“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” That is how Charles Dickens began A Tale of Two Cities, and it is a good summary of the period of time defined in Amos 1:1. God’s people were divided between the kingdom of Israel in the north and the kingdom of Judah in the south. Israel was at the height of its political power. The economy had never been better. The army didn’t have any battles to fight. In many ways, it was the best of times. But by the markers God uses to measure success, Israel was a mess. Many people had become wealthy, but at the expense of others: they were oppressing the poor, they were exploiting the most vulnerable people in their society, and human slavery was rampant. The judges were dishonest and the government was corrupt. Israel’s citizens were far from God, but they kept up a show of worship. Their worship was social rather than spiritual, and having abandoned God’s standards, they fell into a lifestyle of immorality. The priests, whose salaries they were paying, did nothing to correct them. It was the worst of times.
God had a message of judgement for His sinful, wayward people in Israel. When God needed a man to go up north to Israel and preach to the wealthy, arrogant upper-crust, He chose a southern boy off of the farm. His name was Amos, and he was a hard-working country boy, a man of the earth from Tekoa, a settlement in the rugged sheep country south of Jerusalem. Amos was not a priest or a prophet, but a sheep breeder, a shepherd who spent much of his time outdoors.
He was also “a dresser of sycamore figs” (7:14). “Dressing figs” involved climbing the fig trees with a small knife and cutting a small slit in the fruit to speed up the ripening process — sounds like back-breaking work to me. I can just see Amos, the sheep breeder, the farmer, standing there with his hands stained from those figs and his skin leathered by the sun. He walks into Samaria, capitol of the northern kingdom, looking out of place. His clothes are not stylish, there is mud on his shoes, and he smells like his work — but he has the touch of God on his life and a fresh vision from God in his heart. Unintimidated and unafraid, Amos stands before the rich and powerful people of Israel and begins to preach.
His preaching began with authority: “The Lord roars from Zion and utters (literally “thunders”) His voice from Jerusalem” (v.2). God wanted to get the attention of Israel and the surrounding nations, but people weren’t listening. Sometimes God whispers, sometimes He speaks in a still, small voice; but sometimes He roars and He thunders. The roar of a lion and the sound of thunder both signal danger. God was about to bring down His judgment unless the people repented.
Amos did not address Israel first. He pronounced God’s judgment on their neighbor nations, and he did so using a two-part formula. First, to each nation he said, “For three transgressions and for four” (see v.3, 6, 9, 11, 13). I think that was God’s way of saying, “You’ve sinned one time too many.” God is longsuffering and patient, but He will not tolerate sin forever. You can sin once too often. There comes a time when God slams on the brakes and says, “That’s enough!” The second part of Amos’s formula involved fire (see v.4, 7, 10, 12, 14). Fire is often a symbol in the Bible of God’s judgment. Fire burns and it purifies — God was about to burn away the sins of these people and purify the entire region.
The message of Amos is a reminder that all sin will either be forgiven or judged. Sin is either pardoned in Christ or punished in hell. Before a person can receive God’s grace, they must receive the fact that they are lost in their sins and doomed to punishment. Confession and repentance open the door for forgiveness and restoration. The snobs of Israel were too arrogant to receive that message. I don’t want to be that way, do you?