The vision of God
1. What Amos saw
2. What Amos heard
There’s no escape
I will do you evil, not good
Amos 9:1 is the fifth of the five visions of the Book of Amos and is different in character from the first four (which divide themselves into two similar pairs - 7:1-3 with 7:4-6, 7:7-9 with 8:1-3), so significantly that there appears to be no good reason to consider 9:1 as the ‘concluding’ vision that’s attach to what’s preceded it.
As such, we can interpret the vision as introducing the remaining text of the chapter until the completion of the Book and, although I’ve divided the verses up into more manageable chunks, this isn’t meant to suggest to the reader that they were originally delivered to the nation of Israel on three separate occasions.
The first four have all had YHWH ‘show’ the prophet something that he either reacted to and pleaded that God might not bring what was seen upon the nation or was asked what he saw that an interpretation might be placed upon the vision. Amos 9:1, however, is simply something that ‘happens’ - Amos sees God standing before Him (assuming he was already close to the altar in question) - and the pronouncement needs nothing more than that he should pay attention and listen.
In the first four, also, God shows Amos objects and it’s these that become the important item of the visions (7:1 - locusts, 7:4 - fire, 7:7 - tin, 8:1 - a basket of summer fruit) but, in 9:1, it’s God Himself who’s the central point of the vision, even though His position along with the altar is important.
Although YHWH speaks of a total and complete judgment upon the people in this chapter (9:2-4), we should, rather, understand it to be God’s word against the worshippers of the sanctuaries, for 9:1 seems to demand such an interpretation. More so because the restoration of the nation noted in 9:14 must have some survivors left from which to select those who would return to the land and 9:8 says that Jacob would not be destroyed totally, without survivor.
Although there would be widespread slaughter in the land (for example, Amos 5:3, 6:9, 8:3), there were still some who’d make it into exile (Amos 4:2-3, 6:7) and others who appear to have fled south to seek refuge amongst the southern kingdom of Judah just across the border (and from whom they’d split, years earlier).
So, Amos 9:1-6 should definitely be taken as a word against the worshippers of the sanctuaries (or, perhaps better, ‘sanctuary’ as only one seems to be indicated in the opening verse) though, from 9:7, the words are expanded to be dealing with the entire nation (the verse speaks to the ‘people of Israel’).
We should note carefully that, on the two occasions when we read in the text that Amos sees ‘YHWH’, he doesn’t use the Divine name to identify Him but, rather, the Hebrew word for ‘Lord’. Therefore, he tells us (Amos 7:7) that he saw
‘…the Lord…standing beside a tin wall’
and, in contradiction to the RSV’s translation of 9:1, that he
‘…saw the Lord standing beside the altar…’
We shouldn’t miss the significance of this change for there can be no doubt that what Amos sees, he recognises as a human form but he seems to hesitate in using the Divine name, YHWH, to describe Him.
However, the way the verses continue, it’s also apparent that Amos understands the vision of the man to be none other than YHWH (especially in 9:1 where the words are quoted as being said by Him and there’s no one else in the vision that they could be attributed to, as opposed to 7:7-9 where the Lord and YHWH could have been thought of as being two distinct people, if pressed).
Neither ‘Lord’ nor ‘YHWH’ are wrong here - and neither can we state that Amos sees YHWH as less than the sum total of His character when he assesses His presence in human form. All that we can say here is that Amos is hesitant in speaking of the Man who’s God as being YHWH and chooses a word that He feels to be safer.
Amos couldn’t possibly have understood what was to happen hundreds of years later when the Lord seen would be none other than YHWH Himself - he hesitates at the identification and chooses to use a word which is equally as applicable but not quite as inclusive of all that He could have expressed.
If Amos had declared the human form to be YHWH (as indeed He was), he would have taken that final step of faith needed and, though he may not have understood the implications of the vision, He would have said something much bolder than the passages can be taken to say as they stand.
It’s only in the NT that the realisation comes to the believer that what Amos saw must have been a personification of YHWH as a man and that it was possible that YHWH might do this without undermining His Deity. In Jesus Christ, then, the God-man, we see a fulfilment of the Person of the vision that Amos didn’t feel comfortable in being able to identify as YHWH.
The vision of God
Before we can progress to consider the direct speech of YHWH commanding judgment to be poured out, there are a number of preliminary points that need dealing with. I’ve divided this section up into an explanation of the opening handful of words that Amos records for us as to the vision that he saw before going on to explain the actual prophetic word that was declared to him by YHWH.
1. What Amos saw
As I’ve said already in the introduction above, the RSV’s rendering of the Hebrew as
‘I saw YHWH...’
is incorrect and should be read as
‘I saw the Lord...’
for no attribution of the Divine name is made by the prophet to the person that he now sees standing in front of him. As I also noted above, there’s something that such a label tells us about Amos and how the concept of YHWH appearing in human form seems to have remained a puzzle to him so that he remains hesitant to say what He knows his eyes are witnessing.
A question to decide on is where God is in relation to the altar mentioned. The RSV opts for ‘beside’ while Amstu follows closely with the preposition ‘by’. It’s only Amhub who notes that we could read ‘upon’, ‘beside’, ‘by’ or ‘above’ with equal justification but that
‘The overall tone of sovereignty, especially in the issuing in the commands of destruction, suggests the position of authority - “above” or “upon”...’
I shall be following the normal translation of ‘beside’, however, simply because I don’t see any difference in meaning that’s given by any of the suggested prepositions. That God is sovereign over the land is clear from His command to have judgment executed, it isn’t dependent upon Him being imposed upon the altar for, if we understand the command to destroy the sanctuary building correctly, His position over that building would have been more in keeping with the idea of Him as the Sovereign who’s executing His right as King to rule in His Kingdom as He sees fit.
Two other visions of YHWH in the OT that proclaim His authority and sovereignty each have Him sat upon the throne (II Chron 18:18, Is 6:1), the former of which would probably have been known to Amos (it certainly took place before the time in which he prophesied to Israel).
Had God wanted to declare His sovereignty clearly, revealing Himself to Amos as over the altar certainly wasn’t one of them for He was still under the heights of the sanctuary structure.
Besides, would it have been good imagery to depict Himself as enthroned upon the altar that He’d announced judgment against (Amos 3:14 - assuming that it was Bethel’s altar that was being witnessed)? Such a vision would have made it appear as if He was taking delight in the offerings being sacrificed there. There seems to be no good reason why the RSV shouldn’t be followed, therefore.
The real significance is in YHWH being seen to be standing, something that tends to get missed in the various other interpretations that need to be made. The contrast is well brought out in Heb 10:11-12 (my italics) where, comparing the Old Covenant to the New, the author writes
‘...every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, He sat down at the right hand of God...’
The ‘standing’ of the priest indicates continued service and work whereas the sitting down of Jesus demonstrates to the reader that the work has been completed for all that needs to be done has been.
The imagery of the Lord standing beside the altar, then, indicates that there’s work to be done and, though He could have been sat upon the throne issuing the order to those under Him, He’s taking an active part in the judgment that will fall upon His people.
Even though the command does go out to ‘smite and shatter’ (a command that’s object-less and may well have been a command spoken for Amos’ benefit to make him aware of what was shortly to take place rather than for us to envisage angels receiving the order and moving into action), God commits Himself to go after those who are left ‘with the sword’.
God is seen, therefore, not as an absentee landlord but as one who gets involved personally in the affairs of His subjects. Notice how God speaks of Israel as ‘My people’ even when He has a word of judgment against them (Amos 7:8,15, 8:2, 9:10), a point that shows us that God’s message of judgment didn’t come upon a people who God was disowning from ever knowing Him but upon a people who were very much ‘His’ but who weren’t living out the reality of that calling.
Finally, we need to ask ourselves which altar is being portrayed here. And this is probably the hardest and most perplexing question of them all.
To Amos, there could only have been one altar - the altar of burnt offering at Jerusalem where God’s one true place of sacrifice was constructed inside the Temple - and, had he received the vision while he was back in his home town of Tekoa, it wouldn’t have been difficult to see that his interpretation of the matter would have concerned that sanctuary.
But he’s been sent to the northern kingdom - spent all his prophetic time there as far as we can tell - and perhaps it’s better to understand it to refer to a sanctuary in Israel such as Bethel where his altercation with the high priest has taken place (Amos 7:10).
Alternatively, it could be that the altar is meant to be generic for all the altars upon which Israel offered up sacrifice to Him throughout their territory.
It seems best to take two of these possibilities and roll them together for it seems strange that God would only pronounce judgment against one place of sacrifice and not the others (although He does this very thing in Amos 3:14). Therefore, we should see God’s declaration that follows to be a word of judgment pronounced against all the sanctuaries of the Israelite kingdom but expressed in language that describes the structures at Bethel.
It’s this sanctuary - because Amos seems still to have been prophesying there - that’s used as the place that becomes representative of the whole.
The subject matter is plain, though, even if we stumble over the exact details of what it is that Amos sees - God is coming to the sanctuary (because of His previous declaration that He would - Amos 4:12, 5:17) to execute judgment against His own people. Here, then, we have a special visitation of YHWH as He singles out the sanctuary and its worshippers for personal judgment.
2. What Amos heard
YHWH calls for action against the capitals of the sanctuary building at Bethel (where this sanctuary has been interpreted above to be representative of the whole group of centres of sacrifice scattered throughout the kingdom - but especially the ones at Dan, Bethel and Gilgal that have been previously mentioned by the prophet prior to this vision. Beersheba must be thought of as omitted because it lay in Judahite territory), striking only the ‘capitals’ of the building and nothing more even though we might picture Him running amok over the length and breadth of the entire place.
The ‘capitals’ were the topmost points of the supporting pillars, but the prophetic word says simply that they were to be smitten or struck so that, in the next phrase, they’re interpreted as ‘shattering’.
Although the word translated ‘capitals’ is in the singular here (Strongs Hebrew number 3730, M1029), it’s possible that the construction of Israel’s sanctuaries had a central pillar that was considered to be the kingpin of the entire structure. In the only other place where the word means ‘capitals’ (Zeph 2:14 - the other sixteen occurrences of the word have to do with the bulbous features on the lampstand), it’s in the plural, but whether we take the Hebrew as it stands in Amos or interpret it to mean that more than one pillar is meant, there doesn’t appear to be too much difference in meaning.
If the supporting pillars are destroyed, therefore, Amstu is correct to note that
‘…their destruction indicated full-scale demolition’
It’s the smiting of these capitals that eventually causes the thresholds to shake, a part of the building that Amstu identifies as
‘…the cut stone bases for the door posts’
so that we get an idea of the fullness of the effect of the action - the capitals and thresholds should be thought of as being as far apart as any other two parts of the building so that the effect of the assault is seen to encompass the entire structure. Or, perhaps more fully, from the point at which the building began (the entry into the temple that the threshold symbolised) to the point furthest away from that entry point, the loftiest place imaginable.
Even if we take the word ‘capitals’ as being in the singular, the point is still the same - God’s single striking action against the building was to have its effect on every part of its construction.
If this description was an accurate one of the structure of the temple at Bethel, then sacrifice and some of the other festivities associated with religious observance may well have taken place within a building rather than in the open air as it did in the Temple at Jerusalem, something that Amstu identifies as being identical to the Canaanite style of sacrifice.
But why are the capitals struck first? If we were trying to destroy a building, we’d necessarily aim at the foundation stones that the rest might cave in. But God attacks from heaven so that the origin of the judgment can be seen to be none other than the One whom His people claim as their own. Amhub (my italics) comments that
‘The sanctuary is to collapse from top to bottom…a further sign that a Divine act like an earthquake is in view rather than a military assault’
but this is incorrect. If destruction comes from the ‘capitals’ to the ‘threshold’ - that is, from top to bottom - how could it ever have been thought of as being a natural disaster such as an earthquake that strikes ‘from bottom to top’? Similarly, while Samson destroys the temple of Dagon from base upwards (Judges 16:29-30), God destroys the sanctuary at Bethel from roof to floor.
When the destruction was to finally overtake all the sanctuaries within the land of Israel, no matter how their end came about (that is, no matter by what agency), the prophetic word had already proclaimed that it was a judgment that had been sent by God upon them.
Having shown the all inclusiveness of the single act of God upon the entire structure of the sanctuaries of the land, YHWH goes on to speak of the shattering of the building upon
‘…the heads of all the people’
or, perhaps better, upon the heads of all those present within the building who’ve come there to offer sacrifice. The Hebrew runs that they were to
‘…shatter them [the capitals] on the heads of all of them’
where the RSV interprets the second ‘them’ as being ‘the people’. This seems warranted because the following phrase speaks about those who are left as being pursued with the sword - it seems to be in keeping with how the pronouncement develops to think of the capitals being shattered upon the worshippers’ heads and then to speak of the survivors being slain.
And God will pursue His own people with the sword to wipe them out from the face of the earth, noting that the message here is specifically directed at the worshippers at the sanctuary for, later on, God will speak about survivors (Amos 9:8), an impossible thing to do if all have been killed.
So, although there was to be a widespread massacre throughout the land at the sanctuaries (an event that was only completely fulfilled under king Josiah of Judah many years after the fall of Samaria - I Kings 23:15-20 esp v.19-20), there would be those who escaped the initial attack but who wouldn’t escape the secondary judgment of the sword that would fall upon them (the theme of which is developed in the next three verses).
We must remember, however, that idolatry hasn’t been a major theme in the declaration of Amos to Israel but, rather, that the nation had refused to live lives of righteousness and justice towards their brothers.
God’s hatred of their religion only came to the fore because they’d imagined that it was in the offering of sacrifice, the celebration of the feasts and in the exuberant times of praise (Amos 4:4-5, 5:21-23) that they’d find acceptance before God.
So He’ll remove from them that which they’ve imagined will protect them against the evil of the Day of YHWH (Amos 5:18-20) and show them up for what they are - empty and impotent.
There’s no escape
Amos 9:1 has spoken to us of the destruction of the religious sanctuaries throughout the land of Israel, having presumably used a description of Bethel as the place that was representative of the whole. Even though YHWH’s destruction upon the buildings was to be complete and final, there would still be those who’d escape the initial attack but who’d lose their lives because God would pursue them with the sword.
Here in 9:2-4, we get a description of the extent of YHWH’s persistence in seeking them out. Amhub comments rightly that
‘By marking the extremes of God’s sovereignty...they include everything in between’
So, He’ll chase them from the lowest point of the universe (Sheol and not hell as some commentators and translators have insisted upon calling it. Sheol was the dwelling place of the dead, located ‘below’ the earth - 9:2a. See my notes here) to the highest point (Heaven - Amos 9:2b), a range that David also used in Ps 139:8 to indicate the impossibility of fleeing from God’s presence.
Amstu notes that the idea could also be
‘...to indicate the total area of God’s control, there being no place His sovereignty does not extend...’
and, because both fit equally well, neither should be discounted for the sake of the other.
God will also pursue His enemy from the most renowned of the mountains of the northern kingdom (Carmel, which is best understood to be indicative of the highest earthly point, even though it wasn’t - Amos 9:3a. Amstu describes the place as ‘...a high, densely forested peak overlooking the Mediterranean’ so that the inaccessibility of the place would be well paralleled by the bottom of the ocean that follows. Amhub, however, describes it as having ‘...caves and tombs [that] offered ample opportunity for hiding...’) to the deepest parts of the earth (the sea, where the ‘serpent’ would be commanded to hunt and kill - 9:3b. The same Hebrew word is used here for serpent as is employed in Amos 5:19 where, on the day of judgment, having fled all that’s come against him and feeling secure in the house, the man finds a serpent attacking him).
And, finally, God pursues His people both within the land (at the sanctuaries - 9:1) and once they’ve left Israelite territory (in exile - 9:4), showing that the curse isn’t tied to the land but is upon the people themselves. No matter where they go, there’s no escape from the sword of YHWH that will fulfil the judgment that has been promised regardless of anything that they can do to withdraw themselves from Him.
These descriptions laid out for the people’s considerations are meant to be symbolic of the extent to which YHWH was committed to go to destroy everyone who was participating in the religious life of the nation at the official sanctuaries.
Amhub (my italics) points out the worrying summation of these three verses that they teach Amos’ listeners that
‘[YHWH] is not going to abandon them but to remain present with them, not in the ritual of the cult but in the terror of judgment...’
God’s presence amongst His people, therefore, is seen to be a two-edged sword, upholding the righteous and just but actively seeking after those who live contrary to His will, the latter being the only one that’s applicable here.
I will do you evil, not good
There are two points that need to be made from the concluding words of Amos 9:4 that records the word of God as stating
‘...I will set My eyes upon them for evil and not for good’
Firstly, it shows us that God does evil, a statement that will probably have most of the readers of this web page running for a supply of stones to throw at me or to their address book to look up the phone number of their church leaders to suggest that they excommunicate me.
The problem, though, is not that the statement
‘God does evil’
is wrong but that our concept of what the word ‘evil’ means is incorrect and needs redefining by its use in the context of the Scriptures, for the Bible is plain that God can be thought of as One who does evil (even though the translators of most modern versions have done their best to paraphrase the passages where it’s stated with clarity so that they don’t shock anyone, no doubt), the concept appearing in at least eight places (Jer 18:8, 21:10, 23:12, 39:16, 44:11, Ezek 6:10, Amos 9:4, Micah 2:3).
All the translations ‘evil’ in the above cited Scriptures in the AV are from the normal word (Strongs Hebrew number 7451) that’s translated in other places as ‘evil’ where it’s associated with men and women doing ‘evil’. They aren’t mistranslations and I haven’t cited them to be read from versions that conveniently mistranslate the original texts.
When I speak on the subject of the ‘Love of God’ (see my notes so I don’t have to come to preach them, okay?), I normally begin with the question
‘Who believes that God can do evil?’
and, apart from my wife, no one puts their hand up. Once I’ve read the people the Scriptures, they don’t know whether to stone me or laugh at my insanity. The problem, though, lies with us and our concept of the word ‘evil’. We’ve defined that word as having a concept that can’t be separated from ‘sin’ so, when we hear the question, we think that we’re being asked whether God sins - so we answer ‘no’.
Indeed, we colour passages, phrases and words in the Bible by our concept, our preconceived ideas, our cultural interpretations. And, therefore, our concept of God and of His character is warped, distorted and, often times, a lie to the Truth.
So, God does do evil but where ‘evil’ is understood to be
‘something that a man doesn’t desire to happen to him’
Though the concept of ‘sin’ is often present when the word is used to describe what man does (that is, it becomes ‘something that God doesn’t desire to happen’), it shouldn’t be thought that the concept of evil is inevitably tied up with ‘sin’ - only the context of the passage can provide the right interpretation each time the word is used.
In the context of Amos 9:4, we should understand God to be saying that He will come against His own people in ways that they would run a thousand miles from, instead of Him arriving in their midst with blessing, prosperity and peace.
The second point that needs to be made is that the passage teaches us that God does evil against His own people. It’s fairly amazing that, even today, with the amount of information the Church has at its fingertips that it still runs away from what’s plain and obvious in the Scriptures.
We consider ourselves as the fulfilment of all that’s now come in Jesus Christ and get extremely excited when it hits home that God’s done so much for us in Him through the cross, resurrection and ascension - but then forget that such an unequalled position of privilege means that we have, like never before, an unequalled position of responsibility.
The OT is often either ignored or resigned to a position of secondary importance because of the ‘new’ that’s come and so we miss out on the words of warning that are given there. Not only this but we ignore the clear statements in the New Testament that God will kill His own people if they sin against Him by judging them (Acts 5:1-11, I Cor 11:27-32 - although the latter of these two Scriptures does note that He may only cause sickness to come upon them while death appears to be the final straw).
And we refuse to accept that those who’ve received the truth of the Gospel can decline to continue to possess what they once received. No matter how bad their lives become, we imagine that the possession of salvation is unrenounceable by a person’s moral choices, a doctrine that has the effect of undermining the need for the acquisition of the holiness without which no one will see God (Heb 12:14).
Plainly in Scripture (Heb 10:26-31) we read of those who’ve converted to follow Jesus Christ going on to decide that they needn’t be committed to do what’s right and can wander as far away as they want to, even turning their backs on Him totally. Such people, instead of being ‘saved’ and ‘eternally secure’ stand awaiting
‘...a fearful prospect of judgment and a fury of fire which will consume the adversaries. A man who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy at the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by the man who has spurned the Son of God, and profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace?...It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’
When the chosen people, God’s own possession in the earth, sinned against Him in the OT, they were judged. When His people in the New do exactly the same things, there remains a greater need for judgment because upon them has come the fulfilment of the promises that were only shadows in the Old, mere promises that they could only look forward to instead of tasting the reality.
So, instead of God removing the need to judge His people under the New Covenant, it becomes even more necessary. As the author to the Hebrews wrote in the previously cited passage and in quotation of a statement in the Old Testament applied to the believers in the New
‘The Lord will judge his people’
Therefore, whether we like to think of ourselves as having transferred from the need for judgment to experiencing the benefits of God’s grace or simply as ‘forgiven’ and eternally secure, the Scriptures deny it and our doctrines that ameliorate our fears are only delusions that will be shown up for what they are on the final Day, if we don’t turn to challenge them in the present.
The truth of both Old and New Testaments, then, is that God does evil against His own people because of their sin. Whether Jew or Gentile, male or female, it doesn’t matter - if we continually do those things that God is opposed to, there remains only judgment to look forward to.
The believer finds God’s intervention by judgment in the lives of His own as an imposition that seems unjust and unfair - after all, haven’t we all passed from being in a place of condemnation into a place of salvation, having been washed by Jesus’ work on the cross and given new power through faith in the resurrection? But those things that a man or woman set themselves to go after are the very things that they receive - whether good or evil.
Here in Amos, the evil that they’d loved and sought after - rather than taking it upon themselves to set their faces to do the good that God required them to do - was exactly what He was to grant them, and YHWH’s judgment must be seen to be more the granting of that which His people desired rather than an imposition of something upon them that they hadn’t been living out.
So, the children of God are told (Amos 5:14) to
‘Seek good and not evil that you may live...’
but their lives of evil mean that God also sets His eyes upon them
‘...for evil and not for good’
Reaping from the hand of God, therefore, is simply a result of what a person sows in and through their own life. As Paul says in Gal 6:8
‘...he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life’
where it’s obvious that a continued sowing ‘to the Spirit’ is necessary for the harvest of ‘eternal life’.
In conclusion, then, God will do those things against His own people that they don’t wish for if they continue to follow after the things that are opposed to His own will. And it’s God who’ll personally fight against them by judging them according to the things that they’ve done.
Even though many a congregation has blamed satan as the prime mover in the opposition that they’ve received and experienced, it needs a discerning eye to ascertain whether it really is his work or whether God has turned from passing them by (Amos 7:8, 8:2) to come into their midst (Amos 5:17) and judge His own (Amos 9:4).
This is the third of the doxologies after Amos 4:13 and 5:8-9, places where most commentators assume that Amos has taken part of Israelite or Judahite liturgy (such as the words of a well-known hymn) and introduced them into the text.
The point of the insertion of the two verses here seems to be warranted because the question may have been asked as to whether God was able to do what He’d just said in verses 1-4. Verses 5-6, therefore, answer that doubt with a straightforward ‘yes’ because His power over and activity in the Creation is such that to pursue individuals is much easier and simpler.
It also provides a transitionary passage between the words directed against the judgment of the religious in Amos 9:1-4 with the new judgment pronouncement that concerns the entire nation from Amos 9:7 onwards - and it can be understood to underpin both passages.
Amstu sees a different reason for the verses. He notes that
‘It appears that Amos was inspired to employ parts of this hymn in order to teach that Yahweh could use His power against Israel as well as for it’
although this ‘hymn fragment’ doesn’t actually do that in so many words. It simply notes the awesome power of YHWH over Creation but fails to directly apply it to the situation that was shortly to come upon the nation. While it can be assumed that it demonstrated that God had the power needed to do as He chose, it certainly didn’t teach, by itself, that the power would be used against His people.
Amstu goes on further to specify that the words of the hymn demonstrate God’s wrath and, although this appears to be an inference in at least part of it (it states in verse 5 that the inhabitants of the earth mourn), it isn’t plainly stated and the words are more declarative of His ability to change what men and women see around them as ‘fixed’.
The natural environment, therefore, demonstrates the power of YHWH (an echo of Rom 1:20). It’s He who melts the earth by the touch of His hand (presumably a way of speaking about volcanic activity but we shouldn’t neglect the possibility that mudslides and various kinds of avalanches are here in mind. After all, it’s difficult to imagine what sort of volcanic ‘experience’ the Israelites would have had in their own land), causing human mourning (which has to be interpreted as a sorrow at having been judged if it’s proposed that the doxology is being employed to speak of God’s purpose in judgment as Amstu has been shown to do above).
The passage moves on to speak of the annual cycle of the waters of the Nile that rose to flood the surrounding land and bring fertility to the farmland, falling again in due course.
This first verse has been used almost in its entirety earlier in Amos 8:8 although there are a couple of differences. The opening line that speaks about the earth melting here is changed to speak about the earth being shaken and it’s possible that ‘shaking’ and ‘melting’ are thought to be parallel actions of God where the former brings about the appearance of the earth melting, causing rocks to cascade down hillsides and large scale movements of geological features when they hit.
But the meaning is also different. Although the hymn is here used to declare God’s awesome power, we saw previously that the Nile rising and falling was more likely being employed to speak of the raising up and overthrow of the kingdoms of the earth. It seems wrong to take the declaration of God’s power here and force it to interpret the previous passage for the same event can be rightly used to speak of different characteristics of the nature of God.
The opening of verse 6 is puzzling and translations are more conjectured than factual. The RSV translates it that YHWH
‘...builds His upper chambers in the heavens and founds His vault upon the earth’
The least we can say is that something about the control and activity of God over the height and depth of Creation is being declared (the mention of God’s construction of something ‘in the heavens’ and ‘upon the earth’) but precisely what that was envisaged as being isn’t certain.
The word from which we get ‘upper chambers’ (Strongs Hebrew number 4609, M1624m) is better understood to hold the meaning ‘stairs’ or ‘steps’ and is used as the title to the fifteen songs of ‘ascents’ in the Psalms (Ps 120-134) where the idea of coming ‘up’ to Jerusalem or into the Temple Courts seem to be at the forefront of the mind.
But to speak of God building ‘stairs’ in the heavens doesn’t seem to give the reader an easy interpretation. For this reason, the RSV has emended the text slightly to give the meaning ‘roof chamber’ and this certainly would be in keeping with the idea of something constructed ‘above’.
The word translated ‘vault’ (Strongs Hebrew number 92, M15a) is even more puzzling, though, the root meaning seeming to be something that’s ‘bound’ or ‘clustered’ together (therefore, it’s used of a bunch of hyssop in Ex 12:22, of a group of men who came together as a fighting force in II Sam 2:25 and of the ropes that hold the burdens on God’s people in Is 58:6). Amstu opts for the word ‘storeroom’, the RSV goes for ‘vault’ but Amhub rightly notes that
‘...we do not have to have a photographic image of Amos’ scheme in order to catch its force’
When the hymn speaks of God ‘building above’ and ‘founding below’, the point is that His work encompasses all Creation - that the Master builder has constructed all that’s seen around them so that He’s at will to do within it whatever He pleases.
Finally, God is declared as the One who
‘...calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out upon the surface of the earth’
which occurs as an identical translation in the second doxology (Amos 5:8). We saw there that there was no reason to think of the verse as declaring judgment by flood but that Israel were well aware that the waters of the Mediterranean evaporated, condensed into clouds and rained upon their land.
The word here, then, speaks about God’s provision of His Creation, His active participation in those things that are needful to be done.
In conclusion, we should remind ourselves that these two verses serve the listener to realise that God’s ability to fulfil all that He’s declared about to do is sufficient and that, even though they’ve been using the words in their religious service, they haven’t yet hit home that they prove that what they might most fear about to happen is possible.
For an explanation of the title ‘God of Hosts’ see my previous notes in part 6 of the article entitled ‘Doxology’.
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