Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

A hard word from God is better than no word at all

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July 17, 2022

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Commentary on Amos 8:1-12

Amos describes a basket of summer fruit shown to him by God. This visual image serves as an icon, linked to the content of the divine word. A play on words forms the link, the similar sound of qayits “summer fruit” and qets “end.” This play on words marks a startling reversal of expectations comparable to Amos 3:2. 

The bounty of sweetness from pomegranates, figs, and grapes, the value of olive oil and wine, the long years of care and cultivation to bring fruit-bearing trees and vines to productivityall these associations with summer fruit anticipate a good word of blessing. God’s word through the prophet, however, announces the end.

Many will die, as did happen when the Northern Kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians in 732 and 722 BCE. The rest will mourn, wearing sackcloth and shaving their heads. Wailing will replace celebratory singing in the temple (or palace) as the nations’ feasts become only occasions of mourning.

The nation’s grief will be like mourning for an only son. This loss would have been the greatest that parents could experience in a patrilineal culture. One’s hope for continued remembrance as part of a family lineage depended on having a son who would have a son, and so on. 

The Gospel accounts of darkness at midday following the death of the Beloved Son, Jesus, recall the language of Amos 8:9 (Matthew 27:45//Mark 15:33//Luke 23:44). 


Amos 8:1-3 describes the fourth in a series of visions, interrupted by the report of the conflict between Amos and Amaziah at Bethel (Amos 7:10-17). After the first and second visions of destruction, Amos intercedes for Israel saying, “How can Jacob stand? He is so small!” Then God relents, “It shall not be” (Amos 7:2-3, 5-6).

The third and fourth visions conclude with announcements of divine judgment, including the cause for their greatest grief, “I will never again pass over them” (author’s translation), that is, “I will never again spare them” or “pardon them.” The prophet doesn’t ask God to forgive and God does not relent. As cold as these judgments sound, there are hints regarding the warmth of God’s emotions. The objects of divine judgment are still “my people Israel,” Yahweh’s chosen covenanted people.

Divine compassion for the suffering of poor and vulnerable people is the root of God’s wrath against the comfortable wealthy who do not “grieve over the ruin of Joseph” (Amos 6:6).

This week’s companion Psalm 52 describes people like Amos’ audience, who love evil and seek refuge in wealth rather than in God. Such people exist in all times and places. The psalmist is one of their victims, one who thanks and trusts in God forever. The judgments announced in Amos answer the prayers of sufferers like this psalmist.


What had God’s people Israel done to deserve this ending? What crimes deserve this sort of consequence? The book of Amos describes many sins, but this pericope focuses on oppression of the poor and the needy by economic exploitation. Seeking profits by cheating, fraud, and enslavement of poor people will make the very land tremble. (Compare Amos 2:6-7.) 

Deuteronomy 25:13-15 and Leviticus 19:35-36 forbid the use of dishonest weights and measuring vessels that skimp the product and inflate the payment. This is not an esoteric requirement; it is basic justice recognizable by anyone. 

Israel’s particular observances of Sabbath and New Moon are distinctive faith practices with spiritual and theological purposes. Weekly and monthly one stops work to acknowledge the Creator as the source of sustenance for all living things and the stability of the created world (Genesis 1:29-2:3; 8:22; 9:3). 

For the people addressed by God in this pericope, this spiritual purpose has not been achieved. They think of Sabbath and New Moon observances as things done merely to satisfy Yahweh’s requirements rather than to form their lives of faith and relationship with God. This charge is a major theme of the book of Amos (compare 4:4-5; 5:21-24).

In Amos 8:7 the Lord “has sworn by the pride of Jacob,” the very thing that God “abhors” in Amos 6:8, instead of swearing “by himself,” as in Amos 6:8 and many other places. This pride (gaon) includes fortresses and other evidence of wealth and power. 

In Amos’ time, “the kingdom of Israel included vast territories … had an abundance of fertile land and water sources, extensive control over the main roads of the country, … and direct access to the coast and trade routes…”1

Surely the Lord’s own oath would not be secured by such temporary things! “The pride of Jacob” should be God, God’s self. 


This pericope begins with the vision of a cornucopia and ends with the announcement of impending famine. A deadly dearth of food and water is only a metaphor for the even more dangerous lack of communication from the Lord. 

The previous chapter tells how Amaziah attempted to silence God’s word in the Northern Kingdom by ordering Amos to cease prophesying at Bethel (Amos 7:13; see also 2:12). The climactic judgment in Amos 8:11-12 corresponds to his desire. 

No one wants to hear terrible indictments and threats of punishment. Yet these forms of divine speech provide opportunities for prophets to intercede (Amos 7:1-6) and invitations to their audiences to repent. (Compare Jeremiah 26:1-6; 36:1-3.) A hard word from God is better than no word at all.

Deuteronomy 30:11-14, Psalm 19:7-10, and 119:11, for example, celebrate the blessing of God’s word held close.

The Northern Kingdom of Israel did come to an end, but God’s word wasn’t silenced. The book of Amos was composed and heard in the Southern Kingdom of Judah, and everywhere and in every time that the Bible has been read, studied, memorized, and preached. 


  1. Amihai Mazar, “The Divided Monarchy: Comments on Some Archaeological Issues.” In The Quest for the Historical Israel, Debating Archaeology and the History of Israel. Ed. By Brian B. Schmidt. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Israel, 2007. P. 161.