God from the heart. The priest, jealous for his position, willingly shields the vices of the people; the prophet; jealous only for God and right, exposes every sin. The prophet is the exponent of reform, and deplores the evils of his country; the priest is the opponent of reform, and pleads his country’s good. The one is the servant of the government; the other the servant of God. The one is the champion of the privileged; the other the defender of the unprivileged. The one is the spokesman for legalism and bondage; the other is a voice for spiritual liberty. The one stands for tradition and stagnation; the other for truth and progress. The one pleads for a new and better order; the other defends the established order. Here is a picture of an age-long, world-old, eternal conflict between religion of the spirit and that of the letter. The world has had too much of the priest and too little of the prophet; too much of Amaziah and too little of Amos. It was so with Israel THEN: it is so with us NOW.

Amos assured the priest that he was no professional prophet; that he did not belong to the school of the prophets. He had no official commission, but was convinced that God had called him to preach: and preach he would. Such a man with such a conviction is always a disturber of the STATUS QUO. Amos preached the gospel of law to a people ignoring God’s laws and man’s rights. He preached a long time ago—nearly twenty-seven hundred years—but how modern he seems. How the Church— America—the world—needs Amoses to-day!

“Increase thy prophets, Lord! Give strength to smite
Shame to the heart of luxury and sloth!
Give them the yearning after human souls
That burned in Wesley’s breast! Through them, great God!
Teach poverty it may be rich in thee;
Teach riches the true wealth of thine own spirit.
To our loved land, Celestial Purity!
Bring back the meaning of those ancient words,—
Not lost but soiled, and darkly disesteemed,—
The ever-sacred name of husband, wife,
And the great name of love,—whereon is built
The temple of human happiness and hope!
Baptize with holy wrath thy prophets, Lord!
By them purge from us this corruption foul
That seizes on our civic governments,
Crowns the corrupter in the sight of men,
And makes him maker of laws and honor’s source!
Let kindle as before, O Heavenly Light!
New messengers of righteousness and hope,
And courage, for our day! So shall the world
That ever surely climbs to thy desire
Grow swifter toward thy purpose and intent.”