Amos was a shepherd. He did not aspire to any great position. He was quite content looking after his sheep. More technically, he was a sheep-breeder. He did not merely look after sheep as they grazed; he bred them so that they would be bigger or stronger or they would produce better wool. We know this because he describes himself this way in the opening verse to his book of prophecy. He also describes himself as “a dresser of sycamore trees” (Amos 7:14). This means he would tend to the figs that grew so as to protect them from insects and to cause them to grow. Given that he was from a town called Tekoah, which is about ten miles south of Jerusalem, and given that sycamore trees grew primarily in the Jordan Valley, he was either a migrant worker who traveled between dressing sycamore trees (in season) and breeding sheep (also in season), or he owned land in at least two locations. Regardless of which, he was a regular guy who worked with his hands and who had no problem getting dirty. He was not the sort of guy who would have even heard of GQ Magazine.
God called him away from this work to be a prophet (Amos 7:15). Though he aspired to nothing greater than his life’s work, God chose him for something other than breeding animals and caring for figs. From his humble life of manual labor God called him to prophesy to the nations, to proclaim God’s words to those in power. Being a man accustomed to sweat and hard work and dirt and callouses, it is interesting how he begins his proclamation of God’s word.
And he said: “The LORD roars from Zion and utters his voice from Jerusalem; the pastures of the shepherds mourn, and the top of Carmel withers.”Amos 1:2 ESV
There is no fancy language here. The Lord does not merely speak; he roars. God’s first word to the nations about to receive his rebuke is not an eloquent declaration of judgment, but a lion’s roar. A blood-curdling scream, if you will. It is not hard to imagine a snarling and ferocious dog straining at his chain to get at the passer-by who dares get too close to his master’s property. That’s the image here. The Lord roars; he makes a guttural scream that destroys the land. This roar causes the green pastures across the land to “mourn”—they wither and die under the intensity of the roar.
The reader is immediately alerted to the reality of God’s anger. Amos then speaks to the nations surrounding his own nation with a common Ancient Near Eastern formula of “n and n+1”. In the ANE, writers would often cite a number and then add one to emphasize their point. This happens repeatedly in the first couple chapters:
Thus says the LORD: “For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because they have threshed Gilead with threshing sledges of iron.”Amos 1:2–3, 6, 9, 11, 13, 2:1 ESV
Thus says the LORD: “For three transgressions of Gaza, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because they carried into exile a whole people to deliver them up to Edom.”
Thus says the LORD: “For three transgressions of Tyre, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because they delivered up a whole people to Edom, and did not remember the covenant of brotherhood.”
Thus says the LORD: “For three transgressions of Edom, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because he pursued his brother with the sword and cast off all pity, and his anger tore perpetually, and he kept his wrath forever.”
Thus says the LORD: “For three transgressions of the Ammonites, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because they have ripped open pregnant women in Gilead, that they might enlarge their border.
Thus says the LORD: “For three transgressions of Moab, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because he burned to lime the bones of the king of Edom.”
This pattern of “for three…and for four” is an idiomatic way to say something like “as if these weren’t enough, there’s this other thing” or “not only this, but that, too”. The point is God had plenty of reason for pronouncing judgment on these nations. What is also interesting is another pattern Amos uses. Damascus was in the northeast. Then rather than move in order either clockwise or counterclockwise, he crisscrosses the nation to the southwest, to Gaza. Tyre was in the northwest and Edom, Ammon, and Moab were in the southeast. His prophecy against these nations formed crosshairs (to use an anachronistic reference) over the land of Israel and Judah. This makes sense since his prophecy of judgment is for these nations as well:
“Thus says the LORD: “For three transgressions of Judah, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because they have rejected the law of the LORD, and have not kept his statutes, but their lies have led them astray, those after which their fathers walked.”Amos 2:4, 6 ESV
Thus says the LORD: “For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—”
Though Israel and Judah were God’s people, they were not exempt from God’s demand of holiness. All humans should reflect his holiness, as all humans are his image-bearers. God will not tolerate a distortion of himself by anyone, even those who claim to belong to him!
Whether kings or migrant workers, whether white collar or blue collar, whether from a family with a long legacy of faith or from a family with a legacy of sin and depravity, whether our hands are covered in callouses or are used to lighter work, whether young or old, whether rich or poor, each one of us is created in God’s image. Any sin we tolerate in ourselves is a distortion of the One we represent. How much more important this is for us, for those who know the Lord and even more, are known by the Lord! We must live as the transformed people we are, for the Lord has transformed us that we might be a light to those around us. Israel and Judah failed to do this, and they were judged for it. God is still holy. We must reflect this in our lives.