A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology – The Prophet Amos

In the last blog, we examined the public theology of John the Baptist who was the last Old Testament prophet. A question that we asked concerning our discussion was: Did John the Baptist operate according to the principles outlined for us in these days? In other words, are John the Baptist’s actions in the gospel accounts normative for the Church? In our article, we argued that there was much that we, as the Church, can learn from John the Baptist’s interaction with the religious leaders and the Roman leaders of his day. In this blog, we are going to examine another Old Testament prophet who dealt with numerous matters of social injustice in his time – the prophet Amos. This blog will primarily answer three questions: (1) How did Amos respond to the culture in his day? (2) Is his response to the culture normative to the church?

A Word of Caution

We must first start this discussion with a statement of caution. With regards to Amos, we must keep in mind that Amos is writing in a time when Israel was still supposed to function as a theocracy within its borders, both geographical and ethnic. In other words, Israel was still formally under the Mosaic covenant as the moral law and the law of the land. This fact governs our interpretation and application of the prophet Amos. This point is discussed in Chapter 19, Paragraphs 3-5 in the 1689 London Baptist Confession:

  1. Besides this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly holding forth divers instructions of moral duties, all which ceremonial laws being appointed only to the time of reformation, are, by Jesus Christ the true Messiah and only law-giver, who was furnished with power from the Father for that end abrogated and taken away. (Hebrews 10:1; Colossians 2:17; 1 Corinthians 5:7; Colossians 2:14, 16, 17; Ephesians 2:14, 16 )

  2. To them also he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any now by virtue of that institution; their general equity only being of moral use. (1 Corinthians 9:8-10)

  3. The moral law doth for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof, and that not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it; neither doth Christ in the Gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.

Paragraph 4 is most relevant to our discussion. Based its scriptural justification, Paragraph 4 suggests that the general equity of the civil and ceremonial law applies most pointedly to the covenant community of the church, not unbelieving civil magistrates, since Christ’s first advent. However, Paragraph 5 states that moral law binds all persons, whether it is the church or unbelieving magistrates. Whatever principles we apply from the prophet Amos to the culture at large must keep these considerations in mind.

The Background

Amos was a shepherd from a rural area in Judah whom God called to preach at Israel’s royal sanctuary. His prophesying took place during the reign of Jeroboam II and lasted only a few days. Amos found in Israel great social extremes of comfortable prosperity and abject poverty. His message was against the wealthy. The poor were being exploited and cheated. Merchants were greedy and dishonest. The judicial system was corrupt. There was religious arrogance, as well, and even the attempt to corrupt some of the religious leaders. In essence, affluence had lulled the wealthy into such apathy that they refused to recognize the sickness of their society. Amos’ warning to the worshipers at Bethel was that, because of their sins, destruction was coming upon them from both Egypt and Assyria, a prophecy all the more bold because the international scene was relatively quiet, and Assyria was still in a period of decline. Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, made it clear to Amos that he was not welcome and that he should go home to his own country. Amos refused to back down, explaining that he was not a professional prophet, but he was there solely because God had sent him.

The Judgments on the Nations

Before addressing the sins of the covenant community, Amos delivers a series of six oracles from God, showing that no one can escape the consequences of his action. Hence, the major theme of the nations is the universal justice of God.

Amos pronounces his first oracle to Damascus in 1:3-4. In using the picture of separating grain kernels from their hulls, Amos says that Syria has treated the people of Gilead as though they were nothing but a pile of grain, crushing them to the ground. For this ill-treatment and extreme cruelty of the people, the Syrians were being sent back to where they started (Kir) with nothing to show for the intervening years.

The next three oracles deals with how the surrounding nations dealt with the capture and sale of Israelites during the reign of Jehoram (2 Chronicles 21:16-17). Amos pronounces his second oracle to the Philistines in 1:6-8. The Philistines are condemned for selling a whole population of Israelites into slavery. In his third oracle, Tyre is accused of the same inhumanity as the Philistines in 1:9-10, but it is considered more heinous because they repudiated the covenant of brotherhood with Israel. In his fourth oracle in 1:11-12, Edom is judged for their perpetual and implacable anger, which extended at least as far back as Israel’s journey from the wilderness to the plains of Moab.

The next two oracles demonstrate the fact that the judgments on the nation is not due to ethnicity, but on the basis of the universal judgment of God. In the fifth oracle, the Ammonites are accused of a horrific human rights atrocity – they have “ripped open pregnant women in Gilead that they might enlarge their border”. This particular atrocity was also practiced by Hazael of Syria (2 Kings 8:12), Menahem of Israel (2 Kings 15:16), and Assyria (Hosea 13:16) with the intended goal of eliminating descendants who might try to reclaim the land. In the sixth oracle, Moab is accused of burning the bones of the King of Edom, which seems to be a sign of special contempt for the Edomites.

In all of these oracles, God brings judgment through the Assyrians via exile or death. From the prophet Amos, the picture is abundantly clear – no person, king, or nation escapes the judgment of God.

The Judgments on the Covenant Community

At this point, one can imagine that Amos’s Israelite hearers were very pleased with his message since he was reinforcing exactly what they believed. The “Day of the Lord” was coming to the godless nations. However, the last, and by far the longest opening oracle is addressed to Israel. Israel is guilty of gross social injustice and sexual immorality.

First, Israel is accused of “selling the righteous for silver and the need for a pair of sandals.” This appears to be a direct reference to the corruption of Israel’s judicial system in which judges are willing to convict the innocent upon payment of a bribe. In the Law, the Lord placed a special concern for needy so that their basic rights are protected (Exodus 23:6; Jeremiah 5:28). However, because of the corruption of the judicial system, the needy are being sold into slavery even for insignificant debts (i.e. “a pair of sandals”). The point here is that Israel committed the same sort of social injustice as the surrounding neighbors and as a consequence, they will also be judged.

Second, Amos decries unbridled sexual immorality in Israel. In Israel, a “man and his father go into the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned.” Such behavior is contrary to the sexual ethics defined in the moral law (Genesis 2:21-24; Matthew 19:4-6) and would be otherwise forbidden through the Mosaic law (Leviticus 18:6-18). Their sins of sexual immorality are compounded in that they have slept on clothing taken as pledges for loans to the poor (Amos 2:8). According to the Mosaic Law, such garments are not to be kept overnight (Exodus 22:26; Deuteronomy 24:12-13).

After addressing Israel’s guilt and punishment, Amos turns his indictments to the wealthy citizens of Israel. Amos provides an extensive cataloging of their sins, which includes

  • The matrons of the wealthy Samaritans oppressing the poor and crushing the needy (Amos 4:1).
  • Trampling on the poor and exacting taxes of grain from them to build the own houses of luxury (Amos 5:7, 11).
  • Taking a bribe to afflict the righteous and turning aside the needy in the gate (Amos 5:12).
  • Living in luxurious ease without concern for sin and evil in the land (Amos 6:4-6).
  • Using false balances to unjustly profit from the poor (Amos 8:4-6).

It’s important to note that although each of these social injustices is definitely addressed within the Law of Moses, these sins are not peculiar to the nation of Israel (unlike the sins described towards Judah in Amos 2:4-5) – rather these are basic sins against humanity. These sins are violations of God’s moral law and thus are applicable to all peoples at all times. In particular, it is sinful for any judge to use their position of authority for self-aggrandizement and for their own glory, ease, profit, or pleasure. It is required that we should all act truthfully, faithfully, and justly in our contractual and business relationships with our fellow human beings so that we give to all what they deserve, rather than exploiting them. Moreover, we are to make restitution for anything we have unlawfully acquired from its rightful owners. Finally, we must do our best, by all just and lawful means, to acquire, preserve, and increase our own and others’ possessions.

Our Response

Many of the social injustices described in Amos occur within our American society and in our world in general. The basic question is: how should Christians respond to this? I think we can learn much about how we should respond by examining how Amos responded to these things. Amos did not simply call for judgment, but he pleaded with the judges and wealthy.

“Seek good, and not evil that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said. Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate,” (Amos 5:15).

And again

“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” (Amos 5:24).

Amos’ response was to address the sin directly and to call the guilty to repentance. Amos is compelled to directly address this sin – “The Lord GOD has spoken, who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3:8). Even when Amaziah the priest tells Amos that he should go back to his own country (Amos 7:12), Amos remains resolute in his call. This is similar today to the idea that Christians should keep the law of God and the Scriptures out of the public sphere and only speak about them among other Christians in church (i.e. the so-called “freedom to worship” vs. “religious liberty” debate).

Some may say that it is not enough to simply call out the gross sins of our culture and to call them to repentance – there must be tangible social activism attached to it. It is at this point in which we can learn much from Amos. Amos is not a professional prophet, nor is he a wealthy Israelite. Amos was simply “a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs” who was called to prophesy to Israel. In dealing with the great social evils around him, Amos realizes that the only weapon that he has is the prophetic Word. He doesn’t have a coalition of faithful Israelites around him who can rally to the cause – all He has is the prophetic Word which he proclaims. Amos reproves the guilty and labors to persuade them of their guilt by the prophetic Word.

The same basic principle applies to the Christians in the public sphere. If we were honest, we would acknowledge that we hold a minority position in our culture. Today, we are not only considered backwards and outdated in our beliefs, but today, our views are considered immoral within our culture. We don’t have tactical allies that we can pull together to change the hearts of people; the weapon that we have is the prophetic Word, which is the written Word. We have the full counsel of God in the written Word – the Law and the Gospel. It is through the Law that we expose the sinfulness of man in the public sphere (such as the social evils that is discussed in Amos); however, it is through the Gospel that we found our deepest motivation to confront our society and that we call men and women out of darkness and into His marvelous light. It is only through the Gospel that lives are transformed by the grace of God. Since Christ is the Great Prophet, the Church is the steward and guardian of both messages and it is His Word that we proclaim, admonishing and warning every man. We confront, exhort, reprove, and persuade every man through His Word, relying on God to accomplish His purposes through it.