Commentary on Amos 8:1-12
“Silence!” is the Lord’s command to Amos.1
While previously Amos has interceded on behalf of Israel,2 in the midst of this vision the Lord expects silence as words of judgment thunder down upon Israel. The Lord’s judgment culminates in a divine silence — a famine of the words of the Lord in Israel.3 It is only the silence of the cross of Christ that answers the aching hunger and thirst.
In this pericope, a portion of which returns in the lectionary nine weeks hence,4 we are encountered by Amos’ report of his fourth vision.5
In the introduction of the vision, there is a play on words in the Hebrew that does not translate well. The object of the fourth vision is a basket of ripe fruit. In Amos 8:2, the word the NRSV translates “summer fruit” is קיץ, whereas “the end” is קץ.6 The thrust of the word play is that as the fruit in the basket has reached its peak and is left only to spoil and rot, so it is with Israel.
The spoil is such that songs of worship become the wailing of grief as corpses litter the land. It is a brutal picture with a deafening noise.
Amidst the wailing, Amos intones the judgment against Israel. “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring ruin to the poor of the land…”7 Frightening it is when the Lord says, “Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.”8
Continuing with a force unmatched outside the first person, “On that day…I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight.” The cosmic order will be ruptured, so much so that even the sure workings of the heavens, of the sun, of light and dark are contravened. The personal lament of Job that rests upon his desire that the day of his birth be reversed9 pales in comparison to the Lord’s pronouncement that time itself is thrown into question.
The Lord’s judgment not only brings a great reversal of time. Feasts become mourning. Songs become lamentations. All are to put on the clothes of the mourner and tear out their hair. And the Lord’s words ring out, “I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.”10
Such an unleashing of judgment leaves in its wake a gutting silence, a famine of the word of the Lord. This silence from the Lord is deafening and will leave the people confused, running about like fools in search of and grasping for something…anything to steady themselves in their disequilibrium.
The pericope ends abruptly with the Lord saying that in their frantic search they shall find nothing. The end is clearly filled with ruin and spoilage and divine silence.
As a preacher, what is one to do with such judgment that leaves the reader/hearer with not a single word of hope? How do we understand such a silence?
So as not to leave this pericope without context, one can look to the final verses of Amos for hope of relief and restoration. While there are critics who question the authenticity of Amos 9:11-15,11 these concluding verses are within the shape of the text as we receive it, within the bounds of Scripture, and to be expected within the scope of prophetic literature.
But what of this apparent contradiction between overwhelming judgments, exemplified by today’s pericope, and the hope that brings Amos to conclusion?
Abraham Heschel offers wisdom on this point. After quoting Amos 9:14-15, he writes:
What hidden bond exists between the word of wrath
and the word of compassion, between ‘consuming
fire and ‘everlasting love?’
We will have to look for prophetic coherence, not
in what the prophet says but of Whom he
speaks. Indeed, not even the word of God is the
ultimate object and theme of his consciousness. The
ultimate object and theme of his consciousness is
God, of Whom the prophet knows that above His
judgment and above His anger stands His mercy.12
With all of this judgment, which one has to assume is rightly earned by those who trample the needy and bring ruin to the poor, where is the Lord’s mercy? Upon Heschel’s advice and the witness of the whole of Amos’ text, we cannot assume that this judgment is more powerful than the Lord’s mercy.
Along these lines and extending the horizon of the pericope beyond the bounds of Amos’ book to include the whole of Scripture, for the Christian it also seems reasonable and faithful to understand that God’s mercy converges with and triumphs over God’s judgment in the cross of Christ. With echoes of Amos 8:9, Luke’s description of the moment of Jesus’ death: “It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two.”13 In this moment of the ripening of the sins of the world, the Lord’s mercy triumphs over the Lord’s judgment.
2Amos 7:2, 5
4Amos 8:4-7 is the First Lesson for Proper 20 — Year C — 19 September 2010.
5Amos has five visions that conclude the book. His reports of the visions begin at 7:1, 4, 7, 8:1, and 9:1.
6The New Jerusalem Bible handles the wordplay in Amos 8:2 better: ‘What do you see, Amos?’ he asked. ‘A basket of ripe fruit,’ I said. Then Yahweh said, ‘The time is ripe for my people Israel; I will not continue to overlook their offences.” [emphasis added]
11Recall J. Wellhausen’s pithy comment: “Roses and lavender instead of blood and iron.” (Rosen und Lavendel statt Blut und Eisen.) Die Kleinen Propheten (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1963) 96.
12Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Perennial Classics, 1962, 2001) 27-28.
13Luke 23:44-45, also Matthew 27:45; Mark 15:33.