This is the third 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. The second highlighted divine patience and persistence in seeking to turn Israel from its sins. The third is a divine admonition and lament for Israel.
Harold Shank (College Press NIV Commentary), adapting a chiastic outline from Waard in Vetus Testamentum (1997) 170-177, suggests this structure for Amos’s oracle:
First Lament (1-3)
First Admonition (4-6)
First Accusation (7)
Yahweh is the Name (8b)
Second Accusation (10-13)
Second Admonition (14-15)
Second Lament (16-17)
This chiastic structure climaxes in the announcement of the name of Israel’s God in 5:8b. This the centerpiece of the oracle. “Yahweh is his name!” In effect, this is a doxological battle cry. The language is exactly the same as in Exodus 15:3: “Yahweh is a man of war; Yahweh is his name.” This is the God of the Exodus who delivered Israel from Egyptian slavery (cf. Amos 3:1). The Warrior God who fought to deliver Israel now warns Israel about the coming disaster.
Hymns. “Yahweh is his name” is also a doxological praise (cf. Amos 9:6). The exclamation is surrounded by hymnic lines that remind Israel that Yahweh creates both good and evil (disaster; cf. Isaiah 45:7; Amos 9:4). Yahweh made the constellations that appear in the heavens–Pleiades is part of the constellation Taurus and Orion (also known as “the hunter”) is a bright constellation. Both are visible to the naked eye (Job 9:9; 38:31). Yahweh also rules over the morning and night–God turns the darkness into morning and the day into night. God rules over good and evil (chaos), over light and darkness. Yahweh also rules over the chaos of the seas; indeed, Yahweh pours out the water upon the earth. God is sovereign over chaos. With chaos Yahweh destroys the strong, even those fortified behind their seemingly impregnable walls (fortresses). The chaos that will envelope Israel is no coincidence; it is the work of the Creator God who releases the forces of chaos against Israel.
Accusations. Israel’s problem is “justice” and “righteousness.” Just as God “turns deep darkness into the morning” (5:8), so Israel “turns justice in wormwood” or bitterness (5:7)–the same Hebrew verb is used in both instances. Israel’s core problem is injustice; this is the accusation upon which their destruction turns. But what is the injustice? While the first accusation introduces the idea (5:7), the second accusation articulates the specifics (5:10-13).
The second Hebrew term in Amos 5:10 is the next to last Hebrew term in Amos 5:12–“gate.” Everything Amos notes between those two terms happens at the “gate.” The city gate is the place where the elders and other leaders met to consider issues of justice and adjudicate legal problems (cf. Deuteronomy 21:19; 22:15; 25:7; Job 5:4; 31:21; Psalm 127:5). But justice does not prevail in the gates of Israel. Rather, they
hate whoever reproves them
abhor whoever speaks the truth
trample on the poor
exact portions [taxes?] on grain from the poor
afflict the righteous
turn aside the needy
The above six lines appear in three pairs. The first pair emphasizes the inability of the leaders to hear the truth; they cannot stand to be corrected. They are not interested in the truth but in profit. The second pair specifies a particular way in which the poor are mistreated. The leaders exact “portions” from the poor. In some way, they demand the poor make payments of grain in order to continue in their livelihood. This may be excessive rents on land owned, perhaps previously seized through unjust means, by the wealthy. It may be excessive taxation that hurts the poor. The third pair reminds the reader of Amos 2:7 where the poor are trampled and the afflicted are turned aside (same Hebrew verb as here in 5:12). The same pair of words–righteous and needy–also appear in Amos 2:6 and 8:6. “Needy” is a general synonym for poor (cf. Isaiah 14:30; Jeremiah 29:16). The city leaders are not willing to hear the plight of the poor and give them justice. Instead, they take bribes from the wealthy and dismiss the poor.
These conditions create societal chaos at many levels. One is specifically noted in Amos 5:13. The prudent (or wise) will remain silent during such chaotic and unpredictable times. When justice does not prevail–when evil reigns–the wise will keep to themselves. It is too dangerous to speak and speaking is ineffective. This is a social consequence of pervasive injustice. This silence is not necessarily sanctioned, but it is acknowledged. This is descriptive rather than prescriptive.
The accusation includes consequences. Though they have built “hewn” stone houses and planted extravagant or desirable vineyards, they will never enjoy them. Their wealth and power enabled them to build houses out of “hewn” stone which assumes skilled labor. Such homes and vineyards were status symbols in ancient Israel. But, ultimately, their injustices will not pay out. Their sins will found them out.
Admonitions. “Seek” is the key word in the admonitions. It is used four times in Amos 5:4-6, 14. It is an aggressive term that reflects orientation and direction. What or whom will one seek? The choice is laid out for Israel: seek Yahweh or seek Bethel (including its complements–Gilgal and Beersheba). The former leads to life, but the latter leads to exile, destruction, and death. The fire of destruction that characterized the consequences described in Amos 1-2 returns in Amos 5:6.
Life, however, is offered. The verb is used three times in Amos 5:4, 6, 14. While the nation has no hope, this does not translate into hopelessness. The Lord may yet be gracious in astounding ways, especially to the “remnant of Joseph.” Even as the Lord passes through Israel and leaves destruction in the wake, God’s grace will overflow to the remnant that seeks God. Amos once again reminds Israel of God’s faithfulness by using language that evokes memories of the Patriarchs. Just as God was present among them, so he will be “with” those who seek him (cf. Genesis 12:4; 17:3; 26:24; 39:3). This is the covenantal promise to which God is faithful.
Seeking Yahweh, however, is not merely avoiding idolatrous worship at Bethel. It is to love good and hate evil (Amos 5:15). Specifically, it is to “establish justice in the gate.” In other words, Israel must practice justice in its courts, uphold the rights of the poor, and serve the needy. One cannot seek Yahweh when they ignore or neglect the needs of the poor. Seeking Yahweh includes practicing social justice.
Laments. Israel will weep and mourn because, Yahweh declares, “I will pass through your midst” (5:17; cf. Amos 8:10). This is ominous language. In Israel’s past history, Yahweh “passed through the land of Egypt” in order to kill Egypt’s firstborn (Exodus 12:12, 23). Now Yahweh will pass through Israel with devastating effect. Every vineyard, farm, street and square (open spaces near the city gate) will be filled with lamentation.
But Amos himself, as the mouthpiece of Yahweh, begins the lament. The speech opens with God’s own lament over Israel. Even though Israel yet exists as a nation, the prophetic lament assumes its fall is a reality. Israel will not rise again as there is no one to help her. 90% of Israel–a metaphorical number–will disappear. Though they send out an army of 1000, only 100 will return. Israel is about to face a slaughter.
Yahweh does not deliver this message with a smile. God is not happy about these circumstances. Nevertheless, the God who loves righteousness must prosecute injustice in the land. God will act; God will set things right. Though patient and longsuffering, God ultimately does what is right.
God’s own lament evidences the divine pain as Yahweh grieves over Israel and, at the same time, Yahweh grieves for the poor and needy who have suffered at the hands of the powerful in Israel.
Amos calls us to grieve with him over both the sins and destruction of the wicked. The prophet calls us to social justice. “Seek good and hate evil” is to “seek” Yahweh.