God uses prophets to proclaim his judgment.
(Read Amos 1:1-2)
It is striking to note the first and the last words of the first verse of this prophecy: “the words of Amos … two years before the earthquake.” It is given to some people to speak in earthquake kinds of times. An earthquake comes with unexpected suddenness and renders its victims absolutely helpless. It is not without deeper significance that Amos’ message precedes by two years an earthquake, for Amos was God’s kind of person for earthquake times. Politically, the foundations were already quivering beneath the nation of Israel. Economically, just around the corner, there yawned a chasm of fiscal and economic judgment. The underpinnings of the well-constructed society that had been Israel with its capital and bureaucracy in Samaria three decades after Amos spoke in 722 or 721 BC. The ten tribes of Israel found themselves in ruination out of the ashes and depression, they fought to find words that would interpret their experience. Someone noted that Amos had said something and that it had been written, and it was out of the Book of Amos that the subsequent disastrous generation came to know what it was to live in earthquake times.
Someone has written a book entitled The Prophets, Our Contemporaries. Are things really so different 2,800 years after Amos’s message? Politically, have we not known what it is for the ground to quiver beneath our feet? Economically, do we still not sense the possibility that economic judgment or catastrophe could yawn at us like a gaping chasm just around some corner of the road? Is there no indication at all that our well-structured society might come unraveled? Just as Amos spoke to earthquake times in his generation, he speaks to earthquake times in our generation. What kind of person does God use to speak at earthquake times? Let’s look for a moment at the person God uses in earthquake times.
A person for earthquake times
“The words of Amos, which he saw …” Does that strike you as peculiar or as unusual? We speak of weighing our words, of measuring our words. We seldom speak of seeing our words. But there was granted to Amos to have an insight which was molded into foresight so that in the history of his generation, Amos saw the Word of God. It is given to people who minister in earthquake times to see things that often are not seen by the myopic multitude of their contemporaries. Why could Amos see the Word of God in his generation? How may we see the Word of God inscribed into ours?
Amos could see deeply because he saw from a place of quiet perspective. He was among the herdsmen of Tekoa. This tiny village was on a rugged, rustic, running ridge 12 miles south of Jerusalem. On a clear day, one could stand on the ridge that embraced Tekoa. Looking to the west, he could see the azure waters of the Mediterranean Sea. It might be that he could see some glimpse to the north of Jerusalem, the capital city of Judah, the city of David, the king now dead for almost two centuries. When Amos turned to the east from that rugged ridge, he could look down a deep chasm of ascent of rugged brush and terrain all the way to the Dead Sea that glimmered in the heat waves. Tekoa was a place of unusual perspective and quiet reflection. But not everyone even at Tekoa could see what Amos saw.
Evidently, he had never been far from home, we gather from the prophecy. As the sweeping gaze of Amos moved from the west to the north and to the east, he saw the Word of God as it was addressed to the teeming multitudes in lands which he had never visited. And Amos marched to the beat of a different drummer and saw things that other people didn’t see.
The person whom God uses to speak in any earthquake times is the person who will have a different, lonely perspective and will see things as others among their contemporaries do not see them. As a disciple of Jesus Christ, you are under an obligation to have a radically different perspective on the living of these very days. The mindless, milling multitudes will not see what the lonely Amos of the 20th century will be able to see. That is, the Word of God in the history of our day. Tekoa was a lonely place. But the man who lived there saw what others could not see. The person who counts for God in earthquake times, when civilizations quiver and when the underpinnings are in the process of giving way, must have that different and lonely perspective. What about the person God uses in earthquake times? The person whom God uses in earthquake times is a person who looks beyond their own narrow, confining responsibilities.
Look up from the desert brush
Notice, Amos was among the herdsmen of Tekoa. Further in the book, we learn that Amos was a keeper of an ugly black-wooled, stumpy-legged, ill-formed-faced sheep called the naqod. They were said to be ugly domestic beasts. And yet they were prized for their sleek and raven-colored wool. We’re told that the life of a herdsman was a hereditary life and that in Amos’s family, the narrow, restricting, confining occupation of keeping the naqod had been passed from father to son to grandson. With such a perspective, Amos might have been like the common lot of people. He would have looked no higher than the scrub that grew around his feet in the slim grazing that was the pasture land of Tekoa. Because Amos was willing to look up and risk from the tiny circle of his own responsibility, he ceased to shepherd sheep and he became the spiritual shepherd of an entire nation.
We can learn what it is to see the Word of God and to speak for the Word of God when we understand that any person who does so must, like Amos, lift themselves up from the comfortable and prosaic tasks of their own Tekoa and give themselves to the risk of hurling themselves into the madness of a world that is crying out with the judgment of God. An encounter with Amos—and I’ve encountered him several times in looking at this book—always raises me to the point of discomfort. It raises me to entertain the question that Pierre Berton, the Canadian journalist, asked a decade ago: “Am I simply an occupant of the comfortable pew?” How often do we buy off by staying enclosed in the narrow, confining, restricted orb of our immediate, mundane, and trivial responsibilities? Necessary though they may be, we never look up from the scrub at our foot and see the Word of God in our generation. What kind of person does God use in earthquake times? A person with a different, lonely perspective. A person who looks up from the confinement of immediate preoccupation with responsibility. But in another sense, any person who will so be used.
Can God use me?
Have you done a profile of the prophets recently? When you and I ask ourselves, ordained, unordained, laity or clergy, or whatever we may call ourselves, “Can God use me?” nothing is more salutary than for us to look at the prophets. We find a man of aristocratic heritage like Isaiah, who always walked with confidence, who when he was apprehended by the Lord said, “Here am I, send me.” Who always walked out of positive strength and accomplishment. Who was a statesman in the midst of kings, a poet and a literary genius, and God used an Isaiah. But God also used a Jeremiah. A man who was so timid and uncertain in the aftermath of God’s apprehending him that he said, “I am but a stammering youth.” A man who became depressed to the point of suicide so that he cried out, “Cursed be the man that brought the news of my birth.” A man who accused the very God, who called him and who promised Jeremiah that he would be an unfailing stream, of having become a delusive God who had held his prophet like a locust on the end of a string, jerking it just to see his wings fall. God can use a Hosea whose experience was neither that of a statesman like Isaiah nor of a pathological Jeremiah but a man into whose very heart and home there came the brokenness that terrifies and the redemptive love that heals.
I find a great deal of reluctance at the innermost level to believe God can use me. But if he could use an Isaiah, if he can use a Jeremiah, if he can use a Hosea, and yes, if he could use the keeper of ugly, stunted, ill-formed sheep who knew nothing but the smallness of a Tekoa, surely he can use you and he can use me.
The roar from Zion
Not only do we see the person that God uses in earthquake times, we see the message that God brings in earthquake times. And he said, “The Lord will roar from Zion.” That is the motto of the book. That is the overture to Amos’s symphony. That is the preface to his message. The Lord has roared from Zion. Zion, the ideal city of God, the Lord has roared. What does that mean? What did it mean, and what could it mean?
It reflects the immediacy of irrevocable judgment. It is given to some people, to some generations to have the message: Brace yourself, for judgment is coming. Amos, the man with insight and hence with foresight was a person who had to say to his generation repeatedly, “Brace yourself, for judgment is coming.”
Out in the open, Amos had sat on a moonless, starless night in the pasture lands of Tekoa, and more than once, he had heard the fierce roar of the predatory lion. He knew as a shepherd that when that roar had been sounded, the lion was already in the process of pouncing on a hapless member of the flock. When Amos told his generation, “The Lord has roared from Zion,” he was telling them, “Brace yourselves, for the intervention of God is already leaping into progress in this unjust generation.”
The burden of Amos’s message is that Jehovah has roared. The significance of Jehovah should be taken in full. “I will be what I will be,” as that name perhaps means, “I am that I am, and I will speak freely and spontaneously to every generation, even if it is the roar of impending judgment.” To compound the stark reality of this message, Amos says the Lord will utter his voice from Jerusalem. The Hebrew suggests thunder for that pastoral desert people. Thunder, by its very rumbling rarity, was a surprise, a mystery, and a threat. They came to compare the Word of God to the roaring thunder. The Lord will utter his voice thunderously from Jerusalem. Along with the thunder comes the lightning, and for that illiterate shepherd, it looked as if the sky were cracking so that a man could see the light of God beyond a solid dome. The Lord will utter his voice and the impact will be terrific in this generation, so said Amos.
What a ridiculous time to speak of judgment. Verse 1 informs us that Amos spoke in the days of King Uzziah. Oh, speak judgment in the days of a Manasseh, speak judgment in the days of an Ahab, but don’t speak judgment in the days of Uzziah. Why? The very name Uzziah means “The Lord Jehovah is my strength.” Of all of the kings of Judah, he was the most successful. The Philistines have been defeated on the west. The Arabs have been subjugated on the south. He fortified the walls of Jerusalem. Why speak judgment in that happy context? Or he mentions the kings of the northern kingdom. Jeroboam, the son of Joash. Why, the very name Jeroboam sounds like a political ticket. Let the people multiply. The sanctuaries were filled from Dan to Bethel. If they didn’t have a bus ministry, they must have had a camel ministry because the house was packed. The borders of Israel had been pressed to their uttermost extreme in the days of Jeroboam. The king’s preacher will say, “Go home, you sycamore fruit-pinching, sheep-keeping Tekoan. We don’t need you to remind us in the days of Jeroboam that there might be a quivering of the foundations and an underpinning of the ordered structure of society.”
Three decades later, the man who sent Amos home would live to see Amos’s words drawn out blazing in the history of God’s people. The history of any generation that falls under judgment is not here and not now. I cannot find in God’s revelation any people who responded well in the judgment except with a narcotizing, anesthetizing denial and numbness. Not here and not now. Whether it was the generation of Noah who sat down to eat and rose up to play, whether it was Belshazzar who was left in charge of the kingdom of Babylon while his grandfather was gone and let the Medo-Persians slip in through a secret byway into the city. Whether it was the unbelieving Japanese who when the leaflets fell over their city speaking of an apocalyptic weapon beyond description or whether it was Neville Chamberlain who came home from the Wolf’s Lair saying, “peace in my time” when the water had not dripped off of his umbrella until Hitler began the conflagration in Europe. It’s not an easy thing to be an Amos. Not a proper thing, not a polite thing. Amos was never elected to the ten most admired men of the Jerusalem. I doubt it. It is not given to every person to speak in earthquake times, but it is given to some to speak in earthquake times.
What will the substance of the message be that will unfold? “The habitations of the shepherd shall mourn and the top of Carmel shall wither” (Amos 1:2). The immediate roar of judgment will be total in its scope. The habitations of the shepherds, the green pasturelands on which the economy of the nation depended, they will sear as if in a blast furnace when God locks up his heavens. Oh, but surely there is an out. We can escape, can’t we? Let’s go to Carmel, the game preserve of Palestine, the place of the summer homes of the affluent bureaucracy of Samaria, the place of wild animals and vegetation. Let us go to Carmel and we will escape. No, the top of Carmel shall wither, the sap in the very trees will turn to ice at the sound of God’s Word. So that neither in averted pasturelands nor on the peak of Carmel will there be avoiding the fact that the lion has roared, that God has thundered. Brace yourself, says Amos.
I am very pleased that Amos does not close the canon of Scripture. We would have very little good news about this evening. It would be difficult to give an invitation on the basis of Amos 1:1-2: Come meet the Lord who is leaping on you like a lion in judgment. Sometimes we make the mistake of believing that any one word from God closes his message. Amos was a man for earthquake times. But I remember another earthquake. Do you? It’s recorded in Matthew’s gospel. Amos would speak later in his prophecy of darkness coming over the people. I remember an earthquake that shook in the darkness that shook in the very City of David near which Amos lived eight centuries later. When our Lord Jesus Christ became God’s ultimate man for earthquake times.
Dr. Joel C. Gregory is Director of the Kyle Lake Center for Effective Preaching, holder of the George W. Truett Endowed Chair of Preaching and Evangelism at Baylor's Truett Seminary, and the founder of Joel Gregory Ministries.