The poor and needy
Outwardly observant, inwardly plotting
1. New moon and sabbath
2. Their false dealing
God is an elephant
The land quakes
The transformation of the nation
Having completed Amos 8:3, I turned to this next section (one that’s best understood to end with 8:14 even though I’ve divided it in two for ease of access) and wondered
‘Why? What’s the point?’
for there seems to be very little more that needed to be said that had gone unspoken in the previous seven chapters.
If ever there was a time when one might close the book and draw a line under the message to prevent duplication of what had already been delivered, when the people to whom the message had already come would have been clear in their own minds what that message was, then surely we’ve arrived there even before this chapter.
But, even though there is a duplication of information, there’s more detail added as if to underline the nation’s sin.
For we read about the mentality of the traders who remain outwardly observant to the sabbatical requirements but who, at the same time, are chomping at the bit for Sunday to come so that they can deceitfully increase their wealth (Amos 8:5-6 - where we should note that the Sabbath is and always has been Saturday, Sunday being a normal day when the ‘rest’ was broken. Even though there was a concerted attempt by the Church to change it by a misapplication of NT Scripture, God has never commanded the Sabbath to be changed from the original day on which it fell. The ‘sabbath’ in the new covenant, however, has been fulfilled - see my notes on the subject here).
We also learn that YHWH will forget nothing that His Church has done (Amos 8:7) although the implication of the words is that He’ll forget nothing that they’ve done wrong, a reminder that a believer in the NT must be careful in case He thinks that he can do anything he wants to and remain guiltless (something that’s warned against in Amos 9:10).
And the judgment is described in a few different ways as a conclusion to the sins recorded and mentioned (Amos 8:8-10). But the strange passage amongst the verses of the chapter is surely 8:11-14 which some commentators see as applying to the time when Samaria would be overthrown - that is, the outworking of the promised judgment concerning death and exile.
The better way to read this is that it’s something that would occur before the final judgment of the land, a consequence of their refusal to seek God the way He’d chosen for them to do, by righteousness and just living rather than on their knees in prayer, offering sacrifice or observing the religious festivals (see my notes here).
If they were choosing not to seek God the way He desired, neither would they have the privilege of hearing what the words were that would have helped them in their future situations - even if they did put themselves out to discover what it was that He wanted to say to them by travelling great distances (that it must have been equally true of the time after which the judgment had been poured out is certain).
So, although we may indeed groan that the messages outlining sin and the detailed judgments seem to never stop, there are new pieces of information here that give us an idea of the fullness of what it was that God was about to do within the land and why.
Amhub sees one of the reasons for these verses (along with three others) being that it
‘…delayed the fifth vision and thus added to the suspense in the sequence of vision reports…’
but there can be no idea of ‘suspense’ unless you’re expecting a fifth vision to be declared - if you don’t know how many visions there are, you might be expecting a sixth or seventh vision after the fifth, so the idea of ‘suspense’ largely falls down. Besides, why should we think of Amos 8:4-14 as being an ‘intrusion’ and not that 7:1-8:3 is the ‘intrusion’ into a consistent and coherent discourse against the nation?
Again, the ‘fifth vision’ of Amos 9:1 is so unlike the previous four that it would be incorrect to think of it as joined to the passage in any major way. Any idea that 8:4-14 is an intrusion is purely subjective, therefore, and shouldn’t be accepted as being an intention on the part of the prophet to break up his ‘material’ to add ‘suspense’.
We may be right in thinking that Amos deliberately arranged his messages because he felt it would be easier for the reader to comprehend - but he may simply have put them down on parchment as he understood the original order. We have no way of knowing why the text is in the order that it is - and that holds not only for Amos but for most of the other parts of the Bible, too.
The poor and needy
Amos 8:4-6 appears to be the prophet’s own choice of introduction to the message of YHWH that begins with verse 7, a description of the people to whom it’s addressed - and a fairly lengthy one at that. What follows afterwards is what they’re meant to be giving their attention to. However, the traits of the people depicted by the prophet give us further insight into the type of people the nation of Israel had developed into.
Just what proportion of the population we should expect to be included in the description is something that’s difficult to be certain about for it seems inappropriate to think of all the nation oppressing the poor and needy - for then it wouldn’t be the entire nation who was oppressing, as many would be the oppressed.
But what proportion of the people had set themselves to grow rich and prosperous (or, perhaps, ‘better off’ - for not all could have been excessively wealthy) so that God steps in and can speak of the entire nation needing judgment is impossible to determine.
It was certainly the case in the days of Joshua and the transgression of Achan (Joshua 7:1-5) that one man sinned and the entire nation was judged by God, but that won’t have been the case in Israel for the previous words of judgment make it plain that there were a fair few who were living as enemies of their fellow Israelites.
Perhaps it’s best to say that Israelite society had degenerated to such an extent that nearly everybody would have dealt similarly with their brethren had they found themselves in the position to do so and that the poor were only badly off because they hadn’t had the opportunity to defraud and oppress. The sin of the nation certainly seems to have been so widespread to consider this as a distinct possibility - that is, that the majority of the nation were living unrighteous and unjust lives, in thought as well as deed.
Although treatment of the poor and needy is singled out for mention here, the specific application has to do with trade (Amos 8:5-6), something that we’ll discuss in the next section.
Amos begins by calling his listeners to pay attention, something that he’s previously done on a few other occasions (Amos 3:1, 4:1, 5:1, 7:16), going on to describe the people to whom the message was being directed briefly in Amos 3:1 (where it’s simply mentioned that the word is for the northern kingdom of Israel) and 4:1 (where details are recorded as to the nature of what the people are doing here and for the next couple of verses).
The ‘poor and needy’ have been a particular subject of note throughout Amos (2:6-7, 4:1, 5:11-12) because it was principally in the nation’s dealings with them that they’d demonstrated themselves to be both unrighteous and unjust, a lifestyle that had ultimately brought God’s message of imminent judgment upon them. Even though, religiously, they had the outward evidence that they were God’s people (they offered sacrifice, observed the festivals and sang praise to God - Amos 5:21-23), their relationship with their fellow Israelite only demonstrated to YHWH that they were forsaking the important principles of the Law for secondary actions that should have been participated in only if righteousness and justice were being lived out.
The word for ‘needy’ (Strongs Hebrew number 34, M3a) is used five times in Amos (2:6, 4:1, 5:12, 8:4,6) and is defined by TWOTOT as referring to someone who’s
‘...poor in a material sense...one who has fallen on hard times...’
while the ‘poor’ (Strongs Hebrew number 6041, M1652d) is used just here in the Book, TWOTOT defining it as
‘...a person suffering some kind of disability or distress’
It’s also noted that both words are often used together and that, when they are, the ‘distress’ behind the definition of the second word is
‘...the difficulty accompanying a lack of material possessions’
So, if someone is both poor and needy, the idea is on both the poverty itself and the problems that accompany that status within society. It seems best, therefore, to understand this passage to be speaking about those who lack resources, are unable to acquire them and who are therefore disadvantaged by their financial state.
The word that describes the life of the poor being ‘ended’ might be thought of as paralleling the previous observation in Amos 8:2 where the ‘end’ has come upon the people of Israel, the current verse providing the parallel that, because the poor are being ‘ended’, the nation will only reap what it’s been sowing.
Although particularly relevant, we need to observe that the two words employed are markedly different and, as we’ve already discussed, Amos 8:3 stands as a fitting conclusion to the passage that has begun with Amos 7:1, so it shouldn’t be thought of as bleeding over into the following prophetic word (even though, in the application below, we’ll see that it can be employed to develop the word play that exists).
But, more than this, the word is associated with the one employed for ‘sabbath’ in verse 5 where the Israelite traders are complaining about the fact that the sabbath has prevented them from making profit. This ‘cessation’ - the meaning incorporated into the word because it was the time when work ‘ceased’ - is thus seen to be something that they’re content to apply only and always for their own advantage.
On the one hand, they were ‘ending’ the life of the poor and desired to ‘end’ the day on which work ‘ceased’ weekly. On the other, they desired only a ‘continuation’ of their oppression of those who had nothing with which to defend themselves, there being no means of retaliation through the courts that were already established for the rich to gain the decision that they wished (Amos 5:12).
If they’d but ‘ceased’ from their wicked work and devoted themselves to ‘continuing’ the life of the poor through support and care, their life would have been found to have been acceptable to YHWH - but, as it was, their own lives that they were trying to ‘continue’ onwards prosperously would ‘cease’ to exist, coming to an abrupt end - the destruction they sow, is the destruction they’ll reap.
Amstu points out that the traders shouldn’t be thought of as trying to kill off the poor and needy for, if such a thing was being aimed at, they were simply undermining their own financial position - they stood or fell on there being these types of people to exploit.
Rather, it’s as they oppress the poor and needy that they’re destroyed as a by product of their methodology - doubtless, more and more people were being pushed into the same position for the society appears to have been one not just who exploited the poor but who exploited anyone they could for their own profit and increase.
In such a situation, the well off became the less well off and those who managed to make ends meet were gradually pushed into the position of having insufficient. Now it has to be said that it would be extremely unlikely that a church would openly oppress and exploit the poor in their midst - a leadership is normally fairly well up on what makes for good PR and such behaviour certainly isn’t towards the top of any list. However, I’d best not exclude the possibility simply because, sooner or later, someone will discover a ‘Church of the Holy Exploiters of the Poor’ down their local street and I’ll have to rewrite this web page.
But, generally speaking, to undermine the position of the poor believer isn’t something that’s going to draw the crowds (and crowds are a silent witness that God’s blessing is presumably upon you, aren’t they?).
But, when the poor and downcast have been taught to fix their hope not just upon God but upon the men at the front who are His representatives and who are imbued with Divine authority, obedience to their every word is easily equated with obedience to God - and disobedience…well, it hardly bears thinking about, does it?
In such a situation, though, how easy it is to lead the afflicted and weak, the poor and the destitute, to undermine their own welfare because they think that by stretching their own resources, they’re pleasing God. Let’s be clear about this, because the instilled fear of doing anything against God is very often transposed into the fear of doing anything against the leadership.
So, the already rich leadership need more money for another project. Who do you think will be giving to the fund? Instead of simply trusting God to bring the money in or contacting their equally rich friends, the general appeal that goes out to the entire congregation encourages them to ‘have faith’, that their contributions won’t be
‘Stretching their resources but stretching their faith’
(in the words of an appeal that was made known to me - and you’d be amazed at the Scriptures that were twisted to back it up, too) where the sacrificial giving is seen to be a testing of their belief that God will still provide for them when they give even ‘beyond their means’.
And what happens when God doesn’t step in and provide? Was the appeal bogus? Of course not! It was the faith of the individual that was lacking. After all, the leadership were convinced that this project was from God so how could it have been done ‘in the flesh’?
And the ‘one off’ appeals for money that come in the big meetings aren’t much better. In a recent meeting in which an appeal was made, someone had the word from God that everyone who’d contribute to the appeal would have their money doubled within 60 days (similar statements ‘from God’ are fairly commonplace from what I hear).
Now, I’d want a piece of that action, wouldn’t you? Let me go and draw out all I have and give it into the offering so I’ll have twice as much there within two months. Is it any wonder, then, that the poor would grow poorer while the leadership would grow richer? And even those who had enough to live would be tempted to over-stretch themselves to gain more, ending up poorer with each successive appeal, condemning their own poverty because of their supposed lack of faith.
Whether it be the fear of disobeying ‘the man whose authority is from God’ or the desire of greed to receive more than is contributed, the poor are exploited in the Church. Many will find my words disturbing and even hyper-critical but I honestly can’t remember a time in the past ever when the leadership of a church allowed one of its poor members to stand at the front to appeal for money because they can’t live on what they have.
We think that to contribute to some ‘mighty work of God’ brings blessing and acceptance, not realising that the real and better work is to contribute to the needs of the poor in our midst. This, incidentally, is the subject of the often misquoted ‘tithing’ passage in Mal 3:6-12 for God pronounces a blessing upon those who give
‘…that there may be food in My house’
and not because
‘…the evangelistic project might go ahead’
Tithing (as I explained here) was about supporting all who minister to God and those who are poor and under-privileged amongst the people of God. If you believe that it’s equally relevant in the NT as it was in the Old, then it should be done Scripturally.
So, the poor and needy are trampled upon within the Church, even though it’s in ways that we’d normally overlook or spiritualise to make it appear as if it’s the will of God.
Outwardly observant, inwardly plotting
The description of the type of person YHWH is about to speak to from Amos 8:7 continues here. Although verse 4 spoke about their guilt in general terms, in these two verses we get a practical demonstration of their guilt before God. It can be seen that God has a specific word to say against the traders of the kingdom of Israel and it’s very easy for us to point the finger at those in our own society, whether believers or not. But it’s best to understand the message, where applicable, to be calling us also to account for the way we deal with others when we sell or buy items.
For example, do we know that our car has a defect in it but pretend that it’s in perfect working order? Does our house have rising damp but we’ve been round with the hairdryer on the walls before people come to view? Or are we charging excessive amounts of money for something that someone can’t live without when the market value of such an item is way below our demands?
When we cheat in trade, we’re no better than those mentioned here and, even though we pray for justice against those who rip us off, it’s hardly any wonder that God refuses to move on our behalf. God demands right living in His people and that means being honest and truthful when it comes to selling and exchanging items.
Having said that, one of the main problems here in the Israelite traders is their impatience at the restrictions of the covenant for they seem to be straining at the leash which forbids them to deal on the Saturday, being outwardly observant to society’s restrictions but inwardly frustrated. Their god was, surely, material gain, a devotion that prevented them from ever serving YHWH (Mtw 6:24) and, although they looked ‘religious’, their obedience to God was simply something that they felt compelled to do or that which was being forced upon them.
There was no ‘delight’ in the covenant, therefore, no enjoyment in the provision of God for all His people to rest and be at ease. Where there was money to be made, they wanted to be the ones who’d make it - the sabbath and other restrictions merely hindered the profit potential of their livelihood.
So, although we’ll go on to consider their sin in trade under section 2, we should note that part of the problem was their impatience with the covenant when it hindered them from doing what they clearly had their heart set on.
1. New moon and sabbath
These notes have been adapted from here under the header ‘New moon festivities’ and here under the header ‘The Mosaic Law (a spiritual sabbath)’
Before we look at the injustices and unrighteous dealings of the Israelites described in these verses, it will be best if we remind ourselves of the nature of both the new moon festivities and the sabbaths (that is, the Saturdays) of OT Israel, to provide us with some background.
Numerous activities were associated with the new moon throughout Israel’s history. Because the observation of the new crescent was fundamental to the Jews’ determination of annual time, it was made into a special monthly occasion. There are four specific activities associated with the new moon in the Bible.
Firstly, feasting and celebration. In I Sam 20:5,18,24,27, Saul held a feast at the new moon which appears to have gone on for more than just the one day and, in Hosea 2:11 (a verse of particular significance because Hosea was the prophet who ‘followed’ Amos in the northern kingdom), God says that He’ll put an end to their mirth because of sin. It must have been, therefore, a time of celebration and rejoicing which became an integral part of Jewish culture (see also II Kings 4:23, Is 1:13-14, Ezek 46:1-3).
Secondly, sabbath restrictions seem to have applied to the first day of the month at certain points in the nation’s history, Amos 8:5 being the clearest statement that records the words of the Jews as asking
‘When will the new moon be over, that we may sell grain?’
Carrying on trade was forbidden on a new moon, though the legislation for this seems to be lacking in the Law. Perhaps this ordinance was a cultural restriction placed upon society and not part of God’s original intention, even though God specifically uses it here to prophetically speak to His people. Whatever, the first day of the month was regarded as being significantly important to allow for an extra day of rest.
On this day, special offerings were also sacrificed to YHWH, this going back to the very beginning of the organisation of the Tabernacle in the wilderness (Num 28:11-15, 29:6) and carried over into Solomon’s Temple where special sacrifices were specified (I Chron 23:31, II Chron 2:4, 8:13, 31:3).
When the exiles returned from captivity, the offerings at the new moon were also resumed as being important requirements of Temple service (Ezra 3:5, Neh 10:33) and, even in the futuristic Temple which Ezekiel saw in the Spirit (Ezek 45:17, 46:1,3,6), special sacrifices were also to be offered.
That the ancient world worshipped the heavenly bodies is open to no doubt but that Israel were commanded not to do so is equally certain. Though God ordained that special offerings to Him should be made, there was never any implication that the moon should actually be worshipped when it appeared. Though the moon was pivotal for the calculation of time, the Jew was always to look beyond the moon to the One who created it.
Finally, the new moon is used as one of the three parts of the yearly cycle which signified the times of the year which were considered to be special. The complete phrase runs
‘Sabbaths, new moons and feast days’
Very often in Scripture, these three are used in the same phrase as a summation of all the holidays that the Jews celebrated. For instance, I Chron 23:31, II Chron 2:4, 8:13, 31:3, Neh 10:33, Is 1:13-14 (where God states that He hates the keeping of them if the hearts of the observers aren’t right before Him), Ezek 45:17, Hosea 2:11 and, under the new covenant, Col 2:16 (where keeping the new moon festival or the others specified in the Law is a point upon which followers aren’t to be judged, for all these things were but a shadow of what was and is to come in Christ).
The day of the new moon, therefore, was a time of special significance in Israel and was marked by special sacrifices and, at particular times in their history, with extra sabbaths.
Whereas the new moon was a monthly day of rest, the sabbath was weekly.
The Mosaic Law didn’t just teach a day of rest, but it taught the Israelites that they were to work six days and on the seventh they were to take a sabbath. The sabbath was conditional upon working six days (Ex 20:9, Deut 5:13) - just as God had ‘worked’ for six days in bringing into existence the universe before deeming it necessary to ‘rest’.
Today in the Western World, many workers take both Saturday and Sunday as days of rest after having worked five days, but the legislation was specific that six days were to be worked. It would be going too far to say that God commanded that six days had to be worked and it’s better to see in God’s words the safeguard being stated that it mustn’t be expected of any Israelite to work more than six consecutive days without having a day off.
That there was much exploitation (especially of slaves) in the ancient world is fairly well assumed and the sabbath legislation should be seen in this context of legislating against the oppression that came about through excessive expectation of the work force.
The Law gives three explanations for the Jewish observance of the sabbath.
Firstly, there was the rest that it gave to the Israelites after work (Ex 20:8-11 esp v.11- the fourth of the ten commandments given at Sinai). It was a day of rest based on the Creation system that God had introduced into the structure of the universe. It’s also spoken of as a sign between God and Israel (Ex 31:17) that
‘...in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed’
Therefore, while ever the sabbath was being celebrated weekly, it served as a reminder to the people that God had brought all things in to existence and that the day of rest was part of His original intention for mankind. Today, of course, in a world that only sees the hand of impersonal forces bringing the world in to existence, the sabbath will have lost its meaning.
Secondly, the sabbath gave the Israelite rest after bondage (Deut 5:12-15 esp v.15 - the fourth of the ten commandments repeated by Moses in the land of Sihon - Deut 4:44-46).
It was to be a day when Israel would remember the forced slavery that God had delivered them out of and, subsequently, the rest that He’d brought them in to. But, more than this, the passage cited here says that the commandment concerning sabbath observance was given to them because God had delivered them from the hand of the Egyptians - His intention was that rest should be written in to their society so that they wouldn’t find themselves bound into a way of living that mirrored what He’d brought them out of.
Necessarily through this remembrance, the day would turn into a day of thanksgiving and worship, the title of Psalm 92 noting that this was a song that was specifically written for use on the sabbath.
Thirdly, it was to be a proof of the nation’s separation (Ex 31:13, Ezek 20:12). The sabbath was to be a sign to Israel that it’s the Lord who sanctifies them/makes them holy (where ‘sanctification’ means, very simply a ‘separation’ both ‘from’ and ‘to’ something). Separating the sabbath to be observed in obedience to God’s command, showed practically that God had separated them to Himself and that they took that separation seriously.
Therefore it was a weekly reminder and demonstration both to themselves and to God that they intended following both the Lord’s word and His ways.
In Is 56:3-5 we find the plight of the foreigner and of the eunuch commented on by God. Because, by keeping the sabbath, the covenant was proclaimed and an individual’s separation to God was remembered, then even those people who considered themselves alienated away from the presence of God would be acceptable to Him through their observance (where that observance was matched by an acceptable lifestyle).
This, then, was the sin of not observing the sabbath - it denied the sanctification (the separation) of themselves to God and of what God had done for them by separating them from all the other nations. The Israelite traders’ abhorrence at being forbidden to deal on both sabbaths and new moons is easily seen to be an affront not only to the covenant but to God Himself.
2. Their false dealing
We’ve seen above that part of the problem with the Israelites and their eagerness to trade was their dissatisfaction at having to observe the Mosaic legislation that surrounded the sabbath and the cultural observance of the monthly day of the new moon. Here, we want to look at what it was that they were wanting to replace the day of rest for - a day on which they could trade deceitfully to increase their profits at the expense of those who bought from them initially in innocence but, presumably, with increasing suspicion that they were being ripped off.
It seems fairly certain that the vast majority of traders in Israel at this time continued with these practices or the poor and needy would have been able to seek out the ‘righteous’ and buy from them. Rather, they seem to have had no other option but to buy from those who were defrauding them because there was no one else to trade with.
Amos records these traders as looking towards the time when they could
‘…make the ephah small’
a volumetric measure of dry weight corresponding to somewhere between 5 and 8 gallons (40 and 64 pints). It appears that dry measure in ancient Israel was determined by volume rather than by mass (see here). The exact amount would probably have been standardised in specific locations - perhaps even nationally - but the fact that these traders are making the capacity ‘small’ shows that it’s their ‘sales measure’ (if it was a purchasing measure - that is, one that the trader used to buy his ‘stock’, it would have to have been larger to put him at an advantage) so that the buyer would think that they’re buying an ephah in volume when, in effect, the amount would have been much reduced.
The amount they paid, instead of being reasonable for an ephah, was actually substantially more than they should have been having to spend with the net result that the seller grew richer and the poor became more impoverished, not being able to even get the quantity of food that should have fed them. They also
‘…make…the shekel great’
where ‘shekel’ should be thought of as a weight of metal (11 grams or 0.4 ounce) that was used to determine the value of the metal/coin offered as payment. By making their own weights larger than they should be, it made it look as if the weight of the buyer’s metal was much less than it was and, therefore, it would only buy a fraction of what it should have done. Amstu, however, sees the shekel weight as being actually increased so that
‘…the buyer thought he was getting more than he really was when he saw his grain weighed in the scales against the shekel’
Though I’ve tried to mentally grasp this, it still seems to me that the seller was cheating himself by using a heavier weight - it seems better to suggest the alternative that the ‘shekel’ could have been deceitfully labelled but, even then, a weight of just a few grams seems of very little use in weighing out grain and wheat (Amos 8:5a). It’s best to understand the shekel as a monetary weight that determined the value of the metal/coin being offered in exchange for goods. Ammot summarises both aspects of the deceit as being that
‘They sold less than they ought for more than they ought…’
but takes the final description that they dealt
‘…deceitfully with false balances’
as an explanation of how both the shekel and the ephah were being used. But this needn’t be, for a ‘false balance’ could equally well be thought of as a device that was ‘weighted’ on one side in favour of the trader. Therefore, we should see all three examples as being independent means for the trader to get as big a profit as was possible.
These practices were specifically legislated against in the Mosaic Law (Lev 19:35-36, Deut 25:13-16 - this latter passage notes that weights for both buying and selling weren’t to be kept for one’s own advantage and labels those who do such things as an ‘abomination’, one of the strongest words of denunciation in the Law).
Proverbs also speaks against false weights (Prov 11:1, 16:11, 20:10,23) where false weights are called an ‘abomination’ and accurate ones are said to be ‘of God’. It’s fairly obvious, therefore, that those who observed the sabbath under tolerance but who dealt deceitfully weren’t being faithful to YHWH so that His word against them (Amos 8:7-10) is entirely justified.
But, there’s more.
Not only did the seller have volume of product, weight of coin offered and the balance that weighed the product in his favour, but he also chose to sell
‘…the refuse of the wheat’
a term that seems to mean an impure substance although commentators aren’t in agreement as to what it was (Amhub suggests that its position here may be a scribal error and that it’s better to think of its place as being at the end of verse 5. But there appears to be no reason why Amos couldn’t have included it at the end of this passage to hold it together as one complete unit).
It could have been that which was mixed with the dirt of the threshing floor, the last of the wheat gathered, so that the weight bought wasn’t pure wheat, or that it was the ‘worst’ of the wheat that was being passed on to the poor while the best was reserved for ‘others’. Ammot sees the mention of the ‘refuse’ as being that which had dropped to the ground throughout the day in which they’d traded so that it was swept up and resold (along with half the dust of the marketplace, no doubt) while Amstu understands it to be
‘…contaminated grain from the bins and wagons…’
Whatever the precise meaning, the point is that ‘pure wheat’ was being advertised on their stalls and in their shops but that wasn’t what the buyers were receiving. As I mentioned above in my introduction to this section, dishonesty in trade is just as much a problem in the Church today as it was in the days of Amos, and the believer who knowingly sells something to their brother (or to the unbeliever) that’s less than it’s being advertised as, puts himself into the same position of being regarded as an abomination (Deut 25:16) - and that’s hardly likely to endear the individual to YHWH, is it?
Finally, the only phrases not commented on are those at the beginning of Amos 8:6 which tell us that these traders desire the sabbath and new moon be over so that
‘...we may buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals…’
a similar statement to that which occurs in Amos 2:6 where the first statement by YHWH of Israel’s sin is recorded for us. There he says that the nation
‘...sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes’
The latter phrase of each verse is so similar as to be treated as virtually identical while the former has ‘righteous’ in place of ‘poor’ but, even so, the entire phrase is relating the same type of action directed towards a certain section within society - only, in 8:6 we see the ‘buying’ of the poor whereas in 2:6 we see them being ‘sold’ (for a fuller treatment of the phrase, the reader should access my notes under the header ‘Amos 2:6’).
The corrupt practices in trade are the very ones that have brought the poor to the place where slavery for ‘next to nothing’ becomes a reality. Had they taken pity on the poor, they would have suffered their own loss (or, better, their own reduced profit) and looked after those who depended upon them for a fair deal. As it was, as Amstu observes, to the traders of Israel
‘...people are commodities to be used for one’s own advantage’
and Ammot sees them as regarding the buyer, their fellow Israelite, as
‘...no longer a person but only a thing...They looked at people and saw things...’
Society had gone mad, for the basis of the covenant had been in looking after their fellow man - they’d turned it into looking after themselves at the expense of others.
God is an elephant
Just like an elephant, as the saying goes, God never forgets.
Believers in the NT are rightly taken up with the fact that, as it says in Is 43:25 (my italics - although spoken initially to the children of God in their disobedience)
‘...I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake and I will not remember your sins’
and David is also bold (Ps 103:12) to declare that
‘...as far as the east is from the west, so far does [YHWH] remove our transgressions from us’
and Jeremiah, speaking of the days of the New Covenant that would be made with Israel, declares that the basis (Jer 31:34 quoted in Heb 8:12 and 10:17) would be that God would
‘...remember their sin no more’
It comes as somewhat of a shock, therefore, when we come to this passage for YHWH states clearly to those numbered amongst His own people who exploit and deceive their brethren that
‘...I will never forget any of their deeds’
And, as Hosea the prophet was to declare to the Israelites after Amos had finished declaring his message to the nation (Hosea 8:13)
‘...[God] will remember their iniquity and punish their sins’
where, although the sin might be put to one side for dealing with at a future date, God now decides to recall it from memory and deal with it as He sees fit.
This, then, is the main word that God had wanted them to listen to (Amos 8:4), that He’d been leading into through the previous three verses. He’d set Himself not to forget their transgressions against Him, affirming it with an oath by the ‘pride of Jacob’, a label for the land (as we saw in the previous web page under the header ‘Pride and Destruction’).
The reason for swearing by the land is, as Amstu observes
‘...analogous to a person’s swearing by a valuable possession...’
where he cites Is 62:8 where YHWH swears by His right arm to affirm the sincerity and certainty of what He’s about to declare. The land that the Israelites delighted in would be the very object that testified to the certainty of the outpouring of judgment against their sin.
It isn’t a word that we enjoy reading, I admit.
But it’s there plainly in the Scriptures that God’s people can come to the point (through the continual elevation of their own self-interest by the exploitation and oppression of their fellow believer) where God chooses not to forget their sin, no longer to look away from it and finally to step in to history and judge, removing them from their God-given inheritance in the land of Canaan.
Ammot turns the idea of God refusing to forget sin into an accusation against secular society, asking rhetorically
‘What are the marks of a society which has reached the autumn of probation and concerning which God has drawn the line of finality?’
but he misses the point (as he did in chapter 7 when he insisted on discussing the Eternal Security of the believer even in sin rather than to face up to the sword of judgment that hung over the children of God’s head) that the message isn’t being directed against unbelievers but those who have taken upon themselves the name of belonging to God, the OT Church.
What’s applicable to them isn’t meant to be turned on its head and applied to the faithless societies in which we live but, rather, it must be thought to potentially apply to the Church of Jesus Christ when it does the very same things that are here being outlined.
The truth isn’t that we’re eternally secure even when we sin but that we stand in a dangerous place for God will ‘never forget any of their deeds’ (Amos 8:7), waiting for the time to come when God will decide that He must ‘remember their iniquity’ (Hosea 8:13), step in to history and judge.
Don’t think that God won’t judge those who exploit His own people, He will.
All He waits for is the right time to visit His disobedient people and call them to account - for, when at last the opportunity to repent has ended, judgment is inevitable.
Ammot concludes from the passage under the thought provoking header ‘The impotence of God’ that
‘There is, then, one thing which the Almighty cannot do: He cannot bestow mercy on those who do not show mercy’
but this is only to state a half-truth which, when considered, becomes deceitful if applied to each and every situation, for the truth of the Gospel isn’t that one must first give mercy before one can receive it (or else salvation would be on the basis of human works rather than on the freely given work of God’s grace) but that mercy given to those who don’t deserve it should transform them to be people who give mercy from the time they’re born again into a better life.
It’s from believers who’ve received mercy that God expects mercy to now be reflected and it’s believers, therefore, who mustn’t presume to stand upon mercy received and think that they’ll forever receive that grace. Rather, they now need to turn from their hardness of heart to forgive and bestow what they’ve received in the cross to both the men and women who profess Christ and those of the world who need to see a reflection of the character of God.
God will be merciful to the merciless if they’re ignorant of the will of God for them (otherwise, who could be saved?) - when a person has received mercy, however, He expects them to return it to others around them (Mtw 18:33).
The land quakes
Amos 8:8 Pp 9:5
Amos 8:8 is very similar to 9:5. In each we read of the people of the land mourning and of the rising and falling of the Nile. The one main difference is that here, the opening words speak about the land shaking while in 9:5 the idea is of the earth melting.
Although Amos 9:5 is taken by commentators to be a direct quote of a hymn that was being used in Israelite praise, it stands alone there as something that seems to go unfounded upon anything that’s preceded it.
Here in Amos 8:8, however, it depends upon the previous verse for its foundation - it’s ‘on this account’ (that is, the fact of Israel’s deeds and God’s unforgetfulness) that the events detailed here take place.
The land ‘trembling’ was surely a word that came frighteningly true in the lives of the nation shortly after the giving of this message for the opening verse of the Book notes that Amos’ words came to Israel
‘...two years before the earthquake’
and it seems unlikely that the prophet would have spoken of a past event and tried to make out as if it was a supernatural evidence of God’s anger (although, from what I hear of prophetic messages given in the Church today, it would appear that believers at large only hear the message after the events take place).
I’m not saying that Amos predicted the earthquake but, rather, that when it happened, the people who’d heard the prophet’s message must have been made to sit up and take notice - even though they seem to have discounted the call to repent and reverted back to their ways of living that were offensive to God.
Amhub states that the earthquake was one of the
‘...dominant motifs of judgment in Amos...’
but his citing of just three Scriptures (Amos 2:13, 3:14-15, 9:1) isn’t convincing and, apart from the last of these, may not be referring to an earthquake at all. The point is that because of the nation’s sin and God’s decision not to forget their deeds, something akin to an earthquake would descend upon the land that would prevent the nation from standing against the enemy advancing upon its cities.
The word employed to speak of the ‘trembling’ (Strongs Hebrew number 7264, M2112) is an interesting one for it’s often used of human emotions and states of mind which could be accompanied with shaking. Therefore, TWOTOT writes that
‘The primary meaning of this root is to quake or shake, from which ideas such as shaking in anger, fear or anticipation are derived’
Therefore, the nations against whom the nation of Israel was about to come were to shake with fear because of them (Deut 2:25) as did the garrison of the Philistines when Jonathan came against it with his armour bearer (I Sam 14:15), the Scripture noting that
‘...the earth quaked; and it became a very great panic’
where a literal earthquake isn’t necessarily being indicated. It was the widespread nature of the fear that had descended upon them that’s spoken of as something that had descended upon the entire land.
This interpretation fits the context of Amos 8:8 but, there again, so does the idea of mourning in distress (the next few words speak of the people mourning, so paralleling it for the land wouldn’t be unusual) and it’s used this way in II Sam 18:33 when David is ‘deeply moved’ because his son, Absalom, has been killed. We might also imagine that it’s an indication of God’s anger against the nation’s sin for it’s used this way in II Sam 22:8 when David describes YHWH’s reaction to himself being under pressure and afflicted. He writes that
‘...the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations of the heavens trembled and quaked, because He was angry’
And, finally, the word is also used to describe the reaction of Creation to God’s presence in Ps 77:18 (and, therefore, the correct response of man to His presence). None of these interpretations would be out of place in Amos 8:8 and it seems incorrect of us to deny any - Scripture is a multi-faceted work that can throw up various meanings that can all be correct.
Perhaps the prime meaning would be a personification of the land shaking in fear and trepidation at the approach of YHWH in judgment but it certainly shouldn’t be taken to mean, as Amstu writes, that
‘The land will be a death trap for its inhabitants’
The interpretation must be more figurative than literal.
The idea of the inhabitants of the land ‘mourning’ shouldn’t be thought of as being a nation remorseful and convicted of its sin but, rather, a people who’ve had God’s judgment fall upon them and who are bereft in their loss. While there may be some who would perceive that what’s come upon them is sent by God Himself, death, exile and destruction of their material possessions would surely be uppermost in most of the Israelites’ minds.
Finally, in a puzzling turn of phrase, YHWH announces that all the land will
‘...rise like the Nile - and be tossed about and sink again like the Nile of Egypt’
where Amstu notes that the phrase ‘be tossed about’
‘...is reflected only in late Greek evidence. With some Hebrew manuscripts, it should be deleted as an (unmetrical) gloss’
This same phrase doesn’t occur in the parallel passage of Amos 9:5 but as to its right to be here in 8:8, it’s difficult to be certain one way or the other. It certainly doesn’t appear to fit in with the flood cycle of the Nile that’s being described.
The Nile’s rising, flooding and subsiding brought increased fertility to the land during the year although it seems necessary to note that some level of devastation must also have taken place - that Egyptian farmers were used to the floods would make us accept that destruction was largely planned for and anticipated and seen to be a blessing rather than a curse.
Even though Amstu is inclined to see in the floods the idea of destruction being taken to apply to Israel (a concept that’s apparent elsewhere in Amos), Amhub sees the use of the imagery only to show the ‘massiveness’ of the work of God directed against His people (I’ve assumed the application for, although he declares ‘scope’ as the reason for its use, he doesn’t then go on to apply it to the passage).
The idea, however, seems to be that the land and its inhabitants are what’s being mentioned as rising like the Nile and sinking again - we’re not introduced to the way the floods overwhelm the land and which would be used as a word of destruction against God’s own people.
But in what way can God say that ‘on this account’ of Israel’s deeds and His own unforgetfulness of their sin that they would rise and fall like the waters of the Nile?
The only explanation that seems to make sense here is that God was predicting the laying low of the greatness of the kingdom of Israel who now prided herself as being the ‘first of the nations’ (Amos 6:1). God may well be seen to be the One who had raised the nation up to its position amongst the others that lay round about (II Kings 14:25-27) but, because of their misuse of His resources and provision, they would soon sink down to be nothing once more.
A man’s fate is entirely dependent upon the mercy of God and should never be thought of as a product purely of his own self-effort and skill. YHWH has merely to give the word and what was considered to be secure and immovable is shaken away.
It doesn’t matter that the present day Church looks secure and established if in its dealings with its brethren it’s oppressing and deceiving them. Although it might regard itself as secure, if there are cracks in the foundations, the entire structure will inevitably crumble.
It’s only a matter of time, God’s time, before He’ll advance upon His people to show that He’s not forgotten any of their deeds before Him. Prosperity may well increase within the Church but it’s no sign of our obedience, only of God’s grace. It’s as we use that resource for the benefit of our fellow believers that God sees the obedience of our lives.
This is a difficult verse to interpret and I offer this explanation only tentatively. Some of the section has been adapted from my previous web page.
The opening phrase ‘on that day’ ties in the following two verses to be fulfilled at the time of the previous judgment of Amos 8:7-8 when God would finally come against the land and overthrow it because of the nation’s sin. Although we might see the repeated invasion of the Assyrians into Israelite territory after the death of king Jeroboam as a progressive fulfilment of judgment, it surely must refer to the time surrounding 722BC when the Assyrian army finally overthrew the people and the land, taking sole possession.
Therefore, Amstu’s statement (my italics) that the phrase
‘...introduces events certain to come but in the indefinite future’
is somewhat misleading. Perhaps it’s because a literal fulfilment of the sun going down at noon and the earth being darkened in broad daylight can’t be thought to have occurred during the fall of Samaria that such a position is taken - but no explanation is given.
Amhub tends towards a literal interpretation of the statements and notes that solar eclipses took place in both 784BC and 763BC (the former being just a little too early to be thought of as occurring after the prophet’s message) and, although he still maintains that a real reduction in light is meant, he hedges his bets by noting that
‘While this context seems to suggest an eclipse, the very presence of Yahweh was often accompanied by clouds of smoke that might obscure the sun...’
If the dates cited by Amhub are correct, we should at the very least note that when the eclipse of 763BC took place, accompanied by the earthquake that occurred two years after Amos’ delivery (or, after the start of his delivery) of the prophetic messages (Amos 1:1), then the nation must have been stirred to consider the message, even perplexed as to whether that time was the one about which the prophet spoke.
But, like Amhub and Amstu, are we to take the mention of the sun going down and the earth (perhaps, better, the land) being darkened as a literal event that would signify the outpouring of God’s judgment upon them? We can’t accept Amstu’s belief that the days about which this verse is speaking refers to the ‘indefinite future’ for the descriptor that attaches them to ‘that day’ seems plain enough that the overthrow of the land must be meant.
The problem with the interpretation of all prophetic messages of times past that have gone beyond the day about which they spoke of, is that we’re tempted to believe that what has been prophesied must have taken place and to either interpret the facts of known history to fulfil the message or to insist that it must have been so even if the evidence contradicts.
But prophecy isn’t prewritten history (as I showed on my web site here) and the challenge to each and every Bible commentator is to stand alongside the recipients of the original message and ask themselves what it was that they understood by the message that came to them, realising that God speaks into people’s lives to be understood, not to confuse the issue so that no one can perceive what He’s trying to say.
We’ve already encountered the themes of ‘light and darkness’ in Amos 5:18-20 where the day of YHWH against the land is spoken of as being only the latter even though the nation seemed to have understood it to be a time when they would receive vindication, deliverance and increased material wealth. The day of YHWH, then
‘...is darkness and not light...and gloom with no brightness in it’
where calamity falls upon the inhabitants of the land even though they make haste to flee from the terror that they can see coming upon them. Although what Amos actually means by the terms ‘darkness’ and ‘light’ could have various possibilities if we grabbed at meanings from other places in the OT, it’s better to allow Amos 5:19 to define for us what the contrast between ‘darkness’ and ‘light’ actually means in context.
The man in the verse is attempting to flee danger and yet, each time he thinks he’s found salvation and safety, he runs into yet more trouble, ultimately being confronted by an enemy from which there’s no escape. Therefore, as Amhub notes on this previous verse, darkness and light could be substituted by
‘…disaster and safety’
or, as Amstu concludes, Amos’ words teach the listener that
‘The northern kingdom was awaiting devastation, not deliverance’
from which there was absolutely no natural means of escape. The themes of ‘darkness and light’ are parallel to others of ‘good and evil’ where neither is to be thought of with either moral or immoral concepts - when ‘good’ comes to a man, it’s the same as saying that something has happened which he finds pleasing or beneficial while, when evil befalls him, it’s something that brings him distress or loss (that’s why God can be thought of as doing evil against man in a fair few places in the OT. There’s no concept of ‘sin’ that’s inherent in the use of the Hebrew word translated ‘evil’ except by context).
We would better understand Amos 8:9, therefore, to be speaking about destruction coming upon a land and people who were at prosperous ease, rejoicing in the ‘light’ of their own experiences and wealth. Although the traders were experiencing an increase through their practices, suddenly disaster would come upon them, when the cities in which they plied their business would be laid low and the supply of food cut off in their midst.
So, their light would suddenly and unexpectedly turn to darkness and the light by which they once walked would be reduced to night when men and women can’t see clearly enough to be about their business.
One of the curses declared against the people of Israel in the Mosaic Law (Deut 28:28-29) was that
‘YHWH will smite you with madness and blindness and confusion of mind; and you shall grope at noonday, as the blind grope in darkness, and you shall not prosper in your ways; and you shall be only oppressed and robbed continually, and there shall be no one to help you’
where ‘blindness in full sun’ is indicative of a people unable to see the way forward to deliver them from the terror that’s being experienced, their lives being ‘darkened’ by the judgment that’s fallen on both them and their land.
As already mentioned, there’s also the idea of the suddenness and unexpectedness of the darkness that would descend upon the land where the prospects before them would indicate continued wealth and prosperity - in other words, although their sin guaranteed the judgment to come, economic pointers merely suggested that they’d get richer and stronger with no possibility that their life would be catastrophically annihilated in such a short space of time.
Paul wrote similar words in I Thess 5:3 about the full and final outworking of the Day of YHWH when Jesus is to return and here the saying holds true that
‘When people say “There is peace and security” then sudden destruction will come upon them as travail comes upon a woman with child, and there will be no escape’
It doesn’t matter that natural signs can’t be seen when the spiritual ones are obvious to all, and it’s the latter that make the judgment inevitable, only questioning the time of its outworking.
The transformation of the nation
From having light to live by, the Israelites were to suddenly be in darkness (Amos 8:9), groping about for direction and purpose, unable to flee from the destruction of judgment that was descending upon them. This verse continues that theme with three pairs of couplets that describe the effects of ‘that day’ when YHWH would fully and finally satisfy His anger against His people.
These three pairs of observations are in the areas of the transformation of objects held dear (Amos 8:10a), the grief of their experience (Amos 8:10b) and the reality that the day has brought to the nation (Amos 8:10c).
Firstly, then, God was going to transform those things within the nation that were points of joy into mourning and lamentation although, specifically, He mentions their religious ceremonies and expressions of praise that He’s previously commented on in Amos 5:21-24, a point within the nation that God declares to despise.
Religious ceremony was all well and good for a people who were being obedient to the demands of the covenant for then they became expressions of their devotion and commitment to do what was right within His society but when care for their brethren was flaunted, there was no way that God was ever going to delight in the way they demonstrated their commitment to Him.
Rather, they should have
‘...let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’
Therefore, God transforms their religious experience from the joy of their festivals to the mourning of loss and from the exuberance of songs of praise to the heart felt cries of lamentation at the loss and destruction all around them.
We must wake up to the truth of these words and their application to our modern day Church meetings for it can look like we’re obediently coming together as God’s people, observing the need to return praise to Him, gathering together to hear ‘God’s word’ to us and yet, in reality, we’re living as enemies of the cross because others for whom Jesus Christ has died are being given less than they deserve to receive.
It’s all very well professing our love for God but, if we deal deceitfully with the brethren for whom He died, our love is seen to be nothing less than hatred (I John 3:17, 4:20). It’s much better that a man or woman lives peaceably with his fellow believer and sits quietly at the back of the meeting doing their knitting than it is for them to be the loudest and most exuberant in the services but fail to live a life of love.
Having mentioned the transformation of light into darkness, God moves on to two straightforward declarations that there’ll be widespread mourning and distress in the land (Amos 8:10b).
The wearing of sackcloth (a coarse and cheap material that expressed frailty and humility, especially when joined together with ‘ashes’ even though it appears to have been a regular part of daily clothing) is frequently employed in the OT to display a person who’s mourning (Gen 37:34, II Sam 3:31, 21:10, Ps 30:11, Joel 1:8) or one who’s in distress and affliction (I Kings 20:31-32, 21:27, II Kings 6:30, 19:1-2, I Chron 21:16, Neh 9:1, Esther 4:1-4, Job 16:15, Ps 35:13, 69:11, Is 32:11, 37:1-2, 58:5, Jer 4:8, 6:26, 49:3, Lam 2:10, Dan 9:3, Joel 1:13, Jonah 3:5-8).
Baldness, similarly, was something done to express the loss of a loved one (Deut 14:1, Jer 16:6 - the first of these two Scriptures commands the Israelites not to make themselves bald for the dead) and indicated distress (Jer 47:5, Micah 1:6). It also appears to have been a mark of disgrace and shame in some sections of society for it was also used as a taunt (II Kings 2:23).
Both concepts of being bald and wearing sackcloth are combined in a handful of Scriptures that show us how they can both be used to express shame, mourning and distress (Is 3:24, 15:2-3, 22:12, Jer 48:37, Ezek 7:18, 27:31). The use of both here in Amos 8:10b is a classic use denoting distress, anguish and sorrow although there may also be a hint at poverty in the mention of ‘sackcloth’ for it was one of the cheapest of garments.
Finally, God notes (Amos 8:10c) that He’ll make the day of judgment
‘...like the mourning for an only son and the end of it like a bitter day’
To lose one’s only son was a point of excessive distress for it was in him that one’s own name was to be perpetuated throughout subsequent generations. In Israelite society, it didn’t matter that one might have a dozen daughters because the name of the father would be wiped out from under Heaven if he failed to have a male offspring that would marry and raise up children. Therefore, mourning would be exceptionally expressive and distressful should the single son of a family die before he’d perpetuated the name.
Not only this but, in an age when there was no social security system, an only son represented provision for the parents’ old age (and why the death of the widow of Nain’s son was so sad, for she now had no means of support - Luke 7:11-15).
Like that, says YHWH, will be the mourning on that day (see also Jer 6:26).
Therefore, God’s command that Abraham sacrificed his only son on Mount Moriah was all the more difficult to do because it was, in effect, a call to finish his genealogical line (Gen 22:2,12,16, Heb 11:17-19 - although Abraham did come to the point of realising that God was able to raise his son from the dead). And what Abraham was asked to do, God Himself did in Jesus Christ (John 3:16, I John 4:9).
The end of the time is further described as being like ‘a bitter day’ where Amstu explains it well. He writes that
‘A bitter day...is one that ends in hopelessness’
so that, far from the time of judgment being over and finished, something from which one could move on from into the dawning of light, there remains nothing on the horizon that provides hope. As a modern day proverb says
‘The light at the end of the tunnel has been switched off...’
God portrays the day of judgment as a time of absolute despair and hopelessness, when those things that His people have relied upon and delighted in shall be removed from them. And all because they refused to live lives of righteousness and justice.
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