The virgin Israel
Marching to war
I remember my first ‘attempt’ at declaring a prophetic word in a congregation - so many years ago now that it shows that I’ve a great memory for certain things. But, there again, nightmares tend to live in the memory longer than daydreams.
I was really eager to be used in spiritual gifts when I first started realising that they were still available to His Church today - it was fortunate that the fellowship I was in actively encouraged the use of the spiritual gifts listed in I Cor 12:1-11 for there are many now who not only claim that they ceased when the early Church did but a lot go on to think that, if they ever see the light of day in their places again, they must be either demonically inspired or a work of the person’s own flesh.
That’s a really neat way, of course, to justify ignoring God’s call to a fellowship to ‘repent’ - it’s also the reason why many fellowships believe that prophets (Eph 4:11) are no longer raised up by God (even though the reasoning normally goes that Scripture contains all that needs to be known, so prophets are now an irrelevance - but you try finding the word ‘Move to Birmingham’ in the Bible) though perhaps a more illuminative reason would realise that, should a prophet ever call a leader to account, he’d be in a very uncomfortable dilemma of having to submit to the authority of someone who he regards as under him.
And you can’t have prophets and prophetic words overruling the will of leader now, can you?
But, I digress.
As I was saying, so eager was I to be used in spiritual gifts that I actually tried to make a prophecy happen so that I could give it. Yes, that’s right. I was trying to make it occur in all sorts of ways. No one had told me that it was actually no big deal to be used by God - He’d used a donkey in the OT to speak His message to Balaam (Num 22:28-30) and who wanted to have their spirituality equated with that sort of animal?
And think of the things people would call you, too!
The initiative is always with God when it comes to messages to His people, just as it was with Amos. He was tending to his sheep and pruning the sycamore trees one day, and setting his face to travel northwards to the nation of Israel the next.
The call came, he went. It was that simple.
And it’s simple to be used in spiritual gifts, too. Just make yourself available to God and wait for Him to tell you what to do, realising that the choice of who’s going to be used is God’s, not yours (I Cor 12:11). You won’t miss God’s voice if you want to hear Him tell you what to do - all that can happen is that men and women are more likely to not want to do what He says because the word that He often asks to be delivered or the action that He wants to be performed isn’t something we want to speak or do.
Anybody fancy lying on their side for a total of 430 days (Ezek 4:4-8)? Or of suffering constant harassment and persecution from the people of God because of the message you’re given to deliver (Jer 20:7-10)?
But, anyway, I was trying to make the prophetic word happen.
What was that image that flashed across my imagination? Was that God? Did those two identical phrases that cropped up in the meeting mean that that was God’s message? Was the queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach the moving of the Holy Spirit or shouldn’t I really have had that fifth hot dog before coming out to the meeting?
So you can see that I wasn’t on to a winner.
I remember one meeting in particular where I made myself see a picture of a pile of material that was being burnt but, after the flames had subsided, there was left what was useful to God. I must emphasise that this was conjured up out of my own mind and wasn’t a direct word from God - I think we’d probably just sung a hymn that had reference to fire or else I was wondering what might be useful to the fellowship and came up with that.
So, again in my own strength (and this is one reason why I no longer trust my own adequacies), I spoke out the vision and what I saw. Instead of sharing that the Lord wanted to remove the dross from our lives, what I said could best be summarised with the words
‘Get out of building quickly because judgment’s about to fall!’
which isn’t exactly the prime example of what leaders want to hear from their ‘flock’. Talk about how God wants to bless them, of how He’s about to pour Himself out upon them or lead them in some great way - and you’ll be well respected as one in touch with the leading of His Spirit.
But a message of judgment? No way...
...of course, it was never meant to be a message of judgment, you understand - it just came out the wrong way. Fortunately, the leader ignored the word totally (a good example of what he’d do if a real word had come), opened his hymn book and said
‘Let’s sing number 492’
And it was over. I don’t recall anyone speaking to me after the meeting, either.
But Amos was always coming out with words of judgment - not thinking them up and imagining them from his own reasoning but being led by God to see the nation as it really was before Him and to perceive the will of God concerning the people if they continued going their own way.
As such, Amos wouldn’t have been liked.
If ever an ‘Amos’ rises up in a fellowship or denomination in the present day, you can be sure that a leadership wouldn’t be pleased. They’d point out in their sermons that submission to the leadership was the call of God upon everyone in the congregation that, if they didn’t submit themselves to God’s appointed leaders, they were likely to go off the rails and wander into ‘deceitful spirits’ who would confuse them into thinking that what they had was from God (and, as I’ve said on a previous web page, how is it that satan can speak through people today but God won’t do the same by His use of prophets? Is satan more powerful than God? Or is he more in touch with mankind?).
If the ‘Amos’ ever moved on, you could be sure that one leader would ring another and warn them so as to protect the believers (even if the two fellowships didn’t really approve of what the other did, it seems that leaders will be quick to undermine anyone wanting to make a fresh start) and to even state clearly from the pulpit what was wrong with them - perhaps naming names to warn their fellowships not to be as deceived as they were.
None of this comes out of the three verses discussed on this web page but we need to be reminded just what sort of reaction Amos would have received when he stood up and announced the certainty of the judgment about to fall upon the nation (Amos 5:2).
They didn’t want harsh words that called them to give an account of themselves to God - they didn’t want to be told that their oppression of the brethren had to stop, that their immoral behaviour was what was going to condemn them.
Do we really think that when God raises up new prophets to call His Church to give an account of itself in the here and now that they’ll be greeted any differently?
If a fellowship rejects God’s intervention in their affairs through the prophetic declarations of the ‘laity’ but uses religious terminology to make it sound as if He’s intricately involved in all that they do, you can be sure that Amos will continue to be rejected - and that judgment will continue to inevitably fall in God’s perfect timing.
The announcement of the lamentation occurs here in Amos 5:1 before the actual words themselves in the following verse. As such, it’s one of the shortest announced lamentations in the OT.
The idea of a lamentation occurs primarily in the funeral arrangements - or, perhaps better, ‘mourning rites’ for they often took place a long time prior to the day of burial - of Jewish society, the word being used eighteen times (Strongs Hebrew number 7015, M2018a) to describe them while the root word (Strongs Hebrew number 6969, M2018) is used eight times. TWOTOT contrasts the words used in the OT by noting that the former of these two words
‘...represents a poem which is chanted (sung). It is to be distinguished from aniya (mourning by uttering various ejaculatory sounds...), misped (various acts of mourning, especially beating the breast) and so on’
Laments were used to reflect upon an event that had occurred in times past in various ways. For example, David’s lamentation over Saul and Jonathan’s death (II Sam 1:17-27) seems to have needed certain work put in to achieve the results and shouldn’t be thought of as having necessarily been a spontaneous response to the news of their deaths - more so because he gave instruction that it should be taught to the people of Judah.
However, David’s lament for Abner shortly afterwards (II Sam 3:33-34) seems to have been something spoken on the spur of the moment. The only other use of these two Hebrew words in the history books of the OT occurs in II Chron 35:25 where we find it three times.
Not only do we read there that Jeremiah the prophet lamented over the death of king Josiah (for it was he who had promised so much to bring back Judah from its rebellion against YHWH) but that the singers continued to remember him in their laments, a reference, perhaps, to the more ‘professional’ sections of society who could be employed at any funeral. It was these who ‘inserted’ the memory of Josiah into the contents of their songs (the reference could also be to the singers of the Temple, it has to be said, but the occasions for lamentation ‘before YHWH’ would seem to have been few and far between).
The existence of a book of ‘Laments’ is also made known though this is different from the book of ‘Lamentations’ authored by Jeremiah. It would appear, though, that there was a compilation of laments that may have been copied by scribes for individuals, libraries or perhaps even for the ‘professionals’ who needed a source book (somehow, I don’t think that a ‘Most depressing songs of Graham Kendrick’ ring binder would ever catch on in today’s Church - but perhaps there’s an untapped audience just waiting for something like this to be printed up?).
Curiously, though, all the other 21 occurrences occur in the prophets and the main use of the words is to either lament the fulfilment of a future promise of God concerning judgment or to offer lamentation for someone or group of people because of what will take place in the future (Jer 9:10,17,20, 19:1,14, Ezek 26:17, 27:2,32, 28:12, 32:2,16 and here in Amos 5:1). It’s surely a prophetic tool that’s meant to show the hearers of the message the certainty of the judgment and, therefore, to encourage them to respond favourably to the message being declared (even though no specific word of mercy is usually incorporated into the words).
Zondervan observes that
‘...the mourning associated with the prophetic prediction of national disaster is an activity which is motivated by the hope of altering the path of impending doom’
but it has to be pointed out that the Scriptures listed above shouldn’t necessarily be thought of as having been used by the prophets for this purpose but simply declared to the people as being relevant to a time that still lay in the future.
The ‘present’ lamentation - the lament of a situation that has occurred in recent memory (of which I cite one example below) - could certainly be used to highlight the need for repentance for the prophet himself would have been sorrowful and in a state of mourning even when his contemporaries were probably enjoying life.
But this prophetic lamentation isn’t the only application of the word. In Amos 8:10, God observes that in the day of His judgment upon the nation, He would turn
‘...all your songs into lamentation’
Although a lament isn’t being taken up over the people, he nevertheless shows them that the merriment of their rejoicing before Him would be cast into despair and sorrowing. Because the nation had been unwilling (Amos 6:6) to be
‘...grieved over the ruin of Joseph’
through sin, it would find a day when they’d begin to lament what had come upon them because of their sin.
At the start of Ezekiel’s ministry to the exiles (Ezek 2:10), the prophet is handed a scroll that was full of
‘...words of lamentation and mourning and woe’
that he was expected to allow to become a part of him and then go and speak to the nation. The meaning was that he wasn’t to bear them good tidings but sadness - messages that they didn’t want to hear but which were necessary for them to be given the opportunity to wake up to their state before Him and to repent.
Finally, the lament could be used to bewail the state of Israel before God in the present. Therefore, YHWH speaks to Jeremiah (Jer 7:29) and tells him
‘Cut off your hair and cast it away; raise a lamentation on the bare heights, for YHWH has rejected and forsaken the generation of his wrath’
In this way, the spiritual death of God’s people is being mourned - a fairly stunning piece of prophecy for, even though the nation might rejoice and be full of mirth, there was one in their midst who was calling them to account for the true nature of their spiritual state before God.
Amos’ ‘lamentation’ is the ‘classic’ use of a pronouncement that views the judgment of God as being something that has already occurred and which needs to be mourned - just as it would be when it fell upon them.
But are the words meant to be taken as those of Amos or YHWH? Is the ‘I’ meant to be taken as a personal reflection of the prophet upon all that’s gone before or is it God Himself who’s adding weight to the revealing of His will by noting the certainty of judgment by speaking of it as already having taken place? Amstu can’t make a final decision (and, to be fair, it’s an impossible call to make on context alone) but his statement (my italics) that
‘The answer is probably either or both...’
is confused. In his understanding it has to be either or both because he can’t decide - that’s the certainty of his exposition that the source of the words is indeterminable. However, I favour the words as being none other than the personal epitaph of the prophet and agree with Amhub’s statement that
‘Amos has joined the mourners at the funeral of a once mighty and beloved people’
for this seems the best way to read it. I’ve already said in the introduction that it seems likely that the translation of Amos’ name is meant to make us realise that the prophet and his message were one and the same so that what he speaks from God is no more or less than what he feels and believes.
In that case, although these may be Amos’ words, they must also - in a very real sense - be YHWH’s, for both God and prophet have one voice.
The virgin Israel
I’ve stated above that the actual lamentation that follows the call for Israel to listen is part of the list of passages that envisages the mourning to be taking place in the present for the judgment of God that’s certainly to fall upon the people in the future.
As such, it becomes the assurance of the event that’s already been prophesied. This seems the best way to take Amos’ words here and the imagery is one of conquest and defeat where Israel lies fallen on the battlefield with no one to heal her wounds or to raise her up to her former glory.
Although the word for ‘fallen’ (Strongs Hebrew number 5307) is used in a wide variety of contexts in the OT, it’s employed, for example, in II Sam 1:19,25,27 (where the passage is described as a lamentation in 1:17 - see the previous section) to speak of the ‘falling’ of Saul and Jonathan in battle. Therefore Amstu is correct to describe the picture as the nation
‘...lying mortally wounded on her own land - humiliated by an invader, not valiantly slain while on a conquest’
It’s also used in Num 14:43 to speak of the way the nation would fall by the sword because God was no longer in their midst when they tried to take the land of Canaan in their own strength rather than be obedient to the word of judgment that had been spoken against them. Hosea 13:16 also uses the word to describe the inhabitants of Samaria falling by the sword in battle, a parallel verse, therefore, for Hosea was the prophet who spoke to Israel after Amos’ departure.
This idea of falling in battle is the easiest way to take the words - but it isn’t the only way, for the fact that YHWH has already declared that the nation is to prepare to meet Him (Amos 4:12) - and will go on to speak of His presence amongst them in terms of judgment (Amos 5:17) - is surely enough for us to already picture the nation as
‘...forsaken on her land’
where her ‘falling’ could be taken as her rejection of YHWH, her falling away from favour through sin so that no one stands in her midst to protect and deliver her. This is the way the word’s employed in Is 3:8 where the prophet records that
‘...Jerusalem has stumbled and Judah has fallen; because their speech and their deeds are against YHWH, defying His glorious presence’
If this is the correct way to interpret it, we’d be looking not at a lament about a future event but the mourning over a present reality where their material wealth and prosperity was sure to be lost because God Himself had withdrawn from them, no one standing in her midst to fortify and protect her.
Although this has a lot going for it (not least the fact that the subsequent political turmoil following Jeroboam’s death led ultimately to the weakening of the nation to such an extent that it was unable to resist the Assyrian invasion of 722BC), Amos 5:3 seems to demand a military interpretation and Amos 5:2 is therefore best taken as a lament of what was ultimately to come upon the nation.
Israel is also described here as the ‘virgin’ where Amhub sees the reason for the use of the description as being to depict
‘...the vulnerability of Israel...and the special sadness that accompanies her death as though she would have had a whole life of love and fruitfulness before her’
This ‘vulnerability’ is the intention of the word (Strongs Hebrew number 1330) in Deut 32:25 where Moses speaks of a future time when Israel would be attacked and laid low, the sword destroying
‘...both young man and virgin, the sucking child with the man of grey hairs’
where those who were the most easily slain are shown no respect by the advancing army. However, the reason for Israel’s labelling as a ‘virgin’ is surely primarily to indicate her lack of a deliverer. The ‘virgin’ would be the ‘unmarried one’, the one who has no one to plead her cause, to stand by her as protector when hard times come upon her as they surely will.
God is being pictured as having already forsaken the nation - even though these words picture a condition which lies in the future after a conquest, they were surely also meant to wake Israel up to their state before YHWH at that present time for, although they took delight in ceremonial observance before Him and in thinking that they were bringing Him pleasure through their ‘religion’, He was far from pleased, having withdrawn from their midst because of the sin that was being committed throughout the land.
This is emphasised by Amos’ word ‘forsaken’ in the next phrase where the nation lies abandoned and desolate, with no one who’ll stretch out a hand to lift her back up.
These words are certainly speaking of the inevitability of a future judgment that would fall upon them (though God also offers them a way of escape in Amos 5:4-7) but in words that also hint at their spiritual condition in the present. They thus serve as a warning that the outward condition of the northern kingdom isn’t what it appears to be.
Although they would have envisaged God in their midst, have looked upon their material blessing as a sign of His continued faithfulness to the covenant and have seen in their worship at Bethel and Gilgal their obedient service to Him, He’d actually departed long before and, on the day of judgment, wouldn’t be there to save them.
It should teach us also that outward show isn’t a sufficient test to determine the spiritual state of either an individual fellowship or a group of believers in any particular area. The Church can look strong, blessed and influential when there’s no enemy that comes against it but, on the day that the Assyrian marches over the horizon, we get a much truer picture of whether the people have lived righteously before God and, when they call upon Him, will find Him to be their Deliverer and Protector.
Seeking God and living according to His ways in the easy times is the foundation upon which deliverance in the hard times is secured. Therefore, Wisdom cries aloud (Prov 1:28-29)
‘...they will call upon me but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently but will not find me. Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of YHWH’
Even though we may object to the verse as being spoken not by God but by the personification of ‘wisdom’, the point is that ‘knowing’ God and fearing Him was the basis upon which future provision was withheld in the times of need. So, too, the prophet Zechariah records YHWH’s recounting of the history of His people (Zech 7:13) and states that
‘As I called and they would not hear, so they called and I would not hear’
What happens in times past is what a person reaps in the future, and the outward state of a matter is by no means what lies beneath the surface.
Israel were religiously zealous, they were ‘on fire’ for God (well, they had to be - they were offering sacrifice), they made sure that they attended the House of God (that is, Bethel - Amos 3:14) and fulfilled their obligations (the ceremonies recorded in Scripture such as tithes and freewill offerings) - but God had departed from their midst, their outward form masking their inner spiritual poverty.
Marching to war
In simple words, YHWH pictures the fate of the Israelite army going out to battle.
Although one would necessarily presume that there would be losses in warfare, the numerical reduction here described makes it plain that a defeat is what’s being envisaged, not a victory.
With both numbers, there’s a ninety per cent fatality rate on the battlefield (and it’s impossible to know how many of the ten per cent that are left have limped back to their cities because they’re badly injured and unable to fight). Israel will be so decimated before its enemy that the cities will be left like sitting ducks in the land as the army regroups from its victory and marches onward.
The verse is in keeping with Amos 2:13-16 where we first encountered the declaration that the people would be overthrown and the army would fall before the enemy’s advance. As such it adds to the picture of the devastation that would shortly come upon the land.
Israel’s army seems to have been organised in groups of hundreds and thousands (I Sam 17:18, 18:13, 22:7, II Sam 18:1) - though a fifty is also mentioned (I Sam 8:12) and it wouldn’t be wrong to think of groups of men being divided into manageable groups of any size - so that the figures here being used by YHWH are meant to be taken as representative of specific sections that stood as one unit.
The opening ‘for’ of the verse points the listener and reader back to the previous ‘lament’ and gives the reason for it. Amos has declared his grief because the declaration has come to him that the Israelites will be unable to protect their land.
Although written in this order in the book, it would appear that the prophet received the message of Amos 5:3 first before he declared his lament, but he reacts with his own words because of his anguish of heart that overflows with sadness.
GO TO AMOS PAGE