The Prophets: Amos 7 – When Mercy Fails

Amos 7 addresses the role of mercy in God’s judgment. The book of Amos begins by announcing punishments on nations near Israel (1:3-2:5). Each prophecy begins with a stereotyped introduction that includes the words “I will not turn away.” Then, punishments are pronounced on Israel – primarily for social injustice and false worship (2:6-6:14). The theological theme of these earlier chapters may be summarized by saying that God judges his people and punishes disobedience.

Amos 7:1-8:3, NIV

This is what the Sovereign Lord showed me: He was preparing swarms of locusts after the king’s share had been harvested and just as the second crop was coming up. {2} When they had stripped the land clean, I cried out, “Sovereign Lord, forgive! How can Jacob survive? He is so small!” {3} So the Lord relented. “This will not happen,” the Lord said. {4} This is what the Sovereign Lord showed me: The Sovereign Lord was calling for judgment by fire; it dried up the great deep and devoured the land. {5} Then I cried out, “Sovereign Lord, I beg you, stop! How can Jacob survive? He is so small!” {6} So the Lord relented. “This will not happen either,” the Sovereign Lord said.

{7} This is what he showed me: The Lord was standing by a wall that had been built true to plumb, with a plumb line in his hand. {8} And the Lord asked me, “What do you see, Amos?” “A plumb line,” I replied. Then the Lord said, “Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will spare them no longer. {9} “The high places of Isaac will be destroyed and the sanctuaries of Israel will be ruined; with my sword I will rise against the house of Jeroboam.”

{10} Then Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent a message to Jeroboam king of Israel: “Amos is raising a conspiracy against you in the very heart of Israel. The land cannot bear all his words. {11} For this is what Amos is saying: “‘Jeroboam will die by the sword, and Israel will surely go into exile, away from their native land.'” {12} Then Amaziah said to Amos, “Get out, you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there. {13} Don’t prophesy anymore at Bethel, because this is the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom.” {14} Amos answered Amaziah, “I was neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore-fig trees. {15} But the Lord took me from tending the flock and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ {16} Now then, hear the word of the Lord. You say, “‘Do not prophesy against Israel, and stop preaching against the house of Isaac.’ {17} “Therefore this is what the Lord says: “‘Your wife will become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and daughters will fall by the sword. Your land will be measured and divided up, and you yourself will die in a pagan country. And Israel will certainly go into exile, away from their native land.'”

{8:1} This is what the Sovereign Lord showed me: a basket of ripe fruit. {2} “What do you see, Amos?” he asked. “A basket of ripe fruit,” I answered. Then the Lord said to me, “The time is ripe for my people Israel; I will spare them no longer. {3} “In that day,” declares the Sovereign Lord, “the songs in the temple will turn to wailing. Many, many bodies — flung everywhere! Silence!”

Amos 7 focuses on a related issue. The first two visions (7:1-6) introduce an element of mercy; punishment can be relented. Amos pleads with God for mercy, and it is granted. Amos’ shift from “forgive” (7:2) to “cease” (7:5), however, subtly weakens the argument for mercy.

In the third vision (7:7-9), the vision requires explanation, and the explanation involves punishment. If the reader expected Amos to ask for mercy again, he finds instead that Amaziah interrupts and emphasizes the punishment (7:10-11). After two visions of mercy and a third vision in which mercy is missing, a logical question for the reader would be: Will God no longer have mercy?

Verses 10-17, the story of a confrontation between Amos and the priest of Bethel, provides an answer. Although at first it seems that the story interrupts the visions, it is literarily connected with them, especially the third vision.

Verses 8-9, the conclusion of the third vision, provide an emotional high point and a pivot for the chapter. Words in vv. 8-9 are repeated in vv. 10-17: “midst of my people Israel…midst of the house of Israel” (vv. 8, 10); “high places…sanctuaries…sanctuary…temple” (vv. 9, 13); “Isaac…Israel…Israel…Isaac” (vv. 9, 16, etc.); “house of Jeroboam…house of El…house of Israel…house of El…house of the kingdom…house of Isaac” (vv. 9, 10, 12, 16); “Jeroboam…Jeroboam…king’s” (vv. 9, 10, 12); “sword…sword…sword” (vv. 9, 11, 17). These recurring words connect vision three to the story of the confrontation between Amaziah and Amos.

Another indication that the confrontation account is connected to vision three is vision four (8:1-3), which is structurally similar to vision three. Among other similarities, these visions share the statement that God will not pass by Israel anymore (the opposite of the mercy shown in visions one and two). Visions three and four also share a use of symbols, explanations by the Lord of those symbols, and a poetic pronouncement of punishment. The Amaziah story is not at the end of a series of three visions, but rather is sandwiched between the third and fourth visions, visions of certain punishment rather than mercy. The Amaziah story must be seen in the context of those visions. The story itself emphasizes the certainty of punishment. Near the beginning of the story, and at its very end, is the clause, “Israel shall surely be led away captive from his own land.” First said by Amaziah, later confirmed by the Lord, this clause reinforces the sense of certainty.

The Amaziah story contrasts with visions one and two – in a way that visions three and four do not – in the role that intercession plays. Intercession, given a prominent role in visions one and two, has no counterpart in visions three and four. In visions one and two, the prophet intercedes with God on behalf of Israel, and God listens. Visions one and two could have presented God’s mercy simply as part of his inherent nature, but instead they present mercy as a response to the prophet’s intercession. In contrast, Amaziah makes no attempt to intercede for his people. He refuses to listen.

Amos has saved Israel twice, but Amaziah rejects the intercessory role of Amos. Amos asks God to cease, and Amaziah tells Amos to cease. Amos speaks for the Lord; Amaziah speaks for the king. Amos asks for mercy for the people; Amaziah’s request is for the king. Amos is not profiting from his prophecy, but Amaziah is acting in self-interest.

Amaziah represents the king. He reports to the king (vv. 10-11) and he says that the city and sanctuary are the king’s (v. 13). Amaziah’s complaints (vv. 10-11, 13) are political rather than religious. Both king and false priest oppose God’s prophet. They represent the whole nation, as shown by the parallelism of v. 9 (“of Isaac…of Israel…of Jeroboam”) and v. 11 (“Jeroboam…Israel…land”), Amaziah’s equation of Bethel with the king and kingdom (v. 13), and the fact that punishment is pronounced not only on Amaziah (v. 17a-e) but also on the whole nation (v. 17f).

The confrontation provides a setting for Amos to argue his authenticity as a prophet, but that is not its primary purpose. Amos’ authenticity is claimed in 1:1-2, 3:1, 3:8 and throughout the book. The story of Amos’ occupation and calling is in 7:14-15 primarily to contrast with Amaziah’s role as professional priest of the king and the kingdom. Whether Amos represents God is not in question here; what is highlighted is the fact that Amaziah rejects Amos.

Verse 13, the climax of Amaziah’s message, acts as a pivot point within the confrontation account. Amos turns it against Amaziah in v. 16. The punishment in v. 17 is prefaced by “therefore”; the reason was given in v. 16: Punishment will come because the nation, represented by king and priest, has rejected the preaching of God’s prophet. They exiled God’s prophet, so God will exile them. When people refuse to listen to God’s messengers, they have cut themselves off from correction. Their problems will only get worse. God has mercy as long as there is hope for change for the better, but mercy loses its purpose when the prophets are expelled from the land.

Israel’s problems were made worse by the temple at Bethel, which gave Israel the name of the Lord and the veneer of religion, but failed to address the people’s injustice and immorality. As long as Israel rejected the true prophets and listened instead to their own counterfeits, God could not teach them anything. So the deceptive places of worship would be destroyed (7:9). And, as we find later in the book, God would take even his name away from them (8:11).

This section of Amos (7:1-8:3) has two emotional climaxes. Vision one begins the section with a conciliatory tone (“forgive”); vision two (“cease”) is less conciliatory, more neutral. Vision three starts neutral (“setting a plumb line” = judging) and quickly turns condemnatory. The Amaziah story then reduces the emotional tone with some narrative indicating a reaction to the third vision and a request for the prophecies to stop. Then the story builds authority (God told me to do this) and delivers a strong pronouncement. Vision four follows with a graphic comment about many dead bodies being thrown out.

The Amaziah story serves several functions: 1) It explains that punishment has become certain because the prophet and his message have been rejected by the king-sponsored religious authority. 2) It contrasts Amos’ intercession for the people with Amaziah’s acting on behalf of the king. 3) It gives an emotional interlude that accentuates the graphic punishment pronounced in the fourth vision.

Application today

The primary theological message of the chapter is that God does not continually extend mercy to those who have hardened their hearts to reject his message and his messengers. Whether this principle applies in the new covenant is a question for further theological discussion, but the implication from this chapter is that people should listen to God’s inspired messengers.

God speaks to us today in two ways: through the Bible and through contemporary religious leaders. The Bible gives us a standard of right social conduct and worship. It announces that disobedience, including a refusal to trust God, will be punished. It also announces that mercy is generously available. God is merciful as long as we are willing to listen. However, if we reject the message (expel it from our kingdom, so to speak), there is not much hope for improvement, and mercy does not achieve its purpose. Our families will suffer, our inheritance will be given to others, we will die in an unclean condition, and our decision means that we will be outside of God’s kingdom (cf. v. 17). If we want mercy, as we all should, we must remain willing to listen.

Another ethical implication for individuals can be seen by noting the responsibility of civil and religious leaders, represented by Jeroboam and Amaziah, for their communities. The leaders’ decisions can cause the people to suffer. The individual may not be able to choose a different civil leader, but the individual can choose a different religious leader and can choose whether to follow the state religion. The individual has a responsibility to discern true leaders from false, true correction from false assurances of safety. Amos 7 does not tell us how to discern true ministers from false, but it reminds us that we should. We must be willing to listen to preachers and teachers of God’s truth, who have the responsibility of applying God’s word to contemporary situations. If we want mercy, if we want God to continue working in us, we must listen to God’s messengers.

Detailed outline of Amos 7


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