Commentary on Amos 7:7-17
Amos and Amaziah offer a cautionary tale for contemporary preachers.
Delivering a word from the Lord is a weighty — and often dangerous — task.
The book of Amos is a collection of sayings and visions of the prophet Amos, who was active in the 8th century BCE, during a period of relative prosperity and peace in Israel. The book indicates that Amos was a shepherd from the southern kingdom of Judah, from the small village of Tekoa (1:1), and prophesied in the northern kingdom of Israel.
Throughout the book, Amos appeals to God’s justice and righteousness as inseparable components of God’s commandment. Amos critiques the social, political, and religious structures of Israel for their failure to uphold ethical responsibility. In particular, the prophet condemns the social inequity that allows the wealthy to luxuriate while the poor wither (see Amos 6:4-7; 8:5-6), and he critiques empty worship that fails to promote justice and righteousness (see Amos 5:18-24). In our contemporary understanding, we often conceive of social justice and piety as distinct practices, but in Amos’ vision there is no such division. The foundation of justice is the right worship of God, and worshipping God rightly requires promoting justice in the world.
The lectionary text picks up in the midst of a series of three visions in Amos 7. In the first two visions (verses 1-6), Amos sees images of destruction: locusts devouring the newly sprouted grass and a shower of fire consuming the land. In each case, Amos acts as intercessor and pleads with God to forgive Israel. Each time God relents and replies that the vision shall not come to pass.
Yet the third vision has a dramatically different outcome. The vision is centered in an image of measurement. The Hebrew term ’anak, usually translated “plumb line,” is obscure and only occurs here in the Old Testament. The image conveys God’s measurement of the actions of Israel. This time the judgment will come to pass, and the vision ends with the sacred places destroyed amidst the threat of violence: “the high places of Israel shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with a sword” (verse 8b-9).
These images of judgment and destruction in the Old Testament often leave contemporary readers pondering what kind of word this might be for our time and place. We prefer a message of uncompromising mercy. Yet God’s love and God’s judgment are not mutually exclusive. God mercies are meaningless without God’s justice. And the concept of justice has no bearing if God cannot be offended. This vision is powerful precisely because it insists that God takes offense at the injustices perpetrated in the sacred spaces and will not stand for an expression of religion that does not advance the divine demand for justice and righteousness. This vision may rightly distress or disturb, for it prompts the reflection of faith communities to examine if their own mission and witness is in line with God’s vision of justice.
Amos’ vision also disturbs Amaziah, the priest of Bethel. As the religious official representing the king, Amaziah grows alarmed at the suggestion that Jeroboam’s kingdom will fall, and he makes clear that Amos and his proclamations are not welcome in the sanctuary. These visions are dangerous.
Amos responds by articulating his call to the ministry of proclamation. Amos insists that he is not a professional prophet — “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son” — but a humble herdsman who was plucked from his flock at God’s calling to prophecy to Israel (verses 14-15).
Amos and Amaziah each face their own dilemma. Amos speaks an uncomfortable word in the sanctuary, compelled by a holy vision of justice and righteousness. His preaching is not met with resounding affirmation and conversion, but with suspicion and fear. Amaziah, on the other hand, seeks to censor proclamation that may disturb; he promotes political equilibrium. Amos cannot compromise the powerful word he has received, yet Amaziah’s strategy is perhaps better for long-term employment. Prophesying is not for the faint of heart.
Preaching is also not for the faint of heart. Contemporary pastors may be able to relate to the tension between these opposing impulses of Amos and Amaziah. Stepping into the pulpit and standing before the people of God requires discernment, sensitivity, and courage. Amos’ bold prophecy is a model of unabashed proclamation, unhindered by the consequences of speaking truth to power. Amaziah’s response is easy to critique, yet he may also deserve our sympathy. Have you ever felt the temptation to silence or ignore the voices that make you uncomfortable? What if Amaziah had helped the king to hear Amos’s warning, instead of turning him out of the town?
The challenge for pastors is to deliver Amos’s message when you are a priest like Amaziah, responsible for the maintenance of the sanctuary. Prophets have the luxury of standing outside the sanctuary, speaking their truth to provoke and to unsettle. There are times when preachers must do this too, yet they must do so in a way that the congregation can hear, requiring pastoral sensitivity. Sometimes the preacher must be the prophet, and sometimes the preacher’s task is instead to lift up the voices of other prophets found in the text, tradition, or contemporary culture. There are voices of Amoses all around us, if we have the ears to hear. One of the preacher’s sacred responsibilities is to help the congregation to identify these voices, interpret their witness, and discern the word of the Lord.
As you prepare to step into the pulpit this Sunday, perhaps your task is to speak like Amos or, if you are priest like Amaziah, perhaps it is to draw attention to the voices of the prophets standing outside the sanctuary, helping the congregation to hear their proclamation and measure the plumb line within it.