This is the second of Amos’s three prophetic speeches against Israel. They each begin with “Hear this word” (3:1; 4:1; 5:1). The first announced God’s coming visit in judgment against Israel while the third will voice lament. The second highlights divine patience and persistence in seeking to turn Israel from its sins.
While this second speech remembers Yahweh’s incessant attempts to hinder Israel’s sins, it also boldly announces that God’s patience has reached a limit. Even as Yahweh, through the prophet Amos, runs through a series of divine acts (4:6-11) intended to produce repentance, Yahweh sarcastically encourages Israel to continue its opulent lifestyle and idolatrous worship (4:1-5). God has had enough. The time for repentance is finished. Judgment is coming (4:12-13).
Yahweh Addresses Israel’s Wealthy Elite (4:1-5).
Amos begins where his last sermon ended–at Bethel and in the summer/winter homes (3:14-15)–but in reverse order. The connection between the end of the previous oracle and the beginning of the present one forms a B-A-A’-B’ structure. Amos moves from Bethel to “winter/summer homes” and then from “Bashan/Samaria” to Bethel. The allusions of 3:14-15 are explicit in 4:1-5.
Wealthy women who live in their winter and summer homes are like “cows of Bashan.” They are well-fed and lounging in luxury where their husbands or servants are pictured as wait on them. It is a life of ease in their “great houses” filled with ivory. But this wealth was acquired through the cruel oppression of the poor and needy. They have much because they have taken from those who have little (cf. Amos 2:7).
Amos mocks their religious observances. Bethel (Jeroboam I’s new worship center where he erected a golden calf) and Gilgal (apparently a worship center at the very place where Israel first camped in Canaan; Joshua 5:9) are places where Israel assembled to worship Yahweh though in idolatrous fashion. They practiced Torah. In fact, they practiced Torah in hyper-fashion.
Animal sacrifices were not required every morning, but they brought them every day. Tithes were only required every three years but they brought some every third day (Deuteronomy 14:28). They even burned leavened bread for their Thanksgiving sacrifices when only unleavened was required (Leviticus 2:11; 7:12-15). They publicly announced their Freewill offerings when that was not required (Leviticus 22:18-25). Whether Israel actually practiced this hyper-”obedience” is immaterial or whether Amos is mocking their devotion, Amos’s description ridicules their motive.
Israel worships Yahweh in this manner only to display their wealth. Yahweh rejects their worship, at least in part, because they gained their wealth by oppressing the poor. Their worship–even hyper-worship–had become a form of rebellion (transgression). They feigned the love of God while at the same time they failed to love their neighbor (poor).
Consequently, the women who now luxuriously recline in their great houses will be taken by fishhooks into captivity through openings in Samaria’s breached wall (4:2-3). Assyrians were known for using hooks in the noses of their captives to lead them into exile (cf. 2 Chronicles 33:11). The metaphor, however, is even more chilling. These women will be dragged out their great houses like fish out of the sea. They will be “cast out into Harmon” (Amos 4:3). Harmon is apparently some distant and unwelcome place, but contemporary scholarship has not been able to identify it. Some, however, think the name is a version of “Hermon” which would then refer to the peak that overlooks the fields of Bashan. It might mean that the women who, metaphorically, grazed Bashan in peace and splendor are now removed to the desolate peak of Hermon.
Yahweh Remembers the Warnings (4:6-11).
Five times Amos repeats the formulaic phrase: “yet you did not return to me, declares the Lord” (Amos 4:6, 8, 9, 10, 11). It is the final two lines in each of the descriptions of God’s interaction with Israel as Yahweh attempted to turn Israel from their sins. But Israel would not return to God.
Yahweh used famine (4:6), drought (4:7-8), crop devastation (4:9), disease and war (4:10), and tragic disasters (4:11) to persuade Israel. Each of these events originated in the will of God. “I gave” (4:6), “I withheld” (4:7), “I struck” (4:9), “I sent” (4:10), and “I overthrew” (4:11) clarify that God is responsible for these “evils” (cf. Amos 3:6).
While Yahweh intended them as warnings, Israel did not heed them. Perhaps they did not even recognize them as such. Israel failed to see the hand of God in these disasters and discern their meaning. The “evils,” however, should have reminded them of God’s past dealings with the nations in their own history. Such disasters should have become occasions for self-evaluation and introspection. Instead, they look elsewhere for their meaning.
Famine, drought, locust, pestilence like in Egypt and disasters like Sodom and Gomorrah are signals for how God has previously engaged nations as their own history recounts. The memories of Egypt and Sodom underscore God’s acts. Israel should have known but failed to listen to the voice of God in these moments.
God acted in Israel, as Yahweh had among the nations at various times, in order to lead them to repentance. The Apocalypse reminds us that God still moves among the nations for similar purposes (cf. Revelation 9:20-21; 16:9-11). Though we are unable to discern without prophetic insight the nature of God’s actions in the world, moments of pain and hurt are always appropriate for prayer, fasting and introspection. Being with God or returning to God are redemptive responses to “evils” in our lives.
Yahweh Announces Judgment (4:12-13).
As if to relieve all doubt, Yahweh announces that this is a divine judgment. “I will do this to you,” says the Lord. The coming disaster is no mere coincidence or freak of nature. It is an act of God.
The time for repentance , however, is now over. When the Lord says “prepare to meet your God, O Israel,” this is no invitation to repentance or even covenant renewal. Rather, as Paul notes in the Hermeneia series (p. 151), this is “a summons to a final battle.” Every previous attempt by Yahweh to turn Israel and renew the covenant with them was ineffective. This final encounter is not redemptive but punitive. When Israel meets God in this moment there will be no parley, no truce, and no delay. Judgment is imminent.
The successive uses of the “declares Yahweh” followed by the summons to meet God issues in a doxology (Amos 4:13). The praise articulates the majesty and power of God. Yahweh is the Creator who formed the mountains and the winds. Yahweh is the most high God who walks upon the hills. Yahweh created them and reigns upon them.
The concluding reference to the one who “treads upon the hills” is a metaphor for a conquering king. God moves along the ridge line of the greatest heights and watches the battle. The Creator God has summoned Israel to battle and God will see it to its final end. The God who created the mountains will turn morning into darkness for the nation of Israel. [Some translations read the dawn breaks the darkness.
Yahweh did not hide this from Israel. Over and over again, Yahweh warned Israel about her fate. But she did not listen. Now the prophet, speaking for Yahweh, announces what Yahweh intends to do.
The Creator God who formed Israel, her covenant God Yahweh, will now destroy her.
Her destruction is a warning to Judah…and to us.