The words that Amos saw
The importance of Jeroboam and Uzziah
Most of what needs to be said about this opening verse has already been written in the introduction to the entire book here, specifically under the subject headings ‘Technical Issues’ (the dating of the book), ‘Amos’ and ‘Tekoa’ and the reader is directed there for a fuller treatment of these subjects.
This superscription is taken to be a short explanatory message designed for the reader to know which scroll he’s picked up in the collection of scrolls that would have been assembled together in various places. Although added close to the date of composition (because the clear date of two years before the earthquake is recorded) they seem to be the work of a scribe who was possibly not responsible for committing the message to parchment.
The words that Amos saw
Of the sixteen Books of the prophets contained in the OT, the most common opening phrase to indicate how the message came to the prophet are words to the effect that ‘the word of YHWH came’ to the prophet in question (Is 1:1, Jer 1:2, Ezek 1:3, Hosea 1:1, Joel 1:1, Jonah 1:1, Micah 1:1, Zeph 1:1, Haggai 1:1, Zech 1:1 - in all ten times) where we should understand a specific message as having been received by the prophet in question directly from God and not that someone handed him a scroll to read. When we refer to the Bible as ‘the word of God’ (see my notes on this subject here), we can too easily think that when the word comes to someone, we’re looking at a purely mechanical means of transmission.
This, then, appears to have been the generally accepted way to speak of a message being delivered for transmission to God’s intended recipients and the fact that it occurs as a kind of prefix to most of the prophetic books shows us that they could easily be identified as such. However, this phrase isn’t an exclusively used one.
While Daniel omits anything similar to a superscription because it deals immediately with historical events, there are four books that use the description of the message as being a vision or an oracle (Obadiah 1, Nahum 1:1, Hab 1:1, Mal 1:1) though the English translations tend to obscure the fact that the word employed in the prefix to Obadiah is different to the other three.
And that leaves Amos on its own as declaring that what follows are
‘The words of Amos...which he saw...’
a strange choice of phrase because it’s being declared that what comes out from the mouth was seen with the eye. Only in Amos and Jer 1:3 do we read a pluralisation of ‘word’ attributed to the prophet and, again, only in Hab 1:1 do we read at the beginning of a Book that what has been recorded was ‘seen’. I’ve dealt with this latter superscription in my commentary on the Book where I noted that such a phrase is
‘...a fairly remarkable statement because most of what’s recorded [in Habakkuk] seems more like a conversation between two people than a series of visions
which are witnessed passively by the prophet.
‘...we should realise that the word employed here in the OT means something more akin to “perceived” or “realised” - that is, the superscription is informing the reader that what follows was perceived by the prophet as being what YHWH wanted to say to him as a person and, subsequently, to any of the nation who were willing to listen (Hab 2:2).
‘This Hebrew word is closely associated with the word translated ‘seer’ in Amos 7:12 [and here in Amos 1:1 it’s identical] because one who perceives what God had to say into a situation was thought to be a see-er of matters which had remained hidden and would have continued to be so had not a revelation from God been given.’
This clears up the reason why Amos is spoken of as seeing a spoken word but, even so, the Bible can use language that stretches our imagination (another is Rev 1:12 where John ‘...turned to see the voice that was speaking’).
That the words here recorded from 1:2 onwards are called ‘the words of Amos’ is surely an indication that the messenger was one with the message - when other books note that a word came we’re immediately struck by the external nature of the message to the prophet but here we’re prompted to think of the speech as being very much part of the prophet himself.
While Amstu notes the lack of the divine name, YHWH, in the opening verse and comments that, far from it being considered to have not been given by revelation to Amos,
‘...the wording clearly implies that Amos’ words were not his own’
But the implication of the phrase hints more at the unity of prophet and message than to see him as merely the channel to whom the Word of YHWH came.
We saw in the introduction that the translation of his name could mean ‘burden’ where the prophet would be seen to be so intricately caught up with the message that to reject or accept him would be to do the same thing to what he was saying, and the phrase used here would certainly indicate that this is more than simply an academic observation devoid of any real substance.
The importance of Jeroboam and Uzziah
God judges situations and events in a person’s and nation’s life with less importance, very often, then we ourselves do, consigning the world changing events that make the tabloid headlines to the obscurity of a one liner - or, even, no line at all - and elevating those that barely got a mention on the back page to bold print for all to see.
When history has all been played out and the records of earth have been finally compiled for all to read (if there will ever be a time when that’s done - probably not, but I’m just being hypothetical, bear with me), how much will be written about the two headline grabbing Shuttle disasters or September 11 2001?
Never is this more demonstrable than when we turn to the records of both Uzziah, king of Judah, and Jeroboam (the second), king of Israel. On the introductory web page, I noted that the former’s reign lasted somewhere between the dates 790-739BC (II Chr 26:3 states the time period as 52 years where parts of years seem to have been counted as full ones) and the latter’s as 793-753BC (II Kings 14:23 states it as 41 years).
Such a time period would be significant in any historian’s record of the line of kings and queens that had reigned over a nation or Empire but the Bible consigns their rule to the briefest of text.
Jeroboam’s reign, to begin with, isn’t so much as mentioned throughout all of both I and II Chronicles - the record of the history of the southern kingdom of Judah - except for the one place in I Chr 5:17 where it’s recorded that the sons of Gad were enrolled by genealogies in the latter part of Jeroboam’s reign when Jotham was king over Judah.
Apart from this, Jeroboam seems to have been deliberately ignored as not worthy of mention - that is, the one who reigned for the greatest amount of time in the northern kingdom of Israel (he reigned 41 years. Jehu reigned the next longest at 28 years and, after him, Baasha for 24) is consigned to the scrap heap, never to be remembered.
Forgotten, that is, except for the northern kingdom’s record of events contained in I and II Kings. Even here, though, instead of at least a detailed chapter of some significant events in the king’s life, his 41 years are summarised by just seven verses (II Kings 14:23-29) and even four of these are the formulative phrases that one associates with both the commencement and conclusion of a king’s reign (II Kings 14:23-24,28-29).
So, was Jeroboam’s reign historically insignificant? No, not at all - even though, viewed through the eyes of God (Scripture being a selective record of the important events as considered by Him), it becomes almost an irrelevancy.
Jeroboam succeeded in achieving for Israel a great deal and brought to the nation a possibly unequalled level of wealth and prosperity. Zondervan pieces together the ‘facts’ of his reign with the help of archaeological sources and comments that
‘...territorial expansion occurred in a power vacuum in the ancient near east...the Assyrians weakened Ben-hadad’s kingdom, Jeroboam recovered Trans-Jordania from Ben-hadad and then the Assyrians were too busy with more important local and national problems to worry about Jeroboam’s increasing power until after his death. During this period, Israel enjoyed a peace, political prestige and economic prosperity unparalleled since the days of Solomon...’
Such an expansion, mentioned in II Kings 14:25, is attributed as a fulfilment of the message that was spoken by Jonah, the same prophet who was called by YHWH to deliver His message of judgment to the people of Nineveh in the Assyrian Empire (recorded in the Book of Jonah). This restoration and expansion was a direct result of God looking upon His people and noting their ‘very bitter...affliction’ (I Kings 14:26-27), raising up Jeroboam to fight on their behalf.
But the prosperity that was brought in was abused.
The fact that the compiler of II Kings observes of the fulfilment of the word of Jonah (I Kings 14:27) that
‘...YHWH had not said that he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, so He saved them by the hand of Jeroboam the son of Joash’
also indicates to us that the fulfilment of the message through Jonah came before the pronouncements of judgment through Amos.
As we’ll see as we study Amos, the rich simply grew richer and the poor became destitute, even though there would have been enough for all to raise their life to a comfortable level. And all this, as I said in my introduction to the Book, took place amongst the people of God, the men and women of the OT who had the name of God upon themselves and who’d entered into a covenant relationship with God to be obedient to His commandments at Sinai.
It’s important to realise that the early Church bore God’s name faithfully in this respect for it’s recorded in Acts 2:44-45 (see also Acts 4:32) that
‘...all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need’
where there were no great divisions between a rich leadership and a poor or poorer laity - rather, possessions were converted into money that could be distributed to the believers so that no one suffered want. Having an aristocratic hierarchy in the Church is not God’s will for His people and, while such large financial distinctions exist, it remains a challenge for those who have much not to covet what they possess but to give it away freely to each of the brethren as they have need.
So the history of Jeroboam remains concise and pithy.
However, that would be to overlook God’s own comments on the kingdom that He had both Amos and Hosea (see Hosea 1:1) deliver to them. The reason for this brevity of history is because the real ‘history’ is one of moral bankruptcy, of oppression and exploitation that was being demonstrated throughout the kingdom of Israel.
Even though Jeroboam had brought about an expansion of territory in accordance with the word of God through Jonah (or, as paralleled today, even though the local fellowship expands its influence and finds a need to build bigger and bigger buildings) which brought in increasing material wealth and prosperity (there was more in the collection box each Sunday), the reaction of those who were recipients of that wealth was only to use it to make themselves richer and there was no concern with the welfare of the less well off in their midst (the fellowship becomes more polarised in its leadership who grow richer and the laity who seem to have less available - sometimes, even, through their increased giving which has paid for the expansion of ‘the work’).
And that’s why Hosea and Amos need to be read if a true description of the state of the kingdom of Israel and, in the present day, the state of the Church wants to be gleaned. Territorial expansion and material wealth may well come by God and even as a fulfilment of a promise of God but when that fulfilment causes behaviour which is anathema and an abomination to God, it shows that the group of people who’ve received the fulfilment in their own time won’t possess it for very long.
Within thirty years of Jeroboam’s death, the kingdom of Israel had been consumed by the conquering Empire of Assyria, the people scattered abroad and assimilated into foreign societies and lands, never to return.
Uzziah’s reign of 52 years doesn’t come and go in the Scriptural record with the same sort of brevity that that of Jeroboam’s does. Even so, the ominous verse in II Chr 26:5 that
‘...as long as he sought the Lord, God made him prosper’
sets the scene for the more condemnatory (II Chr 26:16)
‘...when he was strong, he grew proud to his destruction...’
First, though, being a king of the southern kingdom, one would expect a rather brief description of his reign in the north’s own record of history of I and II Kings. This is exactly what we find (though here Uzziah is called Azariah just to add to the reader’s confusion - there are a great many explanations offered as to why the king was known by two different names, ranging from adopted, nicknamed, throne or assumed - to name but a few. But this isn’t something about which we can be too certain and the explanation is now lost to us with time - strangely enough, the compiler of II Kings reverts back to the name Uzziah in verses 13,30,32 and 34 of chapter 15) for the record uses just seven verses to summarise his reign (II Kings 15:1-7), five of these being in the same format one would have expected to be used for most kings.
In the briefest of summaries it does note that he was a righteous king, however, but mentions only in passing that he became a leper until the day of his death and had to dwell in a separate house - the reason why this happened is left for the historian of II Chronicles though we do read that such a disease came upon Uzziah because YHWH ‘smote the king’.
All of II Chronicles chapter 26 is given over to the reign of Uzziah but the incident in which he became a leper occupies six verses (II Chr 26:16-21). All we’re given here are the bare bones of the matter and verse 15 is the ominous word of change that prepares the reader for what’s about to follow for, after listing the king’s great achievements, it comments (my italics) that
‘...his fame spread far, for he was marvellously helped, till he was strong’
In that position of greatness, his heart evidently became proud and he believed that there was nothing that could be withheld from him, not realising that, at that time, the intermediaries between God and mankind were limited to the tribe of Levi in the geographically restricted Temple in Jerusalem.
When Uzziah attempted to offer incense on the altar, the priests withstood him with a fairly strong military presence (v.16-18). Had Uzziah realised his sin and humbled himself before the voice of the high priest, there may well have been forgiveness, but his anger at being opposed seems to have been the catalyst that caused YHWH to step in and strike him with leprosy (v.19-20), a condition that caused him to be exiled away from God’s presence in the Temple until the day of his death (v.21, Lev 13:45-46, Num 5:2).
Uzziah’s previous conquests to this incident were to the west and south of Judah (II Chr 26:6-8) although there must have been some measure of influence asserted due east from where the Ammonites sent tribute to him and in which land, presumably, the Meunites were defeated (II Chr 26:7).
But, having begun so well in seeking God (II Chr 26:5) and being helped by Him to defeat Judah’s enemies and expand the territory of Judah (II Chr 26:6-8 esp v.7), having strengthened the kingdom against attack (II Chr 26:9-15) and having acquired for himself agricultural lands in which he could fulfil his interest in farming (II Chr 26:10), he seems to have desired more than he was permitted and his covetousness became his undoing.
Although Jeroboam had never been a righteous king (even though the Word of God had been fulfilled to him through the prophesying of Jonah, son of Amittai - II Kings 14:25), Uzziah’s expansion of the kingdom of Judah had come about because of his commitment to follow after the things of God (II Chr 26:5).
It was in that acquisition of greater wealth and possessions that both Jeroboam and Uzziah found a stumbling stone that caused God to rise up against them.
It really doesn’t matter whether a church fellowship grows and expands as the result of the fulfilment of a specific word from God or because He chooses to honour the commitment of men and women to serve Him - in the end, He must oppose what takes place in their midst if it becomes a denial of the clearly perceived will of God for them.
With Jeroboam, God’s message came against the nation (or, the congregation - if we’re putting it into NT terminology) for its exploitation of the poor and weak but, with Uzziah, it came directly against the leader (those who have been appointed to watch over God’s people) who abused the power and authority that had been assigned to him.
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