This is the second of two woe oracles in Amos. The first (5:18-20) was followed by a legal indictment (5:21-27). The second (6:1-7) is followed by a judgment pronouncement (6:8-14). Together, as the third major section of Amos, they lament Israel’s sin and warn the nation about impending doom.
The woe oracle in Amos 6 itself falls into three parts: (1) woe to those at ease in Zion and Samaria (1-3), (2) woe to those who live in luxury; and (3) the consequence of exile for their ease and luxury. The “woes” are describing the same group of people, but now includes not only Israel (“Samaria”) but Judah (“Zion”). The “woes” address those who live in ease and security, that is, they sleep on ivory beds, lounge on couches, eat choice meat from their livestock (lamb and veal), sing idle songs, drink wine in bowls rather than cups, anoint themselves with expensive oils, and pay no attention to the injustices within Israel and Israel’s imminent demise. Despite their replescent circumstances the “day of disaster” will come upon them and they will go into “exile.”
It is important to remember the historical setting of the eighth century B.C. The imperial powers early in the century were consumed with their own internal problems which permitted Israel and Judah to rise once again to heights that rivaled Solomon himself. It appears that just as Solomon had controlled Hamath (150 miles north of Dan in modern Syria), extended his influence near the Euphrates (where Calneh [Calno?] was probably located; cf. Isaiah 10:9), and dominated the Philistines located to the southwest of Israel along the coast (including Gath), so Israel and Judah’s influence exerted a similar influence. The early eighth century was a prosperous period. The powerful grew rich and the nation was secure The rise of the Assyrian empire in the mid-eighth century will threaten this “ease” and “security.”
However, these regions are presently or soon to be subject to distress. The Assyrians will conquer these territories as they experience their days of “disaster” and “violence.” Israel is neither “better” nor “greater” than any of these regions though a healthy covenantal relationship would have ensured their greatness and better position. Instead, despite their ease and false sense of security, they, too, like the other regions, will experience the Assyrian onslaught.
This first woe is addressed to both Zion (Judah) and Samaria (Israel), but is particularly directed at their rich and powerful leaders living in the capital cities (Jerusalem and Samaria). Metaphorically, they live high on the heights in their great houses. They are the leaders (notable or distinguished men) to whom Israel “comes” for justice. They occupy the positions of power that discern and execute justice in the land.
The second woe expands on the situation of these leaders. Amos paints a luxurious picture. They soak in the pleasure of their wealth while at the same time neglect the injustice that surrounds them. They revel in their riches and are unmoved by the “ruin of Joseph” (which indicates that Israel is the main target despite the inclusion of Judah in the address).
The description drips with sarcasm. As Niehaus (Minor Prophets, 439) writes, “The privileged classes of Israel were living like kings, and Amos even likens them to a king–David.” They enjoy the leisure, food and comforts that the poor cannot imagine. They flaunt their wealth as they sing “idle songs” (only time this Hebrew word is used in Scripture) and strum their harps. Their lives are frivolous and self-serving. They have no heart for justice but only for their own comforts. They consume and do not share.
“Therefore,” Amos says, “they shall now be the first of those who go into exile.” The leaders (heads) of the nation (6:1) will be at the head of the exilic line. The Assyrians are coming! Exile will extinguish their “revelry.” The party is over. Dancing will turn into mourning.
The judgment pronouncement begins in Amos 6:8 with an three-fold declaration from the mouth of Yahweh:
I abhor the pride of Jacob, and
I hate his strongholds. and
I will deliver up the city.
The word of the Lord begins the judgment announcement followed by the prophet’s comments. The “I’ language is quite strong. The parallel between pride and strongholds reflects the “ease” (pride) and “security” (citadels) Israel felt within the walls of Samaria. God hates the nation’s luxury and its military confidence. The woes against the ease and security reflect God’s abhorrence of their luxury and neglect.
The brief scenario of Amos 6:9-11 underscores how thorough God’s judgment will be. Everyone in the house will die and those who remain will either bury their relatives or cower in fear at the very mention of Yahweh. There is no escape and there is no hiding in the Day of the Lord.
“Behold,” Amos writes. He highlights the reality of the disaster to come. Both great and small houses will tumble–neither the rich nor the poor will escape the judgment to come.
But why will such devastation come upon Israel? Amos provides the rationale in 6:11-14. It is two-fold: (1) because they perverted justice, and (2) because they boasted in their military capabilities.
Amos uses a metaphor to describe the unexpected (even unnatural) situation in Israel. As the people whom God choose from among the whole earth, Israel’s injustice and unrighteousness was as unnatural to their calling as horses running on or oxen plowing a rocky crag. Everyone would be shocked to see horses running or oxen plowing in such circumstances but yet Israel has no fear of God regarding their injustice and unrighteousness. Israel has poisoned the well of God’s kingdom upon the earth. This is a mockery and it must be judged.
Moreover, Israel takes pride in its military power. It appears that Israel had, in its recent prosperity and expansion under the reign of Jeroboam II, captured Lo-debar (meaning, “no thing/word”) and Karnaim (meaning “pair of horns”). The former was located in Gilead a few miles south of the Sea of Galilee while the latter was located on the plain of Bashan between Damascus and the Sea of Galilee. These towns symbolize Israel’s ability to regain territory. They rejoiced in their victory and boasted in their military accomplishments.
But those who boast in such military feats and take pride in their abilities also poisoned the land with injustice. They rejoiced in their military might but failed to grieve over the ruins of their judicial system.
So, judgment is coming. For the second time the prophet uses the conjunction “because” followed by “Behold.” Pay attention! This is the reason God will raise up an empire to swallow you whole. The declaration of Yahweh in 6:8 is paralleled by the declaration in 6:14. A nation will destroy the source of your pride by taking away your wealth and demolishing your citadels. Assyria will “oppress” you just as you have oppressed the poor in your own nation, and the whole of the nation will be engulfed from Lebo-hamath (northern regions of Israel) to the wadi Arabah (the chasm that separates Moab and Edom on the east side of the Dead Sea). No part of Israel will escape; it will experience divine judgment from north to south.
Luxury, military pride and the neglect of the poor are themes that should ring in the ears of a superpower such as the United States. Do we fare any better than Israel under the scrutiny of Yahweh, the God of hosts?