Background

Amos’ name likely means “burden” or “bearer of burden.” One hardship he had to bear was the task of proclaiming divine law and indictment to a wicked, impenitent nation. The book is 95% Law and only 5% Gospel. This Amos should not be confused with Amoz, the father of Isaiah. Amos was not “prophetically trained” or endorsed by the church leaders. He was a “herder” of sheep and possibly cattle and a cultivator of sycamore figs (Am 1:1, 7:14). He was from Tekoa, 5-6 miles south of Bethlehem, but his messages were directed primarily at the Northern Kingdom.  From his occupation and from the absence of his father’s name, it is often assumed that Amos came from an obscure and poor family. On the other hand, his communication skills and depth of knowledge strongly argue against his being a typical “poor peasant.” He obviously knew the Pentateuch well, in content and literary expression, and his message has been described as a “masterpiece of rhetorical skill.”1The introductory information on this page is adapted from Professor Emeritus Forrest Bivens’ course notes for Senior Old Testament Isagogics at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. Used with permission.

Amos served during the reigns of Uzziah (Azariah), 792-740 BC, and Jeroboam II, 793-753 BC. This was a period of striking contrasts. On the one hand there was political stability and strength combined with economic prosperity. On the other hand, this was a time of spiritual apostasy and decay along with formalism, social injustice, oppression, and exploitation. (For more background information, see 2 Kings 14:17-15:7 and 2 Chronicles 26.)

See also the Chronology of the Old Testament Kings, the Chronology of the Prophets, and the Chronology of Latter Prophets and Intertestamental Period.

Authorship

Amos testified boldly at Bethel, a main worship center of the Northern Kingdom until Amaziah, chief priest at Bethel, reported him to Jeroboam II as a traitor. Amos was expelled from that country (see Am 7:10-15). It was likely after his return to the southern kingdom that he committed to writing this summary of his prophecies. An acceptable estimated time of composition would be about 760-750 BC (basically the same time as Jonah). Hosea would be a younger contemporary and successor of Amos. (The reference to the earthquake in Amos 1:1 does not help us pinpoint the start of his ministry since we do not know when the disaster occurred.)

Purpose for Writing

The repeated and obvious thrust of the book is the judgment on Israel because of the people’s unfaithfulness toward God and their fellow man. He also addressed the sins of the Southern Kingdom as well as those of surrounding nations. Several distinct echoes of the Pentateuch are heard, especially in advocating and calling Israel back to the Mosaic covenant stipulations or law codes. “Shepherd for Social Justice” is one nickname given to Amos – a fitting role considering the social conditions that prevailed during his lifetime. As were other Old Testament prophets, Amos was a firm opponent of religious formalism and ritual without righteousness. Only at the end of the book does he speak distinctly of restoration and blessing through the Messiah and David’s family (Am 9:11-15).

Amos is quoted twice in the New Testament. Stephen cites Amos 5:25-27 as he performs a ministry parallel to that of Amos and indicts the hard-hearted Jews of his day (Acts 7:42-43), and James uses words from the Messianic promise (Am 9:11-12) in emphasizing the participation and freedom of Gentiles in the New Testament church (Acts 15:10). Law and Gospel through the faithful prophet were made to ring out clearly centuries later.

Content

Amos is commonly grouped with Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah – the foursome who most epitomize the so-called “golden age” of Old Testament classical prophecy. They are stylistically distinct from the earliest of the “writing prophets” (Obadiah, Joel, Jonah). Amos, for example, uses several classic types of oracles, such as judgment (Am 2:6-8), instruction (Am 5:4-5), repentance (Am 5:4-10), and woe/indictment (Am 5:18) utterances. Repetition and rhetorical questions abound. There are so-called “formulas” or speech forms used: proclamation (“Hear,” Am 3:1, 4:1, 5:1), revelation (“the Lord showed me,” Am 7:1), and oath (“the Lord has sworn,” Am 4:2).

Christ Connection

After the prophecies of Israel’s destruction, we see the gospel promise of a Savior in Amos 9:11-12, “In that day I will restore David’s fallen tent. I will repair its broken places, restore its ruins and build it as it used to be, so that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations that bear my name,” declares the Lord, who will do these things. The restoration of this tent culminates with Jesus, the Son of David, our Savior and king. Just as God’s expectation extends equally across the world, so does God’s love and promise of restoration, fulfilled for us in Jesus.

Notable Passages

  • Amos 3:7-8
  • Amos 4:6-11
  • Amos 4:12-13
  • Amos 5:4
  • Amos 5:12-13
  • Amos 5:14-15
  • Amos 5:24
  • Amos 8:9
  • Amos 8:11-12
  • Amos 9:11-12

Outline

Simple Progression of content:

  1. Eight Oracles Against the Nations (Am 1-2)
  2. Five Oracles against Israel and its People (Am 3-6)
  3. Five Vivid Visions of Israel’s Fate (Am 7-9:10)
  4. The Promise of Messianic Restoration & Blessing (Am 9:11-15)

A number of scholars point to a “sevenfold structuring” used throughout the book, that is, they notice seven units using various literary devices. The entire book may be viewed as consisting of seven symmetrically arranged main units, as does David Dorsey with a seven-part symmetrical centering:

a Coming judgment on Israel and its neighbors (Am 1:1-2:16)

b The prophet’s compulsion: destruction of Israel & Bethel (Am 3:1-15)

c Condemnation of wealthy women & empty religious activity (Am 4:1-13)

d Center: Call to repentance and lament (Am 5:1-17)

c’ Condemnation of wealthy men & empty religious activity (Am 5:18-6:14)

b’ The prophet’s compulsion: destruction of Bethel’s cult center (Amos 7:1-8:3)

a’ Coming judgment on Israel and future restoration (Amos 8:4-9:15)2Dorsey, David A. The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis-Malachi. 277-78.

References   [ + ]

1. The introductory information on this page is adapted from Professor Emeritus Forrest Bivens’ course notes for Senior Old Testament Isagogics at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. Used with permission.
2. Dorsey, David A. The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis-Malachi. 277-78.