Amos 6:1a, 4-7
The first verse of this book identifies the author as “Amos, who was among the herdsmen of Tekoa” (1:1). Much has been made of the fact that Amos was a shepherd—a man more comfortable among hills and dales than on city streets—a man more comfortable in the company of sheep than of people—an unsophisticated man shocked at urban excess—a shrill man railing against urban lifestyles.
However, it would be a mistake to attribute the harshness of Amos’ prophecy to his lack of sophistication. He became a prophet, not because he found urban lifestyles repulsive, but because the Lord called him. It was Yahweh who took Amos from his flocks. It was Yahweh who said, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel” (7:15). Amos frequently prefaces his prophecy by saying, “Thus says Yahweh” (1:3, 6, 9, 11, 13, 2:1, etc.).
The first verse of this book also tells us when Amos served as a prophet. It was “in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash king of Israel, two years before the earthquake” (1:1). Uzziah and Jeroboam ruled in the eighth century B.C., and scholars believe that Amos had a relatively short ministry in the middle of that century—around 760-755 B.C.
At that time, the Jewish people were divided into the ten tribes of the northern kingdom (Israel) and the two tribes of the southern kingdom (Judah). It was the time between the end of Solomon’s reign (c. 930 B.C.) and the fall of the northern kingdom (c. 721 B.C.).
Only a few years after Amos’ prophecies, the Assyrians forced the ten tribes of Israel into exile in Assyria. Unlike the two tribes of the Southern Kingdom (Judah), the ten tribes of Israel never returned to their homeland in any organized way. Instead, they were assimilated and disappeared as a people.
The Jeroboam mentioned above is Jeroboam II, who ruled c. 785-745 B.C. Jeroboam I, the first king of Israel (the northern kingdom), ruled c. 924-903 B.C., and died by the Lord’s hand (2 Chronicles 13:20). Jeroboam II was successful militarily, but “he did that which was evil in the sight of Yahweh: he didn’t depart from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, with which he made Israel to sin” (2 Kings 14:24).
It is worth noting that the first Jeroboam was the first king of Israel, and the second Jeroboam’s son would be the next-to-last king of Israel. In between the two Jeroboams there was a succession of mostly bad kings of Israel.
We tend to think of Amos as a northern prophet, because his prophecy was directed primarily toward the northern kingdom (Israel)—but he was from Tekoa, a few miles south of Jerusalem in the southern kingdom (Judah)—and, as we will see in 6:1, he addressed both “those who are at ease in Zion” (the capital of the southern kingdom) and “those who are secure on the mountain of Samaria” (the capital of the northern kingdom).
Amos spoke against “social injustice and religious arrogance” (Tucker, 419). He warned the people of an upcoming military disaster that would reflect God’s judgment.
Amos highlighted Israel’s two great sins: “ardent worship without a corresponding concern for justice (5:18-27) and opulent indolence without an appropriate awareness of pending calamity (6:14)…. (He predicted) exile (5:27) and invasion (6:14)” (Hubbard, 176).
AMOS 6:1a. WOE TO THOSE WHO ARE AT EASE IN ZION
1a Woe to those who are at ease in Zion,
and to those who are secure on the mountain of Samaria.
Mount Zion is Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, the southern kingdom. Mount Samaria is the capital of Israel, the northern kingdom. The Lord has called Amos, a southerner, to proclaim judgment against Israel, the northern kingdom, but Amos has the grace to begin his proclamation by addressing Zion, his homeland, before mentioning Samaria.
He begins with the word “Woe!” (or “Alas!”)—a word common to prophetic utterances. It is a word that usually introduces a catalog of the people’s sins followed by a description of the judgment that they can expect as punishment for their sins.
The problem in both Zion and Samaria is complacency. The people, especially the leaders, are smug because:
(1) They have been living through a relatively peaceful period.
(2) They are ensconced in mountain redoubts (Mount Zion and Mount Samaria) that offer security against military incursions.
(3) Material affluence has made them comfortable—has dampened their fires—has softened them.
(4) They assume that Yahweh will protect them from all evil, because they are Yahweh’s people. This last point is especially significant. As Paul will say later, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). That is the attitude of these people, who assume that God is for them. They have seen the might of the Lord’s power. They have seen that even great powers such as Egypt melt under the heat of God’s wrath. If God is their defender, they had nothing to fear.
BUT in this case God has become weary in the face of their faithlessness and false religiosity. What Amos must help them understand is that the God whom they believe to be their defender has become instead their accuser, their prosecutor, and their judge.
AMOS 6:2-3. ARE THEY BETTER THAN THESE KINGDOMS?
These verses are not in the lectionary reading, but the preacher needs to be aware of them. Amos names three places (Calneh, Hamath, and Gath) that came under foreign rule. He then accuses Zion and Samaria of bringing about a reign of violence, and asks if they are better than these places. The expected answer to his rhetorical question is “Absolutely not! Zion and Samaria are no better than these pagan cities!”
AMOS 6:4-6. WOE TO THOSE WHO LIE ON BEDS OF IVORY
4 Who lie on beds of ivory,
and stretch themselves on their couches,
and eat the lambs out of the flock,
and the calves out of the midst of the stall;
5 who strum on the strings of a harp;
who invent for themselves instruments of music, like David;
6 who drink wine in bowls,
and anoint themselves with the best oils;
but they are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph.
“Who lie on beds of ivory, and stretch themselves on their couches” (v. 4a). Throughout Judah and Israel, many poor people cannot afford any kind of bed or couch, but their wealthy leaders take their ease on beds inlaid with ivory. For most ordinary people, life is hard. They work from sunrise to sunset and beyond. They have neither couches on which to lounge nor time to enjoy a bit of relaxation, but their wealthy leaders have both time and comfortable furniture to accommodate their leisure hours.
“and eat the lambs out of the flock, and the calves out of the midst of the stall” (v. 4b). Most ordinary people cannot afford to eat meat except on special occasions. They look forward to making animal sacrifices in the temples, because they are permitted to eat some of the meat. A person concerned with economy would let their animals attain maturity before slaughtering them, but their wealthy leaders can afford to butcher young lambs and calves to provide tender meat for their tables. “Calves out of the midst of the stall” refers to the practice of keeping calves penned up in stalls for fattening. Today we would call the meat from such animals veal—the best of the best.
“who strum on the strings of a harp; who invent for themselves instruments of music, like David” (v. 5). These wealthy leaders can afford musicians to grace their leisure hours with sounds of harps and other instruments. We who are accustomed to pushing a button to play top-quality music can hardly imagine how little good music people have been able to enjoy in most times and places. However, these wealthy leaders are exceptions to that rule.
“who drink wine in bowls” (v. 6a). A crystal glass affords a graceful touch to a dinner table. While fine stemware cannot insure that a person will not overindulge, the further one moves from such refinements the more likely he or she will drink to excess. People who choose to drink wine from bowls rather than glasses seem bent on getting drunk. A modern analogy would be drinking whiskey straight from the bottle—perhaps hidden in a paper sack. The people to whom Amos is speaking enjoy excess in every dimension of their lives, including their consumption of alcohol.
“and anoint themselves with the best oils” (v. 6b). Oils are used for anointing kings and religious leaders, but they are used for other purposes as well. Perfume mixed with oil which could be used to make a person more sexually attractive. Oils could also be used for certain medicinal purposes. The point here, however, is not the particular purpose of the anointing, but the expensive quality of the oils being used.
“but they are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph” (v. 6c). “Literally, (this) says that the diners should be prostrate (the root usually refers to sickness), not from too much drink, but because of the ruin of Joseph” (Gowan).
When Amos speaks of Joseph here, he is talking about Israelites—the people of Judah and Israel. Their leaders, bent on enjoying their wealth, have no concern for the suffering of their people. The noise of their celebrations drowns out the cries of their people.
AMOS 6:7. THEREFORE THEY WILL NOW GO CAPTIVE
7 Therefore they will now go captive
with the first who go captive;
and the feasting and lounging will end.
Because these wealthy leaders have offended the Lord with their excesses and empty religiosity, the Lord has devised a perfect punishment for them. They have always enjoyed being first at everything. Now they will be “the first to go captive.” They will lead the procession of captives. They will be first in line to march into exile in Assyria. Their revelry will die a hard and brutal death.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Achtemeier, Elizabeth, New International Biblical Commentary: Minor Prophets I (Peabody, Massachusetts, 1996)
Birch, Bruce C., Westminster Bible Companion: Hosea, Joel, and Amos (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997)
Gowan, Donald E., The New Interpreter’s Bible: Introduction to Apocalyptic Literature, Daniel, the Twelve Prophets, Vol. VII (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2001)
Guenther, Allen, Believers Church Bible Commentary: Hosea, Amos (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1998)
Hubbard, David Allan, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Joel & Amos, Vol. 22b (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1989)
Mays, James Luther, The Old Testament Library: Amos (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969)
Niehaus, Jeff, in McComiskey, Thomas Edward (ed.), The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1992, 1993, 1998)
Ogilvie, Lloyd, The Preacher’s Commentary: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Vol. 22 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2002)
Simundson, Daniel J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005)
Smith, Billy K. and Page, Frank S., The New American Commentary: Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Vol. 19b (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1995)
Stuart, Douglas, Word Biblical Commentary: Hosea-Jonah, Vol. 31 (Dallas: Word Books, Publisher, 1987)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M.,Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Copyright 2009, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan