Amos 1:1 indicates that the prophet was at work during the reigns of two kings, Uzziah of Judah (783-742 BC) and Jeroboam II of Israel (786-746 BC). Although Amos was a native of the southern kingdom, the vast majority of his preaching addresses the situation in the northern kingdom.
On the surface, life during the period of Amos' ministry appeared to be going well. Jeroboam II was able to expand the boundaries of the northern kingdom, and Israelites, especially the urban upper classes, enjoyed the benefits of increasing trade, commerce, and wealth. These apparently positive developments, however, masked a number of deep-seated problems, including:
An increasing division between the rich and the poor: The increasing wealth that the nation was enjoying was not shared by all, but seems to have been concentrated on the upper echelons of Israelite society who lived in the larger cities. There began to emerge a growing disparity/distance between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have notes.
A lack of justice: Rather than being a source of protection for the weak and the poor, the courts in the city gates had become venues to further exploit and enslave the needy. The judicial process has been corrupted by the powerful and rich, who used the courts as a means of getting what they wanted.
Religious ritualism: The Israelite people appear to have been highly "religious," in the sense that they continued to flock to the shrines at festival times and to offer sacrifices. They appeared to be doing the right religious things, but it appears that such actions had become divorced from any sense of Yahweh's real (and threatening!) presence or expectation, and that those actions should be accompanied by just and ethical personal and social behavior.
Preaching on Amos could highlight contemporary issues such as wealth inequality, perceptions around lack of justice in the legal system (especially towards people of various cultural backgrounds), and religious ritualism as ways of helping to set the scene for their audience.
The Book of Amos can be broken into four main pericopes:
Amos 1-2: The book begins with a superscription (1:1) and thesis statement (1:2) before moving into a series of judgment oracles directed against the nations surrounding the covenant people (1:3-2:3), Judah (2:4-5), and culminating with an extended announcement of judgment against Israel itself (2:6-16).
Amos 3-6: This section is sometimes referred to as the "words of Amos," as it contains a number of prophetic speeches that focus on the sins of the Israelite people and the Lord's imminent judgment. A good representative passage from this section is Amos 6:1-7.
Amos 7:1-9:10: This section is sometimes referred to as the "visions of Amos," as it is dominated by a series of visions of judgment, which Amos beholds (note the repetition of "This is what the Lord God showed me ..." in Amos 7 and 8). These visions are interrupted by a short narrative block which describes the confrontation between the prophet Amos and Amaziah, priest at the northern kingdom's sanctuary of Bethel (7:10-17). A good representative passage from this section is Amos 7:7-9.
Amos 9:11-15: The tone of the book changes significantly in this section as we see a shift to words of salvation and hope. Here the Lord promises to "restore the fortunes of my people Israel" (9:14), which will include the rebuilding of ruined cities and David's kingdom, a return to the land, and agricultural abundance.
Exegetical/Big Ideas to Build Sermons Around
While it is certainly possible to preach through a prophetic book from start to finish, I am not convinced this is the best approach. This is certainly not how the original audience would have received the prophetic oracles. (Unlike for example, one of the early Christian churches who received a letter from Paul). I would advise preachers to adopt a thematic rather than linear approach (for further discussion, see Chapter 6 in my book , Interpreting the Prophets).
A possible sermon series on Amos could look as follows:
Text: Amos 8:4-8
Exegeticla Idea: Amos condemns his audience for "trampling on the needy" and using illegal business practices and their economic power to enslave and exploit them.
Big Idea: Are we using our money and resources to enrich or enslave others?
Text: Amos 5:18-27
Exegeticla Idea: The Lord declares his hatred for religious observances (festivals, assemblies, offerings, songs of praise) from those who are also not practicing justice and righteousness.
Big Idea: How "religion" can hinder one's relationship with God.
Text: Amos 1-2
Exegeticla Idea: Amos announces judgment on the foreign nations (1:3-2:3) before turning his aim on Judah (2:4-5) and Israel (Amos 2:6-16). Israel is no better than the other nations—in fact, its sins are more numerous and greater—and can, therefore, also be expected to judge.
Big Idea: "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?" (Matt. 7:3-5).
Text: Amos 9:11-15
Exegeticla Idea: Amos announces the restoration of David's kingdom, and the abundance of life that will follow for the restored and redeemed people.
Big Idea: The promise of an abundant life for all those "who are called by the Lord's name" (9:12).
Here are some things to keep in my mind when applying texts from Amos due to the fact that the book belongs to the genre of prophecy.
Focus on the theology of the text, rather than contemporary fulfillments. Much preaching from the prophets—especially during the 1970's and 80's—has involved trying to identify how their "predictions" are being, or about to be, fulfilled by contemporary events in the Middle East. Such an approach, while based on commendable motivations, is, I believe, essentially misguided. The prophets do not necessarily speak of our age, but they continue to speak to our age, revealing God's activity, priorities, and expectations. Our primary focus as preachers, therefore, should be what the text reveals about the character, action, and will of God.
The following questions should prove to be homiletically fruitful:
How is God’s character and activity portrayed in this passage? (e.g., Is the Lord portrayed as a wrathful judge, a hurt lover, a compassionate parent?) Why does God intend to act in this fashion? (e.g., Have the people committed a specific sin, are they helpless and vulnerable, does God's gracious character "force" him to act in a certain way?)
What is God calling people to be and do in this passage? (e.g., Are they being instructed to embrace or abandon certain cultic or social practices? Is the Lord wanting them to change their attitudes and/or priorities?) Why are they called to act in this fashion? (e.g., Is this connected with a specific command or law, does this reflect the way God himself has acted towards his people in the past, is there some intrinsic problem which such activity might create or lead to)?
What is paradigmatic in this passage? (e.g., How does God's call for his people transcend the specific, historical context of the text, are there elements of the text which resonate with other OT and NT passages)?
In the light of the above, how might we expect God to be at work in our world today? (e.g., How do sinners—and others—often suffer the consequences of their actions? How does God bless those who are faithful? How does God continue to speak to his people through his Word?) How might this text shape the life and faith of the people of God today? (e.g., Is there a certain issue in the life of the contemporary people of God—corporately or individually—that the prophetic text calls into question, does the text encourage us with a renewed vision of God's love, grace, and mercy towards his people?)
The primary intended audience of the prophets was the people of God (not the non-covenant nations). The primary focus of our preaching, therefore, should be God's call to and expectations of the church, the new covenant people. It is only once we have considered this, that we should seek to address the situation and challenges facing broader society.
Appropriate analogies are vital—an analogy involves comparing one thing with another for the purpose of explanation or clarification. Identifying analogies essentially involves asking the question: “To what shall we compare this (person, place, thing, or event) in our lives and the lives of our listeners?” Michael Williams goes on to say “The general question when beginning to look for contemporary analogies for an ancient text is, 'When have my listeners experienced something analogous to the events of the text?'” ("Contemporizing," in Wilson, P. (gen. ed.), The New Interpreter's Handbook of Preaching, Nashville: Abingdon, 2008, 183). Because analogies involve finding points of connection between the world of the text and the world of the listeners, they engage the congregation and help them enter into the experience of the text with greater freshness and immediacy. Good analogies help the text come alive.
For example, Amos' woe oracle in Amos 6:4-8 involves a declaration of judgment against those who "lie on beds of ivory ... but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!" (vs. 4 and 6). Essentially, here the prophet is announcing judgment on those who possess excessive wealth and luxury items, but who are not aware of the fortunes or fate of their disadvantaged fellow countrymen. An analogy might be "Beware you who are more focused on watching the latest movies on your big screen TVs, than being concerned with the sufferings of your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ."
The prophets were first and foremost God's messengers, and one cannot understand the Book of Amos without first grappling with the God whose will, message, and actions the prophet reveals. The Book of Amos is dominated by four theological ideas.
The God Who Elects and Expects
Amos highlights the close relationship between Yahweh and Israel (cf. the reference to the Lord as "your God" in 4:12 and 9:15 and Israel as "my people" in 7:8; 7:15 and 8:2). Instead of emphasizing the privileges that such a relationship brings, however, Amos tends to focus on its obligations and (potentially negative) consequences for Israel: "You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities." (3:2).
The primary expectations that Amos highlights are ethical in nature, involving just treatment of the disadvantaged. Amos repeatedly condemns those who exploit others for their own gain, specifically targeting those who own two separate residences (one for summer and one for winter, 3:15), whose homes are decorated with ivory carvings and furniture (symbolic of their wealth and power, 3:15), and who lie around in luxury while indulging in rich food, drink, and entertainment (6:4-5). Particularly troubling for Amos is the lack of compassion of their fellow Israelite countrymen—they are not grieved by their suffering (6:6)—and the fact that the courts in the city gates no longer provide the protection for the vulnerable which they are meant to: "Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground! ... They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth." (5:7, 10)
Amos is also emphatic in his expectation that love of God cannot be divorced from love of neighbor. He rebukes those who are apparently pious in their religious observance one day (i.e., they offer sacrifices, attend religious festival) but the very next day return to exploiting the needy. Amos expects that the totality of the lives of the covenant people should be lived in accordance with God's will; without a commitment to justice, religious observances were nothing more than empty rituals and abominable to God.
Possible preaching passages: Amos 8:4-8
The God Who Comes in Judgment
Amos' preaching is shaped by his twin convictions that, due to their sins, the end of Israel is imminent and that judgment, although it may be put off for a time, is ultimately inescapable (see, in particular, the visions in Amos 7-9). This judgment is often described in shorthand using the phrase "the Day of the Lord" (Amos 5:18) or more simply "the day." Here Amos works against traditional Israelite thinking. The Day of the Lord was meant to be an occasion when God intervened on behalf of Israel, but in Amos' proclamation it will see the Lord coming, not to rescue, but to punish. Concretely, this judgment will take the form of the Lord raising up a foreign nation who will oppress and defeat them, and take the people into exile. These warnings appear to have been largely fulfilled by the events associated with the loss of the northern kingdom to the Assyrian army in 721 BC.
Possible preaching passage: Amos 5:18-27
The God Who Is Sovereign Over all Nations
This is particularly emphasized in the oracles against the nations, which we find in Amos 1-2, but is also reinforced in the implicit claim of God's involvement in the life of, and hence relationship with, the nations of the Philistines and Arameans in 9:7. A dramatic element within Amos' preaching is that he views the nations in essentially the same light as the covenant people: God has been at work in their history, they have certain expectations (that are not dissimilar to Israel's), and failure to adhere to these is about to result in their judgment.
Possible preaching passage: Amos 1-2
The God Who Promises Restoration
The Book of Amos concludes with a word of hope. The ministry of Amos thus matches Jeremiah's twin call, both to tear down and build up (cf. Jer 1:7).
Possible preaching passage: Amos 9:11-15.
My Encounter with Amos
My own encounters with the Book of Amos have been nothing short of transformative. I grew up in a conservative, evangelical household (something for which I praise the Lord!) with a strong focus on the importance of evangelism, making a personal decision of faith, and ensuring that one's spiritual walk with God was strong (i.e., through regular church attendance, Bible reading, and prayer). All of these are good things.
But through engaging with Amos (and the other OT prophets) my eyes were opened to the importance of a faith expressed, not just in terms of one's relationship with God, but also in how one relates to their neighbor, especially those who are less fortunate than one's self. How can one thoughtfully read "But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream," (Amos 5:24) and not be moved? Such calls continue both to challenge and inspire me today.
David Allan Hubbard, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Joel and Amos (Leicester: IVP, 1989).
Gary V. Smith, Hosea, Amos, Micah. NIVAC (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001).
Douglas Stuart, Hosea-Jonah. WBC (Waco: Word, 1987).